by John Algeo
Originally printed in the Fall 2010 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Algeo, John. "Blavatsky and Confucius." Quest 98. 4 (Fall 2010): 130-134.
Yang and yin, the two great cosmological principles whose combination generates the ten thousand things of nature, may be associated, respectively, with the West and the East, the proactive and receptive cultural hemispheres. They may also be associated with two great teachers: Western Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Eastern Confucius. Yang and yin are not opposites, but complements. They merge together, each becoming the other, in the revolving diagram of the t'ai chi or absolute (). So also Blavatsky and Confucius, like West and East, interact, each articulating the same Ancient Wisdom, though with different accents. Theosophists know a lot about Blavatsky, but less about Confucius, though he greatly merits our attention.
"Confucius" is a Latinized form for the name of the greatest Chinese philosopher and teacher, who lived for some seventy-two years (551—479 bc). The Chinese appellation from which the name "Confucius" comes is K'ung-fu-tzu or Kongfuzi (depending on the transliteration system one uses), which means "Master Kung." And a very great master he was. If we judge a teacher by the number of persons influenced by his teaching, Master Kung is arguably the greatest teacher ever to have lived on this planet. His teachings have deeply influenced the societies of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam for two and a half millennia and thus have guided the lives of more human beings than any other system of beliefs.
Although recognized by H. P. Blavatsky and her teachers as one of the Elder Brothers, Master Kung has been accorded relatively little attention by Theosophists. That is unfortunate, because his teachings are wisely Theosophical. Of all the great spiritual traditions of humanity, Confucianism is the closest to Theosophy in certain respects. Many religious traditions think of this world as a place to be escaped from. But Confucianism and Theosophy think of it as a place where self-realization can be achieved. One scholar of Confucianism put it this way:
The art of Confucian spirituality might be described as discovering one's cosmological being amidst daily affairs. For the Confucian the ordinary is the locus of the extraordinary; the secular is the sacred; the transcendent is in the immanent. What distinguishes Confucian spirituality among the world's religious traditions is an all-encompassing cosmological context that grounds its world-affirming orientation for humanity. This is not a tradition that seeks liberation outside the world, but rather one that affirms the spirituality of becoming more fully human within the world. (Tucker 1)
Much the same thing could be said of Theosophical spirituality. Both Confucianism and Theosophy are world-affirming, rather than world-denying.
As for the person of Master Kung, in Isis Unveiled (2:159), Blavatsky mentions that there are two classes among the great teachers. One is those holy (that is, "whole") ones who have permanently united with their spiritual selves; they include Budadha, Christ, and Krishana. The other category is those who have been so united at intervals; they include Moses, Pythagoras, Apollonius, Plotinus, Plato, Iamblichus, and Confucius.
We should not, however, think of the latter group as somehow "second class" Masters. They too are Elders, far ahead of us in evolution. Our species is now in a stage of its evolution known in Theosophical literature as the Fourth Round. Blavatsky, however, explains (Secret Doctrine 1:162) that Confucius and Plato are Fifth-Rounders because they have evolved psychically, mentally, and spiritually to the level that will be the norm of humanity in the next round after our current one—ages in the future. In making this observation, Blavatsky was quoting one of her teachers, Koot Hoomi (or K.H.), who wrote: "Plato and Confucius were fifth round men and our Lord [Buddha] a sixth round man" (Mahatma Letters, chronological letter 66, 3d ed., 14).
In her earliest writing, Blavatsky was less sympathetic to Confucius than in her later works. In July 1875, before the foundation of the Theosophical Society, she wrote of his "cold, practical philosophy" (Collected Writings 1:108), and she observed that he "confined his attention solely to his own country." Even so, she recognized that he was "trying to apply his profound wisdom and philosophy to the wants of his countrymen." Her judgment of Confucius in this regard seems less sympathetic than it was later to become, perhaps because in her later years Blavatsky grew better acquainted with the teachings of Master Kung.
If we consider Confucian teachings parallel to those of Theosophy, we can understand why Blavatsky came to hold the Chinese teacher in such high regard. To be sure, "parallel to" does not mean "equivalent to" or "the same as." In any coherent system of thought, every idea in the system derives its meaning from, and is connected with, other ideas in that system. Thus no two ideas from different thought systems can ever be exactly equivalent because they have separate connections, each within its own frame of reference. But ideas from different systems can be like each other in some respects and thus be parallel. The ideas cited here from Theosophy and Confucianism are not the same ideas, but they echo each other in notable ways.
Blavatsky and Master Kung were both fundamentally concerned, not with intellectual abstractions, but with human behavior, that is, with ethics or moral action. Yet all action needs to be considered within a view of the nature of the cosmos in which we act. Blavatsky and Master Kung both relate human behavior to the larger cosmos. Here are nine ways in which their teachings are parallel.
1. Because of their shared concern for ethics, Blavatsky early commented on Master Kung's version of the Golden Rule, and referred to it repeatedly. In Isis Unveiled (2:239, 338) she noted that the Christian "Golden Rule" is paralleled in Confucius's Analects. Perhaps the clearest statement is Analects 15.24, where a disciple asks the Master whether some single word can sum up how we ought to live. The Master replied: "It is perhaps shu (= consideration of others). What you do not wish for yourself, do not impose on others." In another passage (4.15), the Master said that his teaching was simple and easy to understand. One of his disciples explained: "The doctrine of our master consists in doing what we should, and in being considerate of others." Those two principles are parallel with two concepts that H.P.B. often cited: dharma and ahims?. The first principle, "doing what we should," is living according to our dharma or duty in life. The second principle, "consideration of others" (in Chinese shu, often translated as "reciprocity"), advises us not to harm others, but to treat them as we would want them to treat us, and so is equivalent to ahims?.
2. Blavatsky found Confucius's attitude toward "spirits" (specifically, spirits of the dead) compatible with her own. She believed that most of the "spirits" contacted in sÃ©ances were not what they seemed to be. In 1872 she wrote to her relatives about the belief of Spiritualists: "Their spirits are no spirits but spooks—rags, the cast off second skins of their personalities that the dead shed in the astral light as serpents shed theirs on earth." So Blavatsky quotes Confucius's words as one of "the wise conclusions of some of the greatest philosophers" (Collected Writings 2:178). She is referring to his advice to his students: "Respect the spirits and—keep them at a distance." When one of his students asked Confucius how to serve the spirits, the Master responded: "You cannot serve men yet; how can you serve the spirits?" (Analects 11.12). Confucius's reluctance to talk about otherworldly matters is much like a similar reluctance by the Buddha and the Christ.
3. One of the great themes in both Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, and indeed all of Blavatsky's writing, is that the Wisdom is ancient, not new. None of the great teachers ever put forth new ideas, but only restated ancient traditions in a form appropriate to their time and place. Blavatsky consequently looks with favor on Confucius, who also claimed to do only that. She cites the Analects (7.1), where Confucius said: "I only hand on: I cannot create new things. I believe in the ancients and therefore I love them." But just as Blavatsky restated the Ancient Wisdom for the West in the late nineteenth century, Master Kung did the same for China in the fifth century BC. As one scholar puts it, "Confucius's €˜transmission' is not simply imposing the past on the present . . . . Rather, his transmission is a dynamic process of meeting new challenges with resources accumulated in the past, which become revitalized and renewed in being made useful and relevant to the present" (Sor-hoon Tan, 71). That is also what Theosophy does—or should do.
4. Blavatsky (Secret Doctrine 1:441) calls Confucius a "great sage" and "one of the greatest sages of the ancient world," who believed in and practiced "ancient magic," that is, the divination of the I Ching or "Book of Changes," which is one of the Confucian Five Classics or central scriptures. She says that he also taught the sphericity of the Earth and the heliocentric system. In several other places in The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky refers admiringly to Confucius, especially to those aspects of his teaching that are most like the Wisdom Tradition she was presenting in that book. For example, the I-Ching or Yijing, which Confucius certainly knew, mentions the "great Extreme" (or "Supreme Ultimate," as the Chinese term t'ai chi or taiji is also translated). It is the ground and source of everything (Secret Doctrine 1:356) and thus is the same as Blavatsky's concept of Parabrahm, the Absolute.
5. Although the Chinese are sometimes said to have no cosmogony, Blavatsky affirms that they do (Secret Doctrine 1:440-41). The "Great Extreme" is the source of "changes" (that is, all forms of cyclicity). Cyclicity, in the form of changing circumstances, is the subject of the I Ching. And change or periodicity is affirmed by the second of The Secret Doctrine's three fundamental propositions.
6. Blavatsky says that the "Great Extreme" first produces two energies, which are represented by two figures: yang, a solid line representing unity, and yin, a broken or divided line, representing duality. These two lines in turn combine to produce four "images," which are the possible combinations and orderings of the two lines. The two lines also combine in groups of three to produce eight "symbols," each consisting of three lines, in all the possible combinations of the yang and yin lines. Blavatsky says that these "wise symbols" "represent precisely the same idea" as "the Stanzas [of Dzyan] given in our text." The unfolding of duality and then of multiplicity from the Unity that underlies all existence is the great theme of The Secret Doctrine's cosmogony and also of the lines of the I Ching.
Together, these Confucian concepts of the Great Extreme and the Changes parallel the first two fundamental propositions of The Secret Doctrine: an Absolute that is the source of everything and a process of manifestation by cycles, which can be found everywhere in this world.
7. Blavatsky also says (Secret Doctrine 1:440) that Confucius did not believe in a future life, but rather in the "changes," that is, transformations or rebirths: "He denied immortality to the personality of man—as we do—not to MAN." Theosophical teachings about the afterlife and reincarnation have often been misunderstood because we tend to identify ourselves with the personality, which neither survives nor is reborn. Only the individuality or "thread-self" endures from life to life. This is the distinction Blavatsky alludes to here. Confucius did not talk about reincarnation, because that involved what happens after death, which is another subject he avoided. When one of his students asked Confucius what death is, the Master responded: "You do not understand life yet; how can you understand death?" (Analects 11.12). Confucius's concern was how to live well in this life. But, as Blavatsky points out, Confucius regards the "changes" as pervasive in the world, and reincarnation can be seen as an aspect of those changes.
While recognizing a spiritual order of existence, Master Kung emphasized life in this world. He was concerned especially with how we can live together in society peacefully and productively. He emphasized the centrality of human relationships: between parent and child, ruler and subject, husband and wife, elder and younger sibling, and friend and friend. His emphasis on human community and the family can be seen as parallel to the first Object of the Theosophical Society: "to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood (or family) of humanity."
By the time H.P.B. wrote The Key to Theosophy, near the end of her life, Confucius had risen greatly in her estimation, precisely because of the moral strength of his teaching. In The Key, she says that Theosophical ethics "are the essence and cream of the world's ethics, gathered from the teachings of all the world's great reformers. Therefore, you will find represented therein Confucius and Zoroaster, Laotze and the Bhagavat-Gita, the precepts of Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth, of Hillel and his school, as of Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and their schools" (48-49). Notice that in listing "the world's great reformers" in the realm of ethics, she mentions Confucius first. And later in The Key (239), she expressed the wish that human beings "would live up to the standard of Confucius and their other sages."
8. With respect to ethical teachings, Master Kung spoke of four categories of human beings who are distinguished by their evolutionary progress toward a realization of the great principles of life. He emphasized that all human beings are fundamentally the same, but he also recognized that by experience and evolution they develop diversely (Analects 17.2). The four human categories he recognized are these (Analects 16.9):
(a) Those who have innate wisdom, who are the divine Sages (that is, avatars or Sixth-Rounders, like the Buddha, Christ, and Krishna). Such far advanced souls are very rare.
(b) Those who have acquired wisdom by study and thus made themselves into exemplary humans (that is, chohans or Fifth-Rounders, like Moses, Pythagoras, Apollonius, Plotinus, Plato, and Iamblichus). Such advanced souls are the great teachers and example-setters of our species. The Chinese term for this category of person (chun tzu or junzi, etymologically "son of a ruler") originally denoted an inherited rank, a condition defined by one's birth, that is, a great or noble person. But Confucius agreed with Tennyson that "Kind hearts are more than coronets, / And a noble soul, than Norman blood." Confucius believed that those who lead should not necessarily be those who are born to power, but rather those who merit leadership by their personal achievements. Confucius was the first promoter of government by meritocracy. He was the first social democrat.
(c) Those who are learning, despite the limitations of nature (that is, chelas, seekers, or disciples consciously treading the Path, who are advanced Fourth-Rounders). Such striving souls have recognized the need to take their own evolution in hand and work toward perfection. They are the ones who (as the Master K.H. says) "TRY."
(d) Those who are of limited ability and have not yet learned what is most important in life. They are ordinary, common, or "little" persons (that is, the mass of humanity in the Fourth Round). They are those of us who are progressing only slowly and unconsciously because we have not yet come to a realization of the need for personal effort to improve ourselves.
With regard to those four categories, we must be careful about where we place anyone—especially ourselves. In exercising such care, Master Kung set us an example, as he did in many other matters. As already noted, H.P.B. and the Masters clearly identified Confucius as a member of the second category, a Fifth-Rounder, who had mastered the lessons most of us are still struggling with. But Confucius himself never claimed such a status (Analects 7.33): "As to being a sage, or an exemplary human, how dare I presume to make such a claim? But as to striving tirelessly to achieve that, and also teaching others without growing weary—that can be said of me, and that is all." This is not false modesty on the part of Master Kung; it is rather his recognition of the truth of the saying in Light on the Path: "You will enter the light, but you will never touch the Flame." We never achieve fully, but only strive to do so.
9. Tao or Dao is a very important Confucian concept. Its literal meaning is "way," and in Confucian use it is sometimes parallel to the Theosophical concept of the Path. But it is not merely the Path individuals tread; in a sense it is also parallel with the Theosophical concept of the Plan, which is the way the whole world evolves, the cosmic Path.
For Master Kung, treading the Path is a matter of learning and of applying what one has learned. It is significant that he is known in China as the "First Teacher" and his birthday, celebrated on September 28, is known as "Teachers Day." A joyous emphasis on applied learning is expressed in the very first sentence of the Analects (1.1): "To learn something and then to practice it at the right time, is that not a pleasure?" And the last verse of the Analects (20.3) rounds off Master Kung's view of the importance of learning that leads to understanding on three levels: spiritual understanding of Heaven's plan; intellectual understanding of correct behavior; and social understanding of other human beings. "The Master said: If one does not understand the plan of Heaven, one has no way of becoming an exemplary person; if one does not understand the right way to do things (ritual), one has no way of taking a stand; if one does not understand words, one has no way of understanding people."
Blavatsky and Confucius were two great exponents of living the Ancient Wisdom. They each spoke in the idioms of their times. Yet they also both speak timeless truths to us if we will hear them.
Blavatsky, Helena P. Collected Writings. 15 vols. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977-91.
———. Isis Unveiled. 2 vols. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972, first published 1877.
———. The Secret Doctrine. 3 vols. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978-79, first published 1888.
Confucius. The Analects. There are many translations of this work; it is best to read several together so as to compare them. Quotations above often combine several.
The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett from the Mahatmas M. and K.H. Transcribed by A. T. Barker. Ed. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr. Manila: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993.
Tan, Sor-hoon. "Three Corners for One: Tradition and Creativity in the Analects." In Confucius Now: Contemporary Encounters with the "Analects", ed. David Jones, 59-77. Chicago: Open Court, 2008.
Tucker, Mary Evelyn. Introduction to Confucian Spirituality, vol. 1, ed. Tu Weiming and Mary Evelyn Tucker. New York: Crossroad, 2003.
John Algeo served for nine years as president of the Theosophical Society in America. He is also past international vice-president of the Theosophical Society.