“When I think about it, I always wonder how much I really understand.” In this age of social media, when we can surround ourselves with idiots at the touch of a button, it is good to read something that makes me wonder if I’ve really understood anything the way it should be understood.
After months, I finished reading this book, Prayer fashions man, by Frithjof Schuon. As I wrote in my Goodread review: “This book is awesome; don’t read it!”
This requires some explanation, for those who don’t know about Frithjof Schuon. He was a fairly prolific author in religion and metaphysics, following a tradition that is known as Sophia Perennis, the perennial wisdom. It is fairly well described in Wikipedia, and I quote (partly to circumvent future edits there):
“Perennialism is a perspective within the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown. According to this view, each world religion, including but not limited to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Sikhism, and Buddhism, is an interpretation of this universal truth adapted to cater for the psychological, intellectual, and social needs of a given culture of a given period of history. The universal truth which lies at heart of each religion has been rediscovered in each epoch by saints, sages, prophets, and philosophers. These include not only the ‘founders’ of the world’s great religions but also gifted and inspired mystics, theologians, and preachers who have revived already existing religions when they had fallen into empty platitudes and hollow ceremonialism.”
Yes, this view of religion’s history is strikingly similar to that of the Japanese religion Happy Science, with the notable exception that Schuon and friends didn’t claim to be God or Buddha, and tended to live an austere and secluded lifestyle. I personally find it easier to accept religious teaching from ascetic and taciturn people who receive little of no financial gain or fawning adoration for their efforts.
Be that as it may, Schuon is always a hard read. His words are like crystals, beautiful and precise but hard. Even now, being more familiar with Schuon, I cannot really read his books like textbooks. Rather, I have to read them slowly and wait for bits and pieces of them to cause a sort of “vertical recall”, similar to a memory but of something I have never learned before. It is this “timeless memory” which remains, often as not, and it may not be directly spelled out in the text.
One may wonder whether he is making his text hard to read on purpose, so as to keep away the casual reader. If so, that is probably a good thing, for when you begin to understand what he writes, it is natural to become deeply disturbed. I don’t really recommend his books for those who are doing well in their religion, for it will almost certainly cause them to either reject their simple faith or the book, possibly both. I also don’t recommend it for the atheist who does well without religion, for he will find it foolish and will also find that Schuon regards him as more foolish than a beast.
I would recommend this book to the rare breed of spiritual offroad adventurer, who finds light in many faiths, but also shadows there, and who is bothered by the superficial nature of modern religion and modern life as a whole. (To Schuon, “modernity” is almost a curse word.) And I would recommend it to those who once were believers, but who grew up and their religion did not grow up with them, those who now feels that there was some goodness in their faith, but it was ultimately just a bunch of humans trying to do something that was far beyond them. For them, it may be useful to look behind the stage, perhaps. If so, I would recommend they start with the last chapter, and read only that for a while. It is the most “humane”, the easiest to read and the most practical part of the books, I think. I am certainly glad I read it. I hope to live long enough to read it again once it has had time to either change me or be forgotten. But I doubt it can be forgotten.
Madness is not the only danger in books. There is also the danger that something may be seen that cannot be unseen. Whether I walk in this new light or not, I may be judged by it. As I said, this is not a book to take lightly, and I cannot recommend it to just anyone.