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Saturday, 4 September 2021

Blavatsky Book Review: The Buddhism of H. P. Blavatsky, Henk J. Spierenburg

Here for the first time is a compilation in one volume of Blavatsky's perspective, both controversial and of stimulating value, for all interested in the Buddhist and Theosophic world view. During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Blavatsky influenced prominent Buddhists of all kinds: from late nineteenth century Singhalese Buddhists to the sixth Panchen Lama. Throughout this century, Blavatsky's Theosophic exposition of Buddhist thought has gained influence and respect
Release Date:June 1991
Publisher:Point Loma Publications, Incorporated
Length:335 Pages
 
Contents
1- The Divine Buddhas (1-36)
Adibuddha
Avalokitesvara 
The Dhyani-Buddhas
2- The former Buddhas (27-25)
3- The Life of Gautama (36-73)
4- The History of Buddhism (74-102)
5-The History of Lamaism (103-134)
Tsong Kha-Pa
The Grand Lamas
7-The Scriptures (135-150)
8-The Teachings of Buddhism (151-200)
The Pathss of the Arhats
Buddhsim and Esoteric Buddhism
15 page Bibliography, 120pp. index

This is a remarkable book, especially in terms of research and erudition. It is the only study of Blavatsky's writings that I know of that consistently researches the extensive references in her writings. Remarkably, the author even takes  it a step further and provides additional references that have been published since Blavatsky's time in order to corroborate, elaborate, or clarify Blavatsky's text. This painstaking, detailed work should help to establish two major points - any misguided notions of plagiarism on Blavatsky's part are largely dispelled because it becomes evident that Blavatsky makes extensive and coherent (and very critical) use of references. The second point is that it should dispel any notion that Blavatsky's writings were some strange mystical outpourings devoid of any careful research and methodical organization, because time after time, whether you agree with her theories or not, one is impressed by a level of discourse that demonstrates a deep familiarity with the source material. It is worth noting that Blavatsky made regular use of a relatively small, but quite substantial group of reference works, the main ones being:
 
Beal, Samuel  transl.  A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese. 1871.
Burnouf,  Eugène, Introduction  à  l’histoire  du  Buddhisme  indien, 1844.
Edkins. Rev. Joseph, Chinese Buddhism. 1880.
Eitel, Ernest J. Handbook of Chinese Buddhism. 1888.
Hardy, Spence, Eastern Monachism.1860
Lillie , Arthur. Buddha and early Buddhism (1881)
Rhys Davids,  T. W.Buddhism: Being a Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha, 1877
Schlagintweit, Emil.  Buddhism in Tibet. 1863.

Say what you will of Blavatsky, this work demonstrates that one has to take her research seriously, one cannot deny her writings are not the result of careful, serious research. That is not to say that she is perfect, nor was she working with academic methodology; therefore Spierenberg is honest and points out various errors, curious interpretations, baffling explanations, often helping Blavatsky's  arguments by adding corrections and clarifications. These cases amount to roughly five percent of the references in my estimation. This however is not an easy work. The more erudite parts of Blavatsky's writings are notoriously difficult and the extracts provided are often too short to be  intelligible on their own; one has to be familiar with the original text to fully understand the meaning.
 
Moreover, Blavatsky's texts are often part of a comparative, perennialist perspective and so compiling them into a specialist context, separated from a broader argument, increases the fragmentary nature of this work. The author does a good job at assembling disparate passages on Buddhism scattered throughout her writings into a cohesive grouping of topics. At the same time, the incomplete nature of many of these topics serves to indicate the somewhat artificial nature of the assemblage. And it is to be noted that this is not a complete recension of all of Blavatsky's writings on Buddhism, but rather only those references that fit within the topical framework (presumable designed  to be a basic  exposition of Buddhist history and doctrine). As such one does not necessarily get a  good presentation of the distinct esoteric interpretation of Buddhism that one would from a more conventional essay format on the subject.
 
Two of the more successful sections are the ones on Mahayana scriptures (135-150) which gives research on the relation between the Tibetan Kanjur and Tanjur scripture collections and Blavatsky's enigmatic books of Kiu-te and stanzas of Dzyan. Also the section on the Trikaya (1750187) and especially the Nirmakaya  gives a good overview of the distinctive aspects of Blavatsky's Buddhist commentaries. With these points in mind, as a reference work for advanced students and academics, this is still a highly valuable work, if one keeps in mind that it presupposes a familiarity of Blavatsky's basic writings on Buddhism (and good general knowledge of Buddhism certainly wouldn't hurt) which can be found in the posthumous third volume of the Secret Doctrine (volume 14 of her collected writings, ''The mystery of the Buddha'' section), Isis Unveiled v. 2, chapter 11 and certain key entries of the Theosophical Glossary, notably the entries for Trikaya,  Triratna and Trisharana.
 

9 comments:

  1. Spierenburgs compilations are inspiring. I am not sure if you followed up the source i mentioned in the previous post. If Theosophy and Tibetan Buddhism interests you it would be good to do so. A scholar has apparently found the actual Western source that both HPB and the Mahatmas drew on w.r.t. Tibetan terms they used.The implication being that neither HPB nor the Mahatmas had any insider knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism outside of Western sources. The implications of this, if sustainable, you might imagine for yourself. The chapter in Sino-Tibetan Buddhism across the Ages is one of the most direct and critical challenges to Theosophy for a very long time. It will take careful workd to respond to it. Dewald

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  2. Thank you - No, I haven't had time to check it out yet - do you know if it has anything that David Reigle's prajnaquest articles haven't discussed?

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  3. Reigle has not discussed it there yet - last time i looked anywat. This is very newly published work by an academic - who seems to have found something Theosophical researchers had not yet found. I know David is aware of the scholarship. I've expressed my own opinion above as to whether it is serious or not, everyone can make up their own mind if they have an interest in this type of thing. I think we all await Reigle's input.

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  4. ok - sounds like Reigle's writings on the Devachan letter, I'll check it out...

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  5. I haven't been able to locate a full copy yet from my humble resources - couldn't figure out why he seems to be saying the Jäschke dictionary is new research - Reigle has cited it repeatedly - somewhat intriguing in that he tackles the mysterious Tibetan Teachings article - seems a little awkward, but at least he seems to be consulting Blavatsky's references, I'll keep on trying to locate a copy...

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  6. I couldnt find your email address anywhere on this site. If you email me at besterdewald@gmail.com I might be able to assist. It is expensive, especially in a weak currency like the rand, but I found an honest solution.

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  7. Doubts have been cast as to whether HPB even visited Tibet.She had indeed - incognito.It was there she learnt the language of Senzar.HH Dalai Lama has validated Madam Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine.He has publicly acknowledged her contribution for takeing Buddhism to the English speaking world.

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  8. Personal standards of evidence and justification come into play, as well as one's intended audience. In some areas the TS is separating itself off from actual serious investigators and thinkers - and falling into complicated tropes of 'exoteric' and 'esoteric' engagement. I suspect that is probably not too good, though i guess inevitable, and should only be consciously and deliberately done. As an aside this issue seems akin to me to the one Mormons faced with their Book of Abraham controversy. One can see a sketch on wikipedia - criticisms of the book of abraham. Joseph Smith had some Egyptian papyri which he 'translated'. I dont think any Egyptologist accepts his insights into the text. Whereto from there? One can see some of their responses at the end of the wikipedia article.

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  9. Right - In Blavatsky's case one can point to the her views on the King's Chamber of the pyramid of Cheops has gained some academic acceptance, comparative studies of funeral texts including the Egyptian Book of the Dead pointing to a common source, and Egyptian scholars such as Christian Jacq and Max Guilmot who's writing are in an esoteric traditionalist perspective with certain points of agreement with Blavatsky's writings on Egypt.

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