Lopez's List of "Modern Buddhists" Missed the East India Company
In "A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West
," Donald S. Lopez, Jr. tried to lay down a "lineage of modern Buddhism," a list of authors starting with Blavatsky
, and ending with Trungpa
. His choice to end the book with Trungpa
might have seemed reasonable if he had his head in the sand when he published this anthology in 2002, but has turned into a resounding sour note as Trungpa's memory has been torched in the #metoo bonfires
of the last three years by disclosures of a pathetic and dissolute ending to a life of libertine self-indulgence
. If Trungpa is our guide, we are indeed in the wilderness.
at the head of the list is right, and her fellow Theosophical Society
founder Henry Steel Olcott
is rightly named second in this putative "lineage." Blavatsky, a Russian emigre, surveilled as a spy by the British
, worked the spiritualist racket as a mediumist, which is how she recruited Olcott, who was vulnerable to that sort of self-delusion. Blavatsky was a prolific inventor of spiritual hierarchies, their personages and dogmas. She pulled a "new" cosmology straight from her ass
, and succeeding generations have venerated and elaborated upon the architecture of her fabricated universe as if it had originated from a higher sphere. A potentially infinite number of gurus could live in Blavatsky's palace of illusions
, that can be popped up in seconds in the minds of their students. Thereafter they can live, as they say, "rent-free" in the minds of the gullible.
What Blavatsky brought to the game was not just a joke or a transparent fraud that has ensnared the gullible, although that is also an accurate description of her life's work. But our current predicament, with a president who rules like a joker running the country into the ground, shows how seriously jokers can impact our health, and the health of our mental ecosystem, polluting it with lies and disinformation. Which is what Blavatsky did with her all-too-popular imaginings
. To explain my accusation, allow me to direct your attention to the engine of Blavatsky's cosmology -- karmic soul evolution. Why are there Mahatmas
holding the intellectual capital of humanity in a spiritual brain-trust in a pristine Himalayan fastness? Because they evolved to be high spiritual beings. Everything else
about Blavatsky's philosophy is details. Everything will be explained by this karmic game of Snakes & Ladders, where good karmic acts ladder you up the hierarchy and bad karmic acts snake you down the hierarchy. But rest assured, said A.P. Sinnett
, who presented Blavatsky's spiritualist cosmology in Esoteric Buddhism
a few years before Blavatsky published The Secret Doctrine
, this process of karmic evolution is securely progressing in a positive way, and in less than a thousand lifetimes, you, too, will know the peace that passeth understanding.
In this accountant's version of reality, written by a British journalist (Sinnett ran the biggest English paper in India -- Kipling
was one of his writers) we could view all of your human incarnations as if occurring on a vinyl recording disk, with each lifetime as one track, and about 800 tracks on the average total life record. You could drop the needle into any groove, and there you'd be, living and breathing, learning and dying, and sometimes you're "sowing karma," and sometimes you're "reaping karma."
Sinnett thinks (and it is a very odd thought) that in some lifetimes, such as lives in "heaven" or "hell," migrating souls only harvest
karmic consequences, and do not generate any. That would of course make it difficult to run the universe, keeping your causes from generating results, and preventing results from generating further results, but maybe not for an accountant. Maybe they could just set up each universe on a separate spreadsheet and reconcile them at the end of the kalpa.
It's easy to make fun of Sinnett because he was an idiot about this stuff, though probably quite good with propaganda. It's easy to lampoon Blavatsky's pretentious stylings, that are out of step with modern diction. But it was not easy for followers of people like Trungpa
, his disgraced Mukpo/Shambhala heir Osel
, and the never-sufficiently-reviled Sogyal
, to dismiss these fraudsters' portentous declamations, armed as they were with the stick of bad karma, and the carrot of spiritual elevation.
Blavatsky created the bubblegum form of karmic soul evolution with frilly appurtenances like the Mahatmas that were so silly they magnetized people of lesser intellect, marks. For Blavatsky, a swindler like our president here in 2020, this was the main thing -- attracting people who could be defrauded. Olcott was really one of her marks, and eventually he parted company with her after wising up from engaging in his empirical approach to discerning the "original Buddhist doctrine."
Now Olcott was not a stupid man, but he had been through the Civil War, and the spiritualist craze
swept the nation after that war, as so many people wanted to contact their lost loved ones, and swindlers to aid them in making contact with "the other world" were available in abundance. So there was a weak point in his approach to reality, which I think he gradually sealed off by focusing totally on the regeneration of Buddhism in Ceylon.
In the course of "regenerating" Buddhism, Olcott wrote it up his way, about which I'll write more later, but right now the point I want to emphasize is that in this volume, Lopez
is trying to write the history of recent Buddhism his way. He says "modern Buddhism" was formulated by Easterners pushing for admittance to Western culture, adjusting their doctrines to present a scientifically-sustainable religion that had no doctrinal impossibilities woven into its fabric, like immaculate conception, resurrection, and life after death. This meant ignoring these features of what Buddhism had become in Buddhist countries
, and distilling a new, "original Buddhism" that eschewed notions indigestible to the modern "rational" mind. Lopez's position seems like a supportable thesis, but I do not think it is.
Why? Because history is written by the scholars employed by the victors
, and the history of Buddhism, and the seminal translations underlying the dissemination of the Dharma in the West, were written by European and British scholars funded by the East India Company
engaged in "Orientalism," a project described as "ruling and learning," perhaps ruling by
Taking the late eighteenth century as a very roughly defined starting point Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient -- dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.
Orientalism, by Edward W. Said
What was the East India Company? Bucky Fuller can fill us in:
In 1600 Queen Elizabeth I and a few intimates founded the East India Company. Exercising her crown privileges, the queen granted the company limited liability for losses on the part of the enterprise backers. They could lose their money if the ship were lost, but they could not be held liable for the lives of the sailors who were drowned. While the owners could insure and very greatly limit the magnitude of their losses, the sailors and their families could not. ***
Elizabeth's East India Company scheme was to have her national navy (and armies) first win mastery of the world's sea-lanes. This advantage would thereafter be exploited by her privately owned enterprise. This scheme became one of the first of such national power structure bids for establishing and maintaining world-trade supremacy through dominance of the world's high seas', ocean currents', trade winds', critical straits', and only-seasonably-favorable passages' world-around line of vital and desirable supplies. ***
With the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 the British Empire won "the world's power structures championship" and became historically the first empire "upon which," it was said, "the sun never sets." This is because it was the first empire in history to embrace the entire spherical planet Earth's 71-percent maritime, 29-percent landed, wealth-producing activities. ***
The British Empire was history's first spherically closed, finite system. Building and maintaining the world's most powerful navy, the 1805 supremely victorious British Empire was to maintain its sovereignty over the world's oceans and seas for 113 years. ***
England was also developing a civilian army of the world's best-informed and Empire-backed scientific, economic, and managerial personnel for the most economically profitable realization of its grand, world-embracing strategies. To educate the army of civil servants was the responsibility of the East India Company College located just outside or London. (In 1980 it is as yet operating.) Its graduates went to all known parts of the planet to gather all possible data on the physical and human culture resources to be exploited as well as information on the local customs of all the countries, large and small, with whom Great Britain and the East India Company must successfully cope and trade.
In 1800 Thomas Malthus, later professor of political economics of the East India Company College, was the first human in history to receive a comprehensively complete inventory of the world's vital and economic statistics [and predicted] an increasing majority of humans would have to live out their short years in want and misery. "Pray all you want," said Malthus, "it will do you no good. There is no more!"
Critical Path, by R. Buckminster Fuller
When did the East India Company get started translating religious texts in India?:
During the 1600s, English traders—especially those of the East India Company—followed suit, establishing trading colonies across these areas and in India. The East India Company soon had large bases at the Indian locales of Surat and Madras, where it traded in pepper and textiles, commodities that became the backbone of its business. In 1690, the company established a trading station at Kolkata (which they called “Calcutta”).
In 1785, the East India Company ... sponsored the first English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita
, an important Hindu religious text.
Governor-General Warren Hastings,
who served from 1774 to 1785 ... wrote in the translation’s dedication, “Every accumulation of knowledge, and especially such as is obtained by social communication with people over whom we exercise dominion founded by the right of conquest, is useful to the state.”
Likewise, Hastings and the East India Company supported the work of Sir William Jones
, a company judge in Kolkata and a self-identifying “Orientalist.” His scholarship added much to the growing knowledge about the East. Having learned Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian, Jones turned his attention to compiling knowledge about the cultures of India and other areas of Asia. He founded the Asiatick Society of Calcutta
in 1784 and published a journal entitled Asiatick Researches beginning in 1788. The journal brought together a wealth of scholarship dealing with the Orient, covering everything from religion, language, and literature to architecture, climate, and geography. Along with Rennell’s Atlas and the East India Company’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, the issues of Asiatick Researches contributed to an emerging academic field of study about “the Orient.”
-- Romantic Orientalism, Newberry
Jones' Rumi translations have been called genius by at least one Indian critic, writing in English for the Hindustan Times
Translations of Rumi into English famously began with the genius of William Jones who began publishing his versions of Persian verse in 1772. The first volume of this contained a lyric translation of a poem by Hafiz. Jones, a candidate for the bar at the time, was later sent by the East India Company to Calcutta as a high court judge and continued to translate other Persian poets including Rumi. His translations were read by his contemporary, Goethe, who confessed he was enchanted by them. Rumi continued to be rendered into English verse by several British translators in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notably by JW Redhouse in 1881 and then by Nicholson and Arberry
-- Hindustan Times
So we are now critiquing English translations of Persian poets in a Hindu country that was conquered by the English, and has, as a result, seen its native son Rumi lionized
by the world. (During Rumi's lifetime in the 13th Century, Persia ruled India under the Delhi Sultanate
.) That just provides a foretaste of what studying the origins of Buddhist doctrine is like. You are peering into a murky pond of British colonial influence
, where scholars are working in an environment of conquest
, delivering up the intellectual goods to the exploiters with far more alacrity than it ever had. There was something about the British, the way they were so interested in everything, that made the Brahmins cough up all the intellectual property they'd been hiding away from the Jesuits, quite successfully, for centuries, as Will Sweetman
recently noted in The Absent Vedas
, chronicling the difficulties, real or imagined, that kept accurate translations of the Vedas out of the hands of Europeans until, effectively, the Brits showed up, and the Brahmins just handed 'em over.
Henry Thomas Colebrooke
, when he was appointed as judge and magistrate ... in a letter to his father in February 1797, [wrote] "I cannot conceive how it came to be ever asserted that the Brahmins were ever averse to instruct strangers; several gentlemen who have studied the language find, as I do, the greatest readiness in them to give us access to all their sciences. They do not even conceal from us the most sacred texts of their Vedas
-- The Absent Vedas
Ah, the grace of the conquerors! Like American soldiers in postwar Japan buying precious heirloom samurai swords from the families of people devastated by war and the atomic bomb. "Gee, they were so nice!" Like the theft of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon
by Lord Elgin, these acts of cultural looting are the great crime that lies behind the great fortune of Eastern Religion.