The Doctrines of a Faith which in its Purity has no Dogmas. Its Practical Workings as a Religion. The Story of Jesus Christ Anticipated by Two Thousand Years.

The stronghold of philosophical Buddhism in America is unquestionably located at the corner of Eighth avenue and Forty-seventh street, where Madame H. P. Blavatsky has pleasant apartments. This clever woman, who is known to the New York public as the Secretary of the Theosophical Society, a traveler of wide experience, an Orientalist of note, and a close and competent student of comparative theology, kindly consented to instruct the writer in the philosophy of Buddhism. Her clear explanations are here in part set down.

“Buddhism,” said Madame Blavatsky, “is the ‘wisdom religion,’ and it underlies all religions in their purity. It is perfect monotheism, for it accepts one boundless, infinite, incomprehensible principle, which the intellect of man can not understand. It is a philosophy, as well as a religion, and you must be careful not to confound the philosophy with the myths and dogmas and inconsistencies and absurdities with which the superstition of many generations of worshipers has encumbered it. A Protestant like you wouldn’t hold the philosophy of Jesus Christ responsible for the weeping virgins and pretended miracles of the priests, nor again for the dogmas of infallibility or of infant damnation, would you?”

“Then wherein does Buddhism differ from Christianity?”

“Pure Buddhism is pure Christianity, or rather, pure Christianity borrows from Buddhism. Christ was a Buddhist and an initiate. The Christians anthropomorphize all that the Buddhists hold as an abstraction.”

“Is the immortality of the soul a Buddhist doctrine?”

“Buddhism is founded on the immortality of the soul, for the Nirvana—begging the pardon of Max Müller and others, who have written on Buddhism without the least conception of its true spirit—means the entire dispersion of matter and the survival of soul.”

“What do you mean by the Nirvana?”

“Not annihilation, as the encyclopedias will tell you, but reunion with God. Nirvana is a condition. Our matter is annihilated to the last particle, leaving the soul purified and free. Nirvana means purification—the blowing out of the last particle of matter. What illogical nonsense people have written about Nirvana! How could Buddha (the person, I mean, not the principle) have reached Nirvana and then returned if Nirvana is annihilation? Yes, the Buddhists believe in the immortality of the soul, else why should they strive to attain Nirvana?”

“Do they believe that the soul is necessarily immortal? Are there circumstances under which it is annihilated?”

“It doesn’t follow as a matter of course that every soul will be immortal as an individual soul. What did Christ mean when he said, ‘What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ The individual soul is immortal if it succeeds in attaining Nirvana in uniting itself with Buddha. If not, it becomes dispersed together with matter and other impurities. It is within the power of the individual intellect and will to work out the immortality of its own soul. Nobody else can do it for one.”

“And the Buddhist deities and gods, are they also immortal?”

“Those deities are part of the popular religion, not of the philosophy of Buddhism. The minor gods are merely typifications of the attributes of the one God. But even in the popular religion they are accounted mortal like man, for the Buddhist books say that in fourteen milliards three hundred and twenty millions of years all these gods will be destroyed and only the great final first cause, Buddha, remain.”

“What is the argument for the immortality of the soul?”

“Why, very simple. If you make yourself similar to the spirit of Buddha you attain Nirvana, attain immortality.”

“Is there a hell and is there a heaven?”

“Yes, in the popular faith, but not in the philosophy. The popular faith has seventy-nine hells, and I don’t know how many heavens. I don’t apologize or extenuate the degradation into which the primitive religion has fallen.”

“Then there is nothing that corresponds to the Christian doctrines of atonement and vicarious suffering?”

“Nothing whatever. Every man has perfect responsibility, and must work out his own eternity. There is no shirking behind a Redeemer.”

“And nothing corresponding to the Christian doctrine of repentance?”

“Works and deeds. I say again, that if the religion taught by the historical Christ is understood in its spirit, it is the religion of Buddha. You can find the Sermon on the Mount almost word for word in the canonical books of the Buddhists, and nearly all the parables of Christ are there. I particularly remember that of the Samaritan woman at the well and that of the laborers in the vineyard.”

“Don’t the myths of Buddhism, in some cases, anticipate the narratives of the Bible?”

“To be sure they do, in every way. In the Bagaveda-Gita we have Adam and Eve as Adama and Heva. They are placed by God in a paradise, which is the island of Ceylon, and forbidden to leave it. Here it is the man who tempts the woman. Prompted by an evil spirit, Adama wearies of the beautiful island and urges Heva to the mainland, where they can be independent of God. He takes Heva on his shoulders and wades over, only to find the beauties of the mainland a mirage. God forbids them to return to the Eden they have left. Isn’t this better and more beautiful than the apple and snake story? Let me read you the place where God pronounces sentence:

‘Adama threw himself weeping upon the naked sands, but Hem came to him and threw herself into his arms, saying, “Do not despair! Let us rather pray to the Author of all things to pardon us.”

‘And as they thus spoke there came a voice from the clouds saying:

“Woman, thou has sinned from love to thy husband, whom I commanded to love, and thou hast hoped in me. I pardon thee and him also for thy sake, but you may never return to the abode of delight which I had created for your happiness. Through your disobedience to my commands the spirit of evil has obtained possession of the earth. Your children, reduced to labor and to suffer by your fault, will become corrupt and forget me. But I will send Vishnu, who shall incarnate himself in the womb of a woman and shall bring to all the hope and the means of recompense in another life, in praying to me to soften their ills.’”

“Remember, I am not reading from Genesis, nor from Milton. I am reading from the Bagaveda-Gita!”1

“But it might be said that this myth is only a variation and corruption of the Mosaic account. Is there anything that both antedates and anticipates the narrative of the New Testament?”

“Most assuredly there is. The whole story of Christ was written in the Mahabharata at least two thousand years before the four Gospels were written. We have a Hindu reformer named Jezeus Christna. The name means ‘sacred pure essence.’ He was Buddha incarnate, born of a virgin. We have the story of the annunciation by an angel; of the adoration of the shepherds; of the visit of the Magi; of the old priest who takes the infant in his arms and predicts that he will save humanity; of the temptation and the transfiguration; and, finally, of the ascension. It is all in the Brahmanic and Jain books. If there were time, I could show you how close is the parallel. For instance, there is a tyrant who corresponds to Herod, and when Jezeus Christna is born he decrees the massacre of all the children of the male sex in his kingdom who were born on the same night.”

“ls Buddhism a missionary religion, Madame?”

“It always has been par excellence the missionary religion, and still is.”

“Why don’t they send missionaries to the United States?”

“They do. Haven’t you heard of Wong Ching Foo, who is now in this city preaching the philosophy of Buddha and Confucius? Let me read you a little from a letter he wrote not long ago:

‘I have struggled for years alone among these bigoted Christians to tell them that God has not been partial to his children, but that in every nation, according to the peculiar nature and wants of its people, he has given them a way of reformation to become good and righteous. Such was the character of Christ, and such is the God of our faith.’

A little further on he writes:

‘I am in great earnest about this matter, and I only ask that the most bigoted of Christians, if they are but intelligent people, should hear me.”’

“What success has Wong Ching Foo met with in his missionary efforts here?”

“He has been persecuted everywhere, from the meeting house to the farm house. The people of the West, and especially in Minnesota, persecuted him because he advocated something which they did not understand, and therefore did not want to understand. Why, at Winona he was put in jail by the Christians. They failed to drive him out of town and so had him arrested on the pretext of some small debt and put in prison. No, the Buddhist missionary effort does not seem to meet with much success in Christian America.”

“Are there already any Buddhists in America? I mean besides the Chinese and Japanese in this country?”

“About sixteen, I think, of the members of the Theosophical Society accept the philosophy of Buddhism. Col. Olcott. the President, and a number of others intend before long to profess Buddhism openly.” Why shouldn’t they? The philosophy of Buddha includes in itself the philosophy of Confucius, Pythagoras, Plato, Jesus, and all the really great philosophers. This intention of the Theosophists has been made a joke in some of the papers, with all manner of absurd additions; but they really mean to do it, if only as a protest against the intolerance of Christianity. As to the Chinese here, with the exception, of course, of Wong Ching Foo, they are fools who believe in sticks, joss houses, and idols—not philosophers.”

“What is the practice of Buddhism in regard to the toleration of other religions?”

“Here is one of their ten commandments: ‘Respect the religion of every one, but worship your own.’ There has never been such a thing as a Buddhist persecution of another religion. A Christian can live wherever the Buddhist faith prevails, and worship his own in his own way. So far from being molested,he will be respected and applauded.”

“Buddhism as a practical religion—what is its effect on the morality of its worshippers?”

“In all Buddhist countries, which the Christian missionaries have not crossed, they are truthful, honest, and virtuous. A high state of morality prevails until the Christians come and then people are demoralized. This is easily explained. Let a Christian commit as many sins as he may, repentance is always open to him and the blood of Jesus ready to wash the sins away. On the other hand, the Buddhist is held responsible by his religion for the slightest offense he commit, openly or in secret. On the one side he has the promise of beatitude and immortality, on the other the certainty of annihilation. Why shouldn’t the Buddhist be more careful of his conduct than the Christian is? Listen to this from the Parsees’ Catechism, which, though not a Buddhist book, well expresses what I mean:

‘If any one commit sin under the belief that he shall be saved by somebody, both the deceiver and the deceived shall be damned till the day of Rasta Khez.”

There is no savior. In other words you shall receive the return according to your actions. Your savior is your deeds.”’

“What would be the practical effect of a general adoption in this country of the Buddhist faith?”

“The people would not commit fraud, either in the Presidential elections or otherwise. They would abandon licentiousness and crime because they would have no Jesus on whose back to put their sins. They would cease to be blasphemers and hypocritical. Yes, a general adoption of Buddhism would cause a total revaluation in the morals of the country. It would be a vast improvement on Christianity. People look after their lives when they know they can’t rely on a God to pardon and coddle them.”

“What are the ceremonial books of the Buddhist?”

“There are more than 84,000 sacred books. These constitute a literature simply, not a revelation.”

“What is a faithful Buddhist’s daily routine of worship?”

“A Buddhist who is disposed to be devout will turn the wheel of the law when he gets up in the morning, recording as many prayers as he wishes to offer, several hundred, perhaps. He will go to confession nearly every morning (which is obligatory) and confess to his Lama, or rather to Buddha in the presence of the Lama. But he must win absolution by his own acts. The Lama cannot give him absolution, although it is conceded he can help him by prayers. Every moment during the day when not otherwise engaged the Buddhist will pray. Twice a month he will attend the temple, where the Guru will read the 220 laws for his benefit. It is just the same with the women.”

“To whom does the Buddhist pray?”

“His prayers are addressed to Buddha. They consist of invocations to the spirit of Buddha to help the devotee attain Nirvana. Since the doctrine of atonement does not color the Buddhist theology, the prayers are merely invocations of spiritual enlightenment and strengthening, not petitions for forgiveness and mercy. A favorite formula for prayer among the Thibetans is, ‘Om mani padme hum.’ ‘O god, the jewel in the lotus, amen.”

“I don’t understand the significance of these prayers. You intimate that in Buddhism there is neither a personal divinity who can be approached by the worshipper, or a special Providence whose assistance he can ask for?”

“Neither. Buddha is an infinite principle beyond the reach of the human mind. But in the popular worship, as I have said, many superstitions and dogmas have sprung up. The popular idea is that there is punishment hereafter for the wicked, and reward for the good. Some sects of Buddhists believe that their sins become incarnated as demons who will torture them in the hereafter. These also believe in a material paradise. Their greatest fear is that their souls will continue to be transmigrated through animals, and thus be hampered and impeded in attaining Nirvana. To facilitate the escape of the soul from the body, they often cut a hole in the frontal bone of the corpse.”

“Do the philosophical Buddhists believe in the transmigration of souls?”

“No educated Buddhist does. The people believe in it just as the masses of Roman Catholics believe that the statue of a saint can sneeze.”

“How about the virtues of contemplative thought?”

“The more a man mixes with the affairs of the world, the more tainted his soul becomes. The effect of contemplative thought is to purify the soul by disassociating it with matter.”

“How ought it to be practised?”

“They sit still and think about the illusions of the world, subjugating their appetites and desires. For example, if a Lama brushes past a woman, or even allows himself to think of a woman, he is obliged to purify himself by contemplative thought for three or four days.”

“Is there any particular virtue in cross-legged contemplation? Buddha is generally represented in that attitude?”

“There are eighty-one positions in which the Lama practices contemplative thought. The favorite and most common position is this: They sit with one foot on the other knee, their hands resting on the horizontal leg and their eyes steadfastly fixed upon some object which they have selected. Often they gaze at the sun till they become blind so much the better for their contemplations. A really devout Buddhist will spend three-quarters of his time in this position. There are thousands of Simon Stylites among the Lamas, and especially among the Hindu fakirs, who sit for years on pillars, and barely move.”

“Why is yellow a holy color with the Buddhists?”

“Because tradition says that Gotama, the incarnation of Buddha, dressed in yellow. All the Lamas wear yellow.”

“Does Buddhism approve of matrimony?”

“The Lamas, or priests, are obliged to be celibates. As to the laymen, there is no sin in marriage. The Adepts don’t marry. With them it is celibacy and chastity for ever and ever. An Adept would lose his power if he were to marry.”

“Does the religion forbid the use of wine?”

“One of the five great laws of Buddhism prohibits wine entirely. No Buddhist, Lama, or layman, would touch wine. Still they do sometimes drink in defiance of the commandment. The prohibition of wine and the recommendation were originally based on hygienic principles or considerations of climate. They have come to be carried out as religious doctrines.”

“Does Buddhism admit the possibility of miracles?”

“If you choose to class as miracles the strange phenomena produced by ‘those who know,’ the Adepts, Hierophants, Illuminati, and Gnostics.”

“What is an Adept?”

“An Adept is one who has grasped the Buddhist philosophy in the purest form; who is perfectly indifferent to life or death, because he [beholds?] all things in their spiritual sense only. It is the Adepts who possess such knowledge of the psychological and physical laws of nature that they can produce phenomena which scientists do not understand, and which the ignorant call miracles, but which we hold to be due only to the hidden laws of nature. Spiritualists say these phenomena are produced by spirits, skeptics say they are juggleries, and the superstitious say they are the work of the devil. We say that they are produced by natural causes, put in operation by ‘those who know.”

“What great men in the history of the world have been Adepts?”

“I think Paul was an initiate, for he uses all the words that are used in the mysteries. Plato was an adept, but only in the philosophical sense. Pythagoras, Plotinus, and Simon Magus were Adepts. Cagliostro was an Adept, but used his power for selfish ends, and therefore lost it. Jesus Christ was most assuredly an Initiate. The secret traditions of the Adepts tell where he was between the ages of twelve and thirty. During this time he was traveling in the East and qualifying himself as an Adept.”

“How many Adepts are there now, and how many in this country?”

“Several thousand, nearly all in the East. Perhaps there are half a dozen Adepts in Europe. I have met none in this country. There are a few Adepts in Central and South America. R B. Randolph, who committed suicide, was a real Adept.”

“What is the present stronghold of Buddhism?”

“In Lamaism, as you find it among the educated people of Thibet, and especially at Lassa. Among the educated people of Japan, Buddhism is much purer than in China.”

“Isn’t it a failure in its practical workings as compared with Christianity?”

“Buddhism has done a great deal more for civilization than Christianity.”

“To sum up, then, Buddhism admits no God higher than man can reach by virtue and contemplation?”

“None. Every man can become a Buddha, can reach Buddha by his own efforts. I haven’t told you that Buddhism is a religion of perfect equality. There are no castes.”

“But if Buddhism has no God, how is it a religion?”

“Pure Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy. There are no dogmas except in the exoteric Buddhism, which no educated Buddhist regards as anything more than twaddle.”

“Isn’t the pure philosophy far above the reach of popular thought?”

“Of course it is. The full extent is only open to the Adepts who have been initiated in the temples. But I believe that even the popular religion is vastly better than that of popular Christianity.”

“And if I understand you rightly, you accept only the esoteric Buddhism, and accept it intellectually, as a philosophy?”

“Only intellectually, as a philosophy. It is no use to give up one set of idols only to take another set.”

1. [Note: H.P.B. is actually here quoting from Jacolliot’s The Bible in India, p. 199 etc. What Jacolliot’s sources for this story were (if they existed at all) is unknown, as such a story does not occur in the Bhagavad Gita, nor in any other known text.]