“Esoteric Buddhism” and the “Secret Doctrine”
Letter by A. P. Sinnett | Notes and Closing Remark by H. P. B.
Lucifer, November, 1888
In reference to various remarks concerning “Esoteric Buddhism” which appear in the course of your new work, “The Secret Doctrine,” I beg to call your attention to some passages on the same subject which appeared on former occasions in the Theosophist at a time when that magazine was edited by yourself.
In the Secret Doctrine you speak of Esoteric Buddhism as a work with “a very unfortunate title,” and in reference to a passage in my preface, emphasising the novelty for European readers of the teachings then given out, you say the error must have crept in through inadvertence. In the last number of LUCIFER you discuss the same point in a note appended to a correspondent’s letter. Permit me to remind you of an editorial note, evidently from your own pen, in the February Theosophist, 1884. This is in reply to an objection raised by Mr. W. Q. Judge that nearly all the leading ideas of the doctrine embodied in “Esoteric Buddhism” are to be found in the Bhagavad Gita. You wrote:
“We do not believe our American brother is justified in his remarks. The knowledge given out in Esoteric Buddhism is most decidedly given out for the first time, inasmuch as the allegories that lie scattered in the Hindu sacred literature are now for the first time clearly explained to the world of the profane.1 Since the birth of the Theosophical Society and the publication of Isis, it is being repeated daily that all the esoteric wisdom of the ages lies concealed in the Vedas, the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita; yet unto the day of the first appearance of Esoteric Buddhism, and for long centuries back, these doctrines remained a sealed letter to all but a few initiated Brahmins who had always kept the spirit of it to themselves.”
Thus, if I erred in my statement about the doctrine having been unknown previously to Europeans, I erred in very good company—your own. Your note goes on to say that certainly the teachings of “Esoteric Buddhism” lie concealed in the Bhagavad Gita, “but” you say:
“What of that? Of what good to W. Q. Judge or any other is the diamond that lies concealed deep underground? Of course everyone knows that there is not a gem now sparkling in a jewellery shop but pre-existed and lay concealed since its formation, for ages, within the bowels of the earth. Yet surely he who got it first from its finder, and cut and polished it, may be permitted to say that this particular diamond is given out for the first time to the world.”2
In regard to my “unfortunate title,” which was (as you know, I think) approved when first proposed without any question arising as to the. two “d’s”—you say in the Secret Doctrine:
“It has enabled our enemies to find an effective weapon against Theosophy because, as an eminent Pali scholar very pointedly expressed it, there was in the volume named neither esotericism nor Buddhism.”
It happens that you discussed the same criticism in an article in the Theosophist for November, 1883. Your text on that occasion was an article in the St. James’ Gazette, which you attributed to Dr. Rhys Davids, and you wrote:
“But before the Orientalists are able to prove that the doctrines, as taught in Mr. Sinnett’s exposition are “not Buddhism, esoteric nor exoteric,” they will have to make away with the thousands of Brahminical Adwaita and other Vedantin writings—the works of Sankaracharya in particular—from which it can be proved that precisely the same doctrines are taught in those works esoterically.”
You spoke, in the course of the article, of the very remark you now find to be “very pointed,”3 as “such a spiteful and profitless criticism” to attribute it to the pen of the great Pali scholar.
The propriety of the title given to my book was discussed in an article in the Theosophist for June, 1884, when an editorial note was appended, in the course of which the writer said:
“The name given to Mr. Sinnett’s book will not be misleading or objectionable when the close identity between the doctrines therein expounded and those of the ancient Rishis of India is clearly perceived.”4
These extracts seem to show that the unfavourable view of Esoteric Buddhism now presented to the readers of the Secret Doctrine can only have been developed in your mind within a comparatively recent period.5 Satisfied with the assurance conveyed to me—as explained in the preface to the sixth edition—by the reverend teacher from whom its substance was derived— that the book was a sound and trustworthy presentation of his teachings as a whole, that would never have to be remodelled or apologised for,6 I have been content, hitherto, to leave unnoticed every other criticism that it has called forth. I have known all along that it contained errors which initiates would detect, but by the time any student might be in a position to appreciate these he would be independent of its guidance, and till then he could not be embarrassed7 by them. Now, however, I regret to find that the Secret Doctrine is not merely concerned to expand and develop the earlier teaching—a task which I should be the first to recognise could be performed by no one more efficiently than by yourself—but paves the way for its expositions by remarks on Esoteric Buddhism which are not in the nature of fresh revelations concerning what are, doubtless, its many shortcomings, but are in the nature of disparagements8 which you have, on former occasions rebuked others for putting forward.
You say—in objecting to my title—“the esoteric truths presented in Mr. Sinnett’s work had ceased to be esoteric from the moment they were made public.” Is not that an odd objection to appear on the first page of a book called “The Secret Doctrine”? Has the doctrine ceased to deserve that designation from the date at which your own book appeared?9
These questions however are all of minor importance, though it puzzles me to understand why your view of them should have been so diametrically reversed from what it was a few years ago.10 I might hardly have written this letter at all, but for a passage in the Secret Doctrine referring to Esoteric Buddhism that occurs on page 169. There you suggest that my own attempt to explain planetary evolution fails for want of being sufficiently metaphysical, and you quote a phrase from me—“on pure metaphysics of that sort we are not now engaged”—in connexion with a passage from one of the letters of instruction I received when the book was under preparation. “In such case,” you say, “as the Teacher remarks in a letter to him: ‘Why this preaching of our doctrines, all this uphill work and swimming in adversum flumen?’” Any reader will imagine that the passage quoted from the letter had reference to the passage quoted from the book.11 Nothing can be further from the fact. My remark about not being “then” concerned with “pure metaphysics” had a limited and specific application, and on the next page I see that I have dealt with that period before the earliest manifestations of Nature on the plane of the senses, when the work of evolution going on was concerned “with the elemental forces that underlie the phenomena of Nature so visible now and perceptible to the senses of Man.”
From time to time, amongst criticisms of Esoteric Buddhism that have appeared to me misdirected, I have heard this charge—that I have not appreciated the great doctrine metaphysically, that I have materialised its conceptions. I do not think I have ever before put pen to paper to combat this idea, though it has always struck me as curiously erroneous; but when language from yourself seems to fortify the impression I refer to, it is high time for me to explain, at any rate, my own attitude of mind.12
The charge of materialising the doctrine seems to me to arise entirely from the fact that I have partially succeeded in making some parts of it intelligible. The disposition to regard vagueness of exposition as equivalent to spirituality of thought is very widely spread; and multitudes of people are unaccustomed to respect any phraseology that they find themselves enabled to understand. Unused to realise a thought with precision of imaginative insight, they fancy if it is presented vividly to the mind that it must have lost caste in the realms of idealism. They are used to regarding a brick as something with a definite shape and purpose, and an idea as a Protean shadow. Give the idea a specific plan in Nature, and it will seem to them materialised, even if concerned with conditions of life as remote from materiality as Devachanic emotion.
The succession of Cause and Effect seems itself materialised—in the mental atmosphere I am discussing—if it is represented, in its most interesting aspect, as forcing its way from one plane of nature to another.
For readers of this temperament Esoteric Buddhism may be materialistic; but as I venture to believe that it has been a bridge which has conducted many, and may bear many more, across the chasm which divides the interests and materialism of this life, from the realms of spiritual aspiration beyond, I have not yet seen reason to regret the mould in which it was cast, even though some of those who have used it in their time now despise its materialistic construction.13 It would load your paper too heavily if I quoted passages to show how constantly I really emphasised the non-material aspects of its teaching; but I may perhaps be allowed one from the closing sentences of the chapter on “the universe,” in which I say:—“It”—the doctrine of the Esoteric Wisdom—“stoops to materialism, as it were to link its methods with the logic of that system, and ascends to the highest realms of Idealism to embrace and expound the most exalted aspiration of spirit.”
The truth of the whole matter is admirably expressed in a comprehensive sentence at the end of a long article on “The Metaphysical Basis of Esoteric Buddhism,” which appeared in the Theosophist for May, 1884, with the suggestive signature, Damodar K. Mavalankar. This runs:
“The reader will now perceive that Esoteric Buddhism is not a system of materialism. It is, as Mr. Sinnett calls it, ‘Transcendental Materialism,’ which is non-materialism, just as the absolute consciousness is non-consciousness.”14
Any vindication of oneself must be a repulsive task. For many reasons I would rather have left all such questions alone, but to ignore unfavourable comments when these proceed from your own pen would be to treat them with less respect than is embodied in my present remarks.
In conclusion, since the Secret Doctrine so frequently discusses what Esoteric Buddhism meant to say as regards Darwinian evolution, let me endeavour to elucidate that point. The teaching I received on the subject of race evolution was very elementary. It was not exactly “fragmentary” (as has sometimes been said), but it was a skeleton statement, as regards all the problems of “Cosmogenesis,” consequently it dealt merely with that cosmic progress of the spiritual inquiry through the various kingdoms of Nature which, beginning (on the material plane) with the mineral, culminates in Man. It follows from this elementary statement that at some stage of the great evolutionary process there is an ascent from the animal to the human kingdom,15 never mind where the transition is effected. There the teaching vindicated the spirit of the Darwinian idea16 though the further illumination now cast upon the subject by your present work shows that many specific conjectures of Darwinism are erroneous, and its application to the human evolution of this world period altogether misleading. It is needless to say that I was not furnished with the later teaching on this subject when Esoteric Buddhism was written, therefore of course my own impression at the time was that the doctrine supported the Darwinian hypothesis, as a general idea. I never heard a word breathed in India, when writing Esoteric Buddhism to the contrary effect.17
Nor was the point worth raising then. My readers had to be made acquainted with the primary principles of Karma, reincarnation and cosmic progress towards superior conditions of existence. All the cosmo-genesis that was essential to the comprehension of these principles was supplied in the teaching as given. Much was left for further development, for later opportunities. The first book of Euclid cannot also contain the second, third and fourth. In the Secret Doctrine I have no doubt we are furnished with esoteric teaching, which is the analogue of the more advanced geometry. Probably it will be least appreciated by those who read its opening pages as warning them off the subject of triangles.
Yours very respectfully,
A. P. SINNETT
OUR CLOSING REMARK
We thank Mr. Sinnett, with all of our heart, for this letter. Better late than never. On page 186 of Vol. I. of our “Secret Doctrine,” now just published, we quote from a letter of a member of the T. S., who wrote: “I suppose you realize that three-fourths of Theosophists, and even outsiders imagine that, as far as the evolution of man is concerned, Darwinism and Theosophy kiss one another” in “Esoteric Buddhism.” We repudiate the idea most vehemently on the same page, but our negation would not go very far without that of Mr. Sinnett. The letter containing the above quoted sentence was written more than two and a half years ago; and our denial, notwithstanding the same charge of Darwinism and materialism in “Esoteric Buddhism,” was maintained by the same writer and supported by many others. Thus it was indispensable for the good of the Cause that Mr. Sinnett should deny it over his own signature. Our object is accomplished, for the author of “Esoteric Buddhism” has now solemnly repudiated the charge, and we hope to receive no more such flings at our philosophical beliefs.
We close by thanking our esteemed correspondent once more for the indulgent spirit in which he deals with our remarks, but which, to our regret, he very erroneously attributes to a personal feeling due to some unwarrantable change in our attitude towards himself. We repudiate such a charge, and hope that our explanations will dissipate the last vestiges of any such suspicion.—ED. [H.P.B.]
1. The author of the “Secret Doctrine” begs to suggest that she never denied to the doctrines expounded by Mr. Sinnett the privilege of having been clearly “EXPLAINED,” for the first time, in print, in “Esot. Buddhism.” All she asserts is, that it is not for the first time that they were given out to a European, and by the latter to other Europeans. Between “publishing” and “giving out” there is a decided difference; an admirable peg, at any rate, for our common enemies to hang their captious cavils upon. It is not the writer of the “Secret Doctrine,” moreover, who was the first to put such a natural interpretation upon the sentence used by our esteemed friend and correspondent, but, verily, sundry critics outside of, as also within the Theosophical Society. It is no personal question between Mr. Sinnett and H. P. Blavatsky, but between these two individuals on the one hand and their critics on the other; the former being both in duty bound—as theosophists and believers in the esoteric teaching—to defend the Sacred Doctrine from side attacks—via its expounders.—ED. [H.P.B.]
2. This proves, firstly, that the desire to defend, in print, a friend and co-worker quand même, even when he is not entirely right, is always injudicious; and secondly, that experience comes with age. “The good advocate not onley heares, but examines his case, and pincheth the cause where he fears it is foundred”—Fuller teaches. We proved no “good advocate,” and now bear our Karma for it; from an “advocate” we have become a “defendant.”—ED. [H.P.B.]
3. So we say now. Not a word of what we wrote then do we repudiate here; and the “Secret Doctrine” proves it. But this does not clash at all with the fact that, once made public, no doctrine can be referred to any longer as “esoteric.” The esoteric tenets revealed—both in “Esoteric Buddhism” and the “Secret Doctrine” have become exoteric now. Nor does a remark cease to be “spiteful” for being “very pointed,” e.g., most of Carlyle’s remarks. A few years ago, at a time when our doctrines were hardly delineated and the Orientalists knew nothing of them, any such premature discussion and criticism were “profitless.” But now, when these doctrines have spread throughout the whole world, unless we call things by their true names, and admit our mistakes (for it was one, to spell “Budhism,” Buddhism—a mistake, moreover, distinctly attributed to ourselves, “theosophists of India,” vide page xviii. Vol. I of the “Secret Doctrine,” and not at all to Mr. Sinnett), our critics will have an undeniable right to charge us with sailing under false colours. Nothing more fatal to our cause could ever happen. If we would be regarded as theosophists, we have to protect THEOSOPHY; we have to defend our colours before we think of defending our own petty personality and amour propre, and should be ever ready to sacrifice ourselves. And this is what we have tried to do in the Introduction to the “Secret Doctrine.” Poor is that standard-bearer who shields his body from the bullets of the enemy with the sacred banner entrusted to him!—ED. [H.P.B.]
4. The Rishis having nought to do with “Buddhism,” the religion of Gautama Buddha, this question shows plainly that the mistake involved in the double “d” had not yet struck the writer as forcibly as it has done later.—ED. [H.P.B.]
5. This is an error. What we say now in the “Secret Doctrine” is what we knew, but kept silent upon ever since the first year of publication of “Esoteric Doctrine”; though we confess we have not realised the importance of the mistake as fully from the beginning as we do now. It is the number of criticisms received in private letters and for publication in LUCIFER, from friends as well as from foes, that forced us to see the question in its true light. Had they (the criticisms) been directed only against us personally (Mr. Sinnett and H. P. Blavatsky) they would have been left entirely unnoticed. But as all such had a direct bearing upon the doctrines taught—some persisting in calling them Buddhism, pure and simple, and others charging them with being a new-fangled doctrine invented by ourselves and fathered upon Buddhism—the danger became imminent, and a public explanation was absolutely necessary. Moreover, the impression that it was a very materialistic teaching—“Esoteric Buddhism” being accused of upholding the Darwinian hypothesis—spread from the Indian and Vedantin to almost all the European theosophists. This had to be refuted, and—we do so in the “Secret Doctrine.”—ED. [H.P.B.]
6. No one has ever dreamt of denying that “Esoteric Buddhism” was a “trustworthy presentation” of the Master’s teachings as a whole. That which is asserted is simply that some personal speculations of its author were faulty, and led to erroneous conclusions, (a) on account of their incompleteness, and (b) because of the evident anxiety to reconcile them with modern physical science, instead of metaphysical philosophy. Very likely errors, emanating from a desire diametrically opposite, will be found in the “Secret Doctrine.” Why should any of us—aye, even the most learned in occult lore among theosophists—pose for infallibility? Let us humbly admit with Socrates that “all we know is, that we know nothing”; at any rate nothing in comparison to what we have still to learn.—ED. [H.P.B.]
7. Not “embarrassed,” but misled—and it is precisely this which has happened.—ED. [H.P.B.]
8. We demur to the expression. No “disparagement” whatever is meant, but simply an attempt is made to make certain tenets taught in our respective works more clear. Without such explanations, the statements made by both authors would be unavoidably denounced as contradictory. The general public rarely goes to the trouble of sifting such difficult metaphysical questions to the bottom, but judges on appearance. We have to acquaint first the reader with all the sides and aspects of a teaching before we allow him to accept or even to see in one of such a dogma.—ED. [H.P.B.]
9. It has, most unquestionably, if logic deserves its name. Our correspondent would have hardly made this query, intended as a hit and a satire, had he paid attention to what is said on pages xvii-xviii (the first and the second) of the Introduction to the “Secret Doctrine,” namely—“Esoteric Buddhism” was an excellent work with a very unfortunate title, though it meant no more than does the title of this work, the “Secret Doctrine”; which means, if anything, that no more than “Esoteric Buddhism” are those portions of the “Secret Doctrine” now explained in our volumes any longer “secret”—since they are divulged. We appeal to logicians and literary critics for a decision.—ED. [H.P.B.]
10. Vide Supra notes: the reasons are now explained.—ED. [H.P.B.]
11. This remark of the Master was made in a general not in any specific application. But what of that?—ED. [H.P.B.]
12. Once more we beg to assure our friend and colleague, Mr. Sinnett, that in saying what is said in the “Secret Doctrine” we did not for one moment contemplate the remarks as expressive of our own personal objections—seeing we know our correspondent’s ideas too well to have any. They were addressed to and directed against our benevolent critics: especially those who, with an impartiality most admirable, though worthy of a better fate, try to hit us both, and through us to upset the Esoteric Doctrine. Has not the latter been proclaimed by a number of well-wishers as an invention of H. P. Blavatsky’s? Did not even an admirably clever and learned man—the late W. C. King—claim, in his “Gnostics and their Remains,” to have “reasons for suspecting that the sibyl of ‘Esoteric Buddhism’ (i.e. your humble servant) drew her first notions from the analysis of the Inner man (to wit our seven principles) as set forth in my (his) first edition”! This—because the most philosophical Gnostic works, especially the doctrines of Valentinus and Marcus—are full of our archaic esoteric ideas. Forsooth, it is high time that the defendant, also, should “rise and explain” her attitude in the “Secret Doctrine,” regardless of any one’s (even her own) personality!—ED. [H.P.B.]
13. No one we know of “despises,” but many, on the other band, rejoice, and very much so, at being able to refer to it as “materialistic.” It was high time to disabuse and contradict them; and this letter from our correspondent, setting forth his true views and attitude for the first time, is one of the first good fruits produced by our remarks in, the “Secret Doctrine.” It is an excellent check on our mutual enemies.—ED. [H.P.B.]
14. These are the verbatim expressions of your friend and humble servant, the Editor. Damodar only repeated our views. But the “Damodars” are few, and there were, as our correspondent well knows, other Brahmins in England, who were the first to proclaim “Esoteric Buddhism” materialistic to the core, and who have always maintained this idea in others.—ED. [H.P.B.]
15. At the stage of the first Round, and partially at the second, never during any stage of the Fourth Round. A purely mathematical or rather algebraical reason exists for this:—The present (our) Round being the middle Round (between the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, and the 5th, 6th, and 7th) is one of adjustment and final equipoise between Spirit and matter. It is that point, in short, wherein the reign of true matter, its grossest state (which is as unknown to Science as its opposite pole—homogeneous matter or substance) stops and comes to an end. From that point physical man begins to throw off “coat after coat,” his material molecules for the benefit and subsequent formation or clothing of the animal kingdom, which in its turn is passing it on to the vegetable, and the latter to the mineral kingdoms. Man having evoluted in the first Round from the animal via the two other kingdoms, it stands to reason that in the present Round he should appear before the animal world of this manvantaric period. But see the “Secret Doctrine” for particulars.—ED. [H.P.B.]
16. What did Darwin, or what Darwinians know of our esoteric teaching about “Rounds”! The “Spirit” of the Darwinian idea, is an Irish bull, in this case, as that “Spirit” is materialism of the grossest kind.—ED. [H.P.B.]
17. The reason for this also is stated in the “Secret Doctrine.”—ED. [H.P.B.]