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THE PATH TO SELF-REALISATION: Buddhism and the Theosophical Society

Gautama Buddha. photo of statue by Colyn Boyce

The most important festival in the Buddhist calendar is Wesak – which is celebrated at the full moon in this month, which this year falls on 26 May.

This day marks the birthday of Gautama Buddha and for some Buddhists it is also the day of his enlightenment and death.

Wesak is a very colourful and happy occasion at which time homes may be cleaned and decorated. In many countries, Buddhists will visit their local temple for services and teaching. Chanting and praying will take place and offerings of food, candles and flowers will be made to monks. Gifts are also taken to an altar to be offered to the Buddha statues.

Lighting of candles at Wesak celebrations. courtesy of Wikipedia

In many countries there is a ‘Bathing of the Buddha’ ceremony. Water is poured over the shoulders of the Buddha as a reminder to purify their own minds from greed, hatred and ignorance. Helping the poor and dispossessed is an integral part of Buddhist tradition. And during Wesak, Buddhists make a special effort to assist those in need.

We read in Theosophy Wiki, an account by leading theosophist Charles Leadbeater, on how at Wesak, Gautama Buddha sheds upon the physical plane a flood of blessing.

“The Lord Buddha has His own special type of force, which He outpours when He gives His blessing to the world, and this benediction is a unique and very marvellous thing; for by His authority and position a Buddha has access to planes of nature which are altogether beyond our reach, hence He can transmute and draw down to our level the forces peculiar to those planes. Without this mediation of the Buddha these forces would be of no use to us here in physical life; their vibrations are so tremendous, so incredibly rapid, that they would pass through us un-sensed at any level we can reach, and we should never even know of their existence. But as it is, the force of the blessing is scattered all over the world; and it instantly finds for itself channels through which it can pour (just as water instantly finds an open pipe), thereby strengthening all good work and bringing peace to the hearts of those who are able to receive it. [1]

C. W. Leadbeater at age 60. courtesy of Wikipedia

He also stated that, at least up to the early 20th century, a ceremony was organized by the Masters of Wisdom during the full moon of Wesak at which the Buddha actually showed Himself “in the presence of a crowd of ordinary pilgrims”. This ceremony took place in “a small plateau surrounded by low hills, which lies on the northern side of the Himalayas, not far from the frontier of Nepal, and perhaps about four hundred miles west of the city of Lhassa”.

In May of 1884, as part of his work for the Buddhist revival, Henry Olcott, President of the Theosophical Society, went to London and sent a memo to colonial officials, among other things, “to try and secure an order declaring Wesak—the May Full-Moon day, Buddha’s Birthday, and consequently the Buddhist Christmas—a public holiday”. [2[ On 28 April 1885, Wesak became an official holiday in British Ceylon.

The word Buddha means The Awakened One, coming from the Sanskrit root budh – ‘to wake’. Gautama Buddha was born just inside the border of the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal about 2,500 years ago. Gautama’s father, King Suddhodana, was the ruler of the kingdom of the Sakyas. Naturally, he was delighted to have an heir who could follow him on to the throne. Gautama lived in beautiful palaces, wore clothes of the most splendid materials, ate only the finest foods, and was generally entertained and waited upon in the best style. He grew up and eventually married a young princess, Yasodhara, who bore him a son, Rahula.

One day, however, he persuaded his charioteer to drive him down to the nearby town, where he had not been till then. In all, he was to make four trips to the town, which were to totally change his life. On these trips he encountered for the first time old age, sickness and death, that shocked him so much that palace life was no longer pleasant or even bearable for him. He became very concerned with the fact of suffering and with finding a way of ending it. On his final trip to the town, he met a holy man: one who had given up everything to follow the religious life. Despite having nothing, this man radiated a calmness that suggested to Gautama that he had somehow come to terms with the unpleasant fact of suffering.

So Gautama decided to follow the example of the ascetic. He slipped out of the palace in the dead of night, exchanged his splendid silken robes for the simple orange one of a holy man. Gautama went to all the most famous religious teachers of his day and learned all they had to teach. In the process, he subjected his body to great hardship through fasting and ascetic practices.

He starved himself until he became so thin that if he touched his stomach he could feel his backbone. But still he could not find an answer to his fundamental question – which would be an insight into the cause of human suffering. He realised that if he kept on that way he would probably die before finding the answer.

Statue of Buddha at Bodh Gaya, India. courtesy of Wikipedia

He therefore decided on a middle way between luxury and austerity. Then he sat himself on the ‘immovable spot’ under a great Bodhi tree at a place nowadays called Bodh Gaya. He was determined to sit there until he found an answer or die trying.

During the night of the full moon of May, Gautama passed into deep meditation and gained various kinds of new knowledge. He saw into his past lives; and understood Karma (the law of cause and effect) and realized he was free from desire, attachment to existence and clinging to false or fixed views. He was Gautama no more but The Buddha ‘The Awakened One’. He had seen things as they really are, and in the process attained Enlightenment.

At first the Buddha was reluctant to tell other people about what he had discovered. He felt they would not understand. But he was ultimately persuaded that some would benefit from being told what he experienced. He therefore went to Isipatana (modern Sarnath, near Benares [Varanasi]) where he delivered his first sermon in a Deer Park. Thus began a forty-five year teaching career.

Buddha preaching. two sections from the elaborately illuminated edition of the Buddhist Scriptures specially prepared for the 16th century Emperor Wan Li. Thin silk was pasted over the woodblock print, and the colouring was added by hand and includes metallic gold and lapis lazuli. reproduced in WESTERN PARADISE OF AMITABHA. 1964. Manly P. Hall. Philosophical Research Society, inc. 3910 Los Feliz Boulevard – Los Angeles, California 90027

The Buddha taught all classes of men and women; and, indeed, all beings. He first taught ‘The Middle Way’  –  the path that lies between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification that are both fruitless, demeaning and unprofitable. He then went on to explain exactly what that Middle Way was; namely the understanding of ‘The Four Noble Truths’ and how to put that into practice by walking ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’ in order to, like him, find release from suffering.

Some 500 million persons – or 5 per cent of the world’s population  – are ‘adherents’ of Buddhism. Christian claims 2.4 billion followers, Islam is next at nearly 2 billion and Hinduism is the third most popular religion with a following of about 1.2 billion. Nearly half of all Buddhists – 244 million – are found in China alone but the highest percentage of followers are to be found in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Laos (where can be found between 66% and 97% of the population). Outside the Asia-Pacific region, the largest populations of Buddhists are found in North America – 3.8 million and Europe with 1.3 million. About 250 thousand follow Buddhism in Britain.

Christmas Humphreys. photo by Colyn Boyce

The Buddhist Society was founded in 1924, by Christmas Humphreys, building on the pioneer work of the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1907 to 1926). The organisation was the successor to the Buddhist Lodge of the Theosophical Society in England. A lay organisation it is one of the oldest Buddhist societies in Europe. From its inception it has not been attached to any one school of Buddhism, remaining non-sectarian in character and open in principle to the teachings of all schools and traditions. Christmas Humphreys—a distinguished lawyer who was to become a High Court Judge—was President of the society he founded until his death in April 1983. In 1961 His Holiness the Dalai Lama became Patron to the Buddhist Society, the first in the West to be so honoured.

Buddhists follow three main traditions; the Theravada or Southern tradition; the Mahayana or Northern tradition; and the Vajrayana Tibetan tradition. Long ago, Buddhism began to spread southwards from its place of origin in Northern India to Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Indo-China and other South East Asian countries. It also moved Northwards through Kashmir Afghanistan along the ‘Silk road’ into the Himalayan kingdoms (Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal), Tibet, Mongolia and other parts of Central Asia, and also into China, and later Korea and Japan.

 A major centre for Buddhism is in Richmond, near Vancouver, Canada. The International Buddhist Society is a miniature version of the Forbidden City – a complex of 980 buildings located in Beijing, which was constructed 1406 – 1420. An imperial palace, it has been home to over 24 emperors since it was built. It is called The Forbidden City because it could only be accessed by the emperor, his immediate family, his women and thousands of male servants also known as eunuchs. In 1644 the northwest corner of the Forbidden City was the central area for Tibetan Buddhist activities during the Qing (CHING) Dynasty. 

The International Buddhist Society, near Vancouver, Canada. photo by Colyn Boyce
Venerable Guan Cheng. photo by Colyn Boyce

The Canadian ‘Forbidden City’ is a charitable, religious, and cultural organization established in 1981 and manages the International Buddhist Temple. Until the temple’s opening ceremony in 1983, Buddhists in Greater Vancouver did not have an authentic Chinese temple in which to study and practice Chinese Mahayana Buddhism.

Venerable Guan Cheng is abbot of the International Buddhist Temple. In 1999, he became ordained as a Buddhist monk and since then, he has travelled all over the world, holding lectures in different languages to promote the Dharma. Cheng has actively spread the Dharma to educate the public, through writing and publishing, hosting online and radio Dharma talks, and holding chanting ceremonies and retreat events.

One cannot talk about the spread or rather revival of Buddhism in the 19th and 20th centuries without mentioning the role of the Theosophical Society. The Society, whose motto is ‘there is no religion higher than Truth’ was at the cutting edge of the return to prominence in Asia of Buddhism, under its principal co-founders, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott. Through her writings, Blavatsky popularised in the West the message of the Buddha and her compatriot, Olcott travelled widely speaking on the religion’s eternal verities.

Blavatsky and Olcott in the late 1880s. courtesy of Theosophy Wiki

On 19 May, 1880, at the invitation of two head Buddhist monks of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Olcott, Blavatsky and a group of Theosophists went to the island and “took Pansil” that is, they formally identified themselves with Buddhism by reciting the Five Precepts (pancha-sila) at the Vijayananda Vihara, in Galle. 

Olcott’s subsequent actions as president of the Theosophical Society helped create a renaissance in the study of Buddhism. Olcott is considered a Buddhist modernist for his efforts in interpreting Buddhism through a Westernised lense. In 1882 with a delegation of Buddhists in a Hindu temple at Tinnevelly he planted a ‘Tree of Friendship’ as the first act of fraternization for hundreds of years between Buddhists and Hindus.

Olcott united the Buddhist sects of Ceylon [now Sri Lanka], and later united the twelve sects of Japanese Buddhists into a joint committee for promotion of Buddhism. He brought the Burmese, Siamese, and Sri Lankan Buddhists into a Convention of Southern Buddhists; and formulated the ‘Fourteen Propositions of Buddhism’, a document which was the basis upon which the northern and southern Buddhists were united.

He secured for Ceylon Buddhists freedom from religious persecution and established Wesak as a public holiday in Sri Lanka. Olcott is thought of so-highly in that country that a statue was erected outside Colombo rail station in his memory. In recent years, Sri Lanka has issued postage stamps in his honour.

Olcott was responsible for founding of the world famous Adyar Library in 1886 at which for the first time in history religious teachers of Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Islam united to bless a common cause.

Olcott’s “Buddhist Catechism”, composed in 1881, is one of his most enduring contributions to the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and remains in use there today. The text outlines what Olcott saw to be the basic doctrines of Buddhism, including the life of the Buddha, the message of the Dharma, the role of the Sangha. The text also treats how the Buddha’s message correlates with contemporary society. The Catechism has been translated into at least 20 languages and 44 editions.

Olcott’s catechism reflects a new, post-Enlightenment interpretation of traditional Buddhist tenets. As David McMahan states in his article – ‘Modernity and the Early Discourse of Scientific Buddhism’, “[Olcott] allied Buddhism with scientific rationalism in implicit criticism of orthodox Christianity, but went well beyond the tenets of conventional science in extrapolating from the Romantic- and Transcendentalist- influenced ‘occult sciences’ of the nineteenth century” [3]

As a result of the great Buddhist revival he began, three colleges and 205 schools were established, of which, 177 received government grants.

Olcott was also pivotal in the revival of Japanese Buddhism. He arrived in Kobe on 9 February 1889 together with noted Ceylonese intellectual Anagarika Dharmapala. In the time until his departure in May, Olcott visited 33 towns and delivered 76 addresses with a total audience of between 87,000 and 200,000. His tour was a great success. Olcott was welcomed by people everywhere, and he talked with local leaders and governors, as well as with the prime minister. Olcott’s tour was the peak of Japanese Buddhist revival in a visible form.[4][5]

In December, 1890, “Olcott convened at Adyar an unprecedented ecumenical convention of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists from Ceylon, Burma, Japan, and Chittagong (now in Bangladesh),” with the goal of unifying the two schools of Buddhism. He aspired to form a “United Buddhist World.” [6]

Olcott helped financially support the Buddhist presence at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, in Chicago. The inclusion of Buddhists in the Parliament allowed for the expansion of Buddhism within the West in general and in America specifically, leading to other Buddhist Modernist movements.

A. P. Sinnett. courtesy of Wikipedia

Another writer on Buddhistic themes, within the Theosophical Society was Alfred Percy Sinnett (1840 –1921). He was a well-known journalist, editing the leading English daily newspaper in India, The Pioneer, in 1879. In 1881, he authored the book, The Occult World, and two years later, in 1883, his book, Esoteric Buddhism, was published. It was one of the first books written to explain the purpose of Theosophy, the Ageless Wisdom, for the wide range of readers, and was a result of correspondence between Sinnett and an Indian mystic.

Sinnett stated that the Buddha is merely one of a number of adepts who have appeared over several centuries. In most recent incarnations, he has appeared as the Vedantic philosopher, Shankara, and in the 14th century as the great Tibetan reformer, Tsong-ka-pa.

Against a claim that the information given in Esoteric Buddhism had already been provided in the Bhagavad Gita, Blavatsky replied that Mr Sinnett had for the first time clearly explained the Esoteric Wisdom of the Ages, which lay concealed in the allegories in the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita and had hitherto been kept secret from all but initiated Brahmans.

Mr Sinnett’s book had given rise in the West to the notion that the Theosophical Society was standing for Buddhism, the name given to the Truths propounded by Gautama the Buddha; whereas Blavatsky pointed out that it was really ‘Budhism,’ Knowledge or Wisdom for which it stood.

The Buddhist and Theosophical philosophy overlap in many areas but two points from the Buddhist Catechism deserve particular attention and provide much for reflection – and they relate to the question of suffering and knowing what is valuable in life.

Q. Why does ignorance cause suffering?

A. Because it makes us prize what is not worth prizing, grieve for that we should not grieve for, consider real what is not real but only illusory, and pass our lives in the pursuit of worthless objects, neglecting what is in reality most valuable.

Q. And what is that which is most valuable?

A. To know the whole secret of man’s existence and destiny, so that we may estimate at no more than their actual value and this life and its relations; so that we may live in a way to insure the greatest happiness and the least suffering for our fellow-men and ourselves.


  1. Charles Webster Leadbeater, The Masters and the Path, Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1992.
  1. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves Third Series. Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House.

3. David McMahan, Journal of the American Academy of Religion December 2004, Vol. 72, No. 4, pp. 908-12.

4. Yoshinaga Shin’ichi, Theosophy and Buddhist Reformers in the Middle of the Meiji      Period (Japanese Religions Vol. 34, No. 2, July 2009), 125.

 5. Stephen Prothero, The White Buddhist: the Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott(Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010), 126.

6. Prothero, 127.

The author is also grateful for background information gleaned from Wikipedia and Theosophy Wiki.

A Canadian by birth, Colyn Boyce is a former radio journalist, who worked in central British Columbia in the 1970s. Born in 1951, he joined the Theosophical Society in Vancouver in 1969. An inveterate traveller, he hitch-hiked across America in 1972 and travelled extensively through southern and central Europe after arriving in Britain in 1977. What was meant to be a six month holiday, turned in permanent residency in the UK. From 1981 until 2018, he was Publicist for the English Section of the Theosophical Society – arranging an ambitious programme of lectures, seminars and courses. For about 25 years he was assistant editor of the house magazine, ‘Insight‘, which he typeset and illustrated – showcasing many of his own photographs. In 2018 he undertook a lecture tour of theosophical branches in western Canada and in 2019 – over a 3 week stint – spoke in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York City and Buffalo.


Published by hermesrisen

writer, theologian and broadcaster, my work can be found at Colyn Boyce is co-editor for Hermes Risen and is a writer, photographer and all round good guy.

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