Theosophy and Zen


There is a mistaken view that Zen is a selfish way of life devoted to self-realization and that it does not promote compassion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Zen is so much concerned with making us aware of our True Nature that it throws out all unnecessary intellectualism that actually prevents us from relating to our own fellow human beings spontaneously. It teaches us to throw off these barriers in the most direct and effective ways. True, the methods used are more suited to a past time when people in general were more spiritually minded, more devoted to the living of the spiritual life; but the idea was simple—to make us aware of the Oneness and fundamental Unity of all things and beings, and the practical realization of this Oneness as the only basis for true compassion. It is exactly the same teaching that Theosophy gives.

H.P.B. says in the Five Messages to the American Theosophists:

Theosophy teaches the animal-man to be a human-man; and when people have learned to think and feel as truly human beings should feel and think, they will act humanely, and works of charity, justice, and generosity will be done spontaneously by all.
The Secret Doctrine says that we must realize the Truth by self-induced and self-devised methods, and also that no external being can give us the Truth, but we must find it within our very own hearts. Intuition is useful in this department. We need to get rid of the self-created limitations that shut out the natural light of Intuition.

Theosophy is the most precious thing that can be given to man. Its beauty and its depth are inspiring and it has all the ingredients to produce the elixir of life that will save us all, but it is not only to do with written teachings. The Masters tell us that until we reach a certain level of understanding, as a result of the enlightened living of the life prescribed in the holy books of most religious traditions, most if not all of their teachings are incommunicable. It is easy to quickly read over that statement or to dismiss it from the mind, but it needs to be meditated on and absorbed. We have to come face to face with it and accept its challenge.

The whole of the teaching of Zen, like Theosophy, is based upon the fact of realizing one's True Nature and living under the aegis of the Higher Self. To do this we have to clear our heads of intellectual facts, that are like clouds that obscure the sun, and try to see the world as it is. Do we really know what it means—to see the world as it is? We must try to free ourselves from all the preconceptions that we hold and all the man-made illusions that create a society that is based upon material concepts that have nothing to do with nature, with what is natural to us all. Zen very much emphasizes this naturalness. One story tells of a Zen Master who went to give a lecture. He ascended the platform and just at that moment a bird sang outside the lecture hall. "There's nothing more for me to say," he exclaimed, and left the room. Most of the Zen tales are based upon this teaching of naturalness.

In The Secret Doctrine (II, 797) H.P.B. says:

No human-born doctrine, no creed, however sanctified by custom and antiquity, can compare in sacredness with the religion of Nature. The Key of Wisdom that unlocks the massive gates leading to the arcana of the innermost sanctuaries can be found hidden in her bosom only.
There is nothing holy, nothing profane—these are concepts that are created by us—there is just one consciousness, one life, and it is just as much to be found in a pile of manure as in a flower or a human being. In The Key to Theosophy this question and answer give us a clue as to the reality of this idea:

Enq: I once heard one of your members remarking that Universal Deity, being everywhere, was in vessels of dishonour, as in those of honour, and, therefore, was present in every atom of my cigar ash! Is this not rank blasphemy?

Theo: I do not think so, as simple logic can hardly be regarded as blasphemy. Were we to exclude the Omnipresent Principle from one single mathematical point of the universe, or from a particle of matter occupying any conceivable space, could we still regard it as infinite? (pp. 65-66, Indian ed.)

Hence when a monk asked the Zen Master Ummon, "What is a Buddha?" he replied,, "Dried dung." "Buddha" here refers to the One Principle of Life pervading all things, and not Gautama Buddha the person.

This is important to remember as we go through our lives. Seeing the Divine in everything, means EVERYTHING. It also points to accepting things are they are. We often project our own personal vision on to external things and even our internal perceptions. This is not seeing things as they are, but viewing them as a combination of our illusions and the world's collective illusion foisted upon us by the media and the education system, etc.

One of the most important similarities between Zen and Theosophy is the rejection of idols. Islam and primitive Christianity shared this rejection, but of course things have changed. Even certain sects of Buddhism in China, Japan and Tibet have taken up the promotion of certain deities. True, as in Hinduism, these are symbolic, but are symbols needed to promote the principles of Buddhism? Perhaps in certain cultures they are—but Zen, like Theosophy, tries to point towards Self-Reliance, Reliance on the True Self without any unnecessary imagery.

Many readers will be aware that H.P.B. and Colonel Olcott, along with Damodar K. Mavalankar, took Panchsil in Galle, Sri Lanka, on 25th May 1880. This means that they were formally acknowledged as Buddhists. We tend to be aware in the Theosophical Movement of the connection between the Theosophical Society and the Tibetan Tradition. Exoterically, Tibetan Buddhism contains all the elements of ritualism and dogma that H.P.B. criticized. Now anyone with any knowledge of Theosophical history will be aware that H.P.B. went to Tibet for occult training, that the Masters have their secluded Ashrams there, that one of the major figures behind the Theosophical Movement was Tsong-kha-pa, a Tibetan Spiritual Teacher, and that the Movement has also been connected to the Gelugpa Sect of Buddhism in Tibet. How can we then tie all of this in to the Zen tradition?

We have to look at the esoteric side of things. Esoterically, Tibetan Buddhism has nothing to do with rituals and deities; it promotes the idea put forward by Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist Sage, who introduced Buddhism into China. From this developed the Chan school, and later the Zen in Japan. Both these words can be translated as "Meditation" and mean the same as the Sanskrit word "Dhyana." Zen followers generally do not like their way of life to be called a "religion"; like Theosophy it is a way of life.

One of the basic teachings of Zen given by Bodhidharma is:

A special transmission outside the Scriptures;
No dependence upon words or letters;
Direct pointing to the soul of man;
Seeing into one's own nature.
So the higher forms of Tibetan Buddhism and Zen are very similar. The no-nonsense attitude of Zen is something that can be applied to us in the modern world and has nothing at all to do with religion or any system of beliefs.

Zen rejects scripture as a medium of communicating truth and prescribes meditation as a substitute for revelation. It insists on simplicity of life, discipline of mind and body, and meditation. No wonder, therefore, its teachings are highly Theosophical.

H.P.B. in The Key to Theosophy makes the statement that Theosophy—or Theosophia, the Wisdom-Religion—is not Buddhism. It is also not Zen, but rather the source from which all religions and philosophies are derived.

Theosophy, on earth, is like the white ray of the spectrum, and every religion only one of the seven prismatic colours. Ignoring all the others, and cursing them as false, every special coloured ray claims not only priority, but to be that white ray itself, and anathematizes even its own tints from light to dark, as heresies. Yet, as the sun of truth rises higher and higher on the horizon of man's perception, and each coloured ray gradually fades out until it is finally reabsorbed in its turn, humanity will at last be cursed no longer with artificial polarizations, but will find itself bathing in the pure colourless sunlight of eternal truth. And this will be Theosophia. (The Key to Theosophy, p. 58)
THEOSOPHIA (Gr.) Wisdom-religion, or "Divine Wisdom." The substratum and basis of all the world-religions and philosophies, taught and practised by a few elect ever since man became a thinking being. In its practical bearing, Theosophy is purely divine ethics. (The Theosophical Glossary)

The universal teachings of Theosophy are unique, because even Zen can be said to be coloured by a certain culture. A study of the original teachings of Theosophy will help to develop the insight to look at all the different religions as expressing various facets of the One Truth. This catholic attitude is truly inspiring and mind-freeing. Zen is a part of Theosophy, the Divine Wisdom, and presents a way of approaching life that may appeal to the few real mystics in the Theosophical Movement. If we believe that Theosophy can be taught like a school subject then we are mistaken. Theosophy has to be lived and made practicable in daily life.

In this field Zen is our ally, as it has developed these methods over centuries. They have been tried and tested by generations of holy men and Adepts. Theosophical students can gain something from Zen teaching in terms of simple living and discipline of body and mind. This is another attitude that it is important to adopt. Everything is our teacher, from a blade of grass to Brahma. In our quest to help save humanity from its self-inflicted suffering, everything and anything that leads towards the alleviation of that suffering should be wisely employed.

Let us now look at similarities in meditation methods. Meditation is very much a case of living in the Eternal Now. Damodar K. Mavalankar says:

Raja Yoga encourages no sham, requires no physical postures. It deals with the inner man whose sphere lies in the world of thought. To have the highest ideal placed before oneself and strive incessantly to rise up to it, is the only true concentration recognized by Esoteric Philosophy which deals with the inner world of noumena, not the outer shell of phenomena.
Yuanyu, the Zen Master, in his book Zen Letters says:

Those who are determined to practise the Way, practise self-awareness and self-understanding twenty-four hours a day. They think of this and focus on this. They know that the one Great Cause is there right where they stand, that it is within sages without being augmented, and in ordinary people without being diminished. They know that it stands alone, free of senses and sense objects, and that it far transcends material things.
We need to "paralyse" the senses of the external man of clay to see who we really are. We can dimly feel a presence in our quiet moments. Indeed it is on the surface of a quiet mind that spiritual images form. Great Beings are born at midnight hour, it is said. Taoists talk of the "Living Midnight," symbolizing that it is in Silence that we meet our true Self. To do this we need to enter the Golden Temple of our own heart and dispel all anxiety.

Anxiety is the foe of knowledge; like unto a veil it falls down before the soul's eye; entertain it, and the veil only thicker grows; cast it out, and the sun of truth may dissipate the cloudy veil.
It is true that we keep ourselves from being who we are by philosophizing and rationalizing everything instead of just living as Spiritual Beings.

Zen employs many methods to realize the "original face" or True Self. Koans are one of these methods. These are stories or sayings that cannot be understood by using the intellect. "The Mind is the great slayer of the Real," says The Voice of the Silence. "Let the Disciple slay the Slayer."

Zen Masters were well aware of the teachings of Reincarnation and Karma, as they observed nature and its cyclic processes. Also they knew about the seven planes of being, rounds and races, etc. But they felt that it was much more important to teach people how to get in touch with their true selves and experience reality first-hand. At least that was true in the culture and environment in which they lived and taught. Several centuries later some of the Adepts decided that it was time that a few of the more intellectual teachings were revealed to a people who were incapable of any direct perception of the truth. That was when the modern theosophical Society was founded to help people to become aware of their divine nature and the divine nature of all beings, thus helping them to live in Unity and to form a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, regardless of race, creed, sex, caste and colour.

In these dark days of the age of Kali, we have something eternally beautiful within, yet we allow the monkey mind, the chattering lower mind, to shut it out; we philosophize instead of just being what we are in reality. This is a trick of the lower mind, to trap us in concepts and ideas so that we fritter away lifetimes theorizing when we have our own "treasure-house" of Spiritual Wisdom to hand. But we have found a false centrality in a looking-glass world and have lost touch with nature and all that is natural. We are more prisoners than we think! We pride ourselves upon "getting on" in the world, oblivious of the fact that the more we get involved in worldly matters, the further we are from the Truth. We tell ourselves that it is important to keep our feet on the ground, and then we completely ignore our soul. We become engrossed in physical, mental and psychic matters—all of which kill out the true Spiritual feelings. In the world of Spirit there can be no compromise; we cannot serve two masters, for we will end up failing both or being absorbed by one or the other.

So that is why all of us are urged to open our "treasure-houses" now. We are prevented only by our doubts. "The path that leadeth on, is lighted by one fire—the light of daring, burning in the heart" (The Voice of the Silence). The centre of our spiritual consciousness is the Heart, and if we concentrate on that we shall find our way through the forest of our desires to the Temple of the Golden Flower which is at the eye of the storm, where dwells tranquillity and a peace profound.

The purpose of this article has been to help to create a little harmony in the world by showing that the esoteric side of all religions is the same Theosophy of old, but in a different guise. It is the language of the soul which transcends all the concepts and dogmas that divide. There is a reality—and this can only be experienced. What are words but noises made by the vocal cords, or symbols drawn on paper, or whatever? They are limited ways of conveying ideas that are taken up by the brain. To go higher, thoughts must be experienced without the use of the brain; they must then be registered in the spiritual part of our nature and then we shall have a different story to tell, if it is possible to tell it.

As said earlier, Zen is just one of many ways to get to this Inner Self. It will appeal to some and not to others. For everyone there is a way that suits them most. It is when one religion or system of beliefs commences to force its way of thought upon another that the trouble starts. Theosophy is not a religion or a philosophical system and therefore suits all people, all cultures and climes. This is its true value and beauty. It promotes a Universal Brotherhood which is essential to help to save humanity from the horrors of the age of Kali. This age is known in Zen teaching as the "empty aeon," because it is a period lacking in all those higher thoughts and feelings that make us truly human. We are all One, and it is the practical realization of this fact, and this fact alone, that will bring about the Golden Age of Light and Love that we all crave so much in these difficult times.


Brethren, of deeds done and accumulated with deliberate intent I declare there is no wiping out. That wiping out has to come to pass either in this very life or in some other life at its proper occasion. Without recognition of deeds so done, brethren, I declare there is no making an end of suffering.
—The Pali Canon

Taken from