Buddhist Studies: Theosophy and an Indeterminate Self by Don Shepherd

     In H.P. Blavatsky’s 1885 letter to Henry Steel Olcott, she wrote that Mahatma K.H. was a “true Esoterist of the Buddhist school.”1 Mahatma K.H. had written his first letter to A.P. Sinnett in1880 from Toling, a Buddhist monastery to the northwest of Nepal originally dedicated to the Prasangika teachings of Atisha and Tsongkhapa.2 Both Atisha and Tsongkhapa de-emphasized the possible existence of the self and, in many cases, appeared to deny it. Considering that Mahatma K.H. was such a staunch advocate for the eternality of the self in juxtaposing the Monad that “never perishes whatever happens” with the “one Life in its universal collectivity and entire or Absolute Abstraction” in which that self could not be found, I realized that, to discover Mahatma K.H.’s Buddhism, I needed to look elsewhere than to Toling.3 While it is true that H.P. Blavatsky had encouraged the study of the Prasangika school to “know anything of the esoteric doctrines” of its Madhyamaka roots, the Prasangika school only focused on the negational reality of Absolute Abstraction and not on the continuance of the Monad into Nirvana and beyond.4 In support of Mahatma K.H.’s position, H.P. Blavatsky had also written that “Paranirvanic ‘spirits,’ or units, have and must preserve their divine (not human) individualities” throughout the “night of Brahma or even the Universal Pralaya” to re-emerge as the “same individual Divine Monad” in its “majestic path of evolution.”5 I was in search of a Buddhism that acknowledged both positions: the eternality of the self and Absolute Abstraction. In reading The Secret Doctrine, it became clear that my search would take me prior to the 4th century A.D. since, with Asanga’s reformulation of Yogachara Buddhism at that time, the “true nature of Paranirvana” had been withdrawn from the public to “become entirely esoteric.”6 I wanted to go back to the separation of “orthodox Buddhism” as the “public teachings of Gautama the Buddha” from his “esoteric Budhism.”7 This led me to the early origins of Buddhism with the Pudgalavadins, or the Personalists, in the 3rd century B.C. who asserted the realness of the self. I followed the thread of the Pudgalavadins to their demise in the 11th century and found that it was accompanied by resurgence in the idea for the realness of the self in the Shentong, or Other-Emptiness, teachings that emerged in the 11th century to culminate in the masterful 14th century works of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Where one tradition ended, the other began and re-presented the concept of the self. I realized then that Buddhism (despite popular opinion) had never been about the lack of the self but the historical continuity of the self. This self was so difficult to find because, though real, it was indeterminate. The indeterminacy of the self—in not being precisely fixed, in not corresponding to dualistic categories, in not being definitely defined—gave to life all its beautiful paradoxes. It seemed that H.P. Blavatsky’s “Esoteric school,” as re-expressed in Mahatma K.H.’s Buddhism, had always promulgated a doctrine of the self, even though succeeding generations misunderstood.8 In studying the Pudgalavada and Shentong traditions, I could argue that Buddhism was about the historical continuity of a real indeterminate self that reflected the teachings of H.P. Blavatsky’s esoteric tradition.

     To trace the historical continuity of an indeterminate self, I had to begin with the passing of Gautama Buddha into Nirvana in the 5th century B.C. With his death, a series of Buddhist Councils were held. The Second Council (most likely in the 3rd century B.C.) led to the division between the Mahasamghika, or the Great Assembly, and the Sthavira Nikaya, or Sect of the Elders. The Mahasamghika established the Mahayana or Great Vehicle tradition and the Sthavira Nikaya established the Theravada or Doctrine of the Elders tradition. It has been assumed that both traditions taught the theory of no-self where the self is imputed as existent due to the aggregate of a variety of senses as opposed to being an intrinsic swabhava behind the senses. But the issue is not so simple. For example, Nagarjuna’s denial of the self in the Mahayana tradition (3rd century A.D.) may have primarily applied to an emptiness of self-nature in the illusory world of conventional reality. He may have only argued for a denial of a self in ultimate reality on a technicality. For him, a self was independent, but since he viewed the Dharmadhatu, or the one “basic element,” as neither dependent or independent since it was free “from such conditions,” he denied its selfhood even though it resided in “every sentient being,” signified the exalted state of the Tathagata Buddha, and shone everywhere as the “ground of brightness” beyond the “ground of darkness” to the “very limits of all space.”9 The issue was equally complicated in the Theravada tradition. In the Anguttara Nikaya or Numerical Discourses, all “things” were “non-self,” but the human mind could become “luminous,” leading the individual to an exalted state where he was no longer “percipient” of “this world” but where he still remained “percipient.”10 Who or what remained percipient? In the Dhammapada, the path of the individual who found “perfect deliverance through realization of the Void and the conditionlessness of all forms” was as “difficult to trace” as a “track of birds in the air.”11 It was challenging to find the self, but this didn’t mean it was non-existent.

     The Theravada text, Digha Nikaya or Long Discourses, took up the search for the individual in the range of the Void through multiple stations of consciousness up to the seventh, where the self became “one who is conscious of this true but subtle perception of the Sphere of No-Thingness.”12 The perceptions of No-Thingness arose with the disappearance of coarser perceptions. A self perceived the lack of a self in things. Then the individual attained “cessation.”13 “Cessation” was an eighth station transcendent of perception and non-perception; the self’s self-identification as either percipient or impercipient disappeared.14 While some Buddhists argued that this eighth station implied the non-existence of the self, the eighth station could also imply that there was still an individual, belonging to a third category beyond dualism, experiencing the self’s dissolution of percipience and impercipience. The Buddha did not see much point in delineating the self as either material and limited, material and unlimited, immaterial and limited, or immaterial and unlimited.15 His liberation involved a “super-knowledge” that transcended dualism; one should not try to determine if a self existed in that exalted state.16 If all “dhammas are without self,” this merely reiterated the Anguttara Nikaya’s argument that all things were non-self; the argument was irrelevant to a station beyond the dualism of things.17 If all “forms of existence are unreal,” then who or what could possibly exist in conventional reality to grasp the realness of the individual in ultimate reality that transcended existence and non-existence?18 It would seem no one, and yet the self remained percipient through the stations of consciousness. How do we know that the individual survived that dissolution? Because the Buddha established that the “summit of perception” was both “one and many.”19

     While scholarship has emphasized the Mahasamghika and Sthavira Nikaya traditions because these two groups gave birth to Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, another division at the Second Council has been largely ignored because of the lack of surviving literature: Pudgalavada Buddhism. Around 280 B.C. the Pudgalavadins separated from the Sthaviras to become popularly independent. The 7th century Chinese explorer Xuanzang recorded the existence of the Pudgalavadins, marveling at the extent of their followers. Just one of their sub-sects in India supported over 66,000 monks and 1,000 monasteries.20 This meant that more than one-quarter of the “total population” of Buddhist monks in India during the 7th century was Pudgalavadin.21 What is even more significant is that these Pudgalavadins believed in a pudgala, or a self. Some of them believed in two selves—a dependent self and an absolute self. The dependent self corresponded to the illusory self in conventional reality and the absolute self corresponded to a real self in ultimate reality. This real self continued in Nirvana even after the aggregates were dropped away. In one of the surviving texts of the Pudgalavadins, it stated, “The Buddha spoke…the person is eternal.”22 The self was eternal not because it could be measured but because it was indeterminate. An indeterminate self could neither be impermanent or permanent since it could never be found, but it was spoken of as eternal due to its realness. It was impossible to say whether the pudgala (as the realness of a “luminous” personhood in Nirvana) was different or not different from the characteristics of the aggregates of things; it belonged to an inexpressible third category where the self was not merely a “designation of aggregates.”23 Some Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists equated the pudgala with the Hindu Atman. Arguing that an indeterminate but real self was incoherent, their theories conflicted with Pudgalavada. Since they could not reason it out, it could not exist. These Buddhists failed to understand that the Pudgalavadins operated from a unique premise. The Pudgalavadins maintained that an indeterminate ultimate reality did not exist exactly as it appeared since its nature was subtancelessness whereas their opponents such as the Prasangikas maintained that a determinate ultimate reality appeared exactly as it existed. Claiming that they were the only ones who actually understood the Buddha’s “doctrine of insubstantiality,” the Pudgalavadins presented the self as illusory (in a temporary sense) in conventional reality and insubstantial (in an immeasurable sense) in ultimate reality.24 Their doctrine contrasted with the Eternalist position for an Atman since no “substantial, permanent self” was ever posited.25

     When the Pudgalavadins disappeared between the 7th and the 11th centuries, it seemed that the Buddhist emphasis on the realness of a self might disappear. But it resurfaced in the 11th century just northwest of the modern-day Nepalese border near Toling Monastery. Yumo Mikyo Dorje passed “down orally” a “hidden doctrine without any written texts” that taught a view of “extrinsic-emptiness” that did not deny identity to an intrinsic self.26 His teachings established a new philosophical system that allowed for an absolute self in ultimate reality. Born in 1292, Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen promulgated this new philosophical system under the label Shentong, or Other-Emptiness, and spread it throughout Tibet as an alternative to Prasangika. In his doctrine, Dolpopa carefully explained that what was “empty of self-nature” must be distinguished from what was “empty of other.”27 What was “empty of self-nature,” or Rangtong, was a temporary phenomenal aggregate. What was “empty of other,” or Shentong, was a “basic element” in ultimate reality that operated as its own entity as the “basis and source of all phenomena” even after those temporary phenomenal aggregates dissociated.28 The basic element could not be empty of itself since it survived as a nirvanic essence of “ultimate clearlight,” “self-arisen pristine wisdom,” “great bliss,” and “partless pervader.”29 For Dolpopa, the illusory self in conventional reality viewed the darkness of Space as a “non-affirming negative” because it could not see beyond the Void, but, if one bypassed that Void, an “affirming negative” transcended the darkness as the clear light of ultimate reality.30 Even a buddha did not “find the non-existence of the self of the ultimate noumenon.”31 But although this luminous self could be affirmed, it was indeterminate since the basic element as the basis and its fruit in both realities (ultimate and conventional) could not be differentiated into categories of sameness or difference; the basic element, just like the pudgala, operated as a third category outside of things. Thus, the self in Shentong was “inexpressible” just as the self in Pudgalavada was “ineffable.”32

     It was clear that an early sect of Buddhism, the Pudgalavadins, established an enduring philosophy for an indeterminate self, but did H.P. Blavatsky’s theosophical vision support such a conclusion? In reviewing her writings, I kept coming back to the statement in The Secret Doctrine that the “true nature of Paranirvana” had been withdrawn from the public with the rise of Yogachara school.33 Since Prasangika had also broken away from the “purely esoteric schools” after Nagarjuna and the Theravadins could only understand the “correct character” of their “Hinayana exoteric books” if they looked back to the “secret volumes” of Nagarjuna, it might be possible that H.P. Blavatsky held a view in common with a Buddhist tradition that preceded these later developments.34 The Pudgalavadins believed in an indeterminate but real self that entered Nirvana and Paranirvana to re-unite with its own luminous personhood and to subsequently, as opposed to being annihilated, exit that ultimate reality to return as a self-identical individual into conventional reality. The “loss” of the “person” in Paranirvana was “no less illusory” than its “apparent identity” with the temporary aggregates.35 H.P. Blavatsky held that the self was indeterminate even though it paradoxically entered and left Paranirvana with its identity intact. In The Secret Doctrine, she wrote, “The thread of radiance which is imperishable and dissolved only in Nirvana, re-emerges from it in its integrity on the day when the Great Law calls all things back into action.”36 The thread of radiance connecting the experiences of a man dissolved into a nirvanic “Laya” or “neutral centre”—the immutable in potentia—which acted as a “limiting point of any given set of senses.”37 Since the temporary senses (relative to whatever plane of existence in an endless series) could not perceive the self as it transited through the laya-center (thereby giving rise to the appearance for the dissolution of percipience and impercipience), the real self was indeterminate. Paranirvana was “absolute” but  in a “relative sense, for it must give room to further absolute perfection.”38 In that “further absolute perfection” there was always the indeterminate self just beyond the next laya-center. For H.P. Blavatsky, the indeterminate self of the immutable in potentia was the “Point” merged back through the darkness into the “Circle” where that “Circle” represented the immaculate white “Disk” in the “Eternity” of Kosmos or ultimate reality, but the ever-continuing life of that “Point” could not be discerned because it stretched beyond “differentiation.”39  This Point was Mahatma K.H.’s Monad, the one that never perished whatever happened; the Circle was Mahatma K.H.’s Absolute Abstraction.

     In thinking on this Point as an individuality that merged back into the primordial ground of the great Circle, I remembered an image that Tsongkhapa had presented in his commentary on the Guhyasamaja Tantra (Treatise on a Gathering of Secrets).  The image depicted a great Buddha sitting within his “sphere of space” as on a “lotus” or “lion throne.”40 It was in the “heart center, radiant, like a lamp, unchanging and supremely subtle” that the “highest lord” resided “indestructible.”41 This image seemed to convey the notion of a laya-center, a concept symbolized by H.P. Blavatsky’s immaculate white disk with its potentially manifesting point as the selfhood of the Monad. G. de Purucker had taught that there is “no laya–center where there is no individual, whether cosmic or human.”42 He explained, “Every celestial globe—and indeed every atom—is in its central core of essence such a laya-center or point of individual intercommunion, which is the individual entity’s pathway of communication with the next higher or lower inner plane or world.”43 The Point, as a Monad, disappeared back into the immaculate white disk where, losing its polarity, it could neither perceive itself nor be perceived by others. Tsongkhapa’s image of the Buddha may have been residing within a laya-center or what the Theravadins referred to as the eighth station of consciousness, the “Realm of Neither-Perception-Nor-Non-Perception,” where the self experienced its own dissolution with a loss of polarity but nevertheless continued.44 In his teachings, the Buddha refused to acknowledge whether a Tathagata was existent or non-existent; he could not give acknowledgement because the Nirvanic zero-point of the laya-center transcended both. From this perspective, it now made sense to me why Mahatma K.H., as an Esoteric Buddhist, was at Toling Monastery, a Prasangika school, despite an apparent contradiction between their teachings. It was now time for me to turn to Tsongkhapa, someone so highly praised in theosophical circles, and follow the “magic” of his path to try and arrive at the discovery of “That Place”—a place where the eternality of the self and Absolute Abstraction overlapped—“so long desired, so hard to realize”45


     1H.P. Blavatsky to Henry Steel Olcott, 25 November 1885, original in the Adyar Archives.

     2H.P. Blavatsky, The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1973), 11.

     3A. Trevor Barker, ed., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1975),129-130.

     4 H.P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings, Vol. 14 (Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1985), 438.

     5H.P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings, Vol. 7 (Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1987.

     6H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1999), 1:42-43.

     7Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:xxi.

     8Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:453.

      9Karl Brunnholzl, trans. In Praise of the Dharmadhatu: Nagarjuna and the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (Boston: Snow Lion, 2007), 117-126.

     10Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Anguttara Nikaya: Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Walnut Creek; Altamira Publishers, 1999), 239.

     11Harischandra Kaviratna, trans. Dhammapada: Wisdom of the Buddha (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1980), 39.

     12Maurice Walshe, trans., The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), 162.

     13Walshe, trans., The Long Discourses, 163.

     14Walshe, trans., The Long Discourses, 227-229.

     15Walshe, trans., The Long Discourses, 226.

     16Walshe, trans., The Long Discourses, 228.

     17Valerie J. Roebuck, trans., The Dhammapada (London: Penguin Books, 2010), 55.

     18Kaviratna, trans., Dhammapada, 111.

     19Walshe, trans., The Long Discourses, 163.

     20Leonard C.D.C. Priestley, Pudgalavada Buddhism: The Reality of the Indeterminate Self (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1999), 31. Retrieved from ahandfulofleaves.org.

     21Priestley, Pudgalavada Buddhism, 31.

     22Priestley, Pudgalavada Buddhism, 41.

     23Bhikshu Thich Thien Chau, The Literature of the Personalists of Early Buddhism, trans. Sara Boin-Webb (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1999), 96, 145-148.

     24Chau, The Literature of the Personalists, 136.

     25Chau, The Literature of the Personalists, 136.

     26Cyrus Stearns, The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2010), 44. Also see Thuken Losang Chokyi Nyima, The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems: A Tibetan Study of Asian Religious Thought, trans. Geshe Lhundrub Sopa (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009), 197.

     27Stearns, The Buddha from Dolpo, 137.

     28Dolboba Shayrap-gyeltsen, Mountain Doctrine: Tibet’s Fundamental Treatise and Other-Emptiness and the Buddha-Matrix, trans. Jeffrey Hopkins (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 2006), 561, 573, 596.

     29Shayrap-gyeltsen, Mountain Doctrine, 61.

     30Shayrap-gyeltsen, Mountain Doctrine, 575.

     31Shayrap-gyeltsen, Mountain Doctrine, 575.

     32Shayrap-gyeltsen, Mountain Doctrine, 565. Stearns, The Buddha from Dolpo, 138. Chau, The Literature of the Personalists, 97.

     33Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:42.

     34Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 14:435.

     35Priestley, Pudgalavada Buddhism, 222.

     36Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 2:80.

     37Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:148.

     38Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:42-43.

     39Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, 1:1, 614.

     40Tsongkhapa, A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages: Teachings on Guhyasamaja Tantra, trans. Gavin Kilty (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2013), 92.

     41Tsongkhapa, A Lamp, 222.

     42G. de Purucker, Fountain-Source of Occultism (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1974), 136.

     43Purucker, Fountain-Source, 633.

     44Walshe, trans., The Long Discourses, 229.

     45Robert A. Thurman, The Central Philosophy of Tibet: A Study and Translation of Jey Tsong Khapa’s Essence of True Eloquence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 384.