Theosophical Society of Detroit – Friday, December 7, 2018. 7:00 – 9:00 pm. Q&A. 27745 Woodward Avenue, Berkley, MI 48072.
Frederick Glaysher spoke about the long journey of modernity during the last 130 to 150 years in search of a universal conception of spirituality. Glaysher discusses the book The World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893, and key influential speakers and groups represented at The Parliament in Chicago, including Vivekananda, Brahmo Samaj, the Unitarian Church, and the Theosophical Society, highlighting and surveying Madame Blavatsky’s emphasis on Universal Brotherhood and the study of comparative religion. Further currents include Dara Shikoh, Rammohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Abdul-Baha, Rumi, Kabir, poets and mystics, Emerson. Among other seeking souls touched on, Evelyn Underhill, Arnold Toynbee, Micea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, and Huston Smith.
Kuan- yin, in “Water Moon” position, Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an, China
Buddhism and Modernity
I find the “water moon” position of the Chinese Buddhist statues of Kuan-yin, right knee raised, with the right arm extending over the knee, one of the most beautiful and evocative in Buddhist art. That’s what the Chinese call this pose. I saw one statue of it at Shaanxi History Museum in X’ian, China, that is truly a national treasure, in carved stone, that’s very famous. Buddhism has what are called mudras, stylized hand positions and other poses, all carry various meanings symbolically. I use or refer to several in my epic poem, because for Buddhists they carry a great deal of meaning and suggestive emotion, and so on.
I finally finished my epic, and it’s available online as a hardcover and ebook formats. There’s a long section with Kabir that I hope speaks well to Sikhs, though he’s really a pre-Sikh poet. It’s his universal perspective that is important to me. I think much of that spirit is what the world needs today, globally, East and West. One of the qualities of modernity is the rigidity of its abstractions, whether East or West, codifying its disjunctions. They often stand in the way, barring a deeper understanding of modern experience than the knee-jerk nihilism of the academy, chanting its mantra of the “Enlightenment,” just as bigoted, isolated, extremely fragmented and convinced of the truth of its exclusivism as any Christian fundamentalist.
Whose Buddha? Whose West? East? Modern life is much more complex and fluid than the traditional categories and the attempts to “return,” “restore,” “recover,” and so forth, in each case, around the globe. The tiresome morality tale of the ascendant Enlightenment is just as flawed. Kabir, Rumi, others, speak to our time because they were early voices of the realization of Unity.
I’ve read the Tao te Ching many times throughout my life. To my mind, one who has spent his entire adult life reading in all the religious and literary traditions, East and West, and lived in Japan, traveling all over China, the “categories” are not as tight and neat as many argue… especially on the lived, human level. Given modern experience, I have often thought, What’s the difference between going back to Jesus, back to Lao-si, or back to Buddha? The idea of *exclusive* truth, East or West, is a misconception. I believe the realization of Unity, as in Rumi, Kabir, and others, human oneness, is a much more profound response to human experience, especially given all the upheavals and change that marked the 20th Century.
Ultimately, while it may, has, and will appeal to some, Buddhism is not compatible with Western civilization, which has usually always been a highly active and vigorously alive culture.
There’s a rare article on the realities of Buddhism in much of Asia, on the ground, as it is often lived, or not, in The New York Times. Of course, though, typical of The New York Times, one might say… yet this is the Buddhism I witnessed, at times, in Japan, thirty years ago, as later in China, and this experience runs throughout the modern literatures of Asia, as I suggest in my book The Grove of the Eumenides.
As I’ve journeyed through Angkor Wat and Cambodia, the antinomies have further clarified, on numerous fronts, including modernity. Broadly speaking, I can now see as never before the three major traditions of exclusivism and those of non-exclusivism in sharper detail, contrast, and comparison. That wasn’t really my intention, so I’m surprised that it’s happened. Partly, I think, it’s in the material itself. The attempt to find and give it form brought it all out.
So there are vistas I’ve never realized before. As with Hinduism, the complexities and teachings of Buddhism have been fascinating to study once again, its various interpretations and flavors. Another surprise has been that the Internet has proven an invaluable tool for study and for finding the right historical nuance and detail, especially on the more human level of lived thought and belief, opening the antinomies ever deeper into the soul.
Though only on the way to Dunhuang, now in Bagan, Burma, I look forward to the Mogao Caves, visiting them again, as with Chang-an, and Japan. Saigyo shall guide me back to his great metaphor.
ANN ARBOR—On September 22, 29, and October 6, the theatre company, Apollo’s Troupe, will stage the theater adaptation of the poem, The Parliament of Poets, written by Michigan poet Frederick Glaysher and published in 2012 by Earthrise Press. Continue reading →