Monday, March 03, 2014

A fighting chance

"Buddhism and Modern Thought" has reached what I'm calling our Kaempfer moment. Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) was a German physician who accompanied a Dutch East India ship to Japan (Dejima), by way of Siam. He wrote one of the first European accounts of Japan, but also included some description of what he'd seen in Thailand, and an account of what we now call Buddhism which our pal Donald Lopez cites in the selection we read from The Scientific Buddha. Check it out: the long inset passage below. What Lopez calls the "African hyopothesis" - that the nubby hair of Buddha statues testifies to an African, perhaps Egyptian origin - was the subject of our class discussion. But now we return to Kaempfer as the second of four representative figures in Lopez' tale of the emergence of the sanitized Buddha of western construction. The first and last, Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) and Eugène Burnouf (1801-52), never left Europe, assembling a picture of Buddhism from texts which had been sent back from Asia. The others, Kaempfer and a William Erskine (1773-1852), were in Asia - Erskine a minor court official in Bombay fascinated by the Buddhist sculptures in the caves of Elephanta Island. 

But 19th century India was as Buddhist-free as the libraries of Rome and Paris so Kaempfer is the only one who spends time with actual Buddhists. And, despite his valiant efforts to make sense of all he sees, he is royally confused by it. He observes "I am at a loss how to reconcile these various and opposite accounts" of the origins of the beliefs and practices he observes. He is convinced that Prah, Budhum, Siaka and Fotoge somehow belong together, but the best he can do to connect them is his variant of the African hypothesis.
We too, having left the academic clarity of the "scientific Buddha" presented by Walpola Rahula for places Buddhists actually live, are "at a loss how to reconcile" the widely divergent experiences of Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand, Burma, Tibet and Nepal which we've learned about (with China and Taiwan, Cambodia and Korea yet to come). We've encountered not only complex histories but unfamiliar and difficult questions about Buddhism and politics and nationalism, the lingering consequences of colonialism, patriarchy, magic, etc. - as well as intra Buddhist controversies and often harmonious coexistence with other traditions. Some of these larger themes suggest ways of bringing all this information together, but they look nothing like the western scholar's or any actual Buddhist tradition's picture (like the Tibetan lineage below) of what's going on. We've come to the point where some scholars refuse to speak of Buddhism as a world religion at all, preferring to discuss Thai religion, South Chinese religion, Korean religion, etc.

It's a bit of a gamble, I concede, to set students up for such overwhelmment when many are encountering "Buddhism" for the first time. But it seems to me necessary if we are to avoid the mistakes of western Buddhists and Buddhologists who don't allow the practices of actual Buddhist societies to complicate the pictures emerging from streamlined translations of ancient texts and the slick "What I teach is the true Buddhism" of missionizing and convert teachers. Kaempfer names our perplexity not because it will lead to a clear, all-encompassing understanding of "Buddhism" and its travails, but because it's so hard not to seek a master narrative, origin or authoritative tradition to array these disparate phenomena around. We might be able to do better than the African hypothesis, but, if not ancient Egypt, we'd still have to anchor our story somewhere, and there's both too much and too little information in the Buddhist world to make that choice uncontroversial.

Discomfiting historiographical epiphanies await! And, perhaps, Buddhist ones, too. Isn't the reality of samsara a lot more like the convoluted picture we're getting than that of the "scientific Buddha" with his false promise to eject us from contingency with a simple 4-point plan?

(The sketch at top is by Kaempfer himself and lives, as you could perhaps make out, at the British Library. The map and Geluk thankga were used by students in their presentations.)

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