Books on the Far East often mention a sect of Buddhism called Zen. They say that it was a “school of abstract meditation” and that it exercised a profound influence upon art and literature; but they tell us very little about what Zen actually was, about...
Books on the Far East often mention a sect of Buddhism called Zen. They say that it was a “school of abstract meditation” and that it exercised a profound influence upon art and literature; but they tell us very little about what Zen actually was, about its relation to ordinary Buddhism, its history, or the exact nature of its influence upon the arts.
The reason of this is that very little of the native literature which deals with Zen has yet been translated, perhaps because it is written in early Chinese colloquial, a language the study of which has been almost wholly neglected by Europeans and also (to judge by some of their attempts to translate it) by the Japanese themselves.
The present paper makes no attempt at profundity, but it is based on the study of original texts and furnishes, I hope, some information not hitherto accessible.
Before describing the origins of Zen itself I must give some general account of Buddhism. At the time when it reached China there were two kinds of Buddhism, called the Lesser Vehicle and the Greater. The former, Primitive Buddhism, possessed scriptures which in part at any rate were genuine; that is to say, they recorded words actually used by Shākyamuni. The ordinary adherent of this religion did not hope to become a Buddha; Buddhas indeed were regarded as extremely rare. He only aspired to become an Arhat, that is “an ascetic ripe for annihilation,” one who is about to escape from the wheel of reincarnation—whose present incarnation is an antechamber to Nirvāna. To such aspirants the Buddha gives no assistance; he is what children in their games call “home,” and his followers must pant after him as best they can.
Those who found this religion too comfortless invented another, which became known as Mahāyāna, the Greater Vehicle. Putting their doctrines into the mouth of Shākyamuni, they fabricated ad hoc sermons of enormous length, preached (so they asserted) by the Buddha himself in his “second period” to those who were ripe to receive the whole truth.
The great feature of this new Buddhism was the intervention of the merciful Bodhisattvas, illuminati who, though fit for Buddhahood, voluntarily renounced it in order to help mankind.
The first Buddhist books to reach China emanated from the Lesser Vehicle. But the Greater Vehicle or Bodhisattva-Buddhism soon prevailed, and by the sixth century a.d. over two thousand works, most of them belonging to the Greater Vehicle, had been translated into Chinese.
Waley was born in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England, as Arthur David Schloss, son of the economist David Frederick Schloss. Of Jewish heritage, he changed his surname to his paternal grandmother's maiden name, Waley, in 1914, as one of many English men and women who changed German surnames to more English-sounding names during WWI. Educated at Rugby School, he entered King's College, at the University of Cambridge in 1907, where he studied Classics, and was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1910.
Waley was appointed Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum in 1913. During this time he taught himself Chinese and Japanese, partly to help catalogue the paintings in the Museum's collection. He quit in 1929 to devote himself fully to his literary and cultural interests, though he continued to lecture in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. In 1918, he met Beryl de Zoete, a dance critic and writer; they lived together until her death in 1962. In 1966, Arthur Waley married Alison Robinson, whom he had first met in 1929. They lived in Highgate in London, and she became a familiar figure in later years, living beyond the age of 100.
Waley lived in Bloomsbury and had a number of friends among the Bloomsbury Group, many of whom he had met as an undergraduate. He was one of the earliest to recognize Ronald Firbank as an accomplished author, and together with Osbert Sitwell provided an introduction to Firbank's first collected edition.
Noted American poet Ezra Pound was instrumental in getting Waley's first translations into print in The Little Review. His view of Waley's early work was mixed, however. As he wrote to Margaret Anderson, the Review's editor, in a letter of 2 July 1917: "Have at last got hold of Waley's translations from Po chu I. Some of the poems are magnificent. Nearly all the translations marred by his bungling English and defective rhythm... I shall try to buy the best ones, and to get him to remove some of the botched places. (He is stubborn as a donkey, or a scholar.)" Yet Waley, in his Introduction in his translation of The Way and its Power, explains that he was careful to put meaning above style in translations where meaning would be reasonably considered of more importance to the modern Western reader.
He died in London and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.