Herbert Guenther, The Man
Some years ago I was introduced to Guenther’s work while completing my doctoral studies in East West Psychology at CIIS. When it came time for me to begin my dissertation research I contacted him to see what he would say about my topic, ‘the Eastern spiritual teacher being understood by the Western student’. To my great surprise and joy he replied, “In my opinion this topic needs to be pursued, diligently.” It is at this time that we began our own teacher-student relationship – blossoming into a true life-long friendship.
During my years of study together, I came to know and love his wife, Ilse. I was fortunate to stay in their home on a number of occasions, blending into the routine of Ilse’ homemaking and Herbert’s writing. Each new day reminded me of the previous day: breakfast at 6:00 AM, Ilse off to the market gathering fresh food for the day, creating soups from scratch and baking bread for the meals, lunch served daily at noon followed by Herbert’s 40 minute nap, Ilse’s piano lessons in the living room or gardening in the backyard, coffee and tea in the late afternoon, a light European meal around 6:00 PM, followed by Herbert reading in the living room and Ilse playing the piano or knitting on the couch, and culminating with the evening weather on television before tucking into bed for the night.
They were a musical couple. Ilse with perfect pitch played and taught the piano and harpsichord. Herbert, since the age of 11 played the flute, the same flute which he carried and played all over the world. One afternoon in their living room I was fortunate to have a private classical concert with them, Ilse playing the grand piano and harpsichord, Herbert playing the flute, and their dear Hungarian friend playing the cello. Ilse has always been truly gracious and encouraging with me. She knew that I had a love for the piano, yet had never taken piano lessons. One afternoon, after Herbert awoke from his nap, Ilse and I sat together at the grand piano as she patiently began teaching me to play Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
Herbert and I spent our days at the dining room table talking, discussing the nuances of what the teachers I had interviewed were saying. He graciously shared his books, notes, manuscripts, and stories from his lived experiences for my learning. Kindly Bent to Ease Us was always a shared favorite. We spent hours in his library surrounded by shelves of Chinese books, rows of original sacred Tibetan texts wrapped in cloth, dictionaries, literary books from a multitude of cultures, art, and books that publishers sent for his review. I was in awe of his library, his knowledge and wisdom, his heartfelt generosity and patience with me in learning what must have been elemental to him.
Guenther was a man of principle and integrity. He was not political nor would he succumb to any political persuasions. He was brilliant beyond recognition, forthright in his opinions, and knife-cutting with his honesty. He encouraged me on more than one occasion to speak with the same integrity as he spoke in presenting my own research. This was not always easy for me and on occasion I shied away from his encouragement, as I knew I did not have the same sources of his past experiences from which to draw upon, his intellectual acumen, nor did I have the mastery of the original languages from which to debate my arguments.
I remember a time in his garden when we first met, asking him if he ever felt lonely. His response was basically non-verbal, affirming what I empathically knew – a man on his own. I later learned that he had been a man on his own at least since altagymnassium – his high school years devoted to the humanities, which he completed in seven years rather than the usual eight years for most students. Studying Latin seven hours a week his first year, Herbert said, “nobody could help me. I just passed. If I had not passed, I would have been thrown out. So that gave me a shock…I was absolutely on my own…I was the best.” During these same years he wrote a thesis title, “It’s Youth to be led to be Youth” while all the other students wrote on, “Hitler’s, Mine Kompf.” Germany, he said, “was not all Natzi, one unfortunate word and you where in the Holocaust. It was not only against Jews, it was also against others.” When confronted by the instructor as to why he chose not to write on the same topic as his fellow students, his response was, “I think we understand each other.” Soon after, he had the chance to see the re-nazification. In 1950 he went to India, accepting an initial position at Lucknow University teaching Russian in the Department of Modern Languages, and then later became the Head of Varanaseya Vishhva vidyalaya at the Sanskrit University in Varanasi. During his years of teaching he said, “I kept away from the political stuff.” After 14 years of teaching in India he became Department Chair of Far Eastern Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, eventually becoming Professor Emeritus.
Born March 17, 1917, a couple of years before the beginning of World War I, in Brehman, Deutschland, the last city to capitulate to Hitler, Herbert had a natural propensity for the humanities, languages, the arts, and a natural draw to the Orient. His early years were of humble beginnings with his father a Free Mason and a sculptor, and his mother a seamstress. As a child he was “sickly” and unable to participate in sports. Instead he turned his attention to the flute and began learning Sanskrit, the first of 10 languages that he mastered beyond his mother-tongue of German, though he says, “I never thought that Russian would be my ‘life-saving’ language.” In 1939 Guenther completed his Ph.D. studies at Munich University, one year after the annexation of Poland, followed in 1943, by the completion of a second Ph.D. – “Vienia Legendi” – entitling him to teach. While teaching at Vienna University he met Ilse whom he married in 1944.
The foundation for much of Guenther’s writing was seated in his longstanding interest in the history and development of ideas and storytelling – “how you make meaning of it.” Some of the ideas that interested him were “light” which is an emergent phenomenon – emerging out of no-thing, the modern concept of emergence – that the existing form is already present in the older form, that things are evolving as embodied beings, complimentary – where the one defines and clarifies the other, and the new logic, developed by the Buddhist, what we now call the “fuzzy logic.” One of his favorite Indian literary works was Katha Sarit Sagara – The Ocean of Rivers of Stories: the influence of adventure in adventures. He enjoyed the rich world of images expressed by the Tibetan storyteller, highlighting the interchange and process orientation of no beginning and no end. Because of the texts that had been lost, he said, “I became interested in Tibetan Buddhism… the old Tibetan form…the older tradition, Ningmapa.”
Guenther, though a man all his own, had many significant worldly relationships, and I was blessed to have had one of those relationships with him. For me, we were the epitome of that which I studied – the teacher-student relationship. A few years ago, after numerous requests on my part, Herbert agreed to let me write his biography with the understanding that I would not write the last chapter, as he was not ready to die. Last summer we spent five days together in his Saskatoon home where he told me stories from his life, we discussed the mystery of symbolism, and shared together for the last time his library. For me, his last chapter will never be written, as he lives in my memories, and through the legacy of his 30 plus books, hundreds of scholarly articles, and thousands of lectures articulating the ancient wisdoms and knowledge of the East.
Jodi Reneé Lang, Ph.D.