Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 16: The Sensitives > Chapter 10: The Is Is Not an Ism

The Is Is Not an Ism

Limitations of dogma

The whole sphere of occultism and mysticism is a sphere of illusion. All the experiences obtained therein are illusory ones. All leaders who profess to teach are misleaders in consequence. There is no escape from this position, no cessation of the waste of precious years through worshipping illusion save by rising to the higher level of philosophy, which alone is concerned with the truth and the reality of what is experienced, believed, and thought.

The ideology which prevails in so many of such circles--if I may use such a pretentious but popular word with reference to those whose noteworthy characteristic is not seldom the absence of intellectual culture--is diametrically opposite to that for which we strive to stand. For they represent the world's vanishing age of intellectual imposture and superstitious credulity, and this teaching is for the nascent age of verification and profound enquiry.

Only a very small percentage of these cults which feature the study of Truth and the life of its quest, ever actually realize the pure truth or stay on the right path. Most are wandering astray, with leaders and led losing themselves in a mixture of truth and error, and functioning on a level of fantasy and opinion, illumined with shafts of inspiration and revelation. Quite a number are unconsciously tinted with hidden black magic and harmful evil. No man can arrive at the quest's goal through their agency; he must leave them first.

If a spiritual teaching is maintained in an unspiritual way, it is no longer what it purports to be.

Such an imaginary picture of the world either hides or distorts its realities. One consequence is that it attracts failures and misfits who are thenceforward prevented from searching within themselves for the true causes of their misadjustments.

Superstitions which afford innocent satisfaction to those who believe in them are pardonable, but superstitions which commend cruelty to other persons are unpardonable.

Despite the idealistic talk and tall claims, he who follows these cults gradually destroys his intuition of truth, stops his real progress, and endangers his psyche.

If a superior cult takes away some of the truth-seekers' old illusions and errors, it too often puts back new ones.

If he has received instruction which was stippled with errors, not only was that a partial waste of time but also he will have to spend further time in unlearning it.

Each person has his own peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of temperament, his own asymmetries and disproportions of mentality. Some of these may be very pronounced. Yet he is expected to follow the same system, in the same way, and to the same extent, as every other person! How can such a dictatorial imposition from outside--so unrelated in part to his actual and unique psychological constitution--truly serve his real needs?

Once he joins an organization of this kind his capacity to think and judge for himself will be slowly and insidiously destroyed, for he will be expected to imitate the thinking and judgement of the mass of other members.

Those who tether themselves to an organization or to a set of dogmas, lose the capacity to seek for truth outside these cramped limits. Henceforth they must think and behave with sectarian narrowness.

As soon as he comes under the sway of a master or, worse, of an organization, his mentality, outlook, beliefs, and attitudes come under sectarian conditioning, implanted suggestion, and stiffened indoctrination. The result is that he becomes incapable of learning truth because he is no longer open to it (he believes he already possesses it).

Do not get locked up in a particular sect and exclude all others from it in your mind. This too is a form of attachment and life today is teaching most people the futility of such attachments. Look what is happening to the Roman Catholic and to other churches! See how the idea of ecumenism among them has taken on. See what happened to the Theosophical Society, which started out to find the truth in all religions by being unsectarian, but has ended up becoming another sect itself by establishing centres, lodges, branches, headquarters.

Those who join a cult get the benefit of its gregarious comfort but must suffer the disadvantage of its self-centered limitations and prejudices.

The danger of embracing these false teachings is that the more ardently they are embraced, the more effectually do they prevent misguided followers from coming to the true teachings.

Only when he is away from the cult's hypnosis and adjusts himself to the fact as it is, not as it has been suggested to him, can he hope to find truth!

Now, doctrines of the early sages have been obstructed, Truth destroyed; evil theories and depraved doctrines expand and spread, men give rein to passions and indulge desires--all are drowned. If one does not cleave to his teachers, he will be submerged in the prevailing customs and will not know how to escape. Is it not pitiful?

If the inmates of so many ashrams could be aroused from the apathy in which they are sunk to engage in an enquiry as to the purposes of ashrams, it might end in new ideas and nobler feelings.

The self-indulgence which characterizes some of these modern groups is in some cases a misconception and in others a perversion of the authentic earlier movements and traditions.

Foolish beliefs and ungrounded faiths can weaken not only a man's intelligence but also his conscience.

One may have a profound faith in the possibilities of unfoldment, a faith based on the actuality of one's own experience and the observation of many other persons' experience. Therefore one writes with hesitation anything which, because it may be easily misunderstood, can dim that faith. But some warning is certainly needed here. It is needed by those who let themselves be led astray by the glowing assertions or the marvel-sprinkled claims of teachings whose real ground is part-truth and part-untruth. Not only is the proof still wanting for some of their most important statements, but lives have been thrown into chaos by accepting their actuality too literally.

They will find that the occult and, to a lesser extent, the mystical literatures are tangled jungles, hard to get into but harder still to get out of with sanity unimpaired. It is questionable whether the good or the true that is in them is sufficient to render worthwhile a struggle with the massive spurious spirituality which enshrouds them.

These romantic doctrines offer consolation to the unhappy and compensation to the unfortunate at the price of being deceived. For they issue from dreamland and need not be taken seriously. They cannot fulfil their promises.

There will be far more truth and wisdom in studying the words of Socrates for half an hour than when attempting to understand the empty jargon of occultists for half a week.

This is no matter for tea-table cults; we have to devote our whole lives to it.

"Before we attain to the Truth we are subject to a thousand fancies, fictions, and apprehensions, which we falsely suppose and many times publicly propose for the truth itself. This fantastic region is the true original seminary of all sects and their dissensions."--Thomas Vaughan, an advanced mystic of the seventeenth century.

We may witness the amusing scene of our own occult, mystical, psychological, and religious demigods slipping and sliding all over the ice of Uncertainty.

There are eccentric individuals and peculiar cults which have fastened their attention and belief exclusively on some chosen part and excitedly proclaimed it to be the whole. They fail to see how disproportionate is the place they have given it, or how unfair they are to all the other parts of truth.

He will find such a diversity of opinions among these cults and creeds that he may emerge from their study with some confusion. For there is too often less interest in finding facts accurately and interpreting them rightly, than in speculating and imagining theories.

These occult systems and cosmologies have a deceptive clear-cut outline, a fallacious finality, and a pseudo-scientific factuality.

To declare that we are all metaphysically one and the same, that a common essence makes us spiritually brothers, is an assertion which needs careful scrutiny before acceptance for there are both true and false elements in it.

They talk themselves into the clouds, deserting the solid ground beneath their feet and deriding interest in the body's hygiene, but all the while they are living in a fleshly body in a physical world.

When the student gets tired of these vague platitudes and this windy emotionalism, he will long for something hard, precise, and tough into which to put his teeth.

Such absurd propositions can only be maintained by those who confound Superstition with Spirituality, never by those who refuse to desert reason in order to find Truth.

Superstitious belief keeps a man out of the kingdom of heaven just as much as sceptical disbelief does. For being false, it has no place in, and no title to, the truth.

The truth should generously enlarge a man's perceptions and sympathies, but those who can receive only a single aspect of it imprison their perceptions and narrow their sympathies.

When a single aspect of truth is mistaken for the whole truth it holds no place for equally important facts which balance or compensate it, and then the fanatic and the sectarian are born.

So long as men persist in organizing themselves into religious groups, so long will they run the real risk of failing to get into the real spirit of truth, getting only its letter at best.

Too much self-satisfaction, too little acquaintance with the world's great thinkers, seers, and sages--this ignorance enables too many cults and sects to thrive.

Paradox is the very nature of our existence; it transcends logic and reason: but when unbalanced minds use this mystery of truth to put forward their personal insanities, it is outrageous.

Religion has elaborated a series of worldly stunts and salesmanship campaigns which Jesus would have been the first to reject, because they arise out of a mental confusion about religion's true mission to humanity. Mysticism has deftly produced, on the one hand, pseudo-psychologies and half-mysticisms which are unhappy compounds of smart salesmanship and aspiring idealism and, on the other, an eccentric medley of queerly varied cults which link a little borrowed wisdom to the crankiest notions and the most astonishing claims ever born out of half-baked minds or distorted balance. When Fergus Hume, the Australian novelist, wrote in one of his stories, "Start anything, however silly, and you will find followers!" he may have been thinking of California where religion pullulates into dozens of different sects. I found twenty-seven churches of different denominations in one town of 7,000 population!

The aberrations of those who mix some of the Quest's ideas and practices with their own, or with some imposed on them by their cult-leader, stretch back historically to long before Christ's time, geographically as far as the distant limits of Asia.

When the saturation of superstition in a religion or in a mystic cult is so heavy that it renders more disservice than service, it is time for thoughtful followers to get out of it.

There are perhaps more misconceptions, unscientific exaggerations, factual contortions, half-truths, and total errors in the statements publicly or privately made by the leaders or by the followers of some cults than are found even in political statements.

The comedies which are unconsciously and solemnly played out in some of these ashrams in all seriousness, the characters who congregate there, the ideas which are entertained when reason, fact, practicality, and common sense are abandoned--all these factors make it unlikely that truth will be found by the inmates, or the awareness of Reality obtained.

There is here a confusion of planes, a mixing up of levels of reference, an unlawful crossing of frontiers.

A movement which denies the very life-force which is the source of man's existence can never lastingly shape the way he carries on that existence, nor give it inner sustenance. But since there are those who want it like that, they must get the result of their desiring and creative activity for a limited time, until its negation of the higher laws brings it to disintegration and collapse.

In the Appendix to The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga, I protested against the setting up of mystic experience as the goal of this quest, placing my emphasis upon the word "experience." That Appendix was written in 1940. Since then we have witnessed the deplorable consequences of methods which ignore such a protest. Especially is this true in the case of "mind expansion" through drugs. But cults have sprung up which, although catering to thirst for "experiences" through a kind of meditation, use very elementary and mechanical means that alone cannot lead to genuine insight but only to a mesmeric lulling of the thoughts. This may have a temporary value and be a pleasant experience, hence the wide spread of these cults. But the belief that initiation into them opens the door to the divine is gross self-deception. It opens a door to self-hypnotism, while the guru gives the apparently mystical experience at the time by his own personal hypnotic power.

Trying to strike a cosmical attitude, they succeed only in striking a comical one!

When people who have either voluntarily surrendered the right to independent thought or lack all capacity for it proclaim such doctrines, nobody need be fluttered about it. But when people who are put both by their own claims and by general reputation on the loftiest pinnacle of spiritual insight, proclaim such doctrines, it is time to utter a protest.

Too often these cults are merely foolish systems of self-deception or clever devices to avoid the gruff confrontations of reality.

The attempt to harmonize the violently differing teachings of all these cults would not only leave him not far from where he started but would also risk his sanity.

The fantastic beliefs and gross superstitions which get a following in mystical circles thrive better in California than in rational England, better in India than in sceptical France.

They hold such beliefs either because of self-deception or because of stupidity. In the first case they are the victims of external suggestion, in the second case of personal immaturity. In neither case, therefore, can we really blame them. We can only be sorry for them.

These cults exaggerate some one aspect of truth, ignore the compensating aspects, and end by partially misleading themselves.

It is no less a mistake to ascribe profound meanings where only surface ones exist as it is to do the very opposite.

Silly fantastic teachings which cannot stand the test of a real confrontation with contemporary life--ever waiting outside--may be found in this domain. They have nothing to do with philosophy even if sometimes they appropriate the name.

This concept of salvation by easy cheap methods or short tricky ones is false.

The tragedy is that the world needs spiritual bread but it is deceived into accepting, and often deceives itself into accepting, spiritual stones.

They want the Truth to come down from its lofty plane and accommodate itself to their false ideas, their limited views, their personal pettiness. But of course it never does. So they unconsciously inject these things into the Truth and produce a deceptive mixture.

Misuse of mystery

That these masters imparted certain knowledge or transmitted certain experiences only to their more confidential disciples but hid them from the others, is a fact whose simple and natural purpose has been distorted in the advantage taken of it by promoters of secret or semi-secret societies and propagandists for occult fantasies.

Secrecy attracts a certain kind of person. The secret may be valuable or it may be worthless: it may provide the imposter with favourable conditions for his fraudulent activities and it may allow the genuine hierophant a chance to teach what the populace is not ready for.

It is certainly a fact that charlatans usually prefer to keep their alleged knowledge and pseudo-technique secret. But it is equally a fact that they use this secrecy as a bait to lure their victims into their trap.

Mystification was unknown to the great Teachers of Religion whom the modern occultists seek to enclose within their dubious societies.

Unnecessary secrecy is a warning sign that something is wrong: that mental balance is disturbed, or that ulterior motives are present.

They put mystery into the most ordinary persons and events; they pump an atmosphere of revelation into rehashed tenets and teachings.

They may even tell you that truth is too high to be testable.

It is a common trick for these men, whether outright imposters or unfinished mystics drunk with pride, to give mysterious hints about their marvellous occult powers and miraculous occult feats. But the hints remain as hints only.

Mystery exists where the facts are plain and simple. The naïve inexperienced student is kept back by imbalance in teachings, over-weighty emphases wrongly applied, and confusion between what is only a means with what is properly its end and goal. The results are unnecessary complication and avoidable obfuscation. The beginner himself helps the incompetent teacher by his own tendency to refuse to believe that the truth is so utterly simple.

The occultists who claim to give initiations and the mystics who talk of communicating Spirit by silent thought were both rebuked hundreds of years ago by Chuang Tzu, when he wrote: "It cannot be conveyed either by words or by silence."

They use the excuse of secrecy to gain power over others, to exploit and use them for selfish personal advantage.

The need of prudently avoiding conflict with conventional religions is an ancient one, and has helped, along with other causes, to keep the higher truths generally uncommunicated and unknown. But this quite legitimate need has been taken advantage of by unscrupulous mystery-mongers to make claims of concealed, privileged, hierarchical, traditional knowledge and to offer initiation into their occult secrets to gullible seekers, who will be well exploited financially or otherwise.

What such men fail to say about their methods and results is often more important than what they do say.

Beware of cults and their exaggerated claims. The IS is not an ISM.

The first fallacy in all the thinking of these cults is the ascription to the ego of qualities which properly belong to the Overself. To take a single instance: deathlessness is claimed as a possible achievement for the physical body, which is a formed and compounded thing, when it can only belong by nature to the Overself, which is simple and unitary. The second fallacy is the belief of the ego that it can issue orders to the Overself and actually get them obeyed--orders, of course, which confer riches, position, and other satisfactions upon itself.

We could not fail to behold that the abysmal depth of these cult-leaders' failure is in direct ratio to the preposterous height of their extravagant claims to wisdom and power. Of what outstanding value have they been to their fellow men and women? We are entitled to ask for the visible fruits of all this verbal commotion and general mystery-mongering. What proof have they given that there is anything substantial behind their claims? They can show no practical achievement or productive effort that has made a deep mark in any sphere of contemporary history or even revealed that they possess any capacity to make it. They have not brought to the concrete problems which confront mankind any better counsel than the non-illuminati have brought--unless the utterance of abstract nouns be such. The final demonstration of their futility is given by the personal failures of their followers in consequence of such unprofitable influence and hollow teaching. Hardly any have developed and balanced the trinity of head, heart, and hand, the harmony of brain, feeling, and will. Few possess the ambition which works hard for what it wants, but almost all dream of great good fortune coming effortlessly to them through some divine Grace, auspicious planet, invisible adept's working, or other miraculous means. In short, the personal lives of a large proportion of these believers are stamped with frustration and failure, as the public lives of their leaders are stamped with utter inability to accomplish any marked positive benefit for mankind. It is as comical as it is tragical to contemplate how ineffectively they drift through the years as mere dreamers lacking power but ever talking of it. Even when their miseries and sufferings impel them eventually to some reflection, they apportion the blame everywhere except in the right place. It is God's will, or adverse stars, or evil spirits, or unavoidable karma, or a spiritual test, but it is never the harvest of the gullibility which they have sown, of the intellectual exaggerations to which they have yielded, of the one-sided, unbalanced, and negligent view of life which they have been taught, nor of the self-deception which permits them to take so many illusions for realities.

Under the self-praised exterior of the absurdly exaggerated claims, hidden dark maggots are busy creating ethical rot within its core and substance. Its short but shady history is already stippled with unsavoury incidents, demoniac intercourse, and financial exploitation of the crudest kind.

The question therefore arises: To what cause is such a situation to be attributed? For if the professions of esoteric wisdom and claims to extraordinary power made by the cults are true, then both their leaders and their followers have failed miserably in implementing such declarations, while if they are untrue then many seekers after truth are being misled.

What strikes the observer first about these cults is their spiritual futility and ridiculous vanity. They create their own fantastic legend about their past and live in an equally fantastic dream about their future.

Each cult claims theirs is the true and only teaching from God.

When he gives utterance to exaggerated claims and extravagant doctrines, he leads himself, as well as others, astray.

He usually claims surrender to supernatural guidance, to superpersonal inspiration. Indeed, anyone listening to his speeches for the first time, with their exaggerated claims and confident declamation, might be forgiven for deriving the impression that his opinions are shared by God!

The first mistake of an organized religio-mystic group is to behave as if it were here among men for its own sake, to make its own cause higher than the cause of truth or compassion.

They will not grant that theirs is only one of the ways to Reality and not the sole way. Or, admitting this obvious fact, they claim that theirs is by far the best way!

They overstate the case; their assertions need some discounting. The pity is that such exaggeration is quite unnecessary. The inner life offers benefits which are real enough and valuable enough, but to raise expectations which go far beyond them is unfair, undesirable, and even misleading.

Once a sect starts, it is only a matter of time until it begins to believe itself to be the "Chosen People."

Do not accept the exaggerated claims made by any teacher that salvation or illumination can come only through him or through his religion. This is a form of intimidation, which frightens weak souls into acceptance and belief.

These petty sects take on majestic airs, make claims, and announce staggering revelations as if they were of cosmic importance and as if their sect alone held the impenetrable cosmic secret.

All these cults cunningly appeal to the ego in man, however much or often they cull New Testament texts or quote Christ or affirm lofty metaphysical truths of being.

These "demonstration" cults have carried the orthodox idea of God intervening in worldly situations for the benefit of particular persons, into a new garb which disguises but does not alter the idea itself. The life of man is then no longer ruled by causality but by a mixture of causality and caprice--that is to say, no longer ruled by God, but by a being who is part God, part man, who is liable to disturb the highly complicated world-order to please one human being with effects that might displease other human beings.

The dangers of membership in an occult group or society are several. One is spiritual pride, a swelling of the ego arising out of the belief that the group is intimately and importantly associated with the higher powers.

Those groups are so stubbornly convinced that they are right that they become aggressive at the slightest show of defense against their voiced opinions, or on hearing statements of differing opinions.

H.P. Blavatsky said in her second message of 1889 to the American Theosophical Convention: "There are dozens of small occult societies which talk very glibly of Magic, Occultism, Rosicrucians, Adepts, etc. These profess much, even to giving the key to the Universe, but end by leading men to a blank wall."

One turns with relief from this unreal atmosphere of a tiny sect engaged in colossal self-aggrandizement in its own eyes to the wider, saner world outside, even if that world be less talkative about its so-called spirituality.

This eagerness of ignorance to explain the universe would be ironical, if the results were not so pathetic.

The religious exhibitionism of ritualistic cults finds its parallel in the psychic exhibitionism of mystic cults.

The minds formed by these cults quickly fossilized, congealed rapidly around their own dogmas, and narrowed into attachment to an orthodoxy hardly less rigid than the ones they denounced so vehemently and so vociferously.

The spread of mystical movements may be achieved by putting forward exaggerated and indefensible claims.

Even prosaic everyday happenings are clothed by their arrogant imagination with delusional meanings and given divine significance. In their own estimate they and their cult occupy tremendous importance in the world's spiritual history. They feel that God has entrusted them with the task of redeeming mankind and placed them at the very centre of the cosmic scheme for this purpose. So the intuitive voice is perverted into a self-aggrandizing attention-getting instrument.

What effectual difference can a few hundred obscure and scattered persons make in a population of many millions? The disproportion is so enormous and the influence of this tiny group is so slight and unnoticeable that there is something pathetic about its belief in its own importance, something hallucinatory about its pompous self-regard.

The true mystery of life is serene and grand whereas the artificial mystery of these occult sects is disturbing and denigrating.

The God whom most men worship has been built up out of their own imagination or out of the imagination of other men whom they follow. The consequences of this false worship are to be seen in the superstitions and disillusionments and exploitations which mar human history.

Against a background of little thought and less study, these optimistic dabblers imagine that they can explain--as they generally do in glib meaningless phrases--what acute-minded thinkers have failed to explain despite the efforts of thousands of years.

When we begin to remember how inexhaustibly varied the different levels of World-Mind's space-timed universe must be, how infinitely long-drawn its own time-life must be beyond our farthest possible conceptions, we begin to realize how absurd are those claims made by occultists and clairvoyants to the knowledge of all the universe's secrets in their infinitude or of all God's life in its fullness.

If we follow them too closely, leaving behind our critical faculties and penetrative powers, in too many cases we meet eventually with disillusionment and sometimes disgust. "Things are not so easy of comprehension or explanation as people would have us believe," wrote the German poet Rilke. Beware of those who tell you that they can see the secret works of the universe as easily as one can see through a glass window. If they are sincere, the likelihood is that their knowledge is hastily or prematurely promulgated; if they are deluding themselves or deceiving others, they are worse guides than none at all. Creation still remains a great riddle.

We may laugh at those who imply they have private information about the mental habits of the Deity.

Occult systems, which claim to offer a complete chart of the universe, do not live up to their claims for the reason that they cannot. They are communicated through and to limited minds, dwelling on a single level. How could they absorb that which only the unlimited mind of God, dwelling on and transcending all possible levels, could absorb? No human can map out the sum of all existences, for no human has the needed resources to do so.

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