On the Name “Book of Dzyan”

By David Reigle on September 21, 2013 at 11:43 pm

The evidence shows that: (1) “Book of Dzyan” is not the actual or proper name of the book in question; (2) of the two meanings given by Blavatsky, “dzyan” would be “wisdom/knowledge” rather than “meditation”; (3) therefore the “Book of Dzyan” is a generic name signifying only “Book of Wisdom” or “Book of Knowledge.”

1. That “Book of Dzyan” is not the actual or proper name can be seen from this quotation from The Secret Doctrine (vol. 1, p. xxii): “The Book of Dzyan (or ‘Dzan’) is utterly unknown to our Philologists, or at any rate was never heard of by them under its present name.”

2. Blavatsky gives two meanings for the word “dzyan.” The most well-known one is “meditation,” the meaning of the similar-looking Sanskrit word dhyāna. It is found in “The Secret Books of ‘Lam-rim’ and Dzyan” (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 3, 1897, p. 405; Adyar edition, vol. 5, p. 389; Collected Writings, vol. 14, p. 422):

“The Book of Dzyan—from the Sanskrit word “Dhyâna” (mystic meditation)— . . .”

The other meaning given for “dzyan” is “wisdom,” or “knowledge,” the meaning of the similar-sounding Sanskrit word jñāna. It is found in these places:

(a) Footnote to Book of Dzyan* in her French article, “Notes su «L’Ésotérisme du Dogme Chrétien» de M. l’Abbé Roca”; English translation, “Notes on Abbé Roca’s ‘Esotericism of Christian Dogma’” (Collected Writings, vol. 8, p. 361 fn.; p. 380 fn.):

“*Mot tibétain, du mot sanscrit djnyana: sagesse occulte, connaissance.”

“*A Tibetan word, the Sanskrit Jñâna, occult wisdom, knowledge.”

(b) In “‘Reincarnations’ of Buddha” (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 3, 1897, p. 386; Adyar edition, vol. 5, p. 373; Collected Writings, vol. 14, p. 400):

“. . . on the ‘Path of Dzyan’ (knowledge, wisdom).”

(c) In The Theosophical Glossary, under “Dzyn or Dzyan (Tib.). Written also Dzen.” (p. 107):

“A corruption of the Sanskrit Dhyan and Jnâna (or gnyâna phonetically)—Wisdom, divine knowledge.”

The last quotation, although defining dzyan as “wisdom” or “divine knowledge,” gives as equivalents both the Sanskrit words, dhyāna (meaning “meditation”) and jñāna. In another place, she combines their two meanings when giving the meaning of “dzyan” (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 434):

“Says the Book of Dzyan (Knowledge through meditation)— . . .”

However, the word “dzyan” cannot be the Tibetan equivalent of both the Sanskrit dhyāna and jñāna. It must be one or the other. Fortunately, as noted in my 1983 book, The Books of Kiu-te (pp. 46-47), we do not have to guess about this. Since dhyāna is translated into Tibetan as bsam gtan, and jñāna is translated into Tibetan as ye śes, “dzyan” is not a translation; it is a transliteration. Which one is made clear by the fact that when transliterating Sanskrit words into Tibetan, the Tibetan translators always transliterated the Sanskrit letter “j” as the Tibetan letter “dz”, even though Tibetan has a letter “j” of its own. Thus, Sanskrit jñāna is transliterated into Tibetan as dzñāna.

Then, as is well known, the word jñāna is often pronounced gyana in India. Thus, for example, we find a book on Jñāna Yoga titled Gyana Yoga. The palatal “ñ”, a “nya” sound, disappears after the initial “j”, leaving a “y” sound. So phonetically, we now have dzyāna. Lastly, in North Indian pronunciation, a final short “a” is very frequently dropped. Thus, for example, the name Shiva Kumara is pronounced Shiv Kumar. So our dzyāna becomes dzyān. This is a reasonably good phonetic rendering of the Sanskrit word jñāna as transliterated into Tibetan letters, dznyāna, and then pronounced.

The meaning, too, can only be one or the other. As we saw, “wisdom” or knowledge” is given for “dzyan” by Blavatsky on three occasions. This is the meaning of jñāna. On one occasion she gives “meditation,” the meaning of dhyāna. In addition, she gives a combined definition, “Knowledge through meditation.” While jñāna no doubt most often arises through meditation, this is not part of its meaning. So where did Blavatsky get the meaning “meditation” for “dzyan”? Apparently from Rev. Joseph Edkins. In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky writes (vol. 1, p. xx and footnote):

“Indeed, the secret portions of the ‘Danor Jan-na’* (‘Dhyan’) of Gautama’s metaphysics—grand as they appear to one unacquainted with the tenets of the Wisdom Religion of antiquity—are but a very small portion of the whole.”

“*Dan, now become in modern Chinese and Tibetan phonetics chan, is the general term for the esoteric schools, and their literature. In the old books, the word Janna is defined as ‘to reform one’s self by meditation and knowledge,’ a second inner birth. Hence Dzan, Djan phonetically, the ‘Book of Dzyan.’”

Compare Rev. Joseph Edkins, Chinese Buddhism, 1880 (p. 129, fn.):

“The word Ch’an (in old Chinese, jan and dan), originally signifying ‘resign,’ had not the meaning to ‘contemplate’ (now its commonest sense), before the Buddhists adopted it to represent the Sanscrit term Dhyana. The word in Chinese books is spelt in full jan-na, and is explained, ‘to reform one’s self by contemplation or quiet thought.’”

Rev. Edkins further writes about what he called the esoteric schools, and their founder Bodhidharma (pp. 155-156):

“He became the chief founder of the esoteric schools, which were divided into five principal branches. The common word for the esoteric schools is dan, the Sanscrit Dhyana, now called in the modern sound given to the character, ch’an.”

The Chinese word ch’an does indeed render the Sanskrit word dhyāna, “meditation,” and this became the name of the school that made meditation primary, the Ch’an school, which in turn became the Zen school in Japan. Rev. Edkins, writing with the scanty information available before 1880, for some reason called this school and its subdivisions the esoteric schools. This is apparently how Blavatsky associated the name dan with the esoteric schools, and equated it with “dzyan.” But as we have seen, the other information given by Blavatsky shows that “dzyan” is from jñāna, not dhyāna.

3. “Book of Dzyan,” then, is a generic name signifying only “Book of Wisdom” or “Book of Knowledge.”

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