The Voice of the Silence: Bringing the Heart Doctrine to the West - by Nancy Reigle
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 man.
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 distinct 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 makes reference to in her writings.3
Boris de Zirkoff, in preparing an edition of The Voice of the Silence, yet unpublished, wrote an informative Introductory titled “How The Voice of the Silence Was Written,” which has been published in two places.4 Here he cites some interesting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 manuscript 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 Mahåyåna 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 Two titled “The Two Paths” where she says:
Learn above all to separate Head-learning from SoulWisdom, the “Eye” from the “Heart” doctrine. . . . even ignorance is better than Head-learning with no Soulwisdom to illuminate and guide it. . . .8
“Great Sifter” is the name of the “Heart Doctrine,” O disciple. . . . True knowledge is the flour, false learning is the husk. . . .9
The Dharma of the “Eye” is the embodiment of the external, and the nonexisting. The Dharma of the “Heart” is the embodiment of Bodhi (True, divine Wisdom), the
Permanent and Everlasting.10
In Mahåyåna Buddhism, the tradition of which the Panchen Lama is a major representative in Tibet,11 the Heart Doctrine is extremely well-developed. Here 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 tread by a Bodhisattva to eliminate this suffering.
In fact, within the Mahåyåna tradition there is an entire lineage which emphasizes the culture and development of a Bodhisattva. This “compassion lineage” was inspired by the writings of Maitreya.12 This is complemented by a corresponding “wisdom lineage” inspired by Ma∆ju≈rî in which the philosophical writings of Någårjuna 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 1) the course of action of a Bodhisattva, and 2) the stages of the Bodhisattva Path.14 Among these, the most popular and widely read is a Sanskrit work known as the Bodhicaryåvatåra. 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 ˛åntideva, a Buddhist monk who lived in India during the eighth century.16
So here in Mahåyåna 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 genre18 between The Voice of the Silence and the Bodhicaryåvatåra, 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: Help Nature and work on with her; and Nature will regard thee as one of her creators and make obeisance. (p. 14)
Bodhicaryåvatåra: Wherever the heart’s desire of those who perform virtue goes, there its own merits honor it with an offering of its results. VII.42.
The Voice: 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. (p. 37)
Bodhicaryåvatåra: 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. III.17–18.
The Voice: 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. (p. 62)
Bodhicaryåvatåra: Untamed, mad elephants do not inflict as much harm in this world as does the unleashed elephant of the mind in the Avîcî 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: 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 . . . (p. 63)
Bodhicaryåvatåra: 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). IV.44.
The Voice: 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?” (p. 71)
Bodhicaryåvatåra: When fear and suffering are equally abhorent to others and myself, then what is so special about me that I protect myself but not others? VIII.96.
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 Påramitås, its Mahåyåna Buddhist character was easily recognized.19
In The Voice of the Silence 20 H.P.B. takes the spiritual seeker through the Three Halls of the Probationary Path; the 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 Påramitås or Perfections of Mahåyåna Buddhism.21
The Bodhicaryåvatåra 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 Påramitås are each represented by a chapter in this work: Kßånti, Vîrya, Dhyåna, and Praj∆å, by chapters 6–9, respectively. Throughout, the Påramitås 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 Bodhicaryåvatåra, 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 Mahåyåna Buddhist counterpart, The Voice of the Silence has a relatively short public history, beginning in 1889.24 After it was published, Blavatsky said 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, why hadn’t the Buddhist community embraced it?26
Unlike the Bodhicaryåvatåra, a text whose Sanskrit original has a 1200-year unbroken tradition, we don’t have an original language manuscript for The Voice of the Silence. 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 Bodhicaryåvatåra does.
Although the Bodhicaryåvatåra has this longstanding tradition, and The Voice doesn’t, it was The Voice of the Silence that first brought the Heart Doctrine to the English-speaking Western public. We know that The Voice of the Silence was originally published in 1889. At about the same time, the original Sanskrit text of the Bodhicaryåvatåra was also first published.27 The first English translation of the Bodhicaryåvatåra was published in 1909, though somewhat abridged.28 Since 1970, when the first complete English translation of it was published, interest in the
Bodhicaryåvatåra has greatly increased in the West.29
In contrast, The Voice of the Silence has not received widespread public interest. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that we have no original language manuscript for The Voice. Having 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 that can truly appreciate The Voice of the Silence and its sublime message of compassion. And for that, we are deeply indebted to Madame Blavatsky who first brought us that treasure of the Heart Doctrine which we know as The Voice of the Silence.
- The Voice of the Silence, by H. P. Blavatsky, London: The Theosophical Publishing Company, Ltd., 1889; New York: W. Q. Judge, 1889; Peking: The Chinese Buddhist Research Society, 1927, p. 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.
- Ibid., p. ix.
- H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. VI, ed. Boris de Zirkoff, Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1954; 2nd ed., 1975, p. 272: “. . . I have lived at different periods in Little Tibet as in Great Tibet, and that these combined periods form more than seven years. . . . ”
- Boris de Zirkoff’s “Introductory: How The Voice of the Silence Was Written” was published in The American Theosophist 76:9 (Nov.Dec. 1988), pp. 230-237, and as the Introduction to The Voice of the Silence, Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1992, pp. 11a33a. A copy of Boris de Zirkoff’s manuscript edition of The Voice of the Silence with Introductory has been kindly provided by Dara Eklund. All further references to Boris’ Introductory are from this manuscript edition.
- Boris de Zirkoff, “Introductory: How The Voice of the Silence Was Written,” pp. 6-9. Herbert Burrows and Annie Besant were among those who read portions of the manuscript of The Voice of the Silence while in progress. Of this work Annie Besant said: “It moves us, not by a statement of facts gathered from books, but by an appeal to the divinest instincts of our nature . . . ” (p. 9)
- Ibid., p. 14.
- Editorial Foreword, May 1927, to The Voice of the Silence, (unnumbered), Peking: The Chinese Buddhist Research Society, 1927.
- The Voice of the Silence, p. 25.
- Ibid., pp. 27-28.
- Ibid., p. 29.
- The two highest representatives of the Tibetan Buddhisthierarchy are the Panchen and Dalai Lamas. Buddhism flourished for a millennium in Tibet, until the Chinese takeover in 1959.
- The writings attributed to Maitreya are said in the Tibetantradition to be written down by Årya Asa∫ga. See: The Door of Liberation, by Geshe Wangyal, New York: Maurice Girodias Associates, Inc., 1973, pp. 26-27. For the story of Årya Asa∫ga, see pp. 52-54.
- For the story of Någårjuna see: The Door of Liberation, pp. 44-46.
- These include the Bodhicaryåvatåra and the Bodhisattvabhümi. There are several English translations of the Bodhicaryåvatåra, many of which are listed below. (See notes 15, 23, 28, and 29.) There is no complete English translation of the Bodhisattvabhümi.
- The latter is the title of a new translation: A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhicaryåvatåra), by ˛åntideva, 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 “Bodhicaryåvatåra” is understood to mean “Bodhisattva,” which is spelled out in full in the title of the Tibetan translation of this work.
- There is an interesting story of how ˛åntideva brought theBodhicaryåvatåra before the world. Thinking he was lazy, his fellow monks at Nålandå challenged ˛åntideva to recite a text from memory. ˛åntideva asked if he should recite an existing work or a “new” one. The monks replied, “a new one,” and ˛åntideva then began reciting his own composition, the Bodhicaryåvatåra. 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 Tåranåtha’s History of Buddhism in India as retold in: A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, p. 12.)
- The Voice of the Silence, p. 12.
- In an interesting lecture given by Bhikshu Sangharakshita,he discusses the two broad divisions of Buddhist literature, sütra and ≈åstra; sütra being the words of the Buddha, and ≈åstra their explanatory treatises by others. Here, he likens The Voice of the Silence to the sütra 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 sütra rather than to the ≈åstra 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,” by Bhikshu Sangharakshita, Bangalore: The Indian Institute of World Culture, 1958, p. 1.) In contrast, the Bodhicaryåvatåra, being written by ˛åntideva and expounding the Path through reasoning, is a ≈åstra.
- Boris de Zirkoff, “Introductory: How The Voice of the Silence Was Written,” pp. 15–16: “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 Mahåyåna Buddhism, and this can hardly be denied or set aside.”
- A. J. Hamerster has outlined the contents of The Voice in his Introduction to the 1939 edition of The Voice of the Silence, Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1939; reprint 1953.
- The six Påramitås and their cultivation are a major featureof the Mahåyåna tradition. They are: dåna, ≈îla, kßånti, vîrya, dhyåna, and praj∆å. In The Voice of the Silence an additional påramitå has been added to the traditional list of six, that is, viråga—“indifference to pleasure and pain, illusion conquered, truth alone perceived.” (The Voice, p. 48.) Here, Viråga becomes the fourth Portal, making a total of seven.
- The Voice of the Silence, p. 33.
- “It is the Bodhicaryåvatåra which supplies the ideals and practice of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who so frequently cites as his highest inspiration Bodhicaryåvatåra 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 General Introduction by Paul Williams in: The Bodhicaryåvatåra, trans. Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. ix.
- See: Boris de Zirkoff, “Introductory: How The Voice of the Silence Was Written,” p. 15.
- As cited from The Path, December 1895, in: HPB: The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement, by Sylvia Cranston, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993, p. 397.
- From an entry titled “The Voice of the Silence,” in The Middle Way, vol. XL, no. 2, August 1965, p. 90: “For reasons we have never understood Buddhists in England seem reluctant to accept this exquisite small work as part of the literature of Buddhism.”
- By I. P. Minayeff in Zapiski Vostochnogo Otdeleniya Ruskogo Imperatorskogo Archeologicheskogo Obschestva (Transactions of the Oriental Section of the Royal Russian Archaeological Society), vol. 4, pp. 153-228. Volume 4 of this journal was published in 1890, although the individual issue containing the Bodhicaryåvatåra may have been published in 1889.
- The Path of Light, trans. L. D. Barnett, London: John Murray, 1909. It was earlier translated into French: Bodhicaryåvatåra: Introduction à la pratique des futurs Bouddhas, Poème de Çåntideva, trans. Louis de La Vallée Poussin, Paris: Librairie Bloud et Cie., 1907; and later into German: Der Eintritt in den Wandel in Erleuchtung (Bodhicaryåvatåra) von ˛åntideva, trans. Richard Schmidt, Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1923, Dokumente der Religion, vol. 5.
- Entering the Path of Enlightenment, trans. Marion L. Matics, New York: Macmillan, 1970, from the Sanskrit. The first English translation from the Tibetan followed shortly in 1979: Acharya ˛åntideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, trans. Stephen Batchelor, Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1979.
[The foregoing paper was written by Nancy Reigle and presented at The Works and Influence of H. P. Blavatsky Conference, held in Edmonton, Alberta, July 3-5, 1998. It was published in The Works and Influence of H. P. Blavatsky: Conference Papers, Edmonton: Edmonton Theosophical Society, 1999, pp. 106-112; and reprinted in Blavatsky’s Secret Books: Twenty Years’ Research, by David Reigle and Nancy Reigle, San Diego: Wizards Bookshelf, 1999, pp. 139-148. This online edition is published by Eastern Tradition Research Institute, copyright 2004.]