Conze was born in London of mixed German, French, and Dutch ancestry. His father belonged to the German landed aristocracy, and his mother to what he himself would have called the 'plutocracy'. His background was Protestant, though his mother became a Roman Catholic in later life. He seems to have had a rather difficult relationship with his mother. Conze claimed to be related to Friedrich Engels.
He was born in England because his father happened to be posted there as German Vice-Consul, but this meant that he had British nationality. He was educated at various German universities, graduating with a Ph.D. from the University of Cologne in 1928, he then proceeded to carry out post doctoral studies in comparative European and Indian Philosophy at the University of Bonn and the University of Hamburg. Conze wielded a flair for languages picking up a command of fourteen of them, including Sanskrit, by the age of twenty-four. Like many other Europeans, he came into contact with Theosophy quite early on. But he also took up astrology. He took it seriously, remaining a keen astrologer all his life. And while still a young man, he wrote a very substantial book called The Principle of Contradiction.
During the rise to power of Hitler, Conze found himself so strongly opposed to the Nazi ideology that he joined the Communist Party and even made a serious study of Marxist thought. It seems that for a while he was the leader of the communist movement in Bonn, and in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic, talks about organizing communist street gangs in Hamburg, which briefly put his life in danger.
In 1933 he came to England, having earlier taken the precaution of renewing his British nationality, and he arrived at the age of twenty-nine, virtually without money or possessions. He supported himself by teaching German, and taking evening classes, and he became a member of the Labour Party. He met a lot of prominent figures and intellectuals in the Labour movement and was not impressed. However, the Secretary of State for Education, Chair of the Labour Party and MP, Ellen Wilkinson did impress him, and the two later published two books together entitled Why War? and Why Fascism?.
He became very active in the socialist movement in Britain, lecturing and writing books and pamphlets, until eventually he became disillusioned with politics. At the age of thirty-five he found himself in a state of intellectual turmoil and collapse. Even his marriage had failed. Indeed, in his memoirs he admits 'I am one of those unfortunate people who can neither live with women nor without them.'
From 1933 until 1960 he lectured in psychology, philosophy and comparative religion at the University of London and the University of Oxford. Between 1963 and 1973 he held a number of academic appointments in England, Germany and the USA, also serving for a significant amount of time as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster.
At this point he discovered - or rather rediscovered - Buddhism. At the age of thirteen he had read Gleanings in Buddha Fields by Lafcadio Hearn. However, Conze's first significant contact with Buddhism was at this mid-point in his life, at the beginning of the Second World War, and it was through the writings of D.T. Suzuki.
Once intrigued, Conze devoted the rest of his life to Buddhism, and in particular to translating the Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom sutras, which are the fundamental scriptures of the Mahayana. However, he wasn't just a scholar in the academic sense. During the war he lived on his own in a caravan in the New Forest and practised meditation, following very seriously the instructions given by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga, and allegedly achieving some degree of meditative experience.
Being brutally honest, especially about himself, he would confess in his later lectures in America that he was just a Buddhist scholar and not a monk and therefore people should not be disappointed if his actions and behaviors did not live up to the Buddhist ideal. Reflective of Conze's prominent position as a Buddhist is the fact that he served as Vice-President of the Buddhist Society.
After the war he moved to Oxford and re-married. In 1951 he brought out Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, a very successful book which is still in print. However, his real achievement over the following twenty years was to translate altogether more than thirty texts comprising the Prajnaparamita sutras, including two of the most well-known of all Buddhist texts, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra.
In the sixties and seventies he lectured at several universities in the United States, and he was popular with students. However, he was very outspoken, and gained the disapproval of the university authorities and some of his colleagues. With the combination of his communist past and his candid criticism of the American involvement in Vietnam, he was eventually obliged to leave. He died on September 24, 1979 at his home in Sherborne, Dorset.
Dr Conze was a complex figure, and it is not easy to assess his overall significance. He was of course a Middle European intellectual refugee, fleeing from Germany before the war like many others. However, he wasn't representative of the dominant strains in twentieth century intellectual life, because he was very critical of many trends in modern thought. He was a self-confessed elitist. Indeed, he entitled his autobiography Memoirs of a Modern Gnostic, believing as he did that Gnosticism was essentially elitist. Neither did he approve of democracy nor feminism.
He is certainly representative of a whole pre-war generation in the West which became disillusioned with Marxism, especially in its Soviet form. Where he differed from others was in the fact that he did not really lose religious beliefs. He transferred his idealism from politics to Buddhism.
Dr Conze was one of the great Buddhist translators, comparable with the indefatigable Chinese translators Kumarajiva and Hsuan Tsang. It is especially significant 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 1940s and 1950s - as being something of an eccentric. In order to be 'objective' scholars were not supposed to have any personal involvement in their subject. He was hence a forerunner of a whole new breed of Western scholars in Buddhism who are actually practising Buddhists.
- Why War? (1934) - with Ellen Wilkinson
- Why Fascism? (1934) - with Ellen Wilkinson
- The Scientific Method of Thinking: An Introduction to Dialectical Materialism (1935)
- An Introduction to Dialectical Materialism (1936)
- Spain To-day: Revolution and Counter Revolution (1936)
- Contradiction and Reality: A Summary (1939)
- Buddhism: Its Essence and Development (1951)
- Abhisamayālaṅkāra (1954)
- Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom (1955)
- The Buddha's Law Among the Birds (1956)
- Buddhist Meditation (1956 & 1972)
- Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā (1957)
- Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines and its Verse Summary (1958)
- A Short History of Buddhism (1958)
- Buddhist Scriptures (1959)
- The Prajñāpāramitā Literature (1960)
- The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom with divisions of Abhisamayālaṅkāra (1961)
- Gilgit Manuscript of Aṣṭādaśasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā (1962)
- Buddhist Thought in India: Three Phases of Buddhist Philosophy (1962)
- Materials for a Dictionary of the Prajñāpāramitā Literature (1967)
- Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays (1967)
- The Short Prajñāpāramitā Texts (1974)
- Further Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays (1975)
- The Memoirs of A Modern Gnostic (1979)