Esoteric Buddhism
by F. Max Muller

It is sometimes represented as the height of professorial conceit that scholars like myself, who have never been in India, should venture to doubt statements made by persons who have spent many years in that country. This has always been a very favourite argument. If Sanskrit scholars differ from writers who have been twenty years in India, they are told that they have no right to speak; that there are MSS. in India which no one has ever seen, and that there are native scholars in possession of mysteries of which we poor professors have no conception. When asked for the production of those MSS., or for an introduction to these learned Mahatmas - for India is not so difficult to reach in these days as it was in the days of Marco Polo - they are never forthcoming. Nay, the curious thing is that real Sanskrit scholars who have spent their lives in India, and who know Sanskrit and Pali well, know absolutely nothing of such MSS., nothing of such teachers of mysteries. They are never known except to people who are ignorant of Sanskrit or Pali. That seems to be the first condition for being admitted to the esoteric wisdom of India. The fact is, that there is no longer any secret about Sanskrit literature, and I believe that we in England know as much about it as most native scholars.
Of late years, the treasures of Sanskrit MSS. still existing in India have been so thoroughly ransacked that it has become quite useless to appeal to hidden MSS. supposed to contain the ancient mysteries of the religion of India. If a new text is discovered, there is joy among all true Sanskrit scholars in India and in Europe. But the very idea that there are secret and sacred MSS., or that there ever was any mystery about the religion of the Brahmans, is by this time thoroughly exploded. Whatever there was of secret religious doctrines in India consisted simply of doctrines for the reception of which a certain previous training was required. Every member of the three upper castes had free access to the Vedas, and if the fourth class were not allowed to learn the Veda by heart, this arose from a social far more than from the religious prejudice. Again, it is quite true that the doctrines of the Vedanta or the Upanishads were sometimes called Rahasya, that is, secret; but this, too, meant no more than that teachers should not teach these portions of the Veda except to persons of a certain age and properly qualified for these higher studies. When we hear Aristotle called the Smaller Mysteries and Plato the Greater Mysteries, this does not mean that their writings were kept secret. It only meant that students must first have learnt a certain amount of Greek and have qualified themselves for these more advanced studies, just as students at Oxford advance step by step from the smaller to the greater mysteries, that is, from Smalls to Mods., and from Mods. to Greats. Greats may be great mysteries to a freshman, but no one is excluded from participation in them, if only he feels inclined to be initiated.
But if there was nothing mysterious about Brahmanism, it is sometimes thought there might be some mysteries hidden in Buddhism. A scholarlike study of Buddhism came later in Europe than a scholarlike study of Brahmanism, and the amount of rubbish that was written on Buddhism before the knowledge of Pali and Sanskrit enabled scholars to read the sacred texts of the Buddhists for themselves is simply appalling. Buddhism was declared to be the original religion of mankind, more ancient than Brahmanism, more ancient than the religion of the Teutonic races; for who could doubt that Buddha was the same name as that of Wodan? Christianity itself was represented as a mere plagiarism, its doctrines and legends were supposed to have been borrowed from Buddhism, and we were told that the best we could do in order to become real Christians was to become Buddhists. There exists at present a new sect of people who called themselves Christian Buddhists, and they are said to be numerous in England and in France. The Journal des Debats of the 10th of May, 1890, speaks of 30,000 Bouddhistes Chretiens at Paris. In India, more particularly in Ceylon, their number is supposed to be much larger.
These are serious matters, and cannot be treated merely as bad jokes or crazes. It is, indeed, very important to observe that there is some foundation for all these crazes, nay, that there is method in that madness. There is, for instance, a tradition of a Deluge in the Veda as well as in the O. T.; there is in the Veda the story of a father willing, at the command of the god Varuna, to sacrifice his son. Nor can it be denied that there is a very great likeness between some moral doctrines and certain legends of Buddhism and Christianity. We ought to rejoice at this with all our heart, but there is no necessity for admitting anything like borrowing or stealing on one side or the other. A comparative study of the religions of antiquity has widened our horizon so much, and has so thoroughly established the universality of a certain amount of religious truth, that if we found the Ten Commandments in the sacred books of the Buddhists we should never think of theft and robbery, but simply of a common inheritance. We actually find the Dasasila, the Ten Commandments, in Buddhism, but they are not at all the Ten Commandments of Moses. It is different when we come to facts and legends. When it is pointed out that with regard to these also there are great similarities between the life of Christ and the life of Buddha, I feel bound to acknowledge that such similarities exist, and that, though many may be accounted for by the common springs of human nature, there are a few left which are startling, and which as yet remain a riddle.
It is owing, no doubt, to these coincidences that a very remarkable person, whose name has lately become familiar in England also, felt strongly attracted to the study of Buddhism. I mean, of course, the late Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Esoteric Buddhism. I have never met her, though she often promised, or rather threatened, she would meet me face to fact at Oxford. She came to Oxford and preached, I am told, for six hours before a number of young men, but she did not inform me of her presence. At first she treated me almost like a Mahatma, but when there was no response I became, like all Sanskrit scholars, a very untrustworthy authority. I have watched her career for many years from her earliest appearance in America to her death in London last year. She founded her Theosophic Society at New York in 1875. The object of that society was to experiment practically in the occult powers of Nature, and to collect and disseminate among Christians information about Oriental religious philosophies? Nothing could be said against such objects, if only they were taken up honestly, and with the necessary scholarly preparation. Later on, however, new objects were added, namely to spread among the benighted heathen such evidences as to the practical results of Christianity as will at least give both sides of the story to the communities among which missionaries are at work. With this view the society undertook to establish relations with associations and individuals throughout the East, to whom it furnished authenticated reports of the ecclesiastical crimes and misdemeanours, schisms, heresies, controversies and litigations, doctrinal differences and Biblical criticisms and revisions with which the press of Christian Europe and America constantly teems. You may easily imagine what the outcome of such a society would be, and how popular its Black Book would become in India and elsewhere. However, I am quite willing to give Madame Blavatsky credit for good motives, at least at the beginning of her career. Like many people in our time, she was, I believe, in search of a religion which she could honestly embrace. She was a clever, wild, and excitable girl, and anybody who wishes to take a charitable view of her later hysterical writings and performances should read the biographical notices lately published by her own sister in the Nouvelle Revue. It is the fault of those who guide the religious education of young men and women, and who simply require from them belief in certain facts and dogmas, without every explaining what belief means, that so many, when they begin to think about the different kinds of human knowledge, discover that they possess no religion at all.
Religion, in order to be real religion, a man's own religion, must be searched for, must be discovered, must be conquered. If it is simply inherited or accepted as a matter of course, it often happens that in later years it falls away, and has either to be re-conquered or to be replaced by another religion.
Madame Blavatsky was one of those who want more than a merely traditional and formal faith, and, in looking round, she thought she could find what she wanted in India. We are ready to give Madame Blavatsky full credit for deep religious sentiments, more particularly for the same strong craving for a spiritual union with the Divine which has inspired so many of the most devout thinkers among Christians, as well as among so-called heathen. Nowhere has that craving found fuller expression than among the philosophers of India, particularly among the Vedanta philosophers. Like Schopenhauer, she seems to have discovered through the dark mists of imperfect translations some of the brilliant rays of truth which issue from the Upanishads and the ancient Vedanta philosophy of India.
To India, therefore, she went with some friends, but, unfortunately, with no knowledge of the language, and with very little knowledge of what she might expect to find there, and where she ought to look for native teachers who should initiate her in the mysteries of the sacred lore of the country. That such lore and such mysteries existed she never doubted; and she thought that she had found at last what she wanted in Dayananda Sarasvati, the founder of the Arya-Samaj. His was, no doubt, a remarkable and powerful mind, but he did not understand English; nor did Madame Blavatsky understand either the modern or the ancient languages of the country. Still there sprang up between the two a mutual though mute admiration, and a number of followers soon gathered round this interesting couple. However, this mute admiration did not last long, and when the two began to understand each other better they soon discovered that they could not act together. I am afraid it can no longer be doubted that Dayananda Sarasvati was as deficient in moral straightforwardness as his American pupil. Hence they were both disappointed in each other, and Madame Blavatsky now determined to found her own religious sect - in fact, to found a new religion, based chiefly on the old religions of India.
Unfortunately, she took it into her head that it was incumbent on every founder of a religion to perform miracles, and here it can no longer be denied that she often resorted to the most barefaced tricks and impositions in order to gain adherents in India. In this she succeeded more than she herself could have hoped for. The natives felt flattered by being told that they were the depositaries of ancient wisdom, far more valuable than anything that European philosophy or the Christian religion had ever supplied. The natives are not often flattered in that way, and they naturally swallowed the bait. Others were taken aback by the assurance with which this new prophetess spoke of her intercourse with unseen spirits, of letters flying through the air from Tibet to Bombay, of showers of flowers falling from the ceiling of a dining-room, of saucers disappearing from a tea-tray and being found in a garden, and of voices and noises proceeding from spirits through a mysterious cabinet. You may ask how educated people could have been deceived by such ordinary jugglery; but with some people the power of believing seems to grow with the absurdity of what is to be believed. When I expressed my regret to one of her greatest admirers that Madame Blavatsky should have lowered herself by these vulgar exhibitions, I was told, with an almost startling frankness, that no religion could be founded without miracles, and that a religion, if it was to grow, must be manured. These are the ipsissima verba of one who knew Madame Blavatsky better than anybody else; and after that it was useless for us to discuss this subject any further.
But, as I said before, I am quite willing to allow that Madame Blavatsky started with good intentions, that she saw and was dazzled by a glimmering of truth in various religions of the world, that she believed in the possibility of a mystic union of the soul with God, and that she was most anxious to discover in a large number of books traces of that theosophic intuition which re-unites human nature with the Divine. Unfortunately, she was without the tools to dig for those treasures in the ancient literature of the world, and her mistakes in quoting from Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin would be amusing if they did not appeal to our sympathy rather for a woman who thought that she could fly though she had no wings, not even those of Icarus.
Her book, called Isis Unveiled, in two volumes of more than 600 pages each, bristling with notes and references to every kind of authority, both wise and foolish, shows an immense amount of drudgery and misdirected ingenuity. To quote her blunders would be endless. Of what character they are will be seen when I quote what she says about the serpent being the good or the evil spirit. [i.133.] 'In this case,' she writes, 'the serpent is the Agathodaimon, the good spirit; in its opposite aspect it is the Kakothodaimon, the bad one.' I believe that this mistake, when I pointed it out to an undergraduate friend of mine at Oxford, saved him from enrolling himself as an Esoteric Buddhist. Again, speaking as if she knew the whole of Vedic literature, she says: [ii.80.] 'Certainly, nowhere in the Veda can be found the coarseness and downright immorality of language that Hebraists now discover throughout the Mosaic Bible.'
It is very difficult, when you deal with ancient races who go about almost naked, to decide what is immodest and what is not. But, speaking not altogether without book, I may say that the Veda does contain certain passages which would not bear translation into English.
Again, what shall we say to the argument that the Vedas must have been composed before the Deluge, because the deluge is not mentioned in them? [ii.727.] Now, first of all, the Deluge is mentioned in the Brahmana of the Yagur-veda, and Madame Blavatsky knows it; and secondly, are we really to suppose that every book which does not mention the Deluge was written before the Deluge? What an enormous library of antediluvian books we should possess! M. Jacolliot, as usual, outbids Madame Blavatsky. He writes:
The Vedas and Manu, those monuments of old Asiatic thought, existed far earlier than the diluvian period; this is an incontrovertible fact, having all the value of an historical truth, for, besides the tradition which shows Vishnu himself as saving the Vedas from the Deluge - a tradition which, notwithstanding its legendary form, must certainly rest upon a real fact - it has been remarked that neither of these sacred books mentions the cataclysm, while the Puranas and the Mahabharata describe it with the minutest detail, which is a proof of the priority of the former. The Vedas certainly would never have failed to contain a few hymns on the terrible disaster which, of all other natural manifestations, must have struck the imagination of the people who witnessed it.
Such hymns could only have been written by Noah or by Manu, and we possess, unfortunately, no poetic relics of either of these poets, not even in the Veda. I must quote no more, nor is more evidence wanted, to show that Madame Blavatsky and her immediate followers were simply without bricks and mortar when they endeavoured to erect the lofty structure which they had conceived in their minds. I give full credit to her good intentions; at least at first. I readily acknowledge her indefatigable industry. She began life as an enthusiast; but enthusiasts, as Goethe says, after they have come to know the world, and have been deceived by the world, are apt to become deceivers themselves.
The number of her followers, however, has become so large in India, and particularly in Ceylon, that the movement started by her can no longer be ignored. There are Esoteric Buddhists in England also, in America, and in France; but I doubt whether in these countries they can do much harm. To her followers Madame Blavatsky is a kind of inspired prophetess. To me it seems that she began life as an enthusiast, though not without a premature acquaintance with the darker sides of life, nor without a feminine weakness for notoriety. After a time, however, she ceased to be truthful both to herself and to others. But although her work took a wrong direction, I do not wish to deny that here and there she caught a glimpse of those wonderful philosophical intuitions which are treasured up in the sacred books of the East. Unfortunately she had fallen an easy prey to some persons whom she consulted, whoever they were, whether Mahatmas from Tibet or Panditammanyas in Calcutta, Bombay, or Madras. Disappointed in Dayananda Sarasvati and his often absurd interpretations of the Veda, she turned to Buddhism, though again without an idea how or where to study that religion.
No one can study Buddhism unless he learns Sanskrit and Pali, so as to be able to read the canonical books, and at all events to spell the names correctly. Madame Blavatsky would do neither, though she was quite clever enough, if she had chosen, to have learnt Sanskrit or Pali. But even her informants must have been almost entirely ignorant of these languages, or they must have practised on her credulity in a most shameless manner. Whether she herself suspected this or not, she certainly showed great shrewdness in withdrawing herself and her description of Esoteric Buddhism from all possible control and contradiction. Her Buddhism, she declared, was not the Buddhism which ordinary scholars might study in the canonical books; hers was Esoteric Buddhism. 'It is not in the dead letter of Buddhistical sacred literature,' she says, 'that scholars may hope to find the true solution of the metaphysical subtleties of Buddhism. The latter weary the power of thought by the inconceivable profundity of its ratiocination: and the student is never farther from truth than when he believes himself nearest its discovery.' [i. 289.] We are told, also, [ii. 123.] that there was a prehistoric Buddhism which merged later into Brahmanism, and that this was the religion preached by Jesus and the early Apostles. After we have been told that there was a Buddhism older than the Vedas - and we might say with the same right that there was a Christianity older than Moses - we are told next of a pre-Vedic Brahmanism, and, to make all controversy impossible, Madame Blavatsky tells us that 'when she uses the term Buddhism she does not mean to imply by it either the exoteric Buddhism instituted by the followers of Gautama Buddha, nor the modern Buddhistic religion, but the secret philosophy of Sakyamuni, which, in its essence, is identical with the ancient wisdom religion of the sanctuary, the pre-Vedic Brahmanism.' 'Gautama,' we are assured, 'had a doctrine for his "elect," and another for the outside masses.' Then she adds apologetically, 'If both Buddha and Christ, aware of the great danger of furnishing an uncultivated populace with the double-edged weapon of knowledge which gives power, left the innermost corner of the sanctuary in the profoundest shade, who that is acquainted with human nature can blame them for it?' Then why did she, being evidently well acquainted with human nature, venture to divulge these dangerous esoteric doctrines? Though I must say what she does divulge seems very harmless.
With such precautions Madame Blavatsky's Esoteric Buddhism was safe against all cavil and all criticism. As no one could control the statements of Ctesias as to the race of people who used their ears as sheets to sleep in, no one could control the statements of the Mahatmas from Tibet as to a Buddhism for Madame Blavatsky to dream in. I do not say that no Mahatmas exist in India or in Tibet. I simply say that modern India is the worst country for studying Buddhism. India is, no doubt, the birthplace of Buddha and of Buddhism. But Buddhism, as a popular religion, has vanished from India, so that the religious census of the country knows hardly of any Buddhists, except in Ceylon and in some districts bordering on Tibet or Burmah. As no Buddhist teachers could be found in Bombay or Calcutta, some imaginary beings had to be created by Madame Blavatsky and located safely in Tibet, as yet the most inaccessible country in the world. Madame Blavatsky's powers of creation were very great, whether she wished to have intercourse with Mahatmas, astral bodies, or ghosts of any kind. Here is a list of the ghosts for whose real existence she vouches: 'peris, devs, djins, sylvans, satyrs, fauns, elves, dwarfs, trolls, norns, nisses, kobolds, brownies, necks, stromkarls, undines, nixies, salamanders, goblins, banshees, kelpies, pixies, moss people, good people, good neighbours, wild women, men of peace, white ladies, and many more.' Shall we, then, concede, she asks, that all who have seen these creatures were hallucinated? It is difficult to answer such a question without seeming rude. I should certainly say they were hallucinated, and that they were using words of which they knew neither the meaning nor, what is even better, the etymology. So long as Madame Blavatsky placed her Mahatmas beyond the Himalayas both she and her witnesses were quite safe from any detectives or cross-examining lawyers. I saw, however, in the papers not long ago that even the believers in Madame Blavatsky begin to be sceptical about these trans-Himalayan Mahatmas. At the annual Theosophical Convention, held at Chicago in 1892, a lady asked why outsiders were always told that the Mahatma sages dwelt beyond the Himalayan mountains. Mr. Judge, who is now the head of the American Theosophists, replied that it was for seclusion. 'If they were anywhere in the United States,' he said, 'they would be pestered and interviewed by reporters.' This admitted of no reply, particularly in America.
We, the pretended authorities of the West, are told to go to the Brahmans and Lamaists of the Far Orient, and respectfully ask them to impart to us the alphabet of true science. But she gives us no addresses, no letters of introduction to her Tibetan friends, though in another place she tells us
that travellers have met these adepts on the shores of the sacred Ganges, brushed against them on the silent ruins of Thebes, and in the mysterious deserted chambers of Luxor. Without the halls upon whose blue and golden vaults the weird signs attract attention, but whose secret meaning is never penetrated by the idle gazers, they have been seen, but seldom recognised. Historical memoirs have recorded their presence in the brilliantly illuminated salons of European aristocracy. They have been encountered again on the arid and desolate plains of the Great Sahara, as in the caves of Elephanta. They may be found everywhere, but make themselves known only to those who have devoted their lives to unselfish study, and are not likely to turn back (p. 17).
We see that Madame Blavatsky might have achieved some success if she had been satisfied to follow in the footsteps of Rider Haggard, Sinnet, or Marion Crawford; but her ambition was to found a religion, not to make money by writing new Arabian Nights.
But when we come to examine what these depositaries of primeval wisdom, the Mahatmas of Tibet and of the sacred Ganges, are supposed to have taught her, we find no mysteries, nothing very new, nothing very old, but simply a medley of well-known though generally misunderstood Brahmanic or Buddhistic doctrines. There is nothing that cannot be traced back to generally accessible Brahmanic or Buddhistic sources, only everything is muddled or misunderstood. If I were asked what Madame Blavatsky's Esoteric Buddhism really is, I should say it was Buddhism misunderstood, distorted, caricatured. There is nothing in it beyond what was known already, chiefly from books that are now antiquated. The most ordinary terms are misspelt and misinterpreted. Mahatma, for instance, is a well-known Sanskrit name applied to men who have retired from the world, who, by means of a long ascetic discipline, have subdued the passions of the flesh and gained a reputation for sanctity and knowledge. That these men are able to perform most startling feats and to suffer the most terrible tortures is perfectly true. Some of them, though not many, are distinguished as scholars also; so much so that Mahatma - literally 'great-souled' - has become an honorary title. I have myself had the honour of being addressed by that name in many letters written in Sanskrit, and sent to me - not, indeed, through the air, but through the regular post-office - from Benares to Oxford. That some of these so-called Mahatmas are impostors is but too well known to all who have lived in India. I am quite ready, therefore, to believe that Madame Blavatsky and her friends were taken in by persons who pretended to be Mahatmas, though it has never been explained in what language even they could have communicated their Esoteric Buddhism to their European pupil. Madame Blavatsky herself was, according to her own showing, quite unable to gauge their knowledge or to test their honesty, and she naturally shared the fate of Ctesias, of Lieutenant Wilford, and of M. Jacolliot.
That there are men in India, knowing a certain amount of Sanskrit and a little English, who will say yes to everything you ask them, I know from sad experience; and it would be very unfair to say that such weaklings exist in India only. If people wish to be deceived, there are always those who are ready to deceive them. This, I think, is the most charitable interpretation which we can put on the beginnings of that extraordinary movement which is known by the name of Esoteric Buddhism, nay, which, on account of the similarities which exist between Buddhism and Christianity, claims in some places the name of Christian Buddhism. On this so-called Christian Buddhism, and on the real similarities between Buddhism and Christianity, I may have something to say at another time. At present I only wish to show that if there is any religion entirely free from esoteric doctrines it is Buddhism. There never was any such thing as mystery in Buddhism. Altogether, it seems to me that mystery is much more of a modern than of an ancient invention. There are no real mysteries even in Brahmanism, for we can hardly apply that name to doctrines which were not communicated to everybody, but only to people who had passed through a certain preparatory discipline. The whole life of a Brahman in ancient India was under a certain control. It was divided into four stages: the school, the household, the forest, and the solitude. Up to the age of twenty-seven a young man was supposed to be a student in the house of a Guru. After that he had to marry and found a household; and perform all the religious acts which were prescribed by the Vedas; then, when he had seen his children's children, he was expected to retire from his house and live, either alone or with his wife, in the forest, released from social and religious duties - nay, allowed to enjoy the greatest freedom of philosophic speculation.
Now it is quite true that the Aranyakas, the Forest-books, and the Upanishads in which these philosophical speculations are contained were sometimes called Rahasya - that is, secret. They were not to be communicated to young people, nor to the married householder - very naturally, for they taught that the gods whom the young men and the married householders had believed in were not gods at all, but simply different names of the Unknown behind Nature, and that of the Great Spirit or Brahma nothing could be predicated except sat, that he was; kit, that he perceived and thought; and ananda, that he was blessed - hence he was often called Sakkidananda. Sacrifices, and all outward worship, which had before been represented as necessary for man's salvation, were now represented as not only useless, but as actually hurtful, if performed with any selfish view to rewards in another life. Whereas the whole of the Veda had formerly been represented as superhuman, inspired, and infallible, one part of it, the Karmakanda, the practical part, consisting of the hymns and the Brahmanas, the liturgical books, was now put aside, and there remained only the gnanakanda, the philosophical part, that is, whatever treated of Brahman and its relation to the individual soul. This only, and more particularly the Upanishads, continued to be considered as really necessary for salvation. For salvation was by knowledge only, or, as we should say, by faith, and not by works.
The highest object of this contemplative life in the forest was the finding of one's own soul, the saving of one's soul alive, the discovery of the Atman, the self, and not the mere Ego. This was no easy matter. Even in those early days the existence of a soul had been denied. Some held that body and soul were the same; others, that the soul was the breath; others, again, that it was the Ego or the mind with all its experiences, with its perceptions and conceptions and all the rest. The hermits in the forest, after they had subdued all the passions of the body and wrenched themselves free from all its fetters, had now to learn that the soul was something that according to its very nature could never be seen, or heard, or perceived like the objective world which was visible and perishable; because, if perceived, it would at once become something objective, something totally different from the perceiving subject. It would no longer be the soul. The unseen and unperceivable something which was formerly called the soul was now called the self, Atman. Nothing could be predicated of it except that it was, that it perceived and thought, and that it must be blessed. When they had once discovered that the Atman, the self within us, shared its only possible predicates with the Brahman, the invisible self behind nature and behind the so-called gods of nature, the next step was easy enough - namely, the discovery of the original identity of the self and of Brahman, the eternal oneness of man and God, the substantial identity of human and divine nature. To restore that identity by removing the darkness of ignorance by which it had been clouded - to become, as we should say, one with God and He with us, or rather to lose our self, and find our self again in God - that was henceforth the highest goal of the remaining years of the old man's life in the forest. Was it not natural that these doctrines, which were contained in the Upanishads, and which were afterwards minutely elaborated in the Vedanta-sutras, should have been kept secret from the young and from those who had still to perform the practical duties of life? Nor was there much difficulty in keeping them secret. For as in ancient India there were no books, and as all teaching was oral, a teacher had to be found to communicate the doctrines of the Upanishads, and it was almost self-interest, if no higher motive, that would have kept the teachers from communicating these so-called mysteries. Still, whoever was fit to receive them had a right to become once more a pupil in his old age, and in that sense the Upanishads were no more mysteries than any other book which it is not good for young people to read. Nevertheless, what happened to all mysteries happened to the Upanishads also. Not that there was any wish on the part of the young to share in the ascetic life of their elders, or any idle curiosity to discover what enabled these solitary sages to preserve such serenity of mind, such freedom from all desires, and such perfect happiness during the last period of their life, spent in the peaceful shade of the forest.
But the time came when those who had passed through all the trials and miseries of life, and who after a stormy voyage had found a refuge in the harbour of true philosophy, whose anchors were no longer dragging, but resting firmly on the rock of truth - the time came when these men themselves, conscious of the bliss which they enjoyed, said to themselves, 'What is the use of this dreary waiting, of all the toil of youth, of all the struggle of life, of all the trouble of sacrifices, of all the terrors of religion, when there is this true knowledge which changes us in the twinkling of an eye, discloses to us our real nature, our real home, our real God?' This thought - I do not mean the belief in a union between the human and the divine, but this conviction that the preparatory stages of student life and married life were useless, and that it was better at once to face the truth - has always seemed to me the true starting-point of Buddhism as an historical religion. Buddhism has come to mean so many things that I always feel a kind of shiver when people speak of Buddhism as teaching this or that. Buddhism had, no doubt, an historical origin in the fifth century B.C., and there were many causes which led to its rapid growth at that time. But from a social point of view, the first and critical step consisted in Buddha's opening the doors of a forest life to all who wished to enter, whatever their age, whatever their caste. That life in the forest, however, is not meant to be what it used to be in former times, a real retirement from the village, and a retreat into the solitude of the forest, but simply a retirement from the cares of the world, a life with the brotherhood, and a performance of the duties imposed on the brotherhood by the founder of the Buddhist order, the young prince of Kapilavastu, called Gautama, Buddha, Sakyamuni, Siddhartha, Mahasramana, and many other names. This leaving of the world before a man had performed the duties of a student and of a father of a family was the great offence of Buddhism in the eyes of the Brahmans, for it was that which deprived the Brahmans of their exclusive social position as teachers, as priests, as guides and counsellors. In this sense Buddha may be said to have been a heretic, and to have rejected the system of caste, the authority of the Veda, and the whole educational and sacrificial system as based on the Veda. He could never be forgiven for having arrogated to himself the right of teaching, which was the exclusive right of a Brahman born. The critical event in the life of Buddha himself was really his leaving father, mother, wife, and children behind, and going alone into the forest. Thus he says of himself:
And I, O disciples, still young, strong, my hair dark, in my happy youth, in the flower of my manhood, against the will of my parents who were crying and grieving for me, went forth, my hair cut and my beard shaved, dressed in the yellow garb (the garb of the Buddhist mendicant). I went from my home into homelessness.
But though this was heresy and rebellion in the eyes of the Brahmans, we must not imagine that Buddhism was from the first, as it has often been supposed to be, a new religion, independent of, nay, in open opposition to, Brahmanism. There has never been in the whole history of the world what could be called an entirely new religion. Every religion we know presupposes another religion, as every language presupposes an antecedent language. Nay, it seems almost impossible to conceive the possibility of an entirely new religion quite as much as of an entirely new language. Mohammedianism presupposes Christianity, Judaism, and a popular faith prevailing among the Arab tribes. Christianity presupposes Judaism and Greek philosophy; Judaism presupposes an earlier and more widely spread Semitic faith, traces of which appear in the inscriptions of Babylon and Nineveh. Beyond the religion of the Mesopotamian kingdoms there seems to have been an Accadian religion, and beyond that our knowledge comes to an end. The ancient religion of Zoroaster, again, presupposes the Vedic religion, while the Vedic religion points to a more ancient Aryan background. What lies beyond that common Aryan religion is again beyond the reach of history, nay, even of conjecture. But it may certainly be stated that, as no human race has ever been discovered without any language at all, neither do we know of any human tribe without something like a religion, some manifestation of a perception of a Beyond, or that sense of the Infinite beneath the Finite, which is the true fountain head of all religion.
Much as Buddhism in its later development differs from Brahmanism, Buddha's teaching would be quite inconceivable without the previous growth of Brahmanism. This is too often ignored, and many words and concepts are treated as peculiar to Buddhism which were perfectly familiar to the Brahmans. In many cases, it is true, Buddha gave a new meaning to them, but he borrowed the substance from those who had been the teachers of his youth. It is generally imagined, for instance, that Nirvana, about which so much has been written, was a term coined by Buddha. But Nirvana occurs in the Bhagavad-gita, and in some of the Upanishads. It meant originally no more than the blowing out or the expiring of all passion, the calm after the storm, the final emancipation and eternal bliss, reunion with the Supreme Spirit (Brahma-nirvana), till in some of the Buddhist schools, though by no means in all, it was made to signify complete extinction or annihilation. Whatever Nirvana may have come to mean in the end, there can be no doubt as to what it meant in the beginning - the extinction of the fire of the passions. But that beginning lies outside the limits of Buddhism; it is still within the old domain of Brahmanism.
The name, again, by which Buddha and his followers called themselves, and by which they first became known to Greeks and other nations - Samana - is likewise of Brahmanic growth. It is the Sanskrit Sramana, an ascetic or mendicant, derived from the word sram, 'to toil, to weary.' Buddha was often called 'Samano Gotamo,' the ascetic Gotamo, though it was he who put down the extreme tortures which Brahmanic ascetics inflicted on themselves during the third stage of their lives, the retreat to the forest. With the Buddhists everybody who has left house, home, family, to whatever caste he may have belonged before, may become a Samana, but the word soon assumed the more general sense of a saint, so that a man may be called a Samana even though he has not assumed the humble dress of an ascetic. Thus we read in the Dhamnapads, 42 -
He who, though dressed in final apparel, exercises tranquillity, is quiet, subdued, restrained and chaste, and has ceased to find fault with other beings - he is indeed a Brahmana, a Sramana (Samana), a Bhikshu.
Here we see at the same time what a high idea Buddha, who used to be represented as the enemy of the Brahmans and of Brahmanism, assigns to the name of Brahmana, and how entirely he remains the child of his time. With him a Brahman is a saint, and a Bhikshu a mendicant not far removed from a saint.
The Greeks changed Samana into and sometimes into . Shaman, however, the Tungusian name for a priestly sorcerer [Koppan, Die Religion des Buddha, i.p. 330 n.], is not derived from Samana, but is a word of Tungusian origin.
Many more words might be mentioned which to us seem Buddhistic, but which are really of Brahmanic workmanship. There are, in fact, few Buddhistic words and few Buddhistic concepts which, if we treat them historically, do not disclose their Brahmanic antecedents, more or less modified in the later schools of the Buddhists. Scholars begin to see that, as we cannot fully appreciate Pali, the sacred language of Buddhism, without knowing Sanskrit, we cannot fully understand the teaching of Buddha without knowing the antecedent periods of Brahmanic thought.
Even when Buddha, the young prince of Kapilavastu determined to leave his family, wife, son, father, and friends, and to embrace the state of homelessness, he followed the example set to him by the Brahmanic Sramanas, and submitted to all the cruel tortures to which the dwellers in the forest thought it right to subject themselves. It took him several years before he perceived their utter uselessness, nay, their mischievous influence. He then adopted a more rational life, what he called a via media, equally removed from extreme asceticism and from self-indulgence. In all this there was no secret, nothing esoteric, no mystery. On the contrary, whatever there may have been of mystery among the Brahmanic dwellers in the forest was now proclaimed to all the world by the monks who formed the real Buddhistic brotherhood in the midst of a very independent laity. If there is any religion thoroughly popular, thoroughly unreserved, without admitting any priestly privileges, it was the original religion of Buddha. Brahmanism used Sanskrit as its sacred language; Buddha adopted the vulgar dialects spoken by the people, so that all might be able to follow his teaching.
I cannot give a better explanation of the change of Brahmanism into Buddhism than by stating that Buddhism was the highest Brahmanism popularised, everything esoteric being abolished, the priesthood replaced by monks, and these monks being in their true character the successors and representatives of the enlightened dwellers in the forest of former ages. The Buddhist community consisted of monks (not priests) and laymen. The monks were what the ascetics (Sramanas) had been; only they were no longer obliged to pass through the previous stages of Brahmakarin (religious student) and of Grihastha (householder), though, like Buddha himself, they might have been married and fathers of a family if only after a time they were willing to surrender all they used to call their own. As to keeping any of these doctrines secret, nothing could have been more opposed to the spirit of their founder. Whatever of esoteric teaching there may have been in other religions, there was none in the religion of Buddha. Whatever was esoteric or secret was ipso facto not Buddha's teaching; whatever was Buddha's teaching was ipso facto not esoteric. Buddha himself, though he knows well that there is, and that in every honest religion there always must be a distinction between the few and the many, would approve of no barriers between them except those which they made for themselves. He speaks with open scorn of keeping any portion of the truth secret. Thus he says in one of his short sermons [Anguttara Nikaya, pp.1, 3, 129.] -
O disciples, there are three to whom secrecy belongs and not openness. Who are they? Secrecy belongs to women, not openness; secrecy belongs to priestly wisdom, not openness; secrecy belongs to false doctrine, not openness. To these three belongs secrecy, not openness.
But there are three things that shine before all the world, and not in secret. Which are they? The disc of the moon, O disciples, shines before all the world, and not in secret; the disc of the sun shines before all the world, and not in secret; the doctrines and rules proclaimed by the perfect Buddha since before all the world, not in secret. These three things shine before all the world, and not in secret.
And this is by no means a solitary occasion on which Buddha condemns anything like mystery in religion, or what is meant by Esoteric Buddhism. There is a memorable dialogue between him and his disciple Ananda shortly before his death, in which he condemns not only mystery in religion, but any appeal to external authority, any obedience to anything but the voice within. We read in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (p. 35) -
28. Now when the Blessed One had thus entered upon the rainy season (when the monks go into retreat) there fell upon him a dire sickness, and sharp pains came upon him, even unto death. But the Blessed One, mindful and self-possessed, bore them without complaint.
29. Then this thought occurred to the Blessed One: It would not be right for me to pass away from existence without addressing the disciples, without taking leave of the order. Let me now, by a strong effort of the will, bend this sickness down again, and keep my hold on life till the allotted time be come.
30. And the Blessed One, by a strong effort of the will, bent that sickness down again, and kept his hold on life till the time he fixed upon should come. And the sickness abated upon him.
31. Now very soon after, the Blessed One began to recover. When he had quite got rid of the sickness, he went out from the monastery, and sat down behind the monastery on a seat spread out there. And the venerable Ananda went to the place where the Blessed One was and saluted him, and took a seat respectfully on one side, and addressed the Blessed One and said I have beheld, Lord, how the Blessed One was in health, and I have beheld how the Blessed One had to suffer. And though at the sight of the sickness of the Blessed One my body became weak as a creeper, and the horizon became dim to me, and my faculties were no longer clear, yet notwithstanding I took some little comfort from the thought that the Blessed One would not pass away from existence until at least he had left instructions as touching the order.
32. What then, Ananda (he replied)? Does the order expect that of me? I have preached the Truth without making any distinction between exoteric and esoteric doctrine: for in respect of the truths, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such thing as the closed fist of a teacher, who keeps some things back.
Then he inveighs against the idea that after his death his disciples should be guided by anything but the Spirit of Truth within them.
Surely Ananda, (he says), should there be any one who harbours the thought, It is I who will lead the brotherhood, or, The order is dependent upon me, it is he who should lay down instructions in any matter concerning the order. Now the Tathagata, O Ananda, thinks not that he should lead the brotherhood, or that the order is dependent upon him. Why then should he leave instructions in any matter concerning the order? I too, O Ananda, am now grown old and full of years; my journey is drawing to its close, I have reached my sum of days, I am turning eighty years of age, and just as a worn-out cart, Ananda, can only with much additional care be made to move along, so, methinks, the body of the Tathagata can only be kept going with much additional care. . . .
33. Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast as a refuge to the Truth. Look not for refuge to any one besides yourselves. . . .
35. And whosoever, Ananda, either now or after I am dead, shall be a lamp unto themselves, and a refuge unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the Truth as their lamp, and holding fast as their refuge to the Truth, shall not look for refuge to any one besides themselves - it is they, O Ananda, among my Bhikkhus, who shall reach the very highest height, provided they are willing to learn.
Can anything be more outspoken, more determined? No one is to be entrusted with private or secret instruction as to the future rule of the Church, no one is to claim any exceptional authority. But the highest seat of authority is always to be with the man himself and with the voice of truth within.
And this is the religion, of all others, chosen by Madame Blavatsky as an esoteric religion. Buddha, who would have no secrets, whether for the laity or for his own beloved disciples, is represented as withholding the double-edged weapon of knowledge from the uncultivated populace and keeping the innermost corner of the sanctuary in the profoundest shade. No traveller's tale was ever more audacious and more incongruous than this misrepresentation of the character of Buddha and his doctrine.
I repeat that I do not think that Madame Blavatsky invented Esoteric Buddhism. I am quite willing to believe that, as in her first intercourse with Brahmanism in the person of Satyananda Sarasvati, she was, when face to face with Buddhist Mahatmas, very much like Goethe's fisherman who was drawn into the waves by a mermaid: 'Halb zog sie ihn, halb sank er hin!' - half she sank, half she was drawn. She was deceived by persons who saw that she almost wished to be deceived, and that she had no means whatever of defending herself against deceit. I go even further, and admit that even by giving a distorted picture of Buddhism she has done some good by attracting general attention to a religion which, with all its shortcomings, deserves our highest regard and our most careful study. If her followers could only give up the idea that no religion can be founded without miracles, if they would only read how Buddha himself denounces all miracles except one, they would learn that what they call miracles has been the bane of all honest religions. It is quite true that Buddha [Digha Nikayo, i. 1, 11. Neumann, p. 62.] and his contemporaries, whether his followers or opponents, speak of certain miracles as if they had seen them performed every day. As miracles of magic power Buddha mentions the fact that one man may appear as many, or many as one; that a man may become invisible, may pass through a wall as if through air, may rise through the air as if in water, may walk on water as if on the earth, and may be lifted up through the air like a bird, so that he reaches the moon and the sun, nay, even the world of Brahman. All these miracles are recognised by Buddha as perfectly possible, but he denies that they have anything to do with the truth of his teaching, that they can carry any conviction, or can convert a man who is unbelieving and unloving into a man who believes and loves. Buddha freely admits that some men have the power of reading the thoughts of other people, and of remembering their own former existences, but again he denies that such things can carry conviction. The greatest miracle with Buddha is teaching, by which an unbeliever is really converted into a believer, an unloving into a loving man. And when his own disciples come to him asking to be allowed to perform the ordinary magic miracles, he forbids them to do so, but allows them to perform one miracle only, which everybody could, but nobody does, perform, namely, to confess our sins, and again not in secret, not in a confessional, but publicly and before the whole congregation.
If Madame Blavatsky would have tried to perform that one true Buddhistic miracle, if she had tried to confess openly her small faults and indiscretions, instead of attempting thought-reading, levitation, or sending letters through the air from Tibet to Calcutta, and from Calcutta to London, or if those who willingly or unwillingly allowed themselves to be deceived by her would openly renounce all these childish tricks and absurdities, they might still do much good, and really manure a vast neglected field for a new and rich harvest. I must say that one of Madame Blavatsky's greatest admirers, Colonel Olcott, has of late years entered on a much more healthy sphere of activity, one in which he and his friends may do some real good. He has encouraged and helped the publication of authentic texts of the old Brahmanic and the Buddhist religions. He has tried to inspire both Brahmans and Buddhists with respect for their old religions, and has helped them to discover in their sacred books some rays of truth to guide them through the dark shadows of life. He has shown them how, in spite of many differences, their various sects share much in common, and how they should surrender what is not essential and keep what is essential as the true bond of a wide religious brotherhood. [A United Buddhist World: being Fourteen Fundamental Buddhistic Beliefs, certified by the high Priests of Burma, Chittagong, Ceylon, and Japan, to be common to Northern and Southern Buddhism. Compiled by H.S. Olcott (Madras, 1892).] In all this he has my fullest sympathy. It is because I love Buddha and admire Buddhist morality that I cannot remain silent when I see his noble figure lowered to the level of religious charlatans, or his teaching misrepresented as esoteric twaddle. I do not mean to say that Buddhism has never been corrupted and vulgarised when it became the religion of barbarous or semi-barbarous people in Tibet, China, and Mongolia; nor should I wish to deny that it has in some places been represented by knaves and impostors as something mysterious, esoteric, impenetrable, and unintelligible. It is true, also, that, particularly in the so-called Mahayana Buddhism, there are certain treatises which are called secret - for instance, the Tathagataguhyaka, the hidden doctrines of the Tathagatas or the Buddhas; but they are secret, not as being withheld from anybody, but simply as containing more difficult and recondite doctrines. Even the Secret of Hegel is no longer a mystery, as Mr. Hutchinson Sterling has shown, though it requires a certain amount of preparation. If Madame Blavatsky had appealed to any one of the canonical books of the Mahayana Buddhists, we should have known what she meant by Esoteric Buddhism. As it is, it is impossible to discuss any one of the doctrines which she and her followers present to the public as esoteric, because they have never given us chapter and verse for what they call Buddhism, whether esoteric or exoteric.
I have already alluded to the difficulty of speaking of Buddhism in general, or laying down what doctrines are considered as orthodox or as heterodox by Buddha and by his numerous disciples and followers. Buddhism, we must remember, was, from the very beginning, but one out of many philosophical and religious systems which abounded in India at all times. We know that the same freedom of thought which Buddha claimed for himself in forsaking the old Brahmanic traditions was claimed by several of his contemporaries who became founders of new schools. There was very little of what we should call dogma in Buddha's teaching. He professed to deliver man from suffering by showing them the unreal and transitory character of the world. But with regard to some of what we call the fundamental questions of religion - the existence of deity, the reality and immortality of the soul, the creation and government of the world - he allowed the greatest freedom: nay, it seems to be his chief object to protest against any positive dogma on these points. Hence there arose from a very early time a large number of what has been called sects among the Buddhists, though they seem to have been hardly more than either philosophical schools or small congregations committed to the observance of certain minute points of discipline.
We read in the chronicles of Ceylon, the Dipavansa (v. 53) and Matavansa (v. 8) of eighteen sects the origin of which is referred to the second century after Buddha. Though that date seems doubtful, we cannot doubt that at the time of Asoka, or in the third century B.C., these eighteen sects existed, and likewise six so-called modern sects. We know the names of these sects as they have been preserved in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, and Mongolian documents, but of their origin and of the points on which each differed from the rest our information is as yet very insufficient. It is curious that so much should have been preserved, and yet so little. We have long lists of names, but very little beyond the names. In some cases the points on which one sect differed from the other were extremely trifling, such as whether salt might be kept longer than seven days; whether animals exist in heaven; whether a child can be converted before it is born; whether the thoughts of a dreamer are indifferent; whether Buddha was born in all quarters of the universe, and whether some Buddhas surpass others. In other cases the points of difference are of greater importance, such as whether there is a soul in man; whether the dead derive benefit from gifts; whether prophecy is possible; whether a knowledge of other people's thoughts can be obtained by meditation; whether a layman can become an Arhat and obtain Nirvana; whether Buddha was really born in the world of men; whether Buddha had mercy; whether he was superhuman in the ordinary affairs of life; [Rhys Davids, Journ. Roy. Asiatic Soc. (1892), p. 9. How far such questions on the true character of a Buddha can be carried may be seen from the fact that one sect differed from the rest by holding that exerementa Buddhae sunt suaveolentia.] whether the doctrine of Buddha was altered and made afresh at the great Councils. The number of these sects seems always to have been on the increase, and when in the fifth and the seventh centuries Chinese pilgrims visited India, their number had become so great that one can hardly understand how any unity could have been preserved among them.
If all these points, and many more, were left open questions between the Buddhist sects, we can well understand that there should be so much disagreement among those who undertook to write a history of Buddhism. We know that on some of the most important points Buddha himself declined to pronounce a decided opinion, and, in this sense, Madame Blavatsky would be quite right in saying that we do not know for certain what Buddha taught his disciples, and his disciples their followers, who became the founders of these numerous sects. Still, whatever we know of Buddha and Buddhism, we must try to know at first-hand - that is to say, we must be prepared to give chapter and verse in some canonical or authoritative book; we must not appeal to Mahatmas on the other side of the Himalayas. Various attempts have been made to show that the Canon of the Southern Buddhist, the so-called Tripitaka, the Three Baskets, was more modern than the Buddhists themselves represent it to be. Some scholars have gone so far as to assign to it a date more recent than that of the New Testament. I have always admitted that the tradition of its being the work of the immediate disciples of Buddha, at the first Council, held in the very year of Buddha's death, is untenable, or at all events doubtful. But I have never doubted that a real Canon of sacred texts was settled at the Council held under Asoka in the third century before our era. This date has now been confirmed by inscriptions. Asoka's well-known inscriptions refer to single portions of the Canon only, but Dr. Hultzsch has pointed out that in one of the smaller Bharhut inscriptions [No. 144, Z.d. M.G. xl. 75.] there occurs the word 'pakanekayika' - a man who knows the five Nikayas. These five Nikayas are the five divisions of the Suttapitaka, and as the inscription dates from the third century B.C., we may rest assured that at that time the most important part of the Buddhist Canon, the Suttapitaka, existed as we now have it, divided into five portions - the Digha-nikaya, the Magghima-nikaya, the Samyuttanikaya, the Anguttara-nikaya, and the Khuddaka-nikaya. [See Neumann, Buddhist. Anthologic, p. xii, note.]
However, with all that has been done of late for the study of Buddhism, no honest scholar would deny that we know as yet very little, and that we see but darkly through the immense mass of its literature and the intricacies of its metaphysical speculations. This is particularly true with regard to what is called the Mahayana, or Northern Buddhism. There are still several of the recognised canonical books of the Northern Buddhists, the Nine Dharmas, of which the manuscripts are beyond our reach, or which frighten even the most patient students by their enormous bulk. In that sense Madame Blavatsky would be quite right - that there is a great deal of Buddhism of which European scholars know nothing. But we need not go to Madame Blavatsky or to her Mahatmas in Tibet in order to know this, and it is certainly not from her books that we should derive our information of the Mahayana literature. We should go to the manuscripts in our libraries, even in the Bodleian, in order to do what all honest Mahatmas have to do, copy the manuscripts, collate them, and translate them. In the translations of the Sacred books of the East which the University of Oxford has entrusted to my editorship, and to which I have devoted the last sixteen years of my life, any one who takes a serious interest in the Science of Religion will find ample materials, and, what is more, important authentic materials, translated, as well as they can be translated at present, by the best scholars in England, France, Germany, and India. Deeply grateful as I feel to the University of Oxford, and to the Secretary of State for India, for having allowed me the leisure and the funds necessary for carrying out so large an undertaking, I cannot but regret that, like all the work we undertake in this life, this too must be left imperfect. It is true, a series of forty-eight volumes is a small library by itself, but, compared with what ought to have been done, it is but a beginning. I have often been blamed for not having included in my series a number of books every one of which seems to this or that scholar of supreme importance. No doubt I ought to have given a translation of one at least of the eighteen Puranas, but my critics have evidently no idea how difficult it is to find at the right time the right translator for the right book. My correspondence about the translation of the Vayu-Purana would fill a little volume by itself. The Vedic literature, also, is as yet very imperfectly represented. But Vedic scholarship is in a period of transition, and no Vedic scholar is willing to commit himself more than he can help. Everybody is at work in deciphering a word here and a word there; some may venture on translating a few verses or a few hymns, but a complete translation of the Rig-Veda will not, I am afraid, form part of our fin-de-siecle literature. Sanskrit scholars also must leave something to the next century to do besides deciphering the many as yet undeciphered Egyptian, Accadian, Babylonian, Etruscan, Lycian, and Orkhon inscriptions. Now that my series of the Sacred Books of the East has come to an end, offers of assistance come in from many sides for which formerly I should have been most grateful. Let others who are younger and stronger take up the work where I left it. To the value of this series the most competent judges have borne their testimony. This only I may venture to say myself - that this collection of the Sacred Books of the East, brought out with the co-operation of the best Oriental scholars, will, for the future, render such aberrations as Madame Blavatsky's Esoteric Buddhism impossible. I know that it will continue to live and continue to do good as long as people continue to care for what they have hitherto cared most for, namely religion - not only a religion, not only this or that special religion which they have themselves inherited, but for religion as a universal blessing and as the most precious birthright of the whole human race.

F. Max Muller