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Between Theosophy and Orientalism: debates about an ‘Esoteric Buddhism’ in the nineteenth century

13 Oct 2019
09:30

Between Theosophy and Orientalism: debates about an ‘Esoteric Buddhism’ in the nineteenth century

This paper discusses the origin and meaning of the notion “esoteric Buddhism” as it was used in the early Theosophical Society, especially in the works of Helena P. Blavatsky and Alfred P. Sinnett. Both Sinnett and Blavatsky primarily conceptualized Buddhism in relation to the notion of an esoteric doctrine, while scholars of Buddhism disregarded the existence of any esotericism in Buddhism. Based on a renewed historical analysis of the published debates about “esoteric Buddhism,” this paper argues that the differences between Orientalists and Theosophists should be placed in their specific “imaginings” of what Buddhism was at the time and in their reception of different Buddhist traditions.