Chapter 3:

Victorian Zen

There are elements implied in the discussion in chapter 2 that are not considered by Wadia. Nor are they considered by the many others who accept only aspects of the metaphysical key to the secret doctrine as sufficient for starting a true "study" of theosophy.

For instance, it may be that an important part of the appeal of metaphysical structures may be related to the fact that human beings have always enjoyed a good story. When note is taken that metaphysical schemes are at bottom but good stories for intellectuals and for devotees of the conceptual mind, their sometimes irresistible--almost drug-like--attraction may be better understood. In any case, human beings up to now have tended to have been as if powerfully enchanted by such story-telling, and by the logical neatness of good tales. It may then be seen that perhaps the perennial teachers who authored the Secret Doctrine often used (though of course not always) such story-telling forms of communication, largely for the benefit of their Victorian audience.

That was an audience thirsty for any theory of the world that approximated in some way German Idealism in its expression, since that philosophical system was the rage of the day in Victorian circles. It even became fashionable to make extensive use of capitalization of certain words, a practice which is intrinsically foreign to other European languages (including English), however much it may be part of German grammar. Yet this dated usage continued to be employed--as in Barborka's passage quoted in chapter 2, in a book published in the 1960s. This literary mannerism is often employed as the kind of prosopopoeia that was typical of German Idealism, and of Romanticism, to hypostatize or reify certain favored ideas.

The Victorian audience was also passionately interested in any theory that dealt with the then-popular subject of evolution, and that had something interesting to say about the relationship between science and religion, due to the general confusion that existed about that subject. It is most likely for such reasons that the secret doctrine was dressed up by the perennial teachers for that particular reading room party in just the way it was. That seems to be a reason why the teachings were often given using the bombastic language typical of that age, and why they go into questions of interest to Victorian audiences. But underneath the varnish of all those Victorian accretions may be found the teaching of Dhyan, of mystic meditation--of human transformation.

Victorian commentaries on Zen

The Secret Doctrine was said to have been largely a commentary of portions of a very ancient manuscript, called by HPB the Stanzas of Dzyan. It now seems that something may have been lost in the translation from Senzar (the language in which the original of the Stanzas was said to have been written), and Victorian English. As a result, in the first century after the publication of the Secret Doctrine there were published about two dozen commentaries in Victorian English by different authors, in spite of the fact that the Victorian dialect (with its prejudices) had by that time ceased to have viability, not to mention credibility. If one can see the humor of teaching Zen using only Victorian English (with all its prejudices and expectations), then one can perhaps understand a little better what may have been the true intent--and forlornness--of HPB's teachers.

While each of the subsequent commentators emphasized different aspects and looked at that work from different perspectives, every single commentary is written from the assumption that the secret doctrine is strictly a metaphysical system. They all assume, without exception, that any person with a good mind, a good amount of knowledge, and good logical abilities, would be able to accept or reject such a system on its intellectual merits.

Nowhere is it said in any of those books that a prerequisite for such study is what HPB said is required: a reasonable modicum of psychological transformation from the normally self-centered life that most human beings live, in order to even begin. Such psychological-spiritual transformation was referred to by HPB whenever she spoke of the path of discipleship and initiation. According to that perception, in the absence of the life of discipleship, what is said belongs--almost by definition--to the world outside the adytum of the perennial teaching, and is therefore not theosophy properly. By the nature of the case, it is more likely that such conceptual speculations generally represent a mere opinion about theosophy. Possibly, it is an unenlightened one at that, given that spiritual transformation is not an essential element of metaphysical speculation. As it is expressed in a privately-published Buddhist work quoted by HPB, "no one can be entrusted with the knowledge (Secret Science) before his time." She goes on,

... Farther on, a man seeking to master the mysteries of Esotericism before he had been declared by the initiated by the Tch'-an-si (teachers) to be ready to receive them, is likened to
"one who would, without a lantern and on a dark night, proceed to a place full of scorpions, determined to feel on the ground for a needle his neighbor has dropped."
"He who would acquire the Sacred Knowledge should, before he goes any farther 'trim his lamp of inner understanding,' and then 'with the help of such good light' use his meritorious actions as a dust-cloth to remove every impurity from his mystic mirror, so that he should be enabled to see in its lustre the faithful reflection of Self... First, this, then Tong-pa-nya [the state during which an Adept sees the long series of his past births, and lives through all his previous incarnations in this and the other worlds]."1

In other words, according to HPB and her teachers, in order to be in a position to begin to study "theosophy," it is first necessary for a psychological transformation to begin to take place. If there is no transformation in the making, then what one does, whatever else it may be, and however "well-informed" it may be, is not theosophy.

Zen dust

It may incidentally be noted that in the quote above HPB refers to using one's meritorious actions as a dust-cloth to remove every impurity from one's mystic mirror. This is a clear reference to the use of just such an image in the early history of Zen Buddhism, and therefore is meant to connect the essence of theosophy with the sort of transformation that Zen is meant to help bring about. It refers specifically to a very famous verse composed by the sixth Patriarch of Zen in northern China, which said:

This body is the Bodhi-tree,
The soul is like a mirror bright;
Take heed to keep it always clean,
And let not dust collect on it.2

HPB's reference implies rather clearly that the secret doctrine she and her teachers were teaching is one and the same with transformative approaches, such as those found in Zen. Nor is that the only place where such references can be found. In the Voice of the Silence, for instance, there is a fragment that begins:

For mind is like a mirror; it gathers dust while it reflects.3

She provides an explanatory note for that sentence, in which she gives the source for it by saying,

From Shin-Sieu's Doctrine, who teaches that the human mind is like a mirror which attracts and reflects every atom of dust, and has to be, like that mirror, watched over and dusted every day. Shin-Sieu was the sixth Patriarch of North China who taught the esoteric doctrine of Bodhidharma.4

Bodhidharma was, as Buddhists well know, the founder of Zen. Apart from its intrinsic merits, a curious thing about HPB's references is that--contrary to what is generally believed among Buddhist scholars--she was the first person to use Zen doctrines in the West. It is usually thought that the first knowledge of Zen outside of Buddhist circles had been provided by D.T. Suzuki in his Essays in Zen Buddhism, which began to appear in 1927. While deeper aspects of these connections with Zen are explored further on, it is first important to look at other issues that are critical for an understanding of the true nature and sources for the secret doctrine. This is done in the next two chapters.


1 Blavatsky, Secret Doctrine, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 412.

2 Quoted in D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series, New York: Grove Press, 1961 [1927], p. 206.

3 H.P. Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence, Golden Jubilee Edition, Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1939 [1889], "The Two Paths," fragment 115. p. 148.

4 Blavatsky, Voice of the Silence, op. cit., note 6, p. 231.

The Secret Doctrine | Victorian Theosophy | Victorian Zen | The Mystery Language | Seven Keys
The Stanzas of Zen | The Voice of the Silence | The Kalachakra Tantra | Krishnamurti and Transformation

Table of Contents