Nancy Reigle – USA
[Reprinted here from Blavatsky’s Secret Books: Twenty Years of Research (San Diego, CA: Wizards Bookshelf, 1999), pp. 139-48, with formal modifications for Theosophy Forward house style.]
Among the many works that Madame Blavatsky brought before the public, The Voice of the Silence was unique in its appeal to the heart and spirit of humanity. Throughout, it repeatedly demands the greatest compassion that one is capable of towards one’s fellow human beings.
According to Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence comes from ‘‘The Book of the Golden Precepts,” which “forms part of the same series as that from which the ‘Stanzas’ of the Book of Dzyan were taken, on which the Secret Doctrine is based.”1 She says that the Book of the Golden Precepts “contains about ninety dis¬tinct little treatises,” thirty-nine of which she had memorized.2 Three of these she translated into English for us in The Voice of the Silence, which we know as the ‘‘Three Fragments.” One can surmise that she studied these treatises under the tutelage of her Adept teachers during her stay in Little Tibet and Tibet proper, which she refers to in her writings.3
Boris de Zirkoff, in preparing an edition of The Voice of the Silence, yet unpublished, wrote an informative introduction titled “How The Voice of the Silence Was Written,” which has been published in two places.4 In it he cites some interesting accounts given by several people who visited H.P.B. at some point during her writing of The Voice, much of which took place in Fontainebleau, France, during July of 1889. Several visitors were asked by Blavatsky to read portions of The Voice while the manu¬script was in progress, and they all had a similar reaction: they were deeply moved by the beauty and depth of compassion this work evoked.5 When asked by H.P.B. what he thought of it, G. R. S. Mead said, “it was the grandest thing in all our Theosophical literature.”6
In their foreword to the Peking edition of The Voice of the Silence, Alice Cleather and Basil Crump convey the Panchen Lama’s endorsement of this work as the “only true exposition in English of the Heart Doctrine of the Mahayana and its noble ideal of self-sacrifice for humanity.”7
What is the Heart Doctrine spoken of by the Panchen Lama? In the Voice of the Silence, H.P.B. distinguishes between the Head Doctrine and the Heart Doctrine in Fragment II, titled “The Two Paths,” where she says: “Learn above all to separate Head-learning from Soul-Wisdom, the ‘Eye’ from the ‘Heart’ doctrine. . . . But even ignorance is better than Head-learning with no Soul-wisdom to illuminate and guide it.”8 Further: “‘Great Sifter’ is the name of the ‘Heart Doctrine,’ O disciple. . . . True knowledge is the flour, false learning is the husk.”9 And again: “The Dharma of the ‘Eye’ is the embodiment of the external, and the non-existing. The Dharma of the ‘Heart’ is the embodiment of Bodhi (True, divine Wisdom), the Permanent and Everlasting.”10
In Mahayana Buddhism, the tradition of which the Panchen Lama is a major representative in Tibet,11 the Heart Doctrine is extremely well-developed. We find it in the teaching of the Bodhisattva and the Bodhisattva Path, that is, the Bodhisattva (a spiritual being dedicated to alleviating the suffering of humanity) and the Bodhisattva Path (the course of action followed by a Bodhisattva to eliminate this suffering).
In fact, within the Mahayana tradition, an entire lineage emphasizes the culture and development of a Bodhisattva. This “compassion lineage” was inspired by the writings of Maitreya.12 It is complemented by a corresponding “wisdom lineage” inspired by Mansjusri, in which the philosophical writings of Nagarjuna are prominent.13 These two lineages of wisdom and compassion are not intended to be developed in isolation from one another, but instead function as complementary parts of a unified whole.
These two lineages have together produced entire treatises delineating the course of action of a Bodhisattva and the stages of the Bodhisattva Path.14 Among these treatises, the most popular and widely read is a Sanskrit work known as the Bodhicaryavatara. Its title literally means “Entrance into the Conduct of the Bodhisattva” or “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.”15 It was written by Santideva, a Buddhist monk who lived in India during the eighth century.16
So in Mahayana Buddhism we find works that serve as guides for our own training in the same noble ethics and compassion that H.P.B. urged us to practice in The Voice of the Silence. As Blavatsky says, “Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself.”17
Although there are differences in style and genrel8 between The Voice of the Silence and the Bodhicaryavatara, they are similar in that they each serve the same function in their promotion of altruism. For comparison, let us look at some passages from each.
The Voice (p. 14): Help Nature and work on with her; and Nature will regard thee as one of her creators and make obeisance. Bodhicaryavatara (7.42) Wherever the heart’s desire of those who perform virtue goes, there its own merits honor it with an offering of its results.
The Voice (p.37): Give light and comfort to the toiling pilgrim, and seek out him who knows still less than thou; who in his wretched desolation sits starving for the bread of Wisdom and the bread which feeds the shadow, without a Teacher, hope or consolation, and—let him hear the Law. Bodhicaryavatara (3.17-8): May I be a protector for those who are without protectors, a guide for travelers, and a boat, a bridge, and a ship for those who wish to cross over. May I be a lamp for those who seek light, a bed for those who seek rest, and may I be a servant for all beings who desire a servant.
The Voice (p. 62): And then, O thou pursuer of the truth, thy Mind-Soul will become as a mad elephant, that rages in the jungle. . . . Beware, lest in forgetting SELF, thy Soul lose o’er its trembling mind control, and forfeit thus the due fruition of its conquests. Bodhicaryavatara (5.2-3): Untamed, mad elephants do not inflict as much harm in this world as does the unleashed elephant of the mind in the Avici hell and the like. But if the elephant of the mind is completely restrained by the rope of mindfulness, then all perils vanish and complete well-being is obtained. V.2-3.
The Voice (p. 63): The fearless warrior, his precious life-blood oozing from his wide and gaping wounds, will still attack the foe. . . . Act then, all ye who fail and suffer, act like him; and from the stronghold of your Soul, chase all your foes away-ambition, anger, hatred, e’en to the shadow of desire. Bodhicaryavatara (4.44): Let my entrails ooze out and my head fall off, but by no means shall I bow down to my enemies, the mental afflictions (such as• ambition, anger, and hatred).
The Voice (p. 71): Now bend thy head and listen well, O Bodhisattva—Compassion speaks and saith: “Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?” Bodhicaryavatara (8.96): When fear and suffering are equally abhorrent to others and myself, then what is so special about me that I protect myself but not others?
Now we have seen some of the similarities and differences in presentation between these two works. Because The Voice of the Silence is filled with references to the self-sacrificing nature of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, as well as to the Paramitas, its Mahayana Buddhist character was easily recognized.19
In The Voice of the Silence20 H.P.B. takes the spiritual seeker through the Three Halls of the Probationary Path, a choice between the Two Paths—Open and Secret, the Secret being the path of the highest altruism of a Bodhisattva—and then on through the Seven Portals, which are the Paramitas or Perfections of Mahayana Buddhism.21
The Bodhicaryavatara extols the virtues of Bodhicitta, which is the altruistic intention to become enlightened in order to benefit all sentient beings, encourages the spiritually-minded person to take up the path of unselfish service to others, and warns of the dangers in turning back once one has set out. Four of the Paramitas are each represented by a chapter in this work: Ksanti, Virya, Dhyana, and Prajna, by chapters 6-9, respectively. Throughout, the Paramitas or Perfections are cited as virtues to be cultivated, in the same way as the Seven Portals of The Voice are the gateways of virtue leading to the path of highest altruism and compassion. As H.P.B. says: “To live to benefit mankind is the first step. To practice the six glorious virtues is the second.22
The Bodhicaryavatara, representative of the Heart Doctrine, has enjoyed a long history of popularity dating back to the eighth century, when it was composed. Soon after, it was translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan and continues to the present day in an unbroken tradition. Its popularity flourishes today as it is promoted by H. H. the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in public teachings,23 and new translations of it are produced.
In comparison with its Mahayana Buddhist counterpart, The Voice of the Silence has a relatively short public history, beginning in 1889.24 After it was published, Blavatsky wrote in a letter to her sister: “The Voice of the Silence, tiny book though it is, is simply becoming the Theosophists’ bible.”25 By the 1960s, the editor of the Buddhist magazine The Middle Way had commented that The Voice of the Silence was such an exquisite work that the Buddhist community should have embraced it.26
Unlike the Bodhicaryavatara, a text whose Sanskrit original has an unbroken twelve-hundred-year tradition, we do not have a manuscript for The Voice of the Silence in its original language. It has come to us as a translation of a “secret” work, unknown to the public. It is no doubt true that if such an original of The Voice did exist, The Voice of the Silence would reach a much greater audience, just as the Bodhicaryavatara does.
Although the Bodhicaryavatara has this long-standing tradition and The Voice doesn’t, it was The Voice of the Silence that first brought the Heart Doctrine to the Western, English-speaking public. We know that The Voice of the Silence was originally published in 1889. At about the same lime, the original Sanskrit text of the Bodhicaryavatara was also first published.27 The first English translation of the Bodhicaryavatara was published in 1909, though somewhat abridged.28 Since 1970, when the first complete English translation of it was published, interest in the Bodhicaryavatara has greatly increased in the West.29
In contrast, The Voice of the Silence has not received widespread public interest. This lack is undoubtedly due to the fact that we have no original-language manuscript for The Voice. If we had one, The Voice of the Silence would gain the acceptance of scholars, and thereby the widespread attention of the public.
In the meantime, it is only those who have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the heart to respond who can truly appreciate The Voice of the Silence and its sublime message of compassion. For that message, we are deeply indebted to Madame Blavatsky who first brought us the treasure of the Heart Doctrine that we know as The Voice of the Silence.
1. The Voice of the Silence, by H. P. Blavatsky (London: Theosophical Publishing Company, 1889; New York: W. Q. Judge, 1889; Peking: Chinese Buddhist Research Society, 1927), vi. The Peking edition is reprinted from the original, retaining the same pagination, with notes and comments by Alice Leighton Cleather and Basil Crump. All further references are to the Peking edition.
2. Voice, ix.
3. H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, ed. Boris de Zirkoff (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1954; 2nd ed., 1975), 6.272: “I have lived at different periods in Little Tibet as in Great Tibet, and . . . these combined periods form more than seven years.”
4. Boris de Zirkoff’s “Introductory: How The Voice of the Silence Was Written” was published in the American Theosophist 76.9 (Nov.-Dec. 1988): 230-7, and as the introduction to The Voice of the Silence (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1992), 11a-39a. A copy of Boris de Zirkoff’s manuscript edition of The Voice of the Silence with his introduction was kindly provided by Dara Eklund. All further citations of that introduction are from this manuscript edition, but the pagination is that of the Wheaton edition.
5. Boris de Zirkoff’s introduction, 6-9. Herbert Burrows and Annie Besant were among those who read portions of the manuscript of The Voice of the Silence while H.P.B. was writing it. Of this work Annie Besant remarked: “It moves us, not by a statement of facts gathered from books, but by an appeal to the divinest instincts of our nature” (25a).
6. Cited in Boris de Zirkoff’s introduction, 35a-36a.
8. Voice, 25.
9. Voice, 27-8.
10. Voice, 29.
11. The two highest representatives of the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy are the Panchen and Dalai Lamas. Buddhism flourished for a millennium in Tibet, until the Chinese takeover in 1959.
12. The writings attributed to Maitreya are said in the Tibetan tradition to be written down by Arya Asanga (The Door of Liberation, by Geshe Wangyal [New York: Maurice Girodias, 1973], 26-27, 52-4).
13. Door of Liberation, 44-6.
14. These include the Bodhicaryavatara and the Bodhisattva¬bhumi. There are several English translations of the Bodhicaryavatara (cited in notes 15, 23, 28, and 29). There is no complete English translation of the Bodhisattvabhumi.
15. The latter is the title of a new translation: A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara), by Santideva, translated from the Sanskrit and Tibetan by Vesna Wallace and B. Alan Wallace (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1997). The verses that follow are cited from this translation. The word “Bodhi” in “Bodhicaryavatara” is understood to mean “Bodhisattva,” which is spelled out in full in the title of the Tibetan translation of this work.
16. There is an interesting story of how Santideva brought the Bodhicaryavatara before the world. Thinking he was lazy, his fellow monks at Nalanda challenged Santideva to recite a text from memory. Santideva asked if he should recite an existing work or a “new” one. The monks replied, “a new one,” and Santideva then began reciting his own composition, the Bodhicaryavatara. Everyone was amazed. As he neared the end, he rose up into the sky. After disappearing, he continued to recite until the text was completed. (Adapted from Taranatha’s History of Buddhism in India as retold in A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, 12.)
17. Voice, 12.
18. Bhikshu Sangharakshita discusses the two broad divisions of Buddhist literature, sutra and sastra: sutra being the words of the Buddha, and sastra being explanatory treatises by others. He likens The Voice of the Silence to the sutra class of literature: “The Voice of the Silence, though it does not claim to be the utterance of a Buddha, is nevertheless akin to the sutra rather than to the sastra group of texts. Like the longer and more celebrated discourses, it seeks more to inspire than to instruct, appeals to the heart rather than to the head” (Paradox and Poetry in “The Voice of the Silence” (Bangalore: Indian Institute of World Culture, 1958), 1). In contrast, the Bodhicaryavatara, being written by Santideva and expounding the Path through reasoning, is a sastra.
19. “Much has been said and written about the nature of the teachings contained in the ‘Voice.’ Their general trend as well as many specific thoughts and ideals contained in this work have been the basis for identifying it with the vast realm of teachings and precepts known as Mahayana Buddhism, and this can hardly be denied or set aside” (Boris de Zirkoff’s introduction, 15-6).
20. A. J. Hamerster (“Arya Asanga”) has outlined the contents of The Voice in the introduction to his edition of The Voice of the Silence (Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1939, reprints 1953 and 2005).
21. The six Paramitas and their cultivation are a major feature of the Mahayana tradition. They are: dana, sila, ksanti, virya, dhyana, and prajna. In The Voice of the Silence an additional paramita has been added to the traditional list of six: viraga “indifference to pleasure and to pain, illusion conquered, truth alone perceived” (Voice, 48). It becomes the fourth Portal, making a total of seven.
22. Voice, 33.
23. “It is the Bodhicaryavatara which supplies the ideals and practice of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who so frequently cites as his highest inspiration Bodhicaryavatara 10.55:
As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world” (from the introduction by Paul Williams in The Bodhicaryavatara, trans. Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), ix.
24. Boris de Zirkoff’s introduction, 15.
25. As cited from The Path, December 1895, in HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement, by Sylvia Cranston (New York: Putnam’s, 1993), 397.
26. “For reasons we have never understood Buddhists in England seem reluctant to accept this exquisite small work as part of the literature of Buddhism” (“The Voice of the Silence,” in The Middle Way 40.2 (August 1965): 90).
27. By I. P. Minayeff in Zapiski Vostochnogo Otdeleniya Ruskogo Imperatorskogo Archeologicheskogo Obschestva [Transactions of the Oriental Section of the Royal Russian Archaeological Society] 4:153-228. Volume 4 of this journal is dated 1890, although the issue containing the Bodhicaryavatara may have been published in 1889.
28. The Path of Light, trans. L. D. Barnett (London: Murray, 1909). It was earlier translated into French as Bodhicaryavatara: Introduction a la pratique des futurs Bouddhas, Poeme de Cantideva, trans. Louis de La Vallee Poussin (Paris: Librairie Bloud, 1907) and later into German as Der Eintritt in den Wandel in Erleuchtung (Bodhicaryavatara) von Santideva, trans. Richard Schmidt (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoeningh, 1923), Dokumente der Religion 5.
29. Entering the Path of Enlightenment, trans. Marion L. Matics (New York: Macmillan, 1970), from Sanskrit. The first English translation from mTibetan followed shortly in 1979: Acharya Santideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, trans. Stephen Batchelor (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1979).