Jan 13, 2015

Discipleship in the 21st Century

How to Approach the Door of Inner Learning

Carlos Cardoso Aveline

The Himalayas: a painting by Nicholas Roerich

It may be worthwhile to study the process of discipleship.  There are also reasons to investigate the subtle magnetic relationships and non-verbal communications between the Adept Teachers of the Himalayas, or some Western Adepts, and their lay disciples and Truth-aspirants all over the world.

The theosophical movement was conceived and created during the 1870s and 1880s by H.P. Blavatsky and several Masters, with the assistance of many disciples and aspirants in different continents.

Since the first moment, the inner structure of the movement  was designed in such a way that  it must have a central nucleus of sincere aspirants to a higher learning, in order for it to be able to live at the spiritual level. Otherwise, it can only experience the outer, mechanical life of a “shell”.  

Indeed, history has proven once and again that in the absence of an inner group with people committed to the process of discipleship, the movement is scarcely more than a corpse. But what exactly do we mean, when we use the word “discipleship”?

If we see the idea of being a disciple as a status-symbol or a mark of personal achievement,  then there is  no need whatsoever for any sincere students to ever think about such a dangerous topic. In that case, we must just say, with so many others:

“It is enough to study the literature of authentic theosophy and to try to live up to its general principles.” 

Yet Truth is frequently hidden beneath surface and appearances, and the seed of discipleship - with all its tests - is at the heart of the apparently simple fact of trying to live theosophical principles.   

On the other hand, in its primary and original meaning, the word discipleship just indicates a learning-process - and there are no feelings of self-importance or self-achievement attached to it. In much the same way the word “disciple” means only “a learner”. As to the term “discipline”, it originally means but the set of practical conditions necessary for the disciple or learner to develop new abilities. 

As disciples in general need teachers, another interesting question deals with our attitude towards the Adept-Teachers and Initiates. Is it correct for us to exert our curiosity and collect the scattered, scarce information available from reliable sources about their existence, their work for mankind and their disciples?  

A reasonable amount of evidence indicates that Adept-Teachers - variously called Raja-Yogis, Mahatmas, Masters, Adepts, Immortals or Rishis - are not supposed to be beyond our field of conscious investigation. It is clear that everyone can aspire to learn from them - directly or indirectly.  According to Robert Crosbie, for instance, “HPB showed herself a true Teacher when she said, ‘Do not follow me nor my path; follow the path I show, the Masters who are behind’.” [1]

However, the actual process of spiritual learning is rather complex. The probation path does not begin with a Master generously appearing to every aspirant in order to make a formal announcement. As a rule, probations and tests must be unannounced. Otherwise, they will not be effective. Besides, probation is a natural, unavoidable fact, and not something artificially created in order to test this or that disciple. Probation results from the law of karma.  Every bit of knowledge, in any department of life, always brings with it a corresponding amount of responsibility. And being responsible means facing tests.  Probation, then, comes with the first step of one’s search for wisdom, and its intensity will be in direct proportion to the seriousness of that step -  and of the following ones.  

Along the way to Wisdom, the student of esoteric philosophy has to avoid not only the emotional mechanisms of self-delusion, fear and ambition in general. He will be challenged or tempted by many different forms of error, most of which will present themselves as perfectly spiritual attitudes or at least as humanly acceptable. The deeper the knowledge he has access to, the bigger will be the occult and “undeclared” tests he will face. 

He may feel entirely alone in certain occasions - even desperately so, if he happens to have enough courage to follow his own heart.  But at the hardest of times, he - as every sincere aspirant to Truth eternal - will be more included than ever in  the vast magnetic field which is always kept under the general observation of the Adepts and their direct disciples.

One of the Masters wrote to a “lay chela” (a lay disciple), in 1882:

 “Nature has linked all parts of her Empire together by subtle threads of magnetic sympathy, and, there is a mutual correlation even between a star and a man; thought runs swifter than the electric fluid, and your thought will find me if projected by a pure impulse (...). Like the light in the sombre valley seen by the mountaineer from his peaks, every bright thought in your mind, my Brother, will sparkle and attract the attention of your distant friend and correspondent. If thus we discover our natural Allies in the Shadow-world - your world and ours outside the precincts - and it is our law to approach every such an one if even there be but the feeblest glimmer of the true ‘Tathagata’ light within him - then how far easier for you to attract us.” [2] 

So, it is Their Law to approach every such an one - i.e., every possible natural Ally - if even there be but the feeblest glimmer of the true Buddhic light within him. But Masters and their direct disciples make this approach and observation in silence. They are in touch with the Self present within the Heart and Mind of the aspirant - not with his outer personality shell.

How, then, do the Adept look at the Aspirant? Robert Crosbie wrote: “The Masters do not look at our defects, but at our motives and efforts.” [3]

In one of the Letters, after mentioning the existence of an “outer” as well as an “inner” man, an Adept-Teacher wrote:

“With the ‘visible’ one we have nothing to do. He is to us only a veil that hides from profane eyes that other ego with whose evolution we are concerned. In the external rupa do what you like, think what you like: only when the effects of that voluntary action are seen on the body of our correspondent -  is it incumbent to us to notice it.” [4]

It is at an inner dimension that the Masters observe the general collective field of aspirants and, with a few exceptions, their observation cannot be felt nor “sensed” by the observed students. It usually takes a long time for the Truth-seeker to get to that special moment thus described in “The Voice of the Silence”: 

“Silence thy thoughts and fix thy whole attention on thy Master, whom yet thou dost not see, but whom thou feelest.”

And more:

“Merge into one sense thy senses, if thou would’st be secure against the foe.  ’Tis by that sense alone which lies concealed within the hollow of thy brain, that the steep path which leadeth to thy Master may be disclosed before thy Soul’s dim eyes.” [5]  

The Mahatma Letters and other classical texts suggest that in most cases the Masters will observe and help the Aspirant for a very long time before he can sense the subtle presence of a teacher. Chronological time is not important, but this unperceived observation may go on for a few lifetimes, while the true foundation of discipleship - a stronger relationship between the student’s successive mortal souls and his one Monad - is being built. After that, the Aspirant usually develops the ability to sense the non-verbal, subtle influence of the Master in his life - and he may even consciously  interact with it  in an abstract way, with no images or words. But this happens often a long time before he will be able to hear or to see his Teacher.

Referring to the Masters and to the silent help they grant to aspirants worldwide, William Q. Judge wrote:

“They have also stated that they do not make themselves objectively known to believers in them except in those cases where those believers  are ready in all parts of their nature, are definitely pledged to them, with the full understanding of the meaning of the pledge. But they have also stated that they help all earnest seekers after truth, and that it is not necessary for those seekers to know from where the help comes so long as it is received. (...) Personally I know that the Masters do help powerfully, though unseen, all those who earnestly work and sincerely trust in their higher nature, while they follow the voice of conscience without doubt or cavil.” [6]

What is it that determines the actual distance between each aspirant and the Adepts? It must be said that it is but a vibratory distance. It is a lack of affinity in vibration rates, since geographical distances do not exist for the consciousness of the Masters and their direct disciples. Such a distance is created by our own ignorance - not by the Masters. One of the Mahatmas wrote to a lay disciple:

“I can come nearer to you, but you must draw me by a purified heart and a gradually developing will. Like the needle the adept follows his attractions.” [7]

Each aspirant must find in himself a way to shorten the inner distance between he and the Dharma or Teaching.   In the silent heart of the Teaching, as in meditation, he can find, in part, the vibration rate of the Teachers. But this is not enough. How else, then, can he get nearer to the Source?  

One Mahatma wrote something especially significant to the aspirants living in the 21st century:

“Look around you, my friend: see the ‘three poisons’ raging within the heart of man - anger, greed, delusion, and the five obscurities  - envy, passion, vacillation, sloth, and unbelief - ever preventing them seeing truth. They will never get rid of the pollution of their vain, wicked hearts, nor perceive the spiritual portion of themselves. Will you not try - for the sake of shortening the distance between us - to disentangle yourself from the net of life and death in which they are all caught (...)?” [8]

It is up to each student to say whether he accepts this invitation - and takes the steps necessary to liberate himself from short-term goals and commitments. There is no hurry, though: the work  of the Masters  is a long-term process.     

Although general conditions have changed since HPB times, there still is a common, permanent magnetic link between the Teaching, its Students and the Masters, as we can see in the “Mahatma Letters”. 

One of the letters from the Mahatmas consists of a memorandum, and item number III of the document says:

“We can direct and guide their efforts and the movement, in general. Tho’ separated from your world of action we are not yet entirely severed from it so long as the Theosophical Society exists.” [9]

The above expression “Theosophical Society” can be reasonably equated to “Theosophical Movement”, nowadays.

The same idea of a long-term work appears at another Letter:

“... We cannot consent to over flood the world at the risk of drowning them, with a doctrine that has to be cautiously given out, and bit by bit like a too powerful tonic which can kill as well as cure (....). The Society will never perish as an institution, although branches and individuals in it may.” [10] (Here, again, the term “Society” should be understood as “Movement”.)

With regard to the fact that the Mahatmas keep under their observation the general magnetic field - or the buddhic lights - of sincere aspirants to Truth and discipleship, it is interesting to take notice of these words by Robert Crosbie:

“... Those Great Ones who I know exist see every pure-hearted earnest disciple, and are ready to give a turn to the key of knowledge when the time in the disciple’s progress is ripe. No one who strives to tread the path is left unhelped; the Great Ones see his ‘light’, and he is given what is needed for his better development. That light is not mere poetical imagery, but is actual, and its character denotes one’s spiritual condition; there are no veils on that plane of seeing. The help must be of that nature which leaves perfect freedom of thought and action; otherwise, the lessons would not be learned.”[11]

According to HPB, “paradox would seem to be the natural language of occultism” [12], and the help given by the Masters is an example of that.  No one is left unhelped: but in order to actually deserve help, everyone must - hence the paradox - take full responsibility for his own walk along the path.  An independent action is then of fundamental importance to deserve and to receive assistance.

Once this basic principle is accepted, another question emerges:  how far can the aspirant go in his inner progress? What are the limits of his growth? There is no easy answer to this. Occult learning is a multidimensional process. It depends on many interacting, dynamic elements.  However, some of these factors can be named and examined.

1) One of them is the ever changing “tide” of collective karma.  

Conditions of collective karma are always helping or hindering in several ways the learning-process.  We should remember, though, that in difficult moments greater efforts use to be more rewarding. The aspirant should be able to see an opportunity in each new obstacle. There is a law of symmetry, by which external obstacles create inner opportunities, and external improvements provoke dangers.  “The Voice of the Silence” says about the “Hall of Probationary Learning”: “In it thy Soul will find the blossoms of life, but under every flower a serpent coiled.” [13]

As to difficult moments, an Adept-Teacher wrote, in a letter to Francesca Arundale: “Ah! If your eyes were opened, you might see such a vista of potential blessings to yourselves and mankind lying in the germ of the present hour’s effort, as would fire with joy and zeal your souls! Strive, towards the Light, all of you brave warriors for the Truth ...” [14]

2) Another factor is the karmic background of the student, and also his present karmic situation, with its obstacles and opportunities.  

The more long-term karmic resources the soul has previously accumulated, the better and stronger means it will have to face present challenges, and more strength  to develop a decisive action in the right direction. This background includes the amount of development already achieved in the paramitas of perfection. They are: Dana, or charity and immortal love; Shila, harmony in words and deeds; Kshanti, an unshakeable patience; Viraga or indifference to pleasure and pain; Virya, a dauntless energy in the way to Truth; Dhyana or ceaseless inner contemplation; and finally Prajna, the integrating key that makes a man become a Bodhisattva. [15]

3) A third element leading to a better learning is the intensity of the efforts made by the aspirant.

In December 1880, H.P. Blavatsky published in her magazine The Theosophist these words from Thomas Taylor, the platonic thinker:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not the PLATONIC spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.” [16]

Accordingly, in the New Testament’s Revelation we find: “... because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit you out of my mouth” (Chapter 3: 14-16). This idea also relates to Matthew, 6:24: “No one can be a slave to two masters; he will hate one and love the other; he will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and the money.”

4) Then we have the sustainability of the efforts made by the student.  

Long-term sustainability and endurance to tests seems to be even more important than a great intensity in the search for truth. The best results are long-term, and they need long-term efforts to ripen. It is better to have a slow process of sustainable acceleration in our efforts than a sudden enthusiasm born out of self-delusion. Passing enthusiasms are not only misleading: they are strong signs of superficiality in our commitments. 

5) A key factor is the purity of the student’s motives. 

Robert Crosbie wrote:

“Very often the ostensible motive is not the real one, and in this we frequently deceive ourselves. Ambition also comes in; the desire for the approbation of our fellows may cloud our vision in our effort to maintain it. There are many temptations, some of which may come disguised as angels of light.” [17] 

Our thoughts and intentions are established and live in several different levels of consciousness. There are intentions which are openly declared. Other intentions are conscious but not declared. There are also subconscious and unconscious motives, emerging from old habits and from the instincts of the “animal soul”, kama-manas. And there are higher, nobler, “supraconscious” intentions which come from the higher self. We must become gradually conscious of all these kinds and levels of motives in our lives. As we learn to listen in our heart to the voice of the silence, all smaller intentions are brought together before our mind’s eye and gradually understood, then purified and controlled. Self-observation, made from the viewpoint of our higher potentialities, submits our personal desires to the active will of the true self. 

6) It is important to examine on which levels of consciousness the greater part of the effort is being made.

Studying HPB’s works only on the mental plane tends to create pride, a feeling of self-importance and other symptoms of a learning limited to words. But if students go beyond that, listening to the silence and taking courage to challenge everyday routines from the viewpoints suggested by the wisdom they learn, then intuition will assist them and the process of learning will become ever wider and deeper. 

7) Finally, the degree of expansion in his perception of space and time. 

This is the ability of the aspirant to identify himself with time eternal and infinite space. At first it can come as an intellectual/philosophical process, through the calm study of “The Secret Doctrine” and other works. But gradually the student will develop an inner, contemplative relationship with the greater cycles of time/space, so that he will recognize himself as he is: just a passing “individualized” and “personalized” microcosmic fragment of that unlimited space-time. Thus he will attain a widening perspective of the Adepts’ and Initiates’ work for mankind. He will learn more about their influence on human evolution along many centuries and through different religions, philosophies and sciences.

As to human history, an Adept-Teacher wrote to Allan O. Hume in 1880:   

“Of your several questions we will first discuss, if you please, the one relating to the presumed failure of the ‘Fraternity’ to ‘leave any mark upon the history of the world’. (...) How do you know they have made no such mark? (...) The prime condition of their success was, that they should never be supervised or obstructed. What they have done they know; all those outside their circle could perceive was the results, the causes of which were masked from view. (...)”

And the Master goes on:

“There never was a time within or before the so-called historical period when our predecessors were not moulding events and ‘making history’, the facts of which were subsequently and invariably distorted by ‘historians’ to suit contemporary prejudices. Are you quite sure that the visible heroic figures in the successive dramas were not often but their puppets? We never pretended to be able to draw nations in the mass to this or that crisis in spite of the general drift of the world’s cosmic relations. The cycles must run their rounds. Periods of mental and moral light and darkness succeed each other, as day does night. The major and minor yugas must be accomplished according to the established order of things. And we, borne along on the mighty tide, can only modify and direct some of its minor effects.  If we had the powers of the imaginary Personal God, and the universal and immutable laws were but toys to play with, then indeed might we have created conditions that would have turned this earth into an Arcadia for lofty souls. But having to deal with an immutable Law, being ourselves its creatures, we have had to do what we could and rest thankful. There have been times when ‘a considerable portion of enlightened minds’ were taught in our schools. Such times there were in India, Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. (...)” [18] 

As the student gradually learns to understand the sacred long-term work done by the Mahatmas for the good of mankind, he can’t help giving up his personal worries and short-term goals. They all lose their meaning and importance as he sees the longer, unlimited time-line of human evolution. 

Then he will be able to offer his efforts to his own reincarnating Monad, in the inner temple of his higher consciousness.  Or to his Master. And within the small circle of his possibilities, he will accept the fact that he is co-responsible for the future of the theosophical movement - a collective instrument for human evolution - and he will try to ACT ACCORDINGLY.


[1] “The Friendly Philosopher”, Robert Crosbie, The Theosophy Company, L.A. and N.Y.C., 1945, see p. 373.

[2] “The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, transcribed by A. T. Barker, facsimile edition, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, CA, 1992, 493 pp., see Letter XLV, pp. 267-268.

[3] “The Friendly Philosopher”, Robert Crosbie, The Theosophy Company, L.A. and N.Y.C., USA, 1945, 415 pp., see p. 39.

[4] “The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, Letter XLIII, pp. 259-260.

[5] “The Voice of the Silence”, H.P. Blavatsky, Theosophy Co., Fragment I, pp. 17-18.

[6] Forum Answers” by William Q. Judge, reprinted from The Theosophical Forum (1889-1896), The Theosophy Co., Los Angeles, 1982, 141 pp., see pp. 75-76.

[7] “The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, Letter XLV, page 266.

[8] “The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, Letter XLV, pp. 264-265.

[9] “The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, Letter LXXVIII, page 378.

[10] “The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett”, Letter XXXIV, p. 245.

[11] “The Friendly Philosopher”, Robert Crosbie, see p. 07, lower half. 

[12] See the first paragraph of the text “The Great Paradox”, “Collected Writings”, Helena P. B., volume VIII, TPH, 1990, p. 125. “The Great Paradox” is available at our associated websites.

[13] “The Voice of the Silence”, H. P. Blavatsky, Theosophy Co., Fragment I, pp. 6-7.

[14] “Letters From the Masters of the Wisdom”,  transcribed by C. Jinarajadasa, first series,  TPH-Adyar, India, sixth printing, 1973, Letter 20, p. 52.

[15] “The Voice of the Silence”, H. P. Blavatsky, Theosophy Co., Fragment III, pp. 52-53.

[16] “The Theosophist”, Bombay, volume II, 1880-1881, edited by H. P. Blavatsky, facsimile reproduction and re-edition by Eastern School Press, 1983 (Wizards Bookshelf), see page 52. 

[17] “The Friendly Philosopher”, Robert Crosbie, see p. 07, upper half.

[18] “Combined Chronology, for use with ‘The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett’ & ‘The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett’ ”, by Margareth Conger. Published by Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, California, 1973, 47 pp., see pp. 34-35. 


An initial version of the above article was published in “The Aquarian Theosophist”, July 2005, pp. 1-7.


In September 2016, after a careful analysis of the state of the esoteric movement worldwide, a group of students decided to form the Independent Lodge of Theosophists, whose priorities include the building of a better future in the different dimensions of life.  


E-Theosophy e-group offers a regular study of the classic, intercultural theosophy taught by Helena P. Blavatsky (photo).

Those who want to join E-Theosophy e-group at YahooGroups can do that by visiting https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/E-Theosophy/info.