Curators of the Buddha : The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism

Source: The Journal of Religion, University of Chicago, Review Published in the Lanka Daily News, Dec 22, 2004

LOPEZ, DONALD S., JR., ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 298 pp., $45.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).
Reviewed by John Clifford Holt

A volume of critical essays analyzing the motives, assumptions, interpretive devices, and legacies of scholarly paradigms produced by nineteenth- and twentieth-century "pioneering" European scholars has been long overdue in Buddhist studies. This book is aimed at filling the gap and begins that process successfully.

The initial essay by the editor goes beyond its able introduction of the major issues discussed in the six essays that follow: it also recounts how hundreds of Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts from Nepalese monasteries were first collected by an enterprising British civil servant, Brian Hodgson (1800-1894) and then disseminated throughout Europe to leading Indologists of the time, transactions that were to become, in Max Muller's words, "the real beginning of an historical and critical study of the doctrine of the Buddha" (p. 2).

What Lopez sees in European efforts to have these texts translated and interpreted in Europe rather than in Asia is an "ambivalence of trust and suspicion of the native that would come to characterize the study of Buddhism in the west" (p. 3).

Charles Hallisey's essay focuses on T. W. Rhys Davids's legacy as "an inaugural hero" of Buddhist studies who privileged historically earlier texts while neglecting vernacular texts, distrusted Asians to provide authoritative interpretations, and characterized "original Buddhism" as rationalistic and free from ritual. Hallisey raises a series of problems overlooked not only by Rhys Davids, who "essentialized Buddhism in terms of its pristine teachings," but also by contemporary scholars influenced by Edward Said's Orientalism (London, 1978), who often ignore a "heterogeneity of interests" by essentializing Europe and the Orient as well.

In this context, Hallisey stresses the need for contemporary scholars to look for relations between the West and the Orient that are not simply inversions or negations but relations reflecting an "intercultural mimesis," especially the "elective affinities" between Western positivist historiography and Buddhist styles of representation of the same time periods.

He suggests that scholars should ask questions regarding the manner in which selected texts have been privileged by Buddhist tradition and how those privileges are maintained. Stanley Abe's chapter is concerned with how the orientalist scholarship of art historians Vincent Smith, Alfred Foucher, Aurel Stein, and others thoroughly aggrandized the significance of Greek and Roman influence on Buddhist art, aggrandizements that at once domesticated and legitimated the position of Buddhist art within a European discourse on the history of world art, a discourse, in turn, controlled to the exclusion of the native.

Greek influence, from this orientalist perspective, raised Buddhist sculpture temporarily to a level of aesthetics "acceptable" to Western standards.

In juxtaposition to Smith, Foucher, and Stein, Abe also notes how E. B. Havell and Ananda Coomaraswamy argued that Buddhist art cannot be understood unless approached within the context of Indian Buddhist intentions and spirituality. Robert Sharf's essay, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism," is the most powerful and carefully crafted essay in the book.

It focuses on formative influences leading to D. T. Suzuki's popular presentations of Zen to Westerners as the quintessential spirit of Japanese culture. Sharf relates how Suzuki's articulation of Zen was the product of how "true Buddhism" (Zen) had been portrayed in late Meiji intellectual circles as rational, empirical, and the key constituent of bushido (the way of the warrior), how Suzuki came under the tutorial influence of Paul Carus' "religion of science" during an eleven-year stay in Illinois, and how Suzuki's characterization of Zen as "pure experience" was also inspired by the "Kyoto school" philosophy of Nishida Kitaro, and later elaborated by Abe Masao and the "occidentalist" art historian Hisamatsu Shin'ichi. Sharf sees Suzuki and these intellectuals as the vanguard of a movement whose "agenda was a species of nihonjinron-a popular discursive enterprise devoted to the delineation and explication of the unique qualities of the Japanese, which invariably touts the cultural homogeneity as well as the moral and spiritual superiority of the Japanese vis-a-vis other peoples" (p. 136).

Gustavo Benavides' essay is an expose of Giuseppi Tucci, the most famous European scholar of Tibetan Buddhism in the twentieth century, and his links to Italian and Japanese fascism, links especially evident in a series of articles written by Tucci for the Japanese magazine Yamato.

According to Benavides, these essays are "Tucci's hymns to the military virtues of Zen" (p. 172). Benavides sees Tucci's fascism and orientalism as emblematic of a deep-seated modern experience of alienation stemming from a realization of the limitations of the individual's will, a limitation that can only be transcended, so it goes, by participating in the collective power of the state.

Luis Gomez's thorough assessment of Carl Jung's understanding of the "East," especially Buddhism, and more particularly yoga as it was articulated in Jung's article "The Psychology of Eastern Meditation," is an absolute demolition, despite Gomez's best efforts to soften the blow.

In citing Jung's unwarranted appropriations, inaccuracies, mystifications, and confusions, Gomez sees something centrally reflective of most European encounters with non-Europeans: xenophobia mixed with xenophilia as the European first recognizes a virtue and concedes authority, then appropriates that virtue while concomitantly assuming authority, and finally distances himself by asserting differences that separate him from the other. For Gomez, this threefold movement "is what defines the Orientalist bias, and the unavowed colonial stance, in Jung's writings on Asia" (p. 229).

As with most collections, some essays are more incisive than others, though this one clearly reflects an attempt by the editor to provide threads of continuity throughout. One might also expect to encounter a fair measure of "grave dancing" in a book of this sort. There is some of that, to be sure, but not enough to detract significantly from the book's major contributions. There is no index.