The Theosophical Forum – November 1948


When H. P. Blavatsky included those golden precepts in her Voice of the Silence that tell of the twofold path to Nirvana, she made no error in spiritual judgment. Strong and clear, her words are an ever present reminder that as the twig of the heart is bent today, so will the tree of enlightenment be inclined in the future: inclined to compassion — or to self.

The PATH is one, Disciple, yet in the end twofold. . . . Both are of merit the reward: the choice is thine. . . .

Unveiled stands truth and looks thee sternly in the face. She says:

"Sweet are the fruits of Rest and Liberation for the sake of Self; but sweeter still the fruits of long and bitter duty. Aye, Renunciation for the sake of others, of suffering fellow men."

He, who becomes Pratyeka-Buddha, makes his obeisance but to his Self. The Bodhisattva who has won the battle, who holds the prize within his palm, yet says in his divine compassion:

"For others' sake this great reward I yield" — accomplishes the greater Renunciation.


Thou canst choose either, O aspirant to Sorrow, throughout the coming cycles!

How tragic then that this cardinal teaching both of the Trans-Himalayan and Northern Buddhistic Schools should have been clouded over with doubt and mistrust. Backed as it is by scores of Buddhistic writings one is at a loss to account for Mrs. Besant's assertion that H. P. B. had made a "mistake" in stating that a Pratyeka Buddha is a "synonym of spiritual selfishness." To quote Mrs. Besant's own words which appear in a footnote on page 416 of the collection of H. P. B.'s articles posthumously published by Mr. Mead and herself as a third volume to The Secret Doctrine:

The Pratyeka Buddha stands on the level of the Buddha, but His work for the world has nothing to do with its teaching, and His office has always been surrounded with mystery. The preposterous view that He, at such superhuman height of power, wisdom and love could be selfish, is found in the exoteric books, though it is hard to see how it can have arisen. H. P. B. charged me to correct the mistake, as she had, in a careless moment, copied such a statement elsewhere. — A. B.

And yet we find this "preposterous view" held by the greatest of sages, both among the Mahayana and Hinayana Schools, to say nothing of the Venerable Nagasena whose "talk plunged to the hidden depths" of the Law. Why should the populace in Buddhistic countries worship the Bodhisattva rather than the long line of Buddhas who remain in Nirvana, and cherish his act of renunciation as the highest goal of spiritual achievement if it were not that the path followed by the Pratyeka is looked on with contempt. Such are mockingly dubbed ekasringa, "one-horned," like unto the rhinoceros who seeks the waters (of Ananda) for self alone, never for family or friend.

We doubt not the sincerity of Mrs. Besant's assertion, based on her own conviction that the teaching was wrong. But sincerity is no guarantee of truth; and lightly to pass judgment on teachings given by Those who know far more than we is to court danger not alone to ourselves, but more, to those we would lead.

Unless compassion become the dominant motif in the life of the disciple, he will indeed, should he win out, become Pratyeka; but if he fail, he may as easily, if the motive is for self-advancement alone, fall into the path of the Shadow. The life is judged not by deed or word, nor even by mighty act of courage, but solely by the inner motive propelling aspiration. Masters care little for pomp and circumstance. Their interest centers on the burning light of compassion, even in the least of men, for this is the stuff that Adepts are made on. Buddhas of the Pratyeka Path there will be hundreds; Bodhisattvas who win Nirvana yet turn back to the world of sorrow there will be few — but the boon of active compassion of even one such is a light for countless centuries.

Is it beyond belief that the course of theosophical history might have been different had this fundamental teaching of Compassion been understood by all branches of the Movement? As the twig is bent. . . . For within the doctrine of Pratyeka versus Compassion lies the fundamental difference between the School of the Masters and any ordinary exoteric branch of learning.

It was these thoughts that came to mind while listening one afternoon to the subtle and profound questionings of King Milinda (1) (of Buddhist fame) addressed to his preceptor, the Venerable Nagasena, and great was the reward, for when the King asked his guru, "Was the Buddha omniscient?" the remarkable reply came: "Yes, O king, he was. But the insight of knowledge was not always and continually present with him. The omniscience of the Blessed One was dependent on reflection. But if he did reflect he knew whatever he wanted to know." A perfect confirmation of the renunciation made by Gautama, the Blessed One, who "on reflection," that is at will, had absolute power to tap the source of all-knowledge (Nirvana), yet out of deliberate compassion such "insight and knowledge was not always and continually present with him." Do not our Masters follow this same pattern? On their own admission, they are not Adepts at every moment, but when acting as such are accorded "an instantaneous, implicit insight into every first truth." (Mahatma Letters, 241)

Then following the ancient form of dialogue between teacher and pupil, Nagasena leads the mind of the king through seven gateways of comprehension, discoursing in detail upon the seven classes of minds, the sixth being the Pachcheka (Pratyeka) Buddhas, and the seventh, the Perfect or Complete Buddhas. Because of the marked similarity in spiritual content between the recital of Nagasena, with the Seven Portals of the Voice of the Silence, in which the seven strongholds of experience are graphically portrayed for the disciple who, attaining the Paramita Heights, would yet make the great choice, we reproduce his answer in brief. The first class of minds comprise

(1) "Those, great king, who are full of lust, ill-will, delusion, or wrong doing, who are untrained in the management of their body, or in conduct, or in thought, or in wisdom, — their thinking powers are brought into play with difficulty, and act slowly." Because of this they are like unto the "wide-spreading, extensive, overgrown, and interlaced vegetation, and with its branches intricately entangled one with the other. So slow and heavy are the movements of the minds of those men, O king. And why? Because of the intricate entanglements of wrong dispositions."

(2) The second class are those "who have been converted" and have attained to right views, "who have grasped the doctrine of the Master," but whose thinking powers act with ease only "so far as the three lower stages [the three Fetters of Delusion of self, Doubt, and Dependence on rites and ceremonies and outward morality] are concerned." As for the higher regions, their faculties "because of the failings still existing within them" are brought into play with difficulty, and act slowly, like a tree that is smooth up to its third knot, but when dragged along sticks "obstinately as regards its upper branches."

(3) The third class of "thinking powers" are called Sakad Agamins (Pali for Sakrid Agamins of the Voice), literally those who will "come again once more" to Earth, "in whom lust, ill-will, and delusion are reduced to a minimum"; and whose powers are swiftly acting as far as the "five lower stages" are concerned.

(4) The fourth class are Anagamins, those who will "return no more" to Earth, whose Arhatship is secure,

who have completely got rid of the five lower fetters, — their thinking powers, so far as the ten stages are concerned, are brought quickly into play, and act with ease.

But even here, as regards the higher regions we are reminded that the Anagamins,

because of the failings still existing within them [are like] the movement of a giant bambu which has a smooth trunk as far as the tenth knot, but above that has its branches intricately entangled.

(5) The fifth class are those Arahats (Pali for Arhats)

in whom the four Great Evils [lust, becoming, delusion, and ignorance] have ceased, whose stains have been washed away, whose predispositions to evil have been put aside, who have lived the life, and accomplished the task, and laid aside every burden, and reached up to that which is good, for whom the Fetter of the craving after any kind of future life has been broken to pieces, who have reached the higher insight, who are purified as regards all those conditions of heart in which a hearer can be pure, — their thinking powers, as regards all that a disciple can be or do, are brought quickly into play, and act with ease.

Yet even this fifth class of minds acts with difficulty as to "those things which are within the reach of the Pachcheka-Buddhas [Pali for Pratyeka-Buddhas]" which comprise

(6) The sixth class of minds, aptly described by Nagasena as follows:

Those, O king, who are Pachcheka-Buddhas, dependent on themselves alone, wanting no teacher, dwellers alone like the solitary horn of the rhinoceros, who so far as their own higher life is concerned, have pure hearts free from stain, — their thinking powers, so far as their own province is concerned, are brought quickly into play, and act with ease. But as regards all that is specially within the province of a perfect Buddha (one who is not only Buddha, that is enlightened, himself, but can lead others to the light) they are brought with difficulty into play, and move slowly.

"And why is this so?" Nagasena continues, and note well the precision of implication in his answer:

Because of their purity as regards all within their own province, and because of the immensity of the province of the omniscient Buddhas. [Italics ours] It is like a man, O king, who would fearlessly cross, and at will, by day or night, a shallow brook on his own property. But when he comes in sight of the mighty ocean, deep and wide and ever-moving, and sees no further shore to it, then would he stand hesitating and afraid, and make no effort even to get over it.

And again Nagasena says, "And why?" and for answer gives the same potent reply: "Because of his familiarity with his own, and because of the immensity of the sea."

How vast in importance the pattern of thinking engendered by the foregoing. Well did H. P. B. know the direction of aspiration in which she was leading her students when she quoted that ancient precept, that "he, who becomes Pratyeka-Buddha, makes his obeisance but to his Self," her footnote thereto adding significant emphasis that

Pratyeka Buddhas are those Bodhisattvas who strive after and often reach the Dharmakaya robe after a series of lives. Caring nothing for the woes of mankind or to help it, but only for their own bliss, they enter Nirvana and — disappear from the sight and the hearts of men. In Northern Buddhism a "Pratyeka Buddha" is a synonym of spiritual Selfishness.

Why, we ask, should the simple question of Milinda as to whether the Buddha was omniscient be so painstakingly answered by a long dissertation on the seven classes of minds if it were not to lead by slow yet persuasive appeal to the distinction between the sixth and seventh classes: the Pratyeka who would be buddha or "enlightened" indeed, but only within "the shallow brook on his own property," only within the narrow province of his own buddhi; and the Buddha, perfect and complete, "whose mastery knows no limit," and whose sole aim for enlightenment is that he might shoot the dart of his omniscience into the world of sorrow and bring cessation of pain, renewal of light?

But let us continue with Nagasena as he tells of this seventh and final class of minds, who

(7) are complete Buddhas (not only themselves enlightened, but able to teach, leaders of men), having all knowledge, bearing about in themselves the tenfold power (of the ten kinds of insight), confident in the four modes of just self-confidence, endowed with the eighteen characteristics of a Buddha, whose mastery knows no limit, from whose grasp nothing is hid, — their thinking powers are on every point brought quickly into play, and act with ease. . . . And why? Because of their being purified in every respect. . . .

Now of these, O king, the last — the thinking powers of the omniscient Buddhas — altogether outclasses the other six, and is clear and active in its high quality that is beyond our ken. . . . For the knowledge of the Blessed One, O king, is dependent upon reflection, and it is on reflection that he knows whatever he wishes to know. — IV, i, 19-27

Today, some 2000 years or more after "the world famous sage," Nagasena, the Elder, had discoursed with his disciple, Milinda, king of the Yonakas at Sagala, another set of dialogues between Teacher and pupil appear, wherein this same teaching on the qualities and powers of the Buddha is hammered home in a thousand and one different ways, yet always with the power and authority of "one who knew." For again and again, do pupils today seek answers to this age-old question: "How is it that a Buddha who has attained to so lofty a stature of wisdom can still be selfish?" And true to occult tradition, G. de P. replies therein (italics ours):

This name "Pratyeka" means "each for himself." . . . The Pratyeka Buddha knows that he cannot advance to spiritual glory unless he lives the spiritual life, unless he cultivates his spiritual nature, but as he does this solely in order to win spiritual rewards, spiritual life, for himself alone, he is a Pratyeka-Buddha. He is for himself, in the last analysis. There is a personal eagerness, a personal wish, to forge ahead, to attain at any cost; whereas he who belongs to our own Holy Order, the Order of the Buddhas of Compassion, has his eyes set on the same distant objective, but he trains himself from the very beginning to become utterly self-forgetful. . . .

The time comes when the Pratyeka-Buddha, holy as he is, noble in effort and in ideal as he is, can go no farther. But, contrariwise, the one who allies himself from the very beginning with all Nature, and with Nature's heart, has a constantly expanding field of work, as his consciousness expands and fills that field; and this expanding field is simply illimitable, because it is boundless Nature herself. He becomes utterly at one with the spiritual Universe; whereas the Pratyeka-Buddha becomes at one with only a particular line or stream of evolution in the Universe. — II, 441-2

And then again, in speaking of the Perfect Buddhas, G. de P. explains that the Compassion Buddhas

are older souls, riper in wisdom, more closely knitted to the compassionate Heart of Being, follow the instincts of their nature which urge them to remain as Guides and Inspirers of those less advanced. — I, 415

And so one might continue to elaborate by quotation this theme, but there is no need with The Dialogues of G. de P. now available. Truly, we are taught, that as the powers of the mind, the current of the heart, are channeled in the earliest days of discipleship, so will the stream of Arhatship be determined in the future. "Thou canst choose either, throughout the coming cycles!"


1. Summer class on "The Questions of King Milinda," Sacred Books of the East, xxxv and xxxvi, conducted by A. L. Conger at Covina. (return to text)

The Theosophical Forum