A Huxley Hoax?
We’ve learned so much about Buddhism since Huxley was alive, I was surprised that Dana Sawyer simply reported Huxley’s judgments about Buddhism without checking to see if they were still valid or not [“Aldous Huxley’s Truth Beyond Tradition,” Fall 2003]. Did Huxley really know enough about Theravada meditation or Pure Land devotionalism to make accurate judgments about them? In The Perennial Philosophy, did he really identify the subtext of all great spiritual traditions? Or did he simply cite writings that coincided with his own personal preferences? A glance at the first chapter of that book is enough to make you wonder if he really understood what the teaching on nonself was all about. It would be useful to have an article that accurately assessed these issues.
Instead, Mr. Sawyer used his article to put forward his own ideas about the value of eclecticism, calling them “a challenge” and “a threat” to established Buddhism, but it’s hard to see where the challenges and the threat lie. Mr. Sawyer states that anything that works or is meaningful should be accepted as true regardless of what tradition it comes from, and on the surface there is little to argue on this point. However, he presents no clear test to determine what works or what is meaningful, and in this way his position is nowhere nearly as rigorous as the Buddha’s, as outlined in Larry Rosenberg’s article on the Kalama Sutta [“The Right to Ask Questions,” Fall 2003]. Unlike the Buddha’s criteria, Mr. Sawyer’s wouldn’t protect us, for instance, from politicians who find that a belief in a vengeful God works for them, or from hate-mongers who find meaning in demonizing the rest of the world.
—Brad Vinikow, Fountain Valley, California
Dana Sawyer Responds
Answering the above questions more or less in order: First, yes, Huxley did have a strong understanding of Buddhist traditions, which he based on much research, and recent scholarship has not invalidated this fact. My own education includes considerable graduate study in Buddhist traditions, and I cannot find any error in his basic understanding. Also, my article on Huxley was previewed before publication by Dr. Eric Reinders, professor of Buddhist Studies at Emory University, and Mu Seong, director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and they raised no concerns about Huxley’s take on Buddhism.
Regarding your query about whether or not Huxley understood the “teaching on nonself,” I think that his writings clearly show that he did. In The Perennial Philosophy itself, in the section on “nonattachment,” he writes: “The divine eternal fullness of life can be gained only by those who have deliberately lost the partial, separative life of craving and self-interest, of egocentric thinking, feeling, wishing, and acting.” And when he discusses “self-knowledge” he makes clear that knowing one’s self means letting go of it—because those who don’t, “lack the necessary humility” and are “without the fully realized knowledge of their own personal nothingness.” And even back in Chapter One, Huxley makes reference to anatta [no-self]—quoting the Buddha, who explains that to seek a “soul” inside the skandhas [the five aggregates, which together constitute “personality”] is like seeking “the abode of music in the body of a lute.”
On the charge that I have used Huxley to forward my own ideas of eclecticism, I assure you that I have in no way modified Huxley’s position to suit my purposes—and time spent reading Huxley can easily confirm this. When I was comparing Huxley’s ecumenical viewpoint with Goldstein’s—which comprises only the last quarter of my article—I was merely offering a hypothesis. I state clearly that the hypothesis is mine (extrapolating from the position that Huxley himself makes clear), and this is a common scholarly practice. My purpose was to explore Huxley’s position in a contemporary context.
Lastly, you are right that my article does not give the kind of detailed criteria for determining “what works” that is found in Larry Rosenberg’s excellent article. But that was not my purpose. The Perennial Philosophy abounds with such criteria—many of them drawn from Buddhist sources. My purpose was to articulate Huxley’s understanding of Buddhism, and then, at the end, to describe his interesting position that all teachings and practices should be considered as “means” and not “ends,” to avoid the dangers of dogmatism. Huxley believed that if this rule were followed, it would guarantee an ecumenical and otherwise open-minded attitude—the kind of attitude that could perhaps free us of the zealousness with which current ideological dogmatists are creating the violence that you yourself mention.