O Lanoo! The Secret Doctrine Unveiled

By David Reigle on May 25, 2012 at 4:47 am

In the book, O Lanoo! The Secret Doctrine Unveiled (Findhorn Press, 1999), Harvey Tordoff has given to us what Tibetan lamas give to their students. He has done this for the Book of Dzyan. He has taken the stanzas of the Book of Dzyan as translated into English by H. P. Blavatsky and put them into modern English language. The language of the Tibetan scriptures, precisely translated from Sanskrit originals, is largely incomprehensible even to Tibetan monks, let alone to the Tibetan public. So these texts need to be re-stated in comprehensible Tibetan. This is what Tibetan lamas have done over the centuries. This is what Harvey has done for the Book of Dzyan, re-stating its stanzas in comprehensible English.

To put a text into more comprehensible language is quite different from simplifying the text. Neither Tibetan lamas nor Harvey in their re-statements have consciously undertaken simplifications of the text. On the contrary, it is clear that Harvey, like a Tibetan lama, has made an in-depth study of the text in order to be able to re-state its ideas accurately. Any re-statement necessarily involves a certain amount of paraphrasing and interpretation. For example, in stanza 5, verse 2, “The Dzyu becomes Fohat” is paraphrased as “Divine Thought, now manifesting as dynamic creative energy.” Even direct translation involves interpretation.

Re-statements by lamas and others also often include amplification and added explanations. Sometimes these are meant to fill in information found elsewhere in the text. For example, stanza 6, verse 5, says briefly: “At the fourth, the sons are told to create their images. One third refuses.” Background information to this is filled in by Harvey, and the verse is given by him as: “In each of the seven Great Ages of Planet Earth there are seven Races of Man. In the first three Races Man, like Earth, was not yet solid; in this, the fourth Great Age, the Spirit of Man had to clothe itself in Matter; this was the Fall: Not the Fall of Man into sin but the Fall of Spirit into Matter. The Beings who developed in the first three Great Ages had now to experience the world of Matter, and though there were those Creative Spirits who accepted physical incarnation in these hardening bodies, one-third refused.”

Sometimes these additions are based on insights of the writer. A probable example of this is the helpful phrase added to stanza 2, verse 1: “as the elements of hydrogen and oxygen rest in water,” after the statement: “In the unknowable Darkness of absolute perfection the purified Soul of Man rested with your Creators in the bliss of non-being.”

More often these added explanations are based on traditional commentaries. In this book, this may mean an old commentary or catechism quoted by HPB in her commentary on the verse. An example of this is the sentence added to stanza 5, verse 4, not forming part of that verse in the Book of Dzyan: “But even though you see many lights in the sky, and the many lights of Human Souls, perhaps you can sense that there is but one flame.” This is based on a quotation from “the Catechism” given in HPB’s commentary on this verse: “Lift thy head, oh Lanoo; dost thou see one, or countless lights above thee, burning in the dark midnight sky?” “I sense one Flame, oh Gurudeva, I see countless undetached sparks shining in it.”

This may also mean drawing on HPB’s own commentary. An example of this is the phrase added to stanza 7, verse 5, also not forming part of that verse in the Book of Dzyan: “but seek not the ‘missing link’, for while Man and beast have much in common yet Man is not descended from the ape.” This, of course, is based on explanations and statements made many times by HPB in The Secret Doctrine.

Very much the same things are seen in the expository works written by Tibetan lamas. They, too, when re-stating the original text frequently bring in additional explanations. These may come from their knowledge of the text as a whole, their knowledge of its system of thought as a whole, their own personal insights, comments that they have heard from their own teachers, and traditional commentaries written on the text. All are intended to make the original text, whether the words of the Buddha or the words of an Indian teacher, comprehensible to their Tibetan audience. These words are often not comprehensible as they are found in the original texts.

The words of the Buddha, and also the words of the Indian treatises on them, are regarded by Tibetan Buddhists as being sacred. They could not be altered, and had to be preserved faithfully. Therefore, rules were made and followed for the accurate and literal translation of the original Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan. This resulted in an accuracy of translation unparalleled anywhere in the world for an entire body of texts, the Kangyur and Tengyur forming the Tibetan Buddhist canon.

Standardized translation equivalents were used for the technical terms, so that, for example, samādhi is always ting nge ‘dzin, and can always be distinguished from dhyāna, bsam gtan. This is quite unlike in English, where concentration, or meditative absorption, or meditative stabilization, or other such terms, can be and are used for either of these. This makes it difficult to follow the instructions given in texts translated by different translators on the Kālacakra six-branched yoga, in which dhyāna is the second branch and samādhi is the sixth branch. One translator uses one term for the second branch, while another translator uses the same term for the sixth branch.

Even the Sanskrit word order was mostly retained in the Tibetan translations. This accuracy resulted in the faithful preservation of the sacred words of the original texts. At the same time, this very accuracy made these texts largely incomprehensible to native Tibetan speakers without special study. That is why Tibetan lamas would re-state these texts in more comprehensible language for their students. Thus we find that the original Indian texts in their accurate Tibetan translations are normally studied by Tibetans through native Tibetan re-statements of them included in native Tibetan commentaries on them.

It is practically certain that the translation of the Book of Dzyan into Tibetan from the earlier Sanskrit, itself apparently translated from the still earlier Senzar, followed the same rules for accuracy. We are in the same situation as the Tibetans were; for them the sacred words had to be preserved unaltered. It is crucial that the initial translation, whether into Tibetan or into English, be as literally accurate as possible. We cannot afford to allow personal interpretations to enter in at this stage of the transmission. But this means that a re-statement of the text in more comprehensible language will inevitably be needed. Harvey Tordoff has provided this for us in O Lanoo! The Secret Doctrine Unveiled.

When an original language text of the Book of Dzyan is discovered, which it is the goal of this blog to prepare for, this process will start all over again. We will then be in a position to make a more literally accurate translation, and having its original terms will clarify many points. But the new translation is likely to be, if anything, even less comprehensible overall than HPB’s pioneering translation. Hers has a poetic quality that is unlikely to be found in a more literally accurate translation. There will be all the more need for making this text accessible in a comprehensible English version. In the meantime, new Sanskrit and Tibetan texts are being published nearly every month, allowing new insights into the old and often little understood ideas found in the Book of Dzyan.

Category: Noteworthy Books | 3 comments

  • Lanoo_Harvey says:

    David, I do not think you give yourself sufficient credit. In HPB’s presentation of the stanzas (Dzyan, and Voice of the Silence) she is poetical; presumably in deference to the poetical quality of the original, but most of her writing, like yours, is erudite.

    If the original language text becomes available in my lifetime I would be delighted to re-work O Lanoo from your interpretations! Meanwhile, I continue to try to make theosophy more accessible on a mundane level. My film script (still waiting for a producer) slips some Dyan stanzas in between some of HPB’s adventures, the whole being wrapped in a mainstream modern movie format. I’m sure Adyar would not approve, but if successful it could expose millions of people to some basic theosophical concepts.

  • David Reigle says:

    Lanoo Harvey, you are quite welcome to post something from this on your valuable website.

    Yes, I fully agree that a translator or interpreter has an enormous responsibility to take great care to be faithful to the original. Our own styles could hardly be more different from each other. Yet I think that your style is overall closer to HPB’s style than mine is. This is due, I think, to the poetical quality that yours and hers share.

    I sincerely hope that when an original language text of the Book of Dzyan becomes available, we can work together on it. I, due to my background and inclinations, will try to make a literally accurate translation. Perhaps you will then want to make a new version of your own, based on the new material. I think they would complement each other nicely.

  • Lanoo_Harvey says:

    David, thank you for these thoughtful comments.

    A translator or interpretor has an enormous duty of care to the original. (S)he must try to convey the essence of the meaning in a style that is in harmony with the original, without ever believing that the interpretation can be a substitute.

    This book was doubly difficult because I couldn’t attempt to interpret from the original stanzas of Dzyan. I had to rely entirely on Blavatsky’s interpretations and observations. It was impossible, of course, to condense her 750,000 words into a mere 10,000, and so I simply focused on the essence of each stanza. I would hope that O Lanoo! can act as a road map for anyone wanting to tackle The Secret Doctrine itself.

    I hope you don’t mind, but I have included a short extract from your your comments at http://www.olanoo.com. I have, of course, provided a link to this blog.


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