(Tibetan) Buddhism and Blavatsky’s Theosophy

A theosophist recently mailed me with some very specific questions about Blavatsky’s version of Tibetan Buddhism. Since they are common questions, I will also post them here. I cannot do so without giving some general advice:

If you want to learn about Buddhism, go to Buddhists. If you want to learn about Hinduism, go to Hindus. If you want to learn about meditation, go to a meditation teacher.

This ought to be self-evident, but unfortunately it seems it isn’t. Instead, many theosophists continue to take Blavatsky’s 19th century interpretation of Buddhism as gospel truth. However, as David Reigle notes in his article Tsongkhapa and the Teachings of the Wisdom Tradition (appendix 2):

It is important to recognize that many of H. P. Blavatsky’s
statements are not her own. That is, they are not her own in the
sense of coming from her adept teachers, but rather they come
from the published books available at the time she wrote. This
means that, since the information found in these early books is
very often faulty, so Blavatsky’s statements are very often faulty.

In other words: even if you DO believe in Mahatmas supporting the theosophical movement, Blavatsky’s words on history and doctrine need to be taken with several grains of salt. Since her work contains a lot of material copied (with and without source reference) from contemporary authors, this puts a question mark on most of her work.

In other words: when reading Blavatsky: proceed at your own risk.

1) It is not only possible but highly likely that humans reincarnate in lower kingdoms;

Yes. This is definitely the Buddhist view. The image of a blind turtle in an ocean is used a lot. That is: a blind turtle swims in an ocean where only one round hoop is floating around. The chance of being reborn as a human is said to be similar to the chance of that blind turtle coming up for air with his head in the hoop.

However, the lower rebirth taught CAN be taken figuratively. Someone who is in the depths of suicidal depression can be said to be in hell – not merely in the English colloquial sense, but also according to some ancient interpretations of Buddhism (Vasubandhu).

2) There is no permanent element in Man (the question of Anatman or Anatta);

True. Buddhism definitely states that there isn’t a permanent soul that reincarnates. Blavatsky chose her position on the Hindu side of that debate. However, since Buddhists do believe there is reincarnation (or rebirth) in the first place, something DOES reincarnate.

One conclusion is that it is karma itself that reincarnates. (Read that sentence carefully.) Another that it’s the continuity of consciousness that reincarnates. Personally I do feel that, given Blavatsky’s place in time, her way of describing this wasn’t so very bad. Westerners weren’t used to thinking about consciousness at all back then. Western psychology was only just being invented (in Germany). Freud’s teachers were finding their way. We’re heirs to a century of popularized psychology. It’s a different situation.

Let’s face it – the nuances of atma/anatma are too complicated for most lay Buddhist to understand anyhow. Ask an ordinary Buddhist in Japan or Sri Lanka whether they will be reborn and they’ll say ‘yes’. What will be reborn? They may even say their ‘I’ (literally atman in many of the Asian languages) will be reborn. Blavatsky merely restated the popular view.

On the other hand, current day theosophists have no such excuse. They have several decades of genuine Buddhist teachers and books to consult. By now they should be aware of the Buddhist position and if they are going to go with the Hindu version, let them at least take in the nuances of the Advaita view. The latter makes it clear (as Blavatsky does if you’re looking for it) that the atma that does reincarnate is not something one can grasp. Our view of Atma is, by definition, too solid.

I have several articles on my site to explain either view:

The article by David Reigle mentioned before also discusses this, but his treatment of Chittamatra doesn’t square with what I have learned about that school, which undermines his whole point. However, he does summarize the Madhyamaka position as formulated by the Gelugpa tradition and also shows that Blavatsky really wasn’t close to Lama Tsong Khapa in approach at all, despite her claiming him as a Mahatma.

3) It is pointless to talk about Rounds, Races, in fact it is a useless speculation being sometimes tagged as “spiritual materialism”;

I totally agree. What’s the use? The whole story is difficult to reconcile with science and it’s unclear how it is helpful to our present day situation.

However, the rounds and races do tag onto areas of Buddhist mythology. Note that those teachers weren’t saying it wasn’t true. Not that I think it is. I don’t. But they couldn’t say it isn’t Buddhism, because there are very similar strands of mythology in Buddhism. These aren’t popular, because they ARE in conflict with modern science and most Buddhists would rather forget about them, if they know about them at all.

Spiritual materialism is a reference to Chogyam Trungpa. I recommend his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Shambhala Classics) and leave it up to you whether it’s applicable here.

4) There is no evolution;

You mean spiritual evolution. There is obviously evolution and adaptation in nature. The latter is also, equally obviously, not merely an upward drive.

Here it does get tricky. On the one hand it is clear that Buddhism (in common with Hinduism) teaches that we can easily be reborn as a scorpion, a snake or a dog, in a hell or a heaven. And that does imply that the relatively easy upward trend that Blavatsky envisages is untrue. As said before though, this can be taken figuratively.

On the other hand it is also clear that what we do with our consciousness today has an impact tomorrow. Those that walk the path seriously (ethics, meditation etc). are encouraged to think that they will, in time, clean up their act enough to become Arhats or Buddhas themselves. In this case the path does lead upwards, however thorny and long it may be. You can call that evolution if you will.

What’s more, pure actions, thoughts and words in this life are taught to be a guarantee for a human rebirth in a next life. Which means another decent chance at living another positive life. This what most lay Buddhists aim at, in fact: a string of human lives in which one avoids the worst transgressions and gradually purifies action, words and thoughts.

Such consistently helpful and kind people are not very common, but perhaps common enough for some optimism. This is the position Lama Yeshe took. His optimism was, when I first read him, reminiscent of Blavatsky. As to the latter, remember her mourning the many ‘soulless people’ she saw on the London streets? What would she have said about their chances of being reborn as a human? Unfortunately we’ll never know, as nobody was alert enough to ask her.

5) Theosophy is relatively recent and Buddhism is not, the latter having a lot of lineages, something they consider to be important.

Theosophy has no “accomplished Masters”;

Does theosophy have accomplished masters? Do you know anybody in theosophy who you would consider to have any sort of spiritual attainment? I know a few who are accomplished at helping others, but not more than many people in the world do without ever even thinking about theosophy. I don’t know anybody who goes beyond that. If you do, that’s great.

Since the theosophical masters reportedly aim at helping humanity as a whole, I very much doubt they’re very invested in the theosophical movement at present. What is it doing to help humanity?

When it comes to lineage it is relevant that Blavatsky told her closest students, at the end of her life to ‘keep the link unbroken.’ However, I have never met anybody who had any idea what she meant.

The only accomplished theosophical meditators I know are also either Buddhists or trained in some Hindu tradition. I talked about practicing ethics in front of two theosophical audiences a few years ago (my last theosophical lectures to date) and in both there was a horror at the very idea that one might actually do something like ethical discipline. Note that basic ethical discipline is the groundwork of ALL spiritual traditions the world over. Whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or Buddhism. But theosophists frowned at the idea.

What does ‘finding the essence of all religions and philosophy’ mean if it doesn’t even the obvious similarities aren’t taken seriously?

That’s how lost the tradition is. Seriously, I don’t know how it got to that point. But it seems to me it’s there. I honestly hope I’m wrong. Anyhow, it ought to be a problem to anybody who wants to take theosophy seriously as more than a fascinating hobby.

However, historically, Western Buddhism has theosophy in it’s lineage. There is no escaping it. Western Buddhists decrying theosophy are like children protesting their parents. They may have good reason to do things differently from their ancestors, but that doesn’t mean they have to blacken their name.

6) They even prefer Christianity and Judaism to Theosophy which contains “billions of stupid statements”.

Given how much of Blavatsky’s central works consist of quotes and paraphrases of 19th century science and speculation, taking her words seriously on any topic is a risky business.

Then again: it’s easier to fight with your neighbour than with a stranger. Theosophy is, in terms of our cultural heritage, the basis of all Western Buddhism. Western Buddhists who know theosophy therefore have to take its fancies into account.

Judaism and Christianity are easier to deal with, because easier dismissed. But yes, I would also hesitate to recommend theosophy to people at present, because the dross does outdo the jewels hidden in the depths. The rounds and races are only the most obvious example. And let’s face it, that makes the whole second volume of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine problematic.

Terminology is another one: It took me years of university study to be able to recognize Blavatsky’s version of terms vs the Hindu or Buddhist interpretations. It’s a curious mixture and very confusing to anybody who doesn’t take the trouble to compare them point by point. And most people just don’t.

I know theosophists who use the Buddhist interpretation of terms to explain Blavatsky – which isn’t fair. I also know theosophists (a majority) who use the theosophical interpretation of terms and think they understand books on yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism and complete miss the differences because they don’t know how to change their definitions when reading something from outside the theosophical tradition.

Even David Reigle seems to make this mistake.

My point: to understand both requires a sort of mental gymnastics most people just aren’t capable of – and of those who are, who would take the trouble? Inside the theosophical movement few (if any) do. Outside it, nobody will bother. Theosophy has become irrelevant. It is merely history.

7) Religions come from different sources.

To think of something universal in this domain is pure fancy. Only Buddhism leads to the last stages;

Of course Buddhism claims that only it leads to the last stages. That’s clearly a religiously biased viewpoint. It is one I’m taking as a working hypothesis for the rest of this life, but against theosophists it should not hold much weight. Investigate it for yourself.

We’re universally human. Human wisdom comes out in all religions, just like it does in literature and art. However, cultural differences are also huge. The theosophical approach tends to ignore the differences – which is a bit like trying to extract a ‘food essence’ out of cucumber and meat – while ignoring how very different each is from the other.

8) There is no dichotomy between red and yellow caps, the Dalai Lama even has some Nyingma instructors that are held in great consideration.

The criticisms found in theosophical writings in the 1880s concerning the Bon are dated and now the Dalai Lama has a high regard for the Bon. Nowadays, you can find the “rimé” ecumenical movement that comprises 4 traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

There is such a dichotomy: the Gelugpa do wear yellow caps in rituals, whereas the rest wears red caps. However, it is true that all are Tibetan Buddhists and they have more in common than Blavatsky suggests. She had a way of overdoing dichotomies all round. Her distinction between white and black magic is also too strict. No indigenous shaman would consider healing to be black magic, for instance.

The Rime movement was a late 19th century development in Tibetan Buddhism that brought people from the non-gelugpa schools of Tibetan Buddhism together. It is therefore contemporary with Blavatsky and in fact in some ways similar to theosophy in approach. (Again, see Reigle)

And yet she missed it. This says something about the reliability of her sources.

As for black magic: You will find people abusing their power in all religious traditions, including Tibetan Buddhism. Power abuse is in fact pretty universal. This is why in democracies there are checks on power. Division of Church and state, independent justices, independent press etc.

Personally I do have affinity for the purity of the Gelugpa tradition, but that is a personal preference. As my teachers do, I recommend people to find a teacher that suits them. Make sure you trust them. Make sure to say no when they ask you something you don’t want to do and leave when they ask for too much money or sexual favors of any kind.

Don’t let the color of their hats confuse you. Trust your own instincts and common sense.

As for Buddhist feelings of superiority – any religion feels itself to be superior to any other. That’s not surprising. However, right now, Buddhists are definitely winning over the intelligentsia in our culture. Smart people into spirituality aren’t theosophists these days, they’re Buddhists.

This means that there aren’t enough smart people to help theosophy stay healthy – and that means that it’s unlikely to recover.

See also my recent article about the relevance of Blavatsky today.

Follow up, including David Reigle’s correction: http://www.moderntheosophy.com/2015/alaya-vijnana-universal-oversoul/