In Spirit: About Tradition, discussion with Éric Baret
Question: I would like to talk about the tradition in the sense that René Guénon approaches it. In our time, there is a loss of the sense of the sacred; people have no more anchor, beliefs, values. When we talk about beliefs, we often associate it with a religious ideology that comes with all its historical background. Can you talk about these aspects?
For René Guénon, the tradition is a metaphysical revelation which is independent of all forms. Then, this revelation is inscribed through the different religious or mystical forms of life. Tradition, for him, is the fundamental intuition, which in India is called the Sanatana Dharma (सनातन धर्म), the eternal philosophy. So he makes the difference between tradition and “traditionalism” or “custom”. Traditionalism, ultimately, is the extension of the tradition in which the metaphysical aspect has been forgotten.
If we look at the tradition of Tantrism, for example, the scholars believe that at its base is the yogini cult, which was then canonized by Abhinavagupta a few centuries later. If we take the perspective of René Guénon, the cult of yoginis (7-8th century), like the other magical cults of the first tantras, are currents which have partly forgotten their fundamental meaning. A few centuries later (12th century), Abhinavagupta will restore the internal sense that had often been lost. Throughout history, from time to time, certain “masters” bring back the heart of the tradition. This is why there are different revelations: there was the Veda, then the tantras, or even in Tibetan Buddhism, where there is often an update of the tradition by texts magically discovered.
It does not go from the external form to the internal aspect, it is the outer form which is an extension of the inner aspect, which deep meaning is often lost along the way, and then found again later in history.
If we look at the formulation of the four ages of time (Yuga युग) of the Hindu cosmogony, there is first a metaphysical revelation of the golden age, followed by a gradual decline at each of the three other ages. Gradually, this revelation weakens and becomes more and more erroneous. We are currently in the kali yoga, the last age.
“ The syndrome of Kali Yuga is marked by the fact that it is the only age in which property alone confers social rank; wealth becomes the only motive of virtues, passion and lust the only bonds between the married, falsehood and deception the first condition of success in life, sexuality the sole means of enjoyment, while external, merely ritualistic religion is confused with spirituality. ”- Mircea Eliade
Shamanism, to cite another example, which modern ethnologists consider being an old tradition of South America or Siberia, has mostly lost its internal meaning. Shamans no longer truly embody wisdom on a metaphysical level, but only on a ritualistic aspect. So these are two main points of view: for scholars, formal traditions are extensions of magical traditions, while for René Guénon, magical traditions are crude remnants of the tradition whose orientation has been obliterated. Traditionalism is a tradition whose heart has been forgotten. There are still the rites, the customs, but there is no longer a deep meaning; this is why we can arrive at certain forms of aberration, stiffed and disconnected from their source.
Question: does that mean that we can still find tradition today in modern times because it does not depend on time, an era, or a form?
The only true tradition is the metaphysical intuition. It is at the heart of human beings, so it is not dependent on time. On the other hand, it will be formulated through a precise religious form or current. If Master Eckhart or Ibn Arabi were in Paris now, maybe they wouldn’t necessarily be Christian or Sufi, but back in their time, they had little choice.
“… Huwa [which] is the elusive, unknowable Reality, which cannot be named or described. He is the unmanifested Principle of all manifestation, the Reality of all reality. It neither ceases nor transforms, leaves nor changes”- Abd el-Kader (1982)
Question: So, do you think that today there are fewer forms related to this metaphysical formulation because our culture is less homogeneous with a less strict religious coloration than it might have been in other places or times? In other words, are we closer to a formless formulation, does it allow a more direct access?
If Master Eckhart had not been a Christian, he would have been burned, if Ibn Arabi had not been a Muslim he would have been an apostate. Someone could not, in India, or in any country, be anything other than the current in place, which was generally the current of the family, the gotra (गोत्र); there is no choice but to continue the traditional form of the lineage. Maurice Zundel formulates his metaphysical presentiment through the Christian religion because his family was Christian. Jean Klein was very strict. It was the advaita of his first master and the Kashmiri Shivaism of his second master because he was an orthodox person. But people like Yolande Cerano, Byron Katie, Cristina RJ or Nathalie Delay do not recognize any tradition directly and are therefore very free in their formulation. Of course, that does not prevent that there can be references to Sufism, Kashmiri Shaivism, Tao, because it all starts from the same echo. The form that tradition can take is endless. The more flexible a culture is, the more flexible the formulation can be.
Question: René Guénon speaks of the “void” left within a culture that is not based on tradition. A bit as if, in a world that has no traditional base of reference at the heart of its system, people still feel, unconsciously, this necessary “quest for meaning.” What can you say about this?
It is true that when there is no longer a tradition in a country, there is a kind of research. René Guénon thought that it was in Christianity that one could still find vestiges of the tradition because that was what was available in the West.
For example, in all the villages of France built up until 100 years ago, the central building was the Church. Wherever you looked, it was the Church you would see. What does it mean? It means that wherever you are, you can see the essentials. The Church rings every hour; modern people think that it tells the time, but it’s not true, it sounds to remind you of what is essential. Again, when we do not understand the tradition, we think that the bells of the Church mark the time, but it is, in fact, the opposite, they recall the no-time, that is to say, what is beyond time. So, if you are in a French village, you will notice that every hour, there is a constant auditory reminder of the no-time. There is also a visual reminder, as the Church is always in the center of a city, that the tradition is the heart, around which the rest of life is manifested and organized.
Tradition, in the deepest sense of the term, that which exists outside of time and space, is everywhere, even if one is not aware of it. Today, we no longer ring church bells because it prevents people from sleeping, so when we come to this misunderstanding of the deep meaning of certain traditional elements of our culture, obviously, there is a big void in society. But it’s a void that comes from the lack of understanding, not from the absence of Tradition itself. If we understand correctly, then there is no emptiness at all. One discovers the tradition hidden everywhere, as much in architecture, in certain books, or in everyday moments. If one is looking for the external form of the tradition, it is a misunderstanding, and this is where a sensation of a void is experienced.
Some cultures are more flexible than others. For example, when I was talking with Sioux friends in New-Mexico, they explained to me that for them, the tradition is extinct because they can no longer hunt buffalo. Whereas for a Hindu who comes to Paris, who must offer water from the Ganges every morning to the lingam, he takes tap water, recites a mantra so that it becomes the water of the Ganges, another mantra for creating an invisible lingam, it offers water, and voila! So the ritual can continue beyond the form, it adapts. Why? Because it is a culture that has been able to transpose the formulation of the internal tradition that exists behind the ritual, unlike others who have lost its deep meaning and therefore have remained attached to the form. If the form disappears, then the traditional culture also dies. Shamanic traditions are often like this. The Hindu, because of the culture around it, knows the traditional meaning that exists in the background of the rituals, so he can transform its form. It’s not better or worse. It just depends on historical and metaphysical circumstances.
Question: what would you say to people who are looking for something but are often lost because there are so many possibilities on the market that we no longer know where to look: how to find a practice, a tradition with a kind of essential orientation?
In the time of René Guénon, in the 1910s, 1920s, criticism of the modern world was important to give a traditional line of vision because no one knew what it was anymore. But nowadays, I think that criticism of the modern world is really obsolete. We must adopt the “tantric” vision, which says that the current world is the ideal world. Why? Because this is life, and there is no other. It is only from what we have now, the world as it is, that each one of us will find what is essential, and if necessary, from there, go in one direction or another.
You know, there’s no hazard in life, and that which brings someone to an essential encounter is already inscribed in him, so it is not a question of choice. I think it would be wrong to try to have the right form because what is right is the specific quest experienced by each individual. If you are destined to meet something authentic, it will happen. He who has to be satisfied with something more “superficial” also has its place. Life decides. It’s a little bit like a child who reads children’s books, then when you are 20 you read 20 year old books, and so on. The adult book is no better than the children’s book; it’s just a mental age, a different capacity for integration. When I was 16 years old, I read the Upanishads and didn’t understand a thing. Why? Because I was not old mature to receive it. But that didn’t stop me from reading it later and enjoying it when I was ready. So we meet what we are able to meet, it depends on internal resonances, which are ruled by the metaphysical and internal world. So don’t worry. You don’t even have to try to find the right form compared to the current false forms because that would still be an imagination. All false forms, when fully explored, lead to the right, because, essentially, there is only righteous. And at the end of the day, the fake is just an arbitrary right. There is a search, a quest, then if at some point it is not enough, the person realizes it and goes elsewhere. It’s a journey, so there is no criticism to be made.
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