Conze's parents, Dr. Ernst Conze (1872–1935) and Adele Louise Charlotte Köttgen (1882–1962), both came from families involved in the textile industry in the region of Langenberg, Germany. Ernst had a doctorate in Law and served in the Foreign Office and later as a judge. Conze was born in London while his father was Vice Consul and thus entitled to British citizenship.
Conze studied in Tübingen, Heidelberg, Kiel, Cologne and Hamburg. In 1928 he published his dissertation, Der Begriff der Metaphysik bei Franciscu Suarez, and was awarded a doctorate in philosophy from Cologne University. He did post-graduate work at several German universities and in 1932 he published Der Satz vom Widerspruch (The Principle of Contradiction) which he considered his master work. Because it was a Marxist work on the theory of dialectical materialism it attracted hostile attention from the Nazis and most copies were publicly burnt in a campaign conducted by the German Student Union in May 1933. In the early 1930s Conze associated with and helped to organize activities for the Communist Party of Germany. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he fled to Britain.
In England, Conze taught German, philosophy, and psychology at evening classes, and later lectured on Buddhism and Prajñāpāramitā at various universities. He continued as a socialist political activist, writing several pamphlets. He co-authored two books with Ellen Wilkinson, an ex-communist MP: Why Fascism (1934) and Why War?: a handbook for those who will take part in the Second World War (1935). He worked with Cedar and Eden Paul on the revised ninth edition of the book An Outline of Psychology, published by the National Council of Labour Colleges in 1938. During this period he made the acquaintance of Har Dayal, whose book The Bodhisattva Doctrines in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature stimulated his interest in Buddhism. Har Dayal had also been active politically active in the Industrial Workers of the World and studying Marxism. Conze abandoned political activism in 1939.
A midlife crisis in 1941 saw him adopt Buddhism as his religion, having previously been influenced by Theosophy and astrology. He spent a brief period in the New Forest pursuing meditation and an ascetic lifestyle (during which he developed scurvy). At the end of this period he moved to Oxford where he began to work on Sanskrit texts from the Prajñāpāramitā tradition. He continued to work on these texts for the rest of his life.
Conze was married twice: to Dorothea Finkelstein and to Muriel Green. He had one daughter with Dorothea.
In 1979 Conze self-published two volumes of memoirs entitled Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic. Conze produced a third volume which contained material considered to be too inflammatory or libelous to publish while the subjects were alive. No copy of the third volume is known to exist. The Memoirs are the principal sources for Conze's biography and reveal much about his personal life and attitudes.
Conze was educated in several German Universities and showed a propensity for languages. He claimed that by twenty-four, he knew fourteen languages.
Following a mid-life crisis Conze turned to Buddhism and was particularly influenced by D. T. Suzuki. He made his name for his editions and translations of Sanskrit texts of the Buddhist Prajñāpāramitā literature. He published translations of all the principal texts of the genre, including the Aṣṭasāhasrikā (8000 Line), Ratnaguṇasamcayagāthā, Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā (25,000 Line), Vajracchedikā, and Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. All of these show the explicit influence of Suzuki's Theosophy infused Zen Buddhism. However, the only permanent academic post he was offered had to be turned down because US immigration officials declined him a work permit on the basis of his past as a Communist.
A glance at a complete bibliography of Conze's oeuvre confirms that he was a man of industry and focus. His contribution to the field of Buddhist Studies, particularly of the Prajñāpāramitā literature, has had a major influence on subsequent generations.
In his essay Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century (Windhorse Publications: 1996), controversial British writer and teacher of Buddhism, and personal friend of Conze's, Sangharakshita writes that "Dr. Conze was a complex figure, and it is not easy to assess his overall significance.... He was a self-confessed élitist, which is usually something people are ashamed of nowadays, but he wasn’t ashamed of it at all.... Nor did he approve of either democracy or feminism, which makes him a veritable ogre of ‘political incorrectness’." Nevertheless, Sangharakshita summarizes Conze's legacy as a scholar of Buddhism as follows:
Dr Conze was one of the great Buddhist translators, comparable with the indefatigable Chinese translators Kumarajiva and Hsuan-tsang of the fifth and seventh centuries respectively. It is especially significant, I think, that as a scholar of Buddhism he also tried to practise it, especially meditation. This was very unusual at the time he started his work, and he was regarded then – in the forties and fifties – as being something of an eccentric. Scholars were not supposed to have any personal involvement in their subject. They were supposed to be ‘objective’. So he was a forerunner of a whole new breed of Western scholars in Buddhism who are actually practising Buddhists.
Ji Yun, Librarian of the Buddhist College of Singapore, describes Conze's legacy as follows:
Even to this day, Edward Conze (1904-1979) the German British scholar has to be regarded, not as one of many, but as the most important researcher on Prajñāpāramitā literature. This genius of Buddhist linguist [sic.] and philologist devoted his whole life to the collation, translation and research of Prajñāpāramitā literature in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese – a language relatively neglected by European scholars before him. Although the research of this prolific writer covers well beyond the Prajñāpāramitā category, his works dedicated solely to this, according to an incomplete count by the Japanese scholar Yuyama Akira 汤山明, include 16 books and 46 articles.... In the history of Prajñāpāramitā research Conze can be regarded as a formidable scholar with no comparison, suprpassing [sic.] all past and perhaps even future researchers in his achievement.
However, while religieux continue to idolize Conze, his work has attracted much criticism from within academia. Greg Schopen notes many errors in Conze’s Sanskrit edition of the Vajracchedikā and says,
"The edition of the late Edward Conze… is of very dubious value from a text-critical point of view… In regard more specifically to the Gilgit text it should be noted that Conze's notes to his edition reproduce all the errors in Chakravarti's edition, and that there are a number of cases in which Conze's notations in regard to the Gilgit text are wrong or misleading"
Conze's translation of the Large Prajñāpāramitā Sutra attracted poor reviews from across the spectrum of Buddhist Studies partly because of his methods and editorial decisions and partly for the torturous prose he used. In his now infamous article, Buddhist Hybrid English: Some Notes on Philology and Hermeneutics for Buddhologists, Paul Griffiths singled out Conze’s Large Sutra translation, to illustrate what he meant by "Buddhist Hybrid English", saying, "Dr. Conze's translation bears only the most tenuous relationship to the English language in terms of syntax, and is full of unexplained technical terminology" (1981). However, Griffith is also making a broader point: "I chose this example not because Dr. Conze's translations are worse than anyone else's; in fact they are better than most. Rather, it illustrates with a concrete example the kind of gibberish that is all too often produced by the Buddhological community in the sacred name of translation" (1981: 30).
In reflections on a life in Buddhist Studies, retiring professor Charles Prebish said "Edward Conze, Leon Hurvitz, Alex Wayman, and a few others, were amongst the meanest individuals in academe [sic]. While they were utterly brilliant scholars, they seemed to take real delight in humiliating students rather than encouraging them." Conze's legacy does not include a host of scholars and students continuing to work on the Prajñāpāramitā texts. On the contrary only a handful of scholars now work on this literature and much of their output is published exclusively in Japanese.
Although Conze was unrepentant of his elitism and political incorrectness, as noted above by Sangharakshita, some of his attitudes were less easily shrugged off. To take just two examples from his Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic, Vol I:
"I did not want a wife at all, but a servant who would look after me while I was doing my scholarly work. If it had not been for the servant shortage which set in after 1918, I would never have had any motive to marry at all” (31)."
"My further comments on the negrification [sic] of Notting Hill Gate manifestly contravene the Race Relations Act of June 1977. They are therefore removed to Part III (65)." (Part III was never published)
For a complete bibliography of Conze's works see the website, Conze Memorial http://www.conze.elbrecht.com/
- 1932. Der Satz vom Widerspruch. Hamburg, 1932.
- 1951. Buddhism: Its Essence and Development.
- 1956. Buddhist meditation. London: Ethical & Religious Classics of East & West.
- 1958. Buddhist Wisdom Books: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. George Allen & Unwin. Second edition 1976.
- 1959. Buddhist Scriptures. Haremondsworth: Penguin Classics.
- 1960. The Prajñāpāramitā Literature. Mouton. Second Edition: [Bibliographica Philogica Buddhica Series Maior I] The Reiyukai Library: 1978
- 1967. Materials for a Dictionary of the Prajñāpāramitā Literature. Tokyo, Suzuki Research Foundation.
- 1973. The Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom. University of California Press.
- 1973. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and its Verse Summary. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006.
- 1973. Perfect Wisdom: The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts. Buddhist Publishing Group.
- 1975. Further Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays. Oxford, Bruno Cassirer
- Heine 2016; Langenberger Kulturlexikon.
- Humphreys 1980, p. 147
- de Jong 1980, p. 143
- Conze 1979
- Heine 2016, xiv
- Jackson 1981, pp. 103-104
- Jackson 1981, p. 102
- Houston 1980, p.92
- Conze 1979: I 4
- Heine 2016
- Attwood 2020, pp. 22–51
- Sangharakshita 1996
- Yun 2017, 9-113
- Schopen. G. 1989. "The Manuscript of Vajracchedikā found at Gilgit." In L.O. Gómez & J.A. Silk (eds.), Studies in the Literature of the Great Vehicle: Three Mahāyāna Buddhist Texts, 89-139. Ann Arbor: Collegiate Institute for the Study of Buddhist Literature and Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan (Michigan Studies in Buddhist Literature, no. 1).
- Silk 1994. The Heart Sūtra in Tibetan: a Critical Edition of the Two Recensions Contained in the Kanjur. Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien: 32
- Huifeng 2014. "Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: Non-attainment, Apprehension, and Mental Hanging in the Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya". Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 6: 72-105; Attwood, J. 2015. "Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya.". JOCBS 8: 28-48. and 2018. "A Note on Niṣṭhānirvāṇa in the Heart Sutra." Journal of the Oxford Centre For Buddhist Studies 14: 10-17.
- See for example the reviews by G. Schopen. Indo-Iranian Journal 19(1/2):135-152. or D. Seyfort Ruegg. 1977. Journal of Indian Philosophy 5(1/2):187-189
- Griffiths. Paul J. (1981). "Buddhist Hybrid English: Some Notes on Philology and Hermeneutics for Buddhologists." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4(2): 17-32.
- Prebish, Charles S. 2019. Bat Out Of Hell, Hnet
- Attwood, J. (2020). "Edward Conze: A Call to Reassess the Man and his Contribution to Prajñāpāramitā Studies." JOCBS 19: 22–51.
- Conze, Edward (1979). Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic. Parts I and II. Privately Published.
- de Jong, J.W. (1980). Edward Conze 1904–1979, Indo-Iranian Journal 22 (2), 143-146. – via JSTOR (subscription required)
- Heine, Holger (2016). 'Aristotle, Marx, Buddha: Edward Conze's Critique of the Principle of Contradiction', in Conze, Edward, The Principle of Contradiction. Lexington Books, pp. xiii–lxiii. First published in German as Der Satz vom Widerspruch. Hamburg, 1932
- Houston, G.W. (1980). Review: The Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic by Edward Conze, The Tibet Journal, 5 (1/2), 91-93. – via JSTOR (subscription required)
- Humphreys, Christmas (1980). Edward Conze, 1904-1979, The Eastern Buddhist (new series), 13 (2), 147-148. – via JSTOR (subscription required)
- Jackson, Roger R. (1981). Review: The Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic, Parts I and II (Edward Conze), Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4 (2), 102-105
- Langenberger Kulturlexikon: Immaterielles Kulturerbe der UNESCO. http://www.unter-der-muren.de/kulturlexikon.pdf
- Sangharakshita (1996). Great Buddhists of the Twentieth Century, Windhorse Publications
- Yun, Ji . 纪赟 —《心经》疑伪问题再研究, Fuyan Buddhist Studies no. 7 (2012): 115-182. Trans. Chin Shih-Foong, Is the Heart Sūtra an Apocryphal Text? – A Re-examination, Singapore Journal of Buddhist Studies (2017), 4: 9-113.