Fr. Seraphim (Rose), part 2

Pomona College

(Continued from part 1.)

When contemplating what Fr. Seraphim became, it is useful to keep in mind that Eugene Rose spent much of his youth studying philosophy and classical culture. He graduated from Pomona College in 1956 (two years ahead of Kris Kristofferson) and majored in Oriental Languages, which in the 1950s would have entailed considerable study and academic rigor. In 2017, Pomona had an acceptance rate of around 10%.

Some of Eugene’s college work survived long enough to be quoted in Fr. Damascene’s book. On its own, it has little merit and does not even have the biographical value of providing some kind of hint of what would happen to him later. Nonetheless, its existence demonstrates that the greatest Orthodox reactionary and anti-ecumenist of the 20th century was accustomed to reading, engaging with, and thinking about Western philosophy, both secular and religious, from early youth. Much later, Fr. Damascene had the following recollection, during his own freshman year:

“During the year of my catechumenate, I took a university course on the Philosophy of Religion, for which I wrote two highly rated papers I was rather proud of. The first paper was called ‘Reflections on Kant’s “Purely Rational Religion.”‘ I gave this to Fr. Seraphim for him to read. I suppose I was anticipating a little praise. Later, I asked him if he had looked at it, and he said he had.
‘What did you think of it?’ I asked.
‘It was a little over my head,’ he answered.
This left me speechless. Later I discovered, much as I suspected, that Fr. Seraphim had made a thorough study, not only of Kant, but of many philosophers I had never even heard of, and that he had a much more penetrating understanding of Western philosophy than my university professors. Why, then, did he say that my eleven-page sophomore paper was ‘over his head’? Clearly, to teach me simplicity and its sister-virtue, humility.
My other paper was on Søren Kierkegaard, whose philosophy was so full of paradox and intellectual challenge that one could spend days talking about it.
‘What do you think of Kierkegaard?’ I asked Fr. Seraphim.
‘I always felt sorry for him.’ Those were the only words Fr. Seraphim had to say to me on the subject…In thinking more about Kierkegaard — his struggle to maintain Christian zeal amidst the general lukewarmness of his Church, to uphold Christian faith against a barrage of Hegelian philosophy, and to overcome the contradictions in his own personality — I realized later that nothing more precise could be said of him than those few words of Fr. Seraphim.”

(Damascene, 841-842)

More importantly (considering what would follow), Eugene had an even deeper background in Eastern philosophy. So, upon encountering a passage like the following —

“As an answer to the question of the possibility of a ‘dialogue’ of Orthodox Christianity with the various non-Christian religions, the reader has been presented…what the Orthodox Church has always taught: that Orthodox Christians do not at all have the ‘same God’ as the so-called ‘monotheists’ who deny the Holy Trinity; that the gods of the pagans are in fact demons; and that the experiences and powers which the pagan ‘gods’ can and do provide are satanic in nature.”

(Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, 36)

— you may be surprised to know that its author earned an M.A. in Oriental Languages from Berkeley, that he had taught undergraduate courses in this department, that he had written a thesis with the title, “‘Emptiness’ and ‘fullness’ in the Lao Tzu” (which is still stored, on microfilm, in the Berkeley library), that the faculty had all but asked him to stay on for a doctoral degree, and that his immediate advisor in this field was a Chinese scholar with a classical Confucian education of the kind that no longer exists.

At the same time, however, all of this learning (which Fr. Damascene grandly calls “the search for truth”) did nothing to help Eugene avoid the typical path of an angry, sensitive young man in the 1950s. Studying Western philosophy in college only led him to flamboyantly excoriate it for a perceived lack of “authenticity.” As for Eastern philosophy, although he eventually studied it in depth, his initial interest in it had a lot in common with the booze-soaked pontifications of Jack Kerouac and the other Beat icons.

“On one occasion Eugene met Jack Kerouac himself, who ten years earlier had given the Beat Generation its name…Eugene also met Gary Snyder, the Zen hero of Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums, who was a personal friend of Alan Watts and visited the Academy several times.”

(Damascene, 93)

Unfortunately Fr. Damascene gives no details of this meeting. However, he points out (and it is easy to see) some similarity between Kerouac and the young Eugene Rose. In fact, it is easy to imagine Rose becoming a second-tier Beat writer — it is more surprising that he didn’t.

Parallel lives: Jack Kerouac (before becoming a Beat icon) and Eugene Rose.

There is a lot that one can dislike about the young man portrayed in the first part of Fr. Damascene’s book. He was pretentious, cold, often unpleasant, and very selfish — one can only imagine how his parents must have felt when trying to talk to him during this part of his life (I presume they were also paying for his “spiritual search” at the time, although, to be fair, the cost of college education was much lower in those days). There is no hidden genius or brilliant insight that can be seen from the descriptions and quotations provided by Fr. Damascene, and if Rose had never found Orthodoxy, there would never have been a story here worth telling. Nonetheless, just because all angst-ridden youths are alike does not necessarily mean that they are not sincere, and Rose’s pain and alienation were real at least to him:

“He felt there was no place for him anywhere — no one who understood him. He felt that life was futile…He was (in our college years) contemptuous of people, but he was also afraid of them. He felt rejected by people, especially his family…He wasn’t an outward, emotional type like I was. But inside he was very, very passionate. I mean that not in a worldly sense, but in a spiritual sense. He was an all-or-nothing kind of person; he never did anything halfway…I think that’s why his family didn’t understand him….
Eugene was very bitter at times. I think he felt that there was something wrong with him and that he could never find God — so he substituted studying for direct apprehension of truth and tried to withdraw from life and hide.”

Alison Harris, Eugene’s classmate at Pomona,
speaking decades later (Damascene, 42-43)

And, reading this in the late 2010s, one struggles to imagine a bunch of college students reacting to classical music in this way:

“‘There were about ten of us who used to sit up all night and listen to Bach. Eugene especially liked the Mass in B Minor, the St. John Passion, the St. Matthew Passionthe Magnificat, the cantatas, and the Christmas Oratorio… At first he loved the music, then the words took over in his mind…’

Alison Harris’ reminiscences (Damascene, 47)

Ich Habe Genug was loved by Alison as well as Eugene. When she would go to see him, she would ask him to play it. Eventually this became a sort of tradition with them, and he would always play it before she would go home… He would play it over and over. When Alison would rise to go, he would say nothing and remain silently listening.”

(Damascene, 48-49)

In any case, while still at Pomona, Eugene fell into the hands of Alan Watts, who was then rising to stardom. Watts was a con man whose particular brand of spiritual opportunism was tremendously successful throughout the 20th century; he did not invent it or add to it in any meaningful way, but imbued it with the kind of cheap showmanship that will never fail to attract sensitive college students with philosophy degrees.

“The secret of life is to stop thinking about it, and just experience it. This is what Zen is all about. It is not a philosophy, but simply the way things are. As he said this, Watts lifted a glass of water that had been placed by the table before him. ‘It’s not looking at this glass of water and defining it,’ he said, ‘but…’ — and with this he poured the water out onto the stage. As Eugene recalled later, this moment was ‘very dramatic.'”

A typically brilliant insight by Watts (Damascene, 37)

Watts had at one point become an Episcopalian priest, but left this church shortly afterward and went on to write something like 30 books on Eastern spirituality, mainly Zen Buddhism. During his time as a nominal Christian, he also wrote on Christianity, the main idea being that “Church religion is spiritually dead” (Damascene, 36) and requires the infusion of Buddhist religious concepts and terminology in order to retain its relevance. Upon having discarded even these pretenses of Christianity, he embarked on a phantasmagorical career path, becoming the dean of the so-called “American Academy of Asian Studies” in San Francisco, abandoning this institution once it “suddenly” became financially insolvent, hosting popular radio and television shows, spending two years as a fellow at Harvard (!), and so forth. He also wrote an autobiography in which he attempted to claim credit for the entire sixties counterculture:

“I am too close to what happened to see it in the proper perspective. I know only that between, say, 1958 and 1970 a huge tide of spiritual energy in the form of poetry, music, philosophy, painting, religion, communications techniques in radio, television, and cinema, dancing, theater, and general lifestyle swept out of [San Francisco] and its environs to affect America and the whole world, and that I have been intensely involved in it. It would be false modesty to say that I had little to do with it.”

Watts’ assessment of his own importance (Damascene, 55)

Curiously, Fr. Damascene is remarkably generous to Watts (and even calls him “a fascinating and extremely intelligent Englishman“). For instance, he explains Watts’ departure from his church as having occurred “in the wake of a public controversy,” but Wikipedia lets slip that this was “partly as a result of an extramarital affair.” I appreciate Fr. Damascene’s unwilllingness to reduce his story to a cheap morality play, but his reserve makes him miss a few important nuances. Thus, he writes, “He was now wearing the hat of ‘Orientalist,’ with a specialty in the study of Zen Buddhism.” Although this wording suggests Watts’ commercialism, nonetheless his activities are still described as, “the study of Zen Buddhism,” so even though he may be exploiting his knowledge of Zen Buddhism for money, at least that knowledge itself is not being challenged. Unfortunately, it should have been: from Wikipedia again, it is completely clear that Watts had acquired all of his knowledge of Buddhism second-hand from European occultists. In other words, he was no more of a Buddhist scholar than you are, dear reader.

The smirk suggests a capacity for cruelty.
Alan Watts has a used car he’d like to sell you.

I shouldn’t spend so much time on this empty man, but there is something here that is helpful for understanding Fr. Seraphim’s apocalyptic premonitions in Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. At first glance, there seems to be nothing particularly troubling about Watts’ career. It is entirely plausible that someone might start out Christian, gradually become disappointed in his church, and turn to Buddhism as an alternative — in fact, this also describes Eugene Rose fairly well, or Jack Kerouac for that matter. Watts’ success might then be plausibly attributed to his talent as an entertainer, which turned his superficiality into a strength.

But, in fact, Watts was an occultist long before he was a Christian, becoming a formal member of European occult organizations in the early 1930s, nearly 15 years before his Episcopalian ordination. His Christian readers in the 1940s saw statements like, “Christian faith and practice have lost force because the enormous majority of Christians, both devout and nominal, do not know what they mean,” and assumed that the author was a fellow Christian, who (so they thought) may have been offering a different perspective on their shared tradition, but who himself existed within that tradition and was invested in its continued vitality. In fact, a Christian reader might be inclined (tempted?) to agree with this statement by Watts, and others like it, seeing in it a form of Christian humility. But Watts’ assertions sound rather different when you know that they were coming from a committed enemy of that tradition, who was masquerading as a Christian in order to lecture Christians on their “relevance” and what practices they “must” adopt — while, at the same time, cryptically promising them that “the capacity for mystical religion will be increased to a hitherto unknown degree.” Furthermore, looking at Watts’ treatment of Christianity, it is entirely plausible that his real attitude toward Buddhism (which he later claimed to profess) was no different: that is, he was secretly hostile to it, and so anything he “taught” about it can be safely assumed to be false. Any Christian or Buddhist should be unsettled by the fact that this man was one of the most famous and successful “spiritual writers” of the sixties.

Fr. Seraphim’s greatest strength as a “cultural critic” (if I may use that term) was his ability to make his readers suddenly see these undercurrents in contemporary “spiritual philosophies.” Many years later, he gave the best and most succinct epitaph for Alan Watts:

“Looking back, it is obvious that he had simply caught the right wavelength, followed it all the way and made his career out of it, made lots of money, and attracted many followers. Some of what he taught was true… But he only gave some pitifully small shred of truth combined with his own opinions, and in the end a great system of lies, and he destroyed souls, including his own undoubtedly.”

Fr. Seraphim in 1974 (Damascene, 72)

Eugene Rose enrolled in Watts’ Academy shortly after graduating from Pomona. There is a grand irony in the fact that the Academy’s impact on Eugene’s life was the exact opposite of the intended one. Completely by chance (or “chance”), he found the one other person who also did not belong there, leading him to quit a year later.

“The infinite goodness of God would not have allowed such evil iniquity to exist on earth, if He did not also produce from it the greatest blessings, turning acts that were committed in malice toward salvation.”

St. John of Tobolsk, Heliotropion, 1714

According to Watts, the goal of the Academy was “the practical transformation of human consciousness, with the actual living out of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist ways on the level of high mysticism” (Damascene, 51). I believe that the actual goal was something else, but anyway, in order to be credible as an institution specializing in Asian philosophy, the Academy needed at least a few authentic Asian people. Watts hired one: Gi-ming Shien, who had emigrated to the United States after the Revolution in China.

Gi-Ming Shien (standing)
Fr. Damascene’s book includes this photograph of Gi-ming Shien.
I tried to find another one, but couldn’t.

Gi-ming Shien had a classical Chinese education, focused on the study (and, usually, the memorization) of ancient Confucian texts. He had similar expertise in Taoism and had some affinity for Taoist religious practices. Under his supervision, Eugene learned ancient Chinese and translated the Tao Te Ching.

Shien came to teach at the Academy out of necessity. He spoke English poorly and additionally had a speech impediment that made him difficult to understand. American universities had no way to make sense of his credentials, and he was entirely outside mainstream academic culture (with its inescapable networking and conference banquets). Watts’ half-fictitious school was the only place that would hire him.

Shien published several academic papers in English. Here are all the references that I was able to find in academic databases; according to Western academia, this is the entirety of his life and scholarship:

  • Shien, G.-M. (1951a) “Being and nothingness in ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy.” Philosophy East and West 1(2), 16-24.
  • Shien, G.-M. (1951b) “Nothingness in the philosophy of Lao-Tzu.” Philosophy East and West 1(3), 58-63.
  • Shien, G.-M. (1953) “The epistemology of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.” Philosophy 28(106), 260-264.

It is difficult to put together a picture of Shien as scholar and philosopher, precisely because, as Fr. Damascene puts it, he “failed from a worldly point of view” (78) and so most of what we can see is what he did not do. Fr. Damascene sympathetically paints him as having a deep belief in philosophy as personal responsibility: “What a man is is his learning, not what he has… What a man is is revealed in his personal manner. The manner is not important in itself, but as it reveals the man… The end of learning is to be a good man…” (Damascene, 73-74) The young Eugene idolized him, writing that “[he] knows more about Chinese philosophy than probably anyone else in the country,” though this probably says more about Eugene himself.

“[Gi-ming Shien] told me that whenever there is a conflict between archeology and written texts, human beings must believe the written texts, because archeology is only…your opinions and interpretations, while the written texts are other human beings — whom you have to trust.”

Fr. Seraphim in 1981 (Damascene, 77)

“I am a student of Chinese philosophy, and it is my belief that I must rely upon the Chinese traditional viewpoint, rather than follow the newly invented and untraditional arguments of modern scholars. To do the latter would result in depriving Chinese philosophy of all criteria of meaning and value; it would end in a state of confusion leading nowhere.”

Unpublished text by Gi-ming Shien (Damascene, 77)

Shien quit his job at Watts’ Academy in 1957. Eugene followed him and enrolled at Berkeley, where he received his M.A. in 1961. By that time he had already become drawn to Orthodox Christianity and decided not to pursue a doctoral degree. At around this time, Shien disappeared without a trace, leaving no clue as to his whereabouts.

From his limited published work, and from the quoted fragments in Fr. Damascene’s book, one gathers that Shien may have had something new and important to say about Chinese culture — he perceived a kind of philosophical kinship between Lao Tzu and Heraclitus, and saw Taoism and Confucianism as two mutually complementary parts of a unified belief system. Now, however, there is no way to know what he really meant, or what else might have been on his mind.

(Continuation: part 3.)

2 thoughts on “Fr. Seraphim (Rose), part 2

  1. What an interesting read, thank you. But if I may sketch in a few more details on Watts (whom I find enjoyable and strangely likeable) for the sake of context: Watts become enamored by Eastern though from his teen years – falling into the orbit of the London Buddhist society. The society was, I presume, stuffed full of theosophists and the like. Watts seems to have become an important member at a remarkably young age, writing pamphlets and becoming a friend of the society’s founder, Christmas Humphreys. Some years later, and after relocating to America, Watts set out to become an Episcopalian priest, claiming Christianity as somewhat or nominally superior to Eastern philosophy. The trouble, according to Watts, is the Easts lack of serious metaphysics. To this end, Watts believed Christianity could complete Eastern thought by adding characteristics to ‘the Void’. This is a similar mode of thought to that expressed by Rose in his thesis, in which ontological emptiness in Eastern thought is challenged. Conversely, Watts believed that Western Christianity could be reconnected to its mystical roots (Dionysius style) by a study of Eastern thought. Now, Watts’s exit from the Church was precipitated by something far more scandalous than a simple affair! Nothing so mundane for Mr. Watts, no. What did for him was he and his wife moving their respective paramours (drawn from the student body) into the college chaplaincy residence. Now that’s a scandal! In later years Watts claimed his Christian phase was an attempt to work within a tradition with which westerners were familiar.

    All of the above is discerned from the Collected Letters of Alan Watts.


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