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The Real and the Unreal

How to Order by Richard Smoley

One of the curious privileges of being an editor is the task of perusing journals with points of view wildly different from your own. So from time to time I look at some conservative Christian publications just to see what's going on at the other end of the religious spectrum. They generally stir in me the same fascinated horror that GNOSIS no doubt provokes in them.

These magazines often express the fear that the West is being subjected to a wave of proselytism from Asian religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. (When we talk about the "East" in this issue, for the most part we will be talking about these two traditions.) Conservative Christians seem to regard yoga and meditation as a fifth column from the inscrutable Orient, which is cleverly using our penchant for fitness and relaxation to implant its nefarious ideas into our unsuspecting brains. This threat has awakened the attention of the Pope himself, who in his recent best-seller warns the faithful against Buddhism's "negative view of the world."(1)

If this sinister infiltration started at a particular time and place, it would have to be the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, which played host to Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of the great sage Ramakrishna. Ihla F. Nation's article in this issue describes some of the effects Vivekananda and his successors have had on Western seekers, but it may be useful to give some background to his coming.

To some extent Vivekananda's way had been paved by H.P. Blavatsky, whose writings, published mostly in the 1870s and '80s, presented a digest (not, perhaps, always rigorously accurate) of Eastern teachings and whose Theosophical Society inspired a resurgence of pride among Indians in their own culture.

It would, I think, be very difficult to understand the work of Blavatsky and her successors apart from the historical currents of their age. Chief of these was the apparent political and cultural triumph of the West. At the time of Blavatsky's death in 1891, a quarter of the globe belonged to the British alone, and the European powers were busily gobbling up the remaining bits of Africa and Asia that had so far kept their independence. In the wake of European gunboats and traders came the missionaries, who sought to leave their own stamp on the local cultures.

I will not play the fashionable game of berating Western colonialism and imperialism. Nor am I impressed by the fantastic and sentimentalized views of "traditional" cultures prevailing today. But it is true that the pressure of the West weakened and demoralized those who upheld the traditional ways of the East. And this pressure came, curiously enough, at the very time when Western intellectuals had become disillusioned with Christianity. Throughout the nineteenth century, philosophers including Schopenhauer, Emerson, and Nietzsche were turning to Eastern texts to feed their insights.

It was the accomplishment of people like Blavatsky and Vivekananda to reverse the current of Western dominance in its forms of missionary Christianity and "scientific" materialism. They wanted not only to restore native pride in the tremendous riches of Asian civilization, but to satisfy the West's hunger for its wisdom.

Hence if there has been a wave of proselytism from the East over the last century - and I would agree there has - it has emerged partly in reaction to Christianity's own efforts to propagate itself in alien soil. (At least the Easterners have had the courtesy to leave their guns at home.)

As a result of this avid cross-fertilization, Hindu and Buddhist ideas have leaked into popular consciousness. Deepak Chopra beams from the covers of a dozen New Age magazines; you can buy "ayurvedic" shampoos and face creams; and people now joke about "past lives" as they used to joke about St. Peter and the pearly gates. So it behooves us to stop and take a look at the impact Eastern spirituality has had on the West.

Most significantly, perhaps, the Eastern traditions have revived our interest in spiritual experience and practice - something that had almost been lost in the West. After the Enlightenment, mainstream Christianity and Judaism came to glorify the rational, ethical dimension of their faiths at the expense of the mystical and contemplative. Meditative traditions were shunted aside, and prayer came to resemble exactly what Christ said it shouldn't be - "vain repetitions" of stock formulas.

In the 1950s and '60s, disillusioned with the aridity of contemporary religion, Western seekers began to investigate practices like Zen sitting and Transcendental Meditation. The Western faiths were slow to respond, but today, a generation after Eastern religion first hit mass consciousness, Christianity and Judaism have managed to rummage around in their attics and unearth, say, the Prayer of Jesus, or the Jewish meditation practices of teshuvah and hithbodeduth. One even comes across occasional hybrids like "Christian yoga."

Eastern teachings, then, have goaded the Western traditions to shake off some of their dust and engage with a living spiritual dimension. Sometimes, as Sam Webster's article in this issue suggests, Eastern religions have offered useful pointers on attitude and technique. On the other hand I can't claim to be terribly awed by the wholesale importations of Hinduism and Buddhism that I've come across here. (This may explain why I'm editing a magazine on Western rather than Eastern inner traditions.)

This is not to say that these venerable religions have nothing to teach us. Clearly they have. And the various attempts to prove the inferiority of Hinduism or Buddhism to Western faiths strike me as wholly unconvincing. Alan Watts put it well: "The Christian who maintains that, say, the doctrines of the Vedanta or of Mahayana Buddhism are inferior to his own, must not forget that he bases his judgment on standards which he has acquired from Christianity - so that his conclusion is foregone, or, more plainly, prejudiced."(2)

All the same, Eastern religions, as they have been established in the West, often seem less like a carefully prepared feast than a half-digested mass in the stomach of a ruminant. This is not for lack of fundamental knowledge or good will, but there are several issues that complicate the process.

In the first place, there is simply the problem of making the tradition understood. Any teaching is prone to oversimplification as it is transmitted, and the problems are complicated when there are enormous cultural distances to traverse. One example is reincarnation, which, many people will tell you, is a central doctrine of both Hinduism and Buddhism.

Not quite. Buddhists don't even believe that there is a "self" to reincarnate. They view successive "incarnations" not so much as an individual identity choosing a sequence of bodies but more like a wave in the ocean whose momentum generates similar waves: the actions of one life create a certain inertia that carries over into another.

Much the same is true of Hinduism, at least according to the early twentieth-century Traditionalist Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, profiled in this issue. He went so far as to say that "no doctrine of reincarnation . . . has ever been taught in India." According to Coomaraswamy, a man only "reincarnates" in the sense that he lives on in his descendants; otherwise the Hindu scriptures teach that there is "one and only one transmigrant" - "the Lord . . . .the Supreme and Solar Self, Atman, Brahman, Indra." who is one and who lives in all beings perpetually.(3)

Transmission of doctrine is a major problem, but it is a comparatively simple one. A much deeper issue faces the "missionaries" of Eastern religions: namely, determining what in their traditions is essential and what is outward form, well-adapted to one time and place but inappropriate for another.

The most obvious instance is the guru-disciple relationship, which in the East is a well-tested means of imparting knowledge and maintaining a lineage. As Ihla Nation's article shows, this has very often not been the case here. Is it because of our own weakness and depravity, or, as Ram Dass has suggested, because the East simply hasn't sent its best people over? Both may be true. But let me offer another explanation.

From infancy, Americans are inculcated with the belief that "all men are created equal." If we have often fallen short of this ideal in our history, it still remains embedded in what Jung might have called the "racial stratum" of the American psyche.

Devotion to the guru violates this core belief. The idea that some people have higher spiritual attainment than others, and may be able to transmit it by way of direct contact, is not the issue here. But worshiping an ordinary (or for that matter extraordinary) individual goes directly against this basic notion of the equality of all human beings. If Americans repudiate this principle, they tend to lose a certain inner compass that is not easily restored. Hence the difficult and often disastrous manifestations of the guru-disciple relationship in the West.

This is not to say that absolute equality is a prerequisite in the American spiritual scene, or that there have not been many sincere and upright Eastern teachers who have settled here. My point is simply this: Imparting a teaching must take some regard of the cultural context. Certain elements may have to be emphasized, while others may have to be curtailed. To carry out this brief while remaining faithful to the teaching's essence is delicate work indeed. I am not sure that the proponents of Hinduism and Buddhism have accomplished this goal; some do not even seem to see that it is needed.

All of which leads to the overwhelming question: where do East and West meet? Do they share a genuine common ground? Or are there irreconcilable differences that no amount of talk about toleration and brotherhood can ultimately overcome?

You can't really write magazine articles unless you are fond of gross overgeneralizations. So you will, I hope, indulge me as I permit myself a few about the differences between Eastern and Western spirituality:

* In the East, the Absolute is often depicted in impersonal terms, such as the Hindu notion of Atman or the Buddhist "no-self." The West, by contrast, tends to see God as ultimately personal and capable of relating to his creatures in a personal way. (This notion of an impersonal Absolute, combined with the human need for personal devotion, may well explain the form that devotion to the guru has taken in the East. In the West, the highest devotion tends to be reserved for God.)

* The East, with its notion of kalpas and yugas - immeasurably long but nonetheless finite eons that recur like the seasons - emphasizes the cyclical nature of time. In the West (with the possible exception of Paganism), time is viewed in a much more linear fashion: the Last Day will mark "the end of time."

* Nearly all traditions view the human condition as radically problematic, believing that something somewhere has gone terribly wrong. The West usually frames this issue in moral terms: the story of the Fall in Genesis, for example, suggests that our present unfortunate state comes from rebelling against the will of God. In the East, this imperfection tends to be viewed in cognitive terms - ignorance, maya, avidya (avidya being the "primordial loss of awareness" that is the ground of all manifest existence).

As I say, these are generalizations. After all, many Hindus feel tremendous devotion to gods like Krishna and Ganesh, while Meister Eckhart's Godhead and the Ain Sof of the Kabbalists are quite impersonal. Mahayana Buddhism seems to expect a kind of metaphysical apocalypse in the "deliverance" of all sentient beings from samsara. And Socrates, in many ways the founder of Western philosophy, insisted that all evil is merely ignorance.

In any event, I would say that these issues are superficial compared to what is perhaps the fundamental difference between these two great religious strains.

Ultimately East and West differ most radically in their assessment of the real. In Eastern scriptures, the real is constantly described in terms of what is eternal and unchanging; the physical world, with its transient forms and sensations, is merely a shadow. The West describes reality in almost exactly the opposite terms: it is what we can touch and see and hear. If something can't be perceived by the senses, it's "unreal." (And that may include the perceiver.)

Again you can cite counterexamples, like the various schools of Hindu empiricism as well as Plato's celebrated image of the cave in the Republic, which seems to assert what I have described as the Eastern view. Nonetheless in a broad sense I think the distinction holds. If it is true, it explains a great deal.

If we take the Eastern perspective seriously, for example, and ask what is eternal and unchanging, what is constantly present, it is, as Ati Akarta's article on Advaita Vedanta points out, the sense of an "I" perceiving. If we pursue this idea as far as we can, we may find that even though individuals apparently come and go on the stage of manifestation, this eternal unchanging "I" remains - and is ultimately the same for all of us. (This may be why Coomaraswamy said reincarnation isn't taught in India.) A Buddhist probably wouldn't even call it an "I"; he might simply speak of "mind" perceiving everything. At any rate the core of attention rests on the subject, the consciousness that perceives.

The Western inquiry, on the other hand, focuses almost all its attention on the object - what we experience as the material world. Even Christianity emphasizes the ultimate reality of the world and God's deep love for it. ("For God so loved the world . . .") The subject, by contrast, is a mere spook haunting the corporeal machine; many Western philosophers today don't even believe it exists.

It's quite true, of course, that both East and West have paid lip service to the idea of ultimate Unity. But they've generally done so while subtly upholding their own perspectives. For the East, materiality is often dismissed as "illusion," while the West frequently sneers at what it considers to be mere "subjectivity."

At any rate these tendencies suggest why the East seems introverted and "spiritual" to us, while we seem extraverted and materialistic to them. It also explains the strengths and weaknesses of each civilization. Buddhist psychology and phenomenology, for example, make their Western equivalents look like the scribblings of clever undergraduates, while Western science and engineering have reached pinnacles the East has scarcely dreamt of.

Of modern esotericists, the one who probably best understood this issue was Rene Guenon, whose discussions of "essence" and "substance" at least resemble what I'm saying here.(4) Ironically, though, the insights of Guenon and his followers have been so clouded by rage against the modern world - which has committed the unpardonable sin of not being as they think it ought to be - that they fail to draw the obvious conclusion: that these two perspectives may and even must be reconciled. Instead they have simply condemned one (the Western) and decided to sit around and wait for its collapse.

This ultimate cataclysm ending our ill-starred "Age of Kali" may or may not take place. Personally I'm not going to wait for the apocalypse to solve my problems for me. And in any case I think it's more promising to strive for some reconciliation of these two perspectives.

What will accomplish it? The Christian might point back to the love between God - the ultimate "I Am That I Am" - and the world. Others, like Tarthang Tulku (interviewed in this issue), might suggest that we question our very notions of "subject" and "object." These are promising directions to look in. But if I am at all right, this is a large endeavor, one that will be worked out across epochs and civilizations, not in a magazine article. My own hunch is that if we delve deeper into this problem, we will be led toward the mysteries of Hermeticism. That, however, will have to wait for our next issue.


1. Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 88ff.

2. Alan W. Watts, Myth and Ritual in Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), p. 21.

3. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Selected Papers: Metaphysics, ed. Roger Lipsey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), pp. 15, 66-67.

4. Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, trans. Lord Northbourne (Ghent, N.Y.: Sophia Perennis et Universalis, 1995 [1945]), pp. 19ff. et passim. Guínon, of course, refused to identify the "traditional" notion of substance with mere vulgar physical matter.

(c) copyright 1995 by Richard Smoley

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