Wednesday, March 05, 2014


Had some multimedia fun as I shepherded the Buddhism and Modern Thought class through our Kaempfer moment. This is a map of Asia I traced from online, which would soon be filled with tangled arrows marking the historical spread of Buddhism over two and a half millennia. Superimposed on it are Khmer Buddhist heads (from the Google), representing the disembodied and decontextualized Buddhism we know in the West: none of these will have been carved as a free-standing heads; most were knocked off of monuments like Angkor Wat.

In the end, of course, the local histories of modern Buddhist engagements and challenges throughout Asia overwhelmed us with too much information. I discussed four ways of responding:

1) one might write off the whole history as deviations and distractions, best put aside in favor of attention to the pure words of The Founder;

2) one could represent the spread of Buddhism as a family tree - though there turns out to be no impartial way of doing that; after all, the "trunk" of Indian Buddhism disappears! I brought back the banyan tree image from the last time I tried this exercise - branches become trunks, things grow down and up at the same time, a most Zennish tree!
3) one might dispense with the need for a linear story by instead stressing that, wherever if found itself, the Buddhadharma successfully accommodated itself to the preexisting culture, political structures and religious practices - though the histories we'd just finished reading forcibly raise the question of just how "successful" this really was: was not, instead, the dharma lost or smothered along the way?

4) finally one might own a Buddhist view, in which the dharma isn't just flotsam floating on the waves of human history but an agent in its own right; but then why confine oneself to a single point of revelation? Gautama isn't the only Buddha venerated in these traditions, bodhisattvas are busily at work. etc. Maybe, indeed, getting this history right is an irrelevance. The dharma we need will find its way to us, as it does to every era.

I didn't mention that, on this last view, one ought to expect similar upāya at work beyond "Buddhist" traditions entirely. That will have wait until the second half of the semester.

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