The Definition of Tradition

We would do well to understand what is meant by the concept of tradition since it is usually denied, misrepresented, or misunderstood. It has nothing to do with local colour or popular customs nor with curious local activities collected by some students of folklore. It is concerned with origins: tradition is the handing on of a complex of established means of facilitating our understanding of the immanent principles of universal order, since it has not been given to mankind to understand unaided the meaning of his existence.

The idea most nearly equivalent and most able to evoke the meaning of the word tradition would be that of the spiritual relationship between a master and a pupil. That is to say of a formative influence analogous to that of spiritual vocation or inspiration, as actual for the spirit as heredity is for the body. What we are concerned with here is an inner knowledge coexistent with life itself; a coexistent reality, but at the same time an awareness of a superior consciousness, recognized as such, and at this level inseparable from the person it has brought to birth and for whom it constitutes their reason for existence.

From this point of view the person is completely what he transmits, he only is in what he transmits, and in the degree to which he does transmit. Independence and individuality are thus seen to be relative realities only, which bear witness to our progressive separation and continuous falling away from the possession of an all-embracing original wisdom, a wisdom which is quite compatible with an archaic way of life. This original state can be equated with the concept of a primordial centre of which, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Earthly Paradise is one of the symbols; with the proviso that we always recall that this state, this tradition, and this centre only constitute three expressions of the one reality.

Thanks to this tradition, which antedates history, knowledge of principal truth has been, from the beginning, the common property of all humanity, and has subsequently been revealed in the highest and most perfect theological systems of the historic age. But a natural degeneration has given rise to specialization and obscuration which have resulted in an ever-increasing gap between the message, those who transmit it, and those who receive it. Some explanation became more and more necessary since a polarization occurred between the external literal aspect expressed in ritual and the original meaning, which became more and more hidden within and obscured, and so, hard to understand.

In the West this exterior aspect was generally expressed in religious terms. Intended for the general mass of the faithful, the doctrine split into three elements, dogma for the reason, morals for the mind, and rites and ceremonies for the body. During the time in which this split was taking place in the West, the deeper meaning became esoteric and was gradually reduced to greater and greater obscurity, so that now we are compelled to refer to parallel examples from Eastern spirituality to understand the coherence and validity of our own tradition.
The progressive lack of real understanding of the idea of tradition has for a long time past prevented us from grasping the true nature of ancient civilizations, both eastern and western, and at the same time has made it impossible for us to return to that inclusive point of view which they had. Only as we return to basic principles can we gain a comprehensive understanding without suppressing anything. This will enable us to make a breakthrough to a new use of language, restore our power to remember and facilitate our inventive faculties, and so establish links between the most seemingly diverse branches of knowledge. All this is only possible as we acknowledge the privileged centre as possessing an inexhaustibly rich store of possibilities which are mediated to us by means of symbols.


The above has been excerpted from Luc Benoist's The Esoteric Path(Crucible, 1988).