Tag Archives: Annie Besant

Guest Post: The Bodhisattva Question

by Hans van Willenswaard

Regular readers of this blog may recall me announcing my intention to organise a conference at Emerson College in 2019 on some kind of post-capitalism theme. Since then, the conference theme has been through several changes and it is still being worked on with colleagues.  The most likely outcome will be an event in 2020 rather than 2019 and, rather than choosing subject matter likely to draw us into despair and angst, which is all too easy given the state of the world, the theme will be focused on asking the Earth what it needs now from human beings. In the course of navigating these changes, I made contact with a wonderful group of people who organised the International Earth Trusteeship Gathering in The Hague from 22nd-23rd June this year. Hans van Willenswaard is a member of this group, and I am pleased to publish the following article by him.

Dear Jeremy,

I follow your blog with keen interest and joy. Anthropopper blog is a great platform where challenging subjects can be discussed with openness, sincerity, humour and depth.

An issue that has been intriguing me – it indirectly appears through a number of your blog conversations – is the so-called “Bodhisattva question”. It is difficult to pin my contribution down to one existing thread. So, let me formulate a few points for discussion in this separate message. The two reasons why I send these now are: the recent rehabilitation of Ita Wegman and Elisabeth Vreede by the General Assembly of the General Anthroposophical Society in Dornach. The two Dutch ladies were both expelled from the board of directors of the society in 1935. And, as a remarkable gesture of synchronicity, the opening of “Elisabeth Vreede house” in The Hague as the new centre of the Anthroposophical Society in the Netherlands. Elisabeth Vreede is of course known in the first place for her extraordinary knowledge and research in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. But also for a series of lectures she held on the “Bodhisattva question”.

Two months ago the new Elisabeth Vreede house offered an intriguing location for my musings on this “Bodhisattva question”. I had the pleasure to be a co-organiser of an event in the restyled “Vreedehuis”, called the International Earth Trusteeship Gathering, 22-23 June 2018. Unexpectedly, as much improvisation was needed, the gathering turned out to be a significantly meaningful and dynamic international gathering with, at its peak, around 90 participants from all over the world including – to mention a few – professor in environmental law from New Zealand Klaus Bosselmann; Right Livelihood Award laureate (“the Alternative Nobel Prize”) and former chair Friends of the Earth International, Nnimmo Bassey, Nigeria; and Dutch expert in sustainable finance Roland Mees. Focal points were the Earth Charter, launched in 2000 at the Peace Palace in The Hague, and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth adopted in Bolivia in 2010. I will explain later why this is relevant for a discussion on the “Bodhisattva question”. A highlight of the gathering certainly was the spirited speech on transforming ownership held by Gerald Häfner, leader of the Social Sciences Section at the Goetheanum. Gerald presented his views in front of the bust of Elisabeth Vreede. Elisabeth was born and grew up not far from the centre which now carries her name. The forward-looking Earth Trusteeship gathering perfectly matched the scale and warmth of Vreedehuis, the former Eurythmy Academy. The house is located at walking distance from the Peace Palace, seat of the UN International Court of Justice and other global judicial institutes.

My entanglement with the “Bodhisattva question” on which Elisabeth Vreede had lectured in The Hague, April 1930, and the same year in Stuttgart, stems from my inter-cultural background. I was born in the Netherlands and live in Thailand where I married Wallapa, my Thai wife. Midway in my career I joined the (then) Rural Development Programme (RDP) at Emerson College, 1982-’84. During my education at Emerson I became a member of the Dutch anthroposophical society. While I had taken earlier in the Netherlands, 1979, “refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha” – after years of training in Vipassana meditation – in other words: I was going to try to be a Buddhist. It has been and still is my intention to explore opportunities for synergy between these two commitments, both in my personal life and search for inner insight, as well as in the context of social development and inter-cultural co-creation of a better future. But are Buddhism and anthroposophy compatible?

I visited Forest Row and London occasionally to touch base. When I went to England in 1993 I discovered in a famous Steiner bookshop, not far from the British Museum, the freshly published English version of The Bodhisattva Question: Krishnamurti, Rudolf Steiner, Valentin Tomberg, and the Mystery of the Twentieth-Century Master written by Thomas Meyer. The book includes the two complete Stuttgart lectures of Elisabeth Vreede on the subject. It was originally published in German as Die Bodhisattvafrage by Pegasus, 1989. The publisher’s introductory text reads:

“According to Rudolf Steiner, the future Maitreya Buddha (…) incarnated (as a Bodhisattva: (my addition) in a human body in the twentieth century. Presuming this to be so, then who was this person? The Theosophists believed they had discovered the Bodhisattva in an Indian boy, Krishnamurti, who grew up to be a teacher of some magnitude. Adolf Arenson and Elisabeth Vreede, both students of Rudolf Steiner, made independent examinations of this question in relation to Steiner’s personal mission, and were led to contrasting conclusions. More recently a claim has been made that Valentin Tomberg – a student of anthroposophy but later an influential Roman Catholic – was the Bodhisattva. These conflicting theories are analysed by Thomas Meyer, who demonstrates how the question can be useful as an exercise in developing sound judgement in spiritual matters.”

“Developing sound judgement in spiritual matters” is what I have been trying to do, in particular at the crossroads of Buddhism and anthroposophy, since I got acquainted with both streams. The urge to make judgements in matters of “public spirituality” was a particular challenge to me, initially, as a founding team-member and later volunteer of De Kosmos meditation centre in Amsterdam from 1968 onwards. Later I combined my “taking refuge” with a vow to live my commitment to walking the path of the Buddha in a context of interreligious dialogue. For I did not want to renounce my Christian roots. For more than a decade I volunteered as secretary of the Dutch national chapter of what is now Religions for Peace, one of the global organisations for interreligious dialogue and cooperation.

It was thus with great anticipation that I started reading the book of Thomas Meyer. I expected positive clues towards synthesis, the dawn of common ground, efforts towards reconciliation and cross-cultural collaboration. At Emerson College – where my engagement with Buddhism fitted in a genuinely multi-cultural “RDP community” – I befriended pioneers of Steiner education in India and I felt the sadness of the historical divisions between the students of Krishnamurti, Mahatma Gandhi and Rudolf Steiner. Annie Besant had ushered Gandhi into his role as leader of the independence movement. And Krishnamurti, after his break with the Order of the Star in the East in 1929 (four years after Steiner’s passing), became a wisdom leader in his own right.

So I was deeply puzzled on the one hand by the lucidity of Meyer’s characterization of anthroposophy and his critique of the early Theosophists, of Krishnamurti and in particular Valentin Tomberg. However, at the same time I was struck by his apparent failure, maybe even disinterest, in making an equally intelligent effort to positively answer the question “who was the Bodhisattva of the 21st century?”. How can you intellectually cut down your antagonists in great style yet not be able to follow the stated predictions of Rudolf Steiner to discover this person so vital for the future of the Earth and humanity?

In 2010 a new German edition of Thomas Meyer’s book was released (which I did not read but in essence is announced to be the same) under the title Scheidung der Geister: Die Bodhisattwafrage als Prüfstein des Unterscheidungsvermögens. In English: The Bodhisattva question as test case for the power of discrimination. The introductory text now says:

“Elisabeth Vreedes Vorträge sind nach wie vor mustergültig in ihrer Klarsicht: Sie betonen den Ich- und Intuitionscharakter von Steiners Geisteswissenschaft, die sich von jeder Bodhisattwa-Inspiration unterscheidet.”

(Google Translate version: Elisabeth Vreede’s lectures are still exemplary in their clarity: They emphasise the ego and intuition character of Steiner’s spiritual science, which differs from any bodhisattwa inspiration.)

Isn’t this – rather by Thomas Meyer than by Elisabeth Vreede  – a disturbing appropriation of what Bodhisattva inspiration might be, and whether that excludes intuition as known in Steiner’s spiritual science? How can one do research into a “Bodhisattva question” in the context of the 20th century without a dialogue with leading contemporary Buddhist scholars – especially those who cherish Buddhist philosophy as a spiritual science rather than a religion – and with practitioners? Fortunately, I found consolation in the gentle but firm wisdom demonstrated by Elisabeth Vreede, of whom I had not heard before. I recognized in her approach the best of Dutch “normality” and tolerance in spiritual matters, be it combined with due earnestness and assertiveness.

In Vreede’s first lecture – included in Meyer’s book – she quotes Rudolf Steiner speaking on the Buddha:

“Earlier on he had allowed himself, so to speak, to be led from above; he had received impulses from the spiritual world and then passed them on. In this incarnation, however, 600 years before our era, he was raised to the rank of Buddha in his twenty-ninth year, i.e. in this incarnation he experiences the entry of his whole individuality into the physical body. (…)’

‘This was the enlightenment of the Buddha in the twenty-ninth year of his life under the Bodhi tree. There it was that the teaching of compassion and love flowered in him, independent of connections with the spirit world, as something belonging to the human soul; so that he could think through to the teaching of compassion and love, of which he spoke in the Eightfold Path. And the sermon following this is the great teaching of compassion and love, issuing for the first time from a human breast!”[1]

The rehabilitation of Elisabeth Vreede does not of course imply that there are no different opinions left regarding the Bodhisattva question today. Different opinions on the subject are, though not of primary importance, maybe as much related, albeit indirectly, to the present governance crisis in the General Anthroposophical Society as the “question” was during the, certainly much deeper, crisis in the 1930s. The popularity of Meyer’s book shows that the issue is still alive. From this perspective it is vital, in my view, to approach the different opinions as learning points – including learning how to govern diversity – rather than taking them as a “separation of spirits” and the proclamation of a doctrine.

Sergei O. Prokofieff wrote, in Rudolf Steiner and the Founding of the New Mysteries (German version 1982; first English version 1986), in line with the 1930 argumentation of Adolf Arenson:

“As an initiate Rudolf Steiner sacrificed his earthly astral body by placing it at the service of the lofty spiritual being of the Bodhisattva, and – in a wider sense – of the whole circle of the Master individualities, who are connected with the high sphere of the Holy Spirit who form now onwards, spoke through him.”

“(…) this event brings his autobiography The Course of My Life to its logical conclusion for Rudolf Steiner can no longer apply the word ‘my’ only to himself as an individual on Earth, but henceforth must apply it also to the cosmic beings working through him.”[2]

Elisabeth Vreede suggests – cautiously contradicting Arenson – that Rudolf Steiner himself had stated that he was not the Bodhisattva of the 20th century; and that he spoke out of his own soul. Would she have agreed with the description of Sergej Prokofieff in which Steiner largely gives up his “I” to make place for a “we”? Isn’t there a contradiction full of enigma between this description by Prokofieff and what Steiner had said about the Buddha: “There it was that the teaching of compassion and love flowered in him, independent of connections with the spirit world, as something belonging to the human soul.” Has there been a debate between Sergej Prokofieff and Thomas Meyer on how to understand the “Bodhisattva inspiration” in Rudolf Steiner’s development as a teacher of spiritual science, and how that inspiration relates to the path of “I – intuition”?

Steiner made, reluctantly, under pressure of the misleading Theosophical claim of clairvoyantly determining Krishnamurti as the Maitreya / reborn Christ, the prediction following below. [Lorenzo Ravagli added recently that, according to an account of Friedrich Rittelmeyer, Rudolf Steiner had stated orally that the revelation of the spiritual world leader would start in the 1930s[3].

Steiner’s prediction on the Bodhissattva of the 20th century contains three points. The Bodhisattva is:

  • Incarnated during the lifetime of Rudolf Steiner
  • Shows transition to exceptional leadership around the age of 30 years
  • Announces the appearance of the Christ in the etheric body of the Earth

It may not be good story-telling to give away the major observation I try to make in this conversation at this point but I would like to compare an early personal experience in my search for insight, with a quintessential reference to Rudolf Steiner by Thomas Meyer:

“Rudolf Steiner took such a serious view of this lack of discrimination, to which members of spiritual movements seem particularly prone, that he occasionally felt obliged to make very pointed remarks to rouse his pupils to an awareness of the grave consequences the lack of this faculty would have.”[4]

Let’s compare this with another source. It was in the year 1973 that (His Holiness) the Dalai Lama visited the Netherlands, and Europe, for the first time. I attended his public lecture in the main auditorium of the Royal Tropical Museum in Amsterdam. I do not remember much more than the extraordinary light in the lecture hall. Only one question and answer struck – as a beginning student of Buddhist meditation – me as exceptional. A person in the audience asked: “are there possible negative impacts of meditation?” The Dalai Lama was visibly amused being challenged by a difficult question, and he took time to think before he replied. “Yes, you risk to lose your capacity for discrimination”.

So, we all agree that Unterscheidungsvermögen (Discernment) is essential. But should that lead to a “separation of spirits,” to a Scheidung der Geister?

Now before I consider further the point of who could be considered to be the Bodhisattva of the 20th century, let me first raise the question of who invented this “Bodhisattva of the 20th century” concept in the first place. In Buddhism there are myriads of teachings on what a Bodhisattva is, but no teacher spoke about it in these terms, as far as I know. In early Theravada traditions bodhisattvas are personifications of the Buddha in incarnations before the one in which he attained Enlightenment. In Mahayana tradition and growing contemporary practice everyone can and is encouraged to make a Bodhisattva vow to “renounce individual enlightenment and work for the liberation of all beings and to attain buddhahood for their sake”.(5) We can all become Bodhisattvas within our limitations.

So the “throne that Krishnamurti left vacant” as Thomas Meyer says sarcastically, is a particular construction of the Theosophy and Anthroposophy movements only, it seems. This may clarify why Thomas Meyer considers candidates for the “Bodhisattva of the 20thcentury” exclusively from his own small circle.

In the theosophical context with its inclination to the East this is still understandable, but why does the exotic term “bodhisattva” remain common in the anthroposophical movement? With good reasons it can be argued that the phenomenon “bodhisattva” has been universalised and no longer belongs exclusively to the Buddhist tradition. This point of view rightly grants anthroposophical science equal – but not more than others – legitimacy to research, define and debate Bodhisattva inspiration. Universalisation is a fair legitimation, but needs to be exercised with due respect to cultural origin. Most importantly it remains to be seen whether the universalisation principle stands being reciprocal when applied to other phenomena.

Does it make sense, at all, to prove that Rudolf Steiner was right or wrong with his prediction? At least as an exercise for our own critical awareness, as Prüfstein des Unterscheidungsvermögens. And if we can solve the riddle, try to construct an answer, it may lead us to insights that enable us to unlock more mysteries that were left to the generations after Rudolf Steiner’s passing in 1925. It may, among others, help us to clarify what we mean with “clairvoyant evidence”.

Are Buddhists, like me, taken seriously when they try to contribute to solving the riddle of the Bodhisattva of the 20thcentury’s presumed manifestation?

Ton Majoor in his reaction, anthropopper February 5, 2017, links us, in one breath with a reference to Rudolf Steiner’s works – as if they are written in the same spirit – to the book The Shadow of the Dalai Lama by Victor and Victoria Trimondi. I was shocked to discover that this book, which I did not know but could read online following the link, is at least as malicious in its assessments of the Dalai Lama as many Steiner critics are towards Rudolf Steiner. Read it yourself. However, and that is one of the good things of the anthropopper blog, our efforts to appropriately discriminate – or discern –does not prevent us from admitting that, yes, critique is to be taken into consideration without prejudice.

So, far from being blind to the shadows of historic and contemporary Buddhism[6], let me make the following observations:

  • The Dalai Lama was incarnated in the person of the XIII Dalai Lama 1876 – 1933, so during Rudolf Steiner’s lifetime. The XIII Dalai Lama still was a fully feudal lama. Anyhow, according to the information transmitted by Friedrich Rittelmeyer the Bodhisattva of the 20thcentury would start to be revealed in the 1930ies. The XIV Dalai Lama was born in 1935.
  • The XIV Dalai Lama was formally recognized by means of traditional Tibetan procedures as the “Bodhisattva of Compassion” in 1939. In the initial years of his exile in India from 1959 onwards he still was confined to the traditional constrictions of his position. However, in 1967, at the age of 32, he started traveling abroad. His first destinations were Japan and Thailand. At the age of 38 he made his first journey to Europe. In an interview in the Netherlands, 1973, he stated that he himself never had said that he was the Dalai Lama, demonstrating a remarkable detachment from the traditional powers bestowed on him. He renounced his position as political leader and ushered in democratic elections of the Tibetan Government in exile. He initiated an open dialogue between traditional Buddhist scholars and leaders in contemporary science. The scholars that jointly shaped these Mind and Life dialogues included from an early stage anthroposophist Arthur Zajonc[7]. Arthur published various volumes based on the dialogues and ultimately led the Mind and Life Institute 2012 – 2015.
  • From his first journeys outside India onwards, the XIV Dalai Lama taught Universal Responsibility, in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but adding two essential dimensions toit: his teachings emphasise responsibility over rights, and a telosinclusive Nature, or “the environment”, rather than being predominantly human-centred.

My second encounter with the Dalai Lama (others were to follow) came in 1979, by coincidence just after I had “taken refuge”. As a volunteer I accompanied a delegation of – South East Asia based – Theravada teachers residing in Europe under the guidance of my Thai meditation teacher. The delegation made this journey to pay their respect to the Dalai Lama in his Tibetan monastery in Rikon, Switzerland. This gesture of respect, unusual among the Theravada and Mahayana streams in Buddhism, was instigated by Mahasi Sayadaw, a renowned senior Burmese meditation teacher, when he visited Europe. The Dalai Lama gave a teaching on the text of Shantideva (685 – 763) the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.The Dalai Lama demonstrated a deeply engaging attitude of shared learning rather than authoritative teaching.

Leaving aside the particular predicate “the Bodhisattva of the 20thcentury” I would say without doubt, that the Dalai Lama, who liberated himself from feudal tradition and doctrine, while respecting and practicing meaningful tradition, is indeed a Bodhisattva of Compassion. But did he announce the appearance of the Christ in the etheric body of the Earth?

In my eyes the appearance of the Christ is a “possibility” that can only be realised through human awareness. If it cannot be perceived by the whole of humanity in universal terms, it will not happen. Nothing less than active universal awareness, shared by humanity as a whole, so “universal responsibility”, will be needed to make this possibility come to realisation. The test of clairvoyant evidence is realisation. Universalisation of the Bodhisattva phenomenon, as earlier agreed, is legitimate. I argue that universalisation, with due respect to the original context and taking into account related culturally specific wisdom, that legitimate universalisation also applies to the concept of the “(re-)appearance of the Christ in the etheric body of the Earth.”

In times of urgency, for those who can see it, this transformation of the Earth into “personhood” is happening. This was also the common “feeling” of fiery enthusiasm during the Earth Trusteeship gathering at Elisabeth Vreede house, 22 – 23 June 2018. Without solidifying it in coercive expectation, it was providing gentle direction to intuitive action. Of course this is only one small event among many developments gradually countering reigning human behavior that results in climate change, inadequate governance and massive economic over-exploitation. But for me it was especially significant “to see it happen”, on a human-to-human scale, in the house of Elisabeth Vreede. And hear her say, as if she spoke to me: [for (…) a person who treasures Bodhisattva Inspiration]

“‘active waiting’ which consists in learning the language of spiritual science should continue to be the guiding principle.”[8]

A great Bodhisattva of the 20thcentury is still in our midst. His message, along with anthroposophy and a diversity of streams, enables us to use our I- and intuition capabilities to make the re-appearance of the Christ in the Etheric body of the Earth happen – making Earth Trusteeship work for the benefit of future generations.


1 Lecture by Rudolf Steiner: Deeper Secrets of Human History in the Light of the Gospel of St Matthew, Stuttgart, 14 November 1909 (GA 117), English version, quoted by Elizabeth Vreede according to the book of Thomas Meyer.

2 Prokofieff page 75.

3 Lorenzo Ravagli 1930 ǀSukzession und falsche Bodhisattvas, Anthroblog, 26 Match 2014

4 Thomas Meyer The Bodhisattva Question, pages 11 – 12.

5 The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicharyavatara) by Shantideva (Author), Padmakara Translation Group (Translator), Shambala publishers, 2006.

6 I am an active member of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) which brings together a diversity of streams in Buddhism characterized by social engagement and system critique. INEB was founded in 1989 in Thailand by social activist and scholar Sulak Sivaraksa.

7 We published various of his books in Thai language.

8 Second Stuttgart lecture, in The Bodhisattva Question



Filed under Bodhisattva, Buddhism, Dalai Lama