In 1934, an unpublished middle-aged writer named Henry Miller, living in poverty in Paris, had what he termed “an awakening.” He had read occult literature all his life, had just been reading Madame Blavatsky’sIsis Unveiled, but was not given to mystical experience. As he recalled years later,

One day after I had looked at a photograph of [Madame Blavatsky’s] face—she had the face of a pig, almost, but fascinating—I was hypnotized by her eyes and I had a complete vision of her as if she were in the room.

Now I don’t know if that had anything to do with what happened next, but I had a flash, I came to the realization that I was responsible for my whole life, whatever had happened. I used to blame my family, society, my wife . . . and that day I saw so clearly that I had nobody to blame but myself. I put everything on my own shoulders and I felt so relieved: Now I’m free, no one else is responsible. And that was a kind of awakening, in a way.

One suspects that Madame Blavatsky herself, the founder of Theosophy, would have delighted in this story; it has the same mysterious, inexplicable, slightly hokey quality of many of the stories from her own life. What credibility she has in the world today seems largely to rest with the people who were impressed and influenced by her: William James, Abner Doubleday, George Russell (the Irish poet Æ), and W. B. Yeats. Thomas Edison belonged to the Theosophical Society. Albert Einstein reportedly had a copy of the Secret Doctrine on his desk. Christmas Humphreys, founder of the Buddhist Lodge in London, was a devoted follower of Theosophy and an admirer of its founder. And his friend D. T. Suzuki, who was so influential in bringing Buddhism to the West, was once heard to say as he stood in front of Madame Blavatsky’s portrait, “She was one who attained.”

There seems to be little middle ground about Blavatsky. Of the two most recent books that concern her, HPBby Sylvia Cranston (Tarcher/Putnam, 1993) and Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon by Peter Washington (Schocken, 1995), one mentions spiritualist “phenomena”—spoons passing through walls, flowers falling out of the air—as if they were commonplace occurrences, while the other portrays Madame Blavatsky as a laughable charlatan, on a par with P. T. Barnum. Yet, regardless of what doubts may linger about her, it is impossible to deny Blavatsky’s influence on Buddhism, both in Asia and the West.

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