THEOSOPHY, Vol. 53, No. 3, January, 1965
(Pages 68-75; Size: 22K)
(Number 12 of a 12-part series)
MISUNDERSTOOD BIBLICAL TRADITIONS
PRIMITIVE Christianity, which was characterized by healthy diversity of opinion on all great questions of religious doctrine, left each man free to ponder and resolve the issues for himself. But after the Pauline battle for freedom from law, which threatened the authority of the organizational-minded leaders of the Church, Christianity underwent a change. Liberality of thought was no longer encouraged, or even tolerated. Stereotyped dogmas and creeds, which were only to be believed, took the place of living truth, which demands serious thought and questioning.
Meanwhile, Christ's teaching of Mercy, in the "misunderstood Biblical tradition," has become obscure. The questions around which the differences of opinion on mercy have revolved, and which are perennial for every sincere searcher after truth, are these: Is mercy, when it is received, the merited reward for right action, or is it the un-merited gift of Deity, or of grace? Is mercy without justice possible in man's dealings with his fellow men?
According to dictionary definition, "mercy implies compassion so great as to enable one to forbear, even when justice demands punishment." From this and other definitions of similar character, people in general seem to have acquired the notion that mercy means non-exercise of the right to punish, or that mercy and justice are opposites. In the minds of many individuals, it implies favor from an outside God, whether or not deserved. Indeed, the average human being, when attempting to put these virtues into practice, finds himself faced with what appears to be an irresolvable paradox. How, it is asked, can a person be both merciful and just at the same time? How is the man of religion to walk with one foot according to Moses' law of justice -- an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth -- and with the other according to Jesus' law of mercy, love and forgiveness? How many individuals, religious or otherwise, have been able to reconcile Shakespeare's well-known statement that "Mercy seasons justice" with his less-quoted, yet equally cogent, verse that "Mercy but murders, pardoning those who kill"? Failure to comprehend the true meaning of mercy and to bring it into balance with justice has led to dire results. Religiously-minded individuals, for example, are all too inclined, in time of difficulty, to look to divine favors for relief, whether they merit them or not, or to live in fear that such favors might be withheld. Other kindly disposed people, with the belief they are showing mercy, show only favoritism to one at the expense of another, and thus commit injustices from which they suffer for the remainder of their lives. And worse yet, countless numbers of souls, confounded by what appear to be endless contradictions in their scriptures, give up all efforts at either mercy or justice, look out for themselves, and "let the devil take the hindmost."
Courts of law in civilized countries everywhere are founded upon the principle of equal justice for all, without respect of person. But because of human frailty and man's inability to see and understand all the elements at work in any act of sin or wrong-doing, it is agreed that justice must be tempered by mercy. Yet, one of the most difficult decisions any judge or jury has to make, as any tribunal will attest, is that of determining when and upon whom the tender hand of mercy may be laid with wisdom, equity, and safety. For "misplaced lenity," said Seneca, "is an offense against society." Through long and bitter experience, arbiters of the law have come to confess that some sorts of mercy to the criminal oftentime result in cruelty to the community. It takes a wise judge indeed to know whose sentence to commute and whose to let stand.
A newspaper item of some years back relates the story of a triple tragedy, the outcome in part of a simple act of mercy. A man employed by a religious institution was discharged for stabbing a fellow worker. Through an emotional plea for mercy, he was permitted to retain his room in the institution while seeking work elsewhere. The next day, after brooding over the dismissal, he brutally murdered both the superior who had befriended him and another member of the staff who attempted to intervene. What do occurrences of this kind mean? Is it that men should become hard-hearted realists, unmindful of the teachings of Jesus and other great Saviors to be merciful, kind and forgiving? Do they mean that people should abandon good works and live for themselves alone? Do they imply that when one hears a cry of distress, he should follow the misunderstood Mohammedan tradition and say "Kismet -- it is Fate" -- and go his way unconcerned? Hardly. They do suggest, however, that the ability to help others in a real sense, without doing harm, is a most difficult undertaking, and requires a great deal more wisdom than most individuals possess. It suggests that before grasping the nettle of good works and taking the law into one's own hands, it might be well to look more deeply than we have into the mystery of the human heart, to discover if we can why those who suffer are in the condition they are, and to equate these findings with that wise and beneficent Law of Karma which--Just though mysterious, leads us on unerringThe subject of mercy, then, in the opinion of the Theosophist, cannot be properly understood without some acquaintance with the nature and operation of this Law.
Through ways unmarked from guilt to punishment.
Karma is the Sanskrit name adopted by the Theosophists of the last century for the ultimate Law of the Universe. So comprehensive is this law that it governs everything from the vastest solar system to the tiniest atom, from the holiest archangel to the most insignificant infusoria. The birth, life, and death of planets, nations, and families; the physical, intellectual, and moral actions of human beings; and also the seemingly blindest motions in the kingdoms of Nature, are under its sway. Karma is the fundamental Law underlying the laws of physics and chemistry. It is the philosopher's law of cause-and-effect, and also the religious and ethical law of morality, retribution, and justice. "No spot or being in the Universe," it is said, "is exempt from the operation of Karma." Although it embodies the wisdom and compassion of the highest Creative Intelligences, it is not a Being. It is, rather, the universal Law of Harmony, which unerringly restores all disturbance to equilibrium.
Gautama Buddha brought a clear and unequivocal teaching of the Law of Karma. What Jesus hinted at in his saying that "one jot or tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled"; what St. Paul intimated in his doctrine that "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap"; and what Moses undoubtedly intended in his teaching "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" -- Buddha explained in detail. The heart of Gautama's teaching is beyond doubt the majesty of the Law --that blessed Law which moves to Righteousness, "Which none at last can turn aside or stay; / The heart of it, is Love, the end of it / Is Peace and Consummation sweet. Obey!"
But the Occidental mind is not naturally inclined toward metaphysical thought. With concentration centered largely upon the physical, Westerners tend to interpret everything, even their sacred texts, in the lowest, most material sense. When the concept of Law as applied to Nature is considered, for example, it is usually conceived to mean only those manifestations of order we see about us, the forces which regulate the physical world -- the rising and setting of the sun, the sequence of the seasons, the principle of gravitation, and the reliability of the elements. But in Buddha's doctrine of Karma, as expressed in The Light of Asia:This is its work upon the things ye see:It is in these higher, unseen manifestations, in the application of Karma to man's thoughts, feelings, attitudes and choices that we shall have to search for an understanding of the true meaning of many of the misunderstood biblical traditions, including both mercy and grace. For, according to Theosophy, the Laws of Nature are neither mechanical nor unintelligent, but are the reflection in Cosmic Substance of the Thought Divine, the ideation of the seven primeval Elohim or Archangels.
The unseen things are more; men's hearts and minds,
The thoughts of peoples and their ways and wills,
Those, too, the great law binds.
"The kingdom of God," said Jesus, "is within you." (Luke 17:21.) Buddha taught the same thing, saying that Brahm, the SELF, is within all life. Because the SELF is within, he said, Law is likewise within the heart and consciousness of every creature. Each and every action, by whomsoever performed, carries with it, therefore, its own reward or punishment. Each and every tremor of consciousness, whether in the form of thought, feeling, or act, like ripples from the pebble dropped into the pond, goes out to the confines of the Universe, and on return, brings back to the center of disturbance whatever of good or evil any individual experiences. As the magnet attracts steel filings, so does man attract to himself his own self-made destiny. It was beyond doubt the inner God that Moses had in mind when he quoted the Lord as saying: "To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense." (Deut. 32:35.) And it was the Law of Karma, which is rooted in the kingdom of God that Jesus probably referred to when he said, "With what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again." (Matt. 7:2.) The Book of Jeremiah, read symbolically in the light of the inner God, is a magnificent treatise on Karma, the Law of Compensation.
The visiting of the infirm is one of the "mercies" incumbent upon conscientious Christian devotees. And it is true that sympathy, understanding and kind treatment are powerful aids to recovery. But this, like other human amenities, seems to have become perverted. In bringing sorrow into a person's life, Karma does not do so with intent to punish. Karma has no motive of itself. Being impersonal Law, it only follows the lines of causation established by the individual. Karma adjusts effect to cause, and in so doing, arouses the attention of the Ego, revealing the need, if one is introspective, for a truer basis for thought and action. But how can this be done if friends and relatives treat the "victim" as if he has been unjustly attacked by fate? Suffering is a sacred matter to the soul, a time for thought and readjustment. Unwise friends sometimes rob a person of his golden opportunity for learning and readjustment, by trying to relieve him of thinking. And how common it is for friends and relatives, in moments of emotional sympathy, miscalled mercy, to deprive the sufferer of his one chance in this incarnation, perhaps, to learn the lesson he most needs to learn! Those whose interest in the welfare of others is genuine will have little difficulty determining their duty.
Then, too, there is a vast distinction between genuine help to the afflicted -- which usually requires sacrifice -- and emotional palavering and bedside jokes, which are more often hindrances than aids. Those who know something of the beneficence of Karma stand appalled before the difficult task of helping the afflicted. The first rule of the religious life is that one must fit himself to be the better able to help others, but true fitness requires something more than emotional sympathy. Karma will not keep the sufferer in misery longer than is necessary, no longer than the moment when inner adjustment is made. But Karma must be satisfied -- ideas must be sifted, feelings tempered, attitude enlarged -- and no one but the sufferer can do it. If proper inner adjustment is not made in time of trial, any relief obtained will be only temporary and the experience will have to be repeated, either in this or another life. Heartless though the statement may appear, once the sufferer's needs have been cared for, he may well be left to himself, to ponder the causes for his ailment.
Lest the above statements be misunderstood, and Theosophists be accused of being cold and unmerciful, it may be well to recall H. P. Blavatsky's definition of a Theosophist:He who does not practice altruism: he who is not prepared to share his last morsel with a weaker or poorer than himself: he who neglects to help his brother man, of whatever race, nation, or creed, whenever and wherever he meets suffering, and who turns a deaf ear to the cry of human misery: he who hears an innocent person slandered, whether a brother theosophist or not, and does not undertake his defense as he would undertake his own -- IS NO THEOSOPHIST.The Christ or the Buddha who is able to strike a balance between mercy and justice may know whom to relieve of suffering and whom to leave in the mire that is their best teacher. Few mortals, however, possess such discrimination, and thus they make mistakes. It is a fact, confirmed by social workers in large cities and by those who have learned at first hand something of the mystery of the human heart, that kindness and gentle treatment will sometimes bring out the worst qualities of men and women -- qualities which had been held in check by trial and hardship. It is also true, as verified by practical philanthropists, that people who have led fairly presentable lives when kept down by pain and despair, often lose their moral and mental balance when relieved prematurely of their difficulties.
Yet if mankind could once be freed from the misunderstood Mosaic doctrine of an eye for an eye, which people think gives them the right to punish, and would substitute in its stead a reverent regard for the all-wise, all-merciful Law of Karma, which no man can bribe, an era of peace and enlightenment would undoubtedly dawn for the whole human race. Is it conceivable that a great Adept like Moses would teach men to retaliate, one upon the other, by exacting an eye for an eye? Is it not more logical to suppose that he referred to Karma, and meant that the impersonal Law demands such equal retribution? With the conviction that retribution from the Law is certain and unfailing, and that each gets his dues, victims of seeming injustice would see the folly of retaliation, and would understand Jesus' admonition to turn the other cheek. Thoughtful men would understand that nothing can come to any individual, whether good or evil, except as the result of his own causation. If a person is innocent, no priest or preacher can damn; if guilty no prayers or paid-for "indulgences" can save!
Is it possible that men could live together on the basis of Jesus' law of love, mercy, and forgiveness? Is it conceivable that national and international relations could be conducted on the principle of trust and understanding? Or have the poisonous arrows of revenge, due largely to the misunderstood Biblical tradition, pierced too deeply into the heart and consciousness of mankind? Has there ever been a nation, past or present, strong enough and courageous enough to trust Jesus' doctrine of love, a country whose leaders were convinced that morality is stronger than arms? The following Buddhist story, taken from Buddhist Canon (chap. 36), portrays the power of a moral position assumed, and indicates at the same time how trust and respect possess power to conquer where arms would be of no avail:In days of old, when Buddha was residing in the Gridhrakuta Mountains near Rajagriha with the whole assembly of the Bhikshus (disciples), 1250 in number, the King of Magadha, whose name was Ajatasatru, being then ruler of 100 kingdoms, was in perplexity as to one of them called Yue-chi, which refused to pay him tribute, although the country abounded in wealth, and was highly prosperous. On this the King sent his Prime Minister to ask Buddha what he should do, and whether he would be successful in using force against the rebellious kingdom. Having come into the presence of Buddha and put the question, the World-honoured replied: "So long as the King of the Yue-chi observes the seven rules, he will not be easily overcome." On this the minister inquired as to the character of these seven rules, to which the Master answered: (1) "So long as the people of the Yue-chi observe right rules of self-government in their several villages and communities, so long will they be able to protect themselves. (2) So long as the ministers and rulers hold together, and agree, and govern justly, so long will they be able to protect themselves. (3) So long as they, in a national view, obey the laws and submit to their direction without partiality or favor, so long will they be unconquerable. (4) So long as the Yue-chi observe the rules of decorum between man and woman, and depart not from these rules of propriety, so long will they be unconquerable. (5) So long as the Yue-chi observe the rules of reverence due to father and mother and other relations, and dutifully provide for their wants, so long will they be able to protect themselves. (6) So long as the Yue-chi religiously observe the ceremonies of the four seasons, in doing homage to heaven and earth, so long will they be unconquerable. (7) So long as the Yue-chi pay respect to all their religious teachers (Shamans), and especially to those who have come to them from afar (travellers or religious guests), and provide them with the usual necessaries, such as food, bedding, medicine, etc., so long will they be able to protect themselves. These are the seven rules. If the Yue-chi observe only one of them, it would be difficult to overpower them. How much more so if they regard the seven." And the World-honoured added these words: "Rely not too entirely on the advantage of victory (conquest), for though you may prevail in battle, yet there is still sorrow in store. Rather should a man seek the rules of self-conquest. Having conquered himself, then there will be no further ground for birth (or continued life on earth)."Mercy, like charity, is one of the greatest of the virtues, according to Theosophy. But virtue alone is not enough. Man has a head as well as a heart, and before the goal is reached, these two departments of his nature -- so strong in unity, so weak divided -- must be taught to work together. Studying conjointly the Jewish, Christian, Greek, and Buddhist philosophies, the Alexandrian Gnostics and Theosophists seem to have achieved this blend. But with the rejection of the Gnostic element in the Church, Christian leaders ruled out philosophy, and thus could transmit to posterity only dogmas to be believed, instead of propositions to be proved, churches filled with followers, instead of schools filled with students, blind belief based on ignorance, instead of faith based on knowledge.
The Minister having heard these words was immediately convinced.... The Minister then rising from his seat begged permission to depart, and on being so permitted by Buddha, he went back to the King and told him what the Master had said. On this the King gave up all his intentions of going to war. In consequence, the Yue-chi returned to their obedience and submitted to the King.
Karma, said Wm. Q. Judge, one of the Founders of the present Theosophical Movement, "is a beneficent law wholly merciful, relentlessly just, for true mercy is not favor but impartial justice. That which man calls Mercy and Justice is defective, errant and impure." Mercy and forgiveness, therefore, should have the highest place in that branch of Theosophy which treats of ethics as applied to human conduct. And were it not for the perfect mercifulness of Karma -- which is merciful because it is just -- we ought long ago to have been wiped out of existence. The very fact that the oppressor, the unjust, the wicked, live out their lives is proof of mercy in the great heart of Nature. They are thus given chance after chance to retrieve their error and climb, if even on the ladder of pain, to the height of perfection. It is true that Karma is just, because it exacts payment to the last farthing, but on the other hand it is eternally merciful, since it unerringly pays out its compensations. Nor is the shielding from necessary pain true mercy, but is indeed the opposite, for sometimes it is only through pain that the soul acquires the precise knowledge and strength it requires.
[Reminder: The MISUNDERSTOOD BIBLICAL TRADITIONS series has now ended.]
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