In 1883, Alfred P. SINNETT, the editor of the Pioneer, the leading English-language newspaper in British India, published the ground-breaking book Esoteric Buddhism, which contained the teachings of the Mahatmas who were the teachers of Helena P. BLAVATSKY and Henry S. OLCOTT. In the book, he stated there is an inner teaching behind exoteric Buddhism that was little known to the public. While the doctrine he now called Esoteric Buddhism dated back to a “far more remote antiquity” than the time of Gautama BUDDHA, “the Buddhist coloring has now permeated its whole substance,” hence the name. The outline of the doctrine in the book constitutes what is now known as modern theosophy. The existence of a hidden or esoteric teaching in Buddhism is not accepted by orthodox Buddhist. However, Blavatsky mentions the existence of “Esoteric Buddhism” frequently in her writings. She states, for instance, that Buddha’s doctrines “are not a modification but rather the revelation of the real esoteric religion of the Brahmans, so jealously guarded by them from the profane, and divulged by the ‘all-merciful, the compassionate Lord,’ for the benefit of all men. It is only the study of Esoteric Buddhism that can yield to scholars the real tenets of that grandest of all faiths” (CW IV:463). This secret teaching, she states further, “was taught to the Arhats alone, generally in the Saptaparna [i.e., Skt. sapta-para, lit. Seven-leafed] . . . cave” (CW X:71). This cave, she says, located near the ancient Magadha capital city of Rajagraha (Sk. Rajagha) (lit. “King’s Village”) in what is presently Bihar State, was originally called the “Bamboo Cave” and was later known as “Cheta Cave” (CW V:246 fn.). It got its Buddhist name from Buddha’s comparing man to a seven-leafed plant, i.e., having a septenary constitution, a common theosophical idea, in his secret teachings there. For this reason, it has been assumed by some theosophical writers (cf., e.g., Gottfried de PURUCKER, Studies in Occult Philosophy, p. 498) that Esoteric Buddhism is very similar to theosophy, although there is no extant Buddhist writing to confirm this.
Blavatsky elsewhere uses the term “budhism” (which she also terms “bodhism,” “deeper understanding”) for this teaching and she clearly makes a distinction between “Buddhism’ and “Esoteric Budhism.” She equates the latter with “the ancient Wisdom-Religion” and states that it is not “the religious system preached by Gautama Buddha.” But elsewhere she fails to make this distinction, so it is not absolutely clear what she means by the term “Esoteric Buddhism.” In any event, whatever it is called, she is unequivocal in stating (idem.), “There is an esoteric doctrine, a soul-ennobling philosophy, behind the outward body of ecclesiastical Buddhism,” even though this idea is not accepted by most Buddhists and is explicitly denied in the Theravada Tripitaka texts.
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