Of Terms and Texts
Nevertheless, there are still quite a number of Buddhist terms and treatises that HPB and her teachers refer to that have not yet been traced to any contemporary Western-language source, or whose definitions given by HPB don't correspond with what was known last century. Some of these terms have never been positively identified, like the term lanoo, allegedly Tibetan for "disciple," mentioned in HPB's 1889 text, The Voice of the Silence. Other puzzling Theosophical terms can now be identified as traditional terms in use by Buddhists in various languages. This may be accomplished by referring to more recent and complete dictionaries, new authoritative translations, and new research which has been carried out by both practising Buddhists and Buddhist Studies scholars in the century since Madame Blavatsky's death. A sample of some Theosophical terms follows, only recently identified as to Buddhist provenance, followed by some texts known to HPB or her teachers last century, but only this century known to scholars.
In one of his letters to A.P. Sinnett, the Mahatma known as KH wrote the following unusual claim:
Certainly 'four noble truths' were known to Buddhist scholars last century, but the four truths don't appear to relate to a set of seven metaphysical mysteries which included Karma and Nirvåa. Yet this century the central importance of Maitreyanåtha's Ratna-gotra-vibhåga to Buddhist studies has become evident. The opening verse of this text, translated by David Reigle, reads,
Reigle notes that dhåtu is "perhaps the key term in the Ratna-gotra-vibhåga," a synonym for the esoteric doctrine of the tathågatagarbha ("buddha-seed"). Discussion on this central and hotly disputed doctrine will take place in chapter three below. Suffice it to say that here, in one place, seems to be an indication of the scholarship of Blavatsky's teacher, as well as an instance of a bona fide 'esoteric' doctrine of Buddhism-esoteric in that it was revealed by an (as yet) unidentified Maitreyanåtha to his disciple, Asanga in secret.
Blavatsky makes Asanga not only the founder of the Yogåcåra school, but also the founder of an apparently separate esoteric school. First, it must be acknowledged that much of what Blavatsky says about Asanga appears to have come from written sources of her day. HPB writes,
However, Blavatsky in her dating of Asanga appears to be entirely dependent on Wilson (writing in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. VI, London 1839, p. 240) who believed it "established, that [Aryåsanga's works] have been written at the latest, from a century and a half before to as much after, the era of Christianity." Importantly, this exact quote of Wilson, with citation of journal and page, may be found on page 32 of Schlagintweit's Buddhism in Tibet, as well as the prefix "Arya" to Asanga's name. But whatever Blavatsky's dating of Asanga, and whether there were one or two important Buddhist figures by that name, Blavatsky makes the important claim that he founded an esoteric school. Now, whatever one may make of the Yogåcåra tradition, it has never been known to have been 'esoteric,' in the sense of hidden from the masses. To what can Blavatsky have been referring?
It turns out that according to Buddhist tradition, or at least according to the famous historian Tåranåtha, Asanga was the founder of the Tantric school as well. Benoytosh Bhattacharyya writes,
It may be that here Tåranåtha gives a pious fiction, attempting to legitimate Vajrayåna tradition by tying the origin of the esoteric Tantras to a well-respected figure in history. Be that as it may, it is not clear how Blavatsky could have been aware of this tradition, other than being exposed to it orally from a Buddhist teacher, as Tåranåtha's history was not known in the West last century.
Blavatsky first writes of this term in 1885 while discussing the several souls in Chinese philosophy: "At death the hwan [hun] or spiritual soul wanders away, ascending, and the pho [p'o] (the root of the Tibetan word Pho-hat) descends and is changed into a ghostly shade (the shell)." (32) Afterwards, however, she consistently spells the term as Fohat. In her posthumous Theosophical Glossary, (1892) HPB writes,
Of course there is no mention of a Sanskrit Daiviprakriti in any Sanskrit texts, even today-another mystery term. But the connection between Fohat and primordial light is an important one to keep in mind. In her occult cosmogony, The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky elaborates,
The spelling of this 'Fohat' misled Theosophists for over a century, but I have now identified it as the Tibetan verb '2ÅÔ3 ('phro-wa) and/or the noun form cu/Ô (spros-pa). These two terms are listed in Jäschke's Tibetan English Dictionary (1881) but with inadequate translations. For the verb form 'phro-wa, Jäschke gives "to proceed, issue, emanate from, to spread, in most cases from rays of light "(35) while for the noun spros-pa he gives "business, employment, activity."(36) Jäschke's definition of the verb certainly corresponds well with one sense of HPB's definition, that of "pervading" like Vishnu, but leaves untouched the mental and creative aspects of the term. But a comprehensive search of 20th century Tibetan dictionaries, word lists and Sanskrit translations has turned up a wealth of information that would appear to validate HPB's understanding of a cosmic, psycho-creative force. Most importantly, Lokesh Chandra in his Tibetan-Sanskrit Dictionary, gives for spros-pa several Sanskrit equivalents, including 1. sarga 2. prapañca. According to the most authoritative Sanskrit dictionary, that of Monier-Williams, Sarga is defined as "Emission or creation of matter, primary creation creation of the world (as opposed to its pralaya, 'dissolution,' and sthiti, 'maintainence in existence')."(37) From the same source, we find Prapañca: "Expansion, development, manifestations (Må?¨kya Upani?ad) (in philosophy) the expansion of the universe, the visible world (cited in Upani?ads; Kapila's Såµkhya-pravacana; Sarvardarßana-saµgraha)." But in Buddhist philosophy, prapañca is much more than this: it is the mental fabrication of dualistic consciousness which literally creates the world as the non-enlightened perceiver experiences it. In seeing the activity of dualistic consciousness on a cosmic scale, HPB sees prapañca as many Tantric texts do. This 'Tantric' worldview will be investigated more fully in chapter three.
Though in her 1892 Glossary HPB identifies the word 'chohan' as Tibetan,(39) meaning "Lord" or "Master," "a chief," it can not be located in any Tibetan text or dictionary from last century. Once again, however, it is the spelling which has caused the problem, along with mispronunciation. "Chohan" is indeed a Tibetan word, ø/Ô'ø?Ô (chos-'chong-pa). It is compounded of ø/ chos (Sanskrit dharma, "the Buddhist Teaching" or "Truth") with 'ø?Ô 'chong-pa (Sanskrit dhåraa, "holder" or "protector"). Taken together, the word means "protector of the faith" or perhaps better, "holder of the Buddhist teachings." According to Das, the word has two primary meanings, "1. Buddha 2. A title of honor given to distinguished scholars."(40) Why Blavatsky has prefixed the Sanskrit Mahå to the Tibetan chos-'chong-pa, to form 'Mahachohan,' as she often did, who can say? It seems more appropriate, rather, to place Mahå with the Sanskrit, dharma-dhåraa, or add the Tibetan chen-po ("great") to the end of chos-'chang-pa (with the same effect). It is this sort of linguistic carelessness which gives scholars pause when examining HPB, but in reality it is merely idiosyncratic and of little consequence. Thus it may be that Blavatsky actually had a Buddhist teacher with this title, or was in contact with someone who did, for otherwise it becomes difficult to explain her accurate use of the word as a Tibetan Buddhist title, or an as equivalent to 'Dhyåni-Buddha'.
Since the publication of Evans-Wentz's famous book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1927), the term "bardo" has become a fixture in Western vocabulary. But last century the term was virtually unknown, belonging as it did to the Tibetan gTer-Ma or "hidden text" tradition, namely the text called Bar-do Thos-grol. Blavatsky's student Mr. Sinnett writes to Mahatma KH,
To which Master KH responds,
Leaving aside for the moment the other technical words, the term Bardo may only be found in two locations prior to the writing of KH's letter (1882): Schlagintweit's Buddhism in Tibet (1863) and Jäschke's Tibetan-English Dictionary (1881). Schlagintweit says of Bardo:
In Jäschke we read
In both scholarly accounts the duration of Bardo is of much concern, as it was to Mr. Sinnett. However, the Mahatma's letter contains new information: that of three primary divisions in the bardo state. According to "The Root Verses of The Six Betweens," in the Bardo Thos-grol ascribed to Padmasambhava, there are actually three bar-dos during physical life (waking, dreaming and meditating) and three bar-dos after physical death: 1. The "death-point" 2. "reality between" which is between the death-point and falling into a new rebirth 3. "becoming," which is between the "reality" phase of death and physical conception.(44) These match up admirably with KH's statement quoted above, although KH assumes that all fairly moral humans take rebirth in bDe-wa-can-an assumption apparently unique to Theosophy. As to the length of time in bar-do, the standard time given is, at the utmost, 49 days, or 7 cycles of 7. However, some native commentators have claimed these "days" are measured by the lifespans of one's future birth, some of which are extremely long.(45)
Jñåna Prasthåna Íåstra
The Mahatma Letters make brief mention of a Vaibhå?ika-Sarvåstivåda work, commenting on the Abhidharma: "In the Jñåna Prasthåna Íastra, it is said, 'By personal purity and earnest meditation, we overleap the limits of the World of Desire [Kåma-dhåtu], and enter in the World of Forms [R¨pa-dhåtu]'."(46) This 2nd century BCE work, by the Vaibhå?ika-Sarvåstivåda scholar Kåtyåyan¥putra, was certainly not available in any western language last century, nor is it available in translation today. It is however a critical text for Buddhism, as it became the basis for Vasubandhu's 4th century CE landmark commentary, the Abhidharma-koßa-bhå?ya.
The Books of 'Kiu-Te'
By far the most important of all the texts that HPB mentions are the
hitherto mysterious "Books of Kiu-Te," for it is out of 'secret
commentaries' to these works that Blavatsky claims to extract the "Stanzas
of Dzyan." Her entire magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, is nothing
but a commentary on these ßlokas of 'Dzyan', followed by lengthy
comparison of these teachings with contemporary scientific views and the
records left by ancient religions. (See Appendix II for a selection of these
Stanzas) If these secret "Kiu-Te" commentaries in fact exist,
then it is possible to take more seriously Blavatsky's claim that she is
presenting to the West, for the first time, extracts from a truly 'esoteric'
Blavatsky then refers to the Catholic monk Della Penna's dismissive account of the Books of Kiu-Te, an early 18th century account that was unpublished until Markham's 1876 book, Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet:
It will be obvious to any scholar barely familiar with the Tibetan Canon,
of course, that the two divisions here discussed are nothing other than
the rGyud-sde (Tantras) and mDo-sde (Sutras) of the Canon called
bKa'-'gyur (Kanjur).(48) Della Penna's spelling of Khiute (not his
sentiment) is the obvious influence on HPB's "Books of of Kiu-te,"
which is actually a quite good phonetic rendering of rGyud-sde. Blavatsky
is apparently not influenced by Schlagintweit, who spells it Gyut (and gives
in the appendix the accurate spelling) nor is Blavatsky drawing, at least
for spelling, from Csoma de Köros' 1836 "Analysis of the
Kah-Gyur" (in the journal, Asiatic Researches) where he lists
each of the major sections of the Buddhist canon, and gives short abstracts
of each treatise in them.
Vajragarbha in his ¥kå states that
Clearly then, Tibetan tradition itself accepts that its "published"
canonical Tantras may not be the definitive, final (n¥tårtha)
exposition of their teachings. Esoteric as the rGyud-sde (Tantras)
may be, even more esoteric commentaries and/or root texts appear to have
once been known, and are now lost, hidden, or unknown. Indeed, to any one
who has actually read even a small portion of a Tantric text, it is clear
that any meaning is inscrutable without the aid of a commentary or
oral explanation by a qualified teacher. The Tantric texts are full of symbolism,
using numbers, colors, various ritual implements and bodily substances in
complex visualizations. At times the symbolism is quite sexual, giving rise
to the poor Catholic monk's horror of "this infamous and filthy law
Further, HPB specifically elevated the Pachen Lama over the Dalai Lama, unlike most scholars last century (and this) who virtually ignore the Pachen Lama and the long scholarly tradition of that office. She writes,
In summary, while a few Western sources by Blavatsky's time had made brief mention of the existence of a Kålachakra Tantra and the existence of a "Gyut" section of the Buddhist canon, Blavatsky gave significantly more information, which has turned out to be correct. (1) Tibetan tradition does in fact have a record of more extensive and explanatory Tantras, which do not exist in the Tibetan Canon. (2) The Kålachakra system is largely cosmological and deals with the creation of the universe from space, through six elements, with extremely complex numerology and astrology. This is the subject of the entire volume one of Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine. (3) The Kålachakra is associated with the scholarly tradition of the Pachen Lamas, who are in fact considered the tutors of the Dalai Lamas(52). None of this proves that there is in fact a secret M¨la Kålachakra Tantra, or that Blavatsky (or her teachers) had access to it. But it does suggest that Blavatsky knew what the Buddhist Tantras were, knew their content and philosophical import better than any Western contemporary, and knew bona fide Tibetan traditions surrounding them. This alone gives strong reasons not to dismiss her claims out of hand.
(28) Barker, Mahatma Letters, p. 107.
(29) Translated and commented upon by David Reigle, "Book of Dzyan Research Report: Theosophy in Tibet: The Teachings of the Jonangpa School," p. 5.
(30) Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, footnote pp. 49-50.
(31) Bhattacharyya, Benoytosh, ed. Guhyasamåja Tantra or Tathågataguhyaka, pp. xxxiv-v. I am indebted to David Reigle for this helpful reference.
(32) Blavatsky's foonote to an article entitled "Zoroastrianism on the Septenary Constitution of Man," reprinted in Five Years of Theosophy, p. 152. The etymology is of course quite unlikely, but it indicates more accurately how Blavatsky must have heard the term Fohat pronounced.
(33) Theosophical Glossary, pp. 120-121.
(34) Secret Doctrine, Vol. I, p. 112:
(35) Jäschke's Tibetan English Dictionary p. 361.
(36) Jäschke's Tibetan English Dictionary p. 337-8.
(37) Monier-Williams, p. 1184.
(38) Monier-Williams, p. 681.
(39) Theosopical Glossary, p.83
(40) Das, Tibetan-English Dictionary, p. 431
(41) Barker, Mahatma Letters, No. 16, p. 103.
(42) Schlagintweit, p. 109.
(43) Jäschke, p. 367
(44) paraphrased from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, trans. Robert Thurman, pp.117-118.
(45) Rinbochay, Lati and Jeffrey Hopkins, Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism, p. 53.
(46) Barker, Mahatma Letters, No. 16, p. 102. this quote has not yet been compared to the original Sanskrit for accuracy.
(47) Secret Doctrine, Vol.3, p. 405.
(48) The identification of Blavatsky's "Books of Kiu-te" as the Tantra section of the Tibetan Canon was made independently by two scholars. Henk Spierenberg does this in his work Tibetaans Boeddhisme (Theosophical Society in the Netherlands, 1975), p. 74; while David Reigle makes the same announcement in his Books of Kiu-Te, or The Tibetan Buddhist Tantras (Wizard's Bookshelf, 1983) p. 2.
(49) Snellgrove, p.17, cited by Reigle, p.3.
(50) Reigle, "New Light on the Book of Dzyan," p. 54. The argument of this paragraph is entirely indebted to David Reigle's work in this article and in his short treatise The Books of Kiu-Te.
(51) The Secret Doctrine, Vol 3. p.409 fn3. Blavatsky reveals her sectarian affiliations here, which is important to note. However, it must also be noted that she is wrong. the incarnations began with the Dalai Lamas, namely the third, and it was only iwth the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (Nabang Lobsang) that a reincarnating Lama was named as permanent tutor. This is the origin of the Panchen Lama, though possibly the followers of the Panchen Lama held a revisionist history. This is worth looking into.
(52) It might be argued that Blavatsky gained much of her material on the Kålachakra Tantra from Csoma de Köros abstract in his 1836 article "Analysis of the ...Kah-Gyur," or from Schlagintweit's chapter on "The Kålachakra System." This will be examined in the last section of this chapter. But niether these nor any other 19th century sources show the connection between the Kålachakra and the Panchen Lama, nor give specific cosmological information, nor make mention of a tradition of explanatory Tantras besides the opaque Tantras in the Canon.