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What's Practical About Them? The Three Fundamental Propositions of The Secret Doctrine

Magazine Article: The American Theosophist, July 1974

“The trouble with the three fundamental propositions is that they are way up there in the blue somewhere. They don’t answer any of my problems. Why should I bother to study them?”

How often do we hear this complaint, not only about the three fundamental propositions, but about The Secret Doctrine as a whole? The concepts are too abstract, too vast, too impossible to comprehend. “Anyhow, it’s all speculative, and I’ve got to earn my bread and butter, look after my family, carry on my business. I haven’t got time for something I can’t use.”

If The Secret Doctrine did nothing more than lift our minds “way up there in the blue” it would have served some purpose; we would have a wider perspective; we would be able to see our problems as a whole and perhaps stop running around on our little squirrel-wheels of doubt and speculation. For it is at the “daily problem” level that we really speculate: “Is this right? Is that right? Should I do this? Should I do that? There must be an answer somewhere!”

Pure logic would give us answers, but we are seldom capable of pure logic at the “daily problem” level. It comes from a much higher octave of our beings and can scarcely get a wedge into the tangle of doubts, fears, angers, panic, and other often uncontrollable emotions that beset us when we are in the midst of situations which seem to pull us in several directions at once – in short, when we must make a choice between this or that or some other action, or remain paralyzed in inaction. In an extremity we may even wonder why the Masters do not help us, show us what to do, give us some direction.

Without intent to dogmatize on so serious a matter, may I suggest that we have already been given direction in The Secret Doctrine, and specifically in the three fundamental propositions. These set forth the basic principles underlying universal operation, and man is inevitably a part of that operation. He cannot possibly extricate himself from it. This being the case, when he grasps that these principles govern his own being, he begins to understand that he can apply them in an infinite number of situations. It is perhaps significant in this connection that one definition of logic is “a system of underlying principles.” This is surely logic in its pure form. So perhaps we can turn to that deeper and higher level for light on our daily living.

In 1885, when The Secret Doctrine was in preparation, the Mahatma K. H. wrote to a German doctor, a member of The Theosophical Society: “The Secret Doctrine, when ready, will be the triple production of M. [the Master M.], Upasika [Mme. Blavatsky] and the Doctor’s most humble servant, K. H.”[1] Thus we have the assurance that this great work comes, in part at least, from as high a source as we are likely to find on this planet.

Considering this source, then, we may ask how the Mahatmas themselves regarded the knowledge which they were making available for the first time to the Western world. In The Mahatma Letters to A. P Sinnett, the Mahatma K. H. said of this knowledge: “It is indeed a body of the highest spiritual importance, at once profound and practical [italics mine] for the world at large . . . it is not as a mere addition to the tangled mass of theory or speculation in the world of science that these truths are being given to you, but for their practical bearing on the interests of mankind.”[2]

It is in our everyday world that we need to find the “practical bearing” of these transcendent truths. We cannot expect to be led by the hand and told, “Now do this! Do that!” It was surely through long and probably often agonizing effort in learning to apply the principles which they have set forth that the Adepts became what they are. The pilgrim can hardly expect the path to be made easy or soft, however footsore and weary he may become. This is clearly stated in the Letters: “The fact is, that to the last and supreme initiation every chela . . . is left to his own device and counsel. We have to fight our own battles, and the familiar adage – ‘the adept becomes, he is not made’ – is true to the letter.”[3] In other words, we develop our spiritual muscles by using them, not by being relieved of the necessity to use them.

The natural response to this might well be: “But adeptship is something far in the future. I need something that will help me now!”

We might remind ourselves that every step we take – however small – leads us inexorably in one direction or another, toward fulfilment of our divine nature or toward its debasement. We are mistaken, I think, to denigrate even those small efforts which may seem to us to have little significance; if they are in accord with our best lights at the moment, they are surely necessary steps in our evolutionary journey.

It was suggested earlier that the three fundamental propositions can show us our direction. If we understand them to be inviolable principles of the universe and of our own nature, then we need no longer think of them as something outside ourselves, something “up in the blue somewhere”; rather they can become so much a part of the texture of our lives that we no longer need to think of them consciously. They can serve as a spontaneous wellspring of truth in every circumstance and situation. The extent to which this takes place is surely the measure of the depth at which they have taken root in our beings. If we disregard them, concentrating only on mundane considerations, we are lost in the wilderness of choices; it is only from the wellspring of truth that the “choiceless choice” becomes possible.

H.P.B. herself said of these three propositions: “It would not be in place here to enter upon a defence or proof of their inherent reasonableness, nor can I pause to show how they are, in fact, contained in every system of thought or philosophy worthy of the name. Once the reader has gained a clear comprehension of them and realized the light which they throw on every problem of life [italics mine], they will need no further justification in his eyes, because their truth will be to him as evident as the sun in the heaven.”[4]

With these assurances in mind, perhaps we may turn to a consideration of the propositions themselves. It will not be possible at the outset to avoid mention of some abstract ideas. But few of us, I think, would ever have become interested in Theosophy at all if we had not realized that back of everything that we see and hear and touch and taste and smell lies an abstraction – a “no-thing” which is not “nothing” but the hidden source of all things.

The first proposition speaks of this hidden source – an “omnipresent, boundless, and immutable principle” which, says H.P.B., is “the one absolute Reality which antecedes all manifested, conditioned being.” This is the “infinite and eternal cause . . . the rootless root of ‘all that was, is, or ever shall be.’ ” It is the Absolute, “Be-ness rather then Being.”[5]

It is worth our while to ponder this, not being turned aside by impatience or frustration, or by H.P.B.’s statement that this Be-ness is “beyond all thought or speculation.” Obviously, it is not a matter of speculation with her, but of an inner knowing, which is not brain-knowledge. We feel that we don’t and can’t really know much about Be-ness. We know we are be-ings and, as such, we are caught in a web of circumstances; often we may wonder whether we should try to get out or simply give up.

Certainly we can’t get out, and by the same token, it is futile to give up. But by the powers inherent in Be-ness, which are the potential powers of Be-ing, we can learn to command our response to circumstances, which in the truest sense is to command circumstances.

Another difficulty for us, perhaps, is grasping the idea of infinite potential without the existence of separate, specific things. If we may use a conditioned analogy at all (taking heart from H.P.B.’s assurance that analogy is “the one true Ariadne’s thread” which will lead us to the solution of Nature’s primal mysteries[6]) we might consider mind. Let us suppose that, even for an instant, we could make the mind completely blank –completely, without any specific thoughts in it at all. In this state thoughts – as thoughts – do not exist; they are, we might say, “in solution”; what exists is “all-thought.” Nothing happens. There is only the self-existence of mind itself – mindness, rather than mind. Yet the potential for an infinite number of separate thoughts is there. The mind can think of anything. The possibilities are limitless. And the instant mindness becomes mind, specific thoughts are precipitated. This is “automatic.” Nothing makes it happen; it just happens, because thought is the natural activity of mind. Yet there has been no separation from mindness; there has been only the expression of mindness in mind and, therefore, in thoughts.

In somewhat the same manner, perhaps, the universe (and we should remember that man is the universe in miniature) precipitates from Be-ness into Be-ing when the creative impulse begins to stir. There is no separation from Be-ness; there is only Be-ness in manifestation. This manifestation takes multitudinous forms out of the infinite richness of its source. The eternal and immutable principle (Be-ness), says H.P.B. “remains principle in its beginningless and endless aspect [but] it is not only latent in every atom of the universe, it is the universe itself.”[7]

Now, how can it be of any practical use to us to know all this? It may seem remote from anything with which we are ordinarily concerned, unless we can see it as constantly taking place, not only in the fact of our presence here in this physical world, but in every situation, in every happening in which we are involved.

To bring the concept a little closer, we may recall that H.P.B. tells us in her commentary that this Absolute Reality has three aspects. She names these as Absolute Abstract Motion, Absolute Abstract Space, and Duration. Again, we may seem to be grappling with mind-splitting ideas. Without going into her discussion of these aspects in the “absolute” sense, let us consider what they imply so far as we are concerned.

Absolute Abstract Motion is spoken of as pre-cosmic ideation. It is the root of that quality which makes creativity possible; it is the root of individual consciousness. Through infinite gradations and “steppings-down” (somewhat as a transformer steps down the naked power of electricity so that it becomes useful rather than destructive), it manifests as our consciousness, our mind, our thought.

Absolute Abstract Space is defined as pre-cosmic space – the root of that quality which makes formspossible – gives “thingness” to creation, to use Ernest Wood’s apt description. It is the substratum of matter, i.e., the root potential of every kind of matter that we can know here in the physical world, including our physical bodies, not to mention the more subtle forms of matter.

Duration is the root of time – that from which the principle of order emerges into manifestation. It is the root of that quality which makes action possible.

So there we are: From this one absolute Reality we derive our consciousness, our minds, our power of thought, our power to create. We derive matter, out of which things are created; and we derive time, which gives us freedom for creative action. Not only is this Reality the very root of ourselves; it is the root of everything we are, of everything we work with, and of every capacity at our command.

From this sublime truth comes the doctrine of the One Life. If it is real to us, we can no longer regard brotherhood as just a beautiful ideal which we hope will some day – in the far distant future perhaps – be realized. We see brotherhood as an inescapable law –as inescapable as the law of gravity or any other natural law through which the One Life manifests. This means respect not only for human beings, but respect for all life. We see that we cannot break this law; we can only break ourselves against it until we learn to obey it morally just as instinctively as we now physically obey the law of gravity. This, I think, is the ultimate practicality of the first fundamental proposition.

The second proposition states the absolute universality of the law of periodicity through which the One Life operates, the flux and reflux, the ebb and flow of activity.[8] H.P.B. adds that the alternations of day and night, life and death, sleeping and waking, are so common and so universal that it is easy to realize that the law of periodicity is one of the absolutely fundamental laws of nature. She refers to the universe itself as the periodic manifestation of the One Reality postulated in the first proposition.

So the law of periodicity extends to the outermost limits of anything we can know, and beyond. The universe is maya, she tells us, because its manifestation (and therefore the manifestation of all things) is temporary.

The word maya, as we know, it so often translated as “illusion” that we may be inclined to think it means that nothing at all exists, that our whole world of experience – happy and unhappy, beautiful and ugly – is pure hallucination. If this were true, we could sympathize deeply with the woman who, going through a period of great trial, cried out, “Why should I ask God to forgive me? How can I ever forgive God!” We feel in our inmost being that the world experience cannot be some ghastly joke perpetrated upon helpless beings by a cruel and malicious deity. One may say it is “unreal” because it is relative and therefore not eternal. It is the realm of effects. But it is no more unreal than the trunk, branches, and leaves of a tree are unreal because they are not the roots. Roots, trunk, branches, and leaves are one tree, but the source of its life – the “treeness” – is in the part that is hidden. Maya is a power, the power of creation. It is action and that which is produced by action. The earliest root meaning of the word, it is said, is “a magic creation of display”[9] or the process of creative imagination. This is a natural process – we might say an involuntary process. For to be is to create. Frequently it is asked, “If God is perfect in the first place, why is all this evolution necessary?” It may very well be that our human concept of motivation is quite irrelevant. It seems to me that the simple and only answer is: to be is to create.

This second fundamental proposition has an important relation to another aspect mentioned earlier – that of Duration, the root of time, that quality which makes action possible. Duration is spoken of as changeless, but the root of change. Process is involved in the cyclic law – and process always involves change. The second proposition, then, sets forth the principle of the orderly processes of time and change. And this, we realize, is the process in which we are all “caught.” Our world religions, our philosophies, our sciences, all are influenced by it, because it is the process which permits the unfoldment of consciousness.

From this second proposition, we derive our conviction that reincarnation (referred to more specifically in the third proposition) is one manifestation of this cyclic law. For every experiencing being life reveals itself as an endless series of new beginnings. Because this is true, we realize that while we cannot actually, objectively, change the past – our karma – we can change our consciousness in relation to past events. We see our karma in a wholly new light, and this doeschange it because our own consciousness is the greatest factor in our individual karma. The causes are in us, and so long as they remain, they must work themselves out in effects; but the nature of those effects is completely altered by the changes that take place in ourselves through this “endless series of new beginnings.” This, I think, is a supremely practical application of the second proposition.

In the third fundamental proposition the doctrine of reincarnation is specifically set forth. And here we can begin to see that all these propositions are mutually and inextricably linked together. The third proposition affirms the fundamental identity of every soul with the universal Oversoul, and the “obligatory pilgrimage of every soul through the cycle of incarnation or necessity.”[10] Further, this proposition makes our pilgrimage dependent upon “self-induced and self-devised effort” with no special privileges or gifts save those we win for ourselves.

Up to the time we reach humanhood – and perhaps for many lives after that – progress is accomplished through what H.P.B. calls “natural impulse.” This is evolution itself, which ever moves forward and cannot ultimately reverse itself. But from the time we awaken to the fact of our individual responsibility, the whole thing becomes a “do-it-yourself” project. Wherever we are going, we have to get there by our own efforts; we can’t ride on the coat-tails of anyone else.

Although we have only to ponder this to recognize its truth, we still have the realization that we travel in the company of other pilgrims in mutual affection and helpfulness. Our enterprise is a common one, although our individual discoveries and accomplishments are unique expressions of that enterprise. It might be suggested also that we should not conclude that the term “self-induced and self-devised effort” means the personality is left alone to do the whole thing. We have other and greater powers upon which to draw – “the deific powers in man,”[11] powers rooted in the Reality set forth in the first proposition and which we are in the process of unfolding.

There is only one way, then, to go forward: We must find what are the powers we have to work with. We must become acquainted with the universe in which we exercise those powers, remembering that we are not separate from it. We can’t change what is, but we must know it if we are to be an intelligent part of it. This means coming to grips with the fact of our fundamental identity with the Universal Oversoul and making it manifest in our daily lives.

We take for granted certain of our powers – the power to walk, for instance, the power to speak and to do certain other mechanical and physical things. We know we have the power to feel, the power to think. And when we need something for which our physical powers are inadequate, we use the powers of mind to invent machinery that will do it for us, manifesting that aspect of Be-ness which makes creativity possible, that aspect which makes form possible, and that aspect which makes action possible.

Also, we take for granted the universe in which we live. We confidently expect that the earth will continue to turn on its axis, to revolve about the sun, and that all the stars and planets will continue in their accustomed courses. But if we think more deeply, we know it is all a very great mystery. We can only contemplate with awe and wonder the great Intelligence which designed and continues to maintain and direct this perfectly ordered universe. Because of our fundamental identity with the Oversoul, these godlike powers are inherent in us. By our self-induced and self-devised efforts we must bring them into flowering. “Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite,” says Dr. Carl G. Jung, “can we avoid fixing our interest upon futilities and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance.”[12]

Could we think of the great truths of the three fundamental propositions as a living flow of force rather than as abstract ideas? They flow through every one of us continuously, indestructibly, eternally. They are not, then, “ ’way up there in the blue.” They are the ultimate here-and-now of our existence. Perhaps we might paraphrase Chesterton’s comment about philosophy in general and say that the question is not whether these great truths really matter to us; the question is whether anything else matters.


[1The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky, 6 vol. ed., Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, vol. 1, p.21.

[2The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, A. T. Barker, ed., p. 23, 2nd & 3rd ed.

[3Ibid., pp. 309-10, 2nd ed,; p. 305, 3rd ed.

[4] Blavatsky, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 85.

[5Ibid., vol. 1, p. 79.

[6Ibid., vol. 3, p. 161.

[7Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 316-7.

[8Ibid., vol. 1, p. 82.

[9Man, the Measure of All Things, Sri Krishna Prem and Sri Madhava Ashish, The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, p. 101 (note).

[10] Blavatsky, op. cit., vol. 1, p 82.

[11] Barker, op. cit., p. 2.

[12Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl G. Jung, Pantheon Books, Random House, New York, 1963, p. 325.

Virginia Hanson (October 27, 1898 - May 27, 1991), was a member of the American Section of the TS, at one time editor of its magazine The American Theosophist, the editor of a number of anthologies, including H.P. Blavatsky and The Secret Doctrine, besides being one of the most respected students of The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett of all time. She was also the author of Masters and Men: The Human Story in the Mahatma Letters.

Image Attribution: Photo by Carolinie Cavalli on Unspash


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