A very important paragraph which you wrote in No. 3 of your "Revue Theosophique," published in Paris, May 21st, 1889 (pp. 6 and 7), has caused very serious doubts in the minds of some of your readers in Germany doubts, probably caused by our misunderstanding you or by your shortness of expression. Will you permit me to state our view of the case, and will you have the kindness to give us on this basis your opinion of it publicly, perhaps in LUCIFER?
You do not plainly say what you expect a true sage to do; but further on you refer to our Lord, the Buddha, and to what He did. We readily accept His example as well as His teachings for our ideal rule; but from those stanzas I have quoted above, it appears, that what he expected his disciples to do, does not quite agree with what you seem to expect from them.2
He taught that all the world, or the three worlds, in fact, every existence, is pain, or leading to pain and grief. World and existence is pain and evil per se. It is a mistake (avidya) to believe that desire can be satisfied. All worldly desires lead in the end to dissatisfaction, and the desire (the thirst) to live is the cause of all evil. Only those who are striving to deliver (to save or to redeem) themselves from all existence (from their thirst for existence); leading the "happy life" of a perfect bhikshu, only those are sages; only those attain nirvana and, when they die, paranirvana, which is absolute and changeless being.3
No doubt some sort of development or so-called improvement, evolution and involution, is going on in the world; but just for this reason the Buddha taught (like Krishna before him), that the world is, "unreality, maya, avidya." Every actual form of existence has become, has grown to be what it is; it will continue changing and will have an end, like it had a beginning as a form. Absolute being without "form" and "name," this alone is true reality, and is worth-striving at for a real sage.4
Now what did our Lord, the Buddha, do and how did He live? He did not in any way try to improve the world; he did not strive to realise socialistic problems, to solve the labour question or to better the worldly affairs of the poor, nor the rich either; he did not meddle with science, he did not teach cosmology and such like;* quite on the contrary; he lived in the most unworldly manner, he begged for his food and taught his disciples to do the same; he left, and taught his disciples to leave, all worldly life and affairs, to give up their families and to remain homeless, like he did and like he lived himself.5
Against this cannot be brought forward, that these are only the teachings of the Hinayana system and that perhaps the Mahayana of the Northern Buddhists is the only right one; for this latter lays even more stress than the former on the self-improvement and continued retirement from the world of the bhikshu, until he has reached the perfection of a Buddha. True, the Mahayana system says, that not every Arahat has already attained highest perfection; it distinguishes Cravanas, Pratyekabuddhas and Bodhisattvas, of whom the latter only are considered the true spiritual sons of the Buddha, who are to be Buddhas themselves in their final future life and who have already realised the highest state of ecstasy, the Bodhi state, which is next to Nirvana.
Until a bhikshu or arhat has sufficiently progressed in perfection and wisdom, "playing at" Buddha and fixing himself up as an example or as a teacher to the world, is likely not only to throw him entirely off his path, but also to cause annoyance to those who are truly qualified for such work and who are fit to serve as ideal examples for others. None of us is a Buddha, and I do not know which of us might be a Bodhisattva; not everyone can be one, and not everyone was by the Buddha himself expected to become one, as is clearly and repeatedly expressed in the Saddharma Pundarika, the principal Mahayana work.6 Nevertheless, admitting for argument's sake, that we were somehow fit to serve as specimen sages for "the world" and to improve "humanity" now what can and what ought we to do then?
We certainly can have nothing to do with humanity in the sense of the "world," nothing with worldly affairs and their improvement. What else should we do, than to be "profondément indifferents" to them, to "fuir et déserter" them? Is not this "army" which we are deserting, just that "humanity" which the Dhammapada rightly terms "the fools"; and is it not just that "worldly life" which our Lord taught us to quit? What else should we strive at then but to take "refuge against re-incarnation," refuge with the Buddha, his dharma and his sangha!7
But we further think, that the Buddha as in every other respect was quite right also on this point, even if one considers it as a scientist, as an historian or as a psychologist, not as a bhikshu. What real and essential improvement of the "world" can be made? Perhaps in carrying out socialistic problems a state might be arrived at, where every human individual would be sufficiently cared for, so that he could addict more spare time to his spiritual self-improvement if he wished to do so; but if he does not wish to improve himself, the best social organization will not make or help him do so. On the contrary, my own experience, at least, is just the reverse. The spiritually or rather mystically highest developed living human individual I know is a poor common weaver and moreover consumptive, who was until lately in such a position employed in a cotton-mill, that he was as much treated as a dog, like most labourers are, by their joint-stock employers. Still this man is in his inner life quite independent of his worldly misery; his heavenly or rather divine peace and satisfaction is at any time his refuge, and no one can rob him of that. He fears no death, no hunger, no pain, no want, no injustice, no cruelty!8
You will concede, I suppose, that Karma is not originated by external causes, but only by each individual for himself. Anyone who has made himself fit for and worthy of a good opportunity, will surely find it; and if you put another unworthy one into the very best of circumstances, he will not avail himself of them properly; they will rather serve him to draw him down into the mire which is his delight.
But perhaps you reply: it is, nevertheless, our duty to create as many good opportunities as we can, for humanity in general, that all those who are worthy of them, might find them all the sooner. Quite right! we fully agree and we are certainly doing our best in this respect. But will this improve the spiritual welfare of "humanity"? Never, not by an atom, we think. Humanity, as a whole, will always remain comparatively the same "fools," which they have always been. Suppose we had succeeded in establishing an ideal organization of mankind, do you think these "fools" would be any the wiser by it, or any the more satisfied and happy?9 Certainly not, they would always invent new wants, new pretensions, new claims; the "world" will for ever go on striving for "worldly perfection" only. Our present social organization is greatly improved on the system of the middle-ages: still, is our present time any the happier, any the more satisfied than our ancestors have been at the time of the Niebelunge or of King Arthur? I think, if there has been any change in satisfaction, it was for the worse; our present time is more greedy and less content than any former age. Whoever expects his self-improvement by means of any world-improvement or any external means and causes, has yet to be sorely undeceived; and happy for him if this experience will come to him before the end of his present life!
A very clever modern philosopher has invented the theory that the best plan to get rid of this misery of the "world," would be our giving ourselves up to it the best we could, in order to hasten this evil process to its early end. Vain hope! Avidya is as endless as it is beginningless. A universe has a beginning and has an end, but others will begin and end after it, just like one day follows the other; and as there has been an endless series of worlds before, thus will there be an endless series afterwards. Causality can never have had a beginning nor can it have an end. And every "world," that will ever be, will always be "world," that is pain and "evil."10
Therefore, like Karma, also deliverance, redemption or salvation (from the world) can never be any otherwise than "personal," or let us rather say "individual." The world, of course, can never be delivered from itself, from the "world," from pain and evil. And no one can be delivered therefrom by anyone else. You certainly do not teach vicarious atonement! Or, can anyone save his neighbour? Can one apple make ripe another apple hanging next to it?11
Now what else can we do but live the "happy life" of bhikshus without wants, without pretensions, without desires? And if your good example calls or draws to us others who seek for the same happiness, then we try to teach them the best we can. But this is another rather doubtful question to us! Not only are we not properly fit to teach, but if we were, we require proper persons to be taught, persons who are not only willing, but who are also fit to listen to us.12
In spite of all these difficulties and quite conscious of our own incompetency, we nevertheless venture now to publish books and journals, in which we try to explain Indian religio-philosophy to the best of our understanding. Thus every one who has eyes may read it, and who has ears may hear it if his good Karma is ripening! What else do you expect us agnams to do?13 Are we not rather to be blamed already, that we undertake such work, for which we not being Buddhas, nor even Bodhisattvas are as badly qualified as a recruit is fit to serve as general field-marshal. And if you cannot find fault with us, can you say that those "yogis" or "saints" whom you seem to blame in your above passage, were in a better position and could have done more? If, however, they were, what ought they to have done?
We are fully aware that a true Buddhist and a sage, or if you like theosophist, must always be every inch an altruist. And when we are acting altruistically, it is perhaps no bad sign in regard to what we some day might become; but every thing at its proper time: where competency does not keep pace with altruism in development and in display, it might do more harm than good. Thus we feel even not quite sure whether our conscience ought not to blame us for our well-intended, but pert work; and the only excuse we can find for our thus giving way to the promptings of our heart is, that those persons who really might be properly qualified, do not come forward, do not help us, do not do this evidently necessary work!14
H. P. Blavatsky
(1) The editor of LUCIFER and the Revue Théosophique, pleads guilty to an omission. She ought to have qualified, "la sagesse Orientale" by adding the adjective 'ésoterique.'
back to text
(2) The Western disciples and followers of the Lord Buddha's ethics lay very little stress on the dead letter (and often fanciful) translations of Buddhist Sutras by European Orientalists. From such scholars as Messrs. Max Müller and Weber, down to the last amateur Orientalist who dabbles in Buddhism disfigured by translation and proudly boasts of his knowledge, no Sanskrit or Pali scholar has so far understood correctly that which is taught; witness Monier Williams' fallacious assumption that Buddha never taught anything esoteric! Therefore neither the Dhammapada nor the Sutta Nipata are an exception, nor a proof to us in their now mutilated and misunderstood text. Nagarjuna laid it down, as a rule that "every Buddha has both a revealed and a mystic doctrine." The "exoteric is for the multitudes and new disciples," to whom our correspondent evidently belongs. This plain truth was understood even by such a prejudiced scholar as the Rev. J. Edkins, who passed almost all his life in China studying Buddhism, and who says in his "Chinese Buddhism":
Moreover we perceive that our learned correspondent has entirely
misunderstood the fundamental idea in what we wrote in our May
editorial, "Le Phare de l'Inconnu" in the Revue
Théosophique. We protest against such an interpretation
and will prove that it errs in the course of this article.
(3) An exoteric and frequent mistake. Nirvana may be
reached during man's life, and after his death in the Manvantara
or life-kalpa he belongs to. Paranirvana ("beyond"
Nirvana) is reached only when the Manvantara has closed and during
the "night" of the Universe or Pralaya. Such
is the esoteric teaching.
(5) Quite right again. But to live "like he lived himself" one has to remain as an ascetic among the multitudes, or the world, for 45 years. This argument therefore, goes directly against our correspondent's main idea. That against which we protested in the criticized article was not the ascetic life, i.e., the life of one entirely divorced, morally and mentally, from the world, the ever-changing maya, with its false deceptive pleasures, but the life of a hermit, useless to all and as useless to himself, in the long run; at any rate entirely selfish. We believe we rightly understand our learned critic in saying that the point of his letter lies in the appeal to the teaching and practice of the Lord Gautama Buddha in support of withdrawal and isolation from the world, as contrasted with an opposite course of conduct. And here it is where his mistake lies and he opens himself to a severer and more just criticism than that he would inflict on us.
The Lord Gautama was never a hermit, save during the first
six years of his ascetic life, the time it took him to enter fully
"on the Path." In the "Supplementary account of
the three religions" (San-Kiea-yi-su) it is stated
that in the seventh year of his exercises of abstinence
and solitary meditation, Buddha thought, "I had better eat,
lest the heretics should say that Nirvana is attained in famishing
the body." Then he ate, sat for his transformation for six
more days and on the seventh day of the second month obtained
his first Samadhi. Then, having "attained the perfect
view of the highest truth," he arose and went to Benares
where he delivered his first discourses. From that time forward
for nearly half a century, he remained in the world, teaching
the world salvation. His first disciples were nearly all Upasakas
(lay brothers), the neophytes being permitted to continue in their
positions in social life and not even required to join the monastic
community. And those who did, were generally sent by the Master,
to travel and proselytize, instructing in the doctrine of the
four miseries all those with whom they met.
(6) Our correspondent is too well read in Buddhist Sutras not to be aware of the existence of the esoteric system taught precisely in the Yogacharya or the contemplative Mahayana schools. And in that system the hermit or yogi life, except for a few years of preliminary teaching, is strongly objected to and called SELFISHNESS. Witness Buddha in those superb pages of Light of Asia (Book the Fifth) when arguing with and reprimanding the self-torturing Yogis, whom, "sadly eyeing," the Lord asks:
When told in answer that they stake brief agonies to gain the larger joys of Nirvana, what does He say? This:
Now if our correspondent understood as he should, these lines
rendered in blank verse, yet word for word as in the Sutras,
he would have a better idea of the esoteric teaching than
he now has; and, having understood it, he would not oppose what
we said; for not only was self-torture, selfish solicitude, and
life in the jungle simply for one's own salvation condemned in
the Mahayana (in the real esoteric system, not the mutilated
translations he reads) but even renunciation of Nirvana for
the sake of mankind is preached therein. One of its fundamental
laws is, that ordinary morality is insufficient to deliver one
from rebirth; one has to practise the six Paramitas or cardinal
virtues for it: 1. Charity, 2. Chastity, 3. Patience, 4. Industry,
5. Meditation, 6. Ingenuousness (or openness of heart, sincerity).
And how can a hermit practise charity or industry if he
runs away from man? Bodhisattvas, who, having fulfilled all the
conditions of Buddhaship, have the right to forthwith enter Nirvana,
prefer instead, out of unlimited pity for the suffering ignorant
world, to renounce this state of bliss and become Nirmanakayas.
They don the Sambhogakaya (the invisible body) in order
to serve mankind, i.e., to live a sentient life after
death and suffer immensely at the sight of human miseries
(most of which, being Karmic, they are not at liberty to relieve)
for the sake of having a chance of inspiring a few with the desire
of learning the truth and thus saving themselves. (By the bye,
all that Schlagintweit and others have written about the Nirmanakaya
body is erroneous.) Such is the true meaning of the Mahayana teaching.
"I believe that not all the Buddhas enter Nirvana,"
says, among other things, the disciple of the Mahayana school
in his address to "the Buddhas (or Budhisattvas) of confession" referring to this
(7) The quotation with which our correspondent heads his letter does not bear the interpretation he puts upon it. No one acquainted with the spirit of the metaphors used in Buddhist philosophy would read it as Mr. Hübbe Schleiden does. The man advised to walk "like a king who has left his conquered country behind," implies that he who has conquered his passions and for whom worldly maya exists no longer, need not lose his time in trying to convert those who will not believe in him, but had better leave them alone to their Karma; but it certainly does not mean that they are fools intellectually. Nor does it imply that the disciples should leave the world; "Our Lord" taught us as much as "the Lord Jesus" did, the "Lord Krishna" and other "Lords" all "Sons of God" to quit the "worldly" life, not men, least of all suffering, ignorant Humanity. But surely neither, the Lord Gautama Buddha less than any one of the above enumerated, would have taught us the monstrous and selfish doctrine of remaining "profondément indifferents" to the woes and miseries of mankind, or to desert those who cry daily and hourly for help to us, more favoured than they. This is an outrageously selfish and cruel system of life, by whomsoever adopted! It is neither Buddhistic, nor Christian, nor theosophical, but the nightmare of a doctrine of the worst schools of Pessimism, such as would be probably discountenanced by Schopenhauer and Von Hartmann themselves!
Our critic sees in the "army" of Humanity those "fools"
that the Dhammapada alludes to. We are sorry to find him
calling himself names, as we suppose he still belongs to
Humanity, whether he likes it or not. And if he tells us in the
exuberance of his modesty that he is quite prepared to fall under
the flattering category, then we answer that no true Buddhist
ought, agreeably to the Dhammapadic injunctions, to accept "companionship"
with him. This does not promise him a very brilliant future with
"the Buddha, his dharma and his Sangha." To call the
whole of Humanity "fools" is a risky thing, anyhow;
to treat as such that portion of mankind which groans and suffers
under the burden of its national and individual Karma, and refuse
it, under this pretext, help and sympathy is positively revolting.
He who does not say with the Master: "Mercy alone opens the
gate to save the whole race of mankind" is unworthy of that
(8) And yet this man lives in, and with the
world, which fact does not prevent his inner "Buddhaship";
nor shall he ever be called a "deserter" and
a coward, epithets which he would richly deserve had be abandoned
his wife and family, instead of working for them, not for
his own "dear" self.
(9) This is no business of ours, but that of their
respective Karma. On this principle we should have to deny to
every starving wretch a piece of bread, because, forsooth, he
will be just as hungry tomorrow?
(10) And therefore, Sauve qui peut, [Save himself who can], is our correspondent's motto? Had the
taught the heartless principle Après moi le déluge,
I do not think that the learned editor of the SPHINX
would have had much of a chance of being converted to Buddhism
as he is now. Very true that his Buddhism seems to be no better
than the exoteric dry and half-broken rind, of European fabrication,
of that grand fruit of altruistic mercy, and pity for all that
lives real Eastern Buddhism and especially its esoteric doctrines.
(11) No; but the apple can either screen its neighbour
from the sun, and, depriving it of its share of light and heat,
prevent its ripening, or sharing with it the dangers from worms
and the urchin's hand, thus diminish that danger by one half.
As to Karma this is again a misconception. There is such a thing
as a national, besides a personal or individual Karma
in this world. But our correspondent seems to have either never
heard of it, or misunderstood once more, in his own way.
(12) Fais que dois, advienne que pourra [One
should do what is to be done, happen what may]. When did the Lord
Buddha make a preliminary selection in his audiences? Did he not,
agreeably to allegory and History, preach and convert demons and
gods, bad and good men? Dr. Hübbe Schleiden seems more Catholic
than the Pope, more prim than an old-fashioned English house-wife,
and certainly more squeamish than Lord Buddha ever was. "Teach
vicarious atonement?" certainly we do not. But it is safer
(and more modest at any rate) to make too much of one's neighbours
and fellow-men than to look at every one as on so much dirt under
one's feet. If I am a fool, it is no reason why I should see a
fool in everyone else. We leave to our critic the difficult task
of discerning who is, and who is not fit to listen to us,
and, in the absence of positive proof, prefer postulating that
every man has a responsive chord in his nature that will vibrate
and respond to words of kindness and of truth.
(13) We expect you not to regard everyone else as an
"agnam" if by this word an ignoramus
is meant. To help to deliver the world from the curse of Avidya
(ignorance) we have only to learn from those who know more
than we do, and teach those who know less. This is just the object
we have in view in spreading theosophical literature and trying
to explain "Indian religio-philosophy."
(14) An apocalyptic utterance this. I think, however, that I dimly understand. Those who are "properly qualified, do not come forward, do not help us, do not do this evidently necessary work." Don't THEY? How does our pessimistic correspondent know? I "guess" and "surmise" that they do, and very much so. For had the T.S. and its members been left to their own fate and Karma, there would not be much of it left today, under the relentless persecutions, slander, scandals, purposely set on foot, and the malicious hatred of our enemies open and secret.
*Malunka Sutta in Spence Hardy, "Manual of Buddhism," p. 375. Saymuttaka Nikãya at the end of the work. (Vol. iii. of "Phayre MS."; also Cullavagga, ix 1, 4.)
back to text