United Lodge of Theosophists, London, UK

Theosophy and Buddhism

Buddha’s statue near Belum Caves Andhra Pradesh, India.
Kind courtesy of Purshi on Wiki.

This article was published a month after the English article The Theosophical Society, Its Mission and Its Future (1:245) which is similar to it.

We publish this translation as its last few pages outline in sublime terms the three objects of the Theosophical Movement; for that reason we place this section first, with the remainder following it:

Théosophie et Bouddhisme

An article by H. P. Blavatsky, recently translated from the French

The three objects of the theosophical program can be summed up by the three words Love, Science, Virtue, and each is inseparable from the other two. Clad in this triple brazen, the Theosophical Society will perform the miracle Mr. Burnouf asks of it and slay the dragon of the “struggle for existence”. It will do so not by denying the existence of the law in question [this struggle] but by assigning to it its rightful place in the harmonious order of the universe; by revealing its nature and significance; by showing that this pseudo-law of life is in reality a law of death, a most dangerous fiction as far as the human family is concerned. Self-preservation, on such data, is in truth a slow and sure suicide, a political mutual homicide. By its practical application, men sink and retreat more and more towards the animal stage of evolution.

The struggle for existence, even on the data of political economy, which does not rise above the material plane, applies only to the physical being and not at all to the moral being.

However, it is quite likely, at first glance, for those who have gone a little deeper into the constitution of our illusory universe in pairs of opposites, that if egoism is the law of the animal extremity, altruism must be the law of the other extreme; the formula of the fight for life is less and less true as one goes up the steps of the ladder, that is to say as one approaches the spiritual nature: but for those who have not developed the faculties of this part of their nature, the laws which govern it must remain in the state of sentimental conviction. Theosophy shows us the route to follow so that this intuition turns into certainty, and the individual progress that it demands of its disciples is also the only safeguard against the social danger with which our criticism threatens us; to reform society, you have to start by reforming yourself. It is not the politics of self-preservation, nor the interests of one personality or another, in their finite and physical form, that can lead us to the desired goal and shelter the Theosophical Society from the effects of the social hurricane, even if this personality would represent the ideal of man, even if this aegis [protection or shield] would be the Buddha himself.

Salvation is in the weakening of the sense of separation between the units that make up the social whole: this result can only be achieved by a process of inner enlightenment. Violence will never secure bread and comfort for all; nor is it through a cold policy of diplomatic reasoning that the kingdom of peace and love, mutual aid and universal charity, the promised land where there will be “bread for everyone” will be conquered. When we begin to understand that it is precisely the personal and ferocious egoism, the mainstay of the struggle for existence, which is at bottom the only cause of human misery; that it is again national egoism this time, and state vanity, which causes governments and wealthy individuals to bury huge amounts of capital and make them unproductive by erecting splendid churches and maintaining a bunch of lazy, bishops, true parasites of their flocks; only then will mankind try to remedy the universal evil by a radical change of policy.

This change, theosophical doctrines alone can accomplish peacefully. It is by the close and fraternal union of the higher Selves of men, by the growth of solidarity of soul, by the development of this feeling which makes us suffer while thinking of the sufferings of others, that can be inaugurated the reign of equality and justice for all, and that the cult of Love, Science and Virtue, defined in this admirable axiom, will be established:

“There is no religion higher than the truth.”


Le Lotus, Paris, September 1888.

The remainder of the translation follows here, from the start:

Théosophie et Bouddhisme

Mr. Émile Burnouf, the well-known Sanskritist, has just published in the Revue des Deux-Mondes (Vol. 88, July 15, 1888), an article entitled “Buddhism in the West”, in which he sets out his views on the mission and the future of the Theosophical Society. She too rarely has the good fortune to receive such courteous treatment and such sympathetic advice, signed by a name so dear to all those who love the Orient, that we believe we will please our readers by passing on these criticisms of a serious thinker and these encouragements of a man of heart.

This article proves that the Theosophical Society has finally taken, in nineteenth-century thought, the place it deserves and that it will enter a new era. It therefore deserves the respect and attention of all who have understood our work or who are dedicated to it. Burnouf successively studies Buddhism, Christianity and the Theosophical Society,

“… three religions or associations of men with identical doctrines, the same goal, and attached to a common source. This source, which is oriental, was once disputed; today, it is fully brought to light by the research of scientists, including English scholars, and the publication of original texts. Among these sagacious scrutineers, it will suffice to cite the names of Sayce, Poole, Beal, Rhys-David, Spence Hardy, Bunsen; it would be difficult to exhaust the list.” [p. 341.]

The first part of the article is devoted to the biography of the Prince of Kapilavastu, a short exposition and a historical summary of Buddhism up to the Christian era. The life of Sâkyamouni is too well known for us to reproduce it; but we must point out a few words proving that Nïrvâna does not mean annihilation.

“I do not have to discuss here the nature of nirvana. I will only say that the idea of ​​nothingness is absolutely foreign to India, that the object of the Buddha was to remove humanity from the miseries of earthly life and its alternating returns; that finally he spent his long existence fighting against Māra and its angels, whom he himself called Death and the army of the death. The word nirvâna means extinction, for example of a lamp which one blows out; but it also means absence of wind.1 So I think that nirvana is nothing other than this requies aeterna, this lux perpetua that Christians also ask for their dead. It is in this sense that it is understood in the Burmese text published a few years ago in Rangoon, in English, by Reverend Bigandet.” [p. 343.]

Few conceptions have been more misunderstood than that of Nirvana, except perhaps that of divinity. Among the Jews and other Semites, among the ancient Greeks and Romans, and even among the Brahmans, the priest is the mediator between man and God.

“He transmits to God the offering and worship of the faithful; God in return gives his graces and his help in life; on the day of death God receives the faithful from among his elect. For this exchange to be possible, it is necessary that God be conceived as an individual being, as a person, in a way like the king of the universe, distributing his favors according to his will, probably also according to justice… Nothing like it in Buddhism. As there is no personal god, there is no holy sacrifice, there is no intermediary….” [p. 344.]

“The Buddha is not a god to be implored; he was a man who had reached the supreme degree of wisdom and virtue… As for the nature of the absolute principle of things, which other religions call God, Buddhist metaphysics conceives of it in a completely different way and does not make it a separate being from the universe…. Second, the Buddha opened his church to all men, regardless of origin, caste, country, color, sex: “My law, he said, is a law of grace for all.” It was the first time that a universal religion had appeared in the world. Until then, each country had had its own, from which foreigners were excluded. It can be argued that in the early years of his mission the reformer did not have the destruction of castes in mind, since he accepted royal power as a legitimate right and did not fight against it. But the natural equality of men was one of the bases of his doctrine, the Buddhist books are full of dissertations, stories and parables whose purpose is to demonstrate it…. Freedom was the consequence. No member of the church could force another to stay there unwillingly….” [pp. 345-46.]

“One was not born a Buddhist, one became one by a voluntary choice and after a sort of probation that every aspirant had to undergo. Once a member of the Assembly, one no longer stood out from the other brothers; the only superiority one could acquire was that of science and virtue…… This mutual love, this brotherhood, extended to women and made the Assembly a kind of family….” [p. 346.]

After recounting the progress of Buddhism in southern and northern India, among the Mazdeans and the Jews, Mr. Burnouf remarks that the latter borrowed their idea of ​​the Messiah from Buddhism. Eastern influence has been clearly discerned in Jewish history since the captivity; the doctrine of reincarnation also comes from India.

“The Essenes are regarded as forming the link and the meeting point between the rabbis, the Jewish Gnostics, the Platonists or Pythagoreans on the one hand, and Parsism and Buddhism on the other…. They condemned bloody sacrifices, like the Buddha and the Synagogue, and replaced them with meditation and the sacrifice of the passions…. abstained from meat and wine…. practiced community of goods, almsgiving, love of truth, purity in deeds, words and thoughts… proclaimed the equality of women, outlawed slavery and replaced discord with charity…. the first Christians were Essenes.” [pp. 352-53.]

By comparing the life of Jesus and that of Buddha, we see that their biographies are divided into two parts, the ideal legend and the real facts. However, the legendary part is identical in both. From a theosophical point of view this is easy to explain since these legends are based on the cycle of initiation. Finally, the author compares this legendary part with the corresponding features of other religions, among others with the Vedic history of Visvakarman. According to him, it was only at the Council of Nicaea that Christianity officially broke with ecclesiastical Buddhism; however, he regards the Credo adopted by the council as the development of the formula: “The Buddha, the law, the church” (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha).

A few pages are devoted to the ramifications of the sect of the Essenes, which had not been completely absorbed by the religion of Christ. Such are the sects of the Mandaeans, Sabeans or Manicheans; finally the Albigenses on the one hand, and on the other the Paulicians, whose influence on Protestantism is discernible, represent the last vestiges of Buddhist influence in the West. The Manichaeans were originally Samans or Çramanas, Buddhist ascetics whose presence Saint Hippolytus mentions in Rome in the middle of the third century. Mr. Burnouf explains their dualism in relation to the dual nature of man, good and evil, evil being the Mâra of the Buddhist legend. It shows that the Manicheans derived their doctrines from Buddhism, more directly than the Christians. As a result a mortal struggle arose between the two, when the Christian Church took shape and claimed to possess the sole and exclusively the truth. This idea is in direct contradiction to the fundamental conceptions of Buddhism, and those who professed it must naturally be bitter opponents of the Manichaeans. It was thus the Jewish spirit of exclusion that armed the secular arm of the Christian states against the Manichaeans. The persecution was terrible; “They were so crushed, that their multitude, then immense, dissipated like smoke.” Theosophists can therefore regard ecclesiastical persecutions as one of the noblest part of their heritage. No society has been more fiercely slandered and persecuted by the odium theologicum than the Theosophical Society and its founders since Christian churches have been reduced to employing no weapons other than language.

Having followed this high line from India, through Palestine to Europe, we believe it proper to quote a few paragraphs that Mr. Burnouf devotes to the Theosophical Society:

“The analysis shows us two essential things in our contemporary society: the idea of ​​a personal God among believers, and among philosophers the almost complete disappearance of charity. The Jewish element has gained the upper hand, and the Buddhist element of Christianity has faded.”

“It is therefore one of the most interesting, if not the most unexpected, phenomena of our day, the attempt made at this moment to create and constitute a new society in the world, based on the same foundations as Buddhism. Although it is only in its infancy, its growth is so rapid that our readers will be glad to have their attention drawn to this subject. It is still somewhat in a mission state, and its spread is happening quietly and without violence. It doesn’t even have a final name; its members are grouped under oriental names, put at the head of their publications: Isis, Lotus, Sphinx, Lucifer. The common name that prevails among them at the moment is that of Theosophical Society.”

“This society is very young; it already has a story. It was founded in 1875, in New York, by a very small group of people concerned about the rapid decline of moral ideas in the present age. This group was called: “Aryan Theosophical Society of New York.” The epithet Aryan sufficiently indicated that the Society was separating from the Semitic world, especially from Jewish dogmas; the Jewish part of Christianity was to be reformed, either by a simple amputation or, as has indeed happened, by interpretation. However, one of the tenets of the company was cult neutrality, and freedom from self-endeavor towards science and virtue….”

“The company has no money and no bosses; it acts with its only possible resources. There is nothing mundane about it. She has no sectarian spirit. It does not flatter any interest. She has set herself a very high moral ideal, fights vice and selfishness. It tends towards the unification of religions, which it considers to be identical in their philosophical origin; but it recognizes the supremacy of truth. Le Lotus, a monthly magazine that it publishes in Paris, took as its epigraph the Sanskrit motto of the mahârâjahs of Benares: “Satyân nâsti paro dharmah, there is no religion higher than the truth.”

“With these principles and in our day, society could hardly impose worse living conditions on itself. However, she progressed with astonishing rapidity…. [pp. 366-67.] …In America, the company has taken a great extension in recent times; its branches multiplied and then kind of federated more or less around one of them, the Cincinnati branch….”

“As the second object proposed by the association is the study of literature, religions, Aryan and Oriental sciences, and a part of its members pursue the interpretation of ancient mystical dogmas and unexplained laws of nature, one could see in her a sort of hermetic academy, quite foreign to the things of life. We are quickly brought back to reality by the nature of the publications that it makes or that it recommends, and by the declaration contained in the Lucifer, published in London, and reproduced in Le Lotus of last January, is not a theosophist who does not practice altruism (the opposite of egoism); who is not prepared to share his last piece of bread with weaker or poorer than him; who neglects to help man, his brother, whatever his race, nation or creed, in whatever time and in any place he sees him suffering, and turns a deaf ear to the cry of human misery; who finally hears slander an innocent, theosophist or not, without taking his defense, as he would do for himself.”

This statement is not Christian, since it disregards beliefs, does not proselytize for any communion, and, in fact, Christians have ordinarily used slander against their adversaries, for example against Manichaeans, Protestants and Jews. She is much less Muslim or Brahmanic. It is purely Buddhist; the practical publications of the society are either translated Buddhist books, or original works inspired by the teaching of the Buddha. The Society therefore has a Buddhist character.

“She defends herself a little for fear of taking on a sectarian and exclusive color. She is wrong: true and original Buddhism is not a sect; it is hardly a religion. Rather, it is a moral and intellectual reform, which does not exclude beliefs, but adopt none. This is what the Theosophical Society does….” [pp. 368-69.]

Speaking of Buddhism, Mr. Burnouf constantly had in mind early Buddhism, that magnificent flowering of virtue, purity and love which the swan of Kapilavastu sowed the seeds of on the soil of India. On this point, we agree with him. The code of moral established by Buddha is the greatest treasure that has been given to mankind: this religion, or rather this philosophy, approaches the truth or secret science, much more than any other exoteric form or belief. We cannot propose a higher moral ideal than these noble principles of brotherhood, tolerance and detachment, and Buddhist morality represents theosophical morality almost exactly. In short, we could not be honored more than by calling us Buddhists, if we did not have the honor of being Theosophists.

But the Theosophical Society very seriously defends itself, and not just formally, that it was created “to propagate the dogmas of the Buddha”. Our mission is not to propagate dogmas no more Buddhist than Vedic or Christian; we are independent of any formula, any ritual, any exotericism. We have been able to counteract by means of the noble principles of Buddhist ethics the attempts at invasion made by over-zealous Christians. The Chief Officers of the Society have been able to declare themselves Buddhists, and they have been criticized enough; one of them dedicated his life to the regeneration of this religion on its native soil. Let those throw stones at him, who do not understand the needs of India today and do not desire the recovery of this ancient homeland of virtues. But this does not bind the theosophical body, as such, to ecclesiastical Buddhism, nor does the Christianity of some of its members commit it to any Christian church. Precisely because present-day Buddhism needs to be regenerated, rid of all the superstitions and all the restrictions that have invaded it like parasitic plants, we would be very wrong to seek to graft a young and healthy bud on a branch which has lost its vitality, although it is perhaps less parched than the other twigs.

It is infinitely wiser to go immediately to the roots, to the pure and unalterable sources from which Buddhism itself has drawn its powerful sap. We can enlighten ourselves directly to the pure “Light of Asia”; why should we linger in its distorted shadow? Despite the synthetic and theosophical character of early Buddhism, present-day Buddhism has become a dogmatic religion and has broken up into numerous and heterogeneous sects. The history of this religion and others is there to warn us against half measures. Look at the partial reform called Protestantism: are the results satisfactory enough to commit us to mending? The Arya Samaj itself is after all only a national effort, while the essential position of the Theosophical Society is to affirm and maintain the truth common to all religions, the true truth, which could not have been defiled by the inventions, the passions, or the needs of the ages, and to invite all men to them, without distinction of sex, color or rank — and, what is more, of belief.

Mr. Burnouf warns us against indifference. Where did this one come from? First of indolence, this scourge of humanity, then of discouragement. And if man is tired of symbols and ceremonies of which the priest never gives the explanation, but from which he derives great benefits, it is not by substituting bonzes’ monasteries for our chapels that we will shake off this torpor. The time has come when all bells have one sound: they ring for boredom. To pretend to reinstall the religion of Buddha on the ruins of that of Jesus would be to give the dead tree the support of a withered stick. Our critic himself warns us that humanity is tired of even the words God, religion. Note, in this regard, that the term theosophy, which means divine wisdom, does not necessarily imply belief in a personal god. We believe the doctrine of the Theosophists sufficiently exposed that there is no need to dwell on it. Ammonias Saccas, Plotinus, Iamblichus, Porphyry, Proclus were theosophists; and, if only out of respect for these men, we may well retain this title.

No, the Sangha of the Buddhists cannot be reestablished in our civilization. As for the Buddha himself, we revere him as the greatest sage and the greatest benefactor of mankind, and we will not lose any opportunity to claim his rights to universal admiration. But in the presence of this terrible law which always causes admiration to degenerate into adoration and this one into superstition, in the presence of this desperate crystallization which takes place in brains disposed to idolatry and excludes from it all that is not the idol, would it be wise to claim for the elder brother of Jesus the narrow place where the latter undergoes sacrilegious worship? Alas, can it be that there are men who are selfish enough to love only one being, servile enough to want to serve only one master at a time!

So remains Dharma: we have said in what high esteem we hold Buddhist morality. But Theosophy is concerned with more than rules of conduct: it achieves this miracle of being able to unite a pre-Buddhist morality with a pre-Vedic metaphysics and a pre-Hermetic science. Theosophical development appeals to all the principles of man, to his intellectual as well as to his spiritual faculties, and the last two objects of our program have more importance than Mr. Burnouf seems to give them. We can assure him that if our Society receives the support of many men of its worth, it will be the channel of a torrent of new ideas borrowed from ancient sources: a torrent of artistic, economic, literary and other innovations, scientific as well as philosophical, and more fruitful for the future than the first Renaissance. There will be more than an academic coloring here: the academy itself will learn the alphabet which makes it possible to read clearly, between the lines, the so obscure and often so seemingly insignificant meaning of ancient writings. This key is within reach of those who have the courage to raise their hand to take it. And this key, Buddha possessed, for he was a high rank follower.

It is true that there are no mysteries or esotericism in the two main Buddhist churches, that of the South and that of the North. Buddhists may well be content with the dead letter of the doctrines of Siddhartha Buddha, for until fortunately, there is none more noble; there is none that can have a greater effect on the ethics of the masses. But this is the great mistake of all orientalists here. There is an esoteric doctrine, a philosophy that ennobles the soul, behind the outer 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. The secret system was taught to the Arhats alone, generally in the subterranean of Saptaparna (Sattapani of Mahavamsa), known to Fa-hian under the name of Cheta cave near Mount Baibhâr (in Pali Webhâra), in Rajagriha, ancient capital of Magadha; it was taught by Lord Buddha himself, between the hours of Dhyana (mystical contemplation). It is from this cave, called in the time of Sakyamuni, Saraswati or cave of bamboos, that the Arhats initiated in the secret wisdom took their instruction and their science beyond the Himalayas, where the secret doctrine is taught until day. If the South Indians, the invaders of Ceylon had not “heaped up in piles as high as the tops of coconut palms” the ollas of the Buddhists, and had not burned them, just as the Christians burned all the secret archives of the Gnostics and the initiated, the Orientalists would have proof of it, and we would not need to assert this well-known fact now. […continues above]

[the article continues at the top of the page; due to their interest the last pages were placed at the top.]

A new English translation in 2021 of the article Théosophie et Bouddhisme from Le Lotus, Paris, Vol. III, No. 18, September, 1888, pp. 321-33.

  1. The fact that Nirvana does not mean annihilation has been affirmed and repeated in Isis Unveiled, the author of which has discussed the etymological meaning given by Max Müller or others, and has shown that “the extinction of a lamp” does not even imply the idea that Nirvana is “the extinction of consciousness.” (See Isis, Vol. I, p. 290, and Vol. II pp. 116-17, 286, 320, 566, etc.).
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