His wife Muriel called him “the old man who hates everyone.” His mother once described him as “nothing at all, just a bundle of contradictions.” Yet Dr. Edward Conze almost single-handedly made the Prajnaparamita (“Perfection of Wisdom”) sutras—the fundamental scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism—available to the English-speaking world. Conze’s pioneering accomplishment is still hailed as a model of meticulous scholarship, and he ranks among the greatest and most prolific modern translators of the Buddhist tradition. But as renowned as Edward Conze was for his erudition, he was equally well known for his caustic, often outrageous temperament, and the combination earned him an intriguing and contradictory reputation.
Conze cited his astrological chart as proof that he was born for what he called “religious invective.” (He often referred to an abiding belief in astrology, acquired in his thirties, as making sense of otherwise meaningless events.) But Conze was surely as much a product of his upbringing as of his karma. Raised and educated in Germany, he was born Eberhard Dietrich Julius Conze in London on March 18, 1904. His Anglophile parents were upper-class German Protestants, and their marriage was not a happy one. His father, a high-ranking judge, refused to cooperate with the Nazis when they came to power, and he eventually starved himself to death in protest. Conze greatly respected his father, though he had a difficult relationship with his mother, whom he describes as a strong woman who was embittered by her patriarchal surroundings, and attributes to her the “spirit of rebellion” that became a defining feature of his own personality.
Conze’s autobiography, entitled Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic, offers a fascinating and often hilarious glimpse into his controversial, audacious, and eventful life, and Conze tells it with characteristic candor. Parts 1 and 2 were privately published after they were rejected by a publisher as “a veritable tour de force of venom.” For instance, Buddhism scholars Christmas Humphreys and Alan Watts are strongly reproved for what Conze deemed poor scholarship and astonishing arrogance. Though he admits that Watts and Humphreys were successful in presenting Buddhism to a Western audience, Conze insists that their readers would have to “unlearn most of what they had learnt.” In an appendix to Part 2, we’re offered a glimpse of what was removed from Conze’s memoirs, including malicious gossip about some of his colleagues in America. He says, however, “This is a somewhat self-defeating exercise. While these people are alive, they can sue for libel. Once they are dead, no one will want to know any more about them.” Although Conze expresses concern that his autobiography may be “self-flattering,” by the end he concludes that his fear was ungrounded, since “nobody, after they have read my account of myself, is likely to think more highly of me than they did before.”
Despite this self-deprecation, however, when a student once asked Conze how he knew he was among the elite, he replied with astonishment, “If I am not elite, who is?” He justified his attitude by an appeal not to social rank but to spiritual potential—which corresponds to the traditional Buddhist distinction between the enlightened and unenlightened. Indeed, Conze didn’t hesitate to declare himself a bodhisattva “sent to soften the hearts of the Western barbarians by teaching them the holy Prajnaparamita.” He even went so far as to state that in a past life he had been a “noble Mongol lama” during the early days of the British explorations into Tibet, and that he’d decided to be reborn in London to see what the “Western barbarians” were up to. He’d always been puzzled, he said, that he “should have dashed into the womb of a German woman who hated me all her life, instead of some nice English lady who might have fussed over me like a Siamese cat. Though that would probably have blunted my effectiveness.”
Although Conze approached Buddhist studies from the perspective of a devoted practitioner, the fundamental Buddhist virtue of compassion appears to be almost completely absent from his writings—not to mention his character. He was notorious for his quick temper and trenchant criticism. In his Memoirs, however, Conze likens his asperity to the disinterested wrath displayed by the bodhisattva Manjushri when he cuts through the sprouts of ignorance with his sword of wisdom. He justified vitriolic criticism of his contemporaries by insisting, “I have written even the most vicious pages of [my Memoirs] in a spirit of dispassionate serenity, which my victims, I hope, will not fail to share.” Conze claimed that he spent many years meditating on compassion, and that it had, in fact, considerably softened his outlook. He reminds us that, in any case, there is a great deal of difference between compassion as a sentiment and compassion as a virtue, and that “the results of Buddhist meditations cannot be conveyed to those who have not done them.”
Conze first discovered at age thirteen, when he read excerpts from the Diamond Sutra in Lafcadio Hearn’s Gleanings in Buddha-fields (the same book that sparked Alan Watts’s interest in Buddhism). He was struck at once by a feeling that the passages represented the truth and by an intuition that the translations were inaccurate, and vowed one day to gain access to the original texts. He came to Buddhist scholarship after receiving a classical education at German universities, where he studied philosophy and philology. He excelled in language studies and was fluent in fourteen languages by the age of twenty-four. During this time, he also became active in the Communist Party, as much out of disgust at the appalling conditions of working-class life as out of a philosophical interest in religious socialism. Conze’s interest in the latter, which envisions a society free from exploitation and based upon cooperation and lovingkindness, stemmed from his understanding of the Gospels and the Hebrew prophets. Conze’s activities in the Communist Party mainly consisted of teaching dialectical materialism to party members, although he mentions involvement in the higher echelons of the organization. He was noted on the Gestapo’s list of key people to arrest in the event of their successful invasion of England, and this status helped him to remain in that country at a time when anti-German sentiment was at a fever pitch. He tells of harrowingly close calls he had with the Gestapo and of his feats of daring in opposing and eluding them.
After earning his Ph.D. in 1928, Conze began work on his first book, Reality and Contradiction, a contribution to Marxist thought, which was burned by the Nazis. In 1933, as the Nazis gained control of Germany, Conze fled to England. His girlfriend Dorthea Finkelstein, pregnant with their child, joined him in London. Knowing she would soon have to return to Germany, where her Jewish ethnicity and past Communist involvement would put her in jeopardy with the Nazis, they married, despite Conze’s misgivings. After a few years, and numerous infidelities on his part, Conze and Dorthea parted ways. She resisted divorce for more than thirty years, until 1967, when a particularly acrimonious and well-publicized divorce finally allowed Conze to marry Muriel Green, with whom he had been living since 1948.
Conze made much of the effects of the Oedipus complex on his love life. Despite a difficult relationship with his mother, he blamed the failure of several romantic relationships, including his first marriage, on his unconscious preference for women who resembled her. Though with Muriel he overcame this prediliction, he maintained that his “devotion to the Mother of the Buddhas had a great deal to do with the disappointment I felt for my earthly mother.” Conze was frank about his ambivalence toward women, unabashedly admitting that the main reason he wanted a wife was to have someone to care for him while he did his scholarly work. “If it had not been for the servant shortage that set in after 1918, I would never have had any motive to marry at all,” he declared.
Yet, when he writes with uncharacteristic tenderness about how he met Muriel, it’s clear that their marriage was more than one of convenience. In Memoirs, Conze suggests that love had been an important factor throughout his life. He says that he omits a complete retelling of the details of his romantic life only because their influence on his intellectual life—the emphasis of the book—had been “negligible.”
Upon arriving in England in 1933, Conze began to write for various left-wing periodicals, and published several books analyzing current events from a position that was both socialist and pacifist. His faith in politics declined, however, as the world around him began to mobilize for a war he regarded as not only futile but avoidable. At the age of thirty-three, disillusioned by politics, the collapse of his first marriage, and his job teaching psychology in adult education classes, Conze became depressed and began to undergo psychoanalysis.
Then, in 1937, as he began to contemplate suicide, Conze came across Essays in Zen Buddhism,by D. T. Suzuki, which reinvigorated his interest in Buddhism and “raised me from a living death.” Conze later befriended Suzuki, when they were colleagues at the London Buddhist Society. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Conze began intensive meditation practice guided by the writings of the ancient Theravada Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa. “I experienced a great elation of the spirit, and there is no point in gushing over this. Some of what I learnt in those years I have told in my many books. Other things have been left to private talk. Others again I have kept to myself.”
Following the war, Conze continued to teach adult education classes while devoting his spare time to the translation of Prajnaparamita texts. At the suggestion of a friend, he began work onBuddhism: Its Essence and Development, now regarded as a classic. Published in 1951, it included one of the first scholarly treatments of Tantric Buddhism; as Conze himself points out, “at that time it was considered daring to include the Tantra as one of the authentic or legitimate developments of Buddhism.” The book established Conze as one of the foremost Western authorities on Buddhism, and it was followed by a number of articles, books, and translations, culminating in Buddhist Thought in India, published in 1961, which he regarded as his greatest achievement. In this book and much of his other writing, Conze demonstrated his regard for the dissemination and exposition of the Buddhist teachings, which he saw as a vital antidote to modern society’s preoccupation with science, commerce, and the subjugation of the environment in the name of power and “progress.”
In 1963 and 1973, Conze held various appointments as a distinguished visiting professor in the United States, Canada, and Germany. As an unapologetic ex-communist, he was allowed to remain in the States only for limited periods. Iconoclast, practicing Buddhist, astrologist, and vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, Conze became something of a hero to the spiritually inclined youth culture of the 1960s. After 1973, however, Conze was no longer allowed in the United States. His communist past and blunt criticism of American foreign policy led to increasingly acrimonious battles with the State Department. In his final attempt to obtain a visa, an American Embassy official in London asked Conze how they could be sure he would not assassinate President Nixon, to which he replied, “Why should I do you such a favor, after the way you have treated me?” Conze spent the rest of his life in England.
Diagnosed with heart disease when he was seventy-one, Conze nonetheless continued to write and to oversee the publication of the definitive editions of his Prajnaparamita translations. He died in Somerset, England, on September 24, 1979, at the age of seventy-five.
Undoubtedly, Conze’s most important contribution to Buddhist studies is his translation and explication of the Prajnaparamita sutras, which have inspired succeeding generations of academics to follow his example of scrupulous scholarship, and to continue to make the sutras accessible to a Western audience. Conze’s lucid exposition of Buddhist ideas and his ability to relate these to non-Buddhist systems of thought have made his writing engaging and provocative to scholars and nonscholars alike.
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