‘A book without inspiration is boring’Dr Rudolf Hogger on his love for reading religious history books and writing them.
Dr Rudolf Hogger is a writer and historian from Switzerland. In the 1970s, Hogger served as director of the Swiss Association for Technical Assistance, the then Swiss Development Corporation, for five years in Nepal. During his time as the director of the organisation, he travelled to various parts of Nepal to understand the country. He then wrote many essays and books on Nepal and considers the country as his second home. To this day, every Tihar, he comes back to Kathmandu to visit and spend time with his Nepali friends and families. Recently, Hogger’s latest work Presents for Buddha was launched at a small book inauguration function at veteran Nepali writer/historian Satya Mohan Joshi’s house. The book, published by Vajra Books and Tibetan Institute Rikon, is about the eight auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism. In an interview with the Post’s Srizu Bajracharya, Hogger speaks about his love for reading and his writing process. Excerpts:
How did you come to love books?
I read early as a child and I have always enjoyed reading books, and usually, they were history and non-fiction works. I also read novels and books on criminology and autocrat figures. I can’t say specifically when I started to love books but one of the books that really impressed me during my late teens was a book about Mahatma Gandhi, which my father had gifted to me. Reading about the life of Mahatma Gandhi, his work and philosophy inspired me very much. And that was one of the reasons why I wanted to visit India and other Asian countries. The book made me realise a different world that I had never thought about.
What fascinates you about Nepali culture?
As I spent more and more time in Nepal, I realised that I was more interested in learning Nepali culture than policies. I think I was fascinated with the culture in Nepal, especially by Buddhist teachings that had the message that each individual in their most profound insight can give a lot in their life and reach enlightenment. And this isn't reserved for any elite, or for Buddha alone. According to Mahayana Buddhism, you and I and everyone has an inner potential to reach enlightenment. That message actually harmonises with the idea of equality, and it is contrasting to the class and caste system that we follow in general. And that is what made me interested in knowing more about the Nepali culture. Also, the fact that here in Nepal, religions are not hostile to each other, everyone respects the diversity they live in is something that fascinated me.
And now I am quite addicted to learning about religions. I am fascinated about how different cultures learn from each other, and that actually is a guiding question in all of my writings.
When did you begin writing?
That too I began very early. I remember writing a script during my time in college and directing the piece for a stage performance. It was a script that was based on the history of the little place I come from in Zurich, Switzerland.
I started writing professionally only after I returned from the post of director at SATA in Nepal to Switzerland. I asked the chief of SDC at the time whether I could have an absence of leave for three months to write about my experience during my five-year stay in Nepal. The book was also an initiative to strengthen the relationship between Nepal and Switzerland. This was during the 1970s, and the book was named by the foreign minister himself, who said let's call it, ''Switzerland in Nepal''.
But why do you think you were always interested in history?
I think it was because I met a fantastic history teacher during a student exchange programme in the US. My teacher Mr Johnson fascinated me. He knew how to teach history in a lively way and to instil a feeling in his students that we must understand the past to build on the present and future. He really changed me as a person and I think that was what inspired me into being a historian.
You mention that your teacher had a significant influence on you to become who you are today. So how important is the role of a teacher in our learning years?
The role of a teacher is critical, as they are guiding young minds. I became a university teacher later on in my life because I understand that teaching is an essential job. And I consider a student-teacher relationship is based on trust that allows them to grow together. The teacher must be open to the ideas of the student and encourage them to follow their own purposes. When teachers can groom the students' interest, both sides learn from each other.
You have also written a book about Brathamanda: The Sacred Thread. What got you started on that book?
I have been friends with KK Pandey for many years now. His wife once asked me if I could take the role of an uncle for their son's ordination in the Bratamandha ceremony. I was really touched, and during the process of being part of the coming-of-age tradition, I was intrigued by the culture, and so I wanted to write about it. The ceremony allowed me to know the culture and the rituals involved for several days very carefully. I also found out parallel religions that resonated with the idea of the ceremony, and I thought to myself that I had to write a book about it.
What about your latest book. When did you think of writing Presents for Buddha ?
Since 1986, many Tibetan refugees have come to my country and in Nepal too. Years back, to give them a religious centre where they can learn about Tibetan Buddhist cultural heritage in Switzerland, a group of Swiss people who were interested in Buddhism created an institute, Tibetan Institute Rikon. The institution is supported by the Dalai Lama. During my time as the chairman of the trust, I became very close with the Buddhist monks there and their ways of life. I also came to learn about ashtamangala, the eight auspicious symbols in Buddhism, and I started inquiring about it everywhere I went. And that is how the present book was created. Presents for Buddha is about the meaning of ashtamangala. It took me about five years to complete the book.
What would you like to say to young writers who aspire to write books?
I believe writing books has two sides: on the one hand, the research you do for the book must have detailed scientific scrutiny, and on the other, you should focus on your intuition that asks why the book you are writing is extraordinary to you. You have to combine your intuition and the facts you collect. A book without inspiration is boring.
Also, don't rush to finish the book. When writing, give yourself some time to understand the information you deal with. Let things mature in yourself. Let your manuscript settle. Do other things and come back to it again. A good book should get time to grow, and therefore you should take time writing it. Writing a book is not something you do in a short period. While working on my books, I made sure to take time to collect information, and as I sat down to write, I paid attention to the questions that arose during the process of writing and the more I took time to answer the questions the more the book received a depth.
But are there specific methodologies that you stick to while writing?
I work on my books in a very old fashioned way, without my computer. When I am observing, reading or talking to people, I take notes. And I make sure to note down my source and page numbers to come back to it again later. And then when I sit down to write, I arrange these papers according to my subjects, and this takes a lot of time because there are thousands of them. I write between reading my notes and reference books. I wouldn't be able to write without my notes. It's been 50 years and I have been collecting information for my work the same way as when I first began.
What books would you recommend young readers to read?
I read a lot of books about religion, and therefore my collection is full of theological works. So, if you are interested in the same area as I am, read Ananda Coomaraswamy, who was an outstanding writer of Buddhist and Hindu art. Read the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. Read Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism by Lama Anagarika Govinda, and any book of Annemarie Schimmel on Islam. These are the books that really shaped me. But these days, I spend my time reading books that are a little out of my interest.