Some Mahatma Letters Sources

By David Reigle on April 30, 2017 at 11:59 pm

The previous post, “A Mahatma Letters Puzzle,” ended with the statement: “The Buddhist terms and quotations found in the Mahatma letters almost always come from then existing books, and therefore cannot be relied upon for accuracy.” This statement should be substantiated by more than just the one example given in that post (nirira namastaka = nivva namastaka = nirvvānamastaka = nirvāṇa-mastaka, a ghost word). For this purpose we may look at the long and doctrinally important Mahatma letter #16, chronological #68, called the “devachan letter” because it is the primary source for the Theosophical teachings on the after-death states including devachan (Tibetan, bde ba can).

Before the days of digital books and electronic searches, Doss McDavid noticed many parallels between the devachan letter and passages in an 1871 book by Samuel Beal, A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese. He found that the quotations of Buddhist scriptures given in this letter come from this book. There would be no reason for the Mahatma to translate these passages himself. These letters were personal correspondence, not scholastic treatises, and were often written in haste. The Mahatma simply drew upon what was already available in order to help make his point.

Mahatma letter, 2nd ed. pp. 99-100, 3rd ed. pp. 97-98, chronological ed. pp. 189-190:
(1) The Deva-Chan, or land of “Sukhavati,” is allegorically described by our Lord Buddha himself. What he said may be found in the Shan-Mun-yi-Tung. Says Tathâgata:—
“Many thousand myriads of systems of worlds beyond this (ours) there is a region of Bliss called Sukhavati. . . . This region is encircled with seven rows of railings, seven rows of vast curtains, seven rows of waving trees; this holy abode of Arahats is governed by the Tathâgatas (Dhyan Chohans) and is possessed by the Bodhisatwas. It hath seven precious lakes, in the midst of which flow crystaline waters having ‘seven and one’ properties, or distinctive qualities (the 7 principles emanating from the ONE). This, O, Sariputra is the ‘Deva Chan.’ Its divine Udambara flower casts a root in the shadow of every earth, and blossoms for all those who reach it. Those born in the blessed region are truly felicitous, there are no more griefs or sorrows in that cycle for them. . . . Myriads of Spirits (Lha) resort there for rest and then return to their own regions.1 Again, O, Sariputra, in that land of joy many who are born in it are Avaivartyas . . .”2 etc., etc.

Footnotes:

1. Those who have not ended their earth rings.
2. Literally—those who will never return—the seventh round men, etc.

Beal’s Catena, pp. 378-379:
[Translated from the Chinese version of Kumârajîva, as it is found in the Shan-mun-yih-tung.] At this time Buddha addressed the venerable Sariputra as follows:—

“In the western regions more than one hundred thousand myriads of systems of worlds beyond this, there is a Sakwala named Sukhavatî. Why is this region so named? Because all those born in it have no griefs or sorrows: they experience only unmixed joys; therefore it is named the infinitely happy land. Again, Sariputra, this happy region is surrounded by seven rows of ornamental railings, seven rows of exquisite curtains, seven rows of waving trees—hence, again, it is called the infinitely happy region. Again, Sariputra, this happy land possesses seven gemmous lakes, in the midst of which flow waters possessed of the eight distinctive qualities . . . .

“Again, Sâriputra, the land of that Buddha ever shares in heavenly delights (or music), the ground is resplendent gold, at morning and evening showers of the Divine Udambara flower descend upon all those born there, at early dawn the most exquisite blossoms burst out at their side: thousand myriads of Buddhas instantly resort here for refreshment, and then return to their own regions, and for this reason, Sâriputra, that land is called most happy. . . .

“Again, Sâriputra, in that land of perfect joy all who are born, are born as Avaivartyas (never to return), . . .”

We notice that, or order to make his point, the Mahatma emphasized certain parts of this quotation by underlining (italics in the printed version), such as the word seven. But he also changed the quotation in order to make his point, changing Beal’s “eight distinctive qualities” to “‘seven and one’ properties, or distinctive qualities (the 7 principles emanating from the ONE).” Beal’s “at morning and evening showers of the Divine Udambara flower descend upon all those born there” became “Its divine Udambara flower casts a root in the shadow of every earth, and blossoms for all those who reach it.” Beal’s “all those born in it have no griefs or sorrows” was moved down and became “there are no more griefs or sorrows in that cycle for them.” Beal’s “thousand myriads of Buddhas instantly resort here for refreshment, and then return to their own regions” became “Myriads of Spirits (Lha) resort there for rest and then return to their own regions.1,” with the footnote “1. Those who have not ended their earth rings.” Beal’s “Again, Sâriputra, in that land of perfect joy all who are born, are born as Avaivartyas (never to return),” became “Again, O, Sariputra, in that land of joy many who are born in it are Avaivartyas . . .2,” with the footnote “2. Literally—those who will never return—the seventh round men, etc.”

As may be seen, all of these changes made by the Mahatma in the quotation brought in teachings about devachan that the Mahatma was giving to his correspondent, A. P. Sinnett. It may be thought that these changes made by the Mahatma are simply more accurate translations of the Buddhist text. They are not. They are less accurate translations, but bring in esoteric interpretations of the Buddhist text. We learn what the Shan-mun-yih-tung is from Samuel Beal’s article, “Translation of the Amitâbha Sûtra from Chinese” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1866, pp. 136-144). Beal begins his translation by saying: “The Amitâbha Sûtra. Extracted from the work called ‘Shan Mun Yih Tung,’ or Daily Prayers of the Contemplative School of Priests” (p. 140). He had a few pages earlier introduced it as follows: “The following translation of the Amitâbha Sûtra is made from the Chinese edition of that work, prepared by Kumârajîva, and bound up in a volume known as the ‘Daily Prayers of the Buddhist Priests belonging to the Contemplative School’ (Shan-mun)” (p. 136). So what we have from Beal in his 1871 Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese is actually a translation of the Amitābha Sūtra. As is well known, the Amitābha Sūtra is a popular name for the shorter Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtra.

The original Sanskrit text of the shorter Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtra was recovered and first published by F. Max Müller in his article, “On Sanskrit Texts Discovered in Japan” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1880, pp. 153-188). It was reprinted along with the larger Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtra in the book, Sukhāvatī-vyūha: Description of Sukhāvatī, the Land of Bliss, edited by F. Max Müller and Bunyiu Nanjio (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1883). So we can compare the original Sanskrit. The Sanskrit word for the first change, “eight” to “seven and one,” is aṣṭa, “eight.” The Sanskrit word for the second change, “showers” to “shadow,” is pravarṣati, “showers.” Further, the Sanskrit does not have “Udambara flower” here, but rather has “māndārava flower.” The third change, the addition of “in that cycle,” is not in the Sanskrit. The fourth and fifth changes are a little more complex. Beal’s translation from the Chinese does not quite match the Sanskrit, but neither do the changes introduced by the Mahatma. Of course, the added footnotes by the Mahatma bring in esoteric teachings, not found in the exoteric text.

For those who wish to pursue this in English translations, both the shorter and the longer Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtras were first translated from the original Sanskrit by F. Max Müller in Buddhist Mahâyâna Texts, Part II (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1894), = Sacred Books of the East, vol. 49. This was a pioneering translation, when the meaning of a number of Sanskrit Buddhist terms was not yet established. Both the shorter and the longer Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtras were again translated from the original Sanskrit by Luis O. Gómez, and published in Land of Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1996). This book also includes separate translations of these two texts from the Chinese translations. The shorter Sukhāvatī-vyūha Sūtra was translated from the Tibetan translation by Georgios T. Halkias, and published in Luminous Bliss: A Religious History of Pure Land Literature in Tibet (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013).

References to the rest of the quotations from Buddhist texts in Mahatma letter #16, chronological #68, the “devachan letter,” in Beal’s Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, are, in sequence: pp. 117, 86, 85, 90, 120, 64. Perhaps more about these and others can be posted later.

In summary, the Mahatma letters teach esoteric Buddhism. Being letters, they used then available translations of Buddhist texts for their quotations. They often altered these quotations to show the esoteric teachings. The Buddhist terms and quotations found in the Mahatma letters are therefore often inaccurate on two counts: They are quotations from early and often unreliable translations; they are often altered to bring in esoteric teachings that are not stated in the Buddhist texts themselves.

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