A giant in the world of twentieth-century literature, T. S. Eliot was also one of the most learned of the poets. Best known for his diagnosis of the decline of Western civilization in the post-World War I era, he draws upon an eclectic variety of sources to convey his themes. This involves the masterworks of the West of course, but an additional interesting source of material comes from the Buddhist and Hindu literature of the Indian sub-continent. In reminding the West of perennial values, Eliot explores a fascinating correspondence between the wisdom of the East. Such wisdom, the expression of some of the best ideas in Eastern thought, is indeed old: timeless truths that remind us of what we already know and have forgotten or left unappreciated, that which “has been lost / And found and lost again and again,” as Eliot sings in East Coker. Among several spiritually profitable examples of this meeting of East and West in Eliot’s works are in the “Fire Sermon” section of The Waste Land and in the third part of The Dry Salvages from The Four Quartets, moments that, while revealing some limitations in thought that lacks Divine Revelation, nevertheless provide real food for mind and soul.
The Waste Land is the high text of modern poetry, a searing expression of the despair that comes after a rejection of modernist self-reliance, of the inability of vital immanence to give real hope in the face of collapse. As Eliot writes, “what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images.” In other words, the poem is a pilgrimage—that may or may not be successful—from Hell toward Purgatory, from final despairing isolation to the possibility of redemption after suffering. As what Eliot calls the “controlling myth” of The Waste Land is the quest for the Holy Grail from the Arthurian legends, the central problem expressed in the poem is the loss of love and purity. The answer is the renewal of grace—as evidenced in the references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest—and a recognition of our fallen nature. The third part of the poem continues these reflections with an explicit reference to Buddhist literature: the title of this section is “The Fire Sermon,” a discourse the Buddha (who died around 400 B.C.) gave to his disciples. Beginning with the line “all is burning,” the Buddha goes on to describe how the various powers of man burn with passion. Liberation from suffering comes from detachment from and even loathing for the five senses and the mind. The Buddha concludes, “and in conceiving this aversion, [the disciple] becomes divested of passion, and by the absence of passion he becomes free, and when he is free he becomes aware that he is free; and he knows that rebirth [or reincarnation] is exhausted, that he has lived the holy life, that he has done what it behooved him to do, and that he is no more for this world.”
At the end of “The Fire Sermon,” Eliot brilliantly parallels these thoughts with a moment from St. Augustine’s Confessions, a work that is an extended examination of the problem of human passion. The last five lines of this part of the poem are printed like this:
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
Here is the problem and the solution: fallen human nature is a reality; in fact, both Buddha and St. Augustine seem to be unable to transcend this vale of tears on their own, but whereas the Buddha seeks liberation from suffering through nothingness, St. Augustine calls on God to deliver him from the world and himself. East meets West with an acknowledgement of the need for the God who is Lord over all.
This confluence of East and West continues in Eliot’s magnum opus, the four long poems that constitute the Four Quartets. In these philosophical poems Eliot again explores parallels between Buddhist and Christian thought. For example, the Buddhist quest for liberation and release is paralleled with the ascetic theology of St. John of Cross, although it is clear that while Buddhist dhyana, or meditation, has something in common with St. John’s way of the nada, the purposes could not be more different. The Buddhist seeks nirvana—nothingness, literally to be blown out—while the Catholic seeks God alone at the summit of the spiritual life. Exploring other parallels, Eliot reaches farther back in Indian thought—as he does in the last part of The Waste Land—alluding to a moment in the 2,100-year-old Bhagavad Gita, the most famous part of the much older Sanskrit epic poem Mahabharata. The warrior Arjuna, involved in a war involving violence against his own kinsmen, seeks the counsel of Krishna, one of the major Hindu deities, whose response makes up the 700 lines of the Gita. The general theme is about following the divine will: not to worry about personal gain but to focus on doing one’s duty with disinterestedness. This reflects central themes of the Four Quartets: to focus on the present moment, to attempt to perceive the eternal in time, to accept the purgative value of suffering, and ultimately to allow oneself to grow in love. In the third part of The Dry Salvages, the third of the Four Quartets, Eliot recalls the Gita with the first line—“I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant”—and near the end quotes the Hindu poem itself: “on whatever sphere of being / The mind of a man may be intent / At the time of death.” The rest of the last line, unquoted by Eliot, is “thither will he go.” Dante, the great poet of Christendom, and the whole Catholic tradition certainly agrees: one’s future life is determined and defined by what one loves.
This confluence of East and West is merely a reminder that truth is one and not an invitation to Eastern exoticism or a misguided and false ecumenism. In the chapter “Eastward Ho!—Hum” from The Death of Christian Culture, John Senior notes that while “Every agent, Aristotle says, acts out of a desire for Being . . . Buddha teaches ‘desirelessness.’” For all its insight into the human condition, Buddhist philosophy is a metaphysical dead end that despite its antiquity reflects the modern spirit. Senior draws the connection: “The hell of Modernism is ennui . . . . Its heaven is having acute sensations of nothing. And that is why the ultimate Modernist poem is a blank sheet of paper, the ultimate painting ‘white on white,’ the ultimate music silence, the ultimate philosophy Buddhism.” As for the apparently many millions of deities in Hinduism, the Catholic need only respond in the same way he does to Western pagan mythology. What is wonderful in reading the mixture of East and West in works such as Eliot’s is to find those moments in which apparently remote cultures affirm the same truths, the perennial reality that unites us all.