“Esoteric Buddhism” was an excellent work with a very unfortunate title, though it meant no more than does the title of this work, the “SECRET DOCTRINE.” It proved unfortunate, because people are always in the habit of judging things by their appearance, rather than their meaning; and because the error has now become so universal, that even most of the Fellows of the Theosophical Society have fallen victims to the same misconception. From the first, however, protests were raised by Brahmins and others against the title; and, in justice to myself, I must add that “Esoteric Buddhism” was presented to me as a completed volume, and that I was entirely unaware of the manner in which the author intended to spell the word “Budh-ism.”

    This has to be laid directly at the door of those who, having been the first to bring the subject under public notice, neglected to point out the difference between “Buddhism”—the religious system of ethics preached by the Lord Gautama, and named after his title of Buddha, “the Enlightened”—and Budha, “Wisdom,” or knowledge (Vidya), the faculty of cognizing, from the Sanskrit root “Budh,” to know. We theosophists of India are ourselves the real culprits, although, at the time, we did our best to correct the mistake. (See Theosophist, June, 1883.) To avoid this deplorable misnomer was easy; the spelling of the word had only to be altered, and by common consent both pronounced and written “Budhism,” instead of “Buddhism.” Nor is the latter term correctly spelt and pronounced, as it ought to be called, in English, Buddhaïsm, and its votaries “Buddhaïsts.”

    This explanation is absolutely necessary at the beginning of a work like this one. The “Wisdom religion” is the inheritance of all the nations, the world over, though the statement was made in “Esoteric Buddhism” (Preface to the original Edition) that “two years ago (i.e. 1883), neither I nor any other European living, knew the alphabet of the Science, here for the first time put into a scientific shape,” etc. This error must have crept in through inadvertence. For the present writer knew all that which is “divulged” in “Esoteric Buddhism”— and much more — many years before it became her duty (in 1880) to impart a small portion of the Secret Doctrine to two European gentlemen, one of whom was the author of “Esoteric Buddhism”; and surely the present writer has the undoubted, though to her, rather equivocal, privilege of being a European, by birth and education. Moreover, a considerable part of the philosophy

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Have any students read "Esoteric Buddhism"?  What deviations from HPB's teachings does it contain?


Yes.  However, I think HPB is going to highlight what she thinks those misunderstandings might be, particularly in presentation, as we work through the Introductory of the SD.


Didn't the book play some role in revitalizing Buddhism in the late 1800s? Was it Sinnett or Olcutt that was working to promote Buddhism in the west?  Perhaps both.


I'm not sure about that, Gerry.  It seemed to create quite a stir with westerners.  HPB and Olcott did an extraordinary amount in the revival of Buddhism and Hinduism.  For example, they both publicly took Pansil - the lay buddhist vows which include the five precepts.


So the book did or did not help revitalize Buddhism and Hinduism? I am assuming it did. Was it a good or bad "stir"?  Maybe both.


I don't think it necessarily did any good for 'orthodox' or 'exoteric' Buddhism or Hinduism. Credit for 19th century revitalization of those would, in my view, fall primarily on two sources: for Buddhism H.S. Olcott (in combination with others, like Suzuki, Summangala (high priest in Sri Lanka), etc.); and for Hinduism a selection of Swamis (Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, etc., then later Yogananda, Gandhi, etc.). Of course, the full revitalization of Buddhism belongs, in my view, to the Dalai Lama becoming a public figure.

As Peter says, Esoteric Buddhism did create a stir with westerners (likely as much because of its source as anything else—Sinnett was a well known, well respected man among the literati of Britain when he wrote it, and for an educated 'Man of the Empire' to hold those beliefs was truly revolutionary), but I don't think we can rightly say it had much effect on easterners or Buddhists themselves.

I know Olcott doesn't necessarily get as much talk-time these days as HPB (and for obvious reasons), but when they first arrived in India it was Olcott as much as HPB who made a stir among the natives (he constantly toured, he performed 'magnetic healings' all over the land, he brought Buddhist leaders together, lectured widely on Buddhism, etc..). During that time, it was Olcott, more than HPB or any other who was reviving Buddhism. He's particularly responsible for the revival of Buddhim in Sri Lanka, where there are schools named after him to this day.


I think it's still a pretty decent book - a good introduction to all the basic theosophical concepts - a good explanation of the chains, rounds, globes, system and human evolution, races, sub-races.... Olcott's ''Buddhist Catechism'' is more of a straightforward work on Buddhism, and it went through a lot of printings...


I heard recently that Olcott's "Buddhist Catechism" is still used in Sri Lankan Buddhist schools as a primary text.


We have to keep in mind that HPB refers to Sinnett’s ‘Esoteric Buddhism’ as “an excellent work” (xvii).  The book is, after all, a presentation by Sinnett of the written teachings he received largely from the Mahatma KH.

It caused a stir amongst ‘westerners’ in particular because for many it introduced ideas they were not familiar with such as reincarnation and karma. It also introduced many theosophists to the seven principles, the rounds and races,the seven globes & so on. 

While she refers to the misunderstanding arising from “its unfortunate title” she defended the work in a number of published articles. In her role as Editor, she even rebuked William Judge in “The Theosophist” for a criticism he made on the work and she went on to explain why this work was so important at the time.  

                   [From The Theosophist, Vol. V, No. 5 (53), February, 1884, p. 122]

“The only fault I have to find with Mr. Sinnett’s book is that he too often says that: “this knowledge is now being given out for the first time.” He does not do this because he wants glory for himself, but because he makes a mistake. Nearly all the leading portions of the doctrine are to be found broadly stated in the Bhagavad-Gita. . . .”   W.Q. Judge FTS

EDITOR’S NOTE.—We do not believe our American brother is justified in his remarks. The knowledge given out in Esoteric Buddhism is, most decidedly, “given out for the first time,” inasmuch as the allegories that lie scattered in the Hindu sacred literature are now for the first time clearly explained to the world of the profane. Since the birth of the Theosophical Society and the publication of Isis, it is being repeated daily that all the Esoteric Wisdom of the ages lies concealed in the Vedas, the Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita. Yet, unto the day of the first appearance of Esoteric Buddhism, and for long centuries back, these doctrines remained a sealed letter to all but a few initiated Brahmans who had always kept the spirit of it to themselves. The allegorical text was taken literally by the educated and the uneducated, the first laughing secretly at the fables and the latter falling into superstitious worship, and owing to the variety of the interpretations—splitting into numerous sects. Nor would W. Q. Judge have ever had the opportunity of comparing notes so easily and, perhaps, even understanding many a mystery, as he now evidently shows he does by citing relevant passages from the Bhagavad-Gita, had it not been for Mr. Sinnett’s work and plain explanations. Most undeniably, not “nearly all” — but positively all the doctrines given in Esoteric Buddhism and far more yet untouched, are to be found in the Gita, and not only there but in a thousand more known or unknown MSS. of Hindu sacred writings. But what of that? Of what good to W. Q. Judge or any other is the diamond that lies concealed deep underground? Of course every one knows that there is not a gem, now sparkling in a jeweller’s shop but pre-existed and lay concealed since its formation for ages within the bowels of the earth. Yet, surely, he who got it first from its finder and cut and polished it, may be permitted to say that this particular diamond is “given out for the first time” to the world, since its rays and lustre are now shining for the first in broad day-light.

CW VI 146