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When I was in my early twenties and staying for the first time at the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, I learned that a medical dispensary for the needy was operating on the site of the current Social Welfare Centre. Since I had a month at my disposal, I decided to volunteer there and was put to work cleaning and bandaging the infected sores of local villagers. I was full of energy and goodwill but the work was a little gruelling for a coddled young Westerner. The sight of suppurating ulcers was unpleasant and having to inflict pain on the villagers to disinfect them was hard. In no time at all I was using sheer will-power to keep at the work and quickly noticed that the line of people at the door awaiting treatment never got shorter. As soon as one patient left with her arm or leg all nicely bandaged up, another one would appear at the back of the line. At the end of each evening’s session, there was no sense of achievement because the line was just as long as ever.
I was deeply disturbed by this experience. I realised that I needed to learn how to tap resources within that would enable me to focus on bandaging limbs patiently and gently without even glancing at the line to see if it had shortened. I wanted to understand how it was that widespread poverty was tolerated in a rich world — and more particularly how I dared to return each evening to the comfort, cleanliness and quiet of the TS headquarters estate at Adyar while disease and overcrowding reigned just outside. It was hard to bring myself to believe that the countless people on this planet who are victims of circumstance could all be personally responsible for their situation because of past thoughts or actions. I wondered where a spiritual path fitted into things when the vast majority of humanity is busy just surviving physically.
I needed answers to such questions and started looking for a place where the light that Theosophy casts on social problems could be found, where the doctrine of karma could be debated, where one could talk openly about one’s lack of inner resources for helping others, where the short and long term effectiveness of different kinds of social action could be examined.
This place was found right within the TS itself — in the TOS. I learned that the TOS’s whole reason for existence is to help the TS make Theosophy a force for good in the world, to help Theosophists make their philosophy of life practical, to help them – and those with whom they mix – along their road to spiritual awareness. I discovered that the TOS seeks to show that Theosophy has light to shed on contemporary issues of concern. In the TOS was found a framework in which social action as spiritual practice is supported and nurtured. I was privileged to be able to meet members engaged in serious service projects and to exchange thoughts with them on all the metaphysical and methodological questions that can plague those seeking radical, enlightened reform in this world. I came to appreciate the uniqueness of Theosophy in approaching societal problems in ways that differ from secular efforts such as the Rotary Club or Red Cross.
If we feel that Theosophy has transformed our lives, that it has given us a glimpse of what brotherhood without distinction is, then surely we can investigate how it can help resolve such problems as the interminable conflict in the Middle East between Palestinians and Israelis. I’m quite serious. We can investigate how Theosophy can be put to work to help reduce religious, racial and political tensions such as Vic Hao Chin and Rekha Nahar have been doing with Muslim rebels on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. We can look at ways to introduce theosophical values and principles into primary, secondary and even tertiary education, as the Philippine members are doing. We can address the issue of self-confidence, literacy and economic independence for women through educational, health and vocational training programmes such as those going on through the TOS in many places in India and also in violence-ridden Pakistan. We can introduce a selfless service award into the community such as TOS Orissa Region vice-president, Mrs Deepa Padhi, has done in Mahabharat, India. We can help preserve Tibetan spirituality and culture as Tim Boyd is doing through the TOS in America. We can also see what Theosophy has to say about the place of animals in the evolutionary scheme and how our lifestyles might be modified in consequence. In short, theosophical ideas can have a lot to say about long-term solutions for planetary problems if we care passionately enough to seek them. It meant a lot to me as a young person to discover the usefulness of theosophical teachings in this area.
When young, my impression of Theosophists was nevertheless that they were a pretty studious bunch of people who didn’t have the time to get very far away from their books and Lodge meetings. But as I gradually came to know many hundreds of members throughout the world, I discovered that in fact they are deeply involved in hands-on service as a natural part of their spiritual practice, as a natural part of their journey toward awareness, as part of their expression of the ideal of Universal Brotherhood without distinction. Some are involved in community service as members of the TOS: there are over a hundred active TOS groups within India alone. Some are involved in community service as members of the TS. Many are involved in community service simply as human beings and private citizens.
Whatever our level and type of involvement in the uplifting of the planet as a theatre for evolution, all of us undoubtedly have stories to share of how service has brought us a measure of spiritual awareness, how it has helped us develop a sense of universal brotherhood. We could probably also all talk at length about the character weaknesses, the resistances, the doubts, the strong emotions and the compulsive needs that act as inner barriers to truly effective spiritual service.
The American spiritual teacher Ram Dass says that “those who choose to enter the arena of social action must learn to go deep to the place where we are One. And that vision must be profound and all-inclusive, an affirmation of heart and soul. It must be strong enough to stay alive, often under the worst conditions.” [P. 178, How can I help? Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, A.A. Knopf Publishers 1987.]
For myself, I wouldn’t say I’ve served in the worst conditions by any means but I’ve been in some scary ones at times and they have tested, in their little way, my capacity to stay connected with the One. Michel and I live in an outer suburb of Paris where poverty and unemployment are high and where sub-standard immigrant housing is common. Social unrest is the result. Do you remember the riots that took place in France a few years ago when thousands of cars were burned? Well, we live in one of those areas. We’ve had to intervene in unpleasant incidents several times and let me tell you, you don’t have time to stop and meditate first. Michel and I are also very involved in animal rights work. Most of our actions to promote vegetarianism in Paris have taken place very harmoniously and with a good response from the public, but sometimes we’ve actually been abused and on a couple of occasions people have even become aggressive. These are testing moments for remaining brotherly and one always returns to Theosophy as an ethical and spiritual reference point afterwards.
Do you remember when the Olympic Games were about to start in Beijing a couple of years ago and people all over the world were saying that the Games should be boycotted as a protest against the brutal acts of repression the Chinese military were carrying out in Tibet? Well, I joined the tens of thousands who turned out in Paris in solidarity with Tibet as the Olympic flame was carried along the streets. At one point, when the official cortège was close, a French policeman, under the orders of the Chinese police, ran up to me and ripped my Tibetan flag violently out of my hands. I…err…had a hard time keeping my ‘inner connection with the One’ on that day, let me tell you.
I could relate many small incidents like these in the area of personal social activism alone. The point is that one learns little by little in organising events, that to stay in control of oneself in all circumstances, one has to train oneself to look squarely at one’s emotions, one’s resistances, one’s compulsions and more especially behind them. As you all well know, when engaged in social service or social activism, we need to own up to natural feelings of indignation, anxiety, guilt, discomfort, nervous fatigue, impatience, disappointment and so on. We also need to look behind these feelings. We often find certain fears there: fear of loss of control, of powerlessness, of being overwhelmed, of having our heart broken and ultimately the fear of extinction. Awareness at this level allows the release of the energy we need for genuinely spiritual service, I would suggest. Awareness at this level allows us to keep before us that profound and all-inclusive vision of the One of which Ram Dass speaks.
Now demonstrating in the streets of Paris may seem quite remote from the kind of service that TOS and TS members habitually engage in, but the same need to look at our inner barriers applies. Maybe we keep putting off going to visit an elderly friend, bedridden and lonely in hospital, not just because of the difficulty of masking our sadness for them and of making conversation. Maybe underneath we are being confronted with the terrifying spectre of our own loss of control, our own helplessness and above all, our own abandonment.
I hope that, like me, you can find within the TOS, support and even counsel when you encounter problems in your service work. I hope you find some answers to your metaphysical and social questions, and to your spiritual aspirations. I hope you can find resources and activities of real practical use in working for the ideal of Universal Brotherhood. This is what we hope to provide.
In short, the TOS is here to support the TS in its work of bringing the theosophical message to all. It is here to support you in discovering the joy that arises from service grounded in spiritual aspiration. It is here to help you along the road to awareness we are all treading together.
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