Blavatsky and Buddhism

Chapter One: Investigating H.P. Blavatsky

 

 Religious Practitioners on HPB

If Blavatsky were only championed by a small group of devotees, and ridiculed by everyone else, one could conclude that she was merely a cult leader. But Bharati is right in at least one respect, namely that "Blavatsky's work has had signal importance" on Western interpretations of Eastern thought, and to some degree on Eastern people's interpretation of themselves. Perhaps it is Blavatsky's Theosophical influence on the Eastern hemisphere which is least familiar to Western scholars. During Blavatsky's lifetime, over 125 branches of the Theosophical Society sprang up in India, more than the total branches of the T.S. in all other countries combined. For a time, the Theosophical Society joined forces with the Arya Samaj and other native Hindu and Buddhist revival movements, while the Indian National Congress, later to be so instrumental in gaining India's independence, was formed and run largely by British Theosophists, especially Allan O. Hume. (18) S. Radhakrishnan, one of India's leading philosophical and political figures this century, writes,

When, with all kinds of political failures and economic breakdowns we were suspecting the values and vitality of our culture, when everything round about us and secular education happened to discredit the value of Indian culture, the Theosophical Movement rendered great service by vindicating those values and ideas. The influence of the Theosophical Movement on general Indian society is incalculable. (19)

In 1975, for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Theosophical Society, the Indian government commissioned a stamp with the distinctive logo and the motto of the Theosophical Society, "There is no religion higher than truth."

In Sri Lanka the Theosophical impact was even more profound. To the present day, February 17th is a Sri Lankan holiday, honoring the birthday of the first President of the Theosophical Society, Henry S. Olcott, champion of Buddhism and foe of Christianity. When Olcott and Blavatsky arrived in Sri Lanka in 1880, Christian missionaries had completely dominated the island, and the education of youth was almost entirely in the hands of Christian schools-only two Buddhist schools existed. By 1900, due to the effective ideological and financial campaigns of the Theosophists, over 200 Buddhist-run schools were in operation, as well as a Buddhist Theosophical Society with many branches busily engaged in printing newspapers and administering land.(20) Theosophists cannot be held responsible for the entire revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, as Richard Gombrich rightly remarks; the ground had been well-prepared by the advent of widespread literacy, the rise of a middle class, and the inculcation in learned Sri Lankans of Protestant values.(21) Nevertheless, it is clear that the Theosophical impact was far-reaching. (22)

To Japan, also, the Theosophical revival spread. Col. Olcott's visit to Japan February 9th to May 5th, 1889, was warmly welcomed by the Japanese and fiercely opposed by Christian missionaries. The Tokyo newspaper Dandokai reported, "The arrival of Colonel Olcott has caused great excitement among the Christians in Japan. They say that he is an adventurer, a man of bad principles, and an advocate of a dying cause. How mean and cowardly they are!" Another issue of the Dandokai wrote,

Since Colonel Olcott's arrival in Japan, Buddhism has wonderfully revived. We have already stated that he has been travelling to all parts of the empire. He has been everywhere received with remarkable enthusiasm. He has not been allowed a moment of leisure. He has taught our people to appreciate Buddhism, and to see our duty to impart it to all nations. Since his discourses in Tokyo, the young men of the Imperial University and High Schools have organized a Young Men's Buddhist Association, after the model of the Young Men's Christian Association, to propagate our religion….(23)

The Theosophical revival of Buddhism in the East had its arc in the West as well, and it wasn't long before Blavatsky's Sri Lankan student Anagarika Dharmapala founded a branch of his Mahabodhi Society in London, and began his tireless campaign for the restoration of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gayâ to Buddhist control.(24) Likewise, the first Buddhist Society in England was founded by Theosophists in 1926, who found the parent body of the Theosophical Society by that time too wide-ranging and diluted. Early members included Buddhologists Christmas Humphreys and Edward Conze.(25) Among many other Western writers, Alan Watts also came to Buddhism through Theosophy, and writes, that "Even though I now remonstrate, mildly, against some of [Humphrey's] interpretations of Buddhism, I shall love him always as the man who really set my imagination going and put me on my whole way of life."(26) The impact of Blavatsky and her Theosophy upon Buddhism East and West is an important chapter of Buddhist studies, strangely ignored, however. Donald S. Lopez writes "The influence of Theosophy on the study of Buddhism in Europe and America remains a largely unexplored topic," and adds, "Links between Theosophists and Tibetan Buddhism also merit a book-length study." (27)

Thus, despite harsh criticism of Blavatsky by the majority of Western Buddhist scholars, practising Buddhists in both the East and West often admire HPB and her pioneering influences even when they have no interest in Theosophy per se. For example, Tricycle magazine recently honored Blavatsky in its Buddhist "Ancestors" column, followed a few issues later by Olcott.(28) Several high Tibetan lamas as well seem to respect Blavatsky's work, especially for one of her last productions, The Voice of the Silence (1889).(29) The XIVth Dalai Lama wrote the forward to the 1989 Centenary edition of The Voice of the Silence, saying, in part,

I believe that this book has strongly influenced many sincere seekers and aspirants to the wisdom and compassion of the Bodhisattva Path. I very much welcome this Centenary Edition and hope that it will benefit many more.(30)

This is not unprecedented, since in 1927 the staff of the 9th Panchen Lama helped Theosophists put out the "Peking Edition" of The Voice of the Silence.(31) The 9th Panchen Lama (Panchen Lobzang Tub-ten Chö-gyi Nyima) personally wrote a message as well:

? 4‡Ô3"»Ôcs‚ºÔ3cç?Ô4‡Ô'»‰»Ôº?Ô»ºÔº‡
»„Ô#o;Ô¡‰…Ô4‰?/Ô'º‰ºÔæ‡?Ô»„Ôcu?/Ô1'‡Ó Ó
3>Ô3Ô«‰3Ô2o‡=Ô?4Ô3"?Ô'º‰»Ô1'‡Ôœ‚?Ó
!‚…Ô?;Ô3Añ„…Ôæ„/Ô3»„…Ôº/‚?Ô'»‰4/Ô1=Ô4-»ÓÓ

All beings desire liberation from misery.
Seek, therefore, for the causes of misery and expunge them.
By entering on the path, liberation from misery is attained.
Exhort, then, all beings to enter the path.

And in November of 1988, Sakya Trizin, the head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, while visiting the University of Sydney said "I have read little of the writings of Madame Blavatsky, but from the little I have read, I believe that Madame Blavatsky either had direct contact with Tibetan teachings or had read some reliable texts on Tibetan Buddhism."(32)

 


Footnotes

(18) Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. (New York: Harper and Row, 1950), p. 437; Mohandas Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, quoted in The Theosophical Movement 1875-1950, p. 71.
(19) Quoted by Cranston, H.P.B.: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, p. 192.
(20) The Middle Way, 1973, p. 44.
(21) Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism. (London: Routledge, 1991) p. 174.
(22) Too far-reaching, according to Gananath Obeyesekere, who blames Theosophists not only for their distorted and modernist 'Protestant Buddhism' but also for the violent forms Buddhist nationalism has taken in Sri Lanka this century. See his "Buddhism and Conscience," Daedalus vol. 120 (1991) and "Religious Symbolism and Political Change in Ceylon" in Two Wheels of Dhamma, ed. Bardwell Smith, AAR Monograph Series, no. 3 (Chambersburg, 1972), pp. 58-78. Also see Richard Gombrich and Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed.
(23)Quoted in Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, Fourth Series, 2nd edition. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1931, p. 140.
(24) Cranston, p. 501.
(25) Cranston, p. 500.
(26) Watts, In My Own Way. New York, Pantheon, 1972, p. 77.
(27) Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, footnote 12, p. 234-6.
(28) "Ancestors" column in Tricycle Vol. V, no. 3 (Blavatsky) and Vol. VI no. 1 (Olcott).
(29) Interestingly, The Voice of the Silence has also become something of a cult classic among Hollywood stars and rock musicians. Elvis Presley was so taken with Blavatsky's little book that he regularly read from it onstage, and even named his own gospel group, Voice, after the volume.
(30) The Voice of the Silence, ed. Raghavan Iyer. (Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, 1989). Preface.
(31) The Voice of the Silence, ed. Alice Cleather and Basil Crump. (Peking: Chinese Buddhist Research Society, 1927). page 113.
(32) According to Prof. John Cooper of U. Sydney, in an interview with Theosophical student Nicholas Weeks, 1989.



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