My Response to Traditionalism

Yes; what was wanted was a new Order in the Church; the old ones were rule-bound through no fault of their own. An Order was wanted without habit or tonsure, without traditions or customs, an Order with nothing but entire and whole-hearted devotion, without pride even in their most sacred privileges, without a past history in which they might take complacent refuge. —Msgr Robert Hugh Benson, in his dystopian novel Lord of the World

…is the modern world really anything whatever but a direct denial of all traditional truth? —René Guénon

     In one of my early Q&A videos I was asked for my opinions on Traditionalism, and Traditionalists like Julius Evola in particular. I didn’t understand the question, and couldn’t answer the question very well. Later someone explained to me that the Traditionalist School is an international conservative religious movement beginning in the twentieth century, with René Guénon as one of its founding fathers. So I suppose before I give a late answer to the original question I should explain briefly what Traditionalism is about, just in case you are as clueless as I was.

     The Traditionalist School, also called Perennial Traditionalism, Perennial Philosophy, or sophia perennis, the Perennial Wisdom, if I understand it correctly, is based on a few rather simple principles. Traditionalists believe that there are “primordial and universal religious truths” that are revealed to prophets and serve as the basis of all major premodern world religions. (Some believe that there was a prehistoric enlightened religious tradition that was the ultimate source of all the rest.) They believe that the modern “Enlightenment” mentality, rationalistic, extraverted, and materialistic as it is, is incompatible with knowledge of these universal truths. And they believe that by largely rejecting a modern mindset and looking to the premodern east for wisdom, they can get the spirit of man back on track, moving upwards towards divinity, as is proper. Furthermore I have read that these universal religious truths are known not by mystical experiences (whatever they consider that to mean), but by “metaphysical intuitions” and a kind of “divine intellect” which differs radically from intellectualism.

     I have read René Guénon’s The Reign of Quantity & the Signs of the Times, which is considered by Those Who Know to be his masterwork, the culmination of his Traditionalist thought in book form. The link to part 1 of my two-part critique of that work is here. Most of what else I know about the Traditionalist movement has been gleaned from some of Julius Evola’s religious musings and also from a few articles on the Internet. Plus the good fellow who explained to me that Traditionalism was an official thing, with a capital T.

     I disagree with Guénon, the purported founder of the movement, on many issues, one of them being the absolute necessity of an “initiatory” tradition with an unbroken lineage extending back into premodern times. Every tradition had to be new at one time of course, so newness in and of itself should not be a disqualifier for any spiritual inspiration or revelation. Also I am very skeptical of the absolute necessity of having an unbroken initiatory lineage going all the way back to some supposed primordial religion established by divine powers from above. So the main problem is not so much broken lineages, much less new ones, as it is the problem of a modernist culture that is too extraverted, superficial, and morally degenerate to sustain a valid and genuine wisdom tradition. For that matter a spiritually degenerate modernist culture would presumably be incapable of supporting a valid initiatory tradition no matter how old it was. Witness what has become of Buddhism and even Christianity in ultraliberal 21st-century America.

     A further consideration is that chaining spirituality to a premodern or even ancient system can definitely have its drawbacks. Theravada Buddhist monasticism, for example (and Buddhism was originally a renunciant monastic order before it became a mass religion or a western hobby), even if strictly practiced in accordance with the ancient texts, is still radically different now from the original, due to being surrounded and supported by a radically different culture, both in Asia and the west. Ultimately the purpose of spirituality is consciously to approach ultimate reality, possibly even to realize it fully; and an ancient tradition from far away, from a culture in which the common people harbored very different assumptions about the world, is not necessarily the best possible approach to take when transplanted into a foreign society and tradition, regardless of the genuineness of the inspiration of the founder, and of its monks and priests, and regardless of the “modern deviation” lamented by Guénon, with its materialism and science.

     A better approach is simply following an enlightened or at least a very wise teacher, even if he or she does not adhere to any established system. Guénon may have considered such a being utterly impossible, but I see no reason why he would be right, and I think he is too attached to worldly systems and phenomena as vehicles to the Absolute. Everyone has access to ultimate reality because we are all soaking in it; and there will always be spiritual geniuses, in just about any culture, who penetrate or transcend the illusion, who escape from Plato’s cave, sometimes without the obvious benefit of any ancient religious tradition. Some people are simply slammed into higher consciousness by some crisis: Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle, and John Wren-Lewis are a few relatively well known modern examples.

     Guénon had the idea that ANY new spiritual systems are literally satanic and evil, an insidious lie containing just enough truth to lead people astray. Nevertheless, I consider the writings of someone like Krishnamurti to be possibly a better choice as a modern spiritual guide than the New Testament or the Quran, for some people at least. I consider Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (just to mention one of many possible examples) to be more profound, and much more worthy of being venerated as scripture, than, say, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Old Testament, or the Book of Mormon. 

     Then again, any spiritual or religious system the ultraliberal left has got its hands on recently has degenerated into religion-flavored cultural Marxism. (This is due in large part to the Marxist contempt for true spirituality and wisdom and a desire to replace Divinity with the State, and religion with political dialectic.) But this should never rule out the possibility of a person today having a legitimate realization and starting a new system better adapted to a more or less modern way of thinking...even though the realization ultimately has little if anything to do with thinking. Again, the main problem that confronts us is not broken traditions but a superficial and degenerate modern and modernist society incapable of sustaining a true wisdom culture, regardless of when or how it was founded. I do think esoteric and “initiatory” spiritual systems are a good idea though, since in order to make real progress it is important to detach oneself from worldly ways and worldly thinking.

     With regard to my own chosen initiatory tradition, Buddhism originally arose out of a social and cultural crisis, as northern India was in a state of more or less chaotic transition—from rural to more urban, from a barter economy based on agricultural goods (especially cattle) to a money-based mercantile one, from small republics to large autocratic kingdoms (with plenty of wars bringing about the change), and with non-Vedic elements creeping more and more into the Indo-Aryan religious mainstream. The old traditional ways no longer fit the worldly reality as well as they did in earlier centuries, even though Buddhism arose in the Iron Age. It is true that ancient northern India was MUCH more spiritually oriented than is the modern west; although the modern west seems not to have hit full crisis mode…yet. The crucible is still heating up.

     I suspect that locking spiritual systems into the distant past is a mistake, so long as truly inspired charismatic sages continue to arise and exist in this world, and I doubt that even a global, materialistic Brave New World could totally stop that. The truly inspired are less a product of their culture, less conditioned, than the average guy, and are thus less dependent upon traditions anyhow. Besides, it will probably take a huge-scale civilizational crisis to turn people away from worldliness and, possibly through sheer despair, back towards Divinity or the Highest Truth. Then, it may be, the stark desperate need for a new spiritual guide will produce one, and we will have a new tradition just as good, or even better, than most or all of the ones that Traditionalists insist upon. In fact I consider that to be inevitable, although the proverbial shit may really have to hit the fan, and western civilization reach a state of liminal social chaos and confusion, and thereby a Renaissance-like creative ferment, before it is likely to happen. But we are definitely headed in that direction, which is not all bad.

a French Catholic turned occultist turned traditional Sufi Muslim vs. an Indian Hindu turned Theosophist turned vehement anti-traditionalist


  1. “Asked in an interview about the influences on his work, Eckhart Tolle identified the great Advaitin sage of Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi, and the Indian iconoclast and counter-culture ‘guru’, Jiddu Krishnamurti (also a formative influence on Deepak Chopra). His own work, Tolle claims, is a synthesis of these two influences — a case of mixing gold and clay! The fact that Tolle registers no sense of dissonance here, that he can apparently situate these two figures on the same level, just as he can without embarrassment juxtapose ‘A Course in Miracles’ and the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha, alerts us to one of the most troubling aspects of his work — not only the conspicuous failure to discern between the authentic and the spurious but also the lack of any sense of the different levels at which such figures and their teachings might be situated, a lack of any sense of proportion.

    One might say the same of his treatment of ‘the mind’ in which he fails to differentiate its many functions or to understand that all manner of modes and processes might come under this term; for Tolle the mind seems to be no more than a rather mechanical accomplice to the ego. Moreover, the ego-mind is the root of all our troubles. Now, of course, there is an echo of traditional teachings here — but in Tolle’s hands, the idea is robbed of all nuance and qualification, and his writing on the subject often degenerates into rhetorical sleight-of-hand. ‘Being’ is another word bandied about in cavalier fashion.

    The most disabling limitation of Tolle’s work, from which much else inevitably follows, is the inability to grasp metaphysical and cosmological principles: thence, no real understanding of either Intellection or Revelation, no comprehension whatever of the multiple states of Being, not even a glimmer of understanding of Tradition or orthodoxy, no awareness of the metaphysical basis of the ‘transcendent unity of religions’. As Frithjof Schuon and others have so often insisted, there can be no effective spiritual therapy without an adequate metaphysic; this is to say that an efficacious spiritual method must be rooted in a doctrine which can never be exhaustive but must be sufficient. To put it even more simply, a way of spiritual transformation, such as is provided by all integral traditions, must be informed by an adequate understanding of Reality. In the case of Eckhart Tolle, we have neither doctrine nor method — only a jumble of ideas, perceptions, and reflections, some insightful, some attractive, many no more than the prejudices of the age dressed up in ‘spiritual’ guise. Throw in a few passing nods towards a heterogeneous collection of techniques ransacked from Zen, yoga, Sufism, Christianity and modern psychology. Tolle’s work actually confronts us with a case of what Schuon has called ‘the psychological imposture’ whereby the rights of religion are usurped, the spiritual is degraded to the level of the psychic, and contingent psychic phenomena are elevated to the boundless realm of the Spirit. This kind of psychism, infra-intellectual and anti- spiritual, is endemic in New Age movements. And, to be sure, whatever distinctive
    features Tolle’s work might evince, it belongs firmly in this camp.

    No doubt some people have found a measure of guidance and temporary relief from their immediate problems in Tolle’s books, though it is difficult to imagine them leading to any long-term transformation. After all, one does not harvest figs from thistles. In our time there have been many who have laid claim to some essential wisdom, surpassing traditional religious forms. By now we should be wary of all such claims when they are apparently based on nothing more than ‘inner experience’ and when traditional criteria are either flouted or ignored. Tolle’s work as a whole should be subjected to the most severe interrogation in the light of Tradition”.

    Harry Oldmeadow, ‘Touchstones of the Spirit’ (Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2012), pp. 183-188.

    1. As St. John of the Cross says in my favorite of his poems, "Wise men disputing can never overthrow it."

      What Tolle's attainment is I can't say, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's a wiser man than Schuon, Oldmeadow, or Guenon.

  2. No system is perfect, which includes Guenonian Traditionalism, Evolian Traditionalism, whatever Krishnamurti taught, and whatever Tolle teaches now. What you make of all those teachings is up to yourself, ultimately. It's just unfortunate that many can't help but cling to whatever makes them feel good and/or gives them some purpose in life.

  3. (Perhaps this is best answered in one of your Q&A videos?)

    Honorable Pannobhasa,

    I was raised in a family whose defacto "religion" was the teachings of J. Krishnamurti. There is much value to be harvested from his talks, and I believe that my own mind is positively shaped by early exposure to his ideas, but for the purposes of my response here I will be coming from a more critical perspective:

    One of Krishnamurti's most commonly repeated phrases was "Truth is a pathless land" which was a starting point for his smashing of any and all spiritual authorities, and to make clear that one breaks through to enlightenment like a bomb, not by dutifully taking baby step after baby step as prescribed by one's guru. That was certainly his experience of attainment, and he sought to show others how to become bombs themselves.

    On K's deathbed he made it clear that not a single person properly understood his teachings, and as such there was to be no "successor" after his death. (The context at the time was his desire to not have squabbling wannabe's using his name as a launchpad for their own false new age religion). I have interpreted this as an unintended indictment of his own teachings, as he himself admits it produced no fruit . No bombs detonated, so to speak. As someone who took Krishnamurti's teachings deadly seriously for many years, my personal experience was that beyond fits and starts here and there, one finds it all rather bewildering and it doesn't seem to "lead" anywhere (as you might expect from something that is pathless).

    This is what has led me to Buddhism, which proudly proclaims an "eightfold path". People achieved awakening during Siddhartha's lifetime. And this is where Buddhism stands starkly apart from Krishnamurti, is offers us mere mortals a trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

    This all leads to my question: As someone who has devoted their life to the Buddhist path - how has this impacted you? I know there is some prohibition in speaking directly about "attainment" for a Theravada Monk, so I am not asking you to break with this tradition, but perhaps to speak more generally about your experience of devoting yourself to this path, and perhaps what it holds in store for the rest of us. Or perhaps another way to ask this question is: Why should anyone devote themselves to the Buddhist path? What have you experienced on this path that leads you to believe it is in fact a path to "somewhere", and not just some kind of formal navel gazing or other useless activity.

    I recognize the crudeness and inarticulateness of my question, please read it in the widest and most generous way possible - thank you!

    1. All right, I'll answer your question on the next Q&A, insh'allah.

      I did touch on this issue (of paths vs. no path) on my latest interview with Humble Stature, you may glean something useful from that too.

      Here I will just say that Buddhism is a systematic way of increasing one's likelihood for enlightenment, whereas someone like Krishnamurti was emphasizing his distrust of the very human tendency to cling to systematic ways as the ONLY true path and thereby shackling themselves to Samsara, because paths are still in Samsara. Buddhism talks about this too, calling it silabbataparamasa, or "clinging to morality and observances," though the commentarial tradition (composed by scholar monks who may not have meditated all that much) downplays that because they were pushing their own formulated system as the ONLY true path.

  4. Guénon's idea that all systems that all modern systems are evil and the only hope is to be found in an initiatory tradition with an unbroken lineage extending back into premodern times reminds me of the concept of mappo or the dharma-ending-age. Also, as old as the world is, the truth has to have been out there in the past Scully. So if you can't find it back there somewhere, its not true. So if a new system were to be trusted it would be only if it has confirmation by an old system agreeing with it. To look at it in a perrenialist way, every tradition worth even looking into (Islam and Judaism are excluded) included a monastic celibate path; if someone were to say "I had a mystical experience that said celibacy is the path to salvation" you could look back and see that basically every ancient system also said that (all but Islam and Judaism at least included it as a branch in their religion, and many made it absolutely necessary), so that validates it as most likey true.

  5. May all beings be well and happy.


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