Basic Space, the One Element, the dhātu

By David Reigle on March 27, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Reality obviously can be, and has been, described in many different ways. Any system of thought is forced to use particular terms to express its teachings. In the system associated with the Book of Dzyan, the most often used term for ultimate reality is given in English as “space” (see, for example, The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, pp. 9, 11, 35). In the “Cosmological Notes” (Oct. 1881) the question was asked: “What is the one eternal thing in the universe independent of every other thing?” The reply was: “Space.” But what is the Sanskrit term behind the word “space” as used in this system? Until we know this, we cannot trace this teaching in known texts, nor can we ascertain more fully what it means.

Today, the English word “space” most often translates the Sanskrit term ākāśa, although in H. P. Blavatsky’s time, ākāśa was usually translated as “ether” (e.g., in H. H. Wilson’s Vishnu Purana). This term, ākāśa, would be our first candidate. HPB in many places rejects the equation of ākāśa with “ether” (e.g., SD 1.257, etc.), and in a couple places specifically equates “space” as used by her with ākāśa (Collected Writings, vol. 14, pp. 408, 411). In these two places she adds the equivalent term “tho-og” (apparently Senzar or unidentified Tibetan), the same term that stands behind “The Eternal Parent (Space)” in stanza 1.1 of the Book of Dzyan (SD 1.23, 35). So the equation of “space” with ākāśa would appear to be conclusive. However, in explaining stanza 1.1 she speaks of ākāśa as the radiation of mūlaprakṛti, and this latter is the “ever invisible robes” in which the “Eternal Parent (Space)” is wrapped (SD 1.35, also 1.10, 75, 536). So ākāśa is here differentiated from “space.” Indeed, ākāśa is called “Father-Mother” in The Secret Doctrine (1.76, 140, 2.400), and is described as “the ONE Element in its second stage” (1.140). It is “space” only in one sense (SD 2.511-512). Thus, ākāśa would not be the Sanskrit term behind “space” as used for ultimate reality in the system of thought associated with the Book of Dzyan.

The next candidate is śūnyatā, now usually translated as “emptiness.” In HPB’s time, Samuel Beal had translated śūnyatā as “space” (A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, 1871, p. 282), and this passage was quoted by HPB (Collected Writings, vol. 3, pp. 405-406 fn.). She then specifically used śūnyatā (and also “emptiness”) in her full definition of “space” (CW, vol. 3, p. 423): “Space, then, or Fan, Bar-nang (Mahā-Śūnyatā) or, as it is called by Lao-tze, the ‘Emptiness’ is the nature of the Buddhist Absolute.” Although not conclusive, this made śūnyatā the likely choice for “space” after ākāśa had to be rejected. The term in question is supposed to occur in the “esoteric Senzar Catechism” (SD 1.9) or the “Occult Catechism” (SD 1.11), and this is supposed to be a very ancient text. It is a strange fact that, while the term śūnyatā is common throughout the Buddhist Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, it does not occur in what is perhaps the oldest among these, the Diamond Sūtra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā, ed. Edward Conze, 1957, p. 11). This might cast doubt on its occurrence in the ancient Book of Dzyan and the catechism based on it. We needed to keep looking. Perhaps something older could be found.

In fact, something older was found. The case was decided against śūnyatā and for another term that had not been considered as a translation of “space” by some striking parallel phrases. This term is dhātu, usually translated as “element.” It has two Tibetan translations: khams, “element”; and dbyings, “realm, sphere, expanse, basic space.” It is found in a catechism-type phrase that is repeated many times throughout the Buddhist texts. To give just one example, its occurrence in the Saṃyutta-nikāya, as translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, is: “Whether there is an arising of Tathāgatas or no arising of Tathāgatas, that element [dhātu] still persists, . . .” (The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, vol. 1, 2000, p. 551). Compare: “‘What is that which was, is, and will be, whether there is a Universe or not; whether there be gods or none?’ asks the esoteric Senzar Catechism. And the answer made is—SPACE.” (SD 1.9). As explained by HPB in her full definition:

“Hence, the Arahat secret doctrine on cosmogony admits but of one absolute, indestructible, eternal, and uncreated UNCONSCIOUSNESS (so to translate), of an element (the word being used for want of a better term) absolutely independent of everything else in the universe; a something ever present or ubiquitous, a Presence which ever was, is, and will be, whether there is a God, gods or none; whether there is a universe or no universe; existing during the eternal cycles of Maha Yugas, during the Pralayas as during the periods of Manvantara: and this is SPACE, . . .” (CW 3.423).

The catechism-type phrase is repeated so often in Buddhist texts, with small variants, and the parallel is so clear, that I think there can be no doubt about the equivalence. The Sanskrit term behind “space” as used for ultimate reality in the system of thought associated with the Book of Dzyan is dhātu. It is “basic space,” and it is “the one element” (see:, especially pp. 13-14).


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