Thursday, April 14, 2011

Western Pioneers of Buddhism

The blog, Jampa Tenzin, for April 11 looks at “Western Pioneers of Buddhism”: “The first people that made Buddhism known in the West were not Buddhists from Asia, but Westerners themselves. I would like to introduce you to western pioneers of Buddhism.”

However bizarre it now seems, Western interest in Tibetan Buddhism was first stimulated by a spiritual genius, Madame Blavatsky. She said that she had travelled to Tibet where she became the disciple of very special teachers, whom she called the Mahatmas. These teachers guided her by sending her telepathic teachings and sending her magic letters with instructions. Madame Blavatsky wrote books full of tales of her Mahatmas and thereby spread the notion of Tibet as a land of endless phantasmagoric wonders, meaning a land full of sprits and magicians.

The rest of the piece, which also mentions the work of “General” Olcott for the promulgation of Buddhism, can be read here.

Buddhism History for March 31 carried a piece on “A Brief History of UK Buddhism” by dharma, noting that “150 years ago, this response was primarily scholarly. The Buddha himself became well known as a moral and spiritual hero with the publication in 1879 of Sir Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia. Alongside this came the start of interest in Buddhism as a path of practice. This was pioneered by the Theosophists, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, and in 1880 they became the first Westerners to receive the refuges and precepts, the ceremony by which one traditionally becomes a Buddhist.”

The idea that the contribution of Blavatsky and Olcott to the Western awareness of Buddhism (and other eastern religions) was in viewing it as “a path of practice,” instead of just a scholarly pursuit, is an important one and too often overlooked in mere recounting of their colourful exploits.

“A Brief History of UK Buddhism” can be read here. While noting the founding of the Buddhist Society in 1924 there is no reference to T. Christmas Humphreys, who helped nurture it and was a potent force for the spread of Buddhism in England after the WWII as well as being a great admirer of Blavatsky, though there is acknowledgement of the work of the English Buddhist convert Sangharakshita, who formed the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) and who has acknowledged Blavatsky’s impact on his spiritual journey.

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