Saturday, April 17, 2010

Harry Oldmeadow's "Journeys East": Book Review

A century of Westerners encounter Eastern religious traditions in this scholarly study. Emphasizing "traditionalism" in its academic history of religions contexts, it challenges reductionist anti-Orientalism. Oldmeadow insists upon an immutable, eternal source of wisdom that persists no matter how diverse the forms it takes as Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, or Taoist practice.

Traditionalists assert that psychology, Marxism, Edward Said, Freud, or Foucault among many, lack understanding of deeper, primordial revelations that endure through particular religious expressions as doctrine, ritual, and belief. They hold that "divinely-appointed forms" in timeless expression exist, and that "the prevailing modern worldview (secular, humanistic and scientific) which originated in the Renaissance and which has been strengthening its tyrannical grip on the modern mentality ever since" cannot suffice to account for the truth within "Sophia perennis." (183-4)

Oldmeadow argues from this dogged perspective. He fairly acknowledges the contributions of those who oppose this p-o-v, and strives to illustrate their objections at length. His book ranges over the 20th century widely if erratically. I found its earlier chapters more engaging as they recounted the struggles of those who sought a deeper wisdom that scholarship alone could not explain. Later chapters, which shift away from a chronological into an ideological dimension, skim more rapidly past feminism, scientism, ecology, ecumenism, and post-modernism with equal density of support, but less clarity, as the sheer amount of sources and viewpoints threaten to overwhelm this formidable presentation. That being said, it remains a valuable attempt to synthesize crucial data as promulgated by many leading intellectuals and teachers.

For instance, Oldmeadow's generous towards Allen Ginsberg's role in pioneering Buddhist practice and corrective towards Alan Watts' glib if earnest popularizations. He mingles the more famous such as Thomas Merton or D.T. Suzuki with the less acclaimed such as Marco Pallis or Bede Griffiths. And, his style can prove pithy and amusing: "Neither Tim Leary nor Ken Kesey was ever going to write 'The Cloud of Unknowing'!" (267-8) He distinguishes neatly the "absolute certitude" and "radical and spontaneous 'self-transformation'" of a mystic experience from the drug-induced psychic and self-contingent mental projections. His chapter on the Beats, hippies, and counterculture shows Oldmeadow's skill at presenting spiritual truths vs. cultural trends, and how they run parallel but not necessarily intersecting tracks over the past century's course.

However, such information as Merton entering the monastery in "1948," or Samye-Ling being founded in "England," or "Ojia" and "Shaster Abbey" both in California exemplify a few errors I caught, so I suspect that others remain undetected; typos also mar the pages as the text goes on. This detracts from the value of the bulk of this work. Certain connections appeared missed, such as Merton's analogy of Zen vs. "the birds of appetite" with one that begged for illustration, Chögyam Trungpa's "spiritual materialism," a concept which is barely touched upon but which demanded more attention given the countercultural contexts Oldmeadow otherwise intimately explores.

The pace of the book slows noticeably as it verges into Oldmeadow's defense of Traditionalism against a scientific inquiry which has only itself to answer to. I understood his densely cited and rather convoluted counterargument, but coming fresh to this school of thought, it appeared that much more support needed to be marshalled against what to nearly any modern student appears self-evident, the establishment of facts and data. Traditionalists as Frithjof Schuon cleverly charge: "The rationalism of a frog living at the bottom of a well is to deny the existence of mountains: this is logic but it has nothing to do with reality." (qtd. 344)

Yet, I am unsure if many newcomers to this debate will be swayed by the expectation that "the inner meaning of religion through an elucidation of immutable metaphysical and cosmological principles and through a penetration of the forms preserved in each religious tradition" will supplant the historian of religions or the comparative studies that dominate any university. "Revelation, tradition, intellection, realization" as the sources of the Traditionalist vision are admirable, no disagreement there, but I do wonder how Oldmeadow and his colleagues figure to overthrow the rule of reason that controls their academic colleagues and those whom they indoctrinate. (447) Still, it's more admirable than ever to strive to lead others to what the Qur'an lauds as "light that is neither of the East nor of the West." (qtd. 449)

So, a welcome addition-- if a tonally uneven work that assembles much incisive commentary. It relies often on tertiary references from other scholars-- notably Donald S. Lopez regarding Tibetan Buddhism-- rather than the primary narratives and proof-texts. I wondered why he did not delve deeper into the original texts, but this documentation does reflect Oldmeadow's credit being given the many scholars who preceded him in this vast field. I recommend it with reservations for editorial imperfections, but with enthusiasm for its own range and depth. (Posted to Amazon US 3-7-10)

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