The St. James Gazette and Esoteric Buddhism
Theosophist, November, 1883
“Learning is light, ignorance is darkness,” says a proverb. It is good to be learned, when one’s knowledge rests on facts; it is wise to remain modest when our speculations go no farther than hazy hypotheses. It is pretty well known, with regard to Buddhism, that it is the latter kind of superficial knowledge that the most learned of our Orientalists can claim—and no more. From Bishop Bigandet down to Childers, and from Weber to Rhys-Davids, in summing up the results of their knowledge, they have all confessed at one time or another that “despite all that has been written about it, Buddhism still contains many mysteries relating to its history and doctrines that require clearing up; and others of which we [Orientalists] know so far nothing.” Nevertheless, each of them is ready to claim papal authority: he is the infallible interpreter of Buddhist dogmas—chiefly evoluted through himself. This conceit has been amply shown now in the Replies to “An English F.T.S.” in our columns.1 The recipe for making a great “authority” on Oriental religions, especially on Buddhism—the one least understood—is easy enough. Take a tolerably good writer. (He may be as ignorant as a carp as to the true facts, but must have a retentive memory and be acquainted with all the speculations that preceded his own upon the subject.) Let him spin out an extra hypothesis or two—of a nature giving precedence to, and interfering in no way with, other divinely revealed hypotheses and crazes in favour with public prejudice; make other Orientalists of less imaginative temperament taste and approve of it; shake well the mixture, bottle and label it: The last word of Science upon the Sacred Religions of The East. The authority is ready, and ignorant Mrs. Grundy
“Soft on whose lap, her laureate sons recline”—
will crown the new Pope, and force him upon the acceptance of the ignorant public. Truth and fact will be left out in the cold, to go a-begging from door to door. Indeed nepotism in science can be as remarkable as anywhere else, we see!
The above reflections were suggested to us by a satirical article in the St. James’ Gazette, whose partiality for India and everything connected with it, is too well known to require mention. In its issue of August 24, it introduced to the cultured public a squib as a review of Esoteric Buddhism, and called “The Cosmogony of an Artificial Fifth Rounder.” Whether an editorial playing flunkey to Western Orientalism, or a contribution from the pen of an Orientalist, whose feathers were too much ruffled, it is an excellent illustration of what we have said. It is evidently the production of one who has either to defend his own pet hypotheses, or feels it his sacred duty to fight under the banner of recognized authorities “in conjectural sciences,” as our Masters so happily call them. It is no review at all, but rather a meaningless, ex-cathedra chaff. Among the many gloating criticisms of Esoteric Buddhism, this “review” is the most coolly impertinent, the most charmingly conceited. Some of its remarks are simply delightful. “Most amusingly bumptious and conceited” in its tone itself, it applies these epithets with very questionable good taste to the author of a work, which it is unable to analyze or even to remotely comprehend. Therefore— we are told, that “the truth of the matter is the author knows nothing about Buddhism.” That gentleman, however, having pleaded guilty to the charge in his work, from the first, and being—as far as the subject-matter goes—only an amanuensis, we have hopes of finding him surviving the terrible blow. “Simple, Mr. Sinnett,” may yet laugh at no distant a day at his too wise reviewer, whose unblushing bumptiousness asserts itself most brilliantly in various ways. First, we are told, that “it would be a serious task to undertake to give in a few words (as it would, indeed) any sketch of this truly vast and complicated system which is not Buddhism, esoteric or exoteric.” The sentence that we have italicised, finds a prominent place among the ipse dixit of the “Sir Oracles” of Oriental religions. Notwithstanding, the incessant confessions of the Orientalists that beyond the mere exoteric rites and dead letter of Buddhism, they know next to nothing about this system of religious philosophy, the reviewer has the impudent hardihood of rushing to the assertion of his equal familiarity with esoteric and exoteric Buddhism. Witty criticaster reminds us of that naive witness, a tailor, who claimed better acquaintance with the defendant’s murdered father than his son, on the ground that the old coat and hat of the victim had been made and bought at his establishment. On this principle the Orientalists must surely know more of genuine Buddhism than the Buddhists themselves; and that is not very surprising, since it is they, indeed, who have themselves fabricated “Western” Buddhism or the “old coat and hat” which Buddhism wears in Europe. Asiatic scholars who know only of the Buddhist philosophy of Gautama Buddha fail to recognise it in the fanciful theories of Messrs. Weber, Rhys-Davids, Max Müller and others. But before the Orientalists are able to prove that the doctrines as taught in Mr. Sinnett’s exposition are “not Buddhism, esoteric or exoteric,” they will have to make away with the thousands of Brahmanical Adwaitee and other Vedantin writings— the works of Sankaracharya in particular,—from which it can be proved that precisely the same doctrines are taught in those works, esoterically. This criticism is made the more ludicrously absurd by its allusions to the possibility of finding “in place of one Oriental sage (Mr. Sinnett’s guru), two Occidental humourists.” From this rather convenient, if otherwise absurd premise (cherished chiefly by the spiritualists), the reviewer draws his conclusions; he asserts most confidently, that he is “bound in charity to conclude that the Adept guru knows no more than his ingenious disciple about Buddhism.” (!!) Otherwise he complacently adds—“the misuse of familiar terms—Arhat, Karma, Nirvana, and the like,—would deserve to be qualified by a word too severe to apply. . . .” etc.
We beg to make a remark. If “severe” and irrelevant in its application to the “candid if not overwise disciple” of the doubted “guru,” no adjective would be found strong enough if used in reference to the flippant reviewer. The latter would, if permitted, not only deny any knowledge of the meaning of the commonest words in use in Buddhism to its most learned professors, but would drag down to his own material level the loftiest truths of that religion, simply because he is unable—or shall we say unwilling, for very good reasons—to comprehend the too profound tenets of this grandest of the world’s religious philosophies. The loss is certainly his—not ours.
So much for the “tall talk” of the St. James’ Gazette reviewer. We are hardly surprised to find it receiving a ready hospitality in the columns of our friendly contemporary Light. And it is only as it should be when we see “M. A., Oxon,” greeting it with open arms. Among other things he says that—
“It is almost pardonable to guess that Mr. Rhys-Davids himself has relieved his overcharged feelings in that review by warning Mr. Sinnett of his own private reserves of Buddhism.”
Being such a remarkable medium, “M. A., Oxon,” ought to know instead of merely “guessing.” In his case we might have, perhaps, been justified in replacing the modest word—“guess” by a more proper one, and called it a fact, a revelation, on a par with those in his “Spirit Teachings,” but for a certain scruple. We do not think it fair to hang the reputation of an Orientalist—however mistaken in some of his views—on the inspired utterances of any medium. We hesitate to attribute such a spiteful and profitless criticism to the pen of the famous Pali scholar. We love to think that amid his arduous, and not always profitless, labours, Mr. Rhys-Davids would hardly lose his time and reputation to ventilate his feelings in anonymous editorials, especially when these sentiments are of a character that he would most likely refrain from expressing over his own signature. But if “M. A., Oxon,” is after all right, then we welcome the threat held out by him on behalf of Mr. Rhys-Davids, of bringing forward “his own private reserves of Buddhism.” That accomplished Pali scholar has studied his Southern Buddhism in Ceylon, we believe, under the same masters of Buddhist religion, who have sanctioned Colonel Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism. That the “Buddhism” of Mr. Rhys-Davids, is in spirit quite at variance with the teachings of the Catechism is evident. Let the Buddhists “choose this day whom they will serve,” whether the esoteric or the exoteric doctrine, the tenets of the Southern Siamese, or of the Southern Amarapura sect, as explained and amplified by the esoteric tenets of the Arhats which are utterly unknown to the Buddhist Orientalists. The fact alone, that Mr. Rhys-Davids, in his Buddhism, defines “Avalokiteswara” (pp. 202-203) as “the Lord who looks down from on high,” is sufficient to show any student of Eastern languages, not to speak of occultism, how deplorably ignorant of the metaphysical meaning of words and names may be the greatest of Pali scholars in the West. Would Mr. Rhys-Davids resent the respectful contradiction were he told that his definition is entirely and diametrically opposed to the real meaning of the term? That Avalokiteswara, so far from being “the Lord who looks down,” is actually “the object of perception” himself. Grammatically the word means either the “lord who is seen” or the “state in which the lord is seen.” Esoterically “Avalokiteswara” is “the Lord,” or our seventh divine principle, the Logos, perceived or sensed during the hours of ecstatic trance by the sixth principle or our spiritual soul. Verily, the greatest, the profoundest mystery is contained in the sacred name—a mystery which it is given to know but to the faithful followers of the All-merciful Master, or to those of Sri Sankaracharya, never to the positivists of the exoteric southern school of Buddhism. We are ready, and shall wait impatiently, for the coming “reserves of Buddhism.”
Meanwhile, we may be permitted to give “M. A., Oxon,” a word or two of friendly advice. He, who presents the world with the “Spirit Teachings,”—a revelation written through his medium by an alleged disembodied “spirit”— and who resents so bitterly any doubt as to the identity of “Imperator,” ought to be more careful than any other as to how he throws doubt and sarcastic slur upon the living teachers of other people. To the world at large, and the average sceptic, “it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion,” “a living slave than a dead master.” Unless the body of the master is shown, the profane will always doubt rather the existence of the dead master than that of the living slave. He who has to tax so heavily the credulity of all but the spiritualists, ought, in charity to himself, to abstain from joining those who seek to throw a doubt upon the existence and knowledge of an Occultist, who, avoiding the world, has reluctantly consented to impart a few of the doctrines he and his fraternity believe in, and who, instead of forcing them upon, would rather withhold those sacred tenets from an indifferent public.
Therefore, when we are chaffingly told that the writer in the St. James’ Gazette “shares an opinion widely held that Koot Humi’s existence and identity are not sufficiently proven to lift him out of the region of myth into that of sober fact,” we would enquire of “M. A., Oxon,” what would be the same writer’s opinion of “Imperator”? Has he reviewed the “Spirit Teachings”? We think not—luckily for “M. A., Oxon.” Had he done so, and found himself forced to choose between an alleged living, and an alleged defunct, master—a man and a Spirit—we fear even the sarcastic reviewer of the St. James’ Gazette would have to confess, that, however insufficiently proven “Koot-Humi’s existence and identity,” yet he belongs far more to the “regions of sober fact” than a “returning Spirit.” The Gazette with all its staff of Sadducees led on by the “reviewer,” would not hesitate for one moment to dismiss “Imperator” to the limbo of myth and superstition, and with a far more hideous grin of scepticism on their faces. Living, as he does, in such a fragile glass house himself, our friend “M. A., Oxon,” might have been expected to show a little more prudence, if not actually of charity, than he generally does with regard to us, and abstain from trying to break the windows of the Theosophical abodes. It is rather startling to find him siding with sceptics and bigoted Christians and quoting with such evident relish the sarcasms of both. It is quite possible that the uninitiated reader should discover (to his own satisfaction only) “that the Devachan of Koot-Humi no more resembles the Buddhist Devachan or Paradise than do the periods of suspended animation . . . the ideal nirvana of Buddhists.” But, unless they are incurable fanatics and ignoramuses, they will be as prompt to find out that Christian paradise and purgatory—if there be any, on the orthodox models—no more resemble the conceptions of Christ upon those subjects, even in his parables, than the meritorious preachings of the members of Temperance Societies are one in spirit with Bible teachings. The miracle of the changing of water into wine; Noah’s little solitary picnic on Mount Ararat, and the distinct affirmation of the talkative vine (Judges ix. 13), that her wine “cheereth God and man”—are as opposed to temperance, as the armless cherubs playing upon the golden harps of orthodoxy clash with the “many mansions in my Father’s house,” and the “Summerland” of the Spiritualists, whose notions are as much, if not more, laughed at as the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism. Yet, between the respective and so diametrically opposed views of Mr. Lillie’s Buddha and Early Buddhism, and Mr. Rhys-Davids’ Buddhism “M. A., Oxon,” shows no preference. Both are good as weapons against the Theosophists. He made a lengthy and a loving review of the former work (which, by the bye, contains as many mistranslations and errors in it, as it has pages) and accepted it as an authoritative document to break our heads with. Its views corroborated those of the Spiritualists by showing belief in spirits and a personal God at “the very root of Buddhism” (!?) hence, Mr. Lillie is accepted as an authority. Mr. Rhys-Davids’ Buddhism, laughing at such God and spirits, and showing Buddha as an uncompromising positivist and materialist, cannot be of any service to spiritualism, but may be used against esoteric Buddhists; and forthwith we find the name of the Pali scholar, with quotations from his supposed effusions in the St. James’ Gazette, gracing the columns of Light.
It is precisely to this policy of inimical partisanship, losing no opportunity to insult its opponents, that we express our objection. Very few of the Theosophists are spiritualists, most are against vulgar spiritualism, more still, decidedly anti-spiritualistic in their views. Nevertheless, none of the latter have been so indelicate, and if we may say so, brutal, as to use the columns of their magazine to try to prove quand même that the teachings of “Imperator” are due to the brain of his alleged medium; or that he has no independent existence from “M. A., Oxon.” Moreover, we would remind that gentleman that, while the author behind the veil of “Spirit Teachings” is known personally but to one man on earth, namely, his amanuensis, “M. A., Oxon,” Mahatma Koot-Hoomi is personally known to many. He is a living not a dead man. Yet, however doubted and even laughed at by more than one sceptic we know of, the veracity and good faith of “M. A., Oxon,” would never be allowed by the editors of The Theosophist to be publicly (or even privately, for the matter of that) discussed, and he himself traduced in the pages of this journal. “Do as you would be done by” is not, we see, the motto of the Spiritualists. So much the worse for them. In this light they commend themselves still less to the consideration of the Theosophists.