Understanding The Masters Through Sy Ginsburg

My Mentor and Friend

Sy Ginsburg

Originally printed in the Fall 2011 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Ginsburg, Seymour B. “The Task of Becoming Sixth-Race Man.” Quest 99.4 (FALL 2011):139-143

by Seymour B. Ginsburg

Theosophy speaks of the doctrine of the races (or root races). These are not the races known to modern ethnography; rather they are whole epochs of history in which the whole of humanity partakes. According to H. P. Blavatsky’s magnum opus The Secret Doctrine, we are presently in the fourth round of our planetary chain, and we are in the fifth race of that round. It is our task, and the task of coming generations, to build the sixth, coming race. About this enterprise, Sri Madhava Ashish (born Alexander Phipps, 1920-97), a Scottish engineer turned Hindu monk, wrote: 

The task of becoming sixth-race man, oriented towards the Spirit, is by no means easy. The leap we have to take to the sixth cannot be made without intentional effort. Unlike our arrival at manhood, we are subject to no inescapable compulsion to grow. Against our will we can neither be thrust upwards from below nor pulled upwards from above. Having achieved an instrument of its own will [man], it is through that instrument that the divine Will achieves its purpose. It is as if the divine Will cannot compel itself by itself, and we, who are essentially moments in or of that Will, must give ourselves to the fulfillment of its purpose if that purpose is at all to be fulfilled. (Ashish, Man, 284)

These words give the central theme of Ashish’s 1970 book, Man, Son of Man. It was this book that led me to India in 1978 to meet him. Previously, in the spring of that year, my personal quest for meaning had led me to H. P. Blavatsky’s writings, and I joined the Theosophical Society. I eagerly attacked The Secret Doctrine, hoping that an understanding of her thought would provide a key to life’s meaning. But I could not understand her 1400-page commentary on the mystical poem that she called the Stanzas of Dzyan. At the same time I sensed something important in what she was attempting to say. In the effort to understand, I was led to two additional books of commentary on these stanzas, the first being Man, The Measure of All Things (1966), coauthored by Ashish and his teacher, Sri Krishna Prem (Ronald Nixon, 1898—1965), an Englishman who had come to India in 1921 and who had also become a Hindu monk. This book describes the nature of the cosmos as described by the Stanzas of Dzyan. The second book, Man, Son of Man, written by Ashish alone, describes what man is and the intentional effort required of him.

What Makes a Master?

From the time of our initial meeting in 1978, I knew that there was something special about Ashish, but exactly what that was, I could not put my finger on. I soon learned that he was among the shrewdest of men, capable of penetrating into the truth of a person’s character in a very short time. In this first meeting he advised me that when I returned home to America, I should begin to study the teachings of the Greco-Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff (1866?-1949). In a letter some ten years later, Ashish would point out that Gurdjieff’s teaching was a continuation of the impulse that had given rise to Theosophy: “The particular characteristic of the TS is its direct inspiration by the Masters or Bodhisattvas. They fielded HPB and stood behind her all her life. G [Gurdjieff] was one of them, which is why his teaching is in the same tradition” (Ginsburg, Masters, 129). Ashish also told me to begin to pay attention to my dreams.

I decided to return to India to see Ashish the following spring, 1979, writing him to request this. Thus began our extensive correspondence, in which I asked him all manner of questions concerning Theosophy, including how to approach the study of dreams as well as the subject of the Masters, the men whom HPB called her teachers and who presumably had transmitted the Stanzas of Dzyan to her psychically. Many of Ashish’s responses in his letters to me on this and other subjects were published in my book The Masters Speak: An American Businessman Encounters Ashish and Gurdjieff.

Sensing my confusion about the subject of Masters, Ashish suggested that if I were to return to India to see him, I should first visit another man, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, who lived in Mumbai (Bombay) and taught Advaita Vedanta, in order to help me understand just what makes a Master. One reason Ashish sent me to meet him was that Nisargadatta was a living example of what we should and can become here and now. Unlike Ashish and Sri Krishna Prem, both of whom lived ascetic lives in the remote Himalayas, Nisargadatta was an ordinary middle-class Indian shopkeeper with a wife and four children, living in the midst of the craziness that is Mumbai. In that sense his attainment is something to which any of us can aspire.

My 1979 visit to meet Nisargadatta and to see Ashish again would become the second in an annual pilgrimage that continued for nineteen years until Ashish’s passing in 1997. I wanted to know what makes a Master in the context of Theosophical teaching.

Of particular interest is Ashish’s remark in a 1989 letter: “The Master is one with the Spirit. He exemplifies the final attainment. He is what is as yet only a partially realized potential in your own being. You can ‘recognize’ him only to the extent that you can feel the responses in your essence when like answers to like. G [Gurdjieff] is a Master” (Ginsburg, Masters, 138). In another letter Ashish had this to say about Masters: “It may be a fact that some of the Masters derive their being from other worlds than this one. But too much attention given to this speculation can lead to the false view that they are so special as to have no relevance to the lives of ordinary mortals like us. In fact, so many of them have arisen from the ordinary mortals of this planet, and from so many different races and cultures on this planet, that they provide us with examples of what we should and can become here and now” (Ginsburg, Masters, 137). Gurdjieff says something similar: “Each one of us must set for his chief aim to become in the process of our collective life a master” (Gurdjieff, 1236).

Gurdjieff described this circle of Masters to P. D. Ouspensky, calling them the conscious circle of humanity. He said to Ouspensky, “The inner circle is called the ‘esoteric’; this circle consists of people who have attained the highest development possible for man, each one of whom possesses individuality in the fullest degree, that is to say, an indivisible ‘I,’ all forms of consciousness possible for man, full control over these states of consciousness, the whole of knowledge possible for man, and a free and independent will.” Gurdjieff went on to explain that this esoteric circle is surrounded by a “mesoteric” circle, which is in turn surrounded by an “exoteric” circle. These three levels represent different degrees of understanding but are all part of the conscious circle of humanity, as distinguished from an outer circle of “mechanical” humanity to which the vast majority of people belong (Ouspensky, 310-12).

Much arrant nonsense has been published about Masters, attributing to them all sorts of supposedly miraculous powers in order to tantalize a gullible public. These powers are not at all relevant to the teaching brought to us by these Masters, and whether any of them had such powers is highly problematic. But it is verifiable that certain seemingly unusual capacities can be developed in human beings. HPB’s adept Masters were a succession of incarnated human beings rather than a cosmic hierarchy of supermen. The actual “miraculous” power that they did have in common was the ability to communicate with HPB and others at a distance, a power sometimes known as telepathy, of which there are many verified accounts in human experience. Ouspensky, for example, wrote in amazement of Gurdjieff’s telepathic powers, telling of a time when he began to hear Gurdjieff’s unspoken thoughts (Ouspensky, 262—64).

What we call telepathy is a natural function of our connectedness with each other at levels of the psyche that are more interior than the lower mind, with its endlessly turning thoughts. The Masters, being at one with the Spirit but having followed the bodhisattva path of compassion toward their less evolved brethren, continue to guide humanity with telepathically transmitted wisdom both while they are incarnate and after they have left the physical body. We usually experience this received wisdom as our own insight. Such insight often comes during silent meditation and through dreams. This is why Ashish placed such importance on sitting quietly in meditation for long periods of time and on paying attention to dreams and the symbolic language in which they speak.

I first wrote of the connection between Gurdjieff and HPB’s teachers for an article, “HPB, Gurdjieff and The Secret Doctrine,” that appeared in The American Theosophist in the spring of 1988. In that article I mentioned HPB’s prediction in The Secret Doctrine: “In Century the Twentieth some disciple more informed and far better fitted [than HPB] may be sent by the Masters of Wisdom to give final and irrefutable proofs that there exists a Science called Gupta-Vidy? [esoteric knowledge]; and that, like the once-mysterious sources of the Nile, the source of all religions and philosophies now known to the world has been for many ages forgotten and lost to men, but is at last found” (Secret Doctrine, 1:xxxviii). She went on to write about the two published volumes of The Secret Doctrine: “These two volumes should form for the student a fitting prelude for Volumes III and IV. Until the rubbish of the ages is cleared away from the minds of the Theosophists to whom these volumes are dedicated, it is impossible that the more practical teaching contained in the Third Volume should be understood” (Secret Doctrine, 2:797—98).

Blavatsky did not complete her projected third and fourth volumes, but Gurdjieff brought the practical teaching in oral form, and he gave it out piecemeal to Ouspensky and others in his early Russian groups beginning about 1912. Eventually Ouspensky outlined the teaching and wrote it down as he understood it. This written account, published as In Search of the Miraculous, constitutes the most widely known and authoritative exposition of Gurdjieff’s oral teaching.

Gurdjieff’s connections with Theosophy ran wide and deep, despite his critical comments about the fantasizings of naïve early Theosophists. Two of his closest students, Ouspensky and A. R. Orage, both of literary prominence in the first half of the twentieth century, were well-known speakers for the Theosophical movement. Two lesser known figures in the Theosophical movement of the 1920s, Maud Hoffman and A. Trevor Barker, became pupils of Gurdjieff in 1922. They went with him to Fontainebleau in France to help prepare his occult school, known as the Prieura, to receive students. Maud Hoffman, an American Shakespearean actress residing in England with her close friend, the Theosophist Mabel Collins, became executrix of the estate of A. P. Sinnett and inherited a series of letters written by HPB’s Masters to British correspondents in India in the late nineteenth century; most of these were addressed to Sinnett. Hoffman appointed A. Trevor Barker to edit the letters for publication. While studying at the Prieura, these two pupils of Gurdjieff were working on the transcription, editing, compilation, and publication of what became known as the Mahatma Letters.

After a severe automobile accident in 1924, which made it necessary to close his school, Gurdjieff dedicated himself to writing. He wrote the intentionally mythological Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, which includes “a brief history of all the great adepts known to the ancients and the moderns in their chronological order,” as HPB predicted in The Secret Doctrine (2:437), along with other clues linking the two books.

“A Certain Very Great Purpose”

At the end of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Gurdjieff tells us: “There is in our life a certain very great purpose and we must all serve this Great Common Purpose’in this lies the whole sense and predestination of our life.” Gurdjieff goes on to tell us that although everyone is equally a slave to this great purpose, the man or woman who has developed his own “I” is conscious, and “acquires the possibility, simultaneously with serving the all-universal Actualizing, of applying part of his manifestations according to the providence of Great Nature for the purpose of acquiring for himself ‘Imperishable Being.'” (Gurdjieff, 1226—27).

Although Ashish told me to study Gurdjieff’s teaching and he himself was a great fan of the mythological Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, in another letter he made the following comment about what he called the Man books (Man, The Measure of All Things and Man, Son of Man): “G’s system is tantalizing, but mythological in form. G did not intend to provide a rational framework. As he says at the beginning of the book, he aims to destroy preconceived notions. Frankly, you will get a clearer approximation of the facts from the Man books. I think you will find G’s ideas making more sense against the framework those books sketch” (Ginsburg, Masters, 227—28).

Ashish wrote this to me in 1993, but it would take another fifteen years before I picked up on his hint and began to reexamine these books, and especially Man, Son of Man.

Ashish authored another book explaining the spiritual significance of dreams. He showed it to me in manuscript form in 1979, but continued to work on it almost until his passing in 1997. In his preface to that book, An Open Window: Dream as Everyman’s Guide to the Spirit, he makes an extraordinary disclosure about the source of the wisdom contained in the Man books. This was published posthumously in 2007:

We [Prem and Ashish] went through a high period [in the 1950s] when a night without a dream was a wasted opportunity, a forgotten dream was a breach of trust. We hurried through our many chores to be free to pace up and down in the morning light, seeking meanings and their ramifications.

Then as the mind began to come under control, little visions began to appear in meditation whose content was more direct, less concealed by symbols, than in ordinary dream.

There was direct, personal instruction. And there were dreams which threw light on the Cosmogenesis and Anthropogenesis of the Stanzas of Dzyan on which we were writing a commentary. Yet there was never direct dictation. One always had to struggle to understand what the symbols were saying, so that one was personally responsible for the form in which the general scheme was presented. (Ashish, Dreams, xviii)

Ashish further disclosed the source of the wisdom in the Man books in a 1988 letter: “We [Prem and Ashish] wrote that the commentary has to stand on its own. Saying that inspiration and instruction was given by D. K. [Djwhal Kool] and others would add nothing to the validity of the work. We know to whom we owe it, but we are not going to make him answer for our misunderstandings and mistakes” (Ginsburg, Masters, 129).

Ashish’s disclosure of how the wisdom in Man, Son of Man was received through visions in meditation and attention to dreams echoes HPB’s description of how she received the knowledge that enabled her to write The Secret Doctrine:

Knowledge comes in visions, first in dreams and then in pictures presented to the inner eye during meditation. Thus have I been taught the whole system of evolution, the laws of being and all else that I know’the mysteries of life and death, the workings of karma. Not a word was spoken to me of all this in the ordinary way, except, perhaps, by way of confirmation of what was thus given me’nothing taught me in writing. And knowledge so obtained is so clear, so convincing, so indelible in the impression it makes upon the mind, that all other sources of information, all other methods of teaching with which we are familiar dwindle into insignificance in comparison with this. One of the reasons why I hesitate to answer offhand some questions put to me is the difficulty of expressing in sufficiently accurate language things given to me in pictures, and comprehended by me by the pure Reason, as Kant would call it. Theirs is a synthetic method of teaching: the most general outlines are given first, then an insight into the method of working, next the broad principles and notions are brought into view, and lastly begins the revelation of the minuter points. (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 13:285)

How are we to understand the nature of the wisdom that communicates with us through the psychic insights of people like HPB, Prem, and Ashish? In another letter, Ashish explained it this way:

Any one of those beings (if it has any meaning to speak of these being more than one essential being) can look out through the eyes of any existing form that has eyes. There is a series of masks, shaped in the familiar forms of Gurdjieff, Jesus, the Buddha, Maurya, etc., so that idiots like us can recognize them, through which the one power can communicate with us. Yet there is a sense in which “The Great Russian Bodhisattva” whom we last knew as Gurdjieff, at a certain level, is distinguishable from other bodhisattvas. (Ginsburg, Masters, 138)

Among the most important statements in Man, Son of Man are the following, which answers the question, what is this “very great common purpose” of which Gurdjieff wrote and in which lies the whole sense of our lives?

The primary creative impulse arising in absolute, undifferentiated Being can be described as a desire within Being to know itself, a desire which begins by producing a distinction between the subjective Knower and the desired object of knowledge, both separated and linked by the desirous act of knowing, and which ends by a multitude of knowing units being clothed in the objective garments of apparent form. There is, in other words, a purposeful striving within the unmanifest source of all things to make its inherent qualities apparent to itself’a necessary effort, because the diffused consciousness of Absolute Being cannot become aware of its own qualities until both a separation has been made between Knower and Known, and its qualities have been objectively represented. . . . The urge to travel the path of spiritual endeavour springs from the Cosmic Being’s urge towards its own fulfillment, an urge that is implanted in our hearts as it is implanted in the hearts of all creatures of the divine will. The inner goal towards which we are urged to turn is the goal of the cosmic cycle, and the purpose to gain that goal through man is the purpose of the whole process of evolution. (Ashish, Man, 5, 36)

Inner versus Biological Man

Ashish emphasizes the distinction between inner man, the Adam Kadmon of the Kabbalah, and biological man, which is the vehicle evolved through natural selection. Inner man, according to Ashish, inhabits a middle region between the unmanifest transcendent as described in The Secret Doctrine and the materialized universe inhabited by biological man. He speaks of “the strange, shifting, uneasy ‘waters’ of the Matrix’the mid-region of magical effects, ghosts, astral bodies, and other occult phenomena. . . . Those who reject this strange, magical area of experience as ‘old wives’ tales’ and ‘superstitious nonsense’ are rejecting the key to the secret of life along with it” (Ashish, Man, 85).

He adds that this realm is extremely difficult to describe:

It has neither the relatively stable definition of the sensible universe, nor the intellectual clarity of the unmanifest Transcendent. So difficult is its nature to grasp that nearly all academic scientists prefer to ignore its presence, and so treacherous are its paths that most spiritual teachers seek to decry its importance. Yet we live constantly in its “watery” atmosphere, our life and our very existence depend upon it, and every physical form in the universe has arisen through its mediacy, for it is the subtle, impressionable link between mental concept and physical form. In effect, it is the same energy-filled space out of which this universe has grown and in which it stands, but only at this outermost edge of the manifestation do those energies reach a sufficient intensity to become visible to us . . .

We belong to those worlds more importantly than we do here, for from them we come and to them we return, and there, in some measure, both the memory of our source and the memories of our prior lives return to us. (Ashish, Man, 86, 123)

It is this middle region that explains telepathic communication from the Masters to HPB, Prem, and Ashish, and the power demonstrated by Gurdjieff and recounted by Ouspensky. It is this middle region through which we receive insight when the ordinary mind is quieted in meditation and in dreams.

The Effort Required

Although in our current state we are transitional beings, we need not denigrate our status as fifth-race men. About this Ashish writes:

In general, the fifth race cannot help being what it is any more than an animal can help being an animal. It represents man in the making. . . . The fifth-race man honestly believes that he is the prime mover of his world. . . . He places the satisfaction of his desires in external objects, which means . . . that the divine desire is externalized through him. In effect, this externalization of desire has produced not only the highly complex organizations of society and artifacts of technology, but also the strongly organized integrations of psychic function that in some sense “are” our human selves . . . [But] it is only when we begin to challenge the validity of our out-turned, self-gratifying, instinctual drives that we begin to grow in the new dimension of the sixth race. (Ashish, Man, 285—86)

The intentional effort necessary for becoming sixth-race man requires what Gurdjieff, throughout Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, has called “conscious labor and intentional suffering,” and this requires continual self-remembering, the centerpiece of Gurdjieff’s practical teaching.

Ashish was more explicit, and in a 1989 letter he listed aspects of the intentional effort that one must make:

1. Keep up the self-remembering exercises all the time.

2. Give your mind food for thought which stimulates your aim [i.e., read spiritual literature].

3. Increase the periods and frequencies of meditation.

4. Record dreams and visions and work on their meanings.

5. Try to get inner sanction for even simple daily actions. The point is that the whole of your life has to be integrated around the center, and not just the spiritual bit of it.

6. Open yourself to the psychic contents of events, from perceiving the flow of life in plants to noting synchronicities. See/feel the “magic” of the world.

7. There is a connection between self-remembering and meditation. Keeping yourself centered at all times makes it easier to get into meditation at special times. (Ashish, Man, 151)

Ashish also stressed that few individuals have ever experienced the essential unity of being. “Yet,” he adds, “that he is able to achieve such experience is the key to man’s significance in relation to the whole range of manifest and transcendent being, for of all the forms evolved by the divine outpouring, in man alone the bright mirror of Mind relates the field of content to the focus of consciousness in the act of understanding. From this act both the Self of Man and the universal Self accumulate their store of experience. Then, when the long process of evolution comes to fruition, the Man-Plant flowers, the cycle of the evolution is complete, man is God and God is man, not only in principle but in full knowledge of the fact” (Ashish, Man, 37).

For Ashish, our task is to rediscover the unity in which subject and object are fused. “To do this we have to sift every sensation, emotion, and thought, always reserving the more subtle or inner component of its content, until we come to know that sensations are the caresses of the cosmic Woman in whose embrace we live” (Ashish, Man, 213).

In one of his last letters, Ashish wrote of the mystery of being: “The root of the mystery of being lies at the root of the awareness which perceives the universe. Every human being is human by virtue of that awareness. Every human being is or can be aware that he is aware. When that self-awareness is traced to its inner source, then only can the identity of individual with the universal be found, then only can the mystery of being be solved” (Ginsburg, Masters, 281).

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