Correspondence between JW de Jong and Edward Conze concerning “Memoirs of a modern gnostic” (1979)

By Royce Wiles

Edward Conze (1904-1979) was unquestionably a major figure in the development of Buddhist studies during the twentieth-century (especially his work on studying and translating the Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā texts). Conze’s correspondence with JW de Jong (1921-2000)—another major academic figure in Buddhist studies—d is preserved in the De Jong collection of the University of Canterbury. From the mid-1950s until 1979 there are around 120-150 items preserved in chronological sequence. The letters deal almost entirely with matters of translation, publication exchanges, academic vacancies, new appointments, book reviews etc. and contain very little discussion of academic issues (a sample showing Conze’s distinctive letter head is shown in Figure 1). Conze’s academic papers are housed in the University of Bristol library.

At de Jong’s request Conze wrote about his life in The Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic (Sherborne: The Samizdat Publishing Company) (see Figure 2); only volumes 1 and 2 have ever been released. The third volume was apparently too problematic and a potential source of legal action. On the occasion of the workshop on the de Jong collection in Christchurch (late-2016) I thought to try to locate any information in the preserved letters about the third volume. The extracts below outline the progress in the preparation and eventual publication of Conze’s memoir and provide information on how he worked on it, the number of copies, etc.


  • Conze: 24 Feb 1977: “A neighbour lent me an ancient dictaphone and twice I dictated the beginning of my biography into it. The first time there was nothing on the spool, and the second just one page. Like everything else in present day England the machine just did not work. So I came to the conclusion that it was clearly not the WILL OF GOD that my life should be recorded. Nevertheless I have arranged for a secretary to visit me next week, and perhaps after all I will be able to send you something on the subject.”
  • Conze: 14 March 1977: “By chance a competent secretary turned up for the story of my life. I dictated 22 pages to her, and now she has faded out again. So I have sent you the first 11 pages, giving my life in Germany up to 1933. If and when she turns up again, you will get the second part, covering the years between 1933 and 1949.”de Jong: 17 March 1977 “Thank you very much indeed for the brief record of your life … It is amazing to see how many circumstances are required in order to create a Buddhist scholar!” “I see that your brief record finishes on 15th June 1933. I think you ought perhaps to write a second chapter about your life in England from 1932 till 1947 when you burst upon the scene as a fully-fledged Buddhist scholar. I think this probably needs some explanation, because it is not obvious from the account of your life till 1933 that you are destined to become a specialist in this field.”
  • Conze: 20 April 1977 “The random notes on my life arose because your enquiry coincided with the unexpected emergence of a bright secretary here in Sherborne. As they developed I sent them to three close friends, apart from you. The one who is connected with the University of London was shocked to his very bones. The other two have remained silent so far. It will be best if you treat this as a confidential document, file it away in a file with an Armenian inscription … it can obviously not be printed as it stands in England or America. A copy has gone to my brother in Germany with a view to having it printed there ‘as a manuscript’. After my death it may put a few fleas into peoples’ ears.”
  • de Jong: 27 April 1977 “I think when I wrote to you I had not yet seen parts 2 and 3 [not volume 3] of your saga. After reading it I thought it would probably be better not to publish it in the near future unless a very much edited version. The uncensored recension could perhaps be published in the 21st century.”
  • Conze: 18 May 1977 “As for the Conze saga, I have been encouraged by everyone to continue. So I will send you a copy of what follows. Before publication a lawyer, my brother and a bhikhsu will go over every word.”
  • de Jong: 4 August 1977: “It was a pleasure to receive the last 50 pages of your saga. However, I understand that it is only a temporary version of the final part and that you intend to write more in detail about your experiences in America and in Germany. One thing I have realised only fully while reading your saga is the amount of work you have been able to do in often very difficult circumstances. We in our sheltered positon in universities do not have the same problems you had, especially not the financial situation …”
  • Conze: 11 October 1977 “My saga has been viewed by a lawyer who wants to remove much—far too much. So I have decided to re-arrange the material, leave the cutting to the prospective publishers (who will have different taboos in different countries), add some further bits about America and so on, and then deposit copies in a few libraries, while trying to sell an abbreviated version to publishers here and there.”
  • de Jong: 20 October 1977 “I hope that you will send me a copy of all the bits which you are going to add to [the saga]. I will carefully put them away in a secret file.”
  • Conze: 3 January 1978 “As for my memoirs I have now dictated the second version which differs from the first mainly by the arrangement of the material. By separate mail I have sent you the principal additions; also one of the smaller ones … Some of the sections proved so recalcitrant that I have split them off into a third part which I will not try to publish during my lifetime.”
  • Conze: 3 April 1978 “As for the life story, I am now doing the third version from which all remarks are removed which might be construed as libellous or politically offensive.”
  • Conze: 1 May 1978 “I am sending you by surface mail the first 49 pages so that you can see what the final form of ’The memoirs of a modern gnostic’ looks like. As each volume is completed I will send it on as a parcel. The printable American experiences are now distributed between volumes I and II, whereas the unprintable ones go into volume III.”
  • Conze: 9 October 1978 “I begin to feel that you were doing me a good turn when you stimulated me to write my life story. The existing text has caused some enthusiasm in various quarters, and I felt greatly honoured the Professor Joseph Needham [1900-1995] in Cambridge took the trouble to correct my English throughout.”
  • Conze: 2 November 1978 “I am just fed up with [rejection of the Memoirs by publishers], and will run off at my own expense during the next months 200 copies of an occasionally corrected text.”
  • Conze in a letter to Martin Kraatz, Marburg 2 December 1978 states that the following copies have been prepared to date: Part I 40 copies, Part II 20 copies, Part III 4 copies [“Von Tiel 1 sind soweit 40 Exemplare hergestellt worden, von Teil 2 die Hälfte davon, und von Teil 3 nur 4”]
  • Conze: 8 January 1978 “Of the third part I have done 160 pages, and there is little more to come.”
  • Conze: 1 February 1979 “I am nevertheless grateful to you for having given me the original impetus to write this autobiography which has pleased quite a lot of people, including myself.”
  • Conze: 8 March 1979 “I was very glad to hear that you have now the entire memoirs in your possession, except for Part III which I do not dare to entrust to the post.” “Somebody tells me that Eliade [1907-1996] in his Memoirs says that I had told him that I regarded Madame Blavatsky as a reincarnation of Tsong-kha-pa. This was said by me in 1954 in a beer cellar in Munich, when I could drink to my heart’s content and he was restricted by his wife to one small glass of beer.”
  • de Jong: 27 March 1979 “I certainly hope that there will once be an opportunity for me to see part 3, but I do not know of anybody who could personally bring this secret document from Sherborne to Canberra.”
  • de Jong’s last letter to Conze was on 6 September 1979—Conze died on September 24—on 23 October de Jong sent a condolence letter to Mrs. M. Conze

The following email (7 May 2012) from Asko Parpola, posted to the Indology listserv updates some of this: “I have kept the following email communication by Paul Williams, Centre for Buddhist Studies, University of Bristol, on the 20th of Oct. 1995. With best regards, AP: ‘The bulk of Edward Conze’s books and papers are held in the University of Bristol Library. However, when they were bought from Mrs Conze soon after her husband’s death, she did not let the library have the manuscript of Vol. 3 of the Memoirs, saying that EC did not wish it to be published until all those mentioned in the book were dead. Around 1992 Mrs Conze told that she had destroyed the manuscript, thinking that its publication would not be good for the reputation of EC. But there may be another copy. Shenpen Hookham (the author of “The Buddha Within”) may have access to some of Conze’s papers not in Bristol — perhaps she knows where it is.’”

No copy of the elusive third volume has turned up in the de Jong collection however.


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