Heinrich Zimmer

Heinrich Zimmer

Heinrich Zimmer on the relation of knowledge and action

The first requirement of the spiritual pupil in India, as we have seen, is the great virtue of faith (śraddhā), trust in the teacher and his words. The faith will be corroborated by the pupil’s own experience in the course of his spiritual progress, but meanwhile he cannot presume to argue with his guru in callow criticism of the paradoxical doctrine. He must undergo, first, a transformation; that, not criticism, will be the means of his understanding. He must be brought by a process of evolution to a spiritual level from which to experience the meaning of the enigmatical teaching. And meanwhile, the process of his sublimation will be facilitated by meditation on the magic formula, which is the “Heart of the Wisdom of the Other Shore,” and which he is to regard as an expression of his own supreme belief, designed to concentrate and intensify his faith. Though temporarily unintelligible to him, it is nevertheless his credo, to be repeated in constant recitation, as an invocation bidding the Wisdom of the Other Shore to come to him. And the wonder is that this magic formula actually can function as an effective alchemical charm, facilitating the transmutation that duly yields, of itself, the gold of enlightenment.

For meditation on this curious string of words is not the sole means by which the neophyte, filled with faith, is to attempt to bring to pass the all-important transformation in his understanding. The performance of certain characteristic acts is also required, and these, together with the experience of their results, make the formula more meaningful in the course of time, while, in reciprocal effect, the formula, constantly held in mind, serves to extract and bring to a point the lesson of the faithful performance of the necessary acts.

The sense, for example, of the Mahāyānist rerenderings of certain tales from the Jātaka, in the sixth-century collection known as the Jātakamālā, “The Garland of Tales from the Earlier Lives of the Buddha,”[91] is that one has to assume peculiar attitudes, exhibit uncommon reactions in crucial situations, and accomplish very special deeds, if one is ever to come to a new outlook upon life and on oneself. Practice precedes insight; knowledge is the reward of action: therefore, try! That is the thought. For it is by doing things that one becomes transformed. Executing a symbolical gesture, actually living through, to the very limit, a particular role, one comes to realize the truth inherent in the role. Suffering its consequences, one fathoms and exhausts its contents. Knowledge is to be attained, in other words, not through inaction (as in the Jaina and the classic Yoga disciplines) but through a bold and advertent living of life.
Heinrich Zimmer in Philosophies of India, edited by Joseph Campbell, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 542. Originally published (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951).

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"The first requirement of the spiritual pupil in India"


[91] The Jātakamālā is a work in Sanskrit attributed to a certain Āryasūra (for translation, see supra, p. 537, note 84), which contains 34 Jātakas, or exemplary tales of the earlier lives of the Buddha, adapted, for the most part, from the much earlier Pāli compendium of more than five hundred Jātakas. The latter is one of the great portions of the orthodox Hīnayāna