This question is really very specifically for David and Nancy Reigle, our resident Tibetan Buddhism experts, though of course anybody else who wants to chime in is welcome as well.
I've been getting my baptism in TIbetan Buddhism recently (took refuge, followed a two week FPMT course, expect to be active in the Gelugpa movement a LOT from now on).
Of course this leaves me with the issue of how to combine what I learned in theosophy with what I'm now learning from Tibetan Buddhist teachers. There are clear discrepancies.
The main issue, given the importance of the topic, is karma and rebirth.
On the one hand the discrepancy doesn't appear as large as commonly reported, because these teachers insist that while there is no constant, unchanging something that is born again and again, they do insist that there is a stream of consciousness that goes from one life to the next. This is good enough for me, though fitting it on top of our theosophical terminology is perhaps hard. Still, our 'atma-buddhi-higher-manas' is not unchanging either, so perhaps the discrepancy really is only imaginary. Even 'atma-buddhi' isn't unchanging. It's only when we get to atma-proper that the suggestion of something unchanging starts to appear. But if you look at how Blavatsky talks about that, it's definitely at least an option to interpret even atma as changing.
Anyhow - that's not my question for today.
When it comes to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it's well known that rebirth is thought to take place within 49 days. What's less well known is that this rebirth is thought to usually NOT take place in the human realm. This is stressed as a stimulus for spiritual practice. After all, as theosophy too agrees, a human rebirth is the desirable kind.
This rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism can take place in countless heavens, a few hells, as a human being and as an animal. The only disadvantage to those heavens is, as I understand it, (but I'm no expert just yet) that the stay there isn't endless. What if the stay there is generally a few thousand years? Doesn't that make the term of staying there a lot like our devachan?
In theosophy rebirth (as a human) is said to often taken thousands of years too - because we spend most of our time contemplating the good of our last life (my interpretation of devachan). In short: a sort of self-created heaven.
Blavatsky too stresses that it would be preferable to, as the real practitioners do, skip or shorten devachan and simply be reborn as quickly as possible - to not take a break, to go on working for the benefit of humanity.
I wonder - does putting it like that put too much strain on theosophy or Tibetan Buddhism, or is it really a way to bring together two seemingly conflicting accounts of what happens after death?
The more we go, the more Tibetan knowledge emerges and is given out to the public.
From a recent Institute of Tibetan Classics publication (Mahamudra and related instructions - Core Teaching of the Kagyü Schools, 2011 - ISBN 0-86171-444-X), one can read on the bardo realm, from Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (1512-1587) the following :
"The Way the Bardo manifests.
At first, there are the momentary apprearances from the propensities of your past life. They become less and less clear until the appearances of the body of your next life arises. This is explained in the great commentary to the Kalachakra : The (bardo) body takes on the form it will have on being reborn; it has all sensory faculties; it can pass through anything except its future birthplace; it is endowed with miraculous physical powers; the body increases through eating smells; it can be seen by other bardo beings of the same class and by 'living beings) with divine sight; it moves around in search of smells and its birthplace; it has all kinds of perceptions because of good or bad karma; it has very little stability; the length of its lifetime can be up to seven days but this is not definite, for if it is not reborn, it experiences a "little death", which is lile fainting briefly, and then come back into the bardo for another "lifetime" of seven days. It it does nor encounter the accumulation of factors necessary for rebirth, this process can repeat until forty-nine days have passed, and then it will definitively be reborn."
Another reference is made to the Samvarodaya Tantra which in particular teaches the process of birth from a womb
This tradition is well alive : one of the greatest masters fro the Nyingmapa tradition passed away two weeks ago, and here is what the Sanga posted on their web site at this occasion :
We have received the sad news that Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche passed away on the 2 September at 8 o'clock in the morning, in his monastery at Sitapaila near Kathmandu.
Our teachers have reminded us that the days and weeks to come are an important moment for all Rinpoche's disciples. This is the time to practise as much as possible, to think of Rinpoche and to mingle our minds with his.
It is recommended that we continue with our own daily practise. Everybody who is free is invited to attend the practise of The Shower of Blessings, which will be performed daily beginning at 18h30 at Chanteloube, from the 7 September (the 10th of the Tibetan month).
And in the mail we received, they explained that it shall last for 49 days.
According to David Reigle in this thread devachan is equivalent to Sukhavati. However, this is the kind of detail that few people know, because the amount of people who know enough about theosophy and Tibetan Buddhism to make that kind of comparison is very small - in fact, probably limited to David and Nancy Reigle at present.
As for it being a Hindu idea - in (exoteric) Hinduism there is nothing as elaborate and detailed as Blavatsky's scheme for the afterlife as far as I am aware. In Tibetan Buddhism there is: the Tibetan Book of the Dead. There may be all kinds of details different, but in general lines I think it's fair to say it comes closest to Blavatsky's story of any accessible work of Eastern philosophy.
As for Buddhist tantra - it does include explanations of all kinds of things. The Dalai Lama told at least one Tibetan Lama (Dagpo Rinpche) when he went west that he should, where relevant, explain the tantric interpretation of the Tibetan doctrines, not the ones usually taught to Tibetan lay people: more logical and more likely to appeal to Westerners.
Devachan has often been falsely etymologically split up as 'deva- chan' -place of gods, which sounds much more Hindu than Buddhist, though in fact Hinduism and Buddhism share a lot of cosmology.
As for those Buddhists in that chatroom - they clearly had no idea about theosophy. And as such it was off topic. I didn't go to a Buddhist chatroom with my question either.
@Jacques Do remember that when Tibetan Buddhists talk about rebirth and taking the body OF that rebirth, they're including all kinds of heavens and hells as a place one can be 'reborn' into.
@John - Yes, human rebirth is definitely not something to desire, but it's only as a human that, according to Blavatsky, we have any chance of escaping from the rounds of rebirth. In Buddhism one can also gain enlightenment only from the human realm and from the higher heavens (more like meditative states). But not from the ordinary heavens or anything like that.
Oh and even people who become chela's in this life still have 7 HUMAN rebirths ahead of them, according to theosophical tradition. Less time in devachan in between though.
According to Blavatsky once a consciousness has reached the human level of evolution it is unlikely to go back into an animal form, other than of course the body of a child. Only black magic and really bad actions and intentions would cause devolution in Blavatsky's view. She really is very explicit about that.
Since the Mahatma Letters are clearly the source of all details we have for spiritual evolution and devachan, I looked them up.
What follows are a few quotes that speak to me, though they don't speak on the topic I originally started the thread on. Still, relevant in a broad way:
p. 65, letter 18 (chronological version)
>> At that point the great Law begins its work of selection. Matter found entirely divorced from spirit is thrown over into the still lower worlds - into the sixth "GATI" or "way of rebirth" of the vegetable and mineral worlds, and of the primitive animal forms. From thence, matter ground over in the workshop of nature proceeds soulless back to its Mother Fount; while the Egos purified of their dross are enabled to resume their progress once more onward. It is here, then, that the laggard Egos perish by the millions. It is the solemn moment of the "survival of the fittest", the annihilation of those unfit. It is but matter (or material man) which is compelled by its own weight to descend to the very bottom of the "circle of necessity" to there assume animal form; as to the winner of that race throughout the worlds - the Spiritual Ego, he will ascend from star to star, from one world to another, circling onward to rebecome the once pure planetary Spirit, then higher still, to finally reach its first starting point, and from thence - to merge into MYSTERY. >>
I think it's fair to say that the black magician gets rid of all connection to his spiritual ego, so he would logically descend 'to the very bottom of the "circle of necessity"'.
Do remember that to the adepts matter is more than just 'matter', it includes everything that has 'form': emotion, even thought.
Yes, I think you'll have to take that as 'according to Katinka's understanding of Blavatsky and the Mahatma Letters'.
The idea that we can't go back really is up for reexamining, IMO. I don't think you'll find a Blavatsky quote for that one either.
But perhaps we can meet in that last paragraph: if a criminal or a black magician lives without a connection to his Higher Self, doesn't that mean that the part of him that is manifestly him - his personality - moves in a different direction from that Higher Self? That, in other words, it is meaningless to say that 'his' Higher Self moves on to higher spheres, if in fact he hasn't contributed anything at all to the evolution of that Higher Self?
Still, I have to say - the whole reasoning does become so convoluted now, it makes me almost prefer the simple (and perhaps simplistic) classic exoteric Buddhist version.
I haven't made up my mind yet about the buddhist vs the theosophical version.
As to your quotes - they do make it clear that you can't find Blavatsky categorically denying rebirth in animal forms in extreme cases. Since we're agreed on the average human being: definitely does reincarnate as a human according to Blavatsky, I think we're talked out.
Except to stress that my point is that what reincarnates lower in case of the very debased criminal or black magician is the SKANDHAS - which are life atoms in de Puruckers interpretation of Blavatsky and which (I think) even with Blavatsky are said to sometimes pass into lower life forms. I remember an explanation of a Buddha sermon in which he said that the lazy sweeper got reincarnated as the grass that was turned into a sweep (is that English?). The theosophical response (I think Blavatsky, but you've made me more careful) was that it was only his lower skandhas that reincarnated as such. The higher self would go to devachan and then return as a human being.
The problem with this interpretation is that it seems to split the stream of karma into several eddies, which does not really make a lot of sense.