Home » Esoteric and Buddhism – Part III: Confusions about Buddhism and Theosophy

Esoteric and Buddhism – Part III: Confusions about Buddhism and Theosophy

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Confusions about Buddhism and Theosophy

 > part II

The question is, which teachings belong to the original teachings of the Buddha himself (originally in secret to select pupils and unwritten) and what is the result of later interpretations and mixture with Indian degraded tantrism? Before one enters the Vajrayana path, one has to follow the Pāramitā path – the path of the (six, or ten) perfections. This means one has then alreadyperfected one’s practice in Buddhist ethics: i.e. perfection in charity, virtue, patience, spiritual courage and energy, meditation and wisdom. Who can say he has? Patience opposes the personal wish to go a quicker path. Patience for example, can be the patience of a teacher (which all of us can be) towards a pupil (which all of us can be) in which the first has discovered the ‘spark’ of spirituality. Though the promise of a great disciple is there, the teacher needs the patience to see him or her failing and deviating time and time again, and out of love and compassion still holds on to this pupil life-time after life-time, even discarding his own progress if needed. Such teachers and pupils can be doing so consciously or not, and each of us can be both. Leave the judgment to the real bodhisattva and one’s higher (buddhic) self.

It has been my own experience that tantric Vajrayāna or ‘esoteric’ initiations are easily given to people in small relatively unprepared groups of people, or hundreds or thousands without previous training from all directions of the world. Some may profit spiritually, i.e. be truly inspired by some sayings and the whole atmosphere of the gathering; among them may also be those who have their egos blown up.1 But, as said, ‘esoteric’ is not so much a matter of the content of a text or an empowerment by a lama, but of inner recognition or opening up of a new field of higher knowledge by those who are being initiated, and what they do with it. Human evolution can be stimulated and accellerated, but not be forced beyond its present evolutionary capacity.

When I was younger as a Theosophist I often heard words like ‘tantra’ and ‘yogic practice’ used in a derogative sense. For some, tantra was equivalent to the lowest types of black magic involving sex, alcohol and drugs while concentrating on some eerie deity, leading to intense psychological experiences of a lower nature. ‘Yoga’ was associated with dangerous, energy-disturbing postures and breathing exercises (haha yoga and prāāyama). These things certainly exist and are popular within Hindu tantra and perhaps adopted by some Buddhists, and regrettably it is indeed true that certain of such practices have become popular in the West also. Luckily few westerners have the stamina to stretch these exercises to their limit and thus cause uncontrolled arousal of the noble force of kuṇḍaliī (‘serpent power’) – active buddhi – which is extremely dangerous and may destroy parts or the whole of the body, and/or lead to strong psychological or psychiatric disharmonies and immeasurable incurable and medically inexplicable suffering during at least the present lifetime.2 Better would be if our culture could forget about these unauthorized ‘gifts’ from the east – but forgetting or unlearning something one has already learned is not easy. Accidents in this field have provided us with enough warnings though.

Therefore I was at first somewhat confused when I read that the great Tsong-kha-pa, so much lauded by H.P. Blavatsky, G. de Purucker and by the Gelukpa order3 founded by Tsong-kha-pa and of which the Dalai Lama is the head, sought and taught the union of Sūtra and Tantra. I also found that one of the most important of Tsong-kha-pa’s works is entitled The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra (sngags rim chen mo). Such confusion however disappears when one analyzes what is really meant and where the confusion comes from.

It is also noteworthy to repeat here what Theosophy has written about the Buddhist teacher Āsaṅga or Āryāsaga and his Yogāchāra school. In Sanskrit Keys to the Wisdom Religion4 we find under Yogāchāra: A mystic esoteric School of Mahāyāna which is traced back to Āryāsagha, a direct disciple of Buddha. The earlier Āryāsaṅgha lived at a date long preceding the later one. He was an Arhat and founded the original Yogāchārya school, a thoroughly esoteric institution; this school is a branch of the Mahāyāna, and is of a truly spiritual type, its teachings being identical in essence with those of Theosophy (It. mine – Ed.)5

H.P. Blavatsky recommended not to confuse these true esoteric teachings with everything which had been compiled afterwards under the name of Yogāchāra, especially the tantric teachings, the application of which can, and usually does, lead to black magic because forces may arse in one’s character of the existence of which one has normally no idea, and are of a very powerful and ego-centered character. This Mahātantra school, which has little to do with the original intentions of the real Yogāchāra, was founded by Samantabhadra, whose teachings were later collected and glossed around the 6th century by the pseudo-Āryāsaṅgha in connection with litanies, formularies, spells, etc. This school is wholly exoteric, popular, and its works are largely composite of tantric worship and ritualism that can lead the student only to black magic and sorcery (E.T.G.).

The founder of the true and original Yogāchāra school, according to H.P. Blavatsky, was Āryāsaga, who she describes as an “Arhat who long preceded Christianity and was a direct disciple of Gautama the Buddha”, as Mrs. Tyberg, above also quoted. His original writings were never published, Blavatsky said, and what has been published later under his name is not the original teaching, but is more or less mixed with influences from the Hindu Śivaism and Tantrism. Therefore one should not confuse this pre-Christian Adept, founder of an esoteric school of pure Buddhism (cf. S.D. I, 49fn:*), with another figure of the same name who seemed to have been living much later. Today the founder of the Yogāchāra School is by scholars generally identified as Asaga is the brother of Vasubandhu, who both lived in the 4th century CE.

Jean-Louis Siémons, a later Theosophical scholar of Paris, France, says that “today the pure Yogāchāra (or Cittamātra) system of Asaga and his followers is well known. It has nothing to do with Tantrism. In modern (learned) treatises of Buddhism the Yogāchāra (or Cittamātra) School is deeply analyzed. There is no recorded connection with anything like Vajrayāna, or tantrism, which appeared much later than the 4th century. The name of Āryāsaga may have been borrowed later (in the 5th or 6th century) by any sort of pseudo-master, but has nothing to do with the founder of the Yogāchāra School, which is indeed a branch of Mahāyāna, opposed (originally) to the Mādhyamikas, but, later on, more or less reconciled.”

The meaning of Tantra in Buddhism is usually ‘scripture,’ ‘book,’ or ‘means to accomplish’ and it contains true esoteric information and explanation – however never more than could ever be given to humanity, which of course includes all modern expositions and explanations. The term ‘tantra’ then has a very positive connotation. Such tantras include practical instructions, such as mantra meditation and deity visualizations of imagined absolutely pure deities (such as Kālachakra) who are empty of inherent existence, i.e. exist only in the spiritual world. In such visualizations in which the minutest details of the deity, his or her attributes (symbols hold in often many hands), their heads and colors etc., the directions from which they approached, their astral and prāic composition of minute details are given and advised to meditate on. Also secret mantra – sound influences and steers the aether (ākāśa) – are used. Such visualizations and meditations may lead to psychic powers which then can be used to extend one’s spiritual knowledge and insights, but can such secret teachings only be taught by true teachers, and can only be transmitted orally and by empowerment by such a genuine teacher. The purpose of the higher deities is certainly not in the first place to gain psychic powers, because such powers come naturally with inner spiritual develeopment as means to be helpful in deeper understanding and skillful compassionate action. Problem: Which public teacher in this age of spiritual darkness may we expect to be genuine? As long as one’s inner higher ethical intuition is not awake, it is impossible to judge such teachers in the core of their being. Nice words and ascribed accomplishments of such ‘teachers’ say nothing – or perhaps the fact of being mentioned alone proves the opposite of a true teacher. True Compassion and humility, not faked compassion, is the characteristic of a teacher. As long as the spiritual intuition of modern humanity is not sufficiently awake there is again the risk of decline of the teachings and a revival of base tantrism, as happened so many times before in history. Educated humanity nowadays, with its wide access to all sources and interpretations and its possibility of investigating independent of one specific (imperfect) teacher or school, has at least the opportunity to search and think for itself, thus developing its own power of distinction. We do not need to make the same mistakes as others did. Assistance on the Path will come when needed.

  1. With this I do not want to say that there is no good reason for giving such initiation to the world as large, which may be a conscious foreshadowing for generations to come – we can hardly doubt the wisdom and good intentions of the Dalai Lama who regularly performs initiations himself, notably Kālachakra. The Dalai Lama explains: “It is a way of planting a seed, and the seed will have karmic effect. One doesn’t need to be present at the Kālachakra ceremony in order to receive its benefits.” []
  2. See for example: Greenwell, Bonnie:Energies of Transformation: A Guide to the Kundalini Process. Shakti River Press, Saratoga, CA., (1995). []
  3. Order of the Virtuous, also known as ‘Yellow-caps’. []
  4. Sanskrit Keys to the Wisdom Religion; An Exposition of the Philosophical and Religious Teachings Embodied in the Sanskrit Terms Used in Theosophical and Occult Literature, by Judith Tyberg. Point Loma Publications, San Diego CA. Also available online as part of Collation of Theosophical Glossaries. []
  5. See also Āsaṅga’s Chapter on Ethics, published in 12 issues in this website []