Shengren – Chapter 1.4.3 – The Practitioners

Philosophers and orientalists thought about the Oriental traditions; they did not reenact them. Some German thinkers however wanted to go intimate with their object of study. Those should be called practitioners, and of them there were only a few influential. In German society, the practitioners ranked lower than the philosophers and orientalists for obvious reasons: they appeared less German. Germany is not a Buddhist culture, and it has nothing to do with Buddhism that flourished in the East for 2500 years. As discussed earlier, Buddhist culture has developed a certain set of names, doctrines, places of worship, music, festivals, rituals, customs, values, architecture, language, practice, and art that never existed in Germany. Needless to say then, that the practitioners of Buddhism do not necessary agree with German sentiments or opinions; rather, let us be honest, they sympathize with non-German concepts and ideas like abhidhamma, ahimsa, anicca, avidya, dharma, karma, mana, moksha, paramita, pratiya-samutpada, the madhyamapratipad, arhats, bodhisattvas and a thousand other things. German practitioners of non-German traditions were tolerated but could hardly rise into high positions in German society. One will not find a single cultural Indian or Chinese or Japanese personality in German power politics and elite circles.

Yet, on the fringes of German society, there existed some ‘Sympathisanten’ (fellow traveler) of Eastern traditions. Notable Buddhist practitioners were Karl Eugen Neumann, Paul Dahlke (who founded the first German Buddhist monastery and the Buddhistische Haus in Berlin in 1924), Subhadra Bickshu (born as Friedrich Zimmermann), Nyanatiloka (born as Anton Gueth), und Karl Seidenstücker. Practitioners usually relied on the vast literature and exact academic work done by the orientalists such as Max Mueller, Georg Buehler, Paul Thieme, Adolf Friedrich Stenzler, Hermann Georg Jacobi, Paul Jakob Deussen, and Hermann Oldenberg. In other words, they learned from German translations of Buddhist text (that were translations of French and English translations, more often than not). They had to. German thinkers referred to each other, and were supposed to – an unwritten law in any scholarly circle of any nation-state: It is far more helpful in one’s career to quote someone powerful (old boy school or Seilschaft) who is not necessary right, than to quote someone who might be right but has no power whatsoever.

To no surprise, many practitioners were inspired by the spiritual work of the German philosopher Schopenhauer, despite the fact that Schopenhauer had no actual experience with Buddhist culture. He was born in Danzig and lived in Hamburg, Göttingen, Berlin and Frankfurt all his life. Besides having their philosophical idols, the practitioners wanted their share of personal experience of Oriental culture which should give them the advantage of standing witnesses. That was good for them, but not helpful to the German academic brotherhood that had embraced Weber’s law of the external observer and Mueller’s telescope to watch it all from a save distance. An academic orientalist had to study – not like a native but with transliterations – Sanskrit or Chinese (or Pali, Tibetan, Japanese, Chinese, Persian, and so forth), adhere to German mentality, bureaucracy, strict academic conventions such as peer reviews, regulations, examinations, and – when travelling became more of a convenience – had to visit their places of study like Nepal, Tibet or India not to experience local traditions but to attend some conferences with their European and American peers. Yes, the orientalist had to remain German in mind and thought – the necessary requirement to become a German indologists, German sanskritists, German buddhologists, German sinologist, German men-of-letters, sitting door to door with the German Germanists, German Anglozists, German classicists. Even when some practitioners played along and nestled for a German pension in some tiny university town, in their hearts they were always travelling the immeasurable Far East.

Indeed, the experiences as a Buddhist and that of a scholar of Buddhism are the proverbial ‘different pairs of shoes.’ The orientalists Frauwallner or Oldenberg did not have the freedom to invent philosophical systems like the philosophers Hegel and Schopenhauer did. Orientalists were academics, and academics were professionals: trained philologists who collected archeological artifacts, anthropological evidences, delivered translations and evaluated the data. The orientalist Max Weber could be just as enthusiastic about India as the sponsor Hermann Hesse – but Weber was not supposed to write novels, he was expected to function within the German academia, whereas Hesse dropped out of school and never returned to the system. While the philosophers often floated above the system, the scholars tried to make sure the practitioners stayed out of it. The orientalist Karl W. F. Schlegel, by making Indology an academic discipline, opened a career path that was not available to the philosophers Hegel, Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. While the mighty Schopenhauer could easily look down on ‘academic philosophy,’[1] the vast majority of the German intelligentsia had to make a living in it. The brother of the philosopher Schlegel, August W. Schlegel, became a scholar of Comparative Religion Studies. Technically, German theologists, classicists, humanists, anthropologists, and historian could all expand their fields of study by including Indian geography, language, culture and tradition. Therefore, the class of orientalist – the professional scholars – constituted the largest of the four classes in German orientalism; and the most productive, too. Whereas the practitioners, the people who actually were ‘Oriental in mind,’ were of great insignificance. In fact, the last thing Germany needed was the influx of Oriental culture. The Germans constituted never more than 1.2% of the world’s population; the moment they would open the gates for the correct Chinese, Hindu, Japanese, even Muslim terminologies was the end of German culture. The practitioners were always too close to the truth – they took the foreign to German soil, without processing it beforehand. Whereas every German scholar, if he ‘enjoyed’ German schooling, knows that translations are the means to save German culture. Here are the Buddhist (Sanskrit) terms mentioned before, again, this time with approximate English translations. Not German but English, to make the point: Suddenly, the reader will feel he knows and feels and understands Buddhism. This sense of familiarity does not come from the familiarity with Buddhism, but from the familiarity with the English names. One of the greatest cognitive illusions there is:

Foreign Terminology        Translation[2]

abhidhamma                     Systematic Teaching

ahimsa                              Non-violence

anicca                               Impermanence

avidya                               Illusion

dharma                             Faith

karma                               Action

mana                                Misconception

moksha                              Liberation

paramita                           Perfect wisdom

pratiya-samutpada,                      Dependent origination

madhyamapratipad                      Middle Way

arhats                                Worthy Ones

bodhisattvas                     Enlightened Beings

The German translations are omitted here. It needs to be said though that the foreign (Sanskrit) terminology, fortunately, is used in most of today’s (international) academic writings; because it is commonly agreed upon that those very particular Buddhist names are untranslatable. It is not only a nice gesture to the Buddhist cultures in the world, but also a reflection of reality: Germany simply has no bodhisattvas. And if it should get one in the future, it will be because the Buddhist bodhisattvas in the East pointed that way.

So far this is all common sense, but it could also be the beginning of the end of West rule over history as we know it, at least in the Kantian or Hegelian sense, because if the last 400 years of Cultural Studies were created by a language trick and lazy, all-too-convenient translations, than we scholars of the 21st century from east and west have to come together for a revision-lesson.

But for now back to the earlier centuries. By calling all foreign traditions ‘Religionen,’ all foreign thinkers ‘Philosophen,’ all spiritual leaders ‘Heilige,’ the perfect illusion was provided that this is all under control, while at the same time reserving Germany the right to give the final explanation on history and human affairs. The Germans did not even have to go and have a look any more what the British and French were doing in India and Indo-China.

The most prominent scholar in Indian Studies in Germany is Friedrich Max Mueller, who contributed to the Sacred Books of the East series, a 50-volume set of English translations of Asian religious writings. In European tradition, once a translation was published, for example Mueller’s The Upanishads (1879), it became the new ‘original’ for subsequent scholarship, just like the German Bible translation by Martin Luther in 1534 became ‘Die Bible’ (not just a ‘translation of the Bible,’ but The Bible) that whole Germany was now referring to.

Translations were considered enrichment for the target language; whereas in China any ancient Chinese text like Confucius’ Lun Yu (c. 475 – 221 BC) could still be read by modern scholars in the year 2000 AD because the Chinese writing system had not changed. Other cultures like the Hindu and Arabic ones also placed great value on the original language version of their sacred texts. The Koran was supposed to be read in Arabic; the Vedas in Sanskrit and so forth. Max Mueller did not directly enrich the German language with his translations because he published in English. The orientalist’s personal luck and international stardom started when he moved from Paris to Oxford and began his career – surrounded by Oxford University Sanskritists and strong ties to Indian scholarship as well as the East India Company, which had the largest collection of Sanskrit texts Mueller could wish for – as professional Indologist.

The longer the orientalists and practitioners spent their time studying Oriental culture in Europe, the greater their disappointment when visiting the real India or China. Karl Eugen Neumann became an Indologist and Buddhist scholar, and only after he had published a couple of translations such as the Dhammapada (1893), he decided to visit the original country of Buddhism. First, he was delighted to be able to visit the original countries, India and Ceylon, that he – and the European thinkers – co-wrote them their history for. Upon his arrival however he felt exceedingly disappointed because the ‘European version of Buddhism’… well, it did not materialize that way.

Some of the most important practitioners were: Karl Eugen Neumann, Karl Seidenstuecker, Walter Markgraf [before the Kaiserreich], Paul Dahlke, Georg Grimm, Martin Steinke [between the Weimarer Republik and the Nationalsozialismus], Paul Debes, Hans-Ulrich Rieker, and Joseph German Bauer [during the occupation and the Bundesrepublik]. Because of their intimate relationship with Buddhist practice, they shared similar feelings of disillusionment with academic scholarship that sticks the objects of its studies to a board like insects. Paul Dahlke, a trained medical doctor, travelled India, China, Japan, Siam and many other countries. He became a Buddhist himself, and in 1923 he founded Das Buddhistische Haus in Berlin. Karl Seidenstuecker did not have a successful academic career, either. He translated Buddhist texts from the English into German (a common practice that few Germans are aware of: most Japanese, Chinese, Hindu works are not translated from their language of origin but from the English), criticized Christianity, and founded the Buddhistischen Missionsverein and published various journals like Der Buddhist and Buddhistische Welt. Like other practitioners, including the first German Buddhist monk Anton W. F. Gueth (alias Bhikkhu Nyanatiloka), Seidenstuecker could only operate on the fringes of German educated society. German fringe society was infiltrated by various spiritual and cultish movements; and only a minority of them practiced Eastern traditions: Hindu and Buddhist Vereine, academic outlaws, renegade Christian mystics, spiritists, theosophists, occultists, romanticists, psychics, freemasons, Rosenkreuzer, and many more.

Although the practitioners could obviously satisfy their need for spiritual guidance elsewhere, they could not risk a total rejection of the German academic, scientific, technocratic, and bureaucratic community. Least they relied on legitimacy and subsidy. True to from, German orientalists – the professional scholarly class – occasionally supported the activities of the practitioners, for example when Paul Dahlke established the first German Buddhist monastery in Berlin that was later purchased by the German Dharmaduta Society; or the orientalists became paper-members of new organizations that legitimized the practice of Oriental traditions – like the Deutsche Buddhistische Union, an umbrella organization for German Buddhist groups.

The practitioners engaged in various spiritual activities. Spiritism, originated in France with Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail (alias Allan Kardec), based its ideas on the five Spirits Books (or the Spiritist Codification). Rivail, a trained scientist, also studied animal magnetism (mesmerism), reincarnations, séances and evocations (necromancy). The spiritists believed in a supernatural world and in spiritual beings that radiate that world and our nature. It was not related to Orientalism, but much Oriental practices such as meditation or chanting went into spiritualism, too. Academically speaking, spiritism was – at best – covered by parapsychology. But even parapsychology attracted known scientists like the German physicists Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner and Gustav Theodor Fechner. In the age of secularism and scientification – spirituality became the object of scientific scholarship and rational enquiry. Practitioners in German Orientalist studies were not considered sages, nor were they considered spiritual beings –with the notable exception of Rudolf Steiner who considered himself a bodhisattva – but were unsuccessful candidates for becoming ‘German sages.’

Becoming a Buddhist monk, like Nyanatiloka, meant setting oneself on the path to Buddhahood, this of course is a form of sagehood. Having said that, Buddhahood and sagehood are un-German concepts, and Cultural Germany lacked any concept of Buddhahood and sagehood. To the German public, Buddhism was just another religion, with its priests and monks and a few foreign names – that was all. As to Confucianism, most Germans were not even sure whether it was a religion at all. And of the shengren, mentioned so often in this little book: they had never heard such a name.

[1] Schopenhauer, 2004

[2] Pali Text Society, 2011

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York