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Before the Conversion: Helena Blavatsky on Shakyamuni Buddha and Buddhism

The nineteenth-century saw its first public Western converts to Buddhism. Helena P. Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott, an American lawyer who worked on U.S. Pres. Lincoln’s assassination case, were the two leading movers of the Theosophical Movement. They both converted in 1880. This was being contrasted with Helena Blavatsky’s letter claiming to have studied among dervishes and the Syrian Druzes.

Blavatsky, Helena P., La Revue Spirite, Paris, October, 1878: “It is true that I regard the philosophy of Gautama Buddha as the most sublime system; the purest, and, above all, the most logical of all. But the system has been distorted during the centuries by the ambition and fanaticism of the priests and has become a popular religion; the forms and the exoteric or popular cult proceeding from that system, too closely resemble those of the Roman church which has slavishly plagiarized from it, for me ever to be converted to it. Just as in every pure and primitive system, introduced by the great religious reformers of the ancient world, its rays have diverged too far from their common centre — the Vedas of the Aryans; and although among all modern beliefs the Buddhist Church may be the only one to encourage its members to question its dogmas and to seek the last word of every mystery which is taught therein — I much prefer to hold to the mother source rather than to depend upon any of the numerous streams that flow from it.

…Now although I admire with all my soul the lofty philosophy of Siddhartha, or Sakya-Muni, I bow quite as much before the moral grandeur and the powerful logic of the Hindu Kapila, the great Acharya, who was, however, the most implacable enemy of the Buddha. While the latter looked on the Vedas as the supreme authority — the Buddhists rejected them after all, though it was proved, nevertheless, that Gautama in his reform and protest against the abuses of the wily Brahmanas, based himself entirely upon the esoteric meaning of the grand primitive Scriptures. Then, if the reporter — the author of the article in question — had simply said that I belonged to the religion that had inspired the Buddha, instead of presenting me to the public as a Buddhist turning the Wheel of the Law — he would have spoken nothing but the truth. One can be a Platonist without necessarily being a pagan or an idolater at that, as one may remain a Christian without belonging to any of the Churches which have been fighting one another for eighteen hundred years in the name of the Man-God.”

H.P. Blavatsky, “The Theosophical Glossary,” on “Buddha Siddhârta,” pp. 66-67.

“…As to his being one of the true and undeniable Saviours of the World, suffice it to say that the most rabid orthodox missionary, unless he is hopelessly insane, or has not the least regard even for historical truth, cannot find one smallest accusation against the life and personal character of Gautama, the “Buddha”. Without any claim to divinity, allowing his followers to fall into atheism, rather than into the degrading superstition of deva or idol-worship, his walk in life is from the beginning to the end, holy and divine. During the 45 years of his mission it is blameless and pure as that of a god – or as the latter should be.

He is a perfect example of a divine, godly man. He reached Buddhaship – i.e., complete enlightenment – entirely by his own merit and owing to his own individual exertions, no god being supposed to have any personal merit in the exercise of goodness and holiness. Esoteric teachings claim that he renounced Nirvana and gave up the Dharmakaya vesture to remain a “Buddha of compassion” within the reach of the miseries of this world. And the religious philosophy he left to it has produced for over 2,000 years generations of good and unselfish men. His is the only absolutely bloodless religion among all the existing religions: tolerant and liberal, teaching universal compassion and charity, love and self-sacrifice, poverty and contentment with one’s lot, whatever it may be. No persecutions, and enforcement of faith by fire and sword, have ever disgraced it. No thunder-and-lightning-vomiting god has interfered with its chaste commandments; and if the simple, humane and philosophical code of daily life left to us by the greatest Man-Reformer ever known, should ever come to be adopted by mankind at large, then indeed an era of bliss and peace would dawn on Humanity.”

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