Buddhism and Theosophy

The Buddhists and Colonel Olcott in Colombo (1883)

Theosophical teachings have borrowed some concepts and terms from Buddhism. Some theosophists like Helena Blavatsky, Helena Roerich and Henry Steel Olcott also became Buddhists. Henry Steel Olcott helped shape the design of the Buddhist flag. Tibetan Buddhism was popularised in the West at first mainly by Theosophists including Evans-Wentz and Alexandra David-Neel.

Blavatsky sometimes compared Theosophy to Mahayana Buddhism. In The Key to Theosophy she writes:

"But the schools of the Northern Buddhist Church ... teach all that is now called Theosophical doctrines, because they form part of the knowledge of the initiates..."[1]

The Theosophists as Buddhists and Buddhologists

The Founders of the Theosophical Society

25 May 1880 Blavatsky[2][3] and Olcott[4][5] embraced Buddhism: they publicly took in Galle the Refuges and Pancasila from a prominent Sinhalese bhikkhu.[upper-alpha 1] Olcott and Blavatsky (she received US citizenship previously) were the first Americans who were converted to Buddhism in the traditional sense.[7]

In Buddhology there are an impression that the "theosophical Buddhists" were the forerunners of all subsequent Western, or, as they were called, the "white" of the Buddhists. In addition, they have attempted to rationalize the Buddhism, to clear the doctrine, removing from it an elements of "folk superstition". In addition, they tried to identify Buddhism with esoteric doctrine, recognizing the Lord Buddha as the "Master-Adept."[upper-alpha 2][upper-alpha 3] And finally, they considered it their duty to provide assistance and political support to the oppressed Sinhalese Buddhists.[9][upper-alpha 4]

Theosophical revival of Buddhism

In 1880 Olcott began to build up the Buddhist Educational Movement in Ceylon. In 1880 there were only two schools in Ceylon managed by the Buddhists. Due to the efforts of Olcott the number rose to 205 schools and four colleges in 1907 (Ananda College in Colombo, Mahinda College in Galle, Dharmaraja College in Kandy and Maliyadeva College in Kurunegala). Thus began the great Buddhist revival in Ceylon. Olcott also represented the Buddhist cause to the British government, and found redress for the restrictions imposed against Buddhists, such as the prohibition of processions, Buddhist schools, the improved financial administration of temple properties, and so on.[6]

Olcott "united the sects of Ceylon in the Buddhist Section of the Theosophical Society (1880); the 12 sects of Japan into a Joint Committee for the promotion of Buddhism (1889); Burma, Siam, and Ceylon into a Convention of Southern Buddhists (1891); and finally Northern and Southern Buddhism through joint signatures to his Fourteen Propositions of Buddhism (1891)."[6][4]

Anagarika Dharmapala

An important part of Olcott's work in Ceylon became the patronage of young Buddhist Don David Hewavitharana, who took himself later name Anagarika Dharmapala.[7][11][12][upper-alpha 5] Dharmapala, a founder the Maha Bodhi Society, Sri Lanka's national hero, was one of the major figures in the movement for the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon during the British colonial rule.[14][upper-alpha 6]

In December 1884 Blavatsky, accompanied by Leadbeater and the marrieds Cooper-Oakley came to Ceylon.[15] Leadbeater, following the example of the leaders of the Theosophical Society, has officially become a Buddhist, without renouncing Christianity (he was an Anglican priest).[16] David joined the Blavatsky's team to go to India.[upper-alpha 7]

Upon arrival in India Dharmapala as a member of the Theosophical Society worked with Blavatsky and Olcott. They advised him to devote himself to the service of "the benefit of mankind," and begin to study Pali and the Buddhist philosophy.[11][18] Sangharakshita wrote that at the age of 20 years Dharmapala was equally fascinated by both Buddhism and theosophy.[19]

After returning from India, Dharmapala worked in Colombo as general secretary of the Buddhist section of the Theosophical Society, and as director of the Buddhist press.[11][20] In 1886, he was a translator, when together with Olcott and Leadbeater made a lecture tour of the island.[21] He helped Olcott in a work on the organization of Buddhist schools.[11] When Olcott instructed Leadbeater to prepare a shortened version of the Buddhist Catechism, Dharmapala undertook to translate it to Sinhala.[22][upper-alpha 8] Work of Dharmapala and theosophists contributed to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and other countries of the Southern Buddhism.[24]

Leadbeater has initiated the organization in various parts of Colombo a large number of Buddhist Sunday schools. He also founded an English school, which later became known as Ananda College (one of the most famous schools of Ceylon). Among the pupils of this school was a young Buddhist Jinarajadasa, who later worked as the fourth President of the Theosophical Society Adyar.[25][upper-alpha 9][upper-alpha 10]

In 1893, Dharmapala went to the West, first to England and then to the Chicago, where he represented Buddhism at the World Parliament of Religions. Although he was only 29 years old, he was the most famous representative of Buddhism in parliament. At the conference, he made several appearances on three main themes. Firstly, he said that Buddhism is a religion, which perfectly consistent with modern science, because the Buddhist teachings are completely compatible with the doctrine of evolution. He outlined the Buddhist idea that the cosmos is a sequential process of deployment in accordance with the laws of nature. Secondly, Dharmapala said that in the ethics of Buddhism is much more love and compassion than in the sermons of Christian missionaries working in Ceylon. By a third paragraph of his performances was the assertion that Buddhism is a religion of optimism and activity, but in any case not of pessimism and inactivity.[11][28]

Christmas Humphreys

In 1924 in London Humphreys[29] founded the Buddhist Lodge of the Theosophical Society.[upper-alpha 11] According to Humphreys, conceptually the Theosophy and Buddhism are identical: the single life after many incarnations returns to the Unmanifest; all the individual consciousness are unreal compared to the "Self", which is a reflection of the Absolute; karma and reincarnation are a basic laws. Path lays through self-fulfillment with Nirvana in the end. Thus, wrote Humphreys, the difference between the Theosophy and Buddhism is only in emphasis.[31][upper-alpha 12]

Thanks to the missionary efforts of Dharmapala, in 1926 the British Buddhists established their branch Maha Bodhi Society.[33] At the same time the Buddhist Lodge was transformed into the British Buddhist Society, whose president become Humphreys.[34][35] Humphreys was a tireless lay Buddhist as a lecturer, journalist, writer and organizer. He was the author and/or the editor of The Buddhist Lodge Monthly Bulletin, Buddhism in England, The Middle Way, and The Theosophical Review.[34]

Watts and Conze

British philosopher and Buddhist author Watts[36] at the age of 15 years became a member of the Buddhist Lodge of the Theosophical Society in London. His first book, The Spirit of Zen came out when he was 19 years old.[upper-alpha 13]

An active member of the TS was also Conze, who later became a famous buddhologist.[37][38][upper-alpha 14][upper-alpha 15]

D. Suzuki and B. Suzuki

The famous Buddhist philosopher and popularizer of Zen Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki[40][41] and his wife Beatrice Suzuki became a members of the Theosophical Society in Tokyo in 1920. List of members of the Society, which was sent to Adyar May 12, 1920, contained twenty-one name, including D. Suzuki and B. Suzuki. After moving to Kyoto in 1924, the marrieds Suzuki have formed a new branch of the Theosophical Society, which was called the Mahayana Lodge. Most of the Lodge members were university professors. In 1937 Jinarajadasa, future president of the Theosophical Society, has read in Tokyo two lectures which were translated into Japanese by D. Suzuki.[42]

Analysis of the theosophical texts

According to buddhologists Reigle and Taylor, and Blavatsky herself, and her immediate Masters, and the Master of her Masters were Buddhists by faith and lexis, who were strongly associated by relationships "pupil-teacher". Blavatsky often uses in her works the references to Buddhism, in particular, to the Mahayana teachings, while in the "mahatma letters" Buddhism is present on virtually every page, and it is immediately evident from the frequent use of specific terminology on the Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian languages.[43][44]

The Mahatma letters

Humphreys wrote that theosophists got their knowledge from two Masters who prepared Blavatsky for her mission in the world. Their letters were published later, in 1923: it was a book The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett.[45] He noted that the founders of the theosophical movement, Blavatsky and Olcott, publicly declared themselves Buddhists and, more important still, the two Masters, who founded the Theosophical movement, spoke: "Our Great Patron is the Teacher of Nirvana and the Law." And their Master, the Maha-Chohan, once said, describing himself and his fellow-adepts, that they were all "the devoted followers of the 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."[46][47] Speaking about Buddha, Humphries repeatedly quoted the Master Kuthumi,[upper-alpha 16] for example:

Humphreys stated: "All who dare to call themselves Theosophists or Buddhists must study, and teach and strive to apply this garnered Wisdom."[46]

The Secret Doctrine and the Books of Kiu-te

Oldmeadow wrote that Blavatsky's second major work, The Secret Doctrine, includes elements that clearly derive from the Vajrayana, often conflated with Vedantic ideas. He noted: "Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup was sufficiently confident of Blavatsky's account of the Bardo to endorse her claim that she had been initiated into 'the higher lamaistic teachings'."[53]

Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup (a translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead) believed that Blavatsky had "intimate acquaintance with the higher lamaistic teachings".[upper-alpha 17]

Humphreys in his autobiography praised The Secret Doctrine. At the time he published an abridgment of this book.[55][upper-alpha 18]

Blavatsky claimed to have access to a popularised version of Buddhist secret doctrines, a fourteen volume esoteric commentary, "worked out from one small archaic folio, the Book of the Secret Wisdom of the World", as well as secret texts she termed Kiu-Te.[57] Buddhologist David Reigle identified Blavatsky's "Books of Kiu-te" as the Tantra section of the Tibetan Buddhist canon.[58]

The Voice of the Silence

Zen Buddhism scholar D. T. Suzuki wrote about Blavatsky's book The Voice of the Silence: "Undoubtedly Madame Blavatsky had in some way been initiated into the deeper side of Mahayana teaching and then gave out what she deemed wise to the Western world."[upper-alpha 19] He also commented: "Here is the real Mahayana Buddhism."[upper-alpha 20]

In 1927 the staff of the 9th Panchen Lama Tub-ten Cho-gyi Nyima helped Theosophists put out the "Peking Edition" of The Voice of the Silence.[upper-alpha 21]

The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso wrote in the preface to the 1989 Centenary edition of The Voice of the Silence, "I believe that this book has strongly influenced many sincere seekers and aspirants to the wisdom and compassion of the Bodhisattva Path."[upper-alpha 22]

Humphreys wrote: "The Buddhists and Theosophists of the West, all converts, be it noted, from some other faith, have much in common: The Voice of the Silence ('a pure Buddhist work', as the late Anagarika Dharmapala of Ceylon wrote to me, and the Dalai Lama signed my copy long ago) and Colonel Olcott's Buddhist Catechism."[46]

According to Kalnitsky, the contents of The Voice of the Silence reflects "authentic Buddhist sentiment, even if not universally acknowledged as a pure Buddhist historical document."[59]


Guénon believed that Blavatskyan "theosophism" is a "confused mixture" of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Jewish Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and occultism. He wrote: "From the start this heteroclite mixture was presented as 'esoteric Buddhism'; but since it was still too easy to see that it presented only very vague relationships with true Buddhism."[60]

Oldmeadow claimed:

"Despite the legend which she and her hagiographers propagated, Blavatsky never stepped on Tibetan soil. Her claims that her later writings derived from Himalayan Mahatmas, forming a kind of Atlantean brotherhood residing in secrecy in a remote region of Tibet and with access to longhidden, antediluvian sources of esoteric wisdom, need not be treated seriously."[61]

In 2015 Uditha Devapriya stated that Olcott's Buddhist Catechism was based on the Catholic Catechism, and his schools were by same institutions which he criticised: "This meant that the Buddhism he 'founded' was not the sort of Buddhism which Gunananda Thero began a journey to find."[62]

See also



  1. Along with them embraced Buddhism an active member of the Theosophical Society Damodar K. Mavalankar, who renounced caste Brahmin and worked at headquarters TS.[6]
  2. Blavatsky called her mysterious Masters an "esoteric Buddhists".[7]
  3. Blavatsky claimed that before her arrival in America she studied for seven years in Tibet under the direction of mahatmas, and that later she maintained telepathic contact with them, especially with the Masters Kuthumi and Morya – sometimes through dreams and visions, but most of all, through letters, which materialized in her room in a cupboard, or she has wrote down them herself by automatic writing.[8]
  4. Melton wrote that Olcott become an avid supporter of Buddhism and a defender of the Sri Lankan Buddhists.[10]
  5. Thanks to Blavatsky and Olcott, David in 1880 was open to the world, and he joined the efforts of Olcott on the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon.[13]
  6. Similarly Olcott is considered a leading figure in the modern history of Sri Lankan Buddhism.[5]
  7. Previously David received permission of his father. But the day of departure the father changed his mind, because he had a bad dream. The situation was resolved by Blavatsky: she told the father that if David will not be allowed to leave, he will die. Finally Blavatsky led David "by his hand up the gangplank."[17]
  8. The Smaller Buddhist Catechism was approved and recommended for the instruction of Buddhist children by Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero. It was translated into Sinhala by Anagarika Dharmapala (published in two parts in 1889).[23]
  9. Speaking of himself, Jinarajadasa noted: "I am a Buddhist by birth; but I am a Theosophist first and a Buddhist after."[26]
  10. June 23, 1886 Blavatsky has sent a letter to Leadbeater in which were rows relating to Sri Lankan Buddhists: "My love and blessings to Don David and all the Brethren. My greatest respectful salams to the High Priest Rev. Sumangala. Ask his blessing to me."[27]
  11. Oldmeadow wrote that theosophy, occultism and Buddhism are intricately intertwined in the individual of Humphreys.[30]
  12. Humphreys claimed that the theosophy is concentrated wisdom of mankind.[32]
  13. Humphreys first met with Watts in the early 30's. He was delighted on a book The Spirit of Zen.[34]
  14. Edward Conze remained a theosophist throughout his life.[39]
  15. One of the most famous buddhologists XX century Edward Conze was a theosophist.[35]
  16. "Koot Hoomi... is not the Master's personal name, but the title of his office as a high dignitary of the Koothoompa sect of Tibetan Buddhism."[48]
  17. See The Tibetan Book of the Dead, p. 7 footnote.
    See also note 24: "The Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup was not only knowledgeable of the Secret Doctrine, like Evans-Wentz, but in a position to confirm the genuineness of some of HPB's statements regarding esoteric Tibetan teachings."[54]
  18. Two of most important Blavatsky's works are The Secret Doctrine and The Voice of the Silence.[3] Hurst wrote: "Blavatsky's Buddhist-influenced book The Secret Doctrine remains influential as a spiritual text and in print after more than a century."[56]
  19. He said also: "H. P. Blavatsky was one who had truly attained." // Eastern Buddhist, old series. Vol. 5, p. 377.
  20. See The Middle Way, August 1965, p. 90.
  21. See Blavatsky H. P. The Voice of the Silence, ed. Alice Cleather and Basil Crump. Peking: Chinese Buddhist Research Society, 1927. — P. 113.
  22. See Blavatsky H. P. The Voice of the Silence. Centenary edition. Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, 1989. // Foreword by the XIVth Dalai Lama.


  1. Blavatsky 2007, p. 14.
  2. Bowden 1993a.
  3. 1 2 PDB 2013a.
  4. 1 2 Bowden 1993b.
  5. 1 2 PDB 2013e.
  6. 1 2 3 Adyar.
  7. 1 2 3 Prebish, Tanaka 1998, p. 198.
  8. Melton 1990, p. 195; Lopez 2011, pp. 20–21.
  9. Prebish, Tanaka 1998, p. 199.
  10. Melton 2014, p. 127.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Bond 2013a.
  12. PDB 2013c.
  13. Burgan 2009, p. 36; Lopez 2008, p. 92.
  14. Epasinghe.
  15. Tillett 1986, p. 145.
  16. Tillett 1986, p. 147.
  17. Guruge 1998, p. 349.
  18. Lopez 2008, p. 92.
  19. Sangharakshita 2013, p. 25.
  20. Guruge 1998, p. 368.
  21. Sangharakshita 2013, p. 27.
  22. Sangharakshita 2013, p. 28.
  23. Tillett 1986, p. 977.
  24. Bond 2013b.
  25. Sangharakshita 2013, p. 29.
  26. Jinarajadasa 1948, p. 29.
  27. Jinarajadasa 2010.
  28. Burgan 2009, p. 34.
  29. PDB 2013d.
  30. Oldmeadow 2004, p. 91.
  31. Humphreys 2013, Chap. 17.
  32. Humphreys 2013, p. 168.
  33. Baumann 2013.
  34. 1 2 3 Oldmeadow 2004, p. 93.
  35. 1 2 Taylor 1999, Chap. 1.
  36. PDB 2013f.
  37. Prebish 2013.
  38. PDB 2013b.
  39. Lopez 1999, p. 52.
  40. Bowden 1993c.
  41. Burgan 2009, p. 84.
  42. Algeo 2007.
  43. Taylor 1999, Chap. 2.
  44. Reigle 2000.
  45. Humphreys 2013, pp. 165–166.
  46. 1 2 3 Humphreys 2012, p. 32.
  47. Jinarajadasa 2010, Second letter.
  48. Jinarajadasa 2010, First letter.
  49. Humphreys 2012, p. 24.
  50. Barker 1924, Letter 9.
  51. Humphreys 2013, p. 167.
  52. Barker 1924, Letter 10.
  53. Oldmeadow 2004, p. 131.
  54. Sanat.
  55. Oldmeadow 2004, p. 92.
  56. Hurst 1995, p. 162.
  57. Blavatsky 1910, p. 405.
  58. Reigle 1983.
  59. Kalnitsky 2003, p. 322.
  60. Guénon 2004, pp. 91–92.
  61. Oldmeadow 2004, pp. 130–131.
  62. Devapriya.


Further reading

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