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Hedonism and the Spiritual Life

by Sangharakshita

... in a
very comprehensive sort of way, going into virtually every aspect of the subject. It is a very
sympathetic and at the same time quite well, one might say, critical, account. She was herself,
it seems, so her admirers say, a mystic of some calibre and published some mystical works of
her own, I think mainly in the form of letters or something like that.
And then Zaehner is a much more recent figure. He was Spalding Professor at Oxford, and he
wrote a very large number of works, especially after his appointment as professor. He was an
authority, I think, mainly in the field of Hinduism, but he branched out quite a lot
subsequently. He was by faith a Roman Catholic, quite a staunch one, but his ideas underwent
a quite interesting development late in life. He became quite interested in Islam and Sufism,
and his attitude or his outlook broadened considerably towards the end of his career in the
field of mysticism, strictly speaking. I think his very best known and I think most
controversial work was called Mysticism that was the main title and as a subtitle I can't quite
recollect it was something like Natural and Supernatural.
: Sacred and Profane, I think.
[4]
S: Sacred and Profane, yes. He was a great believer, at that time, in the distinction between
natural mysticism and supernatural mysticism. He was quite prepared to accept that there
were non Christian mystics, but they were, so to speak, only natural mystics. Their mysticism
was not of a supernatural order, as was Christian mysticism. I think later on in life under
criticism, possibly he more or less abandoned that rather rigid classification. There was a lot
of controversy about it at the time, I remember.
So that's Professor Zaehner. I had some correspondence with him once.
Cittapala: There was one last question. It was to do with ethno-scientific and ethno-semantic
tools. I was wondering whether you could give us some examples of this kind of approach.
S: Well, in some ways Bharati's book is an example. He is very fond of these sort of terms, as
you can tell from the way I've written I can't take that sort of approach to this sort of subject
really very seriously. 'Ethno-scientific' is a ridiculous sort of thing! 'Ethno-scientific' and
'ethno-semantic' I think he also uses that expression is a product of this notorious sort of
interdisciplinary approach where you combine two different disciplines and you make a third
discipline. So 'ethno-scientific' what does that mean? I suppose it means the scientific study
of man and his culture, but can you really have a scientific study of man? In the same way,
'ethno-semantic' is a study, presumably, of the languages of the human race in a comparative
way, as revealing something about man. Well, that's not quite so bad, but Bharati is very fond
of this sort of approach, and in the course of his book he is always flourishing, as I put it,
these ethno-semantic and ethno-scientific tools in a rather ostentatious way, and he is always
pausing to explain these terms to the reader as though the reader was quite dim-witted. It's all
rather pretentious, so I'm mocking it a little. And, of course, Time magazine takes all this very
seriously, as you must have gathered.
Ratnaprabha: Could I ask you about your own language in the pamphlet?
S: Yes, not 'ethno-scientific', I trust!
Ratnaprabha: No; but it's quite tough in places.
S: Oh dear!
Ratnaprabha: I've produced a list of words that I thought some people might not know, which
runs to four sides of A4. I've put it up on the board.
S: Surely not!
Ratnaprabha: Some of them only [ .. . ]
S: Yes: so? I wasn't trying to beat Agehananda Bharati at his own game, but the subject
seemed to call for a certain amount of technicality. Or a certain amount of precision, let us
say. Anyway; was that the question?
Ratnaprabha: Yes. I think there is another question [inaudible] [ .. .]
Uttara: Following on from that question. It was in the Newsletter I think I remember reading
it; I got the gist of it then, but on reading it again, I just wondered who the review was
directed to, or who did you feel was actually going to not so much understand it, but it was
very much I thought it was appealing to a certain audience or ...
[5]
S: As far as I remember I did write it a few years ago I was just writing for the readers of the
Newsletter, mainly our own Order Members, Mitras and Friends, and perhaps a few others
outside. But I thought the subject was of sort of general spiritual interest; that's why I
reviewed the book and reviewed it in that way, concentrating on those particular topics in the
first place.
Uttara: I think it was more because of what Ratnaprabha says, the actual words, and I
wondered who ...
S: I don't believe in writing down to my readers!
Uttara: I think that's the conclusion I came to: that somehow you were trying to get us to do a
bit of work.
S: But sometimes, when one discusses certain topics, one has to be a little technical, which
means being precise in one's language. Simply that. It's like any other subject. If you, for
instance, take up, let's say, something like motor maintenance or what do you call it?
Maintenance of radio sets or TVs: you'll encounter technical vocabulary without which you
can't understand that particular subject and without which you can't discuss it with other
people. So it's just the same in the case of Buddhism or in the case of, say, philosophy or
anthropology or physics. There's a technical vocabulary. So, after you get a certain way into
the subject, you can no longer, you find, discuss it in ordinary general language; you have to
start using a few technical terms. But Bharati overdoes it.
Ratnaprabha: I wonder when we are writing for a general, especially an FWBO, audience,
where most people are not selected for their educational [...], whether we need perhaps to
prune our language to some extent. I mean it's true, clearly, that in writing about Buddhism,
there are certain Buddhist technical terms which we will have to teach people. But if we are
writing about Buddhism and anthropology or something, presumably we have to take a little
more length in our writing, but try to reduce the vocabulary.
S: I think it depends how far into the subject you want to go. I think if you reduce your
vocabulary too much, you will limit your scope for discussion. You will have to decide which
of those two things you want to do. I think what is more important is that those who write,
especially those who write for the Newsletter, should be as clear and simple as they can and
avoid jargon especially FWBO jargon. I think that is even more important. I gave one or two
examples the other day, referring to someone who attends a centre regularly by saying 'She's a
regular' that sort of language is really quite clumsy. There are other examples you can no
doubt think of. And, of course, avoid what I call English humour; we've had to weed out of
the Newsletter quite a lot from time to time. By which I mean a sort of tongue-in-cheek,
cynical approach.
: Things like strong understatement.
S: No, an understatement is not necessarily of that kind unless the understatement is rather
self-conscious and deliberately so. As, for instance, when there was a quite successful
meeting and perhaps quite largely attended, so you say in your blase English way, 'Well, there
were a few people there' that's the sort of thing that we should try to avoid.
Cittapala: Just returning to the complexity of your language in this article, do you feel that in
discussing hedonism as a subject, perhaps with outside audiences of one sort or another, that
one would inevitably need to go to the lengths that you go to [6] to bring out the differences
between the Buddhist approach and the hedonistic approach?
S: I think probably not. It's difficult to generalize. It just depends who the people are that
you're actually dealing with, actually talking with. You need to know your stuff; you need to
have done your homework. But how you put it across in that particular situation with those
particular people is entirely up to you. What language you use, how simple you are in your
approach, how complex; how far you go; again, that's up to you. The main thing is you must
communicate what you have to say.
I think by the time you get to the end of the article, it will be pretty clear what I am actually
saying. The basic point will be, I think, quite clear. Perhaps I shall ask some of you to put it in
your own words!
Alan Pendock: Bharati defines mysticism as 'intuition of numerical oneness of the cosmic
absolute.' What is this numerical oneness? And also, is there any other kind of oneness?
S: I think what he means by 'numerical oneness of the cosmic absolute' emerges in the course
of the essay or article. Numerical oneness of the cosmic absolute means that there is, so to
speak, an Absolute which is behind this whole universe, this whole cosmos, which is its
ground, if you like, which is its basic principle; and that this is what he calls numerically one,
that is to say, it is not plural. He believes that mysticism intuits that One.
You ask whether there are other kinds of oneness except numerical I suppose that depends on
what you mean by number. 'One' is an essentially numerical concept, one would have thought.
Sometimes one uses the idea of oneness not so much to indicate something that is existing
singly so much as ...

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