A Second Renaissance? Part 1
“It has been said that the renaissance that would be brought about by the discovery, in the nineteenth century, of the treasures of oriental literature, would be incomparably more glorious than that which had been ushered in during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the recovery of the classics of Greece and Rome.” 1
So begins Sangharakshita’s lecture ‘The Glory of the Literary World’, delivered at the launch of Tharpa Publications and his book The Eternal Legacy, on the 29 th of August 1985, some six weeks before I was born. Sangharakshita acknowledges at the time that this second renaissance “… has in a sense already begun, even though it has begun on a very small scale, and to a very limited extent, and though we cannot be sure whether the process will ever be completed.” As this blogger now teeters on the brink of middle age, perhaps it’s as good a time as any to review the progress we’ve made.
The signs so far are mixed. On the one hand, the translators have been hard at work. Many ‘occidental’ languages now have more translations than a non-scholar could expect to read in their lifetime, some languages even boasting many dozens of translations of particular works. And Buddhism’s profile (not to mention those of yoga, Taoism, and Tibet) has grown massively, especially in digital spaces. A second renaissance, though, it is not. Yet.
It’s one thing to have ‘discovered’ these works, and even to have ready access to them in translation. But it’s quite another for them to have affected our civilisation and culture to the extent worthy of such a grand epithet. Take a comparison case, one that’s current enough for me, having not that long ago emerged from ‘Shakespeare Season’ in Oxford, where I live. Shakespeare, I’m told, always would have had a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses
open on his desk as he wrote his plays. And so we see the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe dropped into A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as a play-within-a-play. But, as if he wasn’t satisfied with the dramatic potential of this story, he then develops it into the full-length tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The influence of this play on subsequent English-speaking culture is hard to overstate: containing some of the most quoted and beautiful lines in human literature (as well as populating the phonetic alphabet and celebrity creches). Shakespeare isn’t just aware of Ovid as a ‘primary source’, he doesn’t merely quote Ovid, or cite him. He initiates himself into the ancient imaginative world of the Metamorphoses and translates Ovid’s creative genius into the vernacular of Tudor England, so that from royalty to peasantry, English culture is permanently transformed.
Of course, history doesn’t produce Shakespeares all that often. But even exceptions arise in dependence on conditions. Shakespeare was but one summit in the sierra of his contemporaries including artists, philosophers, architects, musicians, and scholars, many of whom were inspired by the classics of Greece and Rome. On the face of it, there’s no reason to believe there’s any less talent around today. Certainly the population of the world has grown more than tenfold in the meantime. Even more than this, though, with the influx of Eastern texts we can encounter their living practitioners, and vastly more source material than from Greece or Rome. It’s because of this that Sangharakshita is optimistic that “if the second renaissance succeeds in coming to maturity it will be not only more glorious but more thoroughgoing and more far-reaching in its effects than the first”.
Nevertheless, we mustn’t rest on our laurels. Other differences between these two eras make the advent of another renaissance seem somewhat further off. In this blog and the next we’ll look at what, if anything, we might be able to do to turn the mere availability of texts into a wider transformation of culture.
By the time Shakespeare was born, printing presses were (re-)producing texts at a rate which, even a century before, would have seemed miraculous. The Bible became a favourite of printers but the rapidity and economy with which information could be proliferated leant itself to all manner of publications, from posters to pamphlets to the proceedings of the minds of the ancients. Readers were now having to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources, good and bad writing, rich and impoverished works of imagination like never before. Shakespeare homed in on Ovid, presumably, because he saw that the Metamorphoses outstripped much of what else was around. And yet he was still alert enough to the run-of-the-mill to be able to adapt it for the humble groundling.
Our situation is different, but mostly in degree rather than kind. Great works of literature have continued to be produced, from all over the world, but in the global culture of today they’re more dilute than in Shakespeare’s. Works of spiritual treasure from the East appear in almost homeopathic doses relative to the international textual waters in which we daily sail. The average American, I’m told, reads around 100,000 words every day – the equivalent of a long novel. But not all words are created equal, and few are combined in ways that might usher in a new cultural era. I suspect that one of the obstacles to our making the most of the treasures that are now available is the challenge of separating the treasure from the dross. So I offer up a rough and ready hierarchy of words: it runs from mere text, to writing, to literature.
Text and the city
Mere text is the solvent in my dilution metaphor. It includes everything from individual words such as logos and labels and signage, through to social media posts and perfunctory emails, to disposable news. To be mere text, you need only satisfy the basic rules of spelling and syntax, and sometimes not even that. Generative artificial intelligence has pretty much caught up with us on this, and can churn it out at a rate that makes Herr Gutenberg look like a medieval scribe. Mere text demands one thing of the reader: comprehension. And it offers one thing in return: information. Its lines are not to be read between. Seek depth and you’ll reap disappointment.
Mere text is hard to avoid. And it draws the eye. As an experiment, see how long you can go without encountering some bit of text or other. Even on meditation retreats where reading is discouraged, there it is: on a shoe, an oat milk carton, an unsleeved forearm. Urban areas are saturated in it. Every corner of my flat overflows with it.
A single piece of mere text will barely register for most of us. We comprehend it, we’re informed, and that’s it. The effect of the quantity of mere text we regularly encounter, and especially the ubiquity of some texts in this category, runs more deeply. Then it’s not so much the content that shapes us, as a habituation into a particular way of relating to words: expecting that words have nothing more to offer us than their literal meaning.
One of the slightly bizarre consequences of this habituation is the hoo-ha about generative artificial intelligence (AI). That anyone can be excited by the oeuvre of AI chatbots betrays this low ceiling of literary possibility. Sure, AI chatbots based on ‘Large Language Models’ churn out cogent English at an unprecedented rate. Sometimes they yield interesting ideas pilfered from the pool of their training data. But language-wise they offer little more than literary muzak: predictable, anodyne, dull. I’m as baffled by the fascination with AI chatbots as I might be with someone hymning the melodic merits of a nineties shopping mall. That it could qualify as ‘conscious’ smacks of a depressingly narrow conception of mind. Speed and grammatical accuracy are one thing, corralling ideas from the Internet another, even juxtaposing words in unusual ways can be novel, but Mind is so much more; and text can be so much more than mere text.
Some text is writing. Writing bears the mark of its writer – that is, a specific person. Writing, at the very least, is when text becomes personal. Better writing shows off its writer as self-aware and empathic, someone who knows what they think and how they want to share it. It conveys their insights, their sense of humour, even their joy in their craft. Bad writing could have been written by anyone. It gives no clues as to the mind from which it came, and it lingers little in its readers’. If we’re in the habit of treating all text as mere text we lose the ability – if we ever acquired it – to tell the difference between good and bad writing, as well as the enjoyment, the imaginative stretch, that comes from meeting another’s mind. Even this isn’t obvious, though, and can be derailed by intellectual, stylistic, and political fashion.
It’s quite common, now, to be encouraged to evaluate what we read on the basis of its provenance: prioritising the characteristics of its author over the deeper effect it might produce in us. Certainly, we don’t want to automatically dismiss some authors, or elevate others, because of their social or cultural backgrounds. But this is because an author’s social background, just as the speed with which a text is produced, is irrelevant to whether a work can lift our minds. ‘Authentic’ writing can, of course, help to broaden our sympathies and interests, but the kind of mind it’s authentic to will determine whether it transforms the readers’ for the better. It’s sensitivity to the latter that will help to surface the kind of material that will bring about another renaissance.
And not all writing is literature. Sangharakshita, as part of his lecture, approvingly quotes several thinkers who offer definitions of literature. Here’s J.W. Mackail’s: “Language put to its best purpose, used at its utmost power and with the greatest skill, and recorded that it may not pass away, evaporate, and be forgotten, is what we call, for want of a better word, literature.”
And third century Chinese writer Lu Ji:
“The use of literature
Lies in its conveyance of every truth.
It expands the horizon to make space infinite,
And serves as a bridge that spans a myriad years.
It maps all roads and paths for posterity,
And mirrors the images of worthy ancients,
That the tottering
Edifices of the sage kings of antiquity may be reared again,
And their admonishing voices, wind-borne since of yore, may resume full expression.
No regions are too remote but it pervades,
No truth too subtle to be woven into its vast web.
Like mist and rain, it permeates and nourishes,
And manifests all the powers of transformation in which gods and spirits share.
Virtue it makes endure and radiate on brass and stone,
And resound in an eternal stream of melodies ever renewed on pipes and strings.”
I don’t need to dwell on how comparatively sparse this kind of writing is. If writing communicates something of the mind of the writer, literature is the communication of the best minds through the best writing. Canonical Buddhist literature – buddhavacana – as the proceedings of the Awakened mind, is a kind of literature over and above even this. To fully engage with it is to transform one’s mind in the direction of Buddhahood. A culture which recognises the full meaning of this would undergo not just a renaissance born of novel ideas, but one of another order altogether.
While this textual taxonomy concerns what’s literary, please don’t take it literally. I don’t hold fast to certain works falling in or out of any of these categories – I’m more pointing to a single sweep along which words are marshalled, with greater or lesser success, in uniting our minds with what’s best in humanity. I believe most of us know where to find what I’m calling literature, and among it what’s the best; The Eternal Legacy curates most of the finest examples from the Buddhist canon. But are we ready for what it’s asking of us?
1 All quotations are taken from The Glory of the Literary World, in Complete Works Vol 14, Sangharakshita,