Edward Conze (1904-1979) ranks among the much loved commentators/translators in the Buddhist tradition. Although born in London, Conze came from a German family with their home in Langenberg, Germany. In the 1930s, he wrote The Principle of Contradiction, a Marxist inspired text on dialetical materialism. A fierce critic of Fascism, he found himself harassed for his views. In 1933, the Nazis burnt his books in Berlin among thousands of other books, as they were deemed “unGerman.”
In the early part of the Second World War, he experienced a crisis of values. In this period, he discovered the Buddhist tradition after reading a translation of the much loved PrajnaParamita Sutta (The Discourse on Fullfilled Wisdom), which explores the significance of Emptiness of any independent self-existence of anything whatsoever. As years went by, Buddhists regarded Conze as an authority of such Buddhist texts following his extensive study of the Buddha-Dharma.
During my years in Thailand as a Buddhist monk in the 1970s, I found his reflections and translations on the teachings of the Buddha inspirational and insightful. Many Western monks read Conze’s books, such as Buddhism: Its Essence and Development (published in 1951), Buddhist Texts Through the Ages (1951) and Buddhist Thought in India (published in 1962). Mind you, rumours went round then that Conze took up unacceptable views in the last period of his life.
I received the following precious quote this week from a Dharma teacher in India. In his introduction to the first book mentioned above, Conze shows his gratitude for the Buddhist tradition. He wrote a beautiful appreciation with words timely for this era. There is a poignant beauty in his words, especially the last sentence in this quote from 1951.
“Historical facts are rather disconcerting to common-sense.
The Buddhist community is the oldest institution of mankind. It has survived longer than any other institution, except the kindred sect of the Jains. Here you have the big bullying empires of history, guarded by hosts of soldiers, ships and magistrates. Scarcely has one of them lasted longer than three centuries. There you have a movement of deliberate beggars* despised whatever the world valued; who valued whatever the world despises – meekness, generosity, idle contemplation.*
And yet, where these mighty empires, built on greed, hatred and delusion, lasted just a few centuries, the impulse of self-denial carried the community through 2,500 years. ….Darwinism and the other philosophies behind the big empires are very shallow; they have their day – it is really a very short day and not a very restful day while it lasts.
Whereas the great and universal wisdom tradition of mankind goes deep down to the very roots, the very breath and rhythm of life.
It is the meek that will inherit the earth, it is the meek that have inherited the earth – because they alone are willing to live in contact with it.”
You will have seen Buddha images with the hand of the Buddha on the end of his knee with the fingers pointing to the Earth. It is the same statement. Stay in touch with the Earth. Live close to the Earth. Be mindful of the condition of the Earth. The Earth ‘witnesses’ and experiences the benefits of any human being knowing the end of greed, hate and delusion.
*(Note to readers: Beggars refers to bhiikhus/bhikkhunis (Sangha of monks and nuns). In the early days of the institution of Dharma practice, the followers of the Buddha asked him how they should refer to themselves. He replied: ‘Call yourselves beggars,” – meaning ones who have nothing, hold onto nothing and never claim to be special.
*Idle contemplation – a common view of the time, the view is still around.
I find it a privilege to be a servant of this long-standing Buddhist tradition reminding people to stay close to the Earth, to the elements, to consciousness.