Another important group of people whom Thomas Tweed observes as taking an interest in Buddhism in the 19th century is the Theosophical Society. This society was founded in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) and an American lawyer named Henry Steel Olcott. The mission of this organization was to promote three goals:
- to form a basis of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without discrimination based on race, creed, color, gender or social status;
- to encourage the study of comparative religions, philosophy and science;
- and to investigate laws of nature that remain unknown to science.
The attempt to reconcile religion and science appealed to many Americans who were weary of the crisis in Christianity brought about by the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, but who were more receptive than most theologically liberal Christians were to esotericism or “occult science” and explorations of the paranormal. The Theosophists shared the Unitarians’ emphasis on human effort rather than divine grace. The Theosophists, like the Unitarians, were prepared to look for inspiration to non-Christian sources, and were in practice much more engaged than the 19th-century Unitarians in the study of Asian religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism.
To understand the Theosophical interpretation of Buddhism, it may be helpful to understand more about the general principles of Theosophical thought. Michael Wakoff describes the basic principles of Theosophy approximately as follows:1
- The principal metaphysical doctrine is that there is an unknowable, eternal and impersonal First Principle that is the common ground for, and therefore unites, all particular beings. This First Principle manifests itself as both consciousness and as the material world. It manifests itself first as intelligence and then as matter, so that the material world is saturated with intelligence and manifests intelligence in every way.
- The perfection of the First Principle emanates from time to time as a particular being, which is a lesser reality than the unknowable First Principle but never loses the perfection of the First Principle. Examples of such manifestations are God the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit of Christianity, and the Buddha.
- The evolution of species is guided by the intelligence inherent in all material beings and thus has a purpose; this doctrine disputes Darwin’s claim that evolution takes place through random and therefore accidental mutations.
- The most highly evolved human beings are those who balance their intellectual, emotional and spiritual sides. Those who achieve this balance can gain direct insight into the otherwise unknowable First Principle. This insight eliminates all self-deception and manifests as unconditional love and compassion toward all beings.
- The universe, being inherently intelligent, is also inherently moral. This means that individuals who act immorally will suffer pain. But individuals can always learn from their pain and evolve to a higher consciousness. Because progress is slow, all individuals have many lifetimes. Ultimately, all beings will achieve freedom from self-deception and awaken to unconditional love and compassion, and all evil will be eliminated.
- All religions are based on this fundamental insight. The apparent differences and conflicts among the various religions of the world stem from doctrines, practices and institutions formed by people who had not yet reached perfection. Since all religions as preached and practiced are imperfect, all are in need of correction by adepts who have seen beyond the apparent differences to the underlying unity provided by the First Principle.
- Modern science is limited and must be complemented by an occult or esoteric science, to which modern science, of course, remains resistant and even hostile.
Since one of the convictions of Theosophy is that every religion, when viewed properly, is in fact a somewhat corrupted version of the teachings of Theosophy itself, it is not surprising that the Theosophical presentation of Buddhism—which for many Americans was the only presentation of Buddhism they had ever encountered—made Buddhism sound very much like Theosophy.
- Wakoff 1998. These points are paraphrased rather than quoted, and I have added some explanatory material. ↩︎
- Wakoff, Michael B. “Theosophy.” Craig Edward. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward C. Craig. London: Routledge, 1998.