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Tibetan Master Meets Theosophical Mahatmas: Gendun Choepel’s Reflections on Blavatsky and Theosophy
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I was recently reading through Donald Lopez’s excellent book “The Madman’s Middle Way’ on the contributions of controversial and brilliant early twentieth century Tibetan intellectual Gendun Choepel (1903-1951), and I came across something I had missed before, namely, Gendun Choepel’s reflections in Tibetan on the popularity of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and the nature of her new religious movement Theosophy, as found in his ‘Serki Thangma’ or ‘Field/Surface of Gold’. This travelogue (which has been fully translated into English by Lopez and Thupten Jinpa) constitutes an extensive autobiographical account of the ex-monk’s wanderings in the 1930s and 40s throughout India and then Ceylon/now Sri Lanka. It is chock-full of fascinating insights about British empire, comparative religion, gender, and science as seen through the eyes and experience of an extremely gifted and innovative Tibetan scholar, poet, and artist.
Blavatsky and Theosophy are widely regarded as chief sources for Shangri-la style New Age-y fantasy and romantic racism about Tibet that has positioned the Land of Snows as a prime location for Western projections. I have written about the impact of Blavatsky and other Theosophists and Theosophically inspired occultists on more contemporary representations of Tibet and Tibetans before on this blog but I thought that readers here would appreciate hearing perhaps one of the earliest takes in Tibetan language by a Tibetan on Blavatsky. Given the enormous influence that Theosophists have had on representations of Tibet, it is really fascinating and valuable to read the early thoughts of a Tibetan on Blavatsky and her system – especially a Tibetan who was deeply versed in Tibetan esoteric Buddhism, who lived and worked for Theosophist patrons in India, read primary Theosophical source material in English, and who encountered Theosophy’s influence in colonial India and Sri Lanka first-hand. Since it is likely the first ever account of Blavatsky and Theosophy written in Tibetan, Gechoe’s brief description is therefore of great historical interest, especially considering the fact that despite the incredible influence that Theosophical and neo-Theosophical representations of Tibetan and Tibetans have had around the world, many if not most Tibetans inside and outside of occupied Tibet possess very little direct familiarity with Blavatsky and her legacy. Her voluminous library of works outlining her take on esoteric Buddhism, occultism, pre-human races, various modes of evolution, the history of the world, and the perennial, primordial Wisdom-Religion allegedly threading its way through religious traditions across time and space have yet to be translated into Tibetan, and I doubt for several reasons whether they ever will be.
Gechoe’s comments ought to be of interest to American readers in particular for one other reason as well, given the current devastating political climate around immigration in the U.S. As Tibetan Studies scholar Paul Hackett noted just today, the same U.S. anti-immigrant bureaucratic policies that twice thwarted Anne Frank and her family as well as countless other Jews attempting to flee Nazi-controlled European countries during the late 30s and early 40s, also prevented Gendun Choepel from successfully immigrating to the U.S. where plans were afoot to develop a pioneering Tibetan Studies programme in California under his guidance. One of Gechoe’s primary sponsors and supporters in this endeavour was Theos Bernard, the self-styled ‘white lama’ and scholar-practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and yoga, who as Paul describes in his excellent study was the third American to ever reach Lhasa and had a great impact on U.S. religious counterculture before his disappearance in India in 1947 amidst the violence of Partition. Bernard had met Gechoe in India in 1936 and attempted to bring him to the U.S. in 1941. Bernard helped inaugurate Columbia’s department of Religion after he defended the first dissertation on religion at the university, and was one of the earliest American appreciators of Gechoe’s brilliance. In the wake of visa difficulties, Gechoe decided to return to Tibet from India and a few months later was arrested on a pretence by the Central Tibetan government and placed in prison. Just as life would have looked very different for the Franks if they had made it to the U.S. Gechoe’s own fate, and the course of Tibetan Studies in the U.S. would invariably have gone quite differently if his visa had been granted.
Lopez offers an excellent translation of Gendun Choepel’s comments in his book but I offer my own one here since I wanted to read this passage and translate it myself for practice. Here’s my translation of Gechoe’s comments – I hope you find them as interesting as I do!:
“Another new religion like this has also emerged, whose founder is a Russian woman called Blavatsky. I think that she is some sort of amazing natural or self-produced yogini but whatever the case, she’s someone who has attained magical abilities. Starting from her childhood, the Tibetan lamas Mura [mu ra, i.e. Morya] and Kutumey [sku thu med, i.e. Koot Hoomi] took her under their charge in her dreams. Then, after some time, she saw their faces [directly] in visions, after which she eventually met them in the flesh and spoke with them person-to-person and they gave her counsel on every manner of gross and subtle affairs. Reading [Blavatsky’s] extensive accounts of these [two figures], there were moments when I was reminded of how Vajrapani appeared to Lekyi Dorje yet at other points her histories had me thinking just as much of the gyalpo demon that appeared to Venerable Ga Lotsawa.
I don’t really know how the [nature of her claims/encounters] ought to be definitely determined. She also corresponded continuously via letter with the two Masters [slob dpon] and a great many people say that they themselves have seen first-hand written replies [from these lamas] fall right in front of her from out of thin air – [lit. ‘from empty space’] and that these are sometimes written on birch-bark in [ornamental, sacred] Lantza and Tibetan scripts. I myself, however, have not seen these things but at any rate all foreigners have come to believe in her miraculous powers. While some people suspect that [these things] might just be sleight-of-hand illusions I think that it would be a difficult thing to trick citizens from [every] country familiar with and accomplished in [advanced] foreign technology [*phyi gling ‘phrul gyi rgyal khams’ – ‘phrul means magical emanation or projection as well as ‘machine’ in Tibetan, and even Lopez mistranslates this line as being about tricking advanced, fully-trained foreign magicians, rather than technologically-advanced foreigners in his translation only to correct it in a later work] .
Her miscellaneous distinguishing characteristics are: a large scar under her breast whose cause no one can explain which sometimes opens and drips blood; she obtains and delivers needed items merely by focusing on them; she has the power to light as well as blow out lamps with her mind alone; other people’s bodies become immobilized through her concentrating on them; the tinkling of a silver bell constantly sounds from thin air [in her presence]; after burning things like letters and clothes which she needs to send to other places to ashes in a fire before her [these things] arrive at the very place [required] and are actually received; she takes most of the objects that she needs from the trees, water and air that are in whatever places she’s gone to. Out of all these activities, her ‘second thoughts’ and her [ability to] send letters and hear the answers to them is said to be the most amazing.
When she arrived in India foreigners [there] didn’t like her – they said that all [of this] was trickery [i.e. legerdemain style illusion] and sent soldiers but however much they investigated they couldn’t arrive at the source of her deception at all. In any case, at the moment in every foreign country there are those who follow her and those who mob together and pride themselves on attacking her, like with those who have conviction in the Buddha Brahmin Namkyi Karma [‘Stars in the Sky’, gnam gyi skar ma]. These ideas/[spiritual] perspective is the primary one shaping this woman’s new tradition/religion/system [lugs gsar pa].
Singhalese monks’ minds are narrower than the eye of a needle but even so there are many of them who currently praise her. It is said that Dharmapala, who restored the sacred site of Drangsong Lhungpa [i.e. Sarnath] first developed faith in the Buddha through her. Her Dharma makes connections with the view of today’s ‘new reasoning’ – the perspective of contemporary science – and by explaining her religious teachings this way she has captured the attention of all Westerners. Specifically, more than just demonstrating miraculous, magical feats to foreigners who previously did not believe in super-human magical capacities, she brought such things as the transformation of matter through the power of magic together with the fundamental perspective of science.
This way of explaining things has struck everyone [else] as truly amazing but if it were explained to us Tibetans who are uninformed about and unfamiliar with scientific claims, it would just confuse us – simply put, [they treat] contemporary science like, as the proverb says, ‘taking rebirth as a vicious snake’.” [*I haven’t yet been able to make full sense of this final proverb, despite asking scholars of Gendun Choepel’s life about it. Do let me know if you can parse it better than I’ve done here!]
As Lopez notes, there is so much worth commenting on in Gechoe’s brief reflections. Perhaps most strikingly, the ex-monk gives Blavatsky the benefit of the doubt that her Mahatmas were in fact Tibetan lamas who appeared to her first in non-corporeal, visionary form and then in the flesh (fascinatingly, he naturalizes Blavatsky’s Masters’ names in Tibetan – ‘Morya’ becomes mu ra, which the Ives Waldo dictionary explains is the name of a Tibetan medicinal herb which increases digestive heat and helps with toothache, while Mahatma Koot Hoomi becomes sku thu med, which Lopez renders as ‘The Cloakless One’, since sku thu med can be literally read as ‘body without the lower parts of a robe’]. One wonders whether the Tibetan orthography of Morya and Koot Hoomi were Gendun Choepel’s own innovation, or whether these were presented to him by the Roerichs.
There is probably little way of ever knowing. It is certainly possible that the Roerichs – students of Tibetan Buddhism with some decidedly off-the-wall Theosophical interpretations (see my note at the end of this post for more on this) had come up with and presented these etymologies to Gechoe since we don’t really know how curated his exposure to Theosophical material may have been. Then again, he lived a long time in India and Ceylon and engaged with all sorts of different people there and has his comments above show, was clearly aware of contrasting views on Blavatsky. One gets the feeling that these insights are very much a product of his own thinking and orientations.
Gechoe explains how when he read Blavatsky’s ‘extensive histories’ about her encounters with the Mahatmas, they made him think of hagiographical accounts of celebrated Tibetan adepts who also encountered and received transmissions from Buddhas and other spirits. Gechoe thoroughly domesticates Blavatsky’s experiences by referring to her encounters with her Mahatmas using technical language from Tibetan contemplative tradition: the Masters appear to her in dreams and take her under their care as a child, they ‘show their face’, a technical term associated with the climax of ‘approach and accomplishment’ (bsnyen sgrub) practices connected with Tibetan Buddhist tutelary tantric deities or yi dam, where after much prayer and visualization the patron initiatic Buddha in question appears directly to practitioners and grants boons and blessings.
Nonetheless, Gechoe registers his own ambivalence: as he notes, great yogis and yoginis have encountered deceiving, harmful demons in visions as much as they have encountered genuine Buddhas, and knowing which type of being a visionary is in contact with is not only very difficult if not impossible to definitively assess but is also often subject to opposing claims. Whether a teacher is a fraud or a true prophet differs depending on, as Gechoe has it, whether one is someone who follows a teacher or ‘mobs together to attack them’ in a self-satisfied way.
In any case, Gechoe seems to allow that Blavatsky (who had already been dead for half a century by the time Gechoe most likely encountered her works in the 1940s while working with infamous Theosophists the Roerichs in India) indeed possessed magical abilities, explaining that he suspected that she must have been some sort of naive, self-taught or ‘spontaneously arisen’ (rang byung) yogini, something that he was certainly familiar with from his own Tibetan context where self-made tantric Buddhist visionaries are hardly uncommon or impossible, even if they are regularly subject to suspicion.
Gechoe also notes the influence that Blavatsky and Theosophy had on native intellectuals in the colonies, mentioning the claim that Blavatsky had been the one who turned influential Sri Lankan nationalist and Buddhist revivalist onto the Dharma, a comment which recalls the other Mahatma Gandhi’s own admission that he only really cast off his colonial inferiority complex and came to think of Indian scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita as having any profundity or value after he was invited to chant them in Sanskrit by English Theosophists who held them in great esteem.
(Incidentally, here’s what Gandhi said:
“Towards the end of my second year in England I came across two Theosophists, brothers, and both unmarried. They talked to me about the Gita. They were reading Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation The Song Celestial and they invited me to read the original with them. I felt ashamed, as I had read the divine poem neither in Samskrit nor in Gujarati. I was constrained to tell them that I had not read the Gita, but that I would gladly read it with them, and that though my knowledge of Samskrit was meagre, still I hoped to be able to understand the original to the meaning.
I began reading the Gita with them. The verses in the second chapter If one Ponders on objects of the sense, there springs Attraction; from attraction grows desire, Desire flames to fierce passion, passion breeds Recklessness; then the memory all betrayed Lets noble purpose go, and saps the mind, Till purpose, mind, and man are all undone. made a deep impression on my mind, and they still ring in my ears. The book struck me as one of priceless worth. The impression has ever since been growing on me with the result that I regard it today as the book par excellence for the knowledge of Truth.
It has afforded me invaluable help in my moments of gloom. I have read almost all the English translations of it, and I regard Sir Edwin Arnold’s as the best. He has been faithful to the text, and yet it does not read like a translation. Though I read the Gita with these friends, I cannot pretend to have studied it then. It was only after some years that it became a book of daily reading.
The brothers also recommended The Light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold, whom I knew till then as the author only of The Song Celestial, and I read it with even greater interest than I did the Bhagavadgita. Once I had begun it I could not leave off. They also took me on one occasion to the Blavatsky Lodge and introduced me to Madame Blavatsky and Mrs. Besant. The latter had just then joined the Theosophical Society, and I was following with great interest the controversy about her conversion. The friends advised me to join the Society, but I politely declined saying, ‘With my meagre knowledge of my own religion I do not want to belong to any religious body.’ I recall having read, at the brothers’ instance, Madame Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy. This book stimulated in me the desire to read books on Hinduism, and disabused me of the notion fostered by the missionaries that Hinduism was rife with superstition.”
Gandhi’s statements and Gechoe’s brief comments about Anagarika Dharmapala’s Blavatskyian inspiration to turn to Buddhism present a rather rosy picture of the way in which European Theosophist colonials’ positive reappraisal of non-Western religions represented a break from typical colonial racism.
The Theosophical Society included many, influential non-white members from the colonies. Blavatsky and Theosophy were pioneering in representing non-Christian, non-Western religions and knowledge as being sophisticated, valuable, and profound in a time when most white people thought of the religious traditions of places like India or Tibet as evil or backward superstition and of brown people in the colonies as benighted savages. Nonetheless, as scholar Christopher Patridge has detailed, Theosophists’ positive appraisals of non-Western spirituality were still classically Orientalist, and Blavatsky and other Theosophists consistently maintained the superiority of their interpretations of Buddhism and Hinduism and the preeminence of their capacity to speak for the ‘true tradition’ vis-a-vis native practitioners.
As my friend Phil Hine has pointed out, in reality there was very little love lost between Dharmapala and later prominent Theosophists-cum-Buddhist-converts active in India and Ceylon like Colonel Olcott, Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant. Dharmpala may have had a certain appreciation for Blavatsky, but he castigated her successors and the primary leadership of the Theosophical Society in no uncertain terms. Alan Trevithik too, offers a cogent breakdown of the very unequal, and frequently exploitative relationships that obtained between white Theosophists and their brown, ‘sub-altern acolytes’. As the abstract to his article reads:
“The Theosophical Society (est. 1875), and its associated texts have sometimes been characterized as counter-Orientalizing or only partially Orientalizing, in the sense of at least departing from “official” British-Indian Orientalism and providing a critique of that discourse. In somewhat the same vein, the society has also been characterized as playful, self-ironic and/or postmodernist, and/or as broadly reformist in not only an anti-colonial but also an anti-patriarchal and pro-or-protofeminist way. These approaches fail to grapple with the nature of the orientalism that was fundamental to the foundation of the TS, as well as the pronounced entrepreneurial and exploitative aspect of the cult, its strategic and emotional structuring, and the significance of its syncretizing and revitalizationist processes.”
Those who are paying attention will note too that the sorts of tensions inherent in this distinctly Theosophical type of romantic racism where white people deeply cherish ‘non-Western spiritual wisdom’ but continue to be utterly racist towards native practitioners and non-whites, and to invest in white supremacism, are of course still alive and well, and clearly visible throughout New Age, occult, and Tibetan Buddhist contexts today.
When it comes to questions of ‘superstition’, Gechoe, himself one of the earliest and most prolific Tibetan commentators on the contributions and importance of contemporary science and its relationship to Buddhism, also closes by pointing out the importance of invocations of science as a strategy of legitimization for Blavatsky. Gechoe speaks approvingly of how Blavatsky framed magic in terms of the essential perspective of science, but uses this as an opportunity to take a snipe at the majority of Tibetans who he says, unlike Westerners, would not find Blavatsky’s branding of her religion as ‘scientific’ persuasive or appealing since they are ultimately ill-informed about and ill-disposed towards scientific claims.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever know exactly what sources on Blavatsky and Theosophy Gechoe was exposed to, although by his own admission we know that he was reading Blavatsky’s own writings, which is, funnily enough, a lot better than many Tibetan Buddhists today who are often content to dismiss Blavatsky’s takes on Buddhism without having read them first-hand to any great extent. One wonders what Gendun Choepel made of Blavatsky’s account of her travels in Tibet, if he read these at all, or her parroting of then current European scholarly ideas about Tibetan sectarian politics, Blavatsky’s dim and distorted view of Tantra, and ideas about the absolute necessity of celibacy for spiritual advancement, given his familiarity with Tibetan Buddhist sexual yoga and the scathing critiques that he wrote about repressive monasticism and its denigration of what he claimed was universal, undeniable, and ultimately positive human sexual pleasure in his notorious Tibetan kamashastra or ‘Treatise on Desire’.
I am forever fascinated by what you might call the politics of cross-cultural ‘recognition’, with tracing the complexities of encounters between different kinds of religious practitioners, with parsing out the contexts and conditions that influence their interpretive frameworks, their religious choices, alliances or lack thereof, their so-called syncretisms, what disturbs and excites them when worldviews meet, and a lot more could be said in this regard here but I shall leave that for another post.
- Gendun Choepel wasn’t the only esotericist to frame Blavatsky as a realized being with magical abilities, while also expressing doubts about how well-trained she was and noting how popular her teachings were. If you’re interested, I discuss Victorian sex magician Aleister Crowley’s equally fascinating take on Blavatsky here, in which unlike with Gechoe, one can detect more than a little rivalry even jealously in Crowley’s appraisal of Blavatsky capacities and scholarship. I have also written about another instance of a Tibetan – in this case, the current and fourteenth Dalai Lama – coming up against Theosophical notions in a different post.
In this instance the Dalai Lama is asked by a prominent Indian intellectual and Theosophist about Blavatsky’s notion of Dugpa or evil, supposedly Himalayan black magicians. Here, we see an example of a non-Tibetan Theosophist using a Tibetan word onto which all kinds of bizarre, foreign meanings have been projected, rather than a case of non-Tibetan names or titles being creatively Tibetanized. Rather than frame Blavatsky’s ideas in Tibetan-y ways though, as Gechoe does, the Dalai Lama merely finds them unintelligible, and there is a momentary breakdown of communication. Take a look (scroll down to the section of the post titled ‘Imagining the Tibetan Other and ‘The Plight of the Tibetan People’: Dreams of Tibet Meet Tibetan Realities’).
Regarding the Roerichs – A while ago I wrote a blog post reflecting on the long history of white foreigners writing crazy letters to the Dalai Lamas and the tendency of typically white self-proclaimed allies of Tibet and Tibetans to quickly swing from positions of romantic adulation and support to ones of deep and vicious hatred when their expectations about Tibetans are not fulfilled. Following Tibetan Studies scholar Martin Brauen I called this ‘Artaud syndrome,’ after the one-time Tibetophile turned Tibetophobe French surrealist poet Antonin Artaud, who wrote bizarre open letters to the 13th Dalai Lama. Some of you may remember all those news stories about the ‘Nazi Buddha statue’ made of meteoric metal that major news outlets claimed had been stolen or bought in Tibet during the Schafer expedition supported by the German Nationalist government in the 1930s.
In her great article on the subject Tibetan Studies scholar Isrun Engelhardt reveals that the statue had nothing to do with this German scientific expedition, and was in fact created by the Russian Theosophist Nicholas Roerich, who as Engelhardt details believed he was the next Dalai Lama and the future King of Shambala. The meteoric Swastika-emblazoned image was meant to represent Roerich himself in his deified future-King form. Roerich and his wife, who claimed privileged mediumistic access to Blavatsky’s Master Morya, tried very hard to get into Tibet from their base in Darjeeling, but were repeatedly blocked in their efforts by Tibetan officials in concert with British colonial authorities. As it happens, Roerich also wrote many crazy initially Tibetophilic then increasingly Tibetophobic letters to the Dalai Lama and the general public.
- More could also be said here on the ex-monk’s choice of different terms for ‘magic’ in different moments of his reflections, and what this makes clear (and doesn’t) about Buddhist theories of magic, perception, notions of the super/natural, and relative versus ultimate reality – not to mention how these ideas may map on, or not to Theosophical ones but again, this will have to wait for another post. For those interested in some brief discussions of emic Tibetan theories of magic, see here and here.