Aldous Huxley is remembered today as an important novelist of the twentieth century, author of the now-classic Brave New World. But of his nearly fifty books, most were in fact works of nonfiction, and in these he addressed many of the ills of modern society: rampant population growth, environmental degradation, and socioeconomic inequalities, among other concerns. In his search for answers, Huxley drew deeply from Buddhist sources—and, like his close friend Alan Watts, became an early advocate of Buddhism in the West. But what about Buddhism appealed to Huxley? And how does his assessment of the tradition compare with that of Western Buddhists today?
While Huxley certainly endorsed many aspects of Buddhism, his work nonetheless issues an interesting challenge (and potential threat) to what might be called “traditional Buddhism,” the formal schools of Asian Buddhism. Central to Huxley’s challenge is his assertion that no religious tradition exercises a monopoly on truth; indeed, that ultimate truth can be found only through a search free of dogma and the rigid demands of orthodoxy. One can be a Buddhist, in other words, but equally and at the same time a Muslim, a Hindu, a Christian. What is perhaps most interesting about Huxley’s challenge is that its echo can be heard today in the dharma halls of Western Buddhist centers.
Aldous Huxley was born in 1894, in Surrey, England, to a family of famous intellectuals. This was shortly after the construction of the Eiffel Tower (then the tallest structure in the world), in a period that literary scholar and critic Joseph Wood Krutch once called the “Age of Confidence,” a reference to the popular assumption that science and technology would soon create a secular paradise on earth. By the time Huxley graduated from Oxford in 1919, however, much of that confidence had waned. The First World War had already shown that technology could be used as easily for destruction as for creation. But even more devastating was the corrosive effect of science on the traditional Judeo-Christian foundations of meaning and values. This, of course, was liberating in many ways—and Huxley himself was happy to be free of values he believed were built upon superstition and feudal entitlement. But the disciplines of science showed no prospects for creating a new foundation for meaning and values, and this worried Huxley deeply.
Positivism, the philosophical position founded by Auguste Comte and based on scientific materialism, suggested that there is no meaning in life because an absolute meaning can neither be found nor proven. Comte suggested that all values are culturally conditioned and therefore relative, rendering the universe itself a moral vacuum. While many intellectuals accepted this viewpoint, Huxley wondered if the scientific community’s inability to quantify truth—or at least a “meaningful” truth—might not rather indicate a limitation of the scientific method. What if truth—like love and beauty—does exist but cannot be quantified? What if it passes through the grasp of the scientific method as the sea passes through the nets of a fisherman? Positivists, from Comte to the present, have assumed that the problems they cannot solve necessarily have no answers, but Huxley believed they were just looking in the wrong places and using the wrong approach. In Ends and Means (1937), he wrote, “Promoting their epistemological ineptitude to the rank of a criterion of truth, dogmatic scientists have often branded everything beyond the pale of their limited competence as unreal and even impossible.”
Huxley argued that if we limit our grounds for meaning and values only to what science can quantify, we create a reductionism that herds us directly toward materialism—since material things can be quantified. This reduces the foundation of meaning to physical comfort and pleasure alone. And Huxley found this proposition “vulgar,” to use his term, because it negates the possibility of a deeper truth and purpose. “Comfort is a means, not an end. The modern world seems to regard it as an end in itself, an absolute good. One day, perhaps, the earth will have been turned into one vast feather-bed, with man’s body dozing on top of it and his mind underneath, like Desdemona, smothered.” In Brave New World (1932), Huxley presented a cautionary tale of what life could become if culture were reduced to such materialistic foundations: In his vision of the future, sexual promiscuity is raised to a virtue, close emotional relationships are forbidden, and “soma,” a drug of pleasure and escape, replaces both intimacy and spirituality.
In later works, Huxley sought to define a reasonable and humanistic foundation for meaning and values. His mature conclusions are found in The Perennial Philosophy (1945), in which he outlines his theory of a “natural” religion behind and at the root of all the world’s religions. In the text, Huxley quotes from saints and scholars of many traditions who represent the “perennial philosophy,” but his viewpoint sounds most similar to that of certain schools of Buddhism and Hinduism—and almost nothing like those of Christianity or Islam.
Huxley was drawn to the idea of a spirituality based on the growth of consciousness, on direct apprehension of the sacred rather than faith in its existence. As a consequence, when he speaks of Islam he quotes only the Sufis, and when he speaks of Christianity he cites only the mystics. He was drawn to the ideal—central to Buddhism but generally antithetical to the Western philosophical tradition—of ultimate truth as experiential knowledge rather than a collection of concepts or facts. Huxley also agreed with Buddhists that a meaningful life transcends exclusive concern for material comfort and pleasure—and that serenity and insight come only when we look beyond these things. “The condition of an expanding and technologically progressive system is universal craving,” Huxley criticizes. But, he adds, “desirelessness is the condition of deliverance and illumination.” Huxley borrowed from Buddhism, but was he a Buddhist—and if so, of what kind, and to what extent?
Historian and philosopher Gerald Heard, who knew Huxley well and was himself deeply familiar with mysticism, once speculated that Huxley’s viewpoint was closest to that of Theravada Buddhism, and that The Perennial Philosophy articulates a Theravada perspective. It is certainly easy to appreciate Heard’s claim. Theravadins believe that the Buddha was only a man, not a god or a godlike being, and that he is valuable to us primarily as a role model: The Buddha was a person and he became enlightened; therefore, all persons are capable of becoming enlightened. Theravadins, in general, do not believe that we can grow spiritually except by our own efforts. No lord will bend down to lift us up, nor will any supernatural devil or demon torment us; it is only we who bring, and have brought, disaster and torment to the earth.
Huxley liked the worldliness of the Theravada viewpoint and the weight it places on personal initiative. He did not agree, however, with what he perceived as an overemphasis on monasticism, because he thought it unnecessary for reaching enlightenment. He also saw in Theravada Buddhism a tendency to be dogmatic with regard to meditation practices, which he felt didn’t need to be so structured. He preferred the Mahayanist cultivation of compassion and social responsibility to the Theravada goal of arhatship, or “solitary realization.” As he makes clear in Doors of Perception (1956) and in other later works, he agreed with the Mahayanists that one must become a bodhisattva, a being whose wisdom expresses itself in compassion and whose avowed goal is to forward the enlightenment of all beings. Huxley believed that mysticism could transcend its general tendencies toward quietism and isolationism, and result in social harmony. In fact, he saw this as an ethical imperative, once writing, “The Kingdom of God is within us, but at the same time it is our business to contribute to the founding of the Kingdom of God upon earth.”
Yet Huxley did not embrace Mahayana Buddhism in its entirety. He rejected what he saw as its overreliance on prayer. Central to Mahayana orthodoxy is the belief in the trikaya, the “three bodies” of the Buddha, which include the sambhogakaya, the body that manifests as celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas from whom we may solicit help for mundane concerns as well as spiritual realization. In many sects of Mahayana, such as the Pure Land schools, worship of beings like Amitabha Buddha becomes the central practice, and faith in a power outside of oneself is considered essential to personal transformation. Huxley was a firm believer in using one’s own will to advance the quality of one’s life, and he tended to denigrate prayer in general. In Huxley’s novel Eyeless in Gaza, Dr. Miller, a mouthpiece for Huxley’s philosophy, observes,
I’ve never really liked it, you know. Not what’s ordinarily meant by prayer at any rate. All that asking for special favours and guidances and forgivenesses—I’ve always found that it tends to make one egotistical, preoccupied with one’s own ridiculous, self-important little personality. When you pray in the ordinary way, you’re merely rubbing yourself into yourself. You return to your own vomit, if you see what I mean. Whereas what we’re all looking for is some way of getting beyond our own vomit.
Huxley also was not comfortable with the idea of supreme beings and gods, and only grudgingly allowed theism a measure of credibility (often referring to the Judeo-Christian God as the “Gaseous Vertebrate”). In Eyeless in Gaza, he also writes:
Which gives a man more power to realize goodness—belief in a personal or an impersonal God? Answer: It depends. Some minds work one way, some another. Mine, as it happens, finds no need, indeed, finds it impossible to think of the world in terms of personality.
Huxley believed that to elevate the sacred to a status above oneself was simultaneously to lower one’s appraisal of one’s own true dignity. After all, every person, in essence, is the sacred. Each person is a buddha, if they will only wake up to this fact. In Huxley’s view, one should aspire to the enlightenment and compassion of Amitabha but get up off one’s knees to better demonstrate that compassion in the world.
In terms of the Mahayana teachings, Huxley’s mysticism is closest in many ways to Ch’an Buddhism, which developed in China during the sixth and seventh centuries, and later became known as Zen in Japan. Ch’an adepts like Lin-chi avoided devotionalism, focusing instead on self-effort to reach enlightened awareness. Ch’an Buddhists believed in the necessity of centering one’s spirituality in this world. If, as the Heart Sutra tells us, “form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” then the sacred is everywhere, and this world must not be separated from it. Enlightenment and samsara (the worldly realm of rebirth) are ultimately one and the same reality in Mahayana Buddhism (not so clearly the case in Theravada), and in Zen we find this viewpoint embraced to the fullest. For Zen Buddhists, the Pure Land of Amitabha is the very world we inhabit here in the present, and only the fetters of ignorance prevent us from recognizing this truth. Huxley greatly appreciated this Zen emphasis on the accessibility of enlightenment, as evidenced in his writings in The Perennial Philosophy, and in his last novel, Island (1962).
A characteristic of Huxley’s mysticism is that it is very “this-worldly.” For Huxley, mysticism’s rewards are enjoyed in the realm of everyday experience, and for many readers this is a primary attraction to his work. He attempted to balance the transcendent and the mundane. As Huston Smith, an important authority on world religions, once remarked, “Huxley’s regard for mysticism was well known by dint of being so nearly notorious. What some overlooked was his equal interest in the workaday world. . . . To those who, greedy for transcendence, deprecated the mundane, he counseled that ‘we must make the best of both worlds.’ To their opposites, the positivists, his word was ‘Alright, one world at a time; but not half a world.’”
This was the kind of Buddhism that Huxley advocated—and he certainly helped clarify the growing American dharma of his time—but, again, was he a Buddhist? In the final analysis, no. Huxley took from Buddhism a set of teachings that he believed clearly articulated the nature of truth, and a set of practices that can be applied to the project of realization. He saw Buddhism as a means rather than as an end; he embraced it functionally rather than dogmatically, agreeing with Alan Watts, who wrote in his autobiography, “I think of religion as something to be used—like a set of tools—rather than followed.” To call himself a Buddhist, Huxley would have enshrined a means as an end in itself—which was his specific definition of idolatry. Buddhism, for Huxley, offers but one description of the primordial truths underlying all religion. It contains explanations that Huxley considered on target (“the best of the Mahayana sutras contain an authentic formulation of the Perennial Philosophy”); but Buddhism remained for him only one explanation of a truth that other traditions have also correctly identified—and which is ultimately beyond all words, even those of the Buddhist sutras. To summarize, Huxley was in many ways a Buddhist—but not only a Buddhist.
If he could have viewed the emerging Buddhist dharma in the West today, Huxley would have applauded its general tendency to be ecumenical, to look beyond any one tradition and borrow from many. He would find it healthy that many American Buddhists borrow not only across the various Buddhist dharmas but also take yoga classes, study Hindu scriptures, and keep a copy of Rumi by their bedsides. He would appreciate Joseph Goldstein’s influential new book, One Dharma, for coaching the American sangha to be inclusive—and for pointing out that direct experience must be the proof of the pudding that determines the efficacy of all teachings. Goldstein sounds very much like Huxley when he reminds his readers that “freedom is the vital issue, not our ideas about it.”
But if Goldstein believes this, why doesn’t he drop the other shoe? Why stop, as he does, at the claim of one Buddhist dharma? Why not say “One Dharma” and really mean it? And here is the seed of Huxley’s (and perhaps Goldstein’s) challenge to the future of Buddhism in the West—and certainly to traditional Asian Buddhism. Specifically, Huxley would find nothing in Goldstein’s thesis preventing an aspirant from drawing inspiration from beyond the Buddhist teachings. For Huxley it would be arbitrary to draw only on Buddhist sources simply because they were labeled “Buddhism.” Certainly, Patanjali’s Yoga philosophy, from the Hindu tradition, is closer in teachings and methods to Theravada Buddhism than Theravada Buddhism is to Tibetan Buddhism. And Yogachara Buddhism is closer in content to Advaita Vedanta, a prominent school of Hindu philosophy, than it is to the Buddhism of Shinran—or to the Pure Land schools in general. Why not borrow from outside of Buddhism if meaning is found there?
Ultimately, Huxley would argue that we must accept that truth is beyond words and beyond “isms.” He would ask us to consider our ultimate purpose: Do we most want to preserve traditional Buddhism, or do we want to reach enlightenment? We may find that the latter challenges the former, and we may need, as the Zen maxim advocates, to “kill the Buddha” we meet on the road, in order to become buddhas ourselves.
This approach offers an opportunity—one embraced by many Western Buddhists today—to borrow across religious traditions. But it also brings danger, and Goldstein is clear on this when he asks, “Is the path of One Dharma a melting-pot approach that is simply making a thin soup? Or is a synthesis of traditions occurring that is vitalizing and strengthening our understanding?” Within Buddhism today there are defenders of both positions. Like his friends Krishnamurti and Alan Watts, Huxley believed it is possible to take from diverse teachings without necessarily making a thin soup. Goldstein calls the path of One Dharma a “razor’s edge” that must be walked with caution. Huxley, broadening the scope of “One Dharma” even further, would agree—and then he would advise us to take the walk, for though it presents the danger of falling into thin soup on one side, it avoids the danger of dogmatism on the other.
Does this mean that Huxley would advocate eradicating a separate Buddhist dharma? That people should embrace the wider, more ecumenical religion of the perennial philosophy? No. Huxley didn’t believe that the perennial philosophy is a religion—if we mean by that either a new dogma or a new path. He saw it rather as a philosophical disposition and a subtext of all religions. He advocated the perennial philosophy because he believed that by acknowledging a common subtext to all religions, we are better equipped to understand the difference between the path and the goal in our own practice, and to understand that our personal spiritual path ultimately leads us beyond paths. He challenges us to be skeptical of what we think we know for sure. He advises us to accept the same hard task that Goldstein recommends: to measure the value of teachings as they facilitate our direct awakening.
From one perspective, Huxley is advocating a new direction in world Buddhism based on the scientific principle of the “working hypothesis.” He asks us to hold our paths provisionally, to be willing to alter them for something more effective. From another perspective, his philosophy is arguably a return to the original Buddhist viewpoint. Huxley believed the Buddha himself embraced a provisional path, that on the issue of dogma he maintained “the attitude of a strict operationalist” and would “speak only of the spiritual experience, not the metaphysical entity. . . .” But whether new or old, Huxley’s position challenges the dogma of sectarian Buddhism, and it remains to be seen which path—and which view of the path—we in the West will take.
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