Self, Non-Self, Emptiness & Voidness in Buddhism & Theosophy

A QUESTION:Gautama Buddha outline

Theosophy has sometimes been described as “Esoteric Buddhism.” The Masters who wrote the “Mahatma Letters” called themselves Buddhists, as did their own Master the Maha Chohan, and as did H. P. Blavatsky. But they talk and teach about Atma while one of the central teachings of Buddhism is Anatta, i.e. the non-existence of self. How can this be reconciled? Is the Buddhist teaching consistent with the Theosophical teaching? Is the Theosophical teaching consistent with the Buddhist teaching?


No, it isn’t consistent but there’s no reason why it should be, as Theosophy itself doesn’t claim to be any form of Buddhism, least of all exoteric Buddhism.

It can be said that Theosophy states the existence of three “selves” or rather three main aspects of Self in the constitution of the incarnated human being:

(1) The UNIVERSAL Self – The One Absolute Infinite Divine Principle or Supreme Essence of Pure Consciousness Itself, which – being absolute and infinite – is therefore of necessity the true essential nature and highermost part of every being. This is what the Upanishads, the central scriptures of Hinduism, call Brahman and Atman (“Atma” or “Atman” = “Self” literally), which are just two words for one and the same “thing” . . . the One and Only THING, the One and Only REALITY. It is pure eternal Spirit and it is not “Self” in any egoic or individual or personal sense. This Higher Self is not an Ego-Self or an “I” of any kind. We call it our True “Self” simply because it is our true nature, our true essence, the One Universal Self of All. This is forever eternal, unchanging, and unaffected. It is Be-ness rather than Being.

(2) The INDIVIDUAL Self – The reincarnating Ego, the true “I” of our being, the permanent individuality, the Thinker, the Mind, which incarnates, reincarnates, thinks, acts, and creates and experiences Karma – its own self-created destiny – throughout its successive and periodical embodiments on the physical plane. This is the human soul, the Manas principle, more precisely the Higher Manas rather than the Lower Manas, and is what gives us the unshakable and ineradicable sense of “I-ness.” But the Ego has to learn not to identify itself with itself but rather with the True Self, the Universal Self, and act, work, and live for and as the Self of all creatures.

(3) The PERSONAL self – Nothing more than a Karmic product, the aggregate of the Skandhas (personal tendencies, characteristics, inclinations, etc.) carried over in essence or seed form from the previous personality in which the Ego was incarnated. This is called the present personality, in contrast with the permanent individuality. There is nothing inherently sacred or divine about it; it is merely our own unwitting creation, our own Karmic progeny, which we now have to deal with, overcome, and master. Robert Crosbie describes the personality as being “the working off of defects.” This is also called the lower self, the Lower Quaternary of the Seven Principles taught in Theosophy, although terms such as the lower ego or the personal ego technically apply to the Lower Manas, which is intermeshed with our Lower Quaternary. HPB sometimes calls it “the false ego” and “the false personality.” It is not who and what we truly and really and eternally are and hence Hinduism calls it the Not-Self, the Anatman.

But in Buddhism, Anatman in Sanskrit or Anatta in Pali has a different meaning and connotation, since almost all forms of Buddhism have a profound aversion to the very notion of there being any kind of Self or Ego.

This tendency is most marked in Theravada Buddhism, which some call Southern Buddhism, the Buddhism of such countries as Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cambodia, Sri Lanka, etc. The Theravadins deny the Universal Self, the individual Self, and the personal self.

According to them, there is not only no spirit but also no soul, no Ego or individuality which reincarnates and passes from life to life. Hence they teach that reincarnation occurs immediately after death, with no intermediate states because there is “nothing” and “no-one” to have such states. If asked what it is then that reincarnates, they will usually say something such as “Just a residuum of Karma” or “Nothing except some unexpended Karmic energy.” They insist that the human being consists only of the five skandhas and that there is nothing above or beyond this.

But when challenged and asked something about this, such as “Who is it then that’s treading the Noble Eightfold Path and striving for liberation and Nirvana from life to life, if there is no enduring or surviving soul or self of any kind whatsoever?” they can never answer. When faced with the query “Why are you even bothering to practise Buddhism if there is no “you” of any kind whatsoever?” they usually change the subject or avoid answering . . . because they can’t answer without either admitting some sort of enduring self or admitting that the Theravada philosophy is blatantly illogical, unphilosophical, and erroneous, when it comes to this matter.

Mahayana Buddhism, most popularly and prominently represented today by Tibetan Buddhism, openly admits the existence of what they call “a mental continuum” or “a mindstream” which is the individual part of us which passes on from life to life. But they too have an aversion to the idea of Self so they tend to avoid mentioning this mental continuum or mindstream as much as possible. From the few descriptions they give of it, it’s apparent that they mean the human soul. But if asked “Is this the soul then?” they would quickly deny it and insist that there is no soul, thus contradicting themselves. They just can’t bear the notion of soul, self, or ego, in any way, but they’re more philosophical and reasonable than the Theravadins.

As for there being a universal and impersonal Absolute “Something” which is our true and higher Self, this is completely out of the question for Theravada Buddhists. The very idea of it offends and provokes them. In the world of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, there are two main schools of thought on this matter: the Prasangika-Madhyamika and the Yogacharya.

The Prasangika-Madhyamika holds great sway in today’s Tibetan Buddhism, particularly in the Gelugpa sect/school, who are the most tenacious proponents of emptiness and voidness, maintaining that the Ultimate Reality is emptiness, an emptiness which is even empty of emptiness itself. This perspective – at least in the way in which they teach it – is as philosophically and logically unsustainable as the Theravada denials of any form of self but Prasangika-Madhyamika thrives on false logic and unflinching denials. HPB has described it as an exoteric travesty, sophistic nihilism, and an anti-esoteric and highly rationalist system of thought.

Ironically, it’s the Gelugpa – the yellow hat – branch of Tibetan Buddhism, founded in the early 15th century by Tsong-Kha-Pa, with which HPB and the Masters of the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood align themselves. This would indicate that there’s an almost entirely unknown esoteric undercurrent within the Gelugpas which teaches something different from this.

So-called scholars and academics trace the Yogacharya philosophical worldview back to Aryasangha, an Indian Mahayana Buddhist Master who they say lived around 1,500 years ago. In “The Theosophical Glossary,” however, HPB says that there were two Aryasanghas; the one who lived 1,500 years ago she calls “the pseudo-Aryasangha,” who tried to pass himself off as being the original one, who had lived 1,000 years before and who had been an Arhat and a direct disciple of Gautama Buddha.

She says that there are thus two Yogacharya schools. The real Yogacharya school has always been entirely secret and esoteric and was founded by the original Aryasangha to perpetuate the actual esoteric teachings and secret philosophy of Buddha himself, which he had taught solely to a select group of his Arhats. Owing to persecution from the Hindu Brahmins, this school eventually moved its base to the Trans-Himalayan region. The later Yogacharya school of approx. 5th century A.D. is the only one which is known of by the world at large. The existence of an earlier Yogacharya school would be denied by all because there’s no discernible evidence available of its existence or its teachings. But why would there be and how could there be, if it’s entirely esoteric and if its teachings and practices are imparted to disciples only under a severe pledge of secrecy and after a lengthy period of testing and probation?

HPB writes that the later Yogacharya school has some similarities in its teachings with the original one but they are mixed up with various sorts of erroneous notions and false practices. Although a number of aspects of Yogacharya thought exist in some parts of Tibetan Buddhism today in diluted form – least diluted among the Jonangpa sect/school, although this should not lead us to assume that they are somehow connected with the Masters – it’s now extinct and defunct in terms of being a living and active school of philosophy, like the extinct Sankhya philosophy in Hinduism.

Tibetan Buddhists generally cannot bring themselves to accept Yogacharya outright. Why? Because its main defining factor is that it asserts and upholds the existence of soul and Self.

It teaches that the Ultimate Reality is not Emptiness but Fullness . . . that there is an Absolute Divine Principle and that it is Adi-Buddhi, the One Element of Primordial Wisdom, which is likened to an absolute, infinite, undefiled, undecaying “Expanse” like Abstract Space, and which is the innermost essence and true Self of each and all. It is the Tathagatagarbha – “Buddha Nature,” “Buddha Element,” “Buddha Self” – within us, which has become obscured and hidden through the mental poisons and passions and desires which we have allowed to grow up within our soul. But it can be realised and we can re-become it in consciousness. “There IS an Atman,” assert the Yogacharya scriptures and the Tathagatagarbha sutras, and the Absolute is empty only of everything other than Itself.

It’s essentially the Atman-Brahman doctrine of Hinduism, just expressed in Buddhist terminology, along with the Bodhisattva Ideal and central emphasis on Gautama Buddha as the great Teacher and the Supreme Nirmanakaya.

Many people think and say that the whole of Buddhism teaches “anatta” but this is usually because they’ve never heard of Yogacharya Buddhism.

HPB states in the preface to “The Voice of the Silence” that The Book of the Golden Precepts, from which it comes, is a Yogacharya text. In her article “Old Philosophers and Modern Critics” she expressly states that the Stanzas of Dzyan – on which “The Secret Doctrine” is based – belong to “the Esoteric Yogacharyas.” The phrase “Occult students of the Aryasanga School” is also used in “The Secret Doctrine” and one can find much praise and numerous glowing references to Aryasangha and the Yogacharyas throughout her writings, particularly “The Theosophical Glossary” which makes some statements which imply the highest esoteric knowledge and powers as belonging to the Initiates of the Yogacharya school. This must mean the secret esoteric Yogacharya School of the original Aryasangha, since there is no other extant Yogacharya school.

Terms such as Alaya, Alaya-vijnana, and Ashta-vijnana, used in “The Voice of the Silence,” HPB’s “Tibetan Teachings” article, and by the Masters in some of Their letters to early Theosophists, are exclusively Yogacharya terms.

"The only refuge for him who aspires to true perfection is Buddha alone." A handwritten note that accompanied one of the "Mahatma Letters" to A.P. Sinnett from the Master Koot Hoomi and Master Morya. It was found to be a quote from the Ratnagotravibhaga, also known as the Uttara Tantra, a Yogacharya scripture attributed to Aryasangha, and which has recently been translated and published in English. It is one of the central Tathagatagarbha or Buddha Nature scriptures.
“The only refuge for him who aspires to true perfection is Buddha alone.” A handwritten note that accompanied one of the “Mahatma Letters” to A. P. Sinnett from the Master K.H. and Master M. It was found to be a quote from the Ratnagotravibhaga, also known as the Uttara Tantra, a Yogacharya scripture attributed to Aryasangha, and which has recently been translated and published in English. It is one of the central Tathagatagarbha or Buddha Nature scriptures.

And when one considers that in many places throughout the Theosophical literature, the teachings of the Masters and HPB are referred to as “the Arhat Esoteric Philosophy” it becomes quite clear. Theosophy itself is something universal . . . the Esoteric Teaching which underlies all the world’s religions. But the Masters – those of the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood at least – and HPB identify themselves without hesitation as Buddhists . . . not any kind of exoteric Buddhists but esoteric Buddhists, adherents of a system and philosophy which is kept entirely secret but which may well be the truest and most powerful thing in the whole world.

The concept of Atman can thus be found distinctly taught in accessible Buddhist scriptures as well as in the secret esoteric Buddhist system. As just one example of the former, see the excerpts from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (which was also referred to by the Theosophical Mahatmas when writing to Sinnett) in our article Buddha Teaches There IS an Atman. The doctrine of Atman or Higher Universal Self is in fact found not only in Hinduism and Buddhism but in the deeper and esoteric teachings of any religion, for it is universal Truth, which Theravada Buddhism and other esotericism-denying exoteric philosophies are not.


That is that it is possible to accurately apply terms such as “non-Self” and “not-Self” to the Self (Atman, the Ultimate Divine Essence) as a way of emphasising that the True Self is not in any way comparable with the type of self with which we are familiar within ourselves and others.

“The Voice of The Silence” therefore instructs the aspirant: “To reach the knowledge of that SELF, thou hast to give up Self to Non-Self, Being to Non-Being, and then thou canst repose between the wings of the GREAT BIRD.” (p. 5, original 1889 edition)

“The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 42, says: “acquire a knowledge of how Non Ego, Voidness, and Darkness are Three in One and alone Self-existent and perfect.”

One might now ask how this is in any way different from the Prasangika-Madhyamika perspective of which we spoke rather critically earlier. The key distinction is that they would never consider speaking of the Voidness or Emptiness – Shunyata in Sanskrit – as “Self-existent,” let alone even “existent.” With them, it is a “void Void,” an “empty Emptiness,” which has no relation whatsoever with any type of Self, Existence, Essence, or Reality. They would consider the following meditation-worthy sentence from “The Voice of The Silence” (p. 55-56) to be the height of heresy: “Thou hast to study the voidness of the seeming full, the fulness of the seeming void.”

Ultimately, both the Madhyamika and Yogacharya viewpoints hold to the position and perspective of NON-DUALITY (Advaita in Sanskrit, though not to be confused with the specific Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism) but there are important, even if sometimes quite subtle, distinctions in how they perceive and speak of it. The historically known Aryasanga perhaps sums it up best in these two statements:

“[Emptiness is] the non-existence of the self, and the existence of the no-self.” (from “Abhidharmasamuccaya”)

“The non-existence of duality is indeed the existence of non-existence; this is the definition of emptiness.” (from “Madhyanta-vibhaga”)

Many of the Madhyamika-oriented Buddhist sutras can in fact become quite valuable to students of Theosophy if read from this vantage point.

Interestingly, a ULT magazine titled “Hermes” (published between 1975-1989 by the Santa Barbara Lodge of the United Lodge of Theosophists) elucidated the reality of Voidness or Emptiness from the Theosophical perspective many times, such as in the article “The Zero Principle”:

“. . . the whole universe progressively emanates from a Divine Ground. This Ground is empty of all form, prior to all differentiation and is often designated by the term shunyata, meaning ‘Voidness’ or ‘Emptiness’. Thus, in its first and foremost philosophic meaning, the zero principle refers to that No-Thing which is equally the maximal and universal potential of the cosmos. This is the primary paradox of the zero, which, as a glyph, portrays the maximum potential that can be confined within an irreducible minimum space. Ultimately, when speaking of zero one is speaking of a point. That is, the zero contracts to an invisible minute zero, which is no other than a metaphysical or mathematical point. Such a point, representing the limit of an abstract capacity to contain potentiality within minimal space, is a depiction on the conceptual plane of the realm of absolute negation. The crucial significance of these abstruse ideas is that space is more real than anything it contains. Invisible metaphysical space is more real than anything perceivable by any human being. A second major aspect of the zero is that it encompasses everything. It represents that which is complete while at the same time it represents that which is No-Thing.”

In an article known simply as “Editorial Appendix,” H. P. Blavatsky explains that the Absolute Abstract Space spoken of by “the Arhat secret doctrine” – and which is familiar as a concept to those who have attempted to study Vol. 1 of “The Secret Doctrine” – is the same as Maha Shunyata, the Great Emptiness. This, she says, is the nature of the Absolute . . . again, a distinctly Yogacharya point, as for the Madhyamikas an Absolute is an impossible and unacceptable proposition.

It is not difficult to see how all this discussion can easily come across as intellectual philosophical “hair splitting.” And so one must never forget that these teachings on the loftiest and most sublime and elevated of all truths were never given to humanity to be simply talked about, read about, or debated. The discussions, debates, and thinking, should only ever form a prelude to direct experience in meditation and practical realisation in the circumstances and situations of life. A September 1989 “Hermes” article titled “Deity In Action” begins by saying:

“Each and every human being can say truly within the silence of the inmost heart:

“I am the perceiver, the spectator, the eternal witness, intact and unmodified, attributeless, sui generis. I am Brahman, Brahman am I. I and the Absolute are one, always and forever, in all spaces and conditions and contexts. I am No-Thing, absolute voidness, shunyata, nirguna brahman, in a constant state of nirvikalpa samadhi, changeless amidst all change, beginningless and endless even amidst births and deaths, in a state of parinishpanna, supreme self-awareness as the One Self-Existent.”

~ ~

This article may have raised more questions about various things. Please make use of the site search function (the magnifying glass symbol at the top of the page) and visit the Articles page to see the complete list of over 300 articles covering all aspects of Theosophy and the Theosophical Movement.

Some articles directly related to this one are The REAL Esoteric Buddhism, Alaya – The Universal Soul, The Great Tsong-Kha-Pa, Atman – The Higher Self, and Sakshi: The Unchanging Inner Witness.