Monday, February 16, 2009

another view of tradition

A tradition is an accumulation through time of inspired works, created by people who do not have tradition on their minds. If they have anything on their minds, it is their own uniqueness: the ways they do not fit in, not the ways they do.
— Clive James

In Buddhism (and elsewhere), much is made of preserving tradition. I've long felt that there was  problem with this notion, namely, the things one tends to preserve are dead, perhaps to be eaten later, or only to be viewed in a jar of formaldehyde, or after being subjected to a process that preserves form, shape, and perhaps color but certainly not the thing itself.

This quotation, from Clive James' book Cultural Amnesia, is a delightful reminder that tradition is only a concept applied to a certain phenomenon. The phenomenon itself is created by people doing "untraditional" things — writing, painting, or teaching in ways that generate new energy, new responses, new possibilities.

Recently, an old colleague of mine called to describe how a group of people at a center had asked him to translate a text for their practice, and then had turned around and changed some of the words and phrasings in his translation to more "traditional" vocabulary. The translator here has long and deep experience and has come to understand how the "traditional" vocabulary leads people astray or limits their understanding of their practice (not just the text, but their practice). Against stupidity, even the gods struggle in vain.

In our culture, we try new things, find what works, and discard what doesn't. We go down wrong paths, we get into trouble, but we learn, through experimentation and innovation. When they limit themselves only to what is tried and true, most people in this culture grow restless and impatient, unless they die of stasis and boredom first.


nona johnstone said...

"Tradition is the illusion of permanance."
-Woody Allen

Matthew O'Connell said...

It's amazing how people cling to tradition for the sake of traidion inspite of the incongruence between many traditional Buddhist habits and what we know in modern contemporary society. I think the key issue is security. To let go to some degree and make the practice one's own would require some trust and faith and self-reliance. Far better to trust a thousand year old wording from an ancient text!