Translating ideas

The first dilemma in the process of developing the mental, spiritual, psychological, or philosophical self is that society presents a plethora of sects, schools, philosophies, and traditions before us. A few hundred years ago, or far less in certain places, we would not have knowledge of the existence of so many traditions and schools. Their discovery has paralleled Western expansion, usually inimical contact with indigenous or traditional cultures, and usually relations based on power and exploitation. When the contact was positive, a handful of ambitious and often ignorant or naive scholars spun away the political and economic context of discovery to bring to light translations and theories about the discovered peoples, cultures, and ideas.

The validity of the religions and beliefs was tested by Western standards, and placed into categories of dismissiveness, condescension, curiosity, or exoticism. Furthermore, the translation of ideas and beliefs was hampered by language and culture, where no exact equivalents could be overlaid onto Western categories. The inevitable Westernized versions, due to the organic character of tradition and culture, so interdependent on environment, nature, and time, nevertheless offers piquant alternatives to the shortcomings of Western thought. Except that there are so many possibilities.

The many schools and sects are now like the varied fare of a bazaar, with the notion that more than a few are actively promoted and popularized, that is, hocked. Western mutations and versions promise an integration of our modern insights with the traditions borrowed or discovered from exotic settings. The anomalous collector, the strange urban figure of fin de siecle capitals of Europe and America — Paris, London, Vienna, New York, broad-minded wanderers of thought among peddlers of antiquities — has become the seeker, the pundit, the seminar and retreat attendee.

The market should be, after all, be a market of ideas, not antiques, not reliquaries. The ideas are similar to one another in their antiquity, exoticism, or piquancy. The favored guru of this or that niche is the strange beast on loan to the zoo, that prison where all exotics go to die.

But even detached from gurus, ideas form no complete pattern, and remain a hodgepodge. Today, ideas are like plants in a hot house growing in sterile soil and separate little pots, thriving only because of amendments and artificial additives. Such a presentation of ideas is bound to frustrate the honest seeker, and one may say that the whole philosophy of existentialism arose because a world full of ideas without culture, context, rootedness, or being, of ideas failing to thrive in the environments of modernity, left the Western observer disturbed and melancholic. This sentiment in itself, this looking at the world as a clot of artificial forms, represents an apogee, a decline, an end. The apogee of ancient empires was always this marketplace of ideas to accompany exotic new foods, spices, trinkets, books, clothes, music, ideas. Anything from afar, while the soil beneath our feet was paved over, and the trees and flowers plundered. Zarathustra quit the marketplace because no one would listen. They were too taken up with the shopping, alternately enthralled and jaded, enthralled by new scenarios, plausibility, practices, but wearied by and despairing of ever making sense of them.

We cannot make sense of what is yanked from its soil, its environment, its natural habitat. Or, rather, we cannot understand and appreciate fully what the thing is. Basho showed wonder at a flower, but Tennyson would “pluck” the same flower from the “crannied wall” and study the dead thing under a microscope. Every idea we import remains dead because we do not see it in the type of society and natural setting in which it thrived.

And modern people are reluctant to change their own natural setting in order to “grow” these exotic plants, because then they would lose their last connection to the modern industrial, technological world that is collapsing around them. Compromises are inevitably made, if only for an appreciation, a hothouse view, a gallery setting in which we go through re-creations of thought and movement and practice, hoping to capture the essence of what came to us from a far-off land and culture. That done, we turn on our appliances, boot up our connectivity to the world, get ready to work another day in the caverns of modern society’s workplaces.

We juggle many masks in order to cope with what we don’t really like to do, and daydream of a world that grew the flowers of that far away ancient land (geographically or psychologically) we know so little of.