Blavatsky and Buddhism

Chapter Two: Blavatsky and 'Esoteric Buddhism'


 Followers of Gautama

Whatever HPB's public posturing in relation to the neutral stance held by the Theosophical Society, there is absolutely no ambiguity about her personal religious affiliation. Barely a week after arriving in Sri Lanka from New York (May 17, 1880), HPB and Colonel Olcott took pansil (pañca-ßila, the layman's five precepts) at the Buddhist temple in Galle, and took refuge in the Triple Jewel-the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. A great crowd was gathered to witness the historic event, and apparently it was quite a scene. Rick Fields writes,

… It was the first time the Sinhalese had seen one of the ruling white race treat Buddhism with anything approaching respect, and it was (as far as we have been able to discover) the first time that Americans had become Buddhists in the formal sense-that is, in a manner recognized by other Buddhists. (16)

Blavatsky's Mahatmas in their letters also make explicit reference to Blavatsky as a Buddhist, but continue to distance their 'Occult Brotherhood' from Buddhism plain and simple. This is clear, for example, in one letter dated December 7th, 1883:

There are even at the present moment three centres of the Occult Brotherhood in existence, widely separated geographically, and as widely exoterically - the true esoteric doctrine being identical in substance though differing in terms; all aiming at the same grand object, but no two agreeing seemingly in the details of procedure. It is an every day occurrence to find students belonging to different schools of occult thought sitting side by side at the feet of the same Guru. Upasika (Madame B.)(17) and Subba Row [a Hindu, for a time an ardent Theosophist], though pupils of the same Master, have not followed the same Philosophy - the one is Buddhist and the other an Adwaitee.(18)

But again, like Blavatsky herself, her direct teachers appear to be particularly Buddhist, even if their entire 'Brotherhood' is not. KH refers to "our Great Patron-'the Savior of the World-the Teacher of Nirvana and the Law'"(19) and to the Theosophical Mahatmas as Bodhisattvas,(20) Khobilgans,(21) Chutuktus,(22) Lhas, (23) Byang-chubs and Tchang-chubs.(24) Not only do they call themselves disciples of Mahåyåna Buddhism in various languages, but they appear quite sectarian despite their protests like the one above. In a letter from Master M, there is the following statement, criticizing certain orthodox Hindus who voiced their disappointment in never meeting a Theosophical "Mahatma" in the flesh:

What have we, the disciples of the true Arhats, of esoteric Buddhism and of Sang-gyas [Tib. "Buddha"], to do with the Shastras and Orthodox Brahmanism? There are 100 of thousands of Fakirs, Sannyasis, or Sadhus, leading the most pure lives and yet being as they are, on the path of error, never having had an opportunity to meet, see or even hear of us. Their forefathers have driven away the followers of the only true philosophy upon earth from India and now it is not for the latter to come to them, but for them to come to us, if they want us. Which of them is ready to become a Buddhist, a Nastika, as they call us? None. Those who have believed and have followed us have had their reward. (25)

Another Mahatma letter must be mentioned, one that is unique among such letters, in that it claims to come from the Mahåchohan (26) himself, the teacher of Blavatsky's teachers. This letter dates from 1880, referencing Buddhism at every turn in the most sectarian fashion:

… Buddhism is the surest path to lead men toward the one esoteric truth. As we find the world now, whether Christian, Mussulman, or Pagan, justice is disregarded and honour and mercy both flung to the winds.… Why has that struggle [for life] become the almost universal scheme of the universe? We answer: because no religion, with the exception of Buddhism, has hitherto taught a practical contempt for this earthly life, while each of them, always with that one solitary exception, has through its hells and damnations inculcated the greatest dread of death. Therefore do we find that 'struggle for life' raging most fiercely in Christian countries, most prevalent in Europe and America. It weakens in pagan lands, and is nearly unknown among Buddhist populations … Teach the people to see that life on this earth, even the happiest, is but a burden and an illusion, that it is but our own Karma, the cause producing the effect, that is our own judge, our saviour in future lives-and the great struggle for life will soon lose its intensity.… The world in general and Christendom especially left for two thousand years to the regime of a personal God, as well as its political and social systems based on that idea, have now proved a failure. … That we, the devoted followers of the spirit incarnate of absolute self-sacrifice, of philanthropy and divine kindness as of all the highest virtues attainable on this earth of sorrow, the man of men, Gautama Buddha, should ever allow the Theosophical Society to represent the embodiment of selfishness, to become the refuge of the few with no thought in them for the many, is a strange idea … And it is we, the humble disciples of the perfect Lamas, who are expected to permit the Theosophical Society to drop its noblest title, that of the Brotherhood of Humanity, to become a simple school of Psychology. No! No! our brothers, you have been labouring under the mistake too long already. … ours must be the true philosophy, the true religion, the true light, which gives truth and nothing but the TRUTH …"

There are no other Mahatma letters that back away from such a tight embrace of Buddhism: no Vedånta-leaning letters, no kudos given to Sufi traditions, etc. Thus there can be no doubt that Madame Blavatsky herself, her immediate Mahatma teachers, and her teachers' teacher, are Buddhist by profession and vocabulary, in ever-increasing degree as one moves up the guruparampara chain. Blavatsky makes frequent reference to Buddhism, particularly Mahåyåna Buddhism, in her writings, while the Mahatma letters discuss Buddhism on practically every page, often using highly technical vocabulary in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian.

Theosophists have sometimes argued that the proliferation of Buddhist terms in Theosophical works, correctly used, itself indicates that Blavatsky was in contact with authentic Buddhism, and that her teachings are therefore 'valid.' For instance, Mahatma M writes in one letter (1884) that his Brother KH has gone into 'Tong-pa-ngi,' (sTong-pa-ñid, Tibetan for "emptiness"), i.e., ßunyatå.(27) Another letter (1883), allegedly from a learned Tibetan of Rinch-cha-tze (a town in Tibet) is bursting with Tibetan and Sanskrit words, spelled (mostly) correctly, unlike HPB's phonetic spellings. We read of Såkya Thub-pa (Íåkyamuni), ro-langs ("hungry ghosts," bh¨tas in Sanskrit) and ÅAlaya-vijñåna ("storehouse consciousness," a technical Yogåcåra Buddhist term).

Yet not much can be made of this for our present purposes. The technical Buddhist vocabulary in Blavatsky's works, and even in the highly abstruse Mahatma letters of KH and M, is not in itself generally significant; an enterprising student could have gained access to most of these terms through published materials, though widely scattered and difficult to assemble in one place. Of the examples given above, the small town of "Rinch-cha-tze" (Rin-chen-rTse) may be found quite near Shigatse and its famous monastery Tashi-lhunpo (bKras-shis-lhun-po) on a map near the back of Markham's Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet (1876), although the town is there spelt "Rinjaitzay." The Tibetan word for "emptiness," Tong-pa-ñi can be found on page 33 of Schalgintweit's Buddhism in Tibet (1863). Thub-pa and ro-langs are both listed in Jäschke's Tibetan English Dictionary (London, 1881), while ÅAlaya-vijñåna is mentioned in Beal's Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese (1871), and in Schlagintweit, among other places.

In fact, a great deal of knowledge had been acquired about Buddhism, both Nikåya ('H¥nayåna') and Mahåyåna forms, by the time Blavatsky began her Theosophical career-although some of it was not terribly reliable, because produced by Westerners with little training in Buddhist thought. Kowalewsky had published a Mongol Chrestomathy in the city of Kasan in 1836-in Russian no less, Blavatsky's native tongue. By the time of the Mahatma Letters, (beginning in 1880) and certainly by the time of HPB's Secret Doctrine (1888), Jäschke's Dictionary was available, not to mention de Körös' Grammar of the Tibetan Language and Dictionary, both published in English in 1834 (London). In 1872 Childers had published his Dictionary of the Pali Language (London), while a great many Sanskrit dictionaries were available, including Goldstücker (1856), Monier-Williams (1872), and Apte (1884). Chinese Buddhist terms had likewise been made available by Eitel in his 1870 Handbook for the Student of Chinese Buddhism. (For a more complete survey of dictionaries, translations and contemporary literature on Buddhism available during HPB's life, see Appendix I.)

This does not prove that because terms and texts may have been mentioned by Western sources, HPB had copied them. But as per the methodology outlined in chapter one, however accurately Blavatsky and her teachers may have used such Buddhist vocabulary, all instances of technical terms or quotes from native Buddhist texts must be dismissed-unless they cannot be traced to contemporary publications in any Western language, or they refer to definitions, details or concepts that were then unknown. In this way one can be certain Blavatsky must have had an independent source. By this measure, HPB's notable Buddhist vocabulary and textual references become quite few.


(16) Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake, p. 97.
(17) Upasika is Sanskrit for a female non-ordained follower of Buddha.
(18) Barker, Mahatma Letters, No. 85, p. 393.
(19) Barker, Mahatma Letters p. 33.
(20) Barker, Mahatma Letters, p. 135 etc.
(21) Barker, Mahatma Letters, p. 44. Khobilgan is a phonetic rendering of the Mongolian translation of Bodhisattva.
(22) Barker, Mahatma Letters, p. 110. Chutuktu is a phonetic rendering of the Mongolian translation of Arhat.
(23) Barker, Mahatma Letters, pp. 261, 369, etc. Lha is Tibetan for a god or anything elevated or sacred.
(24) Barker, Mahatma Letters, p. 281. Both are phonetic renderings of the Tibetan translation of Bodhisattva.
(25) Barker, Mahatma Letters, p. 455. It is significant that this letter in other printings has changed all the original references to 'Buddhism' (two d's) to 'Budhism.' See Theosophical Articles by William Q. Judge (Los Angeles: The Theosophy Co., 1980) pp. 321-22. The original, however, clearly refers to 'Buddhism'.
(26) While the meaning of Mahå as a Sanskrit term is clear enough, the word chohan has been a linguistic puzzle for over a century. See the section on "chohan" below, under the heading "Of Terms and Texts."
(27) Barker, Mahatma Letters, p. 368.

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