Sunday, May 22, 2011

Christmas Humphreys


Harry Oldmeadow's 'Journeys East: 20th century Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions' seemed a good place to go after having read John Blofeld's autobiography. I have read it before. It is an excellent survey (and an expensive book, so many authors/books to follow up).

What was the 'Orient's attraction'? How did people approach understanding its religious traditions, and assimilate them?  In what ways did they transform them and in what ways were they transformed by them? Some of the characters are deeply familiar - Mircea Eliade or Carl Jung or Fr Bede Griffiths - many are obscure to any other than specialists. All are woven into a text of great insight and skill that is written with a clear eye to current controversies, not least Said's 'Orientalism'. It is written from a traditionalist perspective - espoused by Guenon, Schoun, Coomaraswamy - but with an openness of tone and fairness that is admirable.

One of the early characters played a role in my own life: the splendidly named (and, as it turned out, anachronistic) Christmas Humphreys (shown here): high court judge, esotericist and popularizer of Buddhism. He had surrendered his Christian faith in the First World War when his beloved elder brother was killed. The world was not under the guiding hand of a loving God (especially not one shared by competing protagonists). It was to be found for Humphreys in Buddhism of whom he became a spokesperson, rooted in serious practice and a catholic embrace of its many forms, traditions.

I read his admirable introduction to Buddhism, published by Penguin; and, I met him subsequently at the meetings of the Buddhist Society that I attended as a student. He was every inch the English gentleman, utterly of his class and position, and yet wholly approachable, hoping to prompt whatever glimpses of spirit he found in others. I had several private conversations with him (and a wholly memorable trip to visit the anti-guru, Krishnamurti)! I wish I could have realized what a legacy/strand of networks, he lived through and in.

He did help me appreciate how Buddhism's many traditions shared common principles (though some that he suggested remain controversial and speak of his esoteric, Theosophical roots) and gave encouragement to a young man, asking serious questions and testing them (as the Buddha suggested) on the strands of one's own unfolding experience. He was briefly a mentoring presence.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Girl who sang to the Buffalo

The final volume in Kent Nerburn's moving trilogy of books built around his relationship with an Indian elder, Dan, whose life commi...