Boris de Zirkoff’s edition of The Voice of the Silence

By David Reigle on December 7, 2015 at 3:50 am

The Voice of the Silence is said by H. P. Blavatsky to be chosen fragments translated by her from the “Book of the Golden Precepts.” The Book of the Golden Precepts, she tells us in her Preface, “forms part of the same series as that from which the ‘Stanzas’ of the Book of Dzyan were taken, on which The Secret Doctrine is based.” The Voice of the Silence clearly portrays the bodhisattva ideal of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and in fact was the first book to bring this teaching to the West (see: “The Voice of the Silence: Bringing the Heart Doctrine to the West,” by Nancy Reigle). It was published in 1889, while the Sanskrit text of the Bodhicaryāvatāra was first published in 1890 in a Russian oriental journal, and the first translation of the Bodhicaryāvatāra into a Western language, a French translation by Louis de la Vallée Poussin, was published in 1907. The Voice of the Silence was well received when it came out, and it has remained a classic of the path ever since, both inside and outside of Theosophical circles.

The late Boris de Zirkoff spent much of his life collecting and editing the Collected Writings of H. P. Blavatsky. Her many articles have been published in 14 numbered volumes, with a cumulative index as a 15th volume. Blavatsky’s books, The Secret Doctrine, Isis Unveiled, and From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, have been published in this series as unnumbered volumes. Boris had hoped to include The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of the Silence as an unnumbered volume in this series. He prepared an edition of The Voice of the Silence in his usual careful manner, laboriously verifying references and quotations, correcting the spelling of foreign terms (including diacritics on Sanskrit words), adding some explanatory notes, adding a historical introduction, and adding a comprehensive index.

This edition of The Voice of the Silence prepared by Boris de Zirkoff was typeset for publication by the Theosophical Publishing House, London, in 1973. Despite taking it to the proof stage, they did not publish it, but instead stayed with the older version. The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, published their second Quest edition in 1992, intended as a 1991 centenary edition to remember the one-hundredth anniversary of Blavatsky’s death in 1891. This included the new introduction written by Boris, slightly edited, and an adaptation of the index prepared by him, but gave the uncorrected original version of the main text rather than his corrected edition. Although intended to also remember the tenth anniversary of Boris de Zirkoff’s death in 1981, the resulting mismatch did him little honor (see my review published in The Eclectic Theosophist, n.s. vol. 21, no. 3, Fall 1992, pp. 21-22).

Here is one example. In The Voice of the Silence on p. 21, original 1889 pagination, four truths are given. For two of these a foreign term is given: Tsi for the second, and Tau for the fourth. In note 43 on p. 80, the four are given as: Ku, Tu, Mu, Tau. We already see that for the second one, Tsi or Tu, there is a discrepancy, obviously due to the typesetter reading the similar cursive handwriting differently. These words must refer to the four noble truths of Buddhism, and since they are not Sanskrit or Pali or Tibetan, they must be Chinese. So in 2007 I wrote to an expert in Buddhist Chinese about these terms, sending him only the terms without saying where they came from. He replied: “Who gave you the Chinese? A cook in a Chinese restaurant?” He then gave me their correct form according to the currently used pinyin system of transliteration: ku, ji, mie, dao. Boris in his unpublished edition had corrected these according to the then used Wade-Giles system of transliteration: K’u, Chi, Mieh, Tao. As a comparison with the wording of her note 43 on p. 80 will show, Blavatsky had copied these from Rev. Joseph Edkins’ 1880 book, Chinese Buddhism, p. 23, fn., where they are given as: Ku, Tsi, Mie, Tau. Back then there was no standard transliteration system for Chinese in use, and she had little choice but to use what was available. We thus see that in her note, both Tsi and Mie were erroneously typeset from her cursive handwriting as Tu and Mu. This is to say nothing of the long obsolete transliteration then used. These errors, perpetuated from 1889 to the present, honor neither Boris, nor Blavatsky, nor the secret teachings that she brought out under the name Theosophy. They bring her revered teachers, supposedly highly learned adepts in and custodians of a hidden Wisdom Tradition, down to the mundane level of a cook in a Chinese restaurant.

To this day, the edition of The Voice of the Silence carefully prepared by Boris de Zirkoff remains unpublished. This is a very unfortunate loss. I have therefore scanned the corrected proofs of his edition that was going to be published by Theosophical Publishing House, London, in 1974, kindly provided to me by Dara Eklund, who worked closely with Boris for many years. I now post them here. Also included is his typescript index. Its page numbers are to the original 1889 edition, which pagination he intended to keep, not to the pagination of the 1973 typeset proofs. As may be seen, an editor for the Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, began inserting the uncorrected spelling of Sanskrit terms as found in the 1889 edition in front of the corrected spelling used by Boris, to make his index match the uncorrected version of the text. Thus, for example, the uncorrected agnyana was added before the corrected ajñāna used by Boris. In 1889 there was no standard transliteration system in use for Sanskrit; in 1991 there was, and had been for a long time. The rest of the added words were not written on these typescript index sheets, such as the uncorrected Tibetan word Narjol added before the corrected Naljor used by Boris (like the obvious error “revelant” for “relevant”). The book titled Jñāneśvarī must here be looked up in the index under “d” not “j”: Dhyaneśwari, Dnyaneshwari. The incomprehensible Dhâsena (p. 80, n. 41), clearly a typographical error for Dhāraṇā, continues to be printed uncorrected in edition after edition. Today, educated readers are not edified by reading agnyana for ajñāna, Narjol for Naljor, etc., etc., even if these are found in an inspiring work that uses poetical language. It is unfortunate that all editions of The Voice of the Silence now in print are of the uncorrected original version, especially when the carefully corrected edition by Boris de Zirkoff has been completed and ready for publication since 1973.

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