THEOSOPHY, Vol. 50, No. 9, July, 1962
(Pages 396-399; Size: 12K)


[Article number (22) in this Department]

IN connection with explanation of the relation of pure Buddhism to Theosophy, "the doctrine of the Bodhisattvas" has often been referred to. The Bodhisattvas certainly are presented as "Masters of Wisdom," and their appearance is considered to be without beginning or end, thus removing the consideration of Great Beings from some particular locus in history -- one of the typical provincialisms of most religions. But, along with the term "Bodhisattva," we also encounter such words of related meaning as "Avatar." Then there is the distinction H.P.B. makes between the Dharmakaya and the Nirmanakaya. All this is very complicated.

And so it should be, we think, for even though H.P.B. in both Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine at times employed the terms Avatar, Buddha, and Bodhisattva synonymously, she also establishes distinctions in differing contexts. Behind the various uses of these designations lies the basic fact that each term belongs to a stage or degree of awakening of the spiritual man within the physical, and therefore represents, in some degree, ourselves as we endeavor to progress. The kinship of Arjuna and Krishna in The Bhagavad-Gita lies precisely in the fact that Arjuna is in one sense already an incarnation or "Avatar" of Krishna, in another sense an incipient Buddha or Bodhisattva.

Since the question refers to the doctrine of the "Bodhisattvas," let us consider the particular occult significance of this term as it appears in the purest traditions of Mahayana Buddhism: The central theosophical meaning of the story of the Buddha lies in his voluntary forsaking of the bliss of Nirvana -- the decision to return from his liberated state on behalf of a toiling and suffering humanity. Theravada Buddhism (Hinayana, or the "lesser vehicle") envisions Gautama as a symbol of a perfection which, once reached, enables the enlightened one to disappear from the realm of men and events forever. But the Bodhisattva is "one who returns" from the heights to voluntary incarnation. Professor Huston Smith in The Religions of Man provides an interesting if homely illustration of the difference between the Buddha viewed as "Arhat" and the Buddha viewed as "Bodhisattva":

For the Theravadins the ideal was the Arhat, the perfected disciple who, wandering like the lone rhinoceros, strikes out on his own for Nirvana and with prodigious concentration makes his way unswervingly toward that pinpointed goal. The Mahayana ideal, on the contrary, was the Bodhisattva, "one whose essence (sattva) is perfected wisdom (bodhi)," a being who, having brought himself to the brink of Nirvana, voluntarily renounces his prize that he may return to the world to make it accessible to others. He deliberately sentences himself to age-long servitude that others, drawing on his acts of supererogation, may enter Nirvana before him. The difference between the two types is illustrated in the story of four men who, journeying across an immense desert, come upon a compound surrounded with high walls. One of the four determines to find out what is inside. He scales the wall and on reaching the top gives a whoop of delight and jumps over. The second and third do likewise. When the fourth man gets to the top of the wall, he sees below him an enchanted garden with sparkling streams, pleasant groves, and delicious fruit. Though longing to jump over, he resists the impulse. Remembering other wayfarers who are trudging the burning deserts, he climbs back down and devotes himself to directing them to the oasis. The first three men were Arhats, the last was a Bodhisattva, one who vows not to desert this world "until the grass itself be enlightened."
Apparently, one may speak of various degrees of Buddhahood after a certain stage of enlightenment has been reached, so that Gautama, in his conscious determination "to return from the mountain top," so to speak, while still in a physical body, became at that moment a Bodhisattva. Other terms blend with those already mentioned, though, and the student of The Secret Doctrine should note a particularly interesting example appearing on page 571 of Volume I. Here H.P.B. establishes a link between the highly abstract conception of the various Logoi of creation and specific great spiritual embodiments -- writing that "it is the second logos of creation from whom emanate the Dhyani Buddhas, called the Anupadaka, 'the parentless'." She continues:
These Buddhas are the primeval monads from the world of incorporeal being, the Arupa, wherein the Intelligences (on that plane only) have neither shape nor name, in the exoteric system, but have their distinct seven names in esoteric philosophy. These Dhyani Buddhas emanate, or create from themselves, by virtue of Dhyana, celestial Selves -- the super-human Bodhisattvas. These incarnating at the beginning of every human cycle on earth as mortal men, become occasionally, owing to their personal merit, Bodhisattvas among the Sons of Humanity, after which they may re-appear as Manushi (human) Buddhas. The Anupadaka (or Dhyani-Buddhas) are thus identical with the Brahminical Manasaputra, "mind-born sons."
These few sentences indicate that differing terms refer to different aspects of incarnations of high spiritual attainment and that behind all the terms lies one of the universal traditions so often referred to in primeval myth and allegory. Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces establishes the connection between the universal mythos and the aspirations of individual man, in this or any other age:
The archetypes to be discovered and assimilated are precisely those that have inspired, throughout the annals of human culture, the basic images of ritual, mythology, and vision. The hero is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms. Such a one's visions, ideas, and inspirations come pristine from the primary springs of human life and thought. Hence they are eloquent, not of the present, disintegrating society and psyche, but of the unquenched source through which society is reborn. The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man -- perfected, unspecific, universal man -- he has been reborn. His second solemn task and deed therefore is to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed.
All religions, as Campbell shows, teach this "myth," which involves both the state of Nirvana, the state of the Buddha on the way to becoming a Bodhisattva, and the Bodhisattva himself.

The word "Avatar" simply indicates an incarnation, usually a "divine" incarnation, but even in this latter sense applies to every human soul returning from a glimpse of the timeless vision before birth into a new life amidst material complexities. In the Indian ethos this is symbolized by the fact that Krishna was said to be an Avatar of the God Vishnu, a special incarnation of a Being of exalted power. But by the same token, every race is an "avatar" or incarnation, and it is this aspect of the ancient legends that H.P.B. takes up, in Volume II of The Secret Doctrine, under the heading "The Gods of Light Proceed from the Gods of Darkness":

It is pretty well established that Christ, the Logos, or the God in Space and the Saviour on Earth, is but one of the echoes of the same antediluvian and sorely misunderstood Wisdom. The history begins by the descent on Earth of the "Gods" who incarnate in mankind, and this is the FALL. Whether Brahmâ hurled down on Earth in the allegory by Bhagavant, or Jupiter by Kronos, all are the symbols of the human races. Once landed on, and having touched this planet of dense matter, no snow-white wings of the highest angel can remain immaculate, or the Avatar (or incarnation) be perfect, as every such Avatar is the fall of a God into generation. Nowhere is the metaphysical truth more clear, when explained esoterically, or more hidden from the average comprehension of those who instead of appreciating the sublimity of the idea can only degrade, than in the Upanishads, the esoteric glossaries of the Vedas. ...

... Yet the metaphorical FALL, and as metaphorical atonement and crucifixion, led Western Humanity through roads knee-deep in blood. Worse than all, they led it to believe in the dogma of the evil spirit distinct from the spirit of all good, whereas the former lives in all matter and pre-eminently in man. ...

Of course it is not only in Western religious myths and allegories that we find confusions or differing interpretations of an original doctrine. In The Theosophical Glossary we learn that in popular modern Buddhism the attainment of the Dharmakaya vesture is the greatest of all attainments for the ascetic, since it places him on the threshold of Nirvana. But in H.P.B.'s Voice of the Silence we find again emphasis upon the highest state, as comprising a recognition that return to earth is the determination of the greatest beings. A footnote on page 69 of the Voice speaks of an interpretation: "Where the doctrine of Nirmanakayas -- those Bodhisattvas who renounce well-earned Nirvana or the Dharmakaya vesture (both of which shut them out forever from the world of men) in order to invisibly assist mankind and lead it finally to Paranirvana -- is taught, every new Bodhisattva, or initiated great Adept, is called the 'liberator of mankind'." The Nirmanakaya, in other words, has developed all the ingredients of the Dharmakaya vesture and yet not entered into it, remaining instead, "bodiless," but determined to work for the liberation of all human beings. One who assumes the Dharmakaya vesture, however, accepts it as that cosmos which he has won for himself after countless sacrifices and disciplines; he is then no longer connected with the humanity of our cycle. Like the devachanee, he is unreachable and unreaching until the whole karmic period with which he is identified comes to an end.

On this basis we can establish a rather close kinship between ourselves and the Dharmakaya who declines incarnation, for do not nearly all representatives of contemporary humanity hold back from a full "incarnation" into the responsibilities which their higher spiritual intuitions reveal from time to time?

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