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What are the Books of Kiu-te? - David Reigle

David Reigle

(High Country Theosophist 9.2 (Feb. 1994): 2-9)

The books of Kiu-te, as most Theosophists know, are said to be the source from which the Stanzas of Dzyan in The Secret Doctrine were translated. We are told that besides the secret books of Kiu-te from which the Stanzas of Dzyan were translated, there exist public books of Kiu-te, found in the libraries of Tibetan monasteries.1 Yet these public books of Kiu-te remained, for all practical purposes, secret until 1981, when they were finally identified. Though the books are "public," in that they are found in the printed collection of Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, they continue to be regarded by Tibetan tradition as the Buddha's secret teachings, and therefore as having restricted access. Even now only a tiny fraction of them has been translated into English.

The problem of the identification of the books of Kiu-te was largely due to the phonetic transcription of the name, "Kiu-te," which when rendered in its unphonetic transliteration would be "rGyud-sde." It is a Tibetan word, and like most Tibetan words, is not spelled like it sounds. Since there was no standard transliteration system for Tibetan in use during H. P. Blavatsky's time, she had little choice but to adopt the phonetic spellings of the writers she quoted. Writing of the books of Kiu-te under the heading "The Secret Books of 'Lam-Rim' and Dzyan," she quoted the monk Horace della Penna, who had traveled in Tibet in 1730.2 His account is found as an appendix in Clements R. Markham's Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet and of the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa. It describes among other things the Tibetan sacred books. They are called, in his spelling, "K'hagiur," which in the currently used Library of Congress transliteration system would be "bKa'-'gyur," and are divided into two kinds, his "Dote" and "Khiute," now transliterated "mDo-sde" and "rGyud-sde."3 These are the two great divisions of the Tibetan Buddhist sacred writings, the sutras and tantras.

The above briefly recapitulates the identification of the books of Kiu-te as the Tibetan Buddhist tantras. Further details can be found in my book entitled, The Books of Kiu-te or the Tibetan Buddhist Tantras: A Preliminary Analysis.4 Since its publication in 1983, some doubt has been expressed as to this identification, largely because of H. P. Blavatsky's well-known views that the tantras are works of black magic. Horace della Penna, too, in the same section from which H. P. Blavatsky quoted when referring to the books of Kiu-te, describes them as "this infamous and filthy law of Khiute."5 There are, however, certain facts which when known may help clear up this difficulty.

There is a very great difference between the Buddhist tantras and the Hindu tantras, despite some outward resemblances, and it is only the Hindu tantras, may we recall, which were at all known to the outside world in H. P. Blavatsky's time. These differences are reflected in the fact that among large numbers of Hindus, the Vedic Brahman community in particular, the Hindu tantras are not held in good repute, while among Tibetan Buddhists the Buddhist tantras are universally respected as the highest Buddhist teachings. While outsiders and skeptics may doubt that Gautama Buddha in fact taught the Buddhist tantras, as implicitly believed by all Tibetan Buddhists, there is no escaping the fact that the second Buddha, Tsong-kha-pa, founder of the Gelugpa or yellow-hat order, devoted fully half of his writings to tantra.

Perhaps the most important difference between the Hindu and Buddhist tantras is in the motivation for their study and practice. The clearly stated and daily reiterated purpose in the Tibetan tradition for undertaking Buddhist tantric practice is to free living beings from suffering. These practices are done to produce in oneself the capabilities of a Buddha for use in benefitting the world. This is called the Bodhisattva ideal, by which one sacrifices one's own earned liberation to stay behind and help other struggling beings. In the Hindu tantras there is no concern with benefitting anyone but the practitioner.

This point cannot be emphasized too strongly: Buddhist tantra is entirely based on the Bodhisattva ideal. The formal meditation practice associated with a specific tantra is called a sadhana. After the "refuge" formula, all Buddhist tantric sadhanas begin with the generation of bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the earnest resolve to attain enlightenment quickly so as to be able to effectively help living beings. Few are selfless enough to sustain these altruistic practices taught in the tantras, and consequently they were kept secret to avoid misuse. But all knew of them, and the Buddhist tantras were revered throughout Tibet as the repositories of the most advanced methods known for achieving Bodhisattvahood, for becoming a world server.

This very same ideal was clearly the motivation behind the Theosophical Society, as may be seen from the following definitive words of the Maha-Chohan:

“That we, the devoted followers of that spirit incarnate of absolute self-sacrifice, of philanthropy, divine kindness, as of all the highest virtues attainable on this earth of sorrow, the man of men, Gautama Buddha, should ever allow the Theosophical Society to represent the embodiment of selfishness, the refuge of the few with no thought in them for the many, is a strange idea, my brothers.

“Among the few glimpses obtained by Europeans of Tibet and its mystical hierarchy of ‘perfect lamas,’ there is one which was correctly understood and described. 'The incarnations of the Bodhisattva Padma-pani or Avalokiteshvara and of Tsong-kha-pa, that of Amitabha, relinquish at their death the attainment of Buddhahood—i.e., the summum bonum of bliss, and of indi-vidual personal felicity—that they might be born again and again for the benefit of mankind.’6 In other words, that they might be again and again subjected to misery, imprisonment in flesh and all the sorrows of life, provided that by such a self-sacrifice repeated throughout long and dreary centuries they might become the means of securing salvation and bliss in the hereafter for a handful of men chosen among but one of the many races of mankind. And it is we, the humble disciples of these perfect lamas, who are expected to allow the T.S. to drop its noblest title, that of the Brotherhood of Humanity to become a simple school of psychology? No, no, good brothers, you have been laboring under the mistake too long already.”7 

The Bodhisattva ideal is paramount, then, for the Buddhist tantras, as well as for Theosophy, while it is not found in the Hindu tantras.

Going along with the Bodhisattva ideal, is another major difference between the Buddhist and Hindu tantras: nontheism. As is well-known, Buddhism is one of the few nontheistic world religions. Put simply, it does not believe in God or gods. Thus the many "deities" which populate Buddhist tantric literature have for the Buddhist practitioner little in common with the apparently similar deities of the Hindu tantras. Hinduism is at present fully theistic, and its gods are worshipped and propitiated to induce them to grant favors to the Hindu practitioner, etc.8 

Buddhism shares with Jainism, the other nontheistic religion from India, the distinction of having the best record of any world religion on nonviolence and nonaggression, making possible the basic human right of peaceful existence. A point to be noted is that the Bodhisattva ideal cannot function effectively in a theistic setting, because there one's savior is God, and consequently the human savior, or Bodhisattva, is left without a job. As shown by history, this is a fundamental difference with practical consequences.

This nontheism, again, is distinctly also the Theosophical position, as seen in the following extracts from Mahatma letter 10:

“Neither our philosophy nor ourselves believe in a God, least of all in one whose pronoun necessitates a capital H. . . . Our doctrine knows no compromises. It either affirms or denies, for it never teaches but that which it knows to be the truth. Therefore, we deny God both as philosophers and as Buddhists. We know there are planetary and other spiritual lives, and we know there is in our system no such thing as God, either personal or impersonal. . . . The God of the Theologians is simply an imaginary power. . . . Our chief aim is to deliver humanity of this nightmare, to teach man virtue for its own sake, and to walk in life relying on himself instead of leaning on a theological crutch, that for countless ages was the direct cause of nearly all human misery.9 

Nontheism, then, is the only practical setting for the Bodhisattva ideal, also the Theosophical ideal, and Buddhism provides this for its tantras, while Hinduism does not.

These facts may help place the question of the tantras in better perspective for Theosophists. In any case, it should be stressed that the identification of the books of Kiu-te as the Tibetan Buddhist tantras is not a mere theory or hypothesis, but is a verifiable fact for any who will take the trouble to ascertain it.

Given the fact that the books of Kiu-te are the Tibetan Buddhist tantras, the question remains as to specifically which of the many Buddhist tantras is the source of the Stanzas of Dzyan. This also brings in the question of the public and secret books of Kiu-te. Virtually all of the major Buddhist tantras found today are said to be abridgments of their original namesake counter-parts. Thus the extant Guhyasamaja Tantra is said to be an abridgment of the lost mula Guhyasamaja Tantra of 25,000 verses; the extant Kalacakra Tantra is said to be an abridgment of the lost mula Kalacakra Tantra of 12,000 verses; etc., etc.10 So the extant abridged tantra will directly reflect the subject matter of the lost or "secret" original of any specific tantra. Among the extant tantras, the one whose subject matter includes cosmogony is the Kalacakra Tantra. Tantric sadhanas have two stages: the generation stage and the completion stage; and the generation stage of any sadhana entails the creation in thought of a symbolic world. Only the Kalacakra Tantra, however, includes an account of cosmogony, which may be applied externally, to the cosmos, or internally, in the sadhana. In this connection it is of real interest to read what later Theosophical literature said about the Book of Dzyan: 

“. . . it is rumored that the earlier part of it (consisting of the first six stanzas), has an origin altogether anterior to this world, and even that it is not a history, but a series of directions—rather a formula for creation than an account of it.”11

The Kalacakra Tantra also stands out among the other tantras because of its connection with the sacred land of Shambhala.12 Tradition states that the king of Shambhala requested the Kalacakra teachings from Gautama Buddha, and then returned with them to Shambhala, where they became the state religion. It is from Shambhala that the abridged Kalacakra Tantra came to India and Tibet.

On the basis of this and other evidence detailed in my paper "New Light on the Book of Dzyan," I suspect that the Stanzas of Dzyan were translated from the lost mula Kalacakra Tantra.13 This, then, is a hypothesis, not an ascertainable fact at this time. Remembering, though, that the Books of Kiu-te are definitely the Buddhist tantras, and knowing that the only Buddhist tantra in which cosmogony plays a significant part is the Kalacakra Tantra, it is a very solid hypothesis.

If the Stanzas of Dzyan were in fact translated from the lost mula Kalacakra Tantra, what would be the significance of this information? The extant Kalacakra Tantra, like its lost counterpart which is described in the Vimalaprabha commentary, contains five sections covering three types of Kalacakra teaching, called "outer," "inner," and "other." The first section covering "outer" Kalacakra, the only one which may be openly discussed according to Tibetan tradition, is the one which includes cosmogony.14 The cosmogony which forms much of the subject matter of The Secret Doctrine is far more detailed than that found in the extant Kalacakra Tantra. So it is not unreasonable that The Secret Doctrine's account could be the full one from the lost unabridged Kalacakra Tantra. It would of course be from its first section, leaving untouched the remaining four sections covering "inner" and "other" Kalacakra. Perhaps some of this latter material would have been given in the planned further volumes of The Secret Doctrine, which were never published. In any case, we now have access to it in abridged form in the extant Kalacakra Tantra (though not yet in English 15). Although it lacks a detailed rationale, the complete system is there in skeleton form, including its practice or sadhana which integrates outer, inner, and other Kalacakra. So what we have in the extant Kalacakra Tantra and sadhana is a comprehensive formula of spiritual practice coming from Shambhala that would be the very system of The Secret Doctrine. It may well be the most powerful form of world service known on earth today.16 

Before deciding to undertake this study and practice, it would be well to take stock of a few important facts. There is good reason why occult practices such as this are "only for the few." No tantric sadhana should be undertaken without receiving its initiation, which gives permission and protection. When persons receive a tantric initiation they are also making a commitment to perform at least its abbreviated practice every day for the rest of their lives. Sadhanas are difficult forms of meditation practice, requiring complex visualizations. Normally, years of study of the text involved go along with the sadhana. Before undertaking a sadhana, practitioners should have developed a level of concentration allowing them to keep their minds from wandering from the subject of meditation for the length of the meditation period (the fourth of the nine citta-sthitis [fixed states of consciousness]). The results of this type of practice are not usually apparent to the practitioner, because it is subjective work. Even the specific aims of the practices are not as clear-cut as activism in the peace movement, environmental concerns, and other outer work. If it is hard to sustain commitment to these latter goals, how much more so for a tantric sadhana full of strange and foreign "deities," unintelligible mantras, and unknown symbolism? Among the various Buddhist tantric sadhanas, the Kalacakra sadhana is the most complex and difficult, its preliminary practices alone being lengthier than many full sadhanas. For this reason, it is practiced by only a handful of the thousands of lamas who daily perform tantric sadhanas for the benefit of living beings. 


1. "The Secret Books of 'Lam-Rim' and Dzyan," in The Secret Doctrine, 1897 ed., vol. 3, pp. 405 ff.; Adyar ed., vol. 5, pp. 389 ff.; in H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. 14, pp. 422 ff.; in The Esoteric Writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, pp. 324 ff.

2. Ibid.

3."Brief Account of the Kingdom of Tibet," by Fra Francesco Orazio della Penna di Billi, 1730, in Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet, and of the Joumey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, ed. by Clements R. Markham, London: Trubner and Co., 1876, second edition, 1879; reprinted New Delhi: Manjushri Publishing House, 1971; pp. 328, 334. See also on the Tibetan Buddhist sacred writings, “Tibetan Teachings," in H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. 6, pp. 94 ff.; in Tibetan Teachings: Articles by H. P. Blavatsky, a booklet published by Theosophy Company, Los Angeles, no date.

4. Secret Doctrine Reference Series, San Diego: Wizards Book¬shelf, 1983.

5. Markham, Narratives, p. 338.

6. Attributed to "Rhys Davids" in the extant copy of the Maha-Chohan's letter made by A. P. Sinnett, but actually found in Markham, Narratives, p. xlvii. 

7. "Maha-Chohan's Letter," in Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, first series, ed. by C. Jinarajadasa; in Combined Chronology, by Margaret Conger.

8. To avoid misunderstanding, my own position as a Theosophical student is that ancient Vedic Hinduism was nontheistic. Theism was the single major problem overtaking Hinduism, which the Buddha attempted to address. If the Vedic literature is interpreted nontheistically, I see major parallels between its system of yajna, or sacrifice, and the Buddhist tantric sadhanas. In particular, I see a parallel between the agnicayana yajna and the Kalacakra sadhana, which I may have the opportunity to explore in the future. 

9. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, ed. by A. T. Barker, pp. 52-53. [chronological ed., published 1993, pp. 269-270]

10. History of Buddhism (Chos-byung) by Bu-ston, part 2: The History of Buddhism in India and Tibet, trans. from Tibetan by E. Obermiller, Heidelberg: Harrassowitz, 1932, p. 170. See also the colophons of these works, where they often describe themselves as being extracted from larger works.

11. Talks on the Path of Occultism, vol. 2: The Voice of the Silence, by Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, p. 5.

12. On Shambhala in general, and also its relation to Kalacakra, see: Shambhala, by Nicholas Roerich, 1930, chapter 1: "Shambhala, the Resplendent;" Heart of Asia, by Nicholas Roerich, 1929, part 2: "Shambhala;" The Way to Shambhala, by Edwin Bernbaum, 1980; Kalacakra Research Publications, no. 1, “The Lost Kalacakra Mula Tantra on the Kings of Shambhala," by David Reigle, 1986.

13. In Symposium on H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine: Proceedings, San Diego: Wizards Bookshelf, 1984.

14. The first section also includes lengthy instructions on how to calculate astronomical cycles correctly for yogic purposes. These instructions claim to correct the errors into which the Hindu astronomical texts such as the Surya-Siddhanta have fallen over time. As might be expected, they are not easy to understand, and have been problematic for older commentators as well as modern readers. 

15. In 1985 two books were published in English with the cover title Kalac(h)akra Tantra, one by Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, and one by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, neither of which is a translation of the Kalacakra Tantra. The former consists of commentaries on the Kalacakra initiation, and the latter, which is "restricted to those who have received the Kalacakra initiation," consists of comments on Kalacakra practice. In the same year another book on Kalacakra was published, The Wheel of Time: The Kalachakra in Context, consisting of articles by Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Roger Jackson, and John Newman. Of the actual Kalacakra Tantra, approximately half of the first section has been translated along with its Vimalaprabha commentary and the annotations of Bu-ston by John Newman in his unpublished thesis, “The Outer Wheel of Time," 1987.

16. See also Kalacakra Sadhana and Social Responsibility, by David Reigle (Santa Fe: Spirit of the Sun Publications, 1996).