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Editorial 14

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The Buddha and the Theosophical Society

Are Theosophists Buddhists?

It was in 1875 that the modern Theosophical Society was founded in New York by the Ukrainian lady Mme. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky together with a few American gentlemen. There had been many, uncountable many theosophical movements or efforts in former centuries and ages, by organizations, groups, and individual Theosophists in times before, under many names, such as Rosicrucians, the followers of Jacob Boehme, the Martinists[1] and sometimes in the last two millennia the ancient Greek term ‘theosophia’ was used in the western world. Theosophy means ‘wisdom of the gods’. It is a general, not strictly defined term. Such movements and people have had and have, more or less successfully, a sustaining and protecting influence in the occidental world during ages of dogmatism and materialism – and comparable lines were followed throughout ages in other cultures outside the western part of the world. The modern Theosophical movement has been and is such a powerful influence in the world with its own special duties. We see that in the modern movement religions and philosophies of all places and ages, as far as we have still access to them, are taken into account and that comparative study is stimulated. Truth is the core of every spiritual system, religion per se as it is indeed of every human heart. Theosophy is not a religion or thought system, and individual theosophists can privately adhere to any or none of the existing religions.

What than has the Buddha to do with the Theosophical movement?

When the Theosophical Society was founded by Blavatsky and the others in New York, these people were not the ‘real’ founders. The formal organization was then and there founded, and 17th of November 1975 is regarded as its official founding date by most theosophists – though the decision was taken some time before. But the formal organization was only an outlet of an inner Brotherhood of the true founders, of which Blavatsky in particular, and her associates were the chosen executors in the world. Behind the founding of this and earlier movements is a large body of accomplished men who have transcended human evils and limitations. This ‘sangha’ or community of those whose very essence is wisdom and stainless compassion was the true founder. Two of such ‘masters of Wisdom and Compassion’, or mahatmas, or bodhisattvas, were especially involved in the founding and guiding of the movement. They allowed themselves to become known as the masters Koot Hoomi Lal Singh (KH) and Morya (M). Morya was the personal guru of Mme Blavatsky. KH and M resided and traveled mainly in North India and Tibet. There were a number of other such Mahatmas from other countries, e.g. from Egypt, more or less involved in the effort to launch and sustain the Theosophical movement.

KH and M repeatedly stated in their letters that they regarded the Buddha as their Lord.[2]. KH made a personal remark which leaves no doubt as to his connection with Tibetan Buddhism:[3] “I am still attracted toward some men more than toward others, and philanthropy as preached by our Great Patron—‘the Saviour of the world – the Teacher of Nirvana and the Law . . . .’ has never killed in me … individual preferences of friendship, love – for my next of kin, …”

KH was himself indebted to his master, who he usually calls the ‘chohan’ (=Chief), or the Mahachohan (‘Great Chief’) to whom he has to ask permission for very major action. The Mahachohan had given permission for the founding of the TS, and also for the correspondence of KH and M with the two English gentlemen A.P. Sinnett and A.O Hume[4]

Famous in Theosophical circles is ‘The Letter from the Maha-chohan’ also known as ‘The Great Master’s Letter’. The Chief says: “Buddhism stripped of its superstitions is eternal truth, and he who strives for the latter is striving for Theos-sophia, Divine Wisdom, which is a synonym of truth.” He also says, relating to the work done by H.S. Olcott, the President of the Theosophical Society for the revival of exoteric Buddhism (i.e. Buddhism as we know it) in Sri Lanka:

“Even exoteric Buddhism [i.e. the outer form of Buddhism Ed.] is the surest path to lead men toward the one esoteric truth. As we find the world now, whether Christian, Muslim or Pagan, justice is disregarded and honour and mercy both flung to the winds.” And “… to revive Buddhism may be regarded as one who labours in the true path of Theosophy …”

In the same letter the Mahachohan says: “That we, the devoted followers of that spirit incarnate of absolute self-sacrifice, of philanthropy, 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, the refuge of the few with no thought in them for the many, is a strange idea, my brothers.”

There can be little doubt about the reverence of the masters including the master of the masters to Buddha and Buddhism. The Mahachohan even says: “The doctrine we promulgate being the only true one, must, – supported  by such evidence as we are preparing to give become ultimately triumphant as every other truth.” [Italics mine – This must, of course, not be seen as ‘posing their own doctrine above all others’ – see note further on – Ed.]

One of the first books ever produced by modern Theosophy was A.P. Sinnetts Esoteric Buddhism – and the mahatma himself praised him for the choice of the title. Later this was found confusing, and it was renamed as Esoteric Budhism (with one d), which literally means esoteric wisdom-ism, i.e. it includes hints streaming forth from true esoteric Buddhism which also existed before Buddha. Looking back, this seems to have been a good initiative, regarding the present confusion about the term ‘esoteric’.

Add to the above quotes relating to Buddhism the fact that, when visiting Sri Lanka, both Theosophical Society President Henry Steel Olcott and Mme. Blavatsky took pañchasīla – the vow to follow the five virtues of Buddhism, by which one formally becomes a Buddhist. Thus there can hardly be any doubt about the strong links of sympathy of modern Theosophy and Buddhism. Also one of the most influential Theosophical pupils of Mme. Blavatsky worldwide after her death, C.W. Leadbeater called himself a Buddhist (though he wrote more on Christian ritual) and did a great amount of work together with Olcott for Sri Lankan Buddhism. THis was so much apperciated by athe Sri Lankan people that a big statue of Olcott stand today on Occult Mawattha (Highway) in front of the main railway station of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Olcott, Leadbeater and others also visited others Buddhist countries in order to stimulate the revival there.

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H. S. Olcott in Colombo

 Concerning Olcott, Kirthisinghe and Amarasuriya[5] write: “On his first visit [to Japan] in 1888, he gave 70 lectures, and on his second visit in 1890 he brought the Mahāyāna Buddhists of Japan, Korea, China and Viet-Nam into closer co-operation with the Theravāda Buddhists of India, Burma, Ceylon, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, by calling their attention to the fundamental principles of Buddhism which are common to all schools and sects. Thereby he established a common platform for all Buddhists, whether of the Northern or the Southern school Colonel Olcott travelled widely in the East and in Europe on lecture tours. He was also associated with the revival of Buddhism in Japan, and visited that country twice. It was one of the most remarkable and statesmanlike contributions of Colonel Olcott.” Olcott also wrote “The Buddhist Catechism”, which is still in use in Sri Lanka today.

Still, Gottfried the Purucker, who is by many regarded as the most important teacher and writer in the Theosophical movement since Blavatsky and said he belonged to the same School as Blavatsky, writes: “…we are not Buddhists;”[6]. Even though to my own feeling Purucker was closest to Buddhism of all main authors. G de Purucker and C.W. Leadbeater for example, had a strong Christian education behind them before they formally entered The Theosophical stream, while Blavatsky esoterically and Olcott were more connected with Buddhism in its outward (exoteric) form, and Annie Besant and William Quan Judge, for example, were more connected with Hinduism. Anna Kingsford in London, another key figure in the early days of the movement, was a learned and dedicated Hermeticist. She wrote, among a number of other books, The Virgin of the World of Hermes Mercurius Trismagistus. ((By the way, it is interesting that in our days, the first part of the 21st century we see a strong revival of Hermetism, classical European Occultism and Rosicucianism in Europe on a high intellectual level, which has led, among other results, to the bringing together of most books in their original editions produced since the European Renaissance in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam and the establishment of sub-faculty under Humanities at the University of Amsterdam.))

The key to unraveling the confusion is that some Theosophists may be exoteric Buddhists, but may just as well be Farsi, Jains, Christians, Taoists, Muslims, Cabalists, Platonists, Atheists, Humanist etc. etc. or call themselves none of these whatsoever. Though the Masters KH and M were declared Buddhists, other Masters may have their foundation in other religions.

There have been many efforts to bring bits and parts of the universal wisdom tradition to the people according to the receiver’s culture and understanding throughout history and even prehistory. All of these founders of religions as well as workers unknown and in secret, theosophically, belong to the truly existent ‘Hierarchy of Compassion’ – to use G. de Purucker’s expression. To quote him: “The Hierarchy of Compassion [is] the hierarchy of spiritual beings extending from the highest solar or galactic monad [spiritual center], to the least element forming its vehicles or being. “It is built of divinities, demigods, buddhas, bodhisattvas, and great and noble men, who serve as a living channel for the spiritual currents coming to this and every other planet of our system from the heart of the solar divinity, and who themselves shed glory and light and peace upon that pathway from the compassionate deeps of their own being. . . .”[7]

The Buddha was not only the founder of Buddhism. He was the guardian and Teacher of a new cycle. In fact he did not found Buddhism at all. Gautama Buddha was but one of many Buddhas after those who came before him. Blavatsky repeatedly speaks of ‘pre-Vedic Buddhism’, knowing very well that the Vedas are very much more ancient than the Buddhist scriptures since Gautama. She also says of the Stanzas of Dzyan – the verses on which her major work The Secret Doctrine are based – are partly of ‘pre-Buddhist’ origin. According to one listing he was the 24th (in our present cycle of mental development – by the way, just as many as the Jains call their Tīrthaṅkaras), elsewhere the number of 35 is mentioned, referring to an earlier cycle as well. In truth the number of Buddhas would be infinite. To talk in words which can only be understood by people have studied Theosophical literature it is more specifically stated that ‘our’ Buddha was the 4th racial Buddha coming towards the middle of the Fifth Rootrace since the beginning of Rootraces in this our Fourth Round ((There are seven Rounds, each of which has seven rootraces. Thus 49 spiritual beings, human Buddhas or higher beings, have started these 49 rootraces.)) – the first one occupied by a still higher spiritual being than even the Buddha).

When we talk about Rootraces and planetary Rounds, we refer to the whole planet, to the whole of humanity in its various stages of evolution. Thus ‘our’ Buddha of the Fifth or Ārya Rootrace worked and works still for long periods to come, for the good of all humanity, and can be called the Chief or Head of founders and cyclic workers for all minor cycles within our Fifth or mental Rootrace. Here we speak of the esoteric Buddha, and esoteric Buddhism[8]. Gautama Buddha, after he passed away physically at the age of 80, left behind a bodhisattva, who, as a nirmaṇakāya continues to work until a next racial Buddha takes over.

In this sense, all theosophical movements – all efforts instigated by the Hierarchy of Compassion – are under supervision of this racial Buddha, the esoteric Buddha who lived temporarily on Earth as the man Gautama.

When Purucker said, ‘we are not Buddhists’ this was part of his sentence, “we are not Buddhists; yet we follow the esoteric doctrine of the Lord Buddha.” It is in this sense that the Mahachohan says: “The doctrine we promulgate being the only true one, must, – supported by such evidence as we are preparing to give become ultimately triumphant as every other truth.” Superficially it may appear as if he wants to say that his own religion is better than all others. If he had meant it in that way, he would only have sown the seed for religious strive and war among the exoteric religions.[9]

Theosophy has nothing today with the external structure of Buddhist movements, the life of monks in monasteries, or with their specific rituals or methods. My personal experience in Tibetan Gelukpa ((the sect founded by Tsong-kha-pa (More about Tsong-kha-pa in the next editorial).)) of which the Dalai Lama is the outer Head) and other Buddhist monasteries has learned me that these cherish as many exotericisms as other religions do. Children have to spend hours singing monotonous songs of praise and dedications to the well-being of all living beings next to their normal school lessons at the monastery schools (where I heard them being taught the canon Brother Jacob). Rituals form an important part of monastic life. But when one inquires about the deeper meaning of paintings, symbols and rituals, nobody knows (except perhaps some of the higher monks). What is important though – and perhaps places this Buddhism on a higher level than any other religion – is the continuous emphasis on the well-being or other living beings and the unlimited sacrifices one can make to serve the altruistic purpose. This is completely supported by Theosophy, it is indeed of the core principles of both Buddhism and Theosophy, which are compassion and altruism. Many of their teachings during courses seem so far away from the modern theosophical teachings that I didn’t even dare to reveal myself as a theosophist and propagate my ideas out of fear that in the teacher’s minds I might make Theosophy ridiculous forever. Please do not tell them that reincarnation after maximum 49 days is exoteric, nor that humans do not (normally) incarnate as animals.  Still the jewel of genuine knowledge is hidden in all their teachings, behaviors and habits.

So I think it is right to conclude that Theosophists are esoteric Buddhists, including pre-Gautama Buddhism, even if they call themselves Christians of Hindus or whatever, but that they are not (necessarily or often) exoteric Buddhists. It is valuable to read the Letter of the Great Lord (the Mahachohan) on this site.

  1. Martinists are inspired by the school of Claude de Saint-Martinsee his book Theosophic Correspondence by Louis Claude De Saint Martin [<<]
  2. For example: In The Mahatma Letter to A.P. Sinnett p. 111+fn (TUP-edition) : KH writes in letter nr. 16: ‘… distinctly taught by our Lord (who is) Gautama the Buddha …’ and in letter nr. 9 (on p. 43) KH speaks of  ‘Buddha, the patron of all adepts’; in letter 57 on p. 330 he speaks of ‘our Lord Buddha’. [<<]
  3. Letter 8, p. 33 TUP-edition [<<]
  4. Posthumously published as the already quoted The Mahatma Letter to A.P. Sinnett. [<<]
  5. From: Colonel Olcott: His Service To Buddhism by B. P. Kirthisinghe and M. P. Amarasuriya, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.The Wheel Publication No. 281 Copyright © Kandy; Buddhist Publication Society, (1981) First Edition: 1981 BPS Online Edition © (2009) BPS Online Edition © 2006 For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted, and redistributed in any medium. However, any such republication and redistribution is to be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis and translations and other derivative works are to be clearly marked as such. [<<]
  6. SOP p. 502 [<<]
  7. Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary (online only). [<<]
  8. which is not the modern, at least not the exoteric Vajrayana, a development within Mahāyana which is often referred to by modern writers as ‘esoteric Buddhism’ [<<]
  9. This must, of course, not be seen as ‘posing their own doctrine above all others’, because that would bring the same problem as Christians saying that Jesus was the only son of God (implying that all other teachers were at least more or less fake). It would no doubt make Theosophists into the haughtiest people on earth. The meaning of Jesus saying was that there is only one Christ (or buddha / buddhi) in every man, the undividable spiritual and eternal principle that is the basis of all Nature. No doubt Jesus, the Buddha and many great teachers would be feeling very well at home among the mahatmas, as indeed they are themselves, and belong to the greatest among them. [<<]