Theosophy and Mahayana Buddhism: A Dialogue between Evans-Wentz and G. de Purucker
Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup and W. Y. Evans-Wentz 1920
Editor’s note (2013): This dialogue between G. de Purucker and W.Y. Evans-Wentz took place in England in the latter half of 1932. Evans-Wentz had returned to Oxford to work on his Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines manuscript. (see Pilgrim of the Clear Light by Ken Winkler p. 60) De Purucker, head of the Point Loma Theosophical Society had moved temporarily to Oakley House, in Kent to be closer to European Theosophists and the work of Trevor Barker in England and to work on literary writings. There, assisted by his literary secretary Helen Savage Todd, he would write The Esoteric Tradition. Wentz was a deeper student of Theosophy than is often portrayed and participated in dePurucker’s esoteric meetings and studies ( for the content of de Purucker’s esoteric cycle of teaching, see Esoteric Teachings volumes 1 – 12 – 2013 Point Loma/the Hague) and dePurucker’s strong emphasis on Mahayana Buddhist thought and texts may well have precipatated the following exchange between them. (first published in Studies in Occult Philosophy by G. de Purucker) – K.S.
G. de Purucker (1874 – 1942) at Point Loma mid 1930’s
(photo by Marguerita Sirén)
W. Y. E. W. — Would you go so far as to say that the writers of these MAHATMA LETTERS would ally themselves with the better aspects of the Mahayana School, such as Nagarjuna or Aryasangha?
G. de P. — Yes, certainly; providing that in giving that answer we understand the real meaning of the teachings of Nagarjuna and Aryasangha. Now, the teachings that these great teachers have left behind them have not been properly understood in the Occident. The sectarian spirit is rather stronger than that of the occult vision — which indeed has no such sectarian spirit. But I would say in answer to the question that what Nagarjuna and Aryasangha, as representatives of the Mahayana School of Buddhism, the ‘Great School,’ taught, is identic in essence with the teachings of esoteric Theosophy.
I have often stated in public lectures and otherwise in writings that the great religion which is the nearest to our own Theosophy is Buddhism. Even exoteric Buddhism is the least degenerated of all the world-religions; and I always look with sympathy on those of our people who study Buddhism. I only wish that they would in some cases help us a little more in the Theosophical aspects. I believe that the heart of Buddhism is the same as the heart of Theosophy. I believe that the crusts, the veils, enshrouding that heart in Buddhism are less thick than are the veils enshrouding the core or real meaning of the teachings of the Christian Jesus, the Christian Master. We are not Buddhists; but we can truly be called Esoteric Budhists, with one d; that is, followers of the Esoteric Wisdom; and Esoteric Budhism, with one d, is identic with Esoteric Buddhism, with two d’s.
The Absolute, a Relative Term
Question — Will you formulate a question on the permanency of the Absolute? Is there one or are there many?
G. de P. — Is the Absolute one or plural? In most people’s opinion there can be but one Absolute, because they use the word (a war of words!) in the ordinary Occidental way as meaning Infinitude, the Infinite.
Now ‘Absolute’ does not mean that. The word ‘Absolute’ is the past participle of the Latin verb absolvere, ‘to set free.’ Absolute, therefore, means freed, freed from all conditions beneath it — any entity which is ‘absolute’ is freed. The Absolute, therefore, is an exact translation or an exact rendering of the Sanskrit Mukti or Moksha, which means ‘freedom,’ ‘set free.’ A Nirvani, one in Nirvana, has attained Mukti or Moksha has attained Absoluteness. Consequently, in the proper usage of this word ‘Absolute,’ it simply means one who has risen above, or who has become freed from, all the limitations, all the shackles, that fetter average man. The Nirvani is ‘absolute’ in his Nirvana. Absolute is a relative term: you can be free from small things; you can be free from greater things. Each one in its own sphere is ‘absolute’ there — freed.
Now then, it is quite customary in English and in most Occidental schools of philosophy to misuse this word Absolute to signify Infinitude; but it is a misuse which I have always protested against and always will; and there are certain philosophers who are with me — Sir William Hamilton, for one, who speaks of this very fact. Now, in Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, I use this word in its exact, primary, and etymological sense, as signifying an entity that is so far evolved that it has become freed from all inferior things, free, a free spirit, a Jivan-mukta, a spiritual-divine Monad.
Every Monad which attains Jivan-mukti or freedom of the spiritual jiva, of the atman, is an ‘Absolute,’ is in a state of absoluteness, true freedom from everything beneath it — for instance, in our own Galaxy, our own Home-Universe. Everything in the Universe is relative. Einsteinism if you like; but everything in the Universe is relative; all the Absolutes are relative, each one to its own Universe; and there may be a limited Absolute, a greater Absolute, a still greater Absolute, remembering that Absolute means freed. Therefore there are as many Absolutes as there are Jivan-muktas — as many Absolutes as there are Guardians of the Universe. Do you understand? There are no permanent Absolutes. If there were, that would simply mean that an entity, a spiritual entity, having reached divinity, or quasi-divinity, becomes crystallized or permanent in that state and cannot go farther on, cannot evolve to greater and sublimer heights.
Now, that is impossible, because everything that is, every living entity everywhere in Boundless Space, is continuously and forever growing, evolving, expanding. What a doctrine of hope! There are no permanent Absolutes; and the Absolutes are as numerous as are the Jivan-muktas, the freed spirits.
Is the Spiritual Ego Immortal?
W. Y. E.-W. — I think that in correlation with what you have been saying, we might perhaps have some information from you in respect to the statement in one of the letters about the ‘spiritual ego.’ The point I should like to make here is: How far are we to follow the Buddhist thought in the matter of the ego or non-ego, or the matter of Atma or non-Atma? There are a good many differences between the two schools of Buddhism; but one thing they agree in is the non-existence of a permanent ego. If you go back into the idealistic movement of the Northern Buddhist school in the first century, you will find that they all agree on this. What, then, is meant by ‘Spiritual Ego’?
G. de P. — Thank you. That is an awfully good opportunity you have given me. This question is a very pertinent one, because it goes to the very root of the question, so-called, of the continuance of individual, or rather personal, consciousness. Is personal consciousness immortal? In other words, is the ego immortal? Are we Theosophists, like all schools of Buddhism, followers of the doctrine of the Anatman — are we Anatman Buddhists, or Atman Buddhists? Do we say that the ego is immortal, or do we say that it is mortal?
It has been a common theory in some Theosophical circles outside of our own, that the Ego is immortal; and I have fought that doctrine tooth and nail, whenever I have had a chance. I cannot conceive of a more horrible destiny than for me to remain permanently as I am in my Ego and never be able to change and go higher. To me that doctrine is horrible. It has brought about more misery in the world, more selfishness, more suffering and pain, than even the doctrine of so-called ‘God’ has. Men have fought about questions of God until the gutters have run with blood. Religious wars have always been the most bitter and sanguinary in history; and we have to stop that kind of thing.
But concerning this question of Ego and non-Ego, as a matter of fact both the teachings are true. The Ego is mortal; but, just like the human body, being mortal, it re-forms itself at the next incarnation or reincarnation.” The Ego re-forms itself of and from the life-atoms which now compose it; so that the same man returns after the devachanic interlude. But to, speak of the Ego as immortal, which means enduring for aye, perpetually, as it is, no! That is not the teaching of Theosophy; that is not the teaching of the Ancient Wisdom-Religion; it is not the teaching of the gods.
Everything changes. Nothing that is composite is immortal. Immortality means continuity, unchanging continuity, of a being or thing as it is; and that means that such an entity could never evolve, never grow: it would have to be for ever and for ever just exactly as it is. If it changed an iota in thought, in feeling, in consciousness, in any wise, it would no longer be the same; it would have changed: the old Ego would have passed. Deduction: everything grows; everything changes; everything moves — the Atman as much as anything else, or the Paramatman, or Parabrahman, which is merely a name to describe all that is beyond the Over-Guardian of our Galaxy: even that changes. Everything is growing; everything is moving; everything is alive. Change is of the very essence of evolution itself, of the very essence of growth.
But then, does this teaching mean that the Ego never returns — that our present Ego is ended utterly, completely annihilated, absolutely wiped out? That teaching is as idiotic as the other. How can a thing which exists utterly vanish? It is an entity; it is a composite entity; it is a union, nay, a unity, a unity of life-atoms which make the entity which now exists. It will exist again, because the attractions which brought those life-atoms into coherency in this life and made me an ego and made you an ego – the same attraction, the same laws, will work in future incarnations and reproduce me and reproduce you — more evolved, changed, therefore no longer the same ego, but practically the same.
Why, our very bodies change from the time when we are infants, when we are little children, as we grow to mature manhood or womanhood, and then descend the slope to old age. ‘Change and decay in all around I see.’ Thank the immortal gods that it is so! Think of the horror of everything remaining for ever as it is! Think of it! Is there any difference (and this is one of the great lessons that we Theosophists must learn clearly and give to the world) — Is there any difference between the truths of this world and the truths of the spiritual worlds? No; because truth is truth; and this world is but a reflexion of the worlds of the spirit, but a reflexion, a copy.
Relatively speaking, the Atman within us is immortal — relatively speaking; but from the standpoint of Infinitude, which is frontierless, beginningless, endless Duration, even the Atman changes and grows to something sublimer. Do you get the thought? Personal immortality would be a worse gift than the robe of Nessus to Hercules. Growth, change, progress, evolution, bringing out in ever larger measure the stored-up fountains of life, of intelligence, of being, lying within us: That, That, THAT — is the future, not static immortality.
Therefore we Theosophists, say that both these doctrines are true, when properly understood; but coming down to exact analysis of each, we discern that they are two sides of the same truth. The Ego is relatively mortal, relatively immortal. It is conditionally mortal, conditionally immortal. Then again, which Ego do you mean: the Human Ego, the Spiritual Ego, the Divine Ego? Man’s name is legion.
Our Lord Buddha said in his last words: ‘Brothers, all things that are, are composite, are component, built up of elements. Find your way to truth,’ or, as it has been mistranslated by scholars brought up in Christian thought: ‘Seek out your own salvation.’ The way to peace and happiness is in recognising truth and feeling that here within is the Cosmic Life, the Cosmic Intelligence, which is neither Ego nor non-Ego — something which is deathless; for it is Infinity; it is Eternity; it is That. I am It. Thou, Brother, art It. It has no name. It is indescriptible. It is neither spirit nor non-spirit; for it is both. It is neither Ego nor non-Ego; for it is both. It is That.
Speaking in simpler and more imperfect terms, we might say it is the Cosmic Life. But I use such words under protest, because they are so miscolored and misused in the Occident. You use the words ‘Cosmic Life’ to ten men brought up in Occidental schools of philosophy, and you will have ten different interpretations of what these words mean.
Question — Could one ask the question thus: Is the Swabhava of the Spiritual Ego continuous? People want to feel that the individuality itself is continuous — not that it stops growing, but that the germ of the individuality is to go on for ever.
G. de P. — Yes, and they tangle themselves up in philosophical words and phrases, and don’t know what they are talking about. You have schools of philosophy in the Occident trying to study the philosophy of the Orient, and Orientals who study the philosophy of the Occident and do not try to understand their own. The very question is a proof that there is Something — call it what you like — within every entity and being who collectively builds Boundless Infinitude. That Something is deathless. ‘It is the Self,’ said the Sages of Vedic Aryavarta. They did not mean a human ego; they did not mean an angel or a deva, or a god: they meant an Essence — the Essence of the Universe — THAT!
There is just one thing an entity cannot avoid, and that is continuous existence. That is just the one thing that cannot be wiped out. If it were possible to extract, to take away, to eliminate, one single atom, one mathematical point, or Monad, from Boundless Infinitude, Boundless Infinitude would crash into cosmic nonentity. Every point is as important as every other point.
But what Occidentals find so difficult to understand is this noble doctrine of the non-immortality of the personal Ego. They don’t stop to think that it would be a hell to any of us to continue for ever and for ever as now we are. Yet there is in the heart of every entity, which means every being anywhere in Boundless Space, evolved or unevolved — spiritual, ethereal, physical, or sub-physical — there is at the heart of the heart and forming the heart of the heart of such entity or being — THAT — which is deathless, the god within — call it by any name you like, or call it the SELF. It is such a simple idea that it often amazes me that Occidentals find it so difficult to understand it. Just get the one thought, that if there is anything in Boundless Infinitude that cannot be annihilated or wiped out, it is continuous, unending existence, continuous unending life.
From THAT we all come, and to THAT we all return. It is the great Fountain of Life, the fons et origo, the great Fountain and Origin of all things. Life is like a great cycling wheel; and this is the figure of speech that our Lord has given to us. (I say, ‘Our Lord’: I speak esoterically, of course, for we are not Buddhists; yet we follow the esoteric doctrine of the Lord Buddha. I don’t care that for the opinions of Occidental scholars that the Buddha had no esoteric school, or that there is no such thing as esoteric Buddhism. It is nonsense.)
Here is the figure of the wheel, the circling wheel of life, slowly turning through interminable, endless ages; and we are like spots or specks on the rim of the wheel; and we go constantly up and down; and each such wheel is a galaxy, a cosmos. Now, it is the peculiar nature of this wheel that, as the ages pass, it grows constantly more and more ethereal; the wheel itself changes; the wheel itself is mortal — grows, that is evolves, to something higher and better. A very mystical figure, but very true.
extracts from Studies in Occult Philosophy by G. de Purucker (a posthumous collection of de Purucker’s lectures and writings published in 1946 selected and edited by Florence Collison)