Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism

Reviewed by John Clifford Holt

The Journal of Religion

Vol.77 No.1

Jan 1997


Copyright by University of Chicago

            LOPEZ, DONALD S., JR., ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 
            1995. 298 pp. $45.95 (cloth); $16.95 (paper). 
            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 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's "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's 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). 
            Lopez's article begins by describing how the early 
            nineteenth-century Jesuit missionary, Ippolito Desideri, was denied 
            by Tibetan monks, despite repeated entreaties, an explanation of the 
            Mahayana doctrine of emptiness, how Alexander Csoma de Koros, who 
            had been seeking the origins of Hungarian culture and language in 
            Central Asia, ended up writing the first Tibetan dictionary, thereby 
            giving birth to Tibetology, and how L. Austine Waddell, a British 
            civil servant in Sikkim at the turn of the century, came to 
            characterize Tibetan Buddhism as a degeneration of "original 
            Buddhism" replete with superstitious accretions. Lopez then appends 
            an account of his own attempts during the late 1970s to understand 
            Buddhism from Tibetan monks in exile as part of his own effort to 
            answer a call to preserve a culture in danger of disappearing. 
            Within this autobiographical narrative, Lopez discusses the dilemmas 
            of the privileged and inquiring outside scholar in creating textual 
            commentaries out of oral teachings, the perils of appropriation and 
            objectification in so doing, and the inherent difficulties of 
            handing down the dharma from teacher to student and from culture to 
            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.