Blavatsky and Buddhism

Chapter Two: Blavatsky and 'Esoteric Buddhism'


Budhism or Buddhism?

Blavatsky repeatedly stated that she wanted the Theosophical Society to remain unsectarian; the T.S. was not Buddhist, but respected all religions as descendants of a far-distant, primitive "Wisdom Religion," which was now, alas, completely esoteric, along with its Adept caretakers. Responding to Émile Burnouf's assertion that the Theosophical Society was hardly unsectarian, but instead Buddhist through and through, Blavatsky wrote,

We have given our reasons for protesting. We are pinned to no faith.
In stating that the T.S. is 'Buddhist,' M. Burnouf is quite right, however, from one point of view. It has a Buddhist colouring simply because that religion, or rather philosophy, approaches more nearly to the TRUTH (the secret wisdom) than does any other exoteric form of belief. Hence the close connexion between the two. But on the other hand the T.S. is perfectly right in protesting against being mistaken for merely Buddhist propaganda … For although in complete agreement with him as to the true nature and character of primitive Buddhism, yet the Buddhism of today is none the less a rather dogmatic religion, split into many and heterogeneous sects. We follow the Buddha alone. Therefore, once it becomes necessary to go behind the actually existing form, and who will deny this necessity in respect to Buddhism?-once this is done, is it not infinitely better to go back to the pure and unadulterated source of Buddhism itself, rather than halt at an intermediate stage? Such a half and half reform was tried when Protestantism broke away from the elder Church, and are the results satisfactory? …

Here Blavatsky certainly wants to have her cake and eat it too. She denies the Theosophical Society is a vehicle for Buddhist propaganda by in turn alleging that "we follow the Buddha alone"! Blavatsky asserts that "exoteric" Buddhism is, of all world religions, closest to the "TRUTH (the secret wisdom)," yet she disdains that very Buddhism, preferring the "unadulterated source of Buddhism itself," (the same source, one might add, that Buddhist scholars had been seeking since the beginning of their enterprise). Blavatsky goes on to correct the error of the entire Orientalist establishment - and both Northern and Southern Buddhist practitioners to boot - in their neglect of the true esoteric Buddhism:

It is true [as Burnouf says] that no mysteries or esotericism exists in the two chief Buddhist Churches, the Southern and the Northern. Buddhists may well be content with the dead letter of Siddhårtha Buddha's teachings, as fortunately no higher or nobler ones in their effects upon the ethics of the masses exist, to this day. But herein lies the great mistake of all the Orientalists. There is an esoteric doctrine, a soul-ennobling philosophy, behind the outward body of ecclesiastical Buddhism. The latter, pure, chaste and immaculate as the virgin snow on the ice-capped crests of the Himålayan ranges, is however, as cold and desolate as they with regard to the post-mortem condition of man. This secret system was taught to the Arhats alone, generally in the Saptaparˆa (Mahåvaµsa's Sattapaˆˆi) cave, known to Fa-hsien as the Cheta cave near the Mount Vaibhåra (in Påli, Vebhåra) in Råjag®ha, the ancient capital of Magadha, by the Lord Buddha himself, between the hours of Dhyåna (or mystic contemplation). It is from this cave-called in the days of Íåkyamuni, Sarasvat¥- or 'Bamboo-cave'-that the Arhats initiated into the Secret Wisdom carried away their learning and knowledge beyond the Himålayan range, wherein the Secret Doctrine is taught to this day. Had not the South Indian invaders of Ceylon "heaped into piles as high as the top of the cocoanut trees" [source?] the ollas of the Buddhists, and burnt them, as the Christian conquerors burnt all the secret records of the Gnostics and the Initiates, Orientalists would have the proof of it, and there would have been no need of asserting now this well-known fact.(6)

So there is an esoteric and essentially "Buddhist" doctrine, but it does not exist in either of the two Buddhist "Churches." Whether HPB means by the "Northern Church" Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, or Japanese Buddhisms, or all these combined, one cannot say, (7) though it is strange that HPB will elsewhere identify Tibetans like the Panchen Lamas and Tsong Kha Pa as possessors of the secret doctrine.

In many other places, too, Blavatsky tries in a very convoluted manner to distinguish exoteric Buddhism (the religion) from esotericism per se, the "Wisdom Religion," which was taught secretly by the Buddha (among other Adepts). One tack HPB took, one shared by all Buddhists, is to refer to Buddhism before Íåkyamuni, and to assert its eternality and identity age to age. Identifying this Buddhism, she feels she may confidently assert what is the essence of Buddhism. She claims in her earliest work, Isis Unveiled (1877) that "The earliest system of the Buddhistic philosophy-which preceded by far Gautama Buddha-is based upon the uncreated substance of the 'Unknown', the ÅAdibuddha."(8) Yet she points out that, being so universal and eternal, this wisdom is not owned by those called "Buddhists" alone:

When we use the term Buddhists, we do not mean to imply by it either the exoteric Buddhism instituted by the followers of Gautama Buddha, nor the modern Buddhistic religion, but the secret philosophy of Íåkyamuni, which in its essence is certainly identical with the ancient wisdom-religion of the sanctuary, the pre-Vedic Bråhmanism.(9)

While ambiguous, Blavatsky is nothing if not consistently ambiguous. Twelve years later, at the end of her life, HPB wrote much the same thing in one of her final works, The Key to Theosophy (1889):

[Question:] 'What is the difference between Buddhism, the religion founded by the Prince of Kapilavastu, and Budhism, the "Wisdomism" which you say is synonymous with Theosophy?'

[Answer:] 'Just the same difference as there is between the secret teachings of Christ, which are called "the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven," and the latter ritualism and dogmatic theology of the Churches and Sects. Buddha means the 'Enlightened' by Bodha, or understanding, Wisdom. This has passed on root and branch into the esoteric teachings that Gautama imparted to his chosen Arhats only.'(10)

Once again, Blavatsky wants to claim that there is a 'Budhism' (one d) and yet continually refers to its presence within an alleged 'esoteric Buddhism.' She will open her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, in the same manner, by referring on just the second page of text to "Budha, 'Wisdom,' or knowledge (Vidya), the faculty of cognizing, from the Sanskrit root 'Budh,' to know."(11) Then, just three pages later, HPB speaks of the esoteric Budhism (one d) of Gautama the Buddha!

In other places HPB further confounds the reader. She states that "Budhism would mean 'Wisdom', from Budha, 'a sage', 'a wise man', and the imperative verb, 'Budhyadhvam', 'Know'."(12) Elsewhere, however, she identifies the "Wisdom Religion" again as 'Budhism,' but this time allegedly related to the Puråˆic figure of Budha (illegitimate son of Soma and B®haspati's wife Tårå), who symbolizes the planet Mercury and hence, Wisdom.(13) Curiously, though, HPB never refers to any doctrines taught by 'Budha,' but refers again and again to the supposed esotericism taught by Gautama Buddha to his élite disciples, whose texts and doctrines she mentions in detail, as we shall see in the following sections of this chapter. So it is quite strange, then, that HPB feels constrained to protest against the title of A.P. Sinnett's landmark Theosophical work, Esoteric Buddhism (1883). She repeats the comment of a Påli scholar [identity unknown] and adds her own judgment as well:

[T]here was in the volume named 'neither esotericism nor Buddhism.' The esoteric truths, presented in Mr. Sinnett's work, had ceased to be esoteric from the moment they were made public; nor did it contain the religion of Buddha, but simply a few tenets from a hitherto hidden teaching which are now supplemented by many more, enlarged and explained in the present volumes [Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine]. (14)

And yet, it is this very "hidden teaching" (that she now supplements) which in just a few pages she will ascribe to the secret instructions of Gautama.

However confusing, even contradictory HPB's assertions, her central points are these: (1) there is a hidden side to Buddhism, and (2) like all Mahåyånists, she claims it was there from the beginning (whether that beginning is with the historical Gautama, or a timeless Dharma) and (3) this "Wisdom Religion" is the inheritance of all nations the world over.(15) These three things no scholar of the 19th century would claim. They would not even acknowledge such claims made by Buddhist sources. In sum: despite her praiseworthy attempt to launch a non-sectarian platform for the study of world religions, Blavatsky herself was essentially interested in the esoteric Mahåyånist doctrines which she attribued directly to the living disciples of Gautama Buddha who dwelt "beyond the snowy range." It was these doctrines, and no other, which she labeled the Secret Doctrine.


(6) Blavatsky, Collected Writings, vol. X, p. 71.
(7) At times HPB uses the loose term "Northern Buddhism" to mean Chinese Buddhism, as when she says in The Voice of the Silence, p. 80: "The 'four modes of truth' are, in Northern Buddhism, Ku 'suffering or misery'; Tu the assembling of temptations; Mu 'their destructions' and Tau, the 'path'." (These are HPB's attempts to render the Chinese characters phonetically.) In The Secret Doctrine, (1897) vol. 3 p. 388, however, HPB will write, "The Roman Catholics identify Christ with Mikael, who is also his ferouer, or 'face' mystically. This is precisely the position of Vajradhara, or Vajrasattva, in Northern Buddhism. For the latter, in His Higher Self as Vajradhara (Dorjechang), is never manifested, except to the seven Dhyân Chohans, the primeval Builders." Here HPB is clearly referring to Tibetan tradition as 'Northern Buddhism.'
(8) Isis Unveiled, vol. 2, p. 156.
(9) Isis Unveiled, vol. 2, pp. 142-3.
(10) Key to Theosophy, p. 13.
(11) Blavatsky, Secret Doctrine, xviii.
(12) Blavatsky, Collected Writings, vol. IX, pp. 282-3, footnote.
(13) Blavatsky, Collected Writings, vol. VIII, p. 75.
(14) The Secret Doctrine I, xvii.
(15) The Secret Doctrine I, xviii.

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