Is Theosophy Authentic?

Franklin Merrell-Wolff

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Part IV

It is hoped by the writer that what has been said so far will serve to lift the present argument well above the level of mud-slinging and the impugning of the motives or the ability or those responsible for the Theosophical Movement and its basic literature. The question of the relation between Theosophy and traditional Buddhism, or the Vedanta, for that matter, is a high level question. It should be treated with seriousness and dignity, as between these three systems there are certain obvious and unquestioned agreements. But there are also differences of sufficient importance to force upon the student the responsibility or decision as to which is the most profound and truer. As the writer understands the attitudes of the proponents of these systems they all grant the seeker the right of free and honest decision, but urge serious and unbiased study. We propose to approach the subject in that spirit.

(a) The first query, the one relative to the anatmic doctrine, is probably the most important of all. This doctrine is so basic throughout Buddhism, with all its multitudes of divisions, that it may well be viewed as the most crucial doc­trinal principle of that system. In contrast, Theosophical teaching on its surface does not appear to stand in agreement. Thus it might appear that the two systems must fundamentally diverge. This is a question that we must examine with some care.

According to the accounts of the life of Gautama Buddha, as they have come down to us, the Great One, early in His search for the Truth that might resolve the problem of suffering, sought wisdom at the feet of certain Brahmin Pandits. They taught him karma, reincarnation and the doctrine of a persisting Atman, which is variously translated as “Self” or “soul.” Gautama, after penetrating into these teachings, confirmed the soundness of the first two but denied that the conception of a persistent self or soul was valid. It appears that in his subsequent discourses no point was more emphasized than this. It also appears that the Indian world as a whole did not find this teaching acceptable, and it has posed a difficult problem for Western man as it was quite contrary to centuries-old Christian teachings. In the various divisions and elaborations of Buddhism that have developed since the time of Gautama, this teaching apparently persists throughout, although with variations, some apparently more sweeping than the original doctrine and some, also presumptively, less sweeping. As a matter of fact, the exoteric scholar can never be perfectly certain as to the exact content of Buddha’s teachings, since He seems to have never written anything, and subsequent divergences in the doc­trines are plainly evident. We must infer a good deal. But there can be no reasonable doubt that anatman in some sense was taught and that it was fundamental to the formulated Dharma.

The central core of Buddhist psychology, which appears as most ancient and probably was taught by Shakyamuni himself, and is generally accepted by the various sects, may be stated quite simply in a few words. Quoting from McGovern (An Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism, 153), the teaching is outlined as follows:

There is no Atman (permanent self or soul) for the personality consists of five skandhas or aggregates, or faculties, viz.

  1. rupa—body or form, in other words, the physical body;
  2. vedana—sensation or perception;
  3. samjna—conception or ratiocination;
  4. samskara—mental qualities such as love, hate, etc.;
  5. vijnana—consciousness, more especially in this connection, self-consciousness.

None of these can claim preeminence. One is not the basis around which the others are grouped. They are all coordinate parts, constantly changing, so that at no two moments can the personality claim to be identical, yet at the same time there is a constant Karmic persistence.

The picture one may receive from this is of an organism of distinguishable but self-existent parts that are always in a state or condition of constant change or becoming or never-ceasing interweaving, with Karmic Law serving as the only binding unity. Disregarding the specific form of the classification, the basic idea is not unknown in the history of Western thought. One is reminded of the universal flux of Heraclitus and the quite modern psycho-physical concept of organism as body-mind rather than body and mind. We also find something quite similar in the Theory of Relativity of modern mathematical physics wherein even space and time are no longer absolutes and there is no permanent atom.

However, though the conception of the Atman, in the sense of a permanent and substantial self or soul, is denied, there is not a complete absence of all permanency. All stands interconnected and unified by Law or Karma (the analogue of the mathematical but non-substantial invariants of modern Relativity). Thus there is a thread of continuity or unity between youth and age and between the various entities of a series of incarnations. There is that which does persist through all changes, including those of birth and death, and so a meaning does attach to the conception of an effort to attain Emancipation or Enlightenment that extends over more than one incarnation.

In the preface to his The Gospel of Buddha, Paul Carus makes his point that the notion of “self” or “soul” should have been and could be defined in a way that would have been quite acceptable to Buddha. The objection was aimed at the conception of the “self” as a permanent substance, an idea that was widely current at His time. Thus if the “I AM” identification is with the continuum of the LAW, then the conception of a permanent Atman, or “I,” would be acceptable with primary Buddhism. It is the notion of substantiveness, which is really the focus of objection borne out by the frequent references in many sutras to “ego-substance” and “self-substance.” Furthermore, this ego-self-substance is denied not only of all periods and sentient beings, but likewise of all things. This is a usage that the writer for a long time found difficult, since it seemed quite unreal to attach the notion of “Self” to anything so objective as “substance” or “thing.” Like­wise, the notion of “Atma” in Shankara’s “Atmavidya” does not at all suggest the objectivity that normally belongs to the notion of “substance.”

There is another point to note before turning to consideration of Theosophical psychology. In The Gospel of Buddha, we find the following statement given as part of a discourse by the Buddha: “That which men call the ego when they say ‘I am’ is not an entity behind the skandhas; it originates by the cooperation of the skandhas.” If we may assume that this quotation is a valid representation of the original teaching, then it throws a considerable light upon the meaning of the anatmic doctrine as it was meant by Buddha Himself. The “I am” in this sense seems to be none other than personal egoism, which carries the force of “I am I and none other,” and, therefore, is separative and the base of selfishness.* Furthermore, it is viewed not as the core that supports the aggregates as attributes, but as a sort epiphenomenal effect growing out of the interaction of the aggregates. As compared with the aggregates, the personal ego is a maya or a mirage that, while the belief in it pro­duces practical effects, yet has only a transitory or unreal existence that vanishes completely after the final death of the incarnation. With new birth its successor appears, but, although karmically related, it is not the same ego. If this is true to the real meaning of the Buddha’s teaching, as we shall see later, there is no discrepancy between the anatma doctrine of Buddha and Theosophical psychology.

The psychology of Theosophy is basically similar to that of Buddhism in that it conceives of man as an aggregate, though the term “principles” is most commonly employed. But the classification differs from the aggregates as given both in the sense of a variation in the definition of component parts and in that the number is seven instead of five. However, the different Buddhist schools do not always use the five-fold system and, according to McGovern, the Yogachara school of the Mahayana branch has an eight-fold system. Similarly, the Theosophical system has not had a constant form even during the lifetime of the founder of the Movement. Though the main classification remained septenary, there are three principal listings of the component principles involving certain changes, these changes being explained as progressive approximations to the truth necessitated by pedagogical consideration. Also there is a four-fold classification given in The Key to Theosophy, which, however, involves no contradiction. The following classification seems to present the picture with reasonable accuracy.

  1. ATMA, or HIGHER SELF—the inseparable ray of the universal or ONE SELF, which can never be ‘objective’ under any circumstances, even to the highest spiritual perception, and is really the ABSOLUTE and indistinguishable from IT.
  2. BUDDHI, or SPIRITUAL SOUL, the vehicle of Atma, passive with most men, but when united with Manas, or the Mind-principle, as in him who is Enlightened, becomes the spiritual or divine EGO.
  3. MANAS, or MIND-PRINCIPLE—the basis of the relatively permanent Inner or Higher Ego or individuality, which persists from incarnation to incarnation.
  4. LOWER MANAS—the personal or animal mind, which, in connection with the three lower principles, forms the lower, or personal, ego.
  5. KAMA RUPA—literally, the form or body of desires, which is not a body during life but becomes such for a season after death in Kama Loka.
  6. PRANA, or the LIFE PRINCIPLE—in its more objective as­pect, which sustains embodied existence.
  7. LINGA SHARIRA, sometimes called ASTRAL BODY and sometimes ETHERIC BODY—is really the Paradigm upon which the physical body or objective appearance is draped, as it were.

The earlier classifications listed the physical body but later it was explained that this is properly an effect of the conjunction of the Principles rather than being a Principle in its own right. In the final and less well known classification, the Atman is replaced by another principle, it being explained that Atma is no true Principle, but rather the all-embracing ABSOLUTE. Thus Atma in the Theosophical system may be viewed as having the same meaning as the ALAYA VIJNANA in the Yogachara system, as given by McGovern.

Theosophy is definite and insistent in its teaching that the lower self or personal ego is essentially unreal and evanescent, lasting only during one lifetime and during a limited after death period of rewards or penalties. The personal ego associated with the subsequent incarnation is a new ego, but is the Karmic effect of its ancestor.

It would seem that, so far as the personal ego is concerned, the teaching of Theosophy is in fundamental agreement with the Buddhist teaching as thus far considered. If this is the sense in which Gautama Buddha employed the notion of Atma in asserting the anatma doctrine, there is no disagreement between the original Buddhism and the Theosophical teaching on this point. There are references that support the view that this was the case.

The following quotation is taken from The Secret Doctrine, 3rd ed., Vol. III, 395.

Said the All-Merciful: Blessed are ye, 0 Bhikshus, happy are ye who have understood the mystery of Being and Non-Being explained in the Dharma, and have given preference to the latter, for ye are verily my Arhats. . . . The elephant, who sees his form mirrored in the lake, looks at it, and then goes away, taking it for the real body of another elephant, is far wiser than the man who beholds his face in the stream and, looking at it, says, “Here am I . . . I am I”—for the “I,” his Self, is not in the world of the twelve Nidanas and mutability, but in that of Non-Being, the only world beyond the snares of Maya. . . . That alone, which has neither cause nor author, which is self-existing, eternal, far beyond the reach of mutability, is the true “I,” the Self of the Universe.

Here quite clearly the “I,” or “Self,” is denied, and in another, transcendent, sense is affirmed. This position is consistent with the Theosophical teachings.

The following is from the Abhidhama Kosha Vyakha: “Mendicants: Remember that there is within man no abiding principle whatever, and that only the learned disciple who acquires wisdom in saying ‘I am’ knows what he is saying.”

Here the point is that there is a valid I-reference, but it is not a principle within man. Both the Atman of Theosophy and the ALAYA VIJNANA of Buddhism are not principles within man. Nor indeed are they without, being neither within nor without. Again, consider the incident where the Buddha refused to answer the question of the monk Vacchagotta when he wished to know whether there was or was not an ego in man. Accord­ing to the Samyuttaka Kikaya, when subsequently Ananda asked of the Blessed One why he maintained silence, the latter said:

If I, Ananda, when the wandering monk Vacchagotta asked me, “Is there the Ego?” had answered, “The Ego is,” then that, Ananda, would have confirmed the doctrine of the Samantas and the Brahmanas, who believe in permanence. If I, Ananda, when the wandering monk Vacchagotta asked, “Is there not the Ego?” had answered, “The Ego is not,” then that, Ananda, would have confirmed the doctrine of those who believe in annihilation.

This carries the implication that the Buddha's teaching was that “the Ego neither is nor is not,” or, equally, “the Ego both is and is not.” As is always the case with paradoxes, the reconciliation consists in taking the terms in two senses. In this case it could mean, and probably does mean, denial of the personal ego, while affirming the Higher Self.

In this quotation the implication of an esoteric teaching is very clear. Not everything was taught to everybody, but only as the understanding was prepared to receive. This is the essential meaning of an Esoteric Doctrine.

It is perfectly true that one can take quotations from other sutras that at least seem like a radical denial of all selfhood or egohood up to the loftiest conception of a Universal Self or Atman. It is also possible to find quotations that suggest that Buddhism is annhilistic materialism, as such—for example, the following, quoted by Rhys Davids from the Brahmaja Sutra:

Upon what principle, or on what ground, do these mendicants and Brahmins hold the doctrine of future existence? They teach that the soul is material or immaterial, or is both or neither; that it will have one or many modes of consciousness; that its perceptions will be few or boundless; that it will be in a state of joy or misery, or neither. These are the sixteen heresies, teaching a conscious existence after death. Then there are eight heresies teaching that the soul, material or immaterial, or both or neither, finite or infinite or both or neither, has one unconscious existence after death. And, finally, eight others that teach that the soul, in the same eight ways, exists after death in a state of being neither conscious nor unconscious. Mendicants, that which binds the teacher to existence (viz., tanha, or thirst), is cut off, but his body still remains. While his body shall remain, he will be seen by gods and men, but after the termination of life, upon the dissolution of the body, neither gods nor men shall see him.

Rhys Davids goes on to remark, “Would it be possible in a more complete and categorical manner to deny that there is any soul—anything of any kind which continues to exist in any manner after death?”

Mr. Rhys Davids, who in his time was the ranking Western Buddhist scholar, states categorically that “Nirvana” means complete extinction and that Buddhism is materialistic. Also, Spengler asserts that it is materialistic. Quotations can be found that seem to justify these views. What is the truth? Clearly not all the sutras, both Northern and Southern, can be viewed as the authentic teachings of Gautama Buddha, and while it is unquestionable true that there is much in Buddhist literature that is valuable and sound, which was spoken and written by others that Gautama Himself, yet it is His teachings that most properly define what real Buddhism is. How are we to know what this is? It would appear that if there is no esoteric authority, such as a hidden and preserved record, to resolve this question, then we run the danger that mere individual taste, favorable or malicious, will answer the question in innumerable and incompatible ways. Theosophy claims to speak from such authority and builds a strong supporting case.

The Theosophical psychology has more elaborate ramifications than appear to have been the case with the earlier exoteric Buddhism taught by the Buddha. The four lower principles may be viewed as substantially an aggregate in the Buddhist sense with respect to which the personal ego is no more than an epiphenomenal effect, lasting through the life-cycle and a limited subjective period after death, but no longer. But Theosophy posits a Higher Ego, identical with a higher phase of Mind, which persists from incarnation to incarnation, and which is identified with individuality, conceived as distinct from the objective personality. It is not hard to find Buddhist statements which also affirm the continuance of individuality from incarnation to incarnation. Take for example the following from A Buddhist Catechism, by Subhadra Bhikshu.

Buddhism teaches the reign of perfect goodness and wisdom without a personal GOD, continuance of individuality without an immortal soul, eternal happiness without a local heaven, the way of salvation without a vicarious Savior, redemption worked out by each one himself without any prayers, sacrifices, and penances, without the ministry of ordained priests, without the intercession of saints, without Divine mercy. Finally, it teaches that supreme perfection is attainable in this life and on this earth.

It is thus quite apparent that at least some forms of Buddhism stand in agreement with the Theosophical teaching of a persisting individuality. There may be a difference due to the naming of this individuality, “Higher Ego,” but one may well doubt that this point is fundamental. For Theosophy does not teach that the Higher Ego is permanent in more than a relative sense. In fact, Theosophy distinguishes between “egoism” and “egoity,” the former applying to the personal ego and identical with “selfishness” while the latter is identical with “individuality.” It would be Theosophically correct to say that Gautama Buddha had no egoism but had egoity, for He had a recognizable character. The word “ego” corresponds to the sense “I am I,” which, in the lower sense takes the form “I am I and none other,” while in the higher sense of egoity means “I am I and also others.”

It is Theosophically correct to say that all egoity is achieved and, in addition, what is also taught by Buddhism, that everything that becomes is impermanent. There is a difference of relative persistence in the different kinds of egos, just as a granite outcropping has a greater persistence than a mushroom, but in time all is resolved back into the Primordial and Indeterminate Permanency.

Theosophy teaches that the two-fold egohood is a general characteristic of mankind, though there are some exceptions, both of a supernal and infernal sort. It is also taught that there is a rare third form of egoity. This is the Divine or Spiritual Ego, the conscious union of Buddhi and Manas, and it would seem to constitute the Egoity of the Buddhas or Christs, though the literature gives but little more than hints on this subject. The Spiritual ego is defi­nitely viewed as an attainment, so far realized by very few units among mankind. The writer would suggest, on his own authority here, that this egoity may be achieved only by He who, having reached Nirvana, makes the Great Renunciation.

The Theosophical literature gives very scanty material upon the subject of the Spiritual Ego and the references are often ambiguous. The clearest statement is to be found in The Key to Theosophy, but elsewhere one gets the impression that it is the same as the Higher Ego (as in the Theosophical Glossary), and also as being the same as the “Higher Self,” as in the case or certain references in The Secret Doctrine. But in The Key to Theosophy, this ambiguity is acknowledged and the state­ment there is intended to clarify the subject. In the latter case the Spiritual Ego is not identified with the Higher Self. Here the Higher Self is identified with the Universal Atman in the sense of the ABSOLUTE, and involves no element of individuality or becoming. The Higher Self may be identified with the ultimate reference of “I” but it definitely is not “I am I” in any sense, however lofty or in­clusive.

Definitely, it is taught in Theosophy that Spiritual Egoity is achieved. It is not an entirely existing endowment of all men, whereas the Higher Self is a universal fact, the same in the beginning as at the end. It thus follows that even Spiritual Egoity is not absolutely eternal or permanent. Thus there is no contradiction here with the general thesis of Buddhism that all egohood is temporary and, therefore, is in the most ultimate sense unreal when Reality is identical with ultimate permanence. However, the teaching is more elaborate than that which seems to have been a part of the original exoteric teachings of the Buddha. But this does not necessarily imply any contradiction between the two teachings if it is granted, as Theosophy affirms, that Buddha had an esoteric doctrine as well as an exoteric teaching designed to meet the limited understanding of the masses.

To conclude this part of the discussion, in summary we may say that it appears, from the records available, that the original anatman doctrine taught by Gautama Buddha applied to the notion of a permanent personal ego conceived as a differentiated core supporting the aggregates as attributes. Buddha denied that there was any such core and affirmed for the personal ego only an ephemeral epiphenomenal existence as an effect of the interaction of the aggregates. Theosophy stands in essential, and perhaps complete, agreement with this view, but posits two higher forms of egoity, which are relatively more permanent, but not absolutely perma­nent, and does not apply the notion of Atman to egohood in any sense. Thus there is some discrepancy in the use of words, but not therefore a difference of meaning. There are sutras, more especially belonging to part of the Northern canon, that rather strongly suggest, with respect to the doctrine of anatman, a contradiction between Theosophy and the forms of Buddhism oriented to those sutras. Thus before one could say that there is a definite disagreement between Buddhism and Theosophy on this point, one would have to decide which form of Buddhism is authentic. Upon this question a completely objective decision, without any reference to esoteric knowledge, appears extremely difficult, if not impossible, and it appears that there is real danger that wishfulness or prejudice may become determinant in one’s choice, in the absence of esoteric insight, with the result that one’s conclusion may be mainly significant as a subjective psychological confession.

* In Western philosophy the term egoism refers to the ethical theory that one ought to advance one’s own self-interest exclusively. Wolff’s use of the term here is psychological—one’s orientation to, and identification with, the unique cluster of psychical contents that individuate one person from another, which leads to selfishness. In Sanskrit this function is called ahamkara (the I-maker).—RL

More in part V, VI