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Frithjof Schuon (/ˈʃuːɒn/; German: [ˈfʀiːtˌjoːf ˈʃuː.ɔn]; June 18, 1907 – May 5, 1998) was born to German parents in Basel, Switzerland. He was a philosopher, metaphysicist inspired by the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, and author of numerous books on religion and spirituality.
Schuon was recognized during his lifetime as a world authority on philosophy, spirituality and religion, and was an exponent of the Religio Perennis, inspired by Advaita Vedanta and one of the chief representatives of the Perennialist School. Though he was not officially affiliated with the academic world, his writings have been noticed in scholarly and philosophical journals, and by scholars of comparative religion and spirituality. Criticism of the relativism of the modern academic world is one of the main aspects of Schuon's teachings. In his teachings, Schuon expresses his faith in an absolute principle, God, who governs the universe and to whom our souls would return after death. For Schuon the great revelations are the link between this absolute principle—God—and mankind. He wrote the main bulk of his work in French. In the later years of his life Schuon composed some volumes of poetry in his mother tongue, German. His articles in French were collected in about twenty titles in French which were later translated into English as well as many other languages. The main subjects of his prose as well as his poetic compositions are metaphysical doctrine and spiritual method.
Life and work
Schuon was born in Basel, Switzerland, on June 18, 1907. His father was a native of southern Germany, while his mother came from an Alsatian family. Schuon's father was a concert violinist and the household was one in which not only music but literary and spiritual culture were present. Schuon lived in Basel and attended school there until the untimely death of his father, after which his mother returned with her two young sons to her family in nearby Mulhouse, France, where Schuon was obliged to become a French citizen. Having received his earliest training in German, he received his later education in French and thus mastered both languages early in life.
From his youth, Schuon's search for metaphysical truth led him to read the Hindu scriptures such as Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. While still living in Mulhouse, he discovered the works of René Guénon, the French philosopher and Orientalist, which served to confirm his intellectual intuitions and which provided support for the metaphysical principles he had begun to discover.
Schuon journeyed to Paris after serving for a year and a half in the French army. There he worked as a textile designer and began to study Arabic in the local mosque school. Living in Paris also brought the opportunity to be exposed to various forms of traditional art to a much greater degree than before, especially the arts of Asia with which he had had a deep affinity since his youth. This period of growing intellectual and artistic familiarity with the traditional worlds was followed by Schuon's first visit to Algeria in 1932. It was then that he met the celebrated Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi and was initiated into his order. On a second trip to North Africa, in 1935, he visited Algeria and Morocco; and during 1938 and 1939 he traveled to Egypt where he met Guénon, with whom he had been in correspondence for 27 years. In 1939, shortly after his arrival in Pie, India, World War II broke out, forcing him to return to Europe. After having served in the French army, and having been made a prisoner by the Germans, he sought asylum in Switzerland, which gave him Swiss nationality and was to be his home for forty years. In 1949 he married, his wife being a German Swiss with a French education who, besides having interests in religion and metaphysics, was also a gifted painter.
Following World War II, Schuon accepted an invitation to travel to the American West, where he lived for several months among the Plains Indians, in whom he always had a deep interest. Having received his education in France, Schuon has written all his major works in French, which began to appear in English translation in 1953. Of his first book, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (London, Faber & Faber) T. S. Eliot wrote: "I have met with no more impressive work in the comparative study of Oriental and Occidental religion."
While always continuing to write, Schuon and his wife traveled widely. In 1959 and again in 1963, they journeyed to the American West at the invitation of friends among the Sioux and Crow American Indians. In the company of their Native American friends, they visited various Plains tribes and had the opportunity to witness many aspects of their sacred traditions. In 1959, Schuon and his wife were solemnly adopted into the Sioux family of . Years later they were similarly adopted by the Crow medicine man and Sun Dance chief, Thomas Yellowtail. Schuon's writings on the central rites of Native American religion and his paintings of their ways of life attest to his particular affinity with the spiritual universe of the Plains Indians. Other travels have included journeys to Andalusia, Morocco, and a visit in 1968 to the reputed home of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus.
Through his many books and articles, Schuon became known as a spiritual teacher and leader of the Traditionalist School. During his years in Switzerland he regularly received visits from well-known religious scholars and thinkers of the East.
During his life, Schuon reported had extreme respect and devotion for the Virgin Mary, which would be expressed in his writings, hence his teachings and paintings show a particular Marian presence. His Mariology has been studied in detail by American Professor James Cutsinger. Hence the name, Maryamiya (in Arabic, "Marian"), of the Sufi order he founded as a branch of the Shadhiliya-Darqawiya-Alawiya. When asked by one of his disciples about the reason for this choice of name, Schuon replied: "It is not we who have chosen her; it is she who has chosen us."
In 1980, Schuon and his wife emigrated to the United States, settling in Bloomington, Indiana, where a community of disciples from all over the world would gather around him for spiritual direction. The first years in Bloomington saw the publication of some of his most important late works: From the Divine to the Human, To Have a Center, Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism and others. Schuon continued to write poetry in his native German, to receive visitors and maintain a busy correspondence with followers, scholars and readers until his death in 1998.
Views based on his written works
Transcendent unity of religions
The traditionalist or perennialist perspective began to be enunciated in the 1920s by the French philosopher René Guénon and, in the 1930s, by Schuon himself. The Harvard orientalist Ananda Coomaraswamy and the Swiss art historian Titus Burckhardt also became prominent advocates of this point of view. Fundamentally, this doctrine is the Sanatana Dharma – the "eternal religion" – of Hindu Neo-Vedanta. It was supposedly formulated in ancient Greece, in particular, by Plato and later Neoplatonists, and in Christendom by Meister Eckhart (in the West) and Gregory Palamas (in the East). Every religion has, besides its literal meaning, an esoteric dimension, which is essential, primordial and universal. This intellectual universality is one of the hallmarks of Schuon's works, and it gives rise to insights into not only the various spiritual traditions, but also history, science and art.
The dominant theme or principle of Schuon's writings was foreshadowed in his early encounter with a Black marabout who had accompanied some members of his Senegalese village to Switzerland in order to demonstrate their culture. When the young Schuon talked with him, the venerable old man drew a circle with radii on the ground and explained: God is in the center; all paths lead to Him.
For Schuon, the quintessence of pure metaphysics can be summarized by the following vedantic statement, although the Advaita Vedanta's perspective finds its equivalent in the teachings of Ibn Arabi, Meister Eckhart or Plotinus: Brahma satyam jagan mithya jivo brahmaiva na'parah (Brahman is real, the world is illusory, the self is not different from Brahman).
The metaphysics exposited by Schuon is based on the doctrine of the non-dual Absolute (Beyond-Being) and the degrees of reality. The distinction between the Absolute and the relative corresponds for Schuon to the couple Atma/Maya. Maya is not only the cosmic illusion: from a higher standpoint, Maya is also the Infinite, the Divine Relativity or else the feminine aspect (mahashakti) of the Supreme Principle.
Said differently, being the Absolute, Beyond-Being is also the Sovereign Good (Agathon), that by its nature desires to communicate itself through the projection of Maya. The whole manifestation from the first Being (Ishvara) to matter (Prakriti), the lower degree of reality, is indeed the projection of the Supreme Principle (Brahman). The personal God, considered as the creative cause of the world, is only relatively Absolute, a first determination of Beyond-Being, at the summit of Maya. The Supreme Principle is not only Beyond-Being. It is also the Supreme Self (Atman) and in its innermost essence, the Intellect (buddhi) that is the ray of Consciousness shining down, the axial refraction of Atma within Maya.
Schuon, in more than twenty books written mainly in French, explains the metaphysical principles as well as the spiritual and moral aspects of human life. Schuon's religio perennis cannot be called a new religion with its own dogma and practices. For Schuon, the religio perennis is the underlying religion, the religion of the heart or the religio cordis. Esoterists in every orthodox tradition have a more or less direct access to it, but it cannot be a question of practising the religio perennis independently. Religious forms can be more or less transparent but religious diversity is not denied for its raison d'être is metaphysically explained. On the one hand, formal religions are upaya (providential saving stratagem), different manifestations of the core-essence of the religio perennis. On the other hand, religious forms correspond to as many archetypes in the divine Word itself. Religious forms are willed by God and each religion corresponds to a particular and homogenous cosmos, characterized by its own perspective of the Absolute.
The Perennialist perspective itself can thus be characterized as essentially metaphysical, esoteric, primordial but also traditional. For Schuon, there is no spiritual path outside of a revealed religion, which provides spiritual seekers with a metaphysical doctrine and a spiritual method, but also with a spiritual environment of beauty and holiness.
According to Schuon the spiritual path is essentially based on the discernment between the "Real" and the "unreal" (Atma / Maya); concentration on the Real; and the practice of virtues. Human beings must know the "Truth". Knowing the Truth, they must then will the "Good" and concentrate on it. These two aspects correspond to the metaphysical doctrine and the spiritual method. Knowing the Truth and willing the Good, human beings must finally love "Beauty" in their own soul through virtue, but also in "Nature". In this respect Schuon has insisted on the importance for the authentic spiritual seeker to be aware of what he called the "metaphysical transparency of phenomena".
Schuon wrote about different aspects of spiritual life both on the doctrinal and on the practical levels. He explained the forms of the spiritual practices as they have been manifested in various traditional universes. In particular, he wrote on the Invocation of the Divine Name (dhikr, Japa-Yoga, the Prayer of the Heart), considered by Hindus as the best and most providential means of realization at the end of the Kali Yuga. As has been noted by the Hindu saint Ramakrishna, the secret of the invocatory path is that God and his Name are one.
Schuon's views are in harmony with traditional Islamic teachings of the primacy of "Remembrance of God" as emphasized by Shaykh Al-Alawi in the following passage: Remembrance (dhikr) is the most important rule of the religion. The law was not imposed upon us nor the rites of worship ordained except for the sake of establishing the remembrance of God (dhikru ʾLlāh). The Prophet said: ‘The circumambulation (ṭawāf) around the Holy House, the passage to and fro between (the hills of) Safa and Marwa, and the throwing of the pebbles (on three pillars symbolizing the devil) were ordained only for the sake of the Remembrance of God.’ And God Himself has said (in the Koran): ‘Remember God at the Holy Monument.’ Thus we know that the rite that consists in stopping there was ordained for remembrance and not specifically for the sake of the monument itself, just as the halt at Muna was ordained for remembrance and not because of the valley. Furthermore He (God) has said on the subject of the ritual prayer: ‘Perform the prayer in remembrance of Me.’ In a word, our performance of the rites is considered ardent or lukewarm according to the degree of our remembrance of God while performing them. Thus when the Prophet was asked which spiritual strivers would receive the greatest reward, he replied: ‘Those who have remembered God most.’ And when asked which fasters would receive the greatest reward, he replied: ‘Those who have remembered God most.’ And when the prayer and the almsgiving and the pilgrimage and the charitable donations were mentioned, he said each time: ‘The richest in remembrance of God is the richest in reward.’
Guénon had pointed out at the beginning of the twentieth century that every religion comprises two main aspects: "Esoterism" and "Exoterism". Schuon explained that the esoterism itself displays two aspects, one being an extension of exoterism and the other one independent of exoterism; for if it be true that the form "is" in a certain way the essence, the essence on the contrary is by no means totally expressed by a single form; the drop is water, but water is not the drop. This second aspect is called "quintessential esoterism" for it is not limited or expressed totally by one single form or theological school and, above all, by a particular religious form as such.
Criticism of modernity
Guénon had based his Crisis of the Modern World on the Hindu doctrine of cyclic nature of time. Schuon expanded on this concept and its consequences for humanity in many of his articles. In his essay "The Contradictions of Relativism", Schuon wrote that the uncompromising relativism that underlies many modern philosophies had fallen into an intrinsic absurdity in declaring that there is no absolute truth and then attempting to put this forward as an absolute truth. Schuon notes that the essence of relativism is found in the idea that we never escape from human subjectivity whilst its expounders seem to remain unaware of the fact that relativism is therefore also deprived of any objectivity. Schuon further notes that the Freudian assertion that rationality is merely a hypocritical guise for a repressed animal drive results in the very assertion itself being devoid of worth as it is itself a rational judgment.
Books in English
- Adastra and Stella Maris: Poems by Frithjof Schuon, World Wisdom, 2003
- Autumn Leaves & The Ring: Poems by Frithjof Schuon, World Wisdom, 2010
- Castes and Races, Perennial Books, 1959, 1982
- Christianity/Islam, World Wisdom, 1985
- New translation, World Wisdom, 2008
- Dimensions of Islam, 1969
- Echoes of Perennial Wisdom, World Wisdom, 1992
- Esoterism as Principle and as Way, , 1981, 1990
- The Eye of the Heart, World Wisdom, 1997
- The Feathered Sun: Plain Indians in Art & Philosophy, World Wisdom, 1990
- Form and Substance in the Religions, World Wisdom, 2002
- From the Divine to the Human, World Wisdom, 1982
- New translation, World Wisdom, 2013
- Gnosis: Divine Wisdom, 1959, 1978, 1990
- New translation, World Wisdom, 2006
- Images of Primordial & Mystic Beauty: Paintings by Frithjof Schuon, , 1992, World Wisdom
- In the Face of the Absolute, World Wisdom, 1989, 1994
- In the Tracks of Buddhism, 1968, 1989
- New translation, Treasures of Buddhism, World Wisdom, 1993
- Islam and the Perennial Philosophy, Scorpion Cavendish, 1976
- Language of the Self, 1959
- Revised edition, World Wisdom, 1999
- Light on the Ancient Worlds, 1966, World Wisdom, 1984
- New translation, World Wisdom, 2006
- Logic and Transcendence, 1975, , 1984
- New translation, World Wisdom, 2009
- The Play of Masks, World Wisdom, 1992
- Primordial Meditation: Contemplating the Real, The Matheson Trust, 2015
- Road to the Heart, World Wisdom, 1995
- Roots of the Human Condition, World Wisdom, 1991
- New translation, World Wisdom, 2002
- Songs Without Names Vol. I-VI, World Wisdom, 2007
- Songs Without Names VII-XII, World Wisdom, 2007
- Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, 1954, 1969
- New translation, World Wisdom, 2008
- Stations of Wisdom, 1961, 1980
- Revised translation, World Wisdom, 1995, 2003
- Sufism: Veil and Quintessence, World Wisdom, 1981, 2007
- Survey of Metaphysics and Esoterism, World Wisdom, 1986, 2000
- The Transcendent Unity of Religions, 1953
- Revised Edition, 1975, 1984, , 1993
- The Transfiguration of Man, World Wisdom, 1995
- Treasures of Buddhism ( = In the Tracks of Buddhism) (1968, 1989, 1993)
- To Have a Center, World Wisdom, 1990, 2015
- Understanding Islam, 1963, 1965, 1972, 1976, 1979, 1981, 1986, 1989
- Revised translation, World Wisdom, 1994, 1998, 2011
- World Wheel Vol. I-III, World Wisdom, 2007
- World Wheel Vol. IV-VII, World Wisdom, 2007
- Art from the Sacred to the Profane: East and West, (A selection from his writings by Catherine Schuon), World Wisdom, Inc, 2007. ISBN 1933316357
- The Essential Frithjof Schuon, World Wisdom, 2005
- The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon, ed. S.H. Nasr, 1986, Element, 1991
- The Fullness of God: Frithjof Schuon on Christianity, ed. James Cutsinger (2004)
- Prayer Fashions Man: Frithjof Schuon on the Spiritual Life, ed. James Cutsinger (2005)
- René Guénon: Some Observations, ed. William Stoddart (2004)
- Songs for a Spiritual Traveler: Selected Poems, World Wisdom, 2002
Schuon was a frequent contributor to the quarterly journal Studies in Comparative Religion, (along with Guénon, Coomarswamy, and many others) which dealt with religious symbolism and the Traditionalist perspective.