Thursday, April 29, 2010

125th Anniversary of the Buddhist Flag

Sri Lankan television gave extensive coverage to the 125th anniversary of the Buddhist flag, which was flown for the first time on April 28, 1885. Announcing the event, the Colombo Daily News of April 22 reported:

The Buddhist Theosophical Society has organized several religious events to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Buddhist flag, in collaboration with the Religious Affairs and Moral Uplift Ministry. The Buddhist flag was first hoisted in Sri Lanka in 1885. The opening ceremony will be held at Maligakanda Vidyodaya Pirivena with President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the chief guest.

With efforts of the Buddhist monks like Ven. Hikkadwe Sri Sumangala Nayake Thera, Migettuwatte Sri Gunananda Thera and Henry Steel Olcott, Buddhists got freedom to engage in their religious activities…Henry Steel Olcott felt that Buddhists needed a symbol. The Buddhist flag was designed by J.R. De Silva and Henry Steel Olcott to mark the revival of Buddhism in 1880. It was accepted as the international Buddhist flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress.

There are six colours in the flag blue (Neela), yellow (Peetha), red (Lohitha), white (Odhatha), orange (Manjasta) and the mixture of all these colours (Prabhaswara). Each colour signifying various things. Blue signifies the concept of loving kindness and peace in Buddhism, yellow signifies the middle path that is the complete absence of form and emptiness.

Col. Olcott, of course, figured prominently in the coverage of the anniversary, making it seem as if the flag was his project, though he claimed only to have suggested the shape. No doubt, because of his travels through the Buddhist countries of South East Asia, he grasped its potential as an important symbol. The flag has gone on to become a pan-Buddhist emblem. One wonders if HPB had any input into the process: the choice of the colours from the Buddha’s aura and its significance, especially since the committee that developed it was made up of prominent Theosophists?

In 1962 a ban on the Buddhist flag being flown at Vesak by the President of Vietnam, a Catholic, led to protests there. When protesters were shot, Buddhist monks joined in the demonstrations. This led to attacks on the pagodas and roundups of Buddhists by the army. The subsequent coup by the army served to escalate the Vietnam War.

Coverage of the anniversary of the flag from Sri Lankan television can be seen here.

The Curse of the Collected Letters

After the publication of his edition of The Secret Doctrine in 1979, Boris de Zirkoff looked forward to working on the letters of HPB for the Blavatsky Collected Writings series. Typed copies of all the letters he had collected were arranged chronologically. Unfortunately he developed cancer and died. The project was taken up under the sole editorship of John Cooper of Australia. After working on them, he died suddenly. The project was then taken over by John Algeo, assisted by his wife, Adele Algeo. After releasing his first volume, Mrs. Algeo developed a debilitating illness and passed away March 15. We hope Dr. Algeo lives long and prospers in his work. Whatever the criticisms about the make-up of the first volume, he was able to do what his predecessors could not: bring out a book.

Seven years have passed since the publication of the first volume of the Collected Letters; at this rate some of us may not live to see its completion. Hopefully, those who also played a part in the first volume, associate editors Dara Eklund, who copyrighted the use of the letters some years ago, Nicholas Weeks, and Daniel Caldwell, will still be around. We hear that certain people associated with the United Lodge of Theosophists who found this volume not to their liking and who responded by trashing the reputations and bona fides of Algeo/Eklund/Weeks/Caldwell have decided to bring out their own version of the letters. Don’t write us about its date of publication: we don’t know it.

Anagarika Dharmapala

April 29, 2010, marks the 77th anniversary of the passing of Anagarika Dharmapala, the great reviver of Buddhism in India. Dharmapala (Don David Hevavitarana, 1864-1933) met HPB on her visit to Sri Lanka in 1880 and was captivated. He joined the TS in 1884 at the age of 19 and traveled to Adyar with her. “In those days the theosophic atmosphere was saturated with the aroma of the devotion of Himalayan Masters to the Lord Buddha,” he later recalled. He wanted to go the Himalayas to be with them, but HPB encouraged him to study Pali instead. He returned to Sri Lanka and worked for the Theosophical Society, serving as Col. Olcott’s interpreter on the latter’s tours of the island, and later traveled with Olcott to Japan in 1889.

Visiting India again in 1891 he traveled to Bodhgaya where the Buddha had attained enlightenment. The ruinous condition of the place motivated him to work for its restoration as a Buddhist pilgrimage center, and he started the Maha Bodhi Society in Calcutta in 1891 to that end. In 1893 he represented the priests of Sri Lanka at the Chicago World’s Parliament of Religion. Returning to India, he agitated for the cause of Bodhgaya. He was interred in Calcutta from 1916 to 1919 by the British Government to keep him from returning to Sri Lanka where he was an advocate for nationalism. Before his death in 1933 he was ordained a bhikku, having previously defined himself as a religious non-attached lay person—the Anagarika Dharmapala.

Towards the end of his life he wrote, “I owe everything to my parents, to the late Madame Blavatsky, and to the late Mrs. Foster [his patron].” Little of substance is available on Blavatsky’s influence on Dharmapala. K. Paul Johnson adds to the confusion when he asserts that Dharmapala’s 1884 visit to India came about because Blavatsky “proclaimed that the Master KH had directed her to bring David back to Adyar with her,” Initiates of Theosophical Masters, p. 115. Dharmapala, our main source of information about this event, who has written a detailed account, makes no such claim. More reliable is Michael Gomes’ (is there anything related to Blavatsky that he hasn’t written on ?) “Anagarika Dharmapala and the Theosophical Society” in the Centenary Souvenir of the Maha Bodhi Society, Madras, 1991, and “Anagarika Dharmapala at the World’s Parliament of Religions” in Keeping the Link Unbroken: Theosophical Studies Presented to Ted G. Davy on his Seventy-fifth Birthday, 2004.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Truth and Accuracy

In one of her notebooks in the TS Archives at Adyar, HPB writes under the above heading:

An eminent man of science (Mr. W. Crookes) once called my attention to the distinction necessary to be made between truth and accuracy. A person may be truthful, that is to say, may be filled with the desire both to receive truth and to teach it—but unless that person have great natural powers of observation or have been trained by scientific study of some kind to observe, note, compare and report accurately, and in detail, he will not be able to give a trustworthy, accurate and therefore true account of his experiences. His intentions may be honest, but if he have a spark of enthusiasm, he will be apt to proceed to generalizations which may be both false and dangerous.

This quote came to mind while looking over the online version of “The Wills of Helena Blavatsky” (taken from Ernest E. Pelletier’s 2004 The Judge Case, A Conspiracy Which Ruined The Theosophical Cause), now making the rounds. His argument is that after HPB died, Olcott and Annie Besant conspired to destroy HPB’s Will to the detriment of W.Q. Judge. Though there is no factual evidence for this (even if one is relying on psychical impressions), it forms the major part of Pelletier’s account.

But this narrative also works to HPB’s discredit. Here were two people who before they came in contact with Blavatsky were regarded as individuals of integrity, self-sacrificing (the N.Y. Tribune in 1871 wrote of Olcott: “Colonel Olcott is a witness whose word nobody will question,” while one of the London journals in the 1890s opined, “If there is one person who is not playing a game, it is Annie Besant”), but when they became her followers they lost their moral compass and were capable of the most egregious actions (if we are to believe Mr. Pelletier). It should serve as a warning to others, and Blavatsky’s critics, who regard her as a dangerous person and corruptor of morals, have been saying this for years. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Olcott Thesis

“Henry Steel Olcott: From Civil War Veteran to Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist, a Case Study in International Religious Activism” is the title of an Honors Thesis in History by Jennifer Proch submitted May 4, 2009, at the University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia. It is now available online. It draws mainly from Stephen Prothero’s 1996 The White Buddhist, Howard Murphet’s 1972 biography, and Daniel Caldwell compilation The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky. While it adds nothing new to our understanding of Olcott, it is interesting to see how he is portrayed. Although Blavatsky is mentioned, there is no discussion of Theosophy, or how Olcott understood it or how it impacted his life. It is a fairly straightforward chronology of his life, focusing on his work for the Sri Lankan Buddhists. In this sense, Michael Gomes’ entry on Olcott in Brill’s Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism succeeds in at least providing something of Olcott’s understanding of Theosophy.

“Henry Steel Olcott: From Civil War Veteran to Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist, a Case Study in International Religious Activism” can be read here.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

How Should We Treat Others?

Katinka Hesselink looks at recent calls for the TS Adyar to make an admission of guilt regarding W.Q. Judge and wonders why:

Judge is hardly attacked by Adyar theosophists these days. The reverse is not true: Besant still gets attacked by ‘Judgite’ theosophists quite regularly. With Judge it’s worse: he gets ignored. People just don’t care.

I do wonder though why supporters of Judge care so much about Besant being wrong and Judge being right. Why is it something to keep harping on about? Aren’t there more important issues to worry about? We’ve got an economic crisis on our hands, wealth and debt in the West, economic growth and sharp differences between rich and poor in the East.

This contentious issue is mentioned here because Blavatsky’s name gets dragged into the matter. The same Mme. Blavatsky who decried over and over the lack of brotherhood among Theosophists: “I have marked with pain, a tendency among you, as among the Theosophists in Europe and India, to quarrel over trifles, and to allow your very devotion to the cause of Theosophy to lead you into disunion.”

This episode was a wonderful opportunity for Theosophists to show the world new ways of problem solving. That this matter is still an issue today, with all its factionalism, is a clear indication of the failure to make any contribution to that most important step towards the realization of universal brotherhood: conflict resolution.

Sailing to Byzantium

The blog, One Man’s Treasure, has a gallery of photographs of buildings and portraits from Constantinople from the 1860s to 1920. Writing about the European enclave of Pera, a district located on the European side of Istanbul, Turkey, and now known as Beyoğlu, it notes:

It was inevitable that Madame Blavatsky would turn up in Pera. No 19th century seeker of spiritual truth could leave the city off their itinerary. For these travellers, highly educated and modern thinking, the fractured wail of the muezzins offered a metaphysical awakening. In Constantinople Christianity, a religion most of them had grown up with and reviled, still had an ancient demeanour, as though its essence survived intact. Talmudic scholars sat in doorways running their fingers over ancient texts. Armenian traders offered rugs and silverware from distant places whose uttered names conjured images of desert cities and caravans winding along the Silk Road. The few Muslim women they saw on the street were hidden behind veils, which only added to their allure.

The images can be seen here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

HPB and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor

A recently issued book, Surrendering Islam: The subversion of Muslim politics throughout history until the present day by David Livingstone and Sahib Mustaqim Bleher, tries to link HPB to the shadowy occult underworld of her time.

James Sanua was born in Cairo to a well-connected Italian Jewish family of Sephardic origin, who was wholeheartedly devoted to the teachings of Mazzini. Sanua was also responsible for establishing the foundation of the modern Egyptian theater, a forerunner to its well-known film industry. Both Sanua and his girlfriend, Lydia Pashkov, were also friends and travelling companions of Helena P. Blavatsky, who in 1856, Mazzini had initiated into the Carbonari.

There is an online segment from it on the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor that brings together Yarker, Pascal Beverly Randolph, HPB, and Jamal Ud Din al Afghani, which can be seen here.

HPB’s Masonic Diploma

Per request, here is HPB’s Masonic Diploma. The original is in the TS Archives at Adyar. John Yarker (1833-1913), who issued it, deserves more study. J. M. Hamill’s paper, “John Yarker: Masonic Charletan?” published in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 109 (1996): 191-214, remains the major source on Yarker.

As Yarker dealt with what is regarded as “irregular” Masonic rites (those outside the three degrees), he is usually dismissed by orthodox Masons. This may be changing, one Masonic site recently observed: “Yarker was neither a degree-monger, nor a charlatan, for he believed what he wrote, that the many degrees he had discovered all predated regular Freemasonry. He never invented evidence but accepted, uncritically, the invented evidence of others.”

Yarker left behind two in-depth accounts of his relations with HPB. In a letter published in the London journal, Light, October 10, 1891, he states: “I gave to Madame Blavatsky no degrees beyond which she was entitled to receive by all the international rules and regulations of what is called high grade Masonry. At the same I am quite well aware that from older sources she was in possession of much that was not given to her by myself.”

Another letter of his in Chicago’s Universal Masonry, October 1910, cites a letter from HPB that for some reason is not included in the recently published edition of her Collected Letters. Yarker had written to her in 1878 of the results of his attempts with a mesmerized subject. She replied:

You have a very good clairvoyant, and she has described the temple very accurately. I know it well, but I am not permitted to say where it is. The tiger, Booboo, is known to all Adepts of the East.

John Yarker, 1833-1913

Thursday, April 8, 2010

HPB in Cuba

The Havana Times of April 6 carries an article about “Women Freemasons in Cuba.” The author, Alfredo Fernandez Rodriguez, a professor teaching the history of philosophy at the University of Havana, was surprised to learn about this phenomenon.

I was even more astonished to find that women such as Flora Tristan (1803-1844) and Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891) were also Masons: the first was a French activist for women’s emancipation, workers rights and against the death penalty; and the second a Russian-American who was a founder of the Theosophical Society. Upon Blavatsky’s death, José Marti dedicated a short writing to her.

HPB’s “Masonic Diploma” survives in the archives of the TS, Adyar, and is reproduced as a frontispiece to Volume 2 of C. Jinarajadasa’s H.P.B. Speaks. Conferred upon her in 1877 by John Yarker of England, it was for the Rite of Adoption, a Masonic branch operated in France for women since the 18th century. Although she was accorded the highest grade, Crowned Princess, she would not have been allowed to participate in regular (male) Masonic groups.

The real surprise in this is the mention of José Marti writing about her when she died. Marti (1853-1895), described as “a poet, an essayist, a journalist, a revolutionary philosopher, a translator, a professor, a publisher, and a political theorist,” was a leading literary figure in Latin American modernism. That he wrote something dedicated to HPB is worth noting, though he is better remembered in the English-speaking world for his verses to the song “Guantanamera.” He lived in New York from 1880 to 1894. The influence of HPB’s ideas on Latin American literature has never been fully explored though many of the modernist writers shared similar ideas such as “correspondences” and were familiar with her books.

The Dew And Light in Keighley, West Yorkshire

The blog Spook Chaser contributes a good piece of local history on David Lund and his obscure British occult Order, The Dew And Light.

In the summer of 1888, Mathers of the Golden Dawn wrote a stinging attack on David Lund and his Society of Dew and Light, which Mathers wrongly called “the Dew of Light,” in his article, published in Lucifer magazine, Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society's journal. Not to be outdone, Mme. Blavatsky also wrote a scathing article about David Lund, mentioning the fact that he had spent time in Armley jail, Leeds, prosecuted under an antiquated law by the police, who went as far as to search the records of Bradford's Antiquarian Society in order to find an old law they could use against him, for fortune telling.

[S.L. Mathers’ letter to Blavatsky’s journal was published in the June 1889 issue, and the correspondence continued through the summer.] The rest of the story, including a narrated video, can be seen here.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Watkins Bookshop Saved from Closure

Watkins Books, the oldest esoteric bookshop in London, has been trading since 1897, but was forced to close on February 23 after being placed in administration. Luckily Etan Ilfeld, who owns two galleries opposite the shop in Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road, was on hand to buy the business.

The 113 year-old store was started by John Watkins, who knew HPB personally. When he died in 1947, the business was carried on by his son, Geoffrey Watkins. According to the store website, “In 1984, after Geoffrey's death, the bookshop was sold to Donald Weiser, the American publisher of oriental and occult books; Henry Suzuki, the manager of the erstwhile Weiser Bookstore in the New York metropolis; and Robert Chris, whose uncle (of the same name) had been a bookseller of 20th century English literature and poetry in Cecil Court since 1934. In late 1999 Watkins Books Ltd. once again changed ownership.” The London Evening Standard reports that with falling sales caused by the Internet and a loss of trade during the bad weather this winter, the store at 19-21 Cecil Court was further crippled by a £500,000 tax bill inherited from the previous ownership. Watkins republished many of G.R.S. Mead’s works and was famous for its out-of-print section of rare theosophical books. The story of the store’s last minute rescue from closure can be read here.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Nature by Numbers

Though this video would be more deserving to be at Theosophy Watch, it is simply too good to pass up. It is a visual depiction of Blavatsky’s belief about the numerical and geometrical basis of manifestation, and it can be seen here.

The Price of Fame

What is fame?  It is recognition surely, but it can be as fleeting as it is enduring. One can be famous for one group and not for another. One can be famous in one generation and not in another. Fame must be judged not only by its apogee but at its lowest common denominator. With this in mind, the following video is offered for consideration as an exhibit for the reach of Mme. Blavatsky’s fame. From the American TV cartoon, Beavis and Butthead created by the talented Mike Judge, Season 4, Episode 15, that was aired April 25, 1994, on MTV. It is titled simply “Madame Blavatsky,” and can be seen here.

Best line: “All is known to Madame Blavatsky.”