Blavatsky and Buddhism

Chapter Two: Blavatsky and 'Esoteric Buddhism'


Despite Max Müller's protest that "Whatever was esoteric was ipso facto not Buddha's teaching; whatever was Buddha's teaching was ipso facto not esoteric …" it has become clear to any student of Buddhism (who does not rely entirely on the Påli Canon) that most traditions of Buddhism do indeed have texts, rituals, transmissions and/or insights which are reserved from the profane. Nowhere is this more true, however, than in Tibet. The slough of books in the last decades with titles like The Buddhist Tantras: Light on Indo-Tibetan Esotericism; Hidden Teachings of Tibet; and Highest Yoga Tantra: An Introduction to the Esoteric Buddhism of Tibet leave no room for argument on this point. Because of Blavatsky's character, she was drawn to Mahåyåna Buddhism and Tibet in particular. Because she was untrained by Western academies, she failed to harbor the rationalistic and positivist priorities of the scholars of her day. Thus Blavatsky was in a position to see what no other European of her time could: that the mysticism, mythology and obscure symbolism in the works of 'esoteric' Tibetan Buddhism held teachings of great depth and philosophical sophistication, a fact only now coming to be understood in the late 20th century by Western Buddhist scholars. That Blavatsky was a practising Mahåyåna Buddhist, in touch with a living textual and oral tradition, can be proven now that Western knowledge of 'esoteric' Buddhism has grown, and HPB's sectarian leanings and doctrinal references can be understood in context. First, however, it will be useful to contrast Blavatsky with her contemporaries, to see the great - and at times confusing - contrast HPB provides. Then, Blavatsky's relationship with Buddhism, and her use of technical Buddhist terms will be examined. Finally, in further chapters, Blavatsky's Theosophical doctrines on various topics are compared and contrasted with 'esoteric' Buddhist teachings now known to Western scholarship.

Blavatsky and Contemporaries

Nineteenth century scholars of Buddhism faced a great difficulty when they considered the mythological and mystical elements of the Buddhist tradition, particularly those surrounding the Buddha's life and person. While making a notable exception for Émile Senart and his "historical mythological" method (an essentially structuralist method), de Jong writes in his survey of Buddhist studies,

Earlier scholars [pre 1870s] had considered the legendary elements as an addition to a basis of historical facts; once freed from these legendary elements, the historical truth about the Buddha would become clear. It was usual to apply this method-called the subtraction method by La Vallée Poussin-before Senart's time and also after him. It was the same method of historical criticism that was developed by New Testament scholars for studying the life of Jesus.(1)

Scholars also relied very heavily on the texts of Buddhism (suitably de-mythologized), perhaps because these could be delimited and controlled better than a living tradition with its idiosyncratic leaders and widely varying praxis and emphases. Philip Almond ties this Western focus on text - bording on obsession - to the nature of colonialism in his study, The British Discovery of Buddhism:

Buddhism, by 1860, had come to exist, not in the Orient, but in the Oriental libraries and institutes of the West, in its texts and manuscripts, at the desks of the Western savants who interpreted it. It had become a textual object, defined, classified, and interpreted through its own textuality. By the middle of the century, the Buddhism that existed 'out there' was beginning to be judged by a West that alone knew what Buddhism was, is, and ought to be. The essence of Buddhism came to be seen as expressed not 'out there' in the Orient, but in the West through the control of Buddhism's own past.(2)

Like all scholars who to some degree reify the division between Orient and Occident, Almond overshoots his mark a bit: a few scholars (or as Donald S. Lopez labels them, "gifted amateurs") did in fact pursue living Buddhism last century. Interestingly, these attempts also tended to revolve around control; in regard to Tibet, they were usually accompanied by unabashed revulsion. L. Austine Waddell, a contemporary of Blavatsky, informs his readers that,

… realizing the rigid secrecy maintained by the Låmas in regard to their seemingly chaotic rites and symbolism, I felt compelled to purchase a Låmaist temple with its fittings; and prevailed upon the officiating priests to explain to me in full detail the symbolism and the rites as they proceeded … the Låmas were so obliging as to interpret in my favor a prophetic account which exists in their scriptures regarding a Buddhist incarnation in the West. They convinced themselves that I was a reflex of the Western Buddha Amitåbha, and thus they overcame their conscientious scruples, and imparted information freely.(3)

Certainly, after Waddell has "purchased" the lamasery, he does nothing to cure the poor ignorant monks of their ill choice of Messiah. Nevertherless, once Waddell has gained control of "Låmaism," he finds little to recommend it.

… [T]he bulk of the Låmaist cults comprise much deep-rooted devil-worship and sorcery, which I describe with some fulness. For Låmaism is only thinly and imperfectly varnished over with Buddhist symbolism, beneath which the sinister growth of poly-demonist superstition darkly appears.(4)

In sum, then, late nineteenth century scholarship denied any bona fide esoteric teachings to "true" Buddhism, rarely bothered to actually observe and study living Buddhism, and saw Tibetan Buddhism as particularly degraded, demoniac, and un-Buddhist. As Lopez writes in the Tibetan chapter of his recent book,Curators of the Buddha (1995),

… with the European construction of "original Buddhism," [Tibetan practices] were deemed a repulsive corruption of the Buddha's rational teaching, polluted with demon worship and sacerdotalism to the point that it could no longer be accurately termed "Buddhism" at all, but became instead "Lamaism."(5)

It was in this cultural context of textual obsession and scholarly horror of all things mystical that H.P. Blavatsky not only publicly embraced living Buddhism but soon claimed to speak for it, or at least its esoteric center. However, her true relationship to Buddhism, and especially to 'esoteric' Buddhism is equivocal and often, in her own words, contradictory.


(1) de Jong, A Brief History, p. 28.
(2) Almond, The British Discovery, p. 13.
(3) Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism, pp. viii-ix.
(4) Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism, p. xi.
(5) Lopez, "Foreigner at the Lama's Feet," p. 252.

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