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
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
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
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 Saptapara (Mahåvaµsa's Sattapai) 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 Puråic 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
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.