Madame Blavatsky and the Shambhala myth
Yet, as the real pioneering deed in the spread of the Shambhala myth in the West we have to present the life and work of a woman. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), the influential founder of Theosophy, possibly contributed more to the globalization of a warlike Buddhism than she was aware of.
The noble-born Russian is supposed to have already been a gifted medium as a child. After an adventurous life (among other things she worked as a rider in a circus) her spiritual career as such began in the 1870s in the USA. At first she tried her hand at all kinds of spiritualist séances. Then she wrote her first occult book, later world famous, Isis Unveiled (first published in 1875).
As the title reveals, at this stage she oriented herself to secret Egyptian teachings. There is almost no trace of Buddhist thought to be found in this work. In 1879 together with her most loyal follower, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott, Blavatsky made a journey to Bombay and to the teachings of Buddha Gautama. There too, the doctrine of the “great White Brotherhood of Tibet” and the mysterious spiritual masters who determine the fate of humanity was invented, or rather, in Blavatsky’s terms, “received” from the higher realms.
Tibet, which, her own claims to the contrary, she had probably never visited, was a grand obsession for the occultist. She liked to describe her own facial characteristics as “Kalmyk-Buddhist-Tatar”. Even though her esoteric system is syncretized out of all religions, since her work on the Secret Doctrine Tibetan/Tantric Buddhism takes pride of place among them.
A detailed comparison of the later work of the Theosophist with the Shambhala myth and the Kalachakra Tantra would reveal astounding similarities. Admittedly she only knew the Time Tantra from the brief comments of the first western Tibetologist, the Hungarian, Csoma de Körös, but her writings are permeated by the same spirit which also animates the “Highest Tantra of all”.
The mystic Secret Book of Dzyan, which the Russian claimed to have “received” from a Tibetan master and which she wrote her Secret Doctrine as a commentary upon, is central to her doctrine. It is supposed to be the first volume of the 21 Books of Kiu te, in which all the esoteric doctrines of our universe are encoded according to Blavatsky.
What are we dealing with here?
The historian David Reigle suspects that by the mysterious Books of Kiu te she means the tantra section of the Tibetan Tanjur and Kanjur, the officially codified Tibetan collections of Buddhist doctrinal writings, about which only little was known at the time. But this is not certain. There is also supposed to be a Tibetan tradition which claims that the Books of Kiu te were all to be found in the kingdom of Shambhala (Reigle, 1983, p. 3). Following such opinions Madame Blavatsky’s secret directions would have been drawn directly from the kingdom.
In her philosophy the ADI BUDDHA system is of central importance, and likewise the fivefold group of the Dhyani (or meditation) Buddhas and the glorification of Amitabha as the supreme god of light, whom she compares with the “Ancient of Days” of the Jewish Cabala. Astutely, she recognizes the Chinese goddess Guanyin as the “genius of water” (Spierenburg, 1991, p. 13).
But as “mother, wife, and daughter” she is subordinate to the “First Word”, the Tibetan fire god Avalokiteshvara. The result is — as in the Kalachakra Tantra — an obsessive solar and fire cult. Her fire worship exhibits an original development in the principal deity of our age, Fohat by name. Among other things he is said to emanate in all forms of electricity.
Madame Blavatsky was not informed about the sexual magic practices in the tantras. She herself supported sexual abstinence as “occult hygiene of mind and body” (Meade, 1987, p. 398).
She claimed to be a virgin all her life, but a report from her doctors reveals this was not the truth.
“To Hades with the sex love!”, she cursed, “It is a beastly appetite that should be starved into submission”
(Symonds, 1959, p. 64).
When the sexes first appeared — we learn from the Secret Book of Dzyan — they brought disaster to the world.
The decline into the material began with a sexual indiscretion of the gods:
“They took wives fair to look upon. Wives from the mindless, the narrow-headed. … Then the third eye acted no longer”
(Blavatsky, 1888, vol. 2, p. 13).
Blavatsky was probably convinced that her female body was being borrowed by a male Tibetan yogi. At any rate her closest co-worker, Henry Steele Olcott, who so admired her works that he could not believe they could be the work of a woman, suspected this.
Hence, thinking of Madame, he asked an Indian guru,
“But can the atman [higher self) of a yogi be transferred into the body of a woman?”.
The Indian replied,
“He can clothe his soul in her physical form with as much ease as he can put on a woman's dress. In every physical aspect and relation he would then be like a woman; internally he would remain himself”
(Symonds, 1959, p. 142).
As in the Kalachakra Tantra, androgyny is also considered the supreme goal along the path to enlightenment in Theosophy. The gods are simultaneously “male-female”. Their bisexuality is concentrated in the figure of Avalokiteshvara, the cosmic Adam.
Through her equation of the ADI BUDDHA with the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Madame Blavatsky clears the way for a cosmologization of the latter’s earthly embodiment, the Dalai Lama. For her, the Bodhisattva is “the powerful and all-seeing”, the “savior of humanity” and we learn that as “the most perfect Buddha” he will incarnate in the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama in order to redeem the whole world (Blavatsky, 1888, vol. 2, p. 178).
As in the Shambhala myth, the Russian presumes that a secret world government exists, whose members, the Mahatmas, were brought together in an esoteric society in the 14th century by the founder of the Gelugpa order, Tsongkhapa. The “White Brotherhood”, as this secret federation is known, still exists in Tibet, even if hidden from view, and influences the fate of humanity. It consists of superhumans who watch over the evolution of the citizens of the earth.
Likewise, the catastrophic destruction of the old eon and the creation of a new paradisiacal realm are part of the Theosophical world view. Here, Blavatsky quotes the same Indian source from which the Kalachakra Tantra is also nourished, the Vishnu Purana.
There it says of the doomsday ruler that,
“He ... shall descend on Earth as an outstanding Brahman from Shambhala ... endowed with the eight superhuman faculties. Through his irresistible power he will ... destroy all whose hearts have been relinquished to evil. He will re-establish righteousness on earth”
(Blavatsky, 1888, vol. 1, p. 378).
Of course, the Russian was able to read much into the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, since in her time only a few of the original texts had been translated into a western language. But it is definitely wrong to dismiss her numerous theses as pure fantasy, as her speculative world brings her closer to the imagination and occult ambience of Lamaism than some philologically accurate translations of Sanskrit writings.
With an unerring instinct and a visionary mastery she discovered many of the ideas and forces which are at work in the tantric teachings. In that she attained these insights more through intuition and mediumism than through scientific research, she can be regarded as the semi-aware instrument of a Buddhist-Tibetan world conquest.
At any rate, of all the western “believers in Tibet” she contributed the most to the spread of the idea of the Land of Snows as a unfathomable mystery. Without the occult veil which Madame Blavatsky cast over Tibet and its clergy, Tantric Buddhism would only be half as attractive in the West.
The Fourteenth Dalai Lama is also aware of the great importance of such female allies and has hence frequently praised Blavatsky’s pioneering work.