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The Wisdom of the East?

AlanWattsPainting1,359 words

Inspired by the unique revaluation of Alan Watts on Counter-Currents, I want to share my reflections on two decades of studying the “wisdom of the East” which Watts helped to popularize in his lifetime.

Indeed, I remember when I read Psychotherapy East and West, my first Watts book and also one of the first books I read about Eastern philosophy and religion. It spurred my interest immensely, and from there I was on to the Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, the Dhammapada, and just about anything else I could get my hands on from the Taoist and Buddhist traditions. In my teens and twenties I was adrift in the sea of postmodern malaise and meaninglessness which is contemporary America, reading philosophy and politics, looking for some kind of direction. When I discovered the Tao Te Ching, it was like a revelation.

In contrast to the befuddling verbiage of Western postmodernist philosophers like Derrida and Deleuze, here were sparse words that cut straight to the heart of the matter – and the heart of what is beyond matter. I recall that Joscelyn Godwin once wrote or said of Julius Evola that the conviction and certainty found in his writings were a refreshing antidote to the cowardice and confusion in most contemporary prose. In the Tao Te Ching (which Evola translated into Italian) each chapter of the book seemed to me like a shining gem of wisdom; elusive, yes, and often obscure, but tantalizingly so. What it seemed to point at accorded with my intuition that Truth was something that could not be captured in words.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.

Many readers will recognize this famous first line from the Tao Te Ching. It is the most translated book in the world, probably in part because it is so short, and therefore requires less time and effort. Indeed, many translations are done by people who don’t even read Chinese – they just read other English versions and compile their own based on them. The translation I eventually came to favor is the one by Thomas Cleary, a real scholar who can in fact read Chinese. I liked it not because of its accuracy – I had no way of judging its faithfulness to the original, not being a reader of Chinese myself – but rather because of the spiritual insight I felt it contained.

From reading Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, and later many Buddhist sutras and commentaries, I came to feel that Asians, or at least the Asian traditions, really had something that the West lacked. A lot of people feel this way, and have felt this way since at least the time of Alan Watts. I’ve known more than a few Western Buddhists and Taoists in my day. But what I neglected to realize was that I was not in fact reading the wisdom of Lao Tzu – I was reading the wisdom of Thomas Cleary.

The original Chinese text of that first line of the Tao Te Ching, which I’ve since studied along with the Chinese language (although I am not a professional scholar of either) reads, in transliteration: tao ke tao fei chang tao. There is no way to literally translate Chinese characters, because Chinese is a pictographic written language and does not use a phonetic alphabet like Western languages.

But an approximation would be something like: Tao can Tao is not Tao. Not quite so pretty, is it? The whole book is like that, and the Chinese language itself is quite a different animal from any of the European languages. Of course, there are subtleties and layers of meaning contained in the characters themselves – Ezra Pound wrote some interesting pieces on Chinese characters – but they resist translation, not least of all because they require the entire context of Chinese culture.

Scholars and translators have long argued about the feasibility of translating between different European languages. Can you really translate Baudelaire into English? Etc., etc. And that is referring to languages in the same Indo-European family, where words often have the same Greek or Latin roots. When we are discussing translating a work from over two thousand years ago, from an entirely different family of languages and a very different culture, the task of the translator becomes that much more difficult.

Pound also produced some excellent translations of Confucius, but by “excellent,” I mean spiritually illuminating for Western people. They are so because, although they are inspired by the writings of Confucius and his disciples, they are infused with the wisdom of Ezra Pound and his culture. The same goes, I believe, for Thomas Cleary, and for all the other translators whose works I admire so much. This is not to demean or take credit away from the original authors, but rather to give credit where it also due, for reasons that most don’t realize: to the translators of the West who give birth to new works in our native languages.

Every translator brings to his task his own identity, his own self, which is crafted from the particular spiritual, linguistic, racial and cultural milieus that he comes from. Thus, his translation is always as much a product of his native traditions as of the foreign culture that he seeks to translate – if not even more so. Furthermore, the readers will have that native culture as their exclusive reference point for interpreting the translated text, and thus the effects of the translation – to the degree that there are any – will be influenced by the native culture even more so.

This, I believe, points us in the proper direction for how to understand and use the wisdom of other cultures and traditions: as a means of better understanding, and perhaps even improving or rectifying, our own. Indeed, this was how René Guénon intended his expositions of Eastern traditions.

For example, when we read James Legge’s translations of Confucius speaking about virtue and piety, we do not hear these words in a vacuum. We hear them in the context of our own cultural tradition, which has taught us specific understandings of these concepts. We can and should be enriched by what Confucius/Legge have to say on the matter – but we should not mistakenly believe that we are imbibing pure, unadulterated Confucian tradition.

The field of Eastern studies is interesting for a number of reasons. Aside from the fact that it is a profound cultural and philosophical tradition in its own right, there is also a mysterious common ancestor between the wisdom traditions of East and West, which is the Sanskrit language. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European scholars began to suspect that Sanskrit, the language of ancient India, was related to Greek and Latin. Their suspicions have long-since been confirmed, and decades of Indo-European studies have illuminated some of the similarities between not only IE languages, but IE religions as well. The pioneering works of Georges Dumézil stand out, as well as the short study by Hans F. K. Günther and, in our own time, the works of Alexander Jacob.

The realization that Europeans had an organic connection to India led to an explosion of interest in Indian religion and philosophy in the 19th century. Schopenhauer wrote:

We may therefore hope that one day even Europe will be purified of all Jewish mythology. Perhaps the century has come in which the peoples of the Indo-European group of languages will again receive the sacred religions of their native countries; for they have again become ripe for these after having long gone astray.

Seen in this light, the “journey to the East” which many Western people have made in the last hundred, but especially the last fifty years, embracing yoga and Buddhism and the like, might actually be, in a strange way, an attempt to return home, to a wisdom that is closer to that of their distant Indo-European ancestors. The danger, though, which is all-too-obviously real, is that this organic connection will remain unconscious, covered over with the xenophilia and self-hatred which has become endemic in Western peoples, and which are too often the main motivating factors in their grasping at the wisdom of the East.


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  1. SASS
    Posted May 14, 2016 at 7:51 am | Permalink (3.10ff) – Watts goes into ‘white guilt’ mode.

  2. Proofreader
    Posted May 13, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    William S. Haas’s book, The Destiny of the Mind, East and West (New York: Macmillan, 1956), might be worth reading concerning the issues raised in this article. Revilo P. Oliver’s discussion of this book can be found at the following link, under the heading “Never the Twain Shall Meet.”

  3. Shub-Niggurath
    Posted May 12, 2016 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Spiritually famished Westerners flock to the Eastern Traditions (almost always in spurious New Age versions) so they can get the nondualism of mysticism without having to transform themselves. They are tired of resisting the yoke of their appetites and are bored by Christ.

  4. rhondda
    Posted May 12, 2016 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    ‘Every translator brings to his task his own identity, his own self, which is crafted from the particular spiritual, linguistic, racial and cultural milieus that he comes from. Thus, his translation is always as much a product of his native traditions as of the foreign culture that he seeks to translate – if not even more so. Furthermore, the readers will have that native culture as their exclusive reference point for interpreting the translated text, and thus the effects of the translation – to the degree that there are any – will be influenced by the native culture even more so.’

    I do agree with this. However, only those men who actually immersed themselves in the culture are worth reading, such as James Legge because he takes you through his own struggle to understand and does not come across as being the absolute definitive translation which does appeal to the western mind, but has nothing to do with the Tao. Alejandro Jodorowsky understands it better than any academic. One really has to start at the beginning. Western academics hated Chogyam Trungpa and his Buddhism for westerners such as Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism because he understood the shallowness of the west and their saviour/scapegoat sublimation. One has to remember too that Christianity was a foreign religion imposed on native Europeans which has been internalized. This goes for Hinduism also such as that idiot Wendy Doniger who claims to understand Hinduism ( as the Freudian she is ) better than the real Hindus themselves.

    • Posted May 12, 2016 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      “Trungpa … understood the shallowness of the west” – He understood the shallowness of the 1970s America that he taught in, but the irony is that he ended up preaching a kind of cultural conservatism, at least in some respects. If you watch the documentary about him, Crazy Wisdom, there is a scene where Allen Ginsberg asks him if he has heard any magisterial qualities in rock n’ roll music. Trungpa shoots him down, saying something like, “No. At first I thought maybe I was missing something – but I wasn’t.”

      Speaking personally, I now have a kind of reflex against notions of the “shallowness of the West,” precisely because I used to make such statements myself, while I was totally ignorant of the vastness and profundity of the Western philosophical and spiritual tradition. The insights I gained from reading translations of Lao Tzu, I might have gained from Heraclitus instead. Instead of Buddhism, I might have studied Platonism. If I had been raised in a more traditional Western culture, I would have learned Greek and Latin as a child and could have read them in the original. But because of cultural circumstances, it was not to be so. THAT is our shallowness – our disconnect from our own depth. When I finally did come to the Western Classical tradition, it felt like home in a way that the East never really did.

      On the other hand, I wonder if I could have appreciated the Classical West as much if I did not have my background in Eastern studies. A familiarity with Buddhist doctrine makes Plato open up like a flower. Sometimes, when speaking to Classicists, I find myself thinking that a lot of these people don’t realize what they really have, as though they have a treasure chest full of gold and can’t get past admiring the quality of the wood.

      • rhondda
        Posted May 12, 2016 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I discovered western philosophers after the Dali Lami replied to a reporter’s question about all the westerners taking up Buddhism. He said that he thought we should look to our own Traditions.

        I guess I did not make myself clear, I was talking about Christianity being shallow. I was not allowed to go into philosophy or should I say discouraged to do so. I have discovered how they pillaged Plato and Aristotle and others to convince themselves they had something original. Then they deceived and pillaged European myths like trying to make Odin a Christ figure. It was here at Counter-currents with Dr.Johnson’s podcasts about Plato that got me initially to discern the difference and then I read more and more.
        The Tao and Christianity are incompatible.

  5. Proofreader
    Posted May 12, 2016 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    I think that some of Martin Aurelio’s observations regarding translations are applicable to the Bible. As Aurelio notes, “When we are discussing translating a work from over two thousand years ago, from an entirely different family of languages and a very different culture, the task of the translator becomes that much more difficult. . . . Every translator brings to his task his own identity, his own self, which is crafted from the particular spiritual, linguistic, racial and cultural milieus that he comes from. Thus, his translation is always as much a product of his native traditions as of the foreign culture that he seeks to translate — if not even more so. Furthermore, the readers will have that native culture as their exclusive reference point for interpreting the translated text, and thus the effects of the translation — to the degree that there are any — will be influenced by the native culture even more so.”

    It’s fair to say that the Bible was Westernized to some degree in translation. It was also read and contextualized in a highly selective manner.

    In “The Essence of Judaism,” William Pierce wrote:

    “Although the translations of the Old Testament into Western tongues are not without evidences of Judaism’s alien essence, it is perhaps understandable that they should have been so well received in the West. The Old Testament took on an altogether different tone in the Latin of St. Jerome, the German of Martin Luther, and the English of the King James Version. Not infrequently, these translations differed even in meaning from the original Hebrew and Aramaic. Thus, the injunction to ‘love thy race-kin’ in the Hebrew became ‘love thy neighbor’ in Western Bibles.

    “The same impulses which led European painters and sculptors to depict Biblical personages with Nordic rather than Semitic features led Western Christians to ascribe their own mentality and behavior to Old Testament figures. As one Jewish writer, Susan Taubes, observed, ‘The Old Testament has had the benefit of the most sublime spiritualization through centuries of Christian interpretation.’ In fact, Jews have reacted to this Western tendency with a certain bitter humor. As a Jewish character in a story by contemporary Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick puts it, ‘Please remember that when a goy from Columbus, Ohio, says “Elijah the Prophet,” he is not talking about Eliohu hanovi! Eliohu is one of us, a folksmensh running around in second-hand clothes. Theirs is God knows what. The same biblical figure, with exactly the same history, once he puts on a name from King James, comes out a different person.’”

    Reviewing a book by Jacob Elon Conner, Revilo P. Oliver wrote:

    “He points out, by the way, that much of what makes some Jewish writings acceptable and even attractive to Occidentals really comes from the Occidental languages into which they were translated from Hebrew, a crude and primitive language, ‘about like Choctaw,’ and inadequate for expressing logical thought or factually accurate narrative. Had the Jews’ Holy Book remained in their sacred dialect of Old Phoenician (Western Semitic), it would be regarded today as a curious relic of Oriental barbarism, below the level of, e.g., Babylonian and far inferior to Arabic. When the Jews translated their collection of myths into koine Greek, a language alien to their native mentality, which they learned much as they learn English today, the language forced them to make the translation much more specific and coherent than the original. And when that original was translated into English (on the basis of the Septuagint’s rendering of the Hebrew), the zealous translators gave it a literary grace and force that, for the most part, they supplied and read into the rebarbative original.”

    I think Arthur Schopenhauer even wrote of “falsifications” in Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible.

    • James O'Meara
      Posted May 12, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      I’m writing something along the lines of the influence of the Hebrew book of fairy tales on the West. “Inadequate for expressing logical thought or factually accurate narrative” it may be, but [or because of which] an excellent medium for creating fictions. The Jews invented the genre of “historical fiction” and the West has only itself to blame if they translated it as historical fact. Imagine people looking for the archaeological remains of Hogwarts.

      In Beneath the Wheel, Hesse describes his protagonist, Hans, dealing with the burdens of Homeric Greek, New Testament Greek, and gnarly traps of Hebrew, where what seemed airy abstractions in Luther’s Bible took on flesh and blood (can’t find online version to paste from).

    • Posted May 13, 2016 at 7:53 am | Permalink

      Thank you for these quotations, Proofreader. I think the “Christian question,” i.e., Was Christianity good or bad for Western man, is it a foreign creed or does it reflect the Indo-European spirit, etc., is very complex and resists easy answers.

      On a side note, I have a distinct memory of listening to an interview with Alexander Jacob in which he was asked about Christianity and paganism, and I recall him describing Christianity as “solar” like other IE religions, saying “all the elements are there.” When asked about whether paganism was a viable alternative, I remember him saying something like, “No, because you don’t know what those gods mean anymore. I know what they mean, but you don’t.” If anyone knows what I’m talking about, please refer me to the source. If I’m misremembering some or all of this, apologies to Dr. Jacob.

      • Proofreader
        Posted May 13, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        Given that Christianity is a syncretic religion, I think it should be obvious that the answer to the question of whether Christianity is foreign or native is partly yes and partly no. But what exactly this means is a complex question, for it can be hard to distinguish and disentangle these things from each other, and we’re dealing with a compound with distinctive properties of its own. And as to the question of what should be done about these things, that can be properly classed as a wicked problem (google “wicked problem” if you don’t know its definition).

        As an atheist, I’ll leave these things to the lap of the gods.

  6. Lee
    Posted May 11, 2016 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    A very timely essay for me personally as I am too ‘looking East’ in regards to my metaphysical outlook. Primarily Theravada Buddhism but more recently Sanatana Dharama and more specifically Advaita Vedanta.

    And the reasons I’m studying these paths is not to be ‘exotic’ but because they give the clearest most realistic appraisal of live, the Universe and everything that I have found. I would add, however, that my own personal viewpoint is heavily influenced by the Western Esoteric Tradition of Neoplatonism and Hermeticism. But when studying the Eastern systems and these more Western systems, it can be appreciated that they are basically saying the same thing, albeit in different ways.

    I think that the more the Kali Yuga progresses, the less relevant Traditionalists like Guenon, Schuon etc. become. Evola is still very relevant, of course. But for a White Nationalist looking for a spiritual direction, what the Traditionalists offer, pretty much Catholic/Orthodox Christianity or Islam (even if it is the ‘good’ form of Islam, Sufism), just isn’t of any relevance any more, given how far things have degenerated in the Western world and indeed with those two religions.

    I shouldn’t have to point out that the notion of an Identitarian converting to Islam in the 21st Century is too appalling to even contemplate so all that’s left is, for Western Identitarians anyway, is Catholicism. Without wanting to open up the whole ‘has Christianity been good for the White race’ debate again, I cannot see how anyone with a Traditionalist mindset could be in any way attracted to the modern Catholic Church. True, one should look beyond the exoteric and look at the esoteric but what is left of that anymore? And can one really ignore, in all seriousness, the machinations of Pope Francis? Perhaps THE preeminent Cuck currently residing on Planet Earth?

    As you say, the Eastern systems are, or certainly were, ‘ours’. Of course, practising these systems today is troublesome as they are now so far removed from their Indo-European origins and practicing them traditionally will involve immersing oneself in the culture of an alien people and indeed mixing with alien people. But perhaps it’s time for the alt-right to form a new form of Traditionalism, relevant for the modern times. Neo-Traditionalism, perhaps. (Yes, I am aware of the irony…!)

    Even such things as Neoplatonism and Hermeticism could be incorporated. True, these systems are not ‘living’ traditions as such but we have far more original material from these than we do, for example, the Indigenous European tradition, what we now call Asatru. And speaking of which, due to the lack of first hand material, perhaps we should use the existing Eastern systems to further augment our understanding of Asatru. Collin Clearly seems to working in the area, perhaps.

    Some may object to the Jewish Qabalah in Hermeticism. But saying that the Qabalah is ‘Jewish’ is simply not true. Gematria originated in Ancient Greece and the Tree of Life is based on Neoplatonism. The Jews may have continued the system whilst it was impossible for the West to do so because of Christianity but it is not theirs. It is ours. It can be made to be so again.

    The same could also happen to the Eastern systems. These too could be returned to their rightful owners.

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