Ernst had a doctorate in Law and served in the Foreign Office and later as a judge. In he published his dissertation, Der Begriff der Metaphysik bei Franciscu Suarez, and was awarded a doctorate in philosophy from Cologne University. When the Nazis came to power in , he fled to Britain. However, the only permanent academic post he was offered had to be turned down because US immigration officials declined him a work permit on the basis of his past as a Communist. A midlife crisis in saw him adopt Buddhism as his religion, having previously been influenced by Theosophy and astrology.
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His father belonged to the German landed aristocracy, and his mother to what he himself would have called the "plutocracy". His background was Protestant, though his mother became a Roman Catholic in later life.
He seems to have had a rather difficult relationship with his mother. Conze claimed to be related to Friedrich Engels. He was born in England because his father happened to be posted there as German Vice-Consul, but this meant that he had British nationality. He was educated at various German universities, graduating with a Ph.
Conze had a talent for learning languages and picked up fourteen of them, including Sanskrit, by age Like many other Europeans, he came into contact with Theosophy early in life. He also took up astrology, and remained a keen astrologer throughout his life. While still a young man, he wrote a substantial book called The Principle of Contradiction.
It seems that for a while he was the leader of the communist movement in Bonn, and his autobiography, Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic, talks about organizing communist street gangs in Hamburg, which briefly put his life in danger. In he came to England, having earlier taken the precaution of renewing his British nationality, and he arrived at the age of 29, virtually without money or possessions.
He supported himself by teaching German and taking evening classes, and he became a member of the Labour Party. He met many prominent figures and intellectuals in the Labour movement and was not impressed. Conze became very active in the socialist movement in Britain, lecturing and writing books and pamphlets, until eventually becoming disillusioned with politics. At 35 he found himself in a state of intellectual turmoil and collapse.
Even his marriage had failed. Indeed, in his memoirs he admits "I am one of those unfortunate people who can neither live with women nor without them. Between and he held a number of academic appointments in England, Germany and the United States, including a significant amount of time as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster.
At this point he discovered — or rather rediscovered — Buddhism. Once intrigued, Conze devoted the rest of his life to Buddhism, and in particular to translating the Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom sutras, which are the fundamental scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. During the war he lived on his own in a caravan in the New Forest and practised meditation, following very seriously the instructions given by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga, and allegedly achieving some degree of meditative experience.
Being brutally honest, especially about himself, he would confess in his later lectures in America that he was just a Buddhist scholar and not a monk and therefore people should not be disappointed if his actions and behaviors did not live up to the Buddhist ideal. After the war he moved to Oxford and remarried. In he published Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, a very successful book, which is still in print. However, his real achievement over the following twenty years was to translate over thirty texts comprising the Prajnaparamita sutras, including two of the most well-known of all Buddhist texts, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra.
However, he was very outspoken, and gained the disapproval of the university authorities and some of his colleagues. With the combination of his Communist past and his candid criticism of American involvement in Vietnam, he was eventually obliged to leave. He died on September 24, at his home in Sherborne, Dorset. Legacy Conze was a complex figure, and it is not easy to assess his overall significance.
He was a self-confessed elitist. Indeed, he entitled his autobiography Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic, believing as he did that Gnosticism was essentially elitist. Neither did he approve of democracy or feminism. He is certainly representative of a Western pre-war generation that became disillusioned with Marxism, especially in its Soviet form. Where he differed from others was in the fact that he did not really lose religious beliefs.
He transferred his idealism from politics to Buddhism. He has been called "the foremost Western scholar of the Prajnaparamita literature. This was very unusual at the time he started his work, and he was regarded as eccentric in the s and s — objective scholars were not supposed to have any personal involvement in their subject.
He was hence a forerunner of a new strain of Western scholars in Buddhism who are practicing Buddhists. Publications Why War?