Frithjof Schuon & traditionalism | james ford

Frithjof Schuon was born in Basel, Switzerland on this day, June 18, 1907.

His mother was French-speaking Alsatian while his father was Swiss German. Her father, Paul, was a concert violinist and the family was a center of music, literature and spirituality. The Schuons were progressive Catholics.

From childhood, Schuon was obsessed with spiritual matters. In elementary school, he befriended Titus Burckhardt, who over time would come to prominence as a translator and Sufi scholar. The two boys will become lifelong friends.

With the untimely death of her father in 1920, her mother crossed the border into France. At fourteen, he was baptized as a Catholic. Schuon’s spiritual quest led him to devour the Bible, the Koran, the Hindu classics the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as Plato. He also read Goethe and Schiller, and later Emerson.

Schuon found work as a textile designer. And he found the writings of René Guénon.

Guénon is a pivotal figure in the establishment of the traditionalist movement. Traditionalism is a slippery term and is sometimes associated with the more righteous movements and sometimes fascism. Religious traditionalism teaches that there is a eternal philosophy, which is found in all major “orthodox” religions. Traditionalism is sometimes distinguished by rejecting an appeal to mystical experience, instead appealing to “metaphysical intuitions”. I confess to having trouble sorting out these two things, the mystical insight and the certainty of certain metaphysical assertions. One feels, if you will, that his principles were a little dry, certainly cerebral. And. One could argue his way and indeed the traditionalist way a jnana approach to the fundamental question.

Guénon himself began as an esotericist. And a cornerstone of its traditionalism, in addition to a rejection of the whole modernist project, was a path of initiation into an orthodox religion, while maintaining perennial principles. Guénon chooses Islam and learns Sufism. There are controversies surrounding the order in which he was initiated, but the larger claims remain.

Schuon has found his spiritual home.

In the meantime, he became a French citizen and served a term in the French army. After his military service, he returned to work as a textile designer while immersing himself in the study of Arabic. In 1932, he published his first book, translated into English three years later under the title Primordial Meditation: Contemplating the Real.

He also decided to study in the East. He went to Marseilles where he met Sufis, then to Algeria, where he formally became a Muslim and began to study with Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi. Interestingly, he did not see his becoming a Muslim and Sufi as a rejection of Christianity. But rather a sad acknowledgment that there were no true masters of the inner path in the Christian tradition and no spiritual practices, and that was a simple necessity.

In 1936 he had some form of spiritual experience and felt he had been appointed shaykh, or spiritual teacher. He goes to Cairo where he meets Guénon. Schuon intended to go to India, but upon his arrival in Bombay, World War II began. He returned to France where he was briefly detained by the Nazis, but managed to escape to Switzerland. There he read The black elk speaks and fell in love with Native American spiritualities.

In 1948 he wrote what might be his magnum opus, the Transcendent unity of religions. It was well received. T. S Eliot is quoted on many sites saying of this book: “I have come across no more impressive work in the comparative study of Eastern and Western religion.” Many others share this view.

The following year, Schuon married the artist Catherine Feer.

During several visits to the United States in 1959 and 1963, they visited Native Americans. They were officially adopted into a Sioux family and then into the Sioux Nation.

In 1980, the Schuons emigrated to the United States, he was then seventy-four years old. They settled in Bloomington, Indiana. A number of his admirers and students lived in the area, making him a reasonable choice. Schuon also had a lifelong and ever-deeper interest in Mary, the mother of Jesus. Reflecting this, he would name his Sufi order the Maryamiyya (“Marian” in Arabic) as a branch of the ShadhiliyyahDarqawiyyahAlawiyyah order.

Prior to his death, he and his organization were accused of sexual misconduct. The community vigorously denies the allegations, some of which are deeply troubling. For those who want to dig deeper into this need, simply Google the relevant terms.

Schuon died in Bloomington on May 5, 1998. He was ninety years old.

So what did he teach?

Schuon himself said: “The key to the eternal sophie is pure intellection or in other words metaphysical discernment. “To discern” is to “separate”: to separate the Real and the illusory, the Absolute and the contingent, the Necessary and the possible, Atma and Maya. Accompanying discernment, in a complementary and operative way, is concentration, which unites: it means becoming fully aware – from the starting point of earthly and human reality. Maya — from Atma, which is both absolute and infinite.

Schuon’s teachings do not lend themselves to a very brief explanation. For a relatively brief summary of his views go here Where here.

I am not a traditionalist, although I may be a lowercase traditionalist. I am a perennial naturalist, to coin a term. By that I mean our brains are able to slice the world in half, slice and dice, and predict, and that’s the secret to our success as a species. Well, that and those opposable thumbs. But, and this is the important thing, you can also cut the two into one. We can see beyond divisions.

There are negative points for me in the traditionalist movement. The esotericism and explicit certainty of traditionalists is a problem. The stark divide between illusion and reality is another problem. In my opinion. I find that gnostic knowledge is actually an abandonment of viewpoints. Moreover, he has leanings towards authoritarianisms of several kinds. The inclination to right-wing politics is instructive. The allegations against Schuon and his organization cannot be ignored either. And is perhaps integrated into the whole traditionalist project.

And, I don’t know of metaphysics. The non-dual vision is a mystical, spiritual vision. It is, I believe with all my heart, the great gift of the universe. It’s also slippery, not something that can be put in a single box.

Although we don’t need any given religion to find this intuition, it is natural, biological; the religions of the world are all partly about this amazing discovery. And some have spent considerable time cultivating paths to this idea. And, some have explored its ethical applications. Well, again, that’s part of the religions of the world. A significant crossover with traditionalists is that the most successful paths seem to be found within religions. And skillful teachers are usually found in traditions. So, you know, Tradition if not precisely Traditionalism…

So… And then…


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