The Song of a Library - Maciej Bielawski - ebook

This book is a "bibliographic novel" about Raimon Panikkar's library, based on his marginalia and readings.

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Maciej Bielawski

Original title: Maciej Bielawski, Canto di una biblioteca, Lemma Press, Bergamo, 2016
Translated by Leonardo Di Lisio
© Lemma Press 2016
© Lemma Press 2018
Edizioni Lemma Press
Viale Papa Giovanni XXIII, 106 - Bergamo, Italy -
ISBN: 9788899375539
This ebook was created with StreetLib Write


I. The Ouverture

II. The Lightning

III. The Origins

IV Native Speaker

V. Harmony

VI. Reader

VII. Journeys

VIII. Acquisitions

IX. Dedications

X. Diary

XI. Om

XII. Vivarium

XIII. Girona

XIV. Breviary

XV. Journals

XVI. Hermeneutics

XVII. Mysticism

XVIII. Christ

XIX. End

Chronology of Raimon Panikkar's life

Chronology of readings


I. The Ouverture

My shelves are the musical staff and my books are musical notes, but who will hear my song? The colourful covers of my volumes are the curtains – which hand will raise them? The words printed on the pages are still – which mind will move them? Each of my letters are impregnated with spirit – which wind will uncover them? For a long time I have brooded over sounds and voices. Now it is time to express them because the greatness of wisdom must be shown. If anyone hears the voice of my silence, enter into my space as if entering a temple in which a breath lives. I am everyone's and no one's, thus even my song is for no one and for everyone. Come and listen to me.

My melodies come from distant ages, but the composition has only recently been printed. My words travel in vast universes, but the score is confined to a few square meters. I have chanted fragments in the quiet of my den, without completely coming out of hiding. This is my first appearance in public, therefore my voice trembles.

My song is alone, but not unique, thus it resounds together with the songs of many others, very many other libraries which have existed, exist and will exist. Thus my apparently solo song is symphonic and resides in the universal harmony of the world’s library. In order to understand me one must imagine infinite bookshelves full of books which flow through the millennium years, together with incisions on stone and clay tablets, writing sketched on bark and plant leaves, drawn on parchment and today transformed in bytes to appear on the screens of digital readers. All the texts are joined to them, never written but transmitted from mouth to mouth, and all those books only thought of, dreamed about and lived, which compose the book of life to which even God adds his three lines. I am part of them and my song resounds with them.

I look at the terrible and beautiful world, consumed by the flames of history which is always renewed, resurrecting from the ashes, and resuming flight. By chance – but it is not by chance – I open the preface to the Veda of my friend and master and ask whoever will listen to me:

What would you save from a house in flames? A precious, irreplaceable manuscript containing a message of salvation for the human race or a small number of people threatened by that fire? The dilemma is real and not only for the writer: how can one only be an ‘intellectual, interested in the truth, or only a ‘spiritual person’ engaged in goodness, when people desperately beg for food and justice? How can one follow a contemplative, philosophical or even religious path when the world requires action, commitment and politics? Vice versa, how can one act to make a better world or an indispensable revolution when what one needs is a serene intuition and a just evaluation? It should be clear to all who share life on our planet that the house in flames is not a fact that involves only one individual.

Why was I created? Why, having been saved, do I still exist? How must I live and what can I do? My reader said:

If I am not ready to save the manuscript from the fire, if I don’t take my intellectual vocation seriously, placing it before everything else – even at the risk of appearing inhuman –, then I am also incapable of helping people in a more serious and immediate manner. Vice versa, if I am not attentive and ready to save people from a outbreak of fire, which means, if I don’t consider my spiritual calling with total honesty, sacrificing all the rest for it, even my own life, then I will be incapable of saving the manuscript. If I let myself be involved in the solid problems of my times and if I don’t open my home to all of the winds of the world, then whatever I produce from an ivory tower will be sterile and cursed. Also, if I don’t close the doors and windows in order to concentrate on this work, I will not be able to offer anything of value to my neighbour.

I hear each book on my shelves shouting in silence:

In truth, the manuscript can come out of the flames charred and people burned, but the intensity of one preoccupation has helped me with the other. The dilemma is not to choose the monastery or the disco, Harvard or Chanakyapuri (the Vatican or the Quirinal), tradition or progress, politics or academia, the Church or the State, justice or truth. In a word, reality is not a matter of ‘either...or’, it is not a matter of choosing between spirit and matter, contemplation and action, written message and living persons, East and West, theory and approach or even between divine and human. 1

My sense and destiny are inscribed in these words. I am a library, thus I exist in the world and thanks to men who have written, printed, bought and guarded my texts, I exist for them and in their world. I exist also because a man has existed.

[1] The citations in this chapter are taken from R. Panikkar, I Veda-Mantramañjari, testi fondamentali della rivelazione vedica, vol. I, BUR, 2001, pp. 37-38.

II. The Lightning

There was a boy. In the registry office in Barcelona, where he was born at the end of the First World War, he was called Raimundo Santiage Carlos Pàniker, but later on he wanted to be called Raimon Panikkar and with this name he passed into history. We have grown, I with him and he with me.

The boy, lively and intelligent, loved books. Reading delighted him and I, at that time even though small and young, noticed that he liked to isolate himself in order to read; I watched him with delight as he used to take notes and every now and then get lost in original and sublime thoughts. I confess having hoped that one day books written by him would also be found in me and today the fact that I was not mistaken delights me because during his life this man has written a lot, creating a monumental piece of work. Think about the metaphysical poetry of Heraclitus mixed with the speculative perspicacity of Aristotle, add the dizzying paradoxality of Nagarjuna and the perspicacious precision of Immanuel Kant, imagine that the kindness of Lao Tsu and the philosophic fantasy of Plato are intertwined, dream of the mystical expressions of Meister Eckhart and the reasoning of Shankara, and in some way you can perceive, without however coming to terms with it, the immensity and depth of Panikkar’s work. After all, the authors named above were well known to this scholar, he carried on a continuous dialogue with them and their works can also be found on my shelves.

Usually the name of Panikkar appears when speaking of dialogues between religions, and it is right because this topic kept him busy for decades: he himself in his mature age claimed to be Christian, Hindu and Buddhist. His plea that world religions be radically changed and reciprocally enrich each other for the good of humanity, remains valid even to this day. But there is much more in Panikkar. As a chemist and a theologian he sought to harmonize modern science and humanistic tradition and spoke of ‘theophysics’. As a philosopher carrying on a conversation with those concerned with ecology, he postulated ‘ecosofia’, listening to the wisdom lying in the earth, waiting to be heard by men. Facing the question of peace, he dealt with the root problem of violence and spoke of the disarmament in the human mind and contemporary culture. Knowing and embracing many religions in himself Panikkar appreciated their richness but was not unaware of their obsolete baggage of stupidity and inertia which suffocate life and dreamed of their authentic transformation brought about by a mystical breath. He was convinced that humanity had arrived at a point where it had to redefine its vision of the cosmos, its manner of understanding man and even its concept of God. As a function of this work he created a new word, ‘cosmotheandrism’. With this word he offered a new design, paradigm or myth in which common mentality would need to be transformed, thanks to internal emptying, or a new innocence permitting everyone to follow the unique ‘rhythm of being’, in order to be able to guarantee the fullness of life which had been assigned.

Panikkar grew up in Barcelona. He was forced to flee from this city during the Spanish Civil War. When he returned, at the age of 21 he became a member of the newly founded growing Opus Dei, and then one of the first priests of this movement where he absorbed radical Christianity and the best of Catholic scholasticism. In time, however, a conflict developed between him and the association, and Panikkar was expelled from Opus Dei. Having set up residence in India, in the holy city of Varanasi, he arduously dedicated himself to the study of Vedic thought and to deepening his knowledge of Buddhism. Simultaneously he collaborated with universities in the United States, first Harvard and then Santa Barbara, where he was a professor. He lived for years continuously moving between his small house with its terrace on the Ganges in Varanasi and his lovely house on the California coast, while regularly dwelling in various European countries. It seems that this continuous displacement reinforced the excitement of his thought, because he wrote without a break, studied, preached and taught. He became one of the most cultured and profound figures of his time, friend of the great of his time – from Paul VI to the Dalai Lama, from Martin Heidegger to Mircea Eliade, from Henri Le Saux to Bede Griffiths, from Emil Cioran to Octavio Paz. He dialogued with them while preserving his own originality: Panikkar was disciple of noone.

When the time came to retire from professional activity, he ceased wandering between continents and started a family while settling in a small mountain village in Catalonia called Tavertet. Very soon this place, a true territory, became a center of cultural research, of spiritual encounter and inter-religious dialogue, where people came as pilgrims, from many countries and nations. In this precise moment, the name Panikkar had become more and more famous and recognized by diverse cultural, religious and political entities. Nevertheless he succeeded in remaining on the edge, in order to be able to accept the profundity of the main problems of our time. Lucid almost to the end of his days, Raimon Panikkar passed away at Tavertet on 28 August 2010. Some of his ashes are in Catalonia, the land of his mother, while the rest were scattered over the waters of the Ganges, in the country from where his father came.

Panikkar’s work is like a large and deep lake on which it is worth navigating in all directions. From it emerges a majestic mountain, which is the life of this man – a long, lively and dramatic life. Panikkar not only has an astonishing bibliography but also has an unusual life. One needs to climb that mountain in order to be able to contemplate from its heights, the waters of the lake, and to therefore understand the life of this thinker in order to comprehend his intellectual vision.

Just as the mountain is reflected in the deep waters of the lake, almost licking the flora of the rocks, the work and the life of Panikkar belong to each other, as he himself often affirmed: «I have not lived to write, but I have written in order to live in a more conscious manner, to help my brothers with thoughts that do not spring solely from my mind but also from a superior Fountain that can perhaps be called Spirit – even if I do not claim that my writings are ‘inspired’». His writings can stimulate the growth of a more profound and complete existence, but knowledge about his life can no less fascinate by its richness and authenticity, not free from shadows, but thanks to them, true and real. Both the life and the work of Raimon Panikkar are unique, challenging, broaden our vision and invite a more profoundness to our lives.

In the image of the lake where the mountain is reflected, I add a summit surrounded by a cloud, which is reflected and melts in the depth of the water. With this detail I wish to indicate the mystical dimension of this man’s work and the impenetrable enigma of his life. And these are the precise aspects that make Panikkar so alive and inspiring. Panikkar, paraphrasing Nietzsche, said: «Whoever wants to be lightning must know, for a long time, how to remain a cloud». From time to time. the landscape of the lake, mountains and clouds, is sometimes shaken by a bolt of lightning from the look of who is admiring it.

Thus the reflections of such bolts of lightning flash across his writings and can be seen in his life. But they are also present in me. Our existences are linked, and we – life and work and library – are sisters. We also have a brother – archives – in which the material that Raimon has produced, collected and scrupulously preserved during his life, exists, composed of notes, diaries, letters, invoices, photos, recordings, films, etc. This brother of ours preserves much news. One day he will speak, and from his story numerous details will emergy, which will illuminate his life and his work and even me, his library. When this happens I will understand myself better and so I anxiously await his story. But I am in no a hurry. [IMAGE 1]


A free interpretation of Raimon Panikkar’s ex libris. Found in a few books of his library, it has inspired the logo of “Fons Raimon Panikkar” at the University of Girona

The voice of our sister ‘work’, which emerges mainly from the writings of Raimon Panikkkar, will be heard. So many things of my life and of my character I understand precisely because of her presence. But she also knows that she can learn a lot from me, her library. For this reason we meet from time to time and from these reunions and exchanges we emerge reciprocally enriched. My song is heard by my other sister, ‘life’, whose other name is biography, and I also gladly sing for her as well as for our brother ‘archive’. All of us, brother and sisters, also possess more distant relatives whose names are ‘interpretation’, ‘comprehension’ and ‘influence’. Because each masterpiece lives as it is interpreted, in order to be accepted and, in turn, to influence other people as well as cultures far and near. In order to understand the works of Panikkar, one must listen to his life, and attend his library and archives. This is the condicio sine que non of his future existence. This is also one of the reasons for my song.

III. The Origins

My origins are wrapped in such darkness that no reflection can dare, nor any research is able, to bring it to light, because they are tied to the enigma of thought in itself, to the mystery of the word and to the mystery of writing.

Historical dates melt in an unknown past and can only be collected at the beginning of a certain moment, when they are traceable in material facts through which I like to stroll as if in a forest. I touch their bark, collect leaves, feel the sound of their dry foliage underneath my feet, which break as I walk on them, and contemplate the variety of colours and smell the scent of moss. Every now and then I look up and see the branches that stand out in the sky. But when I look down I immediately perceive the darkness into which the more distant tree trunks disappear.

It seems that my books remain calm and closed on my shelves, but this is only a superficial impression, because to tell the truth, everything is boiling within me like in a pan, everything is moving, which amazes and takes your breath away, even for me. I deceive myself trying to gather my history on the basis of the data found in the pages of my books. But I know well that this history extends much further, and perhaps not everything in me can be called historical.

I see hands that in past centuries, wrote on birch bark, papyrus, parchment or on paper, with the use of a little stick dipped in ink made from elderberries. I ponder the incisions made on rocks, on clay tablets or on marble plates. Why did men want to give a solid form to their language? Why were they committed to express their thoughts on all of these materials with signs, images and alphabets? No one knows. Various theories exist even about this. I like this imprecision and its obscure enigma that can not be penetrated.

Men have spoken and written about a God who wrote and possessed a book. They have imagined a God who offered man an alphabet and taught him how to write and read. But they have also spoken about men who stole the secret of writing from God and who imitated His writing, then ascribing to themselves an almost divine authority. But it cannot be excluded that man invented writing precisely in order to defeat the invisible and the silence that lives and surrounds him. I feel profoundly attached to all this and each of my books bears testimony to it.

I see travellers everywhere who go in all directions collecting writings left here and there. They find them in caves and in the desert sands. They pick up papyrus, parchment and paintings covered with images and letters, which they copy, transcribe, photograph, reconstruct, try to decipher. They try to understand them, comment on them and translate them. Then again these texts travel everywhere and reach different destinations. Their movement is like a market in a large square. Everywhere voices and steps are heard behind which I hear the light swish of a pen scratching on a parchment next to the clicking of a typewriter and the sound of cart wheels on which these texts are written and printed, then brought to bookstores, displayed on stalls on the square and collected in libraries. Merchants enter the scene raising and lowering their prices. I hear the terrible machines that shred the books and flames that devour them. Some are happy, others cry. Finally I manage to hear fingers on touch screens transmitting to micro and macro computer processors. Then they navigate to digital space. And the fascination of a single click that transmits a text far away or deletes it forever! I contemplate the eyes of readers following the words of texts. I silently watch a finger following a line printed in Braille. I observe the faces of people immersed in reading: some smile, others are shocked. In all of them I notice an understanding and the desire to share the process of thought inspired by the reading, so they begin writing, translating, publishing. Thus new books are born that are ancient. An amazing moment, a fascinating din. But where does it really come from, and why? No one knows and even I am in the dark, but my conscious ignorance does not prevent me from participating in such a movement that is life. Collected on my shelves, I seem tranquil to you. But that is just an impression. Who am I? What are these books of mine, which, placed all together, seem to make it so that I am made just like this and in this place? Everything is in motion, everything returns.

When night time falls and there is no one around me, I move between these spaces, and holding the book Tao Te Ching in my hands, I read on the first page: «The Tao is beyond words and beyond comprehension. The Tao existed before words and names, before the sky and the earth, before tens of thousands of things. The Tao and its innumerable manifestations come from the same source: a subtle marvel in mysterious obscurity». Comprehending and not comprehending these words, but by reading them, my restlessness is calmed. At my disposal I have a dozen translations of this text: English, Spanish, German and Catalan, in which I read the same words that each time sound a little different. The imagination of Panikkar blossoms in my memory. He followed the Tao Te Ching for decades and usually had various translations on his table. Not knowing Chinese, he compared and commented on the margins. If someone would collect all these glosses he left on the margins of the pages of various versions of the Tao Te Ching, he would obtain material for a book entitled the Tao of Panikkar. But since it is not my job to write books I will not dwell on such intellectual fantasy and will continue my canticle.

The history of this text, with all its enigmas, knocked at my door, just as it knocked at Panikkar’s mind when he read it. Five thousand characters, collected in 81 chapters, perhaps originally written in zhansu handwriting, but difficult to reproduce today in modern print, the text is transcribed in characters called katishu. I leave to historians the discussion about where, how, when and by whom this text was written. Perhaps it really was composed by Lao Tsu, which simply means ‘old teacher’, and who lived in China in the 4 th/5 th century B.C. Moreover, it can’t be excluded that it had many authors and one secular gestation.

In the West, the Tao Te Ching first appeared in the French speaking world between the 18 th and 19 th centuries with translations in Latin and French. Such Jesuits as Father Couplet, Father Du Halde and Father Prévaire were involved in this. I am thinking of all of the strange translations for it such as Logosor Viaand even JHWÈ. In 1891 James Legge translated the text into English, but in 1905 there were already 13 other versions in this language. Since then the translations in the West have multiplied, almost reaching 300 and making the Tao Te Ching one of the most translated books in the world. As if that were not enough, the earth has spoken about the Tao Te Ching by revealing some of its treasures. Thus in 1973 a text of the Tao Te Ching written on silk and dating from the second century b.C, was discovered at Mawangdui. In the caves of Magao other similar ones were found, this time preserved on rolls of canvas with characters called naming taboo, and so on. What movement, what commotion, what splendid confusion!

I remember the first reading of the Tao Te Ching by Panikkar at the end of the 1950’s in a translation by Ch’u Ta-Kao and published by the Buddhist Society in London. In this period Raimon was securely grounded in the enclosure of Christian thought, but he consented to intellectual ventures into other universes. Thus, when he read the third chapter of the Tao Te Ching the biblical verses of Ecclesiastes and the Gospels resounded in his mind. Finding similarities with Chinese thought, he made notes next to the translation of Ch’u Ta-Kao. At that time the concept of ‘dialogue’ was not yet clear to him especially as the idea of mission. In other cultures and religions he sought and found the ‘seeds of the Christian logos’. Only much later, when he was able to move to lands of other religions, did he look from them to Christian soil in order to enrich it with new perspectives. With time his thought changed and the idea of mission was replaced with an attitude of dialogue. I was near to him in this development that even enriched me, for which I am grateful.

It was my intention to put this version of the Tao Te Ching back on the shelf, but I interrupt my canticle here because it seems fair to give an explanation. I talk about books that I pick up and replace on the bookcase but I use a pure anthropomophism when I sing to humans because in my case, I am used to browsing through my books without moving them. I penetrate right into them and my way of reading is unique. In any case, I was ready to leave this book when my eye fell on chapter 22, page 34, where I noticed two words written by Raimundo in blue ink: « Mysterium Crucis», which set a sequence of memories loose in me.

On the pages of some of my books these two words are present, every now and then marked with the abbreviated form «MC». For years Panikkar was collecting material for a book entitled precisely Mysterium Crucis. He never published it and in order to know whether he finished it one would need to ask my brother ‘archives’. In any case, for years I read books hatching the idea of this project. While reading, if he ran into anything that could be associated with the idea of his Mysterium Crucis, he wrote down this title or made the notation «MC». Such associations are found, for example in the book by J. Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, 1987, read by Panikkar in 1992, thirty three years after reading the Tao Te Ching of 1959, with the annotation « Mysterium Crucis».

It’s late. Soon the light of day will enter the room where I am now living and with it people will appear, therefore I will peek again into another translation of the Tao Te Chingthat I own – the one made by Gia-Fu Feng and enhanced with the photographs of his wife, Jane English, published in New York in 1972 and then updated and reprinted in the 1980’s. I have both versions. I am proud about that not only because it is a splendid book in itself, but because it is full of Panikkar’s notations written at various moments during his repeated readings. I realize that, together with my owner, I have been reading the Tao Te Ching for at least 40 years.

I would like to pause briefly to contemplate at least a few aspects closely, attentively, with intentional slowness. Dear readers, do you also have the patience and gracefulness of mind for the slow pace that attempts to put together letter by letter, word by word, what I wish to sing?

In my left hand, so to speak, I am holding the oldest text of Ch’u Ta-Kao, of which I spoke about earlier, and I see that the last sentence of chapter 22 states: «In fact he shall return home intact». I don’t see any commentary by Raimundo besides « Mysterium Crucis» written above and don’t remember what he thought of it when he read all this in the late 1950’s. In my right hand, however, I am holding the translation of Gia-Fu Feng, in which the last sentence of the same chapter states: «Be really whole. And all things will come to you» and I remember that in July of 1989, that is, 40 years after reading the translation of Ch’u Ta-Kao, Raimundo, struck by the English translation, wrote a comment that I chant:

No, be whole and then everything will come to you. But if you are whole, you are already all things (aeons, shapes) that come to you, are already ‘part’ of you, are already you. This is a qualified Pantology: to be complete and have all things in you. And you are complete when you identify ‘you’ with all things. This identification is the I-you-it: personal awareness.