Buddhism and Johan Huizinga

Buddhism and Johan Huizinga

Kees Boukema

The most important Dutch historian of the 20th  century, prof. dr. Johan Huizinga (1872 – 1945), author of standard works such as ‘The Waning of the Middle Ages’ (1919) and the still current ‘Homo Ludens’ (1938), started his academic career on October 7, 1903 in Amsterdam as a ‘private lecturer’ in ‘The antiquity and literature of the Pre-Indies’ with a public lesson: “On the study and appreciation of the Buddhism.” (‘De hand van Huizinga’, Amsterdam University Press, 2009). In those days, interest in Buddhism had arisen in the Netherlands, even outside the professional circles. This interest was not only for Buddhism as a religious/philosophical system but also for the Buddhism-inspired visual arts and literature. Popular introductions to the study on Buddhism had been published and terms such as nirvana, atman and karma, had penetrated everyday language.

“It seems that many people seek in Buddhism what their soul longs for,” Huizinga noted. He finds it remarkable that the ideas of most admirers of Buddhism, mostly ‘lyrical pantheists’, are precisely opposed to the ideas of Buddhism. In his view, the main direction of Buddhism is ‘negation’: ‘a coolly deliberate, consistent pessimism’, denying the essence of  ‘I-ness’ and of the ‘existence of a soul’. To enter the eightfold path, the Buddhist has to break away from the erroneous concept of  ‘I am’ and from the sense of beauty. Buddhism has three dogmas: ‘Nothing is permanent’, ‘all being is misery’ and ‘there is no self’ (aniccam, dukkham, annattam). That keynote is also echoed in the work of those who faithfully adhere to the philosophical direction of  Buddhism.

     The interest of the majority of today’s ‘friends of Buddhism’ however is not philosophical, but ethical. And they don’t look for anything that is there, but according to what they want to find. The soft features of melancholy humanity, self-control and mercy found in Buddhist literature is drowned out by a tone of fear and defensiveness towards all that is action, beauty and love. The highest perfection of the buddhist, ‘acting without passion and attachment’ is little different from ‘inaction out of aversion to life’. Buddhism recommends escaping the world, because out of all passion comes sorrow. All sorrow, disaster and misery comes from what someone holds to be dear. He who holds nothing dear in this world is happy and untroubled.

“Some modern minds also seem to have a strong fascination with the doctrine of karma.” According to Huizinga, this is the most precarious point of Buddhist teaching. “They see a connection here with the theory of evolution. But karma has nothing to do with physical procreation. Karma does not point out what a man inherits from his ancestry, but what he inherits from himself in a former state of existence: responsibility and guilt, which disappear in heredity. (…..) We would be disgusted to attribute the misfortune of someone who is dear to us to sins of someone who is unknown to him.”

Huizinga explains the sympathy of so many for Buddhism by the fact that for valuation of ancient cultures, aesthetic emotion became a stronger role than intellectual or ethical emotion. Also in the veneration of classical European antiquity, morality and example no longer take the place of precedence as in former days.  The introduction to the wealth of words of Old Indian literature became decisive for the inclusion of Indian culture in our mind. Not the serious-moral strife for an indispensable life support of the 16th  century humanists, did inspire our recording of Indian thoughts, but the artistic curiosity for a spiritual beauty.

In this context, Huizinga points out “the heavy state of a mysterious architecture, with the silent splendor of a rigid treasure of images” and “a wonderfully dressed procession of colorful legends and mythological fantasies (…) It is rather the dim twilight of silent temples, the gazing upon shining snow peaks, wonderfully thin and distant, which keeps our minds fascinated, while we think that we absorb the abstract content of Buddhism” (…..) “For the sake of artistic beauty, we appreciate what was said or built for pious edification or teaching.

The artistic appreciation of the ancient Indian culture can in itself provide value for our own art and thinking, but according to Huizinga it becomes precarious when it is accompanied by the pursuit of forming esoteric communities. The anxious clinging, not so much to the content, but especially to outward forms and prescribed rules is a main characteristic of the Buddhist literature; spiritual pride and aridity of mind often too.   Huizinga later wrote that here he turned against the “at that time widespread practice in certain circles of theosophy from the school of Mme Blavatsky, the prophetess.” [‘My path to history’, 1943, a.w., p. 45]. The theosophical doctrine of the spiritualist medium Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) had great influence not only on the spread, but also on the version of Buddhism that found entrance in the West. Huizinga noticed a certain lack of enthusiasm among true experts of Buddhism, sometimes even reluctance and disdain, for some points in Buddhist teachings. An aversion, that one is provoked to have due to the foolishness of those who follow Buddhism only by hearsay, and who glorify it. It is natural that the study of Buddhism can still satisfy connoisseurs in investigating the genesis and growth of ideas, some of which strike us by their “simplicity and sublimity of their resigned, passionless morality while others grieve us because of their clumsy pretense”.

Today, one hundred and twenty years later, we see points of recognition in the rather dated image that Huizinga outlines of Buddhism in the Netherlands. A lot of attention is still towards appearances such as images and symbols of Buddhism and toward superficial pseudo-Buddhism. But there is also an important difference. Due to the arrival of Buddhist monks, who had to shun their homeland for political reasons, and founded sanghas in the West, we were able to get directly acquainted with what is important for a living Buddhism: the practice of meditation and other spiritual practices. Huizinga hinted at this at the end of his lecture: “One who wants to know the tone of Buddhist life at its purest and the best, can find it in writings such as the Mangalasutta, one of Buddha’s sermons. Here is a tone of calm resignation and simple virtuous living. To all those millions who have taken refuge in the Buddha, the Teaching and the Sangha, is the hollow pessimism of his philosophical system just passed by. The influence of Buddhism is always more awakening and civilizing rather than dogmatically pedantic. In the fact that doctrines matter less than life, lies the secret of Buddhism; not only of its great spread, but also of the sympathy it finds with all those, who also measure the value of the teaching in its historical form according to the life of the Buddhist peoples.”



Mr Kees Boukema is a scholar in Vedanta and Comparative philosophy. His brilliant and thorough-going articles on various philosophical and spiritual subjects  are being published since the first issue of the magazine. His latest work is De Beoefening van Meditatie.