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American Metaphysical Religion, Ronnie Pontiac

The Maestro and the Boy: The Kindness of Manly P. Hall

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Mystical philosopher Manly Palmer Hall wasn’t my grandfather, yet he was.  Both my grandfathers had been killed in a war, but fate provided a friend who gave me all the grandfatherly gifts of wisdom and opportunity anyone could hope for.  I was there when this photo was taken in the PRS vault; my girlfriend and I arranged the books and artifacts around him to represent the depth and breadth of his learning.

ILLUMINATE VS. ILLUMINATI

hieronymus.17aThe net is a wonderful resource, a worldwide flea market, a massive if haphazard library of Alexandria, offering insights from every culture, and cult on planet Earth, and many that claim to be extraterrestrial.  But the Internet offers more misinformation than fact.  Out of context illustrations and quotations are used by careless researchers to allege satanic cults and malevolent political plots.  Further complicating the situation, popular definitions of key words have changed.  When Manly Hall wrote about the illuminati he meant something roughly equivalent to “the most enlightened of every age,” western bodhisattvas, no one could be more devoted to the good of human beings.  Today illuminati usually refer to a secret organization of elite oligarchs with nefarious plans whose influence behind the scenes of history has caused terrible suffering.  The meanings could not be more opposed.  But with his knowledge of the ironies of history MPH would not have been surprised to find himself on the black list.

I knew Manly personally near the end of his life.  He worked his alchemy on me in a most daoist way.  His friendship transformed me from an angry and despairing devotee of nihilism to a seeker of truth and harmony.  The biographical writing about him available online and off, including his own, fails to convey a sense of the man I knew.  Even simple facts are missing.  For example, none mention that Marianne Williamson, founder of Project Angel Food, the Peace Alliance and Sister Giant, began her career at the Philosophical Research Society where she honed her oratory skills under the wing of the man who was one of the great extemporaneous speakers of his time.  Consequently I find myself confronted with the task of breaking a promise I made to him.

When his personal secretary and his head librarian both decided that “the boy” as he usually called me would someday write the great man’s life story, I asked him if he thought I should.  He shook his head no and told me to let his enemies write his biography.  Though I was fiercely intent on devoting myself to him and to his teachings, throughout our friendship he took care to keep me on the path to my own way in life.  So I’ve arrived at a compromise.  I won’t write his biography.  But I will share a few vignettes of my experience with him that I hope will convey his genuine wisdom and kindness.

THE BOY

philosophical-research-society.6810.large_slideshowThe Philosophical Research Society

By age fifteen I was a feral terror.  Raised by immigrants who had untreated mental health issues caused by being children in a war, I was locked up at home, when I wasn’t at school, and in both places I was ignored, unless being bullied.  As far as I could see the social contract had failed me.  By age thirteen I was a monkey wrencher leaving Earth First tags on my handiwork.  Despite my high-minded rejection of corporate corruption I was blind to my own.  In middle school I was a skilled liar and a practiced sneak thief.  In high school I used my car like a weapon, not just playing chicken, but to attempt mayhem. After high school I crashed into an oncoming car for the fuck of it.  I drank ridiculous amounts of hard alcohol, but never really got drunk, perhaps because I was chain-smoking nicotine rich Black Russian cigarettes.  My ambition to become a cat burglar was replaced by the goal of being the lead singer of what I hoped would be the most nihilistic band ever.  I relished my talent for horrifying decent folk.  I was devoted to disillusioning optimists.

As a teen with transiting Pluto conjunct my midheaven I fronted my dream band for sold out audiences of over a thousand in Los Angeles.  Our guest list always included “anyone with the colors of the Satan’s Slaves or Devil’s Henchmen.”  The club had to hire off duty police officers to double security at our shows, but they booked us because they made so much money on booze, and our manager was bribing the right people with sex and drugs.  I added violence to my repertoire of vices, pulled knives in fights; I even attacked a member of my own band with a black steel-hunting blade.  I’m grateful I was never able to acquire a gun, and that no one including myself ever got seriously injured by my antics.  Eagerly reading books on mind control, black magic, and naturally, Hitler, I was intent on creating a nihilist movement for the angry and sad, our revenge on our party hardy peers.  At live shows big redneck guys with their arms folded took up position on either side of the stage to protect the band.  When I passed a liquor bottle around it caused a communion of thrown fists.  Girls who touched me pulled back their hands in slow motion making a hissing sound as if they’d been burned.  We were a white power rock inversion of Public Enemy.  I was well on my way to being at the wrong end of a very bad scene.

Fortunately, I fell in love.  I had broken up my band in a fit of paranoia and was now struggling through solo gigs.  The night I met her my drummer and I were on a mission to reunite the band.  But within a few days the band wasn’t nearly as important.  Somehow she saw past all the fury and pretence.  Not only did she bring cats, plants and mismatched silverware to my bleak Hollywood bachelor, she also helped me become more honest, with myself and with others.  But she was almost as feral.  We had no culture.  No awareness of history.  No spiritual life.  We scoffed at the stupidity of religions and careers, and while we liked a good story, we thought intellectuals losers.  We agreed that the world was on a quick slide to destruction.  Our plan was to have fun on the way.  I said goodbye to the music business, or so I thought.  Allergic to work I tried several underhanded schemes.  I had no talent for selling drugs and quickly put myself out of business.  I was good at finding ways to skim money, but too contrary to do any better than barely get by.  We lived on debt and hand outs from relatives.  She wanted to work, but I refused to allow it.  I was the bully now.

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In California at least once a year fear infects residents like a seasonal flu, aroused by some current or ancient prediction, or whatever kind of weather is earthquake weather for a given subculture.  A former carney family I knew were preparing to move to Virginia Beach because of Edgar Cayce’s prediction of earth changes that would put California under the Pacific and lift Atlantis from the Atlantic.  As soon as I gave up the band, the vehicle my shadow had so carefully created, I was prey to emotional mania.  My lack of direction in life, utterly dysfunctional family, and general sense of apprehensive confusion, or was it fear of karmic retribution, soon developed into an obsessive anxiety about an imminent earthquake.

Then a book changed my life.  Browsing with my girlfriend at the Bodhi Tree bookstore used branch, eager to misspend birthday money intended for a haircut, I found an old hardcover copy of An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, the closest thing to a wizard’s tome I had ever seen.  With marbled covers and a red label on a black spine the book contained thick pages full of black and white illustrations, and text in tiny columns of print bristling with strange names and dates.  Back home, reading on my bed, my hair stood on end as like the author of the book I came to believe in what he called “the rational soul of the world.”  Each chapter I read left me feeling what I can only describe as an expansion of consciousness.  It was better than getting high.  Getting high was trying to reach this, the awakening of a greater awareness.

Soon after, Loreen, the matriarch of the family that moved to Virginia Beach, a plan I was still eager to follow myself, stunned me with the revelation that the author of the old tome was not only alive, but I could go see him talk any Sunday in Los Feliz.  She also had some off color tales about ladies who were friends of hers who had affairs with him when he was young and famously handsome.  It took me months to work up the guts to go see him lecture.  With my history up to that point I didn’t feel worthy, or rather I felt that he’d see right through me, everyone there would see right through me, to the despicable street kid.  But at last one Sunday my girlfriend and I wandered into the pseudo Mayan architecture of a monument of American Metaphysical Religion, the Philosophical Research Society.

THE MAESTRO

philosophical-research-society.6811.large_slideshowI was about to meet the Kobe Bryant of the self-reliant.  Besides his epic desire to inspire, his stats are off the charts: in a seventy year career he wrote over 150 books and pamphlets and delivered more than eight thousand lectures.   He got his nickname, the Maestro, when in his early days he had experimented with music to explore the byways of Pythagorean theory of harmony.  His personal library grew to fifty thousand volumes shared with the public at the Philosophical Research Society, a cluster of buildings custom made for him thanks to the support of his many admirers: a gift shop full of his books and pamphlets but also the occasional art treasure, a shipping area for international distribution via post, the two story library with offices and upstairs lecture room, and the auditorium he filled every Sunday afternoon for decades.

Wandering through what appeared to be a museum filled with Asian religious artifacts and books on every subject related to spiritual development, I was struck most by the serenity of the place.  As we filed in the auditorium filled up.  Every race was represented, and the fashion sense of the listeners was as varied as the range of emotions visible on their faces, though most seemed to be in a state of happy anticipation, as if about to receive a favorite treat.  A big comfortable looking empty red and gold chair waited on the stage.  The very large very old man ambled over and with difficulty sat down.

I listened spellbound as he lectured without notes for ninety minutes in a torrent of eloquence that included names and dates.  It was the first of many times when my misconceptions about old age were challenged.  But more important than his good example was the philosophy of life I heard for the first time that gave me hope for myself and awakened insatiable curiosity about the spirituality and art of every culture.  History was transformed from a collection of boring facts to be memorized before the final exam to a great field of treasures to be discovered.  Life, which I had thought was a pointless biological accident, was now an adventure of the infinite exploring the finite.

Many have reported a strange skill he had.  I experienced it at that first lecture.  He looked right at me and spoke about people who are afraid of earthquakes and other disasters because they won’t deal with their real problem, finding a mission in life.  I later realized that he could not possibly have seen me, his vision was very poor by then, but nevertheless he delivered those words right to me.  He had a knack for serendipity.  I decided then and there that I had to somehow become involved in his society.  Though I had no skills, I was willing to scrub toilets or empty trashcans if I could hang around the place, as I told the woman who ran the gift shop the very next morning.  She led my girlfriend and me upstairs to the two skeptical looking women who handled the business side of PRS.  They didn’t have any use for me.  Though they were interested in my girlfriend’s office skills and offered her a job, I was still the bully and I didn’t think it right that she should work while I stayed home.  They took my number just in case.  Imagine my shock when the next day I received a call.  The great man himself wanted to see me.  I could not then imagine the adventure I was about to begin.

THE MAESTRO AND THE BOY

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The next day the two businesswomen asked me if my girlfriend was interested in the job.  I said no on her behalf, knowing that she was.  Then they asked me more questions about my knowledge of languages.  I explained I had grown up around various languages but couldn’t speak them very well.  Apparently that was good enough, though they remained skeptical I was shepherded past the door in the library that led to the inner sanctum.

His office was a large room filled with beautiful objects, art and books.  He sat behind an ornately carved Chinese desk of rich dark wood that looked like a dragon about to uncoil into the sky.  Symbols of Buddhism predominated on his walls and shelves but a careful eye could find every religion represented somewhere in that accumulation of history of spiritual creativity.  Perhaps the most striking object was a huge Chinese carved wood altar filled with intricate statuettes, yab yum and otherwise, dusted with dried flowers and ashes from incense.  But there was something else about that room: an atmosphere of deep serenity.

The old man was surrounded by a phalanx of formidable old women.  They were looking through me in just the way I had feared.  But his huge clear blue eyes were warm as with a hint of W.C. Fields in his voice he issued an invitation: “sit down and make yourself miserable.”  He pushed across his desk the galleys and notes for a bibliography of his famous collection of alchemical manuscripts.  He wanted me to edit the pages, under his supervision.  I didn’t know what to think.  That was a responsibility certainly outside the range of my sense of self at the time, so I was more relieved than disappointed when after the brief meeting the papers were snatched from my hands by a fierce old woman who insisted that the old man had not been properly briefed on my lack of qualifications.

But the next day I was called back for another visit with him.  As I sat across from him he gave me the galley and notes again.  He told me to ignore what anyone else told me to do; I was to answer only to him.  For many of his followers this relationship between the teacher they called the Maestro and the boy they didn’t even know was a clear sign that I had been selected to carry on in his place after his time was over.  Perhaps that is why some members of the society seemed to dislike me from the start.

The first time he mentioned astrology to me I couldn’t hide my disappointment.  “So, you don’t believe in astrology?” he asked.  I told him with all due respect I thought it was a pretty stupid idea.  That made him chuckle.  He proposed that I work for a few weeks with an astrologer friend of his, a vivacious woman named Peggy Fatemi, with the custom license plate Pluto 9, who would acquaint me with enough of the principles of the art that I could then debate him about it.  The idea that he was willing to debate me about anything filled me with a sense of self worth.  But we never debated astrology.  When Peggy read my chart, and then taught me how to read it myself, I could tell something was going on with the art of star reading, something similar to what I would later discover exploring the I Ching.  That knack for serendipity.  Instead of arguing that astrology makes no sense I asked him about fine points, such as how to judge the most important aspects, and what has the most influence, transits or natal planets?  The chart, he explained, had to be looked at like a mandala.  Each individual element had to be understood.  Then they must all be understood in relation to one another.  Then the pattern can be understood at a glance.  Easy for him to say.

THE SCHOLAR AND THE THIEF

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The actual work of editing the alchemical bibliography consisted of correcting typos, adding references or interesting facts MPH provided, and removing references to human body fluids used in alchemy experiments from the notes made by Gilbert, the true editor, who had so fallen out of favor he walked away from his epic bibliography in disgust.  Several times I asked to have his name restored as editor, or at least for an acknowledgement in a thank you, or failing that in code.  But his work was regarded as contract work under hire and that was that.

The best part of the editing job was that I had to check the title pages of all the entries to proof read titles, names and dates.  That meant I had access to the vault.  The vault was the size of a large closet.  MPH could sit comfortably on the sofa chair in there with two or three standing guests.  I was allowed to sit with him while he nibbled on cookies and told me about the works I was proofreading.  He told me of his regret that many rare books and manuscripts of the esoteric history he so loved were lost in World War 1 and then again during the Nazi bonfires, London Blitz, and the occupations of Paris and Prague.

He reminisced about his travels to London, where bankrolled by his metaphysical church and a few wealthy patrons he bought most of the treasures of his collection from shops standing amid the ruins of World War 2.  No one was interested in old alchemy and astrology manuscripts and tomes.  They were considered the remains of an era of scholarly nonsense, artifacts of delusion.  So he was able to acquire rare and precious items at prices unbelievably low even then.

The art of the bookbinders of five centuries filled the shelves of the vault.  The hand painted alchemical drawings in the orange leather bound Bacstrom Manuscripts illustrated a collection of alchemical notes by a sea captain of the nineteenth century.  The ink and watercolor illustrations of a Theosophist who carefully hand painted auras, was preserved in his personal journal over a hundred years old.  The engraving laden works of Robert Fludd and Athanasius Kircher sought to reveal the dynamics of every art and every function of nature, human and cosmic.  Rosicrucian literature in several languages, including first editions of the original manifestos, showed how widely spread was the radical idea of a society informed by science and free from Rome just before the beginning of the Thirty Years War which unleashing the plague decimated the population of Europe.  The five tomes of the William Law Boehme translation had hand colored cut out diagrams to peel back layer after layer of engraved symbolism.  I was deeply moved by this accumulated evidence of so much courage in the face of persecution, so much hunger for truth, so much art in the name of spiritual understanding.

Digging through the dusty cabinets of the library I saw photographs and other souvenirs of visits from Native American chiefs, a Greek Orthodox bishop, Tibetan lamas, mayors, famous actors, Edgar Cayce’s son Hugh Lynn Cayce, millionaire collectors of rare alchemy manuscripts, honored masons, even Elvis, whose request for a private meeting was turned down but his request for a signed copy of The Secret Teachings of All Ages was granted.   According to society veterans Elvis sent Priscilla to Mr. Hall’s Sunday morning lectures before she became a Scientologist.

When we’d go over specific entries in his bibliography, he would often send me off to find a certain book he wanted to quote from.  He would tell me exactly where to look in his huge two-story library right down to which side of the shelf and the color of the book.  Then he’d find the quote quickly, the pages held close to his face.  I noticed how many rare volumes were sitting on shelves that anyone could access unsupervised.  A stranger could wander in and make off with thousands of dollars of rare books.  I didn’t care what they were worth.  I just wanted them.  He had so many.  The library didn’t consider them rare or valuable but to me they were treasures.  I was a thief, after all.  Soon after he suggested that I could take home any books I wanted to study.  How easy it would have been to sneak out one book under the two approved.  I was sorely tempted.  At first I took no books home.  Then I took only books I didn’t covet.  Finally I dared see the objects of my desire on the shelf in my own apartment.  But I always brought them back.  Thievery has never returned to tempt me since.

I reported to the librarian that I could identify dozens of books that should be kept safely in the vault.  That became another of my jobs.  MPH approved my keen eye for rare books, and my desire to protect the collection.  He invited me to have lunch with him every day in his office, to talk over life, listen to his jokes, and he’d answer any questions I might have.  I was overjoyed but this only contributed to the perception that I had been chosen to succeed him. I began to learn about the factions that divided a society made harmonious only by his presence.  Among the rare books bound for the vault I found first editions of Thomas Taylor translations of the Neoplatonists, an exquisitely bound 19th century collection of Pythagorean aphorisms, hand painted notebooks by alchemists.  First editions of A.E. Waite’s Hermetic Museum and Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus turned out to be duplicates.  The extra copies were sold to me so cheaply they were really gifts.   I donated them back several years later to be auctioned to raise funds for the library, but that is a story about a different teacher.

Then my girlfriend and I were delighted to receive an invitation to dinner with the Halls.  The evening ended with MPH telling this joke.  In early California a priest served in a small, broken down mission with a poor parish of native villagers.  One night, while he was praying to Saint Dominic, he saw a stranger approaching across the field.  The man looked like an American outlaw.  He was wounded.  “What’s your name?” the priest asked.  “I ain’t sayin’” the cowboy replied. “What happened to you?” the priest questioned further.  “I ain’t tellin’.” “Well we must call you something so I will call you Dominic, since I was praying to Saint Dominic when I saw you.”  “What were you praying for?” the newly minted Dominic asked as the priest saw to his wound.  “I have a dream,” the priest responded, “to repair this mission and to provide a shelter for the needy.  Next month all the greatest families of California will be here since it is my turn to lead the liturgy.  I must inspire them to be generous.”  The outlaw had no comment, as was his way.  Unasked, as he healed Dominic began to do chores around the mission.  When the big day came the priest performed splendidly ending with the blessing Dominus vobiscum, the Lord be with you.  But his happiness was short lived, as he watched the last of the visitors leave he realized that he forgot to pass the plate.  He berated himself, tears streaming down his cheeks.  He would not see such a gathering of the wealthy again for many years.  He had failed his mission and his community.  Dominic strolled over: “What’s wrong, padre?”  “I am such a fool,” the priest answered, “I never asked for the donations to my mission.”  “Sure you did,” Dominic replied.  “I didn’t!”  Dominic walked away, returning with a bag full of money and jewelry, a small fortune, enough to build a new mission, a shelter for the poor, enough to buy farm tools and animals to give the community a better future.  “But how did this happen?” the suspicious priest asked Dominic.  “Well,” the cowboy answered, “you said Dominic go frisk ‘em, so I did.”

Later my girlfriend pointed out that the joke suggested my fear that he would see right through me may have been realized.  Or had it?  As with all my experiences with his knack for serendipity I was left wondering if he was psychic, or simply a shrewd judge of character, or perhaps all the synchronicities were mere coincidences.

THE APOLLONIUS MOMENT

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It some ways going to work each day felt like walking into a time warp, or into a school in heaven, or a set in old Hollywood.  From the Mayan inspired architecture to the double doors of the library carved with figures of Plato and Confucius, from the large black metal statue of Buddha, clustered by small buddhas emerging like emanations, to the huge Tibetan prayer wheel, the library was an elegant accumulation of past centuries.  Theosophists from the late 19th century would have felt right at home.  But this atmosphere was more than the collection, or his presence, it was all of this, and the community that had grown up around his decades of daily service at this humble yet odd location.  Whenever he needed to raise a little extra money, MPH would pick out some treasure acquired during his travels, or a gift from long ago, to allow some lucky browser in the society gift shop the find of a lifetime.  A gesture of appreciation for all the affection and support he received.

He was generous to me.  He gave me a duplicate copy, with his own pencil notes intact on the inside front cover, of A.E. Waite’s The Rosicrucian Brotherhood.  He gave me a first edition of his mighty book of symbolism, with slipcase, certainly one of the masterpieces of publishing.  He gave my girlfriend three rare Japanese woodblock prints of temple musicians, which later made her look back and wonder if this was another of his serendipitous jokes.  But his best gifts were given by example.

Apollonius Tyanus has not fared well in history.  Once a rival to Jesus he is now rarely encountered even along the most obscure paths of learning, except perhaps among the Baha’i.   Many scholars argue that Apollonius of Tyana was a fictional character constructed to be a pagan rival to Jesus. I first encountered the story of Apollonius in the PRS library.   G.R.S. Mead was the best scholar among the theosophists of the golden age of Theosophy.  A first edition of his work on Apollonius of Tyana was one of a small pile of ever changing titles I brought home for close study.  I found Apollonius admirable, a Pythagorean bodhisattva.  But some of the stories about him seemed far-fetched, for example, that he had calmed an entire riot by simply standing serenely by.

Manly had a particular restaurant he liked even after it changed names and owners.  They knew him there not just from decades of history with them, but also because his library was just down the street and his well attended Sunday morning lectures brought them steady business.  About once a week Manly and his wife invited my girlfriend and me to join them for supper at the restaurant.   This time there was a line to get in.  He was a very old man, a very tall, very large old man, who moved slowly and used a cane, but he didn’t mind standing in line.

I wanted to ask him about Apollonius.  But he didn’t like to discuss work outside the office.  He never knew which books I was borrowing, but the ones I had questions or comments about I’d bring to his desk before returning.  I planned to do that with the G.R.S. Mead book.

A woman trying to be polite held up the line waiting to see which direction my teacher would move.  Her husband erupted into an irate tirade.  Face contorted with anger, flushed red, he grabbed her hard by the arm.  None of us in line were willing to face down his rage.

I watched Manly carefully maneuver himself between the irate husband and the frightened wife. Whenever the husband adjusted, so did he.   The battered woman soon got the rhythm.  She broke free of her husband and managed to avoid his grasp.

The old man never looked at him or her or anyone.  His dignified face was composed and serene, as he seemed to stare off at an invisible horizon.  At last the abuser realized what was happening.  Red faced and spitting obscenities he turned on Manly, leaning up and close to deliver his insults and threats.  But he only managed a few words before something he saw in Manly’s eyes stopped him in his tracks.  I saw shame overcome him.  All his anger melted away.  He glanced around at all of us with a pitiful expression. He gently took his wife’s hand, apologized to her and to us, and they walked away.

We had a pleasant dinner and the subject was never brought up.  As she drove me home my girlfriend and I talked about how person-by-person a riot could possibly be pacified by the presence of a great soul.   I never asked him about Apollonius.

THE TIBETAN BELL MEDITATION

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 Giant bell, Tibet’s ancient ultimate noise maker

I’ve lived in noisy places not far from heavily trafficked boulevards; places where doors slam late in the night, where a cry or laughter echoes down the street and helicopters roll the air into breaking waves that shake the walls.  Noise invades all our lives.  The dog that won’t stop barking sharply next door.  The music we don’t like. The mournful din of emergency vehicles.  For people who are already stressed to the limits of their endurance even a simple sound if insistent enough can be torturous.

I was once very reactive to sounds. The pitch of a voice could change my mood.  The echo of a dove call on a sunny street with shallow shadows could fill me with dread, as if born from some forgotten terror or a premonition.  My ability to focus was precarious and unexpected noises irritated me.  My parents shared this oversensitivity to sound.  A crow cackling could send my father into a black mood as he recalled long dead crows of another continent feasting on human eyes during the war.  My mother’s ear for insincerity passed to me.

MPH moved in an atmosphere of serenity so deep it pervaded the rooms he inhabited.  Standing in his office or bedroom I was reminded of the peace I felt gazing at the ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The same feeling I had at the Vedanta Temple under the great oak tree in the foothills of Los Angeles.  Like that in Ojai on a hot day heavy with the perfume of roses outside the Theosophical library.  Something like the Hindu idea of darshan, the feeling you get when you go witness what is holy.

When the old man encouraged me to ask questions during our lunches I tried to limit myself to elevated topics.  But when he saw I was troubled he opened the door to more personal conversation.  With his encouragement I had gone back to college where I discovered disturbing truths about myself.  I was angry.  I was melancholy.  As I struggled studying required courses I had no interest in I found the barking of the dog across the street excruciating.  Too much noise from the kitchen could provoke a tirade.  His friendly laughter reassured me of my humanity.  Then he told me about an obscure form of meditation.

He said monks of a certain school would reach a point in their training when they would sit in meditation beside large bells.  When the bells rang many novice monks would flee covering their ears.  But they learned to sit in such stillness the bell neither startled nor irritated them.  By doing this they were training themselves to remain poised and conscious during the overwhelming vibration that is dissolution at death.  I was left to ponder their example.

Before long it became clear that any sound could be a Tibetan bell.  As a writer and a musician I remain sensitive to sounds.  But now I find pleasure even in discord.  My ability to concentrate under circumstances that others find distracting has inspired people to ask me how I do it.  I tell them about the Tibetan bell meditation.

INITIATE FEVER

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Having gotten my only culture from TV, movies, comic books and underground rock I really had no idea what to think when confronted with the likes of St. Germain.  I held the beautifully bound triangular manuscript as MPH told me where and when he bought it.  The translated code was near at hand, another bewildering alchemical message.  All I knew was that I wanted to be one of these elusive initiates.  I wanted to devote myself to humanity and live an extraordinary life.   My girlfriend laughed when I insisted that celibacy was necessary to achieve the great work.  I wanted us to try Eliphas Levi’s lengthy list of prohibitions for the aspiring magus.  I bullied her into it, but we only made it one day before we realized we were in way over our heads.  I felt even greater respect for Levi; she accused him of being nothing more but a plain old Catholic.

My hare brained quest for inclusion into the sacred circle was very stressful.  After all, hopefully, I was being watched at all times by invisible yet superior souls judging my potential.  To lose my temper, or slip on celibacy, two common incidents, was to jeopardize my potential recruitment!  No one could dissuade me from this delusion because I wouldn’t discuss it with anyone.  Secrecy was an important qualification.

So one day a distressed woman with a child approached me at the Bodhi Tree bookstore used branch.  She told me a long story about a fusion energy discovery that would save the world, about her estranged husband on the run from powerful enemies, she was clearly a woman of means and intelligence, just look at her clothes, listen to her eloquence.  Her poor kid looked miserable.  When I was told they had nowhere to stay that night I offered the living room in my apartment.  My girlfriend was none too happy about this arrangement but I was trying out for initiate status and I had to be generous to the needy.  All decorum was strictly observed, but four people in a small apartment, and the constant embellishment of an increasingly improbable story, including the revelation that she was the reincarnation of Queen Elizabeth I, as time passed, left me at my wit’s end.  I declared I would put the matter before the old man.  All parties agreed his judgment would hold.

Told we could drop by the Hall’s house anytime, my girlfriend and I drove to Los Feliz in a thunderstorm.  Like two miserable cats let inside we sat in a small dark sitting room with the closest thing to grandparents either of us had known.  As still as ancient Egyptian statues in the shadows, they were icons of wisdom, to us, and others.  Lightning lit their faces as they laughed at our predicament but we never felt insulted by their laughter.  They assured us that experiences like this were common on the first steps to self-knowledge and the spiritual life.  They agreed on the right action to be taken: if the con woman didn’t leave within three days call the cops.  After the storm ended the woman abided by his decision; she had already lined up her next host who arrived to help her move all the while giving me the skunk eye.  I apologized to her daughter and told her that she would survive her mother’s madness to become a good, strong person, as my girlfriend had survived the madness of her own family.  I wanted to help them, but I was helpless.  When we talked about it in his office later he shared his favorite rueful yet humorous saying: “no good deed goes unpunished.”

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Sun illustration by yours truly

Meanwhile I was given new responsibilities at PRS.  When I mentioned I had rudimentary artistic skills with a pen I was asked to provide a cover for a paperback and the packaging illustration and backs of the tarot cards for his reissue of the Knapp-Hall deck.  The formidable old women, who turned out to be a mostly charming group of rare intelligence, shepherded me, answered my endless questions, and smiled on me with affection: Pearl and Alice of the library, Elda of the gift shop, and Edith, guardian of the inner sanctum, were like four grandmothers to me.  They taught me about the business of PRS: fulfilling orders, processing returns, printing more product.  The PRS journal unified the community.  Manly’s monthly blog before there was an Internet usually contained snippets of news and gossip, always in good humor.   Pearl was in charge of scheduling the lectures, which sometimes filled both the auditorium and the smaller upstairs room of the library on the same night.  She thought it was time for me to demonstrate my lecturing skills.  Unfortunately, I had none, since I had never lectured.

Under the two great trees that grew into one growing in his backyard I asked him if he thought I should lecture.  He did.  I pointed out that he never used notes and wondered if I should.  He told me if I didn’t know my subject well enough to lecture without notes, then I shouldn’t be lecturing about it.  So I lectured without notes.  This became another sign to the faithful.  I became a popular lecturer, making extra income.  People began approaching me for advice.  For the first time I encountered the pressure to shape my subject and message to please the wider audience, to keep everyone smiling about how well I was doing.  Ailing now, sometimes exhausted, MPH designated me his substitute lecturer.  I was annoyed to find an advance guard of his followers trying to switch their flag to my ship.  The factions who opposed my ascendency, with whom I for the most part agreed in their low opinion of me, now saw in me an implacable enemy.  But what a proud day it was when I was given the key to the library.  My girlfriend and I wandered like amazed children hand in hand gazing at the books and the art in the silence before the audience arrived for my lecture upstairs.

At home MPH would occasionally share some especially fine new edition acquired by the library, but he was just as likely to take us on a tour of one of his many albums of rare stamps.  With encouragement from others he joined me on several outings, his last excursions to the used bookstores of Los Angeles.  He would sit in the car while excited book dealers brought out their finest offerings.  Once he went into a store with me to sit on a chair where he approved purchases for the library, sometimes sending a volume my way with a nod to indicate I should buy it, thus enjoying the same discount he was receiving.

Once we went on an outing to a local museum.  Mr. and Mrs. Hall walked right past the modern art.  They most enjoyed Asian antiquities.  As the old man stood before a great stone statue of a bodhisattva my girlfriend and I exchanged sidelong glances at each other when we noticed the undeniable resemblance: shape of the ears, nose, the thin mustache, huge body, the stone seemed to be a mirror of the man.  He made light of it with a Charlie Chaplin double take and tap of his cane.

In his top desk drawer MPH kept a poem by Aleister Crowley that was a fine example of the great English humorist’s poetry about buggery.  Some have suggested this was Manly’s guilty pleasure, a perverse indulgence, perhaps in memory of adventuresome youth.  While we never spoke about that poem, we did speak of Crowley, about whom the old man said: “he could have been the poet laureate of England if he hadn’t been mad as a hatter.”  The conversation then shifted to culture.  He reminded me that the ancient Greeks believed a building built without harmonious ratio, without respect to the golden mean, would disturb every life that entered or passed by it.  Art, music and writing can uplift, or tear down.  He lamented the loss of civility in society and the celebration of the venal and barbaric.  In retrospect I notice he and Crowley were both publishing fine limited editions in the late 1920s.  In fact, MPH was much more popular than Crowley at the time, being a favorite on the lecture circuit.  I imagine the young Manly Hall must have considered Crowley an archrival.  They were competing not only for well-heeled occult book buyers but also for the future of esoteric culture.  Perhaps MPH was goading himself with that poem, to keep working, because by then Crowley was by far the more famous and influential.

MARIE BAUER HALL AND THE DUST EATERS

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 Marie Bauer Hall

They say it wasn’t a happy marriage but I saw many moments of true love and romantic joy rare between two people over eighty years old.  Marie’s rages Manly tolerated, he might shed a few tears; she would apologize and sulk after berating him for not doing enough to help her get her message to the world.  But they were a team.  Laughter was their constant refreshment.  She fussed over his beautiful white curls.  Their smiles, shared most often with each other, were genuine.  They could startle you with their knowledge of esoteric philosophy, and listening to their short clarifications of terms was like sitting in on a master class.  He surrounded her with treasures of art from all around the world gathered during his early years of travel.  No relationship is ideal, and theirs was stormy.  Perhaps she dragged him around too much in his final decline, in her desperate pursuit for the purpose of her own life, and in denial of her fear of losing him.  But anyone who knew them personally, who sat with them in their living room, as I did many times, knew that they were in love.

It doesn’t matter how they found each other.   The amazing thing is they did.  They were alchemical opposites.  She was short and skinny, he was tall and round.   She moved and spoke in quick lightning bursts and torrents.   He meandered like a wide river.   His library had sprawled into a building of its own, and his lectures on his weekly intellectual pursuits filled an auditorium.   He wanted to know everything he could about what people think and thought about the mysteries beyond death and the evolution of the human soul. If he could have he would have spoken, or at least read, every language.

She was a visionary convulsed in the revelations unfolding from her subconscious in hurricanes of frenetic communication, in books with hyphenated clusters of words cobbled together to convey some inconceivably subtle point, and in geometric mandalas where myths from various times and places were melted into metaphors in an epic attempt to capture a complete vision of creation perhaps comparable to what the mystic Jakob Boehme glimpsed in the reflection of a sunbeam in a pewter dish.

He celebrated civilization and history.   For her all history was prehistory.  She wanted to tear down what she saw as a corrupt system, to allow utopia to emerge from equality of the sexes and races.  She was convinced her revelation could awaken all humanity.    She said he was the reincarnation of Sir Francis Bacon, and therefore a ham, while she was Eve, from the very Garden of Eden.   He was not Adam, however, he was the snake, crawling around in the dirt, eating dust.   And he was still eating dust, she would say, locked up in his library with all his dusty old books and artifacts when the living revelations of the miracle of life and of the world unfold in every instant all around us.   He would nod, seem to doze (although always quick to answer), waiting for his zucchini pancakes, or his favorite, vanilla ice cream with a splash of crème de cacao and a dollop of Cool Whip, while Marie tried to explain yet again the keys to the mightiest mysteries, usually frustrated to the point of anger by the limitations of language and by listeners who developed headaches or suffered exhaustion struggling to follow her imagination.

She had obscure preoccupations.  Bruton Parish in Virginia was the stage for her infamous attempt to unearth in a cemetery a treasure trove of undeniable documents she claimed would change world history.  Even after her death, others have continued demanding to open Bruton Vault.  In there would be found the proof that Francis Bacon had written the Shakespeare plays, and that America was an experiment of the Rosicrucians.  Even then I was puzzled at just how that revelation could change a world with little interest in history.  I also wasn’t sure what to make of the story of a vision she had of Abe Lincoln who encouraged her mission.  William Blake, who often painted the spirits he communicated with, became my guide, as I tried to understand her.

Her desire to save the world rose like a tidal wave in her, a passion a thousand times more powerful than lust or greed, driving her to long hours of detailed labor in the hope that someday human beings with more refined imaginations would understand.  She insisted that scientists had studied her diagrams.  But her revelation was no mere fanatic display.   MPH recognized in it the sinews of the great visionaries of Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy.   When he realized I saw it, too, he asked me to work less with him and more with her.   I worked hard to master at least the basic building blocks of her way.   By thinking of her work in the light of William Blake, not in content but in metaphorical technique, I could unlock aspects that she said no one else had understood before.

 diagrams02Diagram by Marie Bauer Hall of unfolding generations of soul

I may in the future share some of the points I learned from her that provide valuable insights into this process of ours, for example, her evolution of the Gnostic Christian demiurge into the ungrateful forgetful son of an all powerful Goddess whose gifts to him, and to us, are space, time and free will.  Or as Marie wrote: “The Space-Mother’s life-creatively “energized” subconsciously life-aware waking leads to life-creative propelling of space-permeating, formed and manifested Life-Energy states.”

Like my mentor I wanted a library.  I had always taken refuge from bullies in libraries but I had never read the books, only music and travel magazines.  Embraced by his community I got a good start in collecting volumes related to the mysteries.   I started haunting the bookshops of Los Angeles always searching for gems and I found many.  I knew what time to be at Bodhi Tree’s Used Branch to get the day’s treasure trove, and often there were rare volumes priced very fairly.   For the price of one such volume now you could then buy a whole box of antiquarian delights.  Soon I had three tall bookcases stuffed with books in my apartment.   I didn’t just collect them, I read voraciously.   I wanted to read every single book in every single bookstore and library.   I remained convinced that the last piece of the puzzle that is the mystery of our universe was waiting in the next book over.

Marie teased me about it but it wasn’t her teasing, or even the moments when she angrily berated him, or me, about being a dust eater, that moved me to give up my collection, or at least most of it.   The immediacy of her revelation, the right now right here quality of faith in the universe she had when it came to knowledge, her desire to explore the creative imagination, impressed me.  She often said she had too much respect for time to wear it on her wrist.  I realized I would never find the answer in the next book.   I could find specific answers, surprises good and bad, but I would never find the Holy Grail book that would forever and completely open the way. I could now see in high relief the marketing spins and other weaknesses of authors and publishing houses, past and present.   I became allergic to the vanity of every author, including myself.  But I was also free again to graze where I might, to read for fun, or not at all, no longer relying on books for my spiritual education when life is the teacher.

A FUNERAL AND A WEDDING

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 Photo by Denise Saffren.  She finds this stuff spooky.

I was very surprised one morning when Manly informed me that I would be taking his place speaking at a funeral.  He wasn’t up to it but he thought I could handle the job.  He gave me some pointers including the warning that half the deceased’s family practiced Vedanta and the other were born again Christians.  I had mixed feelings about taking the stage in a graveyard.  Factions already suspicious of me were only more so after what was widely perceived to be an honor and another signal from the old man that his replacement had finally arrived.  But that was not his intention.  The experience turned out to be an important lesson for me, but it also included an unexpected detour.

I was driven to the gig by AJ, the guy who recorded all of Manly’s lectures.  I found out that AJ was a virtuoso musician, especially on guitar, who had toured with everyone from Tim Buckley to Lena Horne.  I thought of him as a sarcastic but good-humored fellow who too seldom shared his deep knowledge and appreciation of philosophy and poetry, until he too became a popular PRS lecturer.  I soon learned he was one of several jazz musicians on the premises.  Lynn Blessing in the shipping room was not only a bookbinder; he had been a well-known vibraphonist who played in bands including the Paul Horn Quintet.  Another was a frequent PRS volunteer with an amazing collection of Thomas Taylor first editions; he turned out to be the bass player for the Tonight Show band.  They weren’t above pulling my leg.  I was told all sorts of stories.  The secret messages MPH sent to Paracelsus weren’t as astonishing as the old alchemist’s responses in English that Lynn claimed to have swept up from the floor around the Chinese desk.

But these wisecracking musicians soon adopted me, after all I appeared to be the chosen one, and they wanted to inspect the choice for themselves.  AJ stood by with his sensitive poet gaze instead of his mocking musician glance as I walked the tight rope between the spirituality of India and evangelical America.  As I watched a small flock of birds wheel away in the blue sky I was shaken by the bored faces of the grandchildren, the impatient and dour adults, and the widower in his wheel chair not long for the world.   I had been told he was a poet.  That she had been his muse.  Their love affair was legendary in the family.  But no one really wanted to be there, including me.

On the drive back to PRS, in AJ’s huge old muscle car with its seats like living room sofas, he could tell the experience had shook me up; he was moved, too, being a poet pining for the love of his life, a woman who could not leave her children to follow her heart.  He would wait for her longer than he imagined, until at last love prevailed.  He lit a jazz cigarette and handed it over to me.  I refused it.  He shook his head as so many of his generation have at mine, like hoary frontiersmen confronted with pubescent sanctimony.  He insisted.  “You need this, man,” he both smiled and smirked.  I took a toke while he told me that I was very lucky to be so young and having such an intense education in mysticism but I really needed to relax.  The whole perfect acolyte act had to go.  We’ve been friends ever since.

In the old man’s office, afraid he’d smell the weed, I reported on the funeral.  He was pleased with how I handled the challenge, but even more so when I asked to be allowed to go home early.  I wanted to spend more time with my girlfriend.  That was one of many times he seemed to lead me in directions that brought me back to the question of love.  How to create a life where love can truly flourish?

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MPH marries Bela and Hope Lugosi in 1955.

He always held my girlfriend in high esteem.  Our first Christmas at PRS we were invited to the Halls for dinner.  My girlfriend who worked at a toy store bought Manly a teddy bear, actually a koala.  I told her that was not an appropriate gift for Manly P. Hall.  Others tried to dissuade her as well but she assured us the old man was getting the bear whether we liked it or not.  When the dreaded bear was given to Mr. Hall he exclaimed: “Toby! This is the teddy bear I had as a child.  His name was Toby.”  From then on Manly and my girlfriend were pals.  He even let her explore the multitude of intricate compartments and shelves of the Chinese altar in his office, with its collection of tiny exquisite objects that could have only been collected and placed over a lifetime.  In her opinion if Mr. Hall was the source of the almost palpable spiritual hum in his office, that altar was the antenna.

She and I had never wanted to marry.  We didn’t want government or religion putting their grubby seals of approval on our love.  But when Manly and Marie told us we should marry and offered to choose a date based on our astrological charts, and to have the ceremony in their own backyard, under the great double tree, we decided this was a worthwhile adventure.  On the day of our wedding they fussed over what the exact time should be.  He wanted our marriage chart sun in the ninth house.  She wanted the tenth.  When he got up to start the proceedings she held him back.  When he broke free she held my girlfriend back.  The sun is in the tenth.  We joined a long list of couples, including Bela and Hope Lugosi, and Charles and Linda Lee Bukowski, married by him by authority of the order of Melchizedek.  For our wedding the Halls gave us a gorgeous antique Japanese midnight scroll of a golden Buddha blessing two bodhisattvas.

PYTHAGOREAN DAOISM AND THE MAGNET OF FATE

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My wife and I received new responsibilities when he trusted us to screen people who wanted to meet him.  He received an extraordinary number of requests and many were bizarre.  Photographers who wanted to take his picture in the nude.  Aspiring ceremonial magicians convinced they were being hounded by Babylonian demons.  A novice yoga teacher was certain he was sprouting a physical third eye.  When I told Mr. Hall about the offer of nude portraiture he asked the rhetorical question: “Why do I get all the nuts?”  Though he meant it humorously his exasperation was obvious.  Manly wasn’t as interested in the occult, let alone the bizarre, as he was in the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plotinus.  He was a great scholar of the tarot, but he preferred Laozi.  No one wanted to talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson or Shingon Buddhism.  They wanted to hustle miracle cures, fight cosmic battles, or claim the mantle of master by taking a picture next to him.

Another of my jobs was gathering materials for what was to be his last great work: a volume to match the western history of The Secret Teachings of All Ages with a history of eastern symbolism.   The daoist alchemists of China were awaiting their place in his pantheon of esoteric philosophers.  Much of his writing toward that end wound up being released as pamphlets or lectures.   But I soon realized The Secret Teachings of the East would never be completed.  The new wave of scholarship, which I witnessed first hand when I attended a conference of Buddhism scholars at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, presented a challenge to a man whose powers were declining.   The sources he was most familiar with were considered outdated.  Four decades before he had been widely respected as a scholar of Asian religion and philosophy, but now he was academically irrelevant.

Hoping for exotic revelations, some have asked me what his practice was, or did I receive from him any esoteric techniques.  He approved of my twice a day meditation regime but with a hint of good-humored contempt so I asked him about his own meditation practice.  He told me that the studying and writing he did each day, his work on the PRS journal, and several book manuscripts at once, and his meetings with visitors were a constant meditation.   He talked to me about Zen and the kinhin, the walking meditation, but he used it as a metaphor, explaining that choosing your daily activity carefully is the key to a life of meditation, yet any activity would do.  He also recommended the Pythagorean recollection.  When ready to fall asleep the day is pondered in reverse, starting with the most recent action, working back to the first experience upon waking, with an eye to improvement.

I was allowed to listen to some of his one on one consultations through the partially opened door to his office.  Most of his advice was simple common sense.  For those who tried to become his students he had only one answer: the world is your teacher, your teachers are all around you, the master and disciple relationship was appropriate to a time and place, but now we are all our own teachers.  When an old Mason friend of his dropped by, a good hearted fellow who had grown up on a farm almost a century ago, he wanted to know if his practice over the years would allow him to stay conscious through the process of death.  He had been studying most of his life to be ready, like a good Tibetan monk, or Christian devotee.  He was told that he was ready, but I had not heard the many previous conversations that led to that conclusion.  Most of them happened before I was born.  After that it was back to small talk.

He seemed to have a cure for any predicament.  A homeowner tormented by ghosts was advised to arm himself with two lamps, one with a red bulb and the other blue. The red light would attract the troublemakers; they would find it as enticing as an otter finds a dip in the lake.  Simultaneously switch off the red light and switch on the blue.  The blue light will repel the ghosts.  I’ve never tried the recipe myself, and at the time I wondered if it was mere hypnotism, but the homeowner was pleased with the results.

Toward the end of our time together, just before he sent me away, Manly told me if he could go back and do it all over again in his early days he would have emphasized self knowledge rather than inspirational tales of initiates and masters.  He thought anyone who studies spiritual matters should first have to be become well acquainted with their own emotional issues.  Around the same time he wrote in his last book that the Rosicrucians were not to be understood as the secret masters of a society of initiates like super heroes in the Justice League.  Instead consider them the brotherhood and sisterhood of all those who dedicate themselves to the betterment of humanity.

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 MPH in the 1930s

Paracelsus said we all have a little magnet in us that attracts fate.  All our magnets together decide our collective destiny.  I warned Manly about the man who may have taken his life.  I told him to stay away from the cult the man came from.  He told me it was time for me to leave.  The new millennium was only a decade away.  But his era was ending.  He explained to me that all the wonderful elders of PRS I felt such affection for would be dying soon.  The formidable old women and he himself, the society, all were about to go through a painful period of dissolution.  He didn’t want me there for that.  He wanted me to go out and live my own life.  Like Orpheus, I must never look back.

At first I thought he was testing my loyalty and dedication.  I kept working for him as if he had never told me to go.  But then it seemed every few weeks I’d be standing by, as he sat at the rather Spartan desk in his bedroom, questioning me about my plans, urging me to leave him as soon as possible.  I came to him with various futures I had pondered.  Having received a scholarship to Duke and an invitation to Harvard I suggested I get an advanced degree then return to help him.  He shook his head no.  What about a novelist on spiritual topics?  He shook his head again.  A professor of history or religion? After a string of rejections, I finally arrived at the idea that I should go back where I came from, to music.  Manly didn’t like rock or punk music.  He would make disparaging comments when we encountered it watching TV at his house one afternoon.  But he nodded his head in approval.

After that a reduction of my workload and a gentle cold shoulder made it clear I had to go.  So I went, and unlike Orpheus I didn’t look back.  Some writers have depicted his final days as horrific, a death bad enough to cast doubt on the worthiness of a man who would end his life at the mercy of a thief.   The man who probably killed him, or who, at least, tried to take advantage of his dying, knew him in ways I never did, as an experimental alchemical healer, as a business surrogate, and a booster of Marie’s work, he seemed to serve the Halls well for a time.  Does falling victim to a fraud make you a fraud?   I rather admire the old man’s demise.  The alleged killer was a self-deluded hustler not uncommon in the New Age movement, but he was one of those who harmed others, perhaps accidently, but consistently.  Manly’s last act of mystical portent was rendering that runaway train harmless.  The would be thief and possible murderer found himself tangled in police investigations and lawsuits for what was left of his life.

FROM THEOSOPHY TO RIOT GRRRL

riot-grrrl-pixWhat a feeling of freedom to walk away, to truly walk away.  Not to look back.  To leave the world that meant the world to me, to walk off the cliff into the unknown was the gift of freedom that he gave me.  I was contacted by old friends who wanted me to lead their effort to turn back the tide but I had to tell them what he had told me.  He didn’t care what happened to PRS after he was gone.  He didn’t want me involved in the inevitable battle for its fate.  One of the old timers couldn’t conceal his anxiety.  He tried to convince me that since I was obviously the one that was supposed to lead them next, my shirking of my responsibility might lead to some mass catastrophe, a war could happen because I was not in the right place at the right time with the right authority. But I knew myself too well by then to fall for any idea of a providential mission.

As I listened to the details of the grand old man’s decline and death, so far after the fact, and of the aftermath that was ripping the society apart, that had emptied his vault, the collection having been sold to the Getty Museum, where it receives the protection it deserves, while other books and artifacts were stolen, I realized the depth of his gift to me.  My life would have been entangled in these dire accusations and inconclusive court cases.  I would have had to stand by for his lurid autopsy report.  I would have had to watch the alchemy manuscripts packed for transfer, and I would have been left with the empty shelves of the vault where we had lunched.  How many funerals would I have presided over?

He had told me to return to music, but as I tried to put together a band, disappointed by musician after musician, I was confronted by the fact that success meant leaving the person I loved most for long tours full of temptation.  I remembered the funeral of the poet and his muse.  I couldn’t understand why MPH had sent me off in such a useless direction.  Did he simply approve of music because time had run out?  Did he know from my astrological chart that I would be disappointed, and was this frustration an important step to something else?  Or was it all just bullshit?

Reading the writing of Eliphas Levi I happened on a passage where he declared that this world would be a hell until the genders were equal.  He compared gender to an electric current; only the right balance provides steady power.  The passage struck me as the ultimate mission, and the key to a better life.  Meanwhile, witnessing the parade of nitwits, lowlifes and hustlers passing for musicians, my wife asked me to give her six months to learn how to play.  Or as she put it if those morons can play guitar so can I.   We decided to learn guitar together, backing each other up.  We got enough skills to form a band and play live just in time to catch the last hurrahs of riot grrrl and peace punk.

Riot grrrl is a modern mystery school.  In riot grrrl I realized why MPH, and so many others, including Eliphas Levi, had been able to share so much wisdom, but could not solve the problem of their love relationships.  I can’t explain what I mean by that in a few paragraphs.  If you don’t know what riot grrrl is spend a few minutes with your favorite search engine looking for writing by riot grrrls, not about them.

Thanks to my surrogate grandfather a racist misogynist teenage rabble-rouser and aspiring criminal grew up to be in a band that played seven riot grrrl conventions, a rare honor very few if any male musicians share.  We played shows with Black Panther poets; their newspaper gave our first CD a glowing review.  We backed up Warhol Superstar drag queen Holly Woodlawn at a couple of her performances in West Hollywood.  We worked in the Food Not Bombs kitchen during peace punk shows at old Koo’s in Santa Ana, and became the last band to have a demo tape in the glass case at the legendary all ages club Jabberjaw just before the fire marshals closed it down for good.  We toured America and encouraged the creation of one of our favorite bands The Gossip at our show in Searcy, AK.  We opened for John Sinclair to protest the GOP convention in San Diego.  We had college radio hits.  Rolling Stone called us “bare-bones, kick-ass rock and roll.”   We played fundraisers to save Navajo and Hopi lands from mining, for the Peace and Justice Center, and for homeless and women’s shelters.  Eracism, a zine we did with fellow members of the Revolution Rising art collective, was distributed by a human rights organization to prisoners all over the west coast.  And we did it all DIY.  Like MPH.

As Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy has said: “Women feel chronically less powerful than men.”  Then what greater work can a human being attempt than helping the beloved become empowered?  Work which led to much humiliation of my false pride, as I discovered the quiet girl who found it difficult to speak in public at all was more talented, wiser, and far more powerful than I had ever dreamed.  Soon she was the only one in the band anyone ever wanted to interview.  Could the old man have known?  He and Marie when explaining their choice for our wedding day had made cryptic references to “our” mission, and my future wife’s importance to the work I would be doing.  Since then she and I have collaborated on everything we do: music, documentary films, blogs, books, art, business, cleaning the cat box.  Every once in awhile we whip up some zucchini pancakes, from Marie’s recipe, and as we chew, smiles on our faces, we remember the couple who gave us a chance to live worthwhile lives.

AFTERMATH OF A POLYMATH

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The world is so full of beauty.  Moss-like malachite growing in copper.  The affectionate squint of a cat.  A lover’s smile.  A child’s innocent laughter like ringing silver bells.  And yet everything in this world that inspires wonder and appreciation can and has been perverted.  Malachite had little beauty for the slaves who dug it out of the ground in the copper mines of ancient Egypt.  Cats are crammed into cages in Three Bird Market in China to be sold half dead for best flavor.  Prostitutes provide unconditional smiles without need of earning them except by handing over cash.  Children are exploited for profit and pleasure.  Nature cannot be idealized and for most of the life we see around us every day is a desperate struggle.  The bug scurries in fear of the sparrow.  The sparrow glances everywhere for fear of the cat.  Known and unknown parasites, viruses, bacteria, fungi, toxins manmade and natural lurk everywhere waiting to fell the weak.   America came close to losing Abe Lincoln when his family cow wandered into a patch of unknown weeds that turned out to be healthy for bovines but deadly poison in milk drunk by humans.   Our biosphere is fragile.  Our solar system is fragile.  We puny creatures with our cosmic minds have already foreseen the sun’s fate and that of our home world.  Keep moving!  That sign is everywhere in our universe and it is strictly enforced.

I have no doubt that Manly P. Hall will be remembered as a contributor to the history of American Metaphysical Religion; the buildings of PRS are already an officially recognized cultural monument.  I’ve rarely visited since he asked me to leave.  Standing in the old man’s office, his desk still there, but the atmosphere now ordinary, I knew I wouldn’t be back for a long time.

Most sojourners become stuck on their first loves, the books, teachers or paths that gave them glimpses of enlightenment they cling to, and often proselytize as the only or best system for discovering the truth about the self.  This was not true of Manly Palmer Hall.  Instead he offered a banquet of myriad approaches to self-discovery.  He had his human frailties.  He liked to sneak food he shouldn’t have eaten, he shied away from firing employees, he sometimes misjudged a situation, or gave a spin to a story to give himself an edge, his rogue scholarship, more congruent with 19th than 20th century standards, has been accused of plagiarism, but that only applies to a small amount of his vast work.  His own writing proves his devotion to culture and wisdom.   His kindness to me, a complete stranger, and the opportunities he so generously and unselfishly provided, worked such a profound evolution of my character and potential, even now I wonder:

are-you-wizardMPH would have been thrilled by the net’s power to accelerate research and connect cultures.   He would have recognized in today’s spiritual affiliations, from Evolver and burner to Sister Giant and OccupySandy, the American heritage of alternative communities of interest devoted to finding a more soulful way of life.  He thought of America as an alchemical experiment, more crucible than melting pot; he would not have been surprised that the most recent academic scholarship confirms alchemy’s strong influence on the Pilgrims Despite his dismay at what he considered the crude manners and shocking practices of new generations he told me he remained confident that the American ideal of liberty and equality for all would continue to evolve, surviving every crisis.

When I finally returned to PRS it was a very hot day in Los Angeles.  We were celebrating the release of a book about MPH.  I was happy to see that Mayan architecture again.  PRS has become an accredited school, as MPH planned; yet by doing so, it changed from the improvisational collection of charismatic personalities it had once been.  The library and gift shop are still in use, and worth visiting but instead of buzzing with lectures, the buildings are dark at night.  At the time I took PRS for granted more than I realized.  I thought you could stumble into a place, and a friendship, like that any time.  But now I understand how unique my experience was, so I have broken my promise to him, a little.

Written by Ronnie Pontiac

Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge.  He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.

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Discussion

7 thoughts on “The Maestro and the Boy: The Kindness of Manly P. Hall

  1. beautiful.

    Posted by Jehu | January 26, 2013, 12:20 am
  2. An inspiring account of a spiritual journey…

    Posted by Karl Beech | May 9, 2013, 3:39 am
  3. Thank you for sharing this extraordinary adventure! Xo

    Posted by Sara maurer | June 16, 2013, 1:01 pm
  4. A beautiful journey sir.

    I am fascinated by Manly P Hall and Jiddu Krishnamurti.

    On the rare chance you’ll read this Ronnie do you know if they knew of each other?

    You mentioned Theosophy in this like you were close to it, the reference to Ojai for instance. What do you make of JK’s move away from Theosophy?

    These two men are real inspirations to me so it would be interesting if you knew anything about that

    Posted by J | November 7, 2013, 4:09 am
    • Dear J:

      Here is Ronnie’s response for you –

      Yes, MPH did know Krishnamurti. He once told me about his trips to Ojai and how he loved
      to ride on the sideboard of Krishnamurti’s car on the dirt roads. I’ll be expanding on that and
      other interesting details in the E-book version of this blog to be released in 2014. As for K’s
      move from Theosophy my feeling is that he rejected the manipulation and the dogmatic
      aspects of the movement, but his practice and zen like teaching isn’t far from many of the
      basic precepts as understood by the more mystical, less “political” elements of the order.
      Once they had chosen him as a new messiah he had little choice but to distance himself
      or be forced to live a life he didn’t want.

      Posted by newtopiamagazine | November 7, 2013, 4:48 pm
  5. Dear Ronnie,

    If you ever have a chance to read this response I would appreciate it.

    Thank you so much for writing this article, it really means great deal to me to actually read about MPH’s life from someone who’s pretty down to earth (rather than a Wikipedia page or a scholarly article) and actually knew the man well. I’ve recently discovered the works of MPH and he has inspired me in so many ways that I can not even begin to explain. This probably won’t mean much, however I can sort of relate to your past I also came from a pretty tough upbringing, and I have finally begun to find myself now in college. So I guess what I really want to ask is, in less than a paragraph (I really don’t want to waste your time) what advice could you give to a 22 year old aspiring for greatness and in search for truth and meaning?

    Again thank you for this article!

    Posted by Daniel | January 29, 2014, 11:07 am

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