Blavatsky and Buddhism

Chapter Two: Blavatsky and 'Esoteric Buddhism'



 Less than Forthcoming

Some care has been taken to demonstrate that Blavatsky is something of what she claimed to be, a revealer of hidden, 'esoteric' Buddhist teachings. There is sufficient evidence, by way of vocabulary and textual references unique in the 19th century, to suggest that Blavatsky was indeed in touch with a living tradition, either directly or through one or more Mahåyåna Buddhist teachers. This study of Blavatsky and Buddhism is not a partisan one, however, and the less flattering side of Blavatsky's work cannot be overlooked.

In many places, and on many occasions, Blavatsky's work contains the ideas, and sometimes even the exact words, of previously published Western-language sources on Buddhism, without acknowledgement. It may be that Blavatsky meant to give citations, or had given them and somehow they were lost in the process of editing and printing. Alternatively, Blavatsky may have been intending to comment on the works of the "exoteric" authors whom she so despised by incorporating their writings into her own in order to expand upon them, reword them, or contradict them. For example, Blavatsky writes,

The Lassens, Webers, Wassiljews, the Burnoufs and Juliens, and even such "eye-witnesses" of Tibetan Buddhism as Csoma de Köros and the Schlagintweits, have hitherto only added perplexity to confusion. None of these has ever received his information from a genuine Gelugpa source: all have judged Buddhism from the bits of knowledge picked up at the Tibetan frontier lamaseries, in countries thickly populated by Bhutanese and Leptchas, Bhons, and red-capped Dugpas, along the line of the Himâlayas.… hence they have gone on, gravely discussing the relative merits and absurdities of idols, "soothsaying tables," and "magical figures of Phurbu" on the "square tortoise." None of these have anything to do with the real philosophical Buddhism of the Gelugpa, or even of the most educated among the Sakyapa and Kadampa sects. All such "plates" and sacrificial tables, Chinresig magical circles, etc., were avowedly got from Sikkhim, Bhutan, and Eastern Tibet, from Bhons and Dugpas.(53)

Here, the reader can tell by the quotes that HPB is referring to certain unnamed works by the scholars she has listed (but to condemn). Nevertheless, quite frequently the work of another writer appears within the main text and footnotes of Blavatsky's writing without any acknowledgement whatsoever, and this can carry on for a number of pages in a row without once mentioning the author she is actually quoting. Sometimes this appropriation involves critical Buddhist teaching, which in the absence of quotation marks, citations or references to the author, would appear to be intended as Buddhist teachings emanating directly from Blavatsky or her teachers. For considerations of space we will examine only Blavatsky's relationship with The Buddhism of Tibet by Emil Schlagintweit (1863).(54) Of the many appropriations Blavatsky appears to make, I will mention only a few. Underlining in the following quotes will demonstrate verbatim appropriations made by Blavatsky from this text, published a full quarter century before her own Secret Doctrine.

On pages 51-2 of his text, Schlagintweit writes,

The Buddhists believe that each Buddha when preaching the law to men, manifests himself at the same time in the three worlds which their cosmographical system acknowledges. In the world of desire, the lowest of the three to which the earth belongs, he appears in human shape. In the world of forms he manifests himself in a more sublime form as Dhyåni Buddha. In the highest world, the one of the incorporeal beings, he has neither shape nor name. The Dhyåni Buddhas have the faculty of creating from themselves by virtue of Dhyåna, or abstract meditation, an equally celestial son, a Dhyåni Bodhisattva, who after the death of a Månushi Buddha is charged with the continuance of the work undertaken by the departed Buddha till the next epoch of religion begins, when again a subsequent Månushi Buddha appears.

Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, volume three (1897):

Buddhists of the Mahåyåna mystic system teach that each Buddha manifests Himself (hypostatically or otherwise) simultaneously in three worlds of Being, namely, in the world of Kåma (concupiscence or desire - the sensuous universe or our earth) in the shape of a man; in the world of R¨pa (form, yet supersensuous) as a Bodhisattva; and in the highest Spiritual World (that of purely incorporeal existences) as a Dhyåni-Buddha. The latter prevails eternally in space and time, i.e., from one Mahå-Kalpa to the other-the synthetic culmination of the three beings ÅAdi-Buddha,* the Wisdom-Principle, which is Absolute, and therefore out of space and time. Their interelation is the following: The Dhyåni -Buddha, when the world needs a human Buddha, "creates" through the power of Dhyåna (meditation, omnipotent devotion), a mind-born son-a Bodhisattva - whose mission it is after the physical death of his human, or Månushya-Buddha, to continue his work on earth till the appearance of the subsequent Buddha. The Esoteric meaning of this teaching is quite clear.… [HPB's footnote:] … What is given here is taken from the secret portions of Dus Kyi Khorlo (Kåla Chakra, in Sanskrit, or the "Wheel of Time," or duration.(55)

Importantly, HPB has altered Schlagintweit's text, especially the correspondences in the three realms-but there is no question that overall she has lifted this passage from his book originally. Nota bene Blavatsky's footnote, where she claims to be giving out statements from the secret portions of the Kålachakra Tantra. However, HPB's statements are merely rephrasings of Schlagintweit, taken from his chapter on Kålachakra, where he gives the Tibetan translation Dus Kyi Khorlo-a technically correct and not a phonetic spelling, which as we have seen (at length above) was the habit of HPB. In HPB's ten-page chapter entitled "The Mystery of Buddhism," which this passage is taken from, Blavatsky does not mention even once Schlagintweit, his book, or any contemporary Western author except A.P. Sinnett, her student. For all HPB's unique knowledge of Kålachakra Tantra, as described in the previous section, this appropriation of published work (and many others like it) would appear to be quite damaging to her claims.

But because volume three of The Secret Doctrine was published only posthumously from manuscripts left by HPB, Theosophists might have a right to object that Blavatsky would have edited the MSS. and added citations before it was published. Further, in the hundred pages surrounding the above quote from The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky does refer to Schlagintweit and specific page numbers several times, although not nearly as often as the expectations of modern scholarship would demand.

But even more clear-cut examples of appropriation from Schlagintweit exist, from documents HPB is known to have published under her own power. From Schlagintweit, p. 34:

Parinishpanna (Tib. Yong grub) … "completely perfect," or simply "perfect," is the unchangeable and unassignable true existence, which is also the scope of the path, the summum bonum, the absolute. Of this kind can be only that which enters the mind clear and undarkened, as for instance, the emptiness, or the Non-ego. In order, therefore, that his mind may become free from all that would in any way attract his attention, it is necessary that man view every thing existing as ideal, because it is dependent on something else; then only-as a natural consequence-he arrives at a right understanding of the Non-ego, and to a knowledge of how the voidness is alone self-existent and perfect.

The Secret Doctrine, volume one (1888):

"Paranishpanna" is the absolute perfection which all existences attain at the close of a great period of activity, or Mahå-Manvantara, and in which they rest during the succeeding period of repose. In Tibetan it is called Yong-Grüb. Up to the day of the Yogåcårya school the true nature of Paranirvana [parinirvåˆa] was taught publicly, but since then it has become entirely esoteric; hence so many contradictory interpretations of it. It is only a true Idealist who can understand it. Everything has to be viewed as ideal, with the exception of Paranirvana, by him who would comprehend that state, and acquire a knowledge of how Non Ego, Voidness, and Darkness are Three in One and alone Self-existent and perfect. (56)

In the same section, Schlagintweit gives the Tibetan translation of parikalpita (i.e., Kung tag) and defines it as:

…the supposition, the error. Of this kind is the belief in absolute existence to which those beings adhere who are incapable of understanding that every thing is empty.… some believing a thing existing which does not, as e.g. the Non-ego …

Blavatasky writes,

Parikalpita (in Tibetan Kun-ttag [sic]) is error, made by those unable to realize the emptiness and illusionary nature of all; who believe something to exist which does not-e.g., the Non-Ego.(57)

Schlagintweit: Paratantra is whatever exists by a dependent or causal connexion." Blavatsky: Paratantra is that, whatever it is, which exists only through a dependent or causal connexion." (58) Schlagintweit:

We come now to the two truths. They are: Samvritisatya (Tib. Kundzabchi denpa) and Paramårthasatya (Tib. Dondampai denpa), or the relative truth and the absolute one … A difference prevails between the Yogåcåryas and the Madhyamikas with reference to the interpreration of Paramårtha; the former say that Paramårtha is also what is dependent upon other things (Paratantra); the latter say that is it limited to Parinishpanna, or to that which has the character of absolute perfection.… Samvriti is that which is the origin of illusion, but Paramårtha is the self-consciousness* of the saint in his self-meditation, which is able to dissipate illusions, i.e., which is above all (parama) and contains the true undertstanding (artha). [footnote] Sanskrit Svasamvedana, "the reflection which analyses itself."


[Re:] Paramårtha: the Yogåcåryas interpret the term as that which is also dependent upon other things (paratantral) [sic]; and the Madhyamikas say that Paramårtha is limited to Paranishpanna or absolute perfection … [footnote] "Paramårtha" is self-consciousness in Sanskrit, Svasamvedana, or the "self-analysing reflection" from two words, parama (above everything) and artha (comprehension), Satya meaning absolute true being, or Esse. In Tibetan Paramårthasayta is Dondampaidenpa. The opposite of this absolute reality, or actuality, is Samvritisatya-the relative truth only-"Samvritti" meaning "false conception" and being the origina of illision, Maya; in Tibetan Kundzabchi-denpa, "illusion-creating appearance."

What can be said in Blavatsky's defense? Similar 'appropriations' of published text were discovered also in the Mahatma Letters, written mainly to A.P. Sinnett, published from time to time in Theosophical journals. In one case, known as "The Kiddle Incident," a letter from Mahatma KH was showed positively to have appropriated large sections of text from a speech by a certain Henry Kiddle given at a gathering at Lake Pleasant, America, and printed in a Spiritualist journal Banner of Light. In a response, KH explains how an Adept such as himself uses occult means to dictate letters telepathically to students who may be at any distance away. The 'transmission' as it were can be received in a corrupted manner by a less than competent amanuensis, while the very process of telepathic impression is open to infiltration by unrelated thoughts. Writes KH,

Having-owing to our correspondence and your Simla [India] surroundings and friends - felt interested in the intellectual progress of the Phenomenalists, which progress by the by I felt rather moving backward in the case of American Spiritualists - I had directed my attention some two months previous to the great annual camping movement of the latter, in various directions, among others to Lake or Mount Pleasant. Some of the curious ideas and sentences representing the general hopes and aspirations of the American Spiritualists remained impressed on my memory, and I remembered only these ideas and detached sentences quite apart from the personalities of those who harboured or pronounced them.… In a case such as mine, the chela [disciple] had, as it were, to pick up what he could from the current I was sending him and, as above remarked, patch the broken bits together as best he might.… So I, in this instance, having at the moment more vividly in my mind the psychic diagnosis of current Spiritualistic thought, of which the Lake Pleasant speech was one marked symptom, unwittingly transferred that reminiscence more vividly than my own remarks upon it and deductions therefrom.(60)

Of course such an explanation - a jumbled transference of telepathic thoughts - is entirely unacceptable to a scholarly audience. It is but one more example of Blavatsky's Asian Weltanschauung, where telepathy is a perfectly normal siddhi (occult ability) resulting from intense yogic practice. No doubt HPB's appropriations above would be explained by her in the same manner. The problem is that such a thesis is utterly unverifiable, and worse, unfalsifiable, to the mere worldling, and hence not subject to scholarly investigation and judgment. I merely state here the objective fact that Blavatsky's writings contain the words and ideas of other Western writers, unacknowledged, and that these appropriations sometimes are made to appear as emanating from a hidden or occult source like Tibetan Buddhist Tantras.


(53) The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 3, p. 415.
(54) I am indebted to Daniel Caldwell for first making known to me HPB's dependence on Schlagintweit's work.
(55) Vol. three, pp. 378-9
(56) Vol. I, p. 42. In his careful study of Blavatsky's technical terms in the "Stanzas of Dzyan," David Reigle cites parini?panna as particularly significant for HPB's credibility, as "this meaning, 'absolute perfection,' is well enough attested in the Sanskrit Buddhist texts, but almost none of these were published when The Secret Doctrine was written. The only one I know of among those containing the term is F. Max Müller's 1883 edition of the Sukåvat¥-vy¨ha." (p. 2-3, "Book of Dzyan Research Report: Technical Terms in Stanza I" December 1995.) Unfortunately, there can be no question but that Emil Schlagintweit is the source for nearly all of HPB's teachings on parini?panna.
(57) Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, p. 48.
(58) Secret Doctrine, Vo. 1, p. 49.
(59)Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, p. 48.
(60) Barker, Mahatma Letters, pp. 416-17. Tentatively dated by Barker to 1883-4.

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