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The Writings of Alfred Percy Sinnett

Alfred Percy Sinnett

1840 -1921

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Esoteric Buddhism



Preface to the Annotated Edition



SINCE this book was first published in the beginning of 1883, I have come into possession of much additional information bearing on many of the problems dealt with. But I am glad to say that such later teaching only reveals incompleteness in my original conception of the esoteric doctrine, - no material error so far. Indeed I have received from the great Adept himself, from whom I obtained my instruction in the first instance, the assurance that the book as it now stands is a sound and trustworthy statement of the scheme of Nature as understood by the initiates of occult science, which may have to be a good deal developed in the future, if the interest it excites is keen enough to constitute an efficient demand for further teaching of this kind on the part of the world at large, but will never have to be remodelled or apologized for. In view of this assurance it seems best that I should now put forward my later conclusions and additional information in the form of annotations on each branch of the subject, rather than infuse them into the original text, which, under the circumstances, I am reluctant in any way to alter. I have therefore adopted that plan in the present edition.


As conveying an indirect acknowledgement of the general harmony to be traced between these teachings and the recognized philosophical tenets of certain other great schools of Indian thought, I may here refer to criticisms on this book, which were published in the Indian magazine the Theosophist in June, 1883, by “a Brahman Hindoo.” The writer complains that in interpreting the esoteric doctrine, I have departed unnecessarily from accepted Sanskrit nomenclature; but his objection merely is that I have given unfamiliar names in some cases to ideas already embodied in Hindoo sacred writings, and that I have done too much honour to the religious system commonly known as Buddhism, by representing that as more closely allied with the esoteric doctrine than any other. “The popular wisdom of the majority of Hindűs to this day,” says my Brahman critic, “is more or less tinged with the esoteric doctrine taught in Mr Sinnett’s book misnamed ‘Esoteric Buddhism,” while there is not a single village or hamlet in the whole of India in which people are not more or less acquainted with the sublime tenets of the Vedânta philosophy . . . . The effects of Karma in the next birth, the enjoyment of its fruits, good or evil, in a subjective or spiritual state of existence prior to the reincarnation of the spiritual monad in this or any other world, the loitering of the unsatisfied souls or human shells in the earth (Kâma loca), the pralayic and manvantaric periods . . . . are not only intelligible, but are even familiar to a great many Hindűs, under names different from those made use by the author of ‘Esoteric Buddhism.’ “ So much the better, -I take leave to rejoin, - from the point of view of Western readers, to whom it must be a matter of indifference whether the esoteric Hindoo or Buddhist religion is nearest to absolutely true spiritual science, which should certainly bear no name that appears to wed it to any one faith in the external world more than to another. All that we in Europe can be anxious for, is to arrive at a clear understanding as to the essential principles of that science, and if we find the principles defined in this book claimed by the cultured representatives of more than one great Oriental creed as equally the underlying truths of their different systems, we shall be all the better inclined to believe the present exposition of doctrine worth our attention.


In regard to the complaint itself, that the teachings here reduced to an intelligible shape are incorrectly described by the name this book bears, I cannot do better than quote the note by which the editor of the Theosophist replies to his Brahman contributor. This note says: -“We print the above letter as it expresses in courteous language, and in an able manner, the views of a large number of our Hindoo brothers. At the same time it must be stated that the name of ‘Esoteric Buddhism’ was given to Mr Sinnett’s latest publication, not because the doctrine propounded therein is meant to be specially identified with any particular form of faith, but because Buddhism means the doctrine of the Buddhas, the Wise i.e. the Wisdom Religion.” For my own part I need only add that I fully accept and adopt that explanation of the matter. It would indeed be a misconception of the design which this book is intended to sub-serve, to suppose it concerned with the recommendation, to a dilettante modern taste, of Old World fashions in religious thought. The external forms and fancies of religion in one age may be a little purer, in another a little more corrupt, but they inevitably adapt themselves to their period, and it would be extravagant to imagine them interchangeable. The present statement is not put forward in the hope of making Buddhists from among the adherents of any other system, but with the view of conveying to thoughtful readers, as well in the East as in the West, a series of leading ideas relating to the actual verities of Nature, and the real facts of man’s progress through evolution, which have been communicated to the present writer by Eastern philosophers, and thus fall most readily into an Oriental mould. For the value of these teachings will perhaps be most fully realized when we clearly perceive that they are scientific in their character rather than controversial. Spiritual truths, if they are truths, may evidently be dealt with in a no less scientific spirit than chemical reactions. And no religious feeling, of whatever colour it may be, need be disturbed by the importation into the general stock of knowledge of new discoveries about the constitution and nature of man on the plane of his higher activities. True religion will eventually find a way to assimilate much fresh knowledge, in the same way that it always finally acquiesces in a general enlargement of Knowledge on the physical plane. This, in the first instance, may sometimes disconcert notions associated with religious belief, - as geological science at first embarrassed biblical chronology. But in time men came to see that the essence of the biblical statement does not reside in the literal sense of the cosmological passages in the Old Testament, and religious conceptions grew all the purer for the relief thus afforded. In just the same way when positive scientific knowledge begins to embrace a comprehension of the laws relating to the spiritual development of man, -some misconceptions of Nature, long blended with religion, may have to give way, but still it will be found that the central ideas of true religion have been cleared up and strengthened all the better for the process. Especially as such processes continue, will the internal dissensions of the religious world be inevitably subdued. The warfare of sects can only be due to a failure on the part of rival sectarians to grasp fundamental facts. Could a time come when the basic ideas on which religion rests, should be comprehended with the same certainty with which we comprehend some primary physical laws, and disagreement about them be recognized by all educated people as ridiculous, then there would not be room for very acrimonious divergences of religious sentiment. Externals of religious thought would still differ in different climates and among different races, - as dress and dietaries differ, - but such differences would not give rise to intellectual antagonism.


Basic facts of the nature indicated are developed, it appears to me, in the exposition of spiritual science we have now obtained from our Eastern friends. It is quite unnecessary for religious thinkers to turn aside from them under the impression that they are arguments in favour of some Eastern, in preference to the more general Western creed. If medical science were to discover a new fact about man’s body, were to unveil some hitherto concealed principle on which the growth of skin and flesh and bone is carried on, that discovery would not be regarded as trenching at all on the domain of religion. Would the domain of religion be invaded, for example, by a discovery that should go one step behind the action of the nerves, and disclose a finer set of activities manipulating these as they manipulate the muscles? At all events, even if such a discovery might begin to reconcile science and religion, no man who allows any of his higher faculties to enter into his religious thinking would put aside a positive fact of Nature, plainly shown to be such, as hostile to religion. Being a fact it would inevitably fit in with all other facts, and with religious truth among the number. So with the great mass of information in reference to the spiritual evolution of man embodied in the present statement. Our best plan evidently is to ask, before we look into the report I bring forward, not whether it will square in all respects with preconceived views, but whether it really does introduce us to a series of natural facts connected with the growth and development of man’s higher faculties. If it does this we may wisely examine the facts first in the scientific spirit, and leave them to exercise whatever effect on collateral belief may be reasonable and legitimate later on.


Ramifying, as the explanation proceeds, into a great many side paths, it will be seen that the central statement now put forward constitutes a theory of anthropology which completes and spiritualises the ordinary notions of physical evolution. The theory which traces man’s development by successive and very gradual improvements of animal forms from generation to generation, is a very barren and miserable theory regarded as an all-embracing account of creation; but properly understood it paves the way for a comprehension of the higher concurrent process which is all the while evolving the soul of man in the spiritual realm of existence. The present view of the matter reconciles the evolutionary method with the deeply seated craving of every self-conscious entity for perpetuity of individual life. The disjointed series of improving forms on this earth have no individuality, and the life of each in turn is a separate transaction which finds in the next similar transaction, no compensation for suffering involved, no justice, no fruit of its efforts. It is just possible to argue on the assumption of a new independent creation of a human soul every time a new human form is produced by physiological growth, that in the after spiritual states of such soul, justice may be awarded; but then this conception is itself at variance with the fundamental idea of evolution, which traces, or believes that it traces the origin of each soul to the workings of highly developed matter in each case. Nor is it less at variance with the analogies of Nature; but without going into that, it is enough for the moment to perceive that the theory of spiritual evolution, as set forth in the teaching of esoteric science, is at any rate in harmony with these analogies, while at the same time it satisfactorily meets the requirements of justice, and of the instinctive demand for continuity of individual life.


This theory recognizes the evolution of the soul as a process that is quite continuous in itself, though carried out partly through the instrumentality of a great series of dissociated forms. Putting aside for the moment of profound metaphysics of the theory which trace the principle of life from the original first cause of the cosmos, we find the soul as an entity emerging from the animal kingdom, and passing into the earliest human forms, without being at that time ripe for the higher intellectual life with which the present state of humanity renders us familiar. But through successive incarnations in forms whose physical improvement, under the Darwinian law, is constantly fitting them to be its habitation at each return to objective life, it gradually gathers that enormous range of experience which is summed up in its higher development. In the intervals between its physical incarnations it prolongs and works out, and finally exhausts or transmutes into so much abstract development, the personal experiences of each life. This is the clue to the true explanation of that apparent difficulty which besets the cruder form of the theory of reincarnation which independent speculation has sometimes thrown out. Each man is unconscious of having led previous lives, therefore he contends that subsequent lives can afford him no compensation for this one. He overlooks the enormous importance of the intervening spiritual condition, in which he by no means forgets the personal adventures and emotions he has just passed through, and in the course of which he distills these into so much cosmic progress. In the following pages the elucidation of this profoundly interesting mystery is attempted, and it will be seen that the view of events now afforded us is not only a solution of the problems of life and death, but of many very perplexing experiences on the borderland between those conditions - or rather between physical and spiritual life - which have engaged attention and speculation so widely of recent years in most civilized countries.




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Alfred Percy Sinnett

1840 - 1921




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