It has seldom been the good fortune of the Theosophical Society to meet with such courteous and even sympathetic treatment as it has received at the hands of M. Emile Burnouf, the well-known Sanskritist, in an article in the Revue des Deux Mondes (July 15, 1888) "Le Bouddhisme en Occident."
Such an article proves that the Society has at last taken its rightful place in the thought-life of the XIXth century. It marks the dawn of a new era in its history, and, as such, deserves the most careful consideration of all those who are devoting their energies to its work. M. Burnouf's position in the world of Eastern scholarship entitles his opinions to respect; while his name, that of one of the first and most justly honoured of Sanskrit scholars (the late M. Eugene Burnouf), renders it more than probable that a man bearing such a name will make no hasty statements and draw no premature conclusions, but that his deductions will be founded on careful and accurate study.
His article is devoted to a triple subject: the origins of three religions or associations, whose fundamental doctrines M. Burnouf regards as identical, whose aim is the same, and which are derived from a common source. These are Buddhism, Christianity, and the Theosophical Society.
As he writes, page 341:
It is on this, to a degree erroneous, conception of the aims and object of the Theosophical Society that M. Burnouf's article, and the remarks and opinions that ensue therefrom, are based. He strikes a false note from the beginning, and proceeds on this line. The T.S. was not created to propagate any dogma of any exoteric, ritualistic church, whether Buddhist, Brahmanical, or Christian. This idea is a wide-spread and general mistake; and that of the eminent Sanskritist is due to a self-evident source which misled him. M. Burnouf has read in the Lotus, the journal of the Theosophical Society of Paris, a polemical correspondence between one of the Editors of LUCIFER and the Abbé Roca. The latter persisting very unwisely in connecting theosophy with Papism and the Roman Catholic Church which, of all the dogmatic world religions, is the one his correspondent loathes the most the philosophy and ethics of Gautama Buddha, not his later church, whether northern or southern, were therein prominently brought forward. The said Editor is undeniably a Buddhist i.e., a follower of the esoteric school of the great "Light of Asia," and so is the President of the Theosophical Society, Colonel H. S. Olcott. But this does not pin the theosophical body as a whole to ecclesiastical Buddhism. The Society was founded to become the Brotherhood of Humanity a centre, philosophical and religious, common to all not as a propaganda for Buddhism merely. Its first steps were directed toward the same great aim that M. Burnouf ascribes to Buddha Sakyamuni, who "opened his church to all men, without distinction of origin, caste, nation, colour, or sex" (Vide Art. I. in the Rules of the T.S.), adding "My law is a law of Grace for all." In the same way the Theosophical Society is open to all, without distinction of "origin, caste, nation, colour, or sex," and what is more of creed. . . .
The introductory paragraphs of this article show how truly the author has grasped, with this exception, within the compass of a few lines, the idea that all religions have a common basis and spring from a single root. After devoting a few pages to Buddhism, the religion and the association of men founded by the Prince of Kapilavastu; to Manicheism, miscalled a "heresy," and its relation to both Buddhism and Christianity, he winds up his article with the Theosophical Society. He leads up to the latter by tracing (a) the life of Buddha, too well known to an English speaking public through Sir Edwin Arnold's magnificent poem to need recapitulation; (b) by showing in a few brief words that Nirvâna is not annihilation;l and (c) that the Greeks, Romans and even the Brahmans regarded the priest as the intermediary between men and God, an idea which involves the conception of a personal God, distributing his favours according to his own good pleasure a sovereign of the universe, in short.
The few lines about Nirvâna must find place here before the last proposition is discussed. Says the author:
With regard to the conception of the priestly office the author shows it entirely absent from Buddhism. Buddha is no God, but a man who has reached the supreme degree of wisdom and virtue. "Therefore Buddhist metaphysics conceives the absolute Principle of all things which other religions call God, in a totally different manner and does not make of it a being separate from the universe."
The writer then points out that the equality of all men among themselves is one of the fundamental conceptions of Buddhism.
He adds moreover and demonstrates that it was from Buddhism that the Jews derived their doctrine of a Messiah.
The Essenes, the Therapeuts and the Gnostics are identified as a result of this fusion of Indian and Semitic thought, and it is shown that, on comparing the lives of Jesus and Buddha, both biographies fall into two parts: the ideal legend and the real facts. Of these the legendary part is identical in both; as indeed must be the case from the theosophical standpoint, since both are based on the Initiatory cycle. Finally this "legendary" part is contrasted with the corresponding features in other religions, notably with the Vedic story of Visvakarman.2 According to his view, it was only at the council of Nicea that Christianity broke officially with the ecclesiastical Buddhism, though he regards the Nicene Creed as simply the development of the formula: "the Buddha, the Law, the Church" (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha).
The Manicheans were originally Samans or Sramanas, Buddhist ascetics whose presence at Rome in the third century is recorded by St. Hippolytus. M. Burnouf explains their dualism as referring to the double nature of man good and evil the evil principle being the Mara of Buddhist legend. He shows that the Manicheans derived their doctrines more immediately from Buddhism than did Christianity and consequently a life and death struggle arose between the two, when the Christian Church became a body which claimed to be the sole and exclusive possessor of Truth. This idea is in direct contradiction to the most fundamental conceptions of Buddhism and therefore its professors could not but be bitterly opposed to the Manicheans. It was thus the Jewish spirit of exclusiveness which armed against the Manicheans the secular arm of the Christian states.
Having thus traced the evolution of Buddhist thought from India to Palestine and Europe, M. Burnouf points out that the Albigenses on the one hand, and the Pauline school (whose influence is traceable in Protestantism) on the other, are the two latest survivals of this influence. He then continues
After giving a very accurate account of the formation and history of the Society even to the number of its working branches in India, namely, 135 he then continues:
Having summarized the history of the development of the T.S. and the growth of its organization, the writer asks: "What is the spirit which animates it?" To this he replies by quoting the three objects of the Society, remarking in reference to the second and third of these (the study of literatures, religions and sciences of the Aryan nations and the investigation of latent psychic faculties, &c), that, although these might seem to give the Society a sort of academic colouring, remote from the affairs of actual life, yet in reality this is not the case; and he quotes the following passage from the close of the Editorial in LUCIFER for November, 1887:
We have given our reasons for protesting. We are pinned to no faith.
In stating that the T.S. is "Buddhist," M. Burnouf is quite right, however, from one point of view. It has a Buddhist colouring simply because that religion, or rather philosophy, approaches more nearly to the TRUTH (the secret wisdom) than does any other exoteric form of belief. Hence the close connexion between the two. But on the other hand the T.S. is perfectly right in protesting against being mistaken for a merely Buddhist propaganda, for the reasons given by us at the beginning of the present article, and by our critic himself. For although in complete agreement with him as to the true nature and character of primitive Buddhism, yet the Buddhism of today is none the less a rather dogmatic religion, split into many and heterogeneous sects. We follow the Buddha alone. Therefore, once it becomes necessary to go behind the actually existing form, and who will deny this necessity in respect to Buddhism? once this is done, is it not infinitely better to go back to the pure and unadulterated source of Buddhism itself, rather than halt at an intermediate stage? Such a half and half reform was tried when Protestantism broke away from the elder Church, and are the results satisfactory?
Such then is the simple and very natural reason why the T.S. does not raise the standard of exoteric Buddhism and proclaim itself a follower of the Church of the Lord Buddha. It desires too sincerely to remain with that unadulterated "light" to allow itself to be absorbed by its distorted shadow. This is well understood by M. Burnouf, since he expresses as much in the following passage:
And no better model could the Society follow: but this is not all. It is true that no mysteries or esotericism exists in the two chief Buddhist Churches, the Southern and the Northern. Buddhists may well be content with the dead letter of Siddartha Buddha's teachings, as fortunately no higher or nobler ones in their effects upon the ethics of the masses exist, to this day. But herein lies the great mistake of all the Orientalists. There is an esoteric doctrine, a soul-ennobling philosophy, behind the outward body of ecclesiastical Buddhism. The latter, pure, chaste and immaculate as the virgin snow on the ice-capped crests of the Himalayan ranges, is, however, as cold and desolate as they with regard to the post-mortem condition of man. This secret system was taught to the Arhats alone, generally in the Saptaparna (Mahavansa's Sattapani) cave, known to Ta-hian as the Chetu cave near the Mount Baibhar (in Pali Webhara), in Rajagriha, the ancient capital of Maghada, by the Lord Buddha himself, between the hours of Dhyana (or mystic contemplation). It is from this cave called in the days of Sakyamuni, Saraswati or "Bamboo-cave" that the Arhats initiated into the Secret Wisdom carried away their learning and knowledge beyond the Himalayan range, wherein the Secret Doctrine is taught to this day. Had not the South Indian invaders of Ceylon "heaped into piles as high as the top of the cocoanut trees" the ollas of the Buddhists, and burnt them, as the Christian conquerors burnt all the secret records of the Gnostics and the Initiates, Orientalists would have the proof of it, and there would have been no need of asserting now this well-known fact.
Having fallen into the common error, M. Burnouf continues:
In brief, M. Burnouf sees in the public indifference the first obstacle in the Society's way. "Indifference born from weariness; weariness of the inability of religions to improve social life, and the ceaseless spectacle of rites and ceremonies which the priest never explains." Men demand today "scientific formulae stating laws of nature, whether physical or moral. . . ." And this indifference the Society must encounter; "its name, also, adding to its difficulties: for the word Theosophy has no meaning for the people, and, at best, a very vague one for the learned." "It seems to imply a personal god," M. Burnouf thinks, adding: "Whoever says personal god, says creation and miracle," and he concludes that "the Society would do better to become frankly Buddhist or to cease to exist."
With this advice of our friendly critic it is rather difficult to agree. He has evidently grasped the lofty ideal of primitive Buddhism, and rightly sees that this ideal is identical with that of the T.S. But he has not yet learned the lesson of its history, nor perceived that to graft a young and healthy shoot on to a branch which has lost less than any other, yet much of its inner vitality, could not but be fatal to the new growth. The very essence of the position taken up by the T.S. is that it asserts and maintains the truth common to all religions; the truth which is true and undefiled by the concretions of ages of human passions and needs. But though Theosophy means Divine Wisdom, it implies nothing resembling belief in a personal god. It is not "the wisdom of God," but divine wisdom. The Theosophists of the Alexandrian Neo-Platonic school believed in "gods" and "demons" and in one impersonal ABSOLUTE DEITY. To continue:
And this miracle the Theosophical Society will perform. It will do this, not by disproving the relative existence of the law in question, but by assigning to it its due place in the harmonious order of the universe; by unveiling its true meaning and nature and by showing that this pseudo law is a "pretended" law indeed, as far as the human family is concerned, and a fiction of the most dangerous kind. "Self-preservation," on these lines, is indeed and in truth a sure, if a slow, suicide, for it is a policy of mutual homicide, because men by descending to its practical application among themselves, merge more and more by a retrograde reinvolution into the animal kingdom. This is what the "struggle of life" is in reality, even on the purely materialistic lines of political economy. Once that this axiomatic truth is proved to all men; the same instinct of self-preservation only directed into its true channel will make them turn to altruism as their surest policy of salvation.
It is just because the real founders of the Society have ever recognized the wisdom of truth embodied in one of the concluding paragraphs of M. Burnouf's excellent article, that they have provided against that terrible emergency in their fundamental teachings. The "struggle for existence" applies only to the physical, never to the moral plane of being. Therefore when the author warns us in these awfully truthful words: "Universal charity will appear out of date; the rich will keep their wealth and will go on accumulating more; the poor will become impoverished in proportion, until the day when, propelled by hunger, they will demand bread, not of theosophy but of revolution. Theosophy shall be swept away by the hurricane. . . ."
The Theosophical Society replies: "It surely will, were we to follow out his well-meaning advice, yet one which is concerned but with the lower plane." It is not the policy of self-preservation, not the welfare of one or another personality in its finite and physical form that will or can ever secure the desired object and screen the Society from the effects of the social "hurricane" to come; but only the weakening of the feeling of separateness in the units which compose its chief element. And such a weakening can only be achieved by a process of inner enlightenment. It is not violence that can ever insure bread and comfort for all; nor is the kingdom of peace and love, of mutual help and charity and "food for all," to be conquered by a cold, reasoning, diplomatic policy. It is only by the close brotherly union of men's inner SELVES, of soul-solidarity, of the growth and development of that feeling which makes one suffer when one thinks of the suffering of others, that the reign of Justice and equality for all can ever be inaugurated. This is the first of the three fundamental objects for which the Theosophical Society was established, and called the "Universal Brotherhood of Man," without distinction of race, colour or creed.
When men will begin to realize that it is precisely that ferocious personal selfishness, the chief motor in the "struggle for life," that lies at the very bottom and is the one sole cause of human starvation; that it is that other national egoism and vanity which stirs up the States and rich individuals to bury enormous capitals in the unproductive erecting of gorgeous churches and temples and the support of a swarm of social drones called Cardinals and Bishops, the true parasites on the bodies of their subordinates and their flocks that they will try to remedy this universal evil by a healthy change of policy. And this salutary revolution can be peacefully accomplished only by the Theosophical Society and its teachings.
This is little understood by M. Burnouf, it seems, since while striking the true key-note of the situation elsewhere he ends by saying:
And yet our critic does not seem satisfied with this state of things but advises us by adding as follows:
And this formula the society has expanded by adopting that still more admirable axiom: "There is no religion higher than truth."
At this juncture we shall take leave of our learned, and perhaps, too kind critic, to address a few words to Theosophists in general.
Has our Society, as a whole, deserved the flattering words and notice bestowed upon it by M. Burnouf? How many of its individual members, how many of its branches, have carried out the precepts contained in the noble words of a Master of Wisdom, as quoted by our author from No. 3 of LUCIFER? "He who does not practice" this and the other "is no Theosophist," says the quotation. Nevertheless, those who have never shared even their superfluous let alone their last morsel with the poor; those who continue to make a difference in their hearts between a coloured and a white brother; as all those to whom malicious remarks against their neighbours, uncharitable gossip and even slander under the slightest provocation, are like heavenly dew on their parched lips call and regard themselves as Theosophists!
It is certainly not the fault of the minority of true Theosophists, who do try to follow the path and who make desperate efforts to reach it, if the majority of their fellow members do not. It is not to them therefore that this is addressed, but to those who, in their fierce love of Self and their vanity, instead of trying to carry out the original programme to the best of their ability, sow broadcast among the members the seeds of dissension; to those whose personal vanity, discontentment and love of power, often ending in ostentation, give the lie to the original programme and to the Society's motto.
Indeed, these original aims of the FIRST SECTION of the Theosophical Society under whose advice and guidance the second and third merged into one were first founded, can never be too often recalled to the minds of our members.4 The Spirit of these aims is clearly embodied in a letter from one of the Masters quoted in the "Occult World," on pages 71 and 73. Those Theosophists then, who in the course of time and events would, or have, departed from those original aims, and instead of complying with them have suggested new policies of administration from the depths of their inner consciousness, are not true to their pledges.
"But we have always worked on the lines originally traced to us" some of them proudly assert.
"You have not" comes the reply from those who know more of the true Founders of the T.S. behind the scenes than they do or ever will if they go on working in this mood of Self-illusion and self-sufficiency.
What are the lines traced by the "Masters"? Listen to the authentic words written by one of them in 1880 to the author of the "Occult World": ". . . To our minds these motives sincere and worthy of every serious consideration from the worldly standpoint, appear selfish. . . . They are selfish, because you must be aware that the chief object of the Theosophical Society is not so much to gratify individual aspirations as to serve our fellow men . . . and in our view the highest aspirations for the welfare of humanity become tainted with selfishness, if, in the mind of the philanthropist, there lurks the shadow of a desire for self-benefit, or a tendency to do injustice even there where these exist unconsciously to himself. Yet, you have ever discussed, but to put down, the idea of a Universal Brotherhood, questioned its usefulness, and advised to remodel the Theosophical Society on the principle of a college for the special study of occultism. . . ." (Occult World, p. 72.)
But another letter was written, also in 1880, which is not only a direct reproof to the Theosophists who neglect the main idea of Brotherhood, but also an anticipated answer to M. Emile Burnouf's chief argument. Here are a few extracts from it. It was addressed again to those who sought to make away with the "sentimental title," and make of the Society but an arena for "cup-growing and astral bell-ringing":
". . . In view of the ever-increasing triumph and, at the same time, misuse of free thought and liberty, how is the combative natural instinct of man to be restrained from inflicting hitherto unheard-of cruelties, enormities, tyranny, injustice, if not through the soothing influence of a Brotherhood, and of the practical application of Buddha's esoteric doctrines? . . . Buddhism is the surest path to lead men towards 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. In a word, how, since that the main objects of the Theosophical Society are misinterpreted by those who are most willing to serve us personally, are we to deal with the rest of mankind, with that curse known as 'the struggle for life,' which is the real and most prolific parent of most woes and sorrows, and all crimes? Why has that struggle 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, has now proved a failure. If Theosophists say: 'We have nothing to do with all this, the lower classes and inferior races [those of India for instance, in the conception of the British] cannot concern us and must manage as they can,' what becomes of our fine professions of benevolence, reform, etc.? Are these professions a mockery? and, if a mockery, can ours be the true path? . . . Should we devote ourselves to teaching a few Europeans, fed on the fat of the land, many of them loaded with the gifts of blind fortune, the rationale of bell-ringing, cup-growing, spiritual telephone, etc., etc., and leave the teeming millions of the ignorant, of the poor and the despised, the lowly and the oppressed, to take care of themselves, and of their hereafter, the best they know how? Never! Perish rather the Theosophical Society . . . than that we should permit it to become no better than an academy of magic and a hall of Occultism. 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. Let us understand each other. He who does not feel competent enough to grasp the noble idea sufficiently to work for it, need not undertake a task too heavy for him. . . .
"To be true, religion and philosophy must offer the solution of every problem. That the world is in such a bad condition morally is a conclusive evidence that none of its religions and philosophies those of the civilized races less than any other have ever possessed the TRUTH. The right and logical explanations on the subject of the problems of the great dual principles, right and wrong, good and evil, liberty and despotism, pain and pleasure, egotism and altruism, are as impossible to them now as they were 1880 years ago. They are as far from the solution as they ever were, but. . . .
"To these there must be somewhere a consistent solution, and if our doctrines will show their competence to offer it, then the world will be the first one to confess, that ours must be the true philosophy, the true religion, the true light, which gives truth and nothing but the TRUTH. . . ."
And this TRUTH is not Buddhism, but esoteric BUDHISM. "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. . . ."
Lucifer, August, 1888
H. P. Blavatsky
1 The fact that Nirvana does not mean annihilation was repeatedly asserted in Isis Unveiled its author discussed its etymological meaning as given by Max Müller and others and showed that the "blowing out of a lamp" does not even imply the idea that Nirvâna is the "extinction of consciousness." (See vol. i, p. 290 and vol. ii, pp. 117, 286, 320, 566, etc.)
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2 This identity between the Logoi of various
religions and in particular the identity between the legends of
Buddha and Jesus Christ, was again proven years ago in Isis
Unveiled, and the legend of Visvakarman more recently in the
Lotas and other Theosophical publications. The whole story
is analyzed at length in the Secret Doctrine, in some chapters
which were written more than two years ago.
3 And the author forgets to add "the
No Society has ever been more ferociously calumniated and persecuted
by the odium theologicum since the Christian Churches are
reduced to use their tongues as their sole weapon than the Theosophical
Association and its Founders. [ED.]