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The Theosophical Renaissance
AT the dawn of the fourteenth century the sky of Europe was grey and lowering. Dull, sodden clouds of discontent were slowly forming above the horizon, coming together like droves of huge black beasts. In their wake small, hurrying clouds of hope urged them on, faster and faster. Here and there pale streamers of light crept over the rim of the world, promising the day was not far off. Each one was met by long, creeping fingers of savage red, writhing out to strangle it the moment it was born. The whole of Christendom reeked with the stench of blood, and fear was in the heart of every man.
The intellectual awakening begun in the two previous centuries had not yet diminished the power of the Church. The slightest whisper of protest against its dictatorial authority was punished by excommunication, and by 1327 it was estimated that half the Christian world was under the ban. Bishops were excommunicated if they could not meet the extortions put upon them. Ordinary people were excommunicated to compel them to purchase absolution at an exorbitant price, and even the lower kingdoms were not exempt from priestly malediction. The Church chroniclers relate that St. Bernard was attacked by a swarm of flies one day just as he ascended the pulpit. The Saint uttered the formula of excommunication and the flies fell dead at his feet. The Bishop of Lausanne, learning that the eels in the lake were troubling the fishermen, excommunicated them with great success, and later all the may-bugs in his diocese were destroyed in the same way. As late as 1731 an entry appeared in the Municipal Register of Thonon which read: “Resolved, that this town join with other parishes of this province in obtaining from Rome an excommunication against the insects, and that it will contribute pro rata to the expenses of the same.” (Menebrea: Procès au Moyen Age contre les Animaux.)
The Church of the fourteenth century was also the State, and everyone was obliged to pay taxes to Rome. It had its own prisons, and courts which might sentence offenders for life. Under its highly organized financial system the wealth of the Church steadily increased. The Crusades had made the whole of Europe subject to its levies, and the sale of ecclesiastical positions, absolutions and indulgences brought in a steady flow of gold. In the great Roman Jubilee of 1300 so much money was left by the pilgrims that two men were kept busy raking in the offerings, which were then deposited in the tomb of St. Peter.
Luxury had now become a necessity to the Popes, whose Courts were the most voluptuous in Europe. Their ever-increasing demands made a miracle necessary if this luxury were to be continued. And just when it was most needed, the miracle occurred. A great alchemist appeared, Arnold de Villanova by name, who claimed to have the power of transmuting base metals into gold. When Pope John XXII heard the news he went to Villanova as his pupil, learned his secret, and is said to have manufactured in one day gold ingots worth $3,000,000. After the Pope’s death 18,000,000 florins in gold and 7,000,000 in jewels were found in his coffers.
The ancient science of Alchemy had now been degraded into Black Magic, and alchemical “adepts” flourished like the green bay-tree. The history of the fourteenth century is illuminated by the romantic lives of the physician-alchemist Villanova; the philosopher-alchemist Raymond Lully; the kabalist-alchemist Nicolas Flamel; the poet-alchemist Jean de Meung; the Pope-alchemist John XXII; and the monk-alchemist Ferarius, who specialized in the palingenesis of plants. From that century onward the study of alchemy and magic spread like wildfire among the clergy, and by the end of the sixteenth century there was scarcely a parish where the priests were not studying these subjects. The Vatican was filled with confiscated manuscripts, commonly supposed to have been burned. But the Vatican itself, were it able to speak, could tell a different story. It could tell of certain closets and rooms, the entrances to which are carefully concealed in the carved framework and under the profuse ornamentation of the library walls. Many Popes have lived and died in the Palace without suspecting the existence of these secret hiding-places. But those Popes were not Sylvester II, Benedict IX, John XX, nor the VIth and VIIth Gregorys. Neither were they the Borgia nor the friends of the sons of Loyola.
Among the various alchemists of the fourteenth century, two may be selected as important to our study — Raymond Lully and Peter Bono. The former was the son of a wealthy Spanish gentleman, and was born on the Island of Majorca in 1235. During his travels in the East he came in contact with the Hermetic philosophy and acquired proficiency in several Oriental languages. Upon his return to Europe he introduced the study of Oriental literature and languages into several European Universities, in this way forging an intellectual link between the East and the West. While Lully was living in Italy he met John Cremer, Bishop of Westminster, who, like himself, was a deep student of the occult sciences. Through Cremer’s influence Lully was invited to go to England as the guest of King Edward III. In order to help the King at a time of great need, Lully produced the famous Rose Nobles, said to be worth about $18,000,000. These coins were of the purest gold, the inscription around them distinguishing them from all other coins of this period.
In 1330, fifteen years after the death of Raymond Lully, an important work appeared, dealing with the philosophy of Alchemy. It was written by Peter Bono, who had studied the Hermetic philosophy in Persia and who was also known as a Rosicrucian. This book was issued as a protest against the degradation of the Hermetic science, and as an effort to bring it back to its original high position without giving out its forbidden secrets. For, as H.P.B. says, “Bono was a genuine Adept and Initiate; and such do not leave their secrets behind them in MSS.”
In the thirteenth century Christian Europe for the first time in her history began to learn of the splendor of the East. The elder Polos returned to Venice from their travels in 1269, bringing tales of a vast country where the arts were highly developed, where books on philosophy, religion and political science were printed upon paper with moveable type, where courtesy was a commonplace affair and religious intolerance was unknown. They also brought back a request from Kublai Khan for a hundred learned Christian scholars, “intelligent and acquainted with the Seven Arts, able to enter into controversy and to prove that the Law of Christ was best.” In response two ignorant Dominican friars were sent by the Church to “convert the heathen.” To these two uneducated monks was entrusted the spiritual destiny of an empire that reached from the borders of Poland to the Yellow Sea, from the Siberian Steppes to India. But the difficulties of travel soon dampened their ardor, and the missionaries returned to their quiet monasteries, leaving the heathen to their fate. When other missionaries finally reached the Court of Kublai Khan, their arguments fell upon deaf ears. “Why should I become a Christian?” the great Khan inquired. “There are four Prophets worshipped and revered by all the world — Jesus, Mohammed, Moses and the Buddha. I pay respect to all four!” This was a new idea to the missionaries. The thought of religious tolerance was something they had never considered. They knew that Marco Polo had declared that the life of the Buddha was as pure and unselfish as that of Jesus, and now the Khan was putting two other Prophets in the same category! Their mission was not to show the superiority of Jesus’ teachings, but to advance the vast claims of the Pope to world dominion. As H. G. Wells remarks: “Christianity so vitiated was not good enough for the Mongol mind. To make the Empire of the Mongols part of the Kingdom of God might have appealed to them; but not to make it a fief of a group of French and Italian priests, whose claims were as gigantic as their powers and outlook were feeble.” (Outline of History.)
Thus Asia was “lost” to Christianity. The Mongols in China and Central Asia embraced Buddhism, while the rest turned to Islam. The torch of spiritual knowledge which was to illumine the world during the coming centuries was not destined to be carried from the West to the East, but from the East to the West. This torch was kindled from the flame of wisdom then burning in Tibet, and its lighting marked the beginning of the Theosophical Renaissance in the Western world.
Two thousand years earlier, a Prince had been born in Kapilavastu, an Indian city not far from the borders of Tibet. He is now known as Gautama the Buddha, the greatest Man-Reformer the world has ever known, the “Man of Men,” as the Masters call him, and the system of religious philosophy he left behind him has produced thousands of generations of good and unselfish men. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Buddhism did not gain its converts by persecution, sword or fire, and the pages of its history are free from the stains of blood. But Buddhism met the same fate as all other philosophical systems which were turned into religions after the death of the Teacher, and eventually a separation into the Southern and Northern Church came about. Southern Buddhism, which is now the ruling religion of Ceylon, Siam and Burma, was founded upon the pure exoteric teachings of the Buddha. Northern Buddhism, which is practiced in Tibet, China and Nepal, was the outcome of the Buddha’s esoteric teachings, which were confined to his elect Bikshus and Arhats. At the present day Buddhism can be properly appreciated only by blending the philosophy of the Southern Church with the metaphysics of the Northern Schools.
Although Gautama brought his message to India, within fifty years after his death the true spirit of his teachings had disappeared from that land. But when Dharmasoka, grandson of the great Chandragupta, ascended the throne, he brought Buddhism back to the sons of Aryavarta, and soon, from the silver strands of Ceylon to the emerald Vale of Kashmir, India once more echoed to the doctrines of Sakya-Muni. The Brahmans, greatly disturbed by this catastrophe, began a persecution against the Buddhists. After the death of Asoka, the Arhats gradually departed from India and sought refuge on the other side of the Himalayas. There they joined forces with another group of Initiates who had lived in that part of the world for untold ages. These pre-Buddhist ascetics were the direct successors of those Aryan Sages who did not accompany their brothers in the prehistoric emigration from Lake Manasasarovara into India, but who chose to remain in their secret and inaccessible retreat. These Adepts are known as the “Brothers of the Snowy Range,” or the “Great Teachers of the Snowy Mountain.” In the manuscripts of the sacred library of Fo-Kien, Tibet (Si-Dzang) is mentioned as the great seat of occult learning from time immemorial, and the Emperor Yu (2207 B.C.) is said to have acquired his wisdom from these “Brothers of the Snowy Range.” The theosophist knows Them as the Mahatmas, the Masters of Wisdom and Compassion, who have renounced the state of bliss to which They are entitled in order to remain on earth for the benefit of suffering humanity. Many of these “Brothers” are living in physical bodies, while others are Nirmanakayas, existing in glorious invisible vestures which They have woven for themselves during the long process of their evolution and perfection. According to a statement made by the venerable Chohan-Lama — the Chief of the Archive Registers of the libraries containing the esoteric manuscripts belonging to the Dalai and Panchen Lamas — the time that these great Initiates can remain on earth is without a fixed limit. “They can descend or remain on earth for centuries or millenniums.”
Tibet is still the “land of mystery,” the one country in the world which has kept itself relatively free from outside influences, and which in almost every case still refuses admittance to the curiosity-seeking foreigner. The aborigines of Tibet — now a degraded race — are the descendants of once mighty and wise forefathers. Their ethnical characteristics show that they are not pure Turanians, and their religion, called Bhon, shows a marked resemblance to the popular rites of the Babylonians. In reality, the Bhon religion is a degenerated remnant of the secret teaching which was the source of the Chaldean Mysteries, and which in the course of time sank into sorcery and necromancy. Its followers include a sect called Dugpas, or “Red Caps,” whose history forms a close parallel to that of the “Red Hats” of Rome.
Buddhism was first introduced into Tibet in the year A.D. 436, when a Buddhist Arhat belonging to the dynasty of the Moryas left India for Tibet, carrying with him one of the seven golden statues of Sakya-Muni made shortly after his death. Seven years later the first Buddhist monastery was built in Tibet. Two hundred years later, in the seventh century, Buddhism was formally introduced into the country by a pious Chinese Princess who had married a Tibetan King and converted him to Buddhism. This King sent his brother to India to acquaint himself more fully with the Buddhist doctrines. On his return to Tibet he brought back the great body of truth contained in the Buddhist canonical Scriptures. He framed the Tibetan language from the Devanagari characters and translated the Buddhist Canon into the language of his people. But Buddhism did not mix well with the old Bhon religion, and during the next seven hundred years the pure teachings of the Buddha became almost unrecognizable.
The fourteenth century marked the end of the first septenary cycle of Tibetan Buddhism, which was concurrent with the dark age of the Theosophical Movement in Europe. In the early part of this century an event occurred which was destined to change the history not only of Tibet but of Europe as well. A great Adept, known as Tsong-kha-pa, was born in Amdo in the province of Koko-nor. According to the tradition, he was born of a virgin mother, and his birth was foretold by the appearance of a giant lotus, or Udumbara, which blossomed in a lake at the foot of the Himalayas as it had bloomed two thousand years before at the birth of Gautama. The records preserved in the lamasery of the Panchen Lama shows that it was Buddha Himself, in his aspect of Amita, who incarnated Himself in Tsong-kha-pa in consequence of the great degradation into which his doctrines had fallen. The incarnation of Tsong-kha-pa marked the beginning of the regular system of Lamaic “reincarnations.” The real mystery lying behind these “reincarnations” has never been explained, although enough hints have been given to suggest that they are not entirely “superstitions.”
Whatever the mystery of Tsong-kha-pa’s birth may have been, there is no doubt as to his mission. One of his first acts was to forbid the necromancy which was then being practiced by the Dugpas, and to found the order of the Gelukpas (“Yellow Caps”) and the mystic Brotherhood connected with its Chiefs. At the present day only a few of these Dugpas are found in Eastern Tibet, most of them being in Nepal, Sikkim and Western Tibet. Unfortunately, it is from these “Red Caps” that the ordinary traveler gets most of his notions about Lamaism. Few westerners who penetrate into Tibet at the present day have any idea that real, esoteric Buddhism still exists in the country, and that the “Brothers of the Snowy Range” still live and teach.
The mission of Tsong-kha-pa did not end with the establishment of the “Yellow Caps” in opposition to the “Red Caps.” He summoned all the Adepts in the world to a conference in Tibet, where a system of Laws was formulated and certain Rules laid down for all to follow. Since the time of Tsong-kha-pa, no one has been admitted into the secret School without first declaring that his purpose in seeking entrance was “to be the better able to help and teach others.”
At this conference it was decided that the time was now ripe for the open work of the Theosophical Movement to begin in Europe. Ever since that time, during the last quarter of every century an effort has been made to bring the work of the Theosophical Movement before the public. From the fourteenth century onward, the history of Europe reveals a new spirit; there appears an ever-growing stream of individuals working under the direction of the Trans-Himalayan Adepts. The last Messenger and Representative of these “Brothers of the Snowy Range” was H. P. Blavatsky, whose Secret Doctrine “contains all that can be given out to the world in this century.”
— THEOSOPHY, Vol. 26, No. 3, January, 1938