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The Context of Alfred P. Sinnett’s ‘Esoteric Buddhism’

A.P. Sinnett’s Esoteric Budhism 1884

In learning about ‘Theosophy,’ it is still wise to return to the very first installments, expressing what it is, namely Alfred Percy Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism (online 1884 ed.), or rather Budhism. This 1884 work was the result or learning acquired from correspondences between A.P. Sinnett and the two gentlemen, Koot Hoomi and Morya in The Mahatma Letters.

“[Modern] Theosophy is no new candidate for the world’s attention, but only the restatement of principles which have been recognised from the very infancy of mankind.” (The Mahatma Letters, Letter no. 8.) [Italics added.]

“Isis” was not unveiled but rents sufficiently large were made to afford flitting glances to be completed by the student’s own intuition. In this curry of quotations from various philosophic and esoteric truths purposely veiled, behold our doctrine, which is now being partially taught to Europeans for the first time. (The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, Letter no 18. Received Simla, June, 1882.) [Bold added]

This is describing a system, and theosophical literature being, an exposition of a few fundamental tenets from the Catechism and Supplements from the School of the adepts associated with the early Theosophists. They were supposedly connected with the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and an esoteric Yogacharya School, linked to the original Aryasangha and an effort inaugurated by Je Tsongkapa. Instead of scholars, who laughed about it, there has been much research done over the past century to collate, to vindicate this. They allow, in its first introductions, A.P. Sinnett, e.g., to devise terms in the English to assist Western students in understanding their doctrines and philosophy. They refer to true Occultism, or archaic science, and speak against lower branches and the influences from Spiritualism in that period, degrading the Occult Science. All this from the archaic past, through lineage, as its heirs. This is why they state difference between real Occultism, or that science of the study in the hidden world of forces from base branches of little relative importance, that impede true spiritual development, like astral flights and necromancy. All of the latter, which seems to characterise the 20th century fascination and parlor of magic trickery, Theosophists are blamed for inspiring. How are they blamed for causing something they are exposing. It is high time to set the record straight, and bring this ‘Theosophy’ into motion for public review.

“It is needless to explain that this book is not the Secret Doctrine in its entirety, but a select number of fragments of its fundamental tenets, special attention being paid to some facts which have been seized upon by various writers, and distorted out of all resemblance to the truth.” (H.P. Blavatsky. The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, Preface, p. viii., 1888.)

“Since the appearance of Theosophical literature in England, it has become customary to call its teachings “Esoteric Buddhism.” And, having become a habit — as an old proverb based on daily experience has it — “Error runs down an inclined plane, while Truth has to laboriously climb its way up hill.”

Old truisms are often the wisest. The human mind can hardly remain entirely free from bias, and decisive opinions are often formed before a thorough examination of a subject from all its aspects has been made. This is said with reference to the prevailing double mistake (a) of limiting Theosophy to Buddhism: and (b) of confounding the tenets of the religious philosophy preached by Gautama, the Buddha, with the doctrines broadly outlined in “Esoteric Buddhism.” Any thing more erroneous than this could be hardly imagined. 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.” (H.P. Blavatsky. The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, Introductory, p. xvii)

“The esoteric truths, presented in Mr. Sinnett’s work, had ceased to be esoteric from the moment they were made public; nor did it contain the religion of Buddha, but simply a few tenets from a hitherto hidden teaching which are now supplemented by many more, enlarged and explained in the present volumes. But even the latter, though giving out many fundamental tenets from the SECRET DOCTRINE of the East, raise but a small corner of the dark veil. For no one, not even the greatest living adept, would be permitted to, or could – even if he would – give out promiscuously, to a mocking, unbelieving world, that which has been so effectually concealed from it for long aeons and ages”.” (H.P. Blavatsky. The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, Introductory, p. xvii)

“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.” It proved unfortunate, because people are always in the habit of judging things by their appearance, rather than their meaning; and because the error has now become so universal, that even most of the Fellows of the Theosophical Society have fallen victims to the same misconception. From the first, however, protests were raised by Brahmins and others against the title; and, in justice to myself, I must add that “Esoteric Buddhism” was presented to me as a completed volume, and that I was entirely unaware of the manner in which the author intended to spell the word “Budh-ism.”

This has to be laid directly at the door of those who, having been the first to bring the subject under public notice, neglected to point out the difference between “Buddhism” — the religious system of ethics preached by the Lord Gautama, and named after his title of Buddha, “the Enlightened” — and Budha, “Wisdom,” or knowledge (Vidya), the faculty of cognizing, from the Sanskrit root “Budh,” to know. We theosophists of India are ourselves the real culprits, although, at the time, we did our best to correct the mistake. (…) To avoid this deplorable misnomer was easy; the spelling of the word had only to be altered, and by common consent both pronounced and written “Budhism,” instead of “Buddhism.” Nor is the latter term correctly spelt and pronounced, as it ought to be called, in English, Buddhaism, and its votaries “Buddhaists.”

This explanation is absolutely necessary at the beginning of a work like this one. The “Wisdom Religion” is the inheritance of all the nations, the world over (…)” (H.P. Blavatsky. The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, Introductory, p. xvii-xviii.)

“Indeed, that which is given in these volumes is selected from oral, as much as from written teachings. This first instalment of the esoteric doctrines is based upon Stanzas, which are the records of a people unknown to ethnology; it is claimed that they are written in a tongue absent from the nomenclature of languages and dialects with which philology is acquainted; they are said to emanate from a source (Occultism) repudiated by science; and, finally, they are offered through an agency, incessantly discredited before the world by all those who hate unwelcome truths, or have some special hobby of their own to defend.” (H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, Vol. 1, Introductory, p. xxxvii)


  1. Thanks for the overview, useful to researchers and scholars.

    We have been thinking along the same lines. To trace the lineage of theosophical doctrines from their esoteric roots and to see how they manifest in Buddhism and other Eastern and Western religions and philosophies.

    Some students prepared a map of these which aims to show how they relate to the esoteric axioms and principles set out in the original Theosophical literature:

    Click to access Lineage-Books-of-the-Ancient-Wisdom.pdf

    They would welcome any comments on it, but note it is currently ‘work in progress’ and somewhat incomplete; they can be contacted via the London ULT website.

    To navigate through it, work your way from the top left… starting with “A “very old Book” (Isis, i 1).”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Will for the comment, and your link. What you have stated, is really what we aim to do, by tracing the lineage. Being myself, more focused academically on Chinese Buddhism, a greater horizon just opens up, using Theosophy as a sort of map into further ideological territory across the Central and East Asian regions. I think there needs to be a special team in that area. There is real need to bring to the public, up to date knowledge on what, scholars have been trying to say, ever since the Hellenes. It is amazing how the social sphere, imo, has not really evolved, in its opinions about religion and philosophy. It’s discouraging.

      Liked by 1 person

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