By the latter part of the 19th Century, the colonial spread of European powers across the world was in full swing. The British ruled India and Australia and had gone to war with China to force opium on the population. Africa, South America, and the Philippines had been portioned out for Western rule and control of resources.
But tyranny does not travel only in one direction, from conqueror to subject. When Medieval European knights returned from the crusades, they brought with them mathematical principles
, Greek and Roman texts
, and thus was the European Renaissance kindled by the Light of Islam. Africans were brought to America as slaves, but even being scattered and mistreated did not prevent them
from changing the culture, gifting us with blues, jazz, and African-descended words like 'funk', 'mojo', 'boogie', and 'cool'.
It was the same with the colonial powers of the fin de siècle
, who brought back stories, myths, fashions, art, and philosophies from all over the world. Many Europeans grew obsessed with these foreign religions, finding in them both universal truths of human existence and completely new modes of thought. Organizations like the Theosophical Society were formed to explore these religions--it was all the rage.
But there was a problem: they got almost all of it wrong.
A Frenchman could spend his entire life learning the intricacies of Greek and Hebrew in order to study Catholicism--its origins, philosophies, schisms, heresies, and history--and still find that, in the end, there is much he does not know, and that he'd made many errors along the way. This, despite the fact that his culture is already steeped in it, he can go and speak to one of hundreds of experts any time he has a question, and has access to a complete library of texts on the subject written in his own language, and by people of a similar culture.
Now, imagine our 19th Century Gascon trying to do the same thing with Buddhism, where not only the original texts on the subject but the histories and analyses are in not merely a foreign language, but a completely different language branch, where the experts are from a different culture and speak a different language, and where the complexity and depth of history are just as vast.
It's no wonder that the Theosophists and similar groups ended up with garbled, mistranslated, simplified versions that combined opposing schools of thought haphazardly. As an old philosophy professor of mine once said: "You can learn a great deal about German Protestantism from reading Siddhartha
, but almost nothing about Buddhism".
What ultimately emerged from the Theosophist movement was not a branch of Western Buddhism, but the 'New Age Movement': a grab bag of the same old Western ideas dressed up as mystical Oriental wisdom. Indeed, the central idea of the inane self-help book 'The Secret' and of Siddhartha
are the same: the 'Law of Attraction'
, which is not a Buddhist principle.
Like most of Hesse's work, it belongs in the 'Spiritual Self-Help' section, where vague handwaving and knowing looks are held in higher esteem than thought or insight. It's the same nonspecific mysticism he shows us in
The Journey To The East
The Glass Bead Game
, where the benefits of wisdom are indistinguishable from the symptoms of profound dementia.
If you want to understand Buddhism, start somewhere else, because you'd just have to unlearn all of Hesse's incorrect arguments and definitions. Happily, we have come a long way since Hesse's time, with experts and commentaries in many different languages available to the avid student. But, if you'd like to see someone try to explain the principles of Lutheranism using only misused Hindu terms, this may be the book for you.