The round-eyed Buddha

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Over at my other blog I’ve posted several times about Buddhism. The main reason was to clarify a boundary condition when it came to the discussion of the evolution and psychology of religion. When addressing the intersection of these two disciplines and their relevance to modeling religious phenomena it was important to emphasize the relative lack of importance of written texts and elite formulations upon the modal mental representation amongst the believers. In large part this is because many Westerners who are by temperament anti-religious, and in their personal ontology scientific materialists, will tend to excuse Buddhism from the general critique which they apply to other faiths. When discussing religion as a natural phenomenon, that is with an analytic gaze, one must approach it from some remove, and the view that many secularists have of Buddhism as being the “atheistic religion” tends to result in less skepticism then would otherwise be the case. That being said, I am not as ignorant of the elite traditions of Buddhism, and the view from the “commanding” heights, as some SB readers assumed. Additionally, I do not believe that elites or their formulations are irrelevant. Rather, their importance must be modulated and held in perspective, people may kill each other over the fact that they are Shia or Sunni, and tens of millions may be expended to “convert” a people from the profession of belief in one god to another, but all the while the conflicts may not be based on any substantive psychological distinction. In any case, with that in mind I picked up All is Change: The Two-Thousand-Year Journey of Buddhism to the West, a history of the interplay of Buddhist ideas and Western intellectual history.


The author, Lawrence Sutin, is a secular Jew who is clearly a religious seeker and sympathetic with a broadly ecumenical world view (he states as much in the forward). It shows in the text, as he is very conversant in the details of the contemporary American Buddhist “scene,” and sympathetic toward the community while being objective enough to shed light upon shortcomings (e.g., ethical lapses amongst the leadership). But his treatment of the first thousand years is a bit sketchier, Sutin is obviously relying on only partially digested secondary sources. For example, at one point he states that Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the 4th century, and later on he says it arrived in the 5th century. Actually, it was the 6th century. In covering the last flowering of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent centered around pre-Islamic Bengal he states that the Buddhist Pala kings were conquered by Muslim warlords from central Asia, but in fact the Palas fell to the Hindu Sena dynasty (who are often considered anti-Buddhist), who were then defeated by Turkic invaders. These are minor historical errors in the broad sweep of the story, but it does suggest that the author has a relatively vague sense of early Asian Buddhism. On the other hand, as you shift the time scale closer to the present, and address the various flirtations with Buddhism by modern European intellectuals starting with the Sinophilia of late 17th century, the author becomes far more confident and detailed in his description and analysis. Fundamentally, Sutin’s narrative is one which focuses on the transformation of Buddhism into a modern Western religion through several centuries of interaction, spanning the Age of Exploration down to the post-colonial period. As such, it will be of special interest to Western converts to Buddhism and those who are “fellow travelers” in regards to Buddhist beliefs.

Nevertheless, despite its contemporary skew All is Change is still illuminating as a guide to the literature of Eurasia’s cultural development after the rise of the “world” religions. Though not an expert himself, Suttin does a good job of offering bite-sized summaries of the current state of scholarship in regards to questions about the possible influence of Buddhism upon Christianity, and Christianity upon Buddhism. The reality seems to be that the exact answer to most of these questions are not extractable from the morass of human history, the possibility remains that features of Buddhism such as monasticism might have played a role in serving as an indirect template for early Christianity. Or, inversely, that Nestorian Christianity, or religions influenced by this eastern variant of Christianity such as Manichaeanism, may have played a role in the genesis of Pure Land Buddhism, whose evangelical flavor and theistic bent have long been observed by Westerners as at least superficially analogous to religions with which they are more familiar with. But from the perspective of cultural science it is also critical to entertain the possibility that many aspect of transcultural religions which exhibit similarities may also be naturally evoked properties of the human mind’s interaction with its environmental substratum. For example, the idea in parts of the early Christian Church that the soul may enter into a process of transmigration need not necessarily imply an influence of Indian religious thought (with Buddhism as the vector). Reincarnation seems a common religious idea which can be found in a variety of pre-Christian religious traditions in Europe (e.g., the Celtic world). This does not mean that an influence from Buddhism was not possible, it simply suggests that a hard reliance on diffusionism of universally recurrent motifs should be treated with caution. In contrast to the typical muddle the tale of Barlaam and Josaphat is clearly a garbled retelling of the life of the Buddha, which can be attested by the 8th century in Christian Georgia. In terms of specific & precise “small ideas” it seems that diffusionism is far easier to appeal to, unless one believes in a sort of Jungian meta-consciousness. I think Sutin’s narrative converges upon the most plausible explanation for cross-cultural influences and similarities, between the 6th century BCE and 6th century CE Eurasia was slowly shifting from “civilization” being defined as islands in a sea of tribal barbarism toward a robust network of cultures and meta-civilizations with multiple foci of creativity (e.g., even though the Western Roman Empire fell, the Byzantines during the 6th century fundamentally maintained continuity with late antiquity and kept the fire of Roman Christian civilization alive). Within this common pool of networked cultures idea could move relatively fast if they were selected, e.g., bureaucratic states arose all across Eurasia within a few centuries. But, one might also offer that bureaucratic states might simply be a ‘natural’ form which large political agglomerations focused upon urban areas must take as a necessity for their perpetuation.

With the rise of Islam the Buddhist and Christian worlds were separated and interacted only via the new mediator civilization. Sutin’s story is therefore relatively brisk until one reaches the 16th century, when European colonialism began to make inroads into societies where Buddhism was the dominant religion. The early interactions also show the importance of semantics and form to elites. In Japan the Jesuits dressed like Buddhist monks because Buddhism had a relatively high status there in the eyes of the ruling caste. In China the Jesuits switched to aping Confucian officials in their style of dress and avoided associations with Buddhist monks because they were considered to be rabble. Additionally, across the chasm of centuries and languages problems arose because the Christians had to make sure that their religion was not viewed as just another sect of Buddhism. Catholics initially adopted some of the terminology of Pure Land Buddhism only to abandon this because of the ensuing confusion. Latin religious phrases which had no intelligible Chinese resonance were necessary lest the similarity of terminologies (e.g., for “God”) result in the lack of distinction between the faiths.

This brings me to reiterate the point that modal religiosity on the ground was often little different between the various world religions. One reason that semantics was crucial was that conventional beliefs of the culturally naive could easily confuse devotions to bodhisattvas with that of the Christian religion. Such confusions were not unknown going in the other direction, along the coast of western India the Portuguese spared some Hindu statuary which depicted the three faces of the godhead precisely because they assumed that it must be their familiar Trinity. Histories of the Chinese Jews consistently reiterates that the native elite had difficulties distinguishing this religion from Islam, and to some extent Christians also were easily confused with the other monotheistic religions. Perhaps because of these confusions the early missionaries, such as Francis Xavier, focused on bringing lettered elites to Christianity first. In late Ming China a small core group of intellectuals along with members of the court had sympathy with Catholic Christianity, while in Japan the conversion of the populace in Kyushu was primarily a top-down affair through the conversion of daimyos. The choice to “start at the top” during the early centuries caused problems due to the connection between Christianity and a particular political faction. The fall of their patrons was one reason that Catholicism went into decline in China (with the rise of the vigorous Manchus and their suspicion of the Jesuit’s foreign connections and the rejection of the ancestor cult by the Catholic Church) and was exterminated in Japan (where the ruling shoguns looked with suspicion at Christians who seemed to be allying with Iberian powers). It is important to remember that for several centuries the Jesuits were the face of Christianity for many East Asians. I think this prefigures in some ways the introduction of Buddhism to the West.

Jumping to the 19th century Sutin’s story really starts kicking into high gear. This is when Arthur Schopenhauer makes a strong case for Buddhism as a religion superior to Christianity, which is fundamentally non-theistic. Like many intellectuals of the time Schopenhauer contended that many core features of Christianity were derivable from Buddhism, and the racial conceptions of the time played into his model, as he conceived of the Buddhist element as what made Christianity distinct from Semitic Judaism. Since Schopenhauer thought of of Buddhism as an “Aryan” religion he believed in the future northern Europeans would naturally defect from the “Mediterranean” derived Christianity to the new religion, which was non-theistic to boot. Other intellectuals had differing opinions, racialist thinker Arthur Gobineau believed Buddhism was rooted in an anti-Aryan cultural rebellion in the Indian subcontinent, so he did not believe that the religion was fundamentally a sound basis for European spirituality. From a few intellectuals the Buddhist ideas spread by the end of the 19th century to have cultural influence via the rise of spiritualism and neo-Eastern religions, centered around the Theosophical Society. Though many of the new religious adepts claimed tutelage under Eastern mentors, in general the primary mode of transmission seems to be textual. Transcendentalism in New England was less shaped by real Brahmins from India than the readings of Hindu scriptures enabled by Orientalist translators. On occasion a Western enthusiast would also produce a translation of a Buddhist text. Obviously Buddhism was not a mass religion being spread through a “Great Awakening” (as men like Schopenhauer might have dreamed), but an elite sect which combined elements of esoterica and rationalism. Schopenhauer’s contention that Buddhism was non-theistic was and remains a common viewpoint among Westerners, who dismiss forms which seem operationally theistic (Pure Land) as debased or culturally muddied (e.g., “that’s not real Buddhism”).

But the influence of Buddhism upon a small core of Western intellectuals was not without consequences for lands traditionally Buddhist. Men like Anagarika Dharmapala, born David Hewavitarne to a Christian Sinhalese family, were strongly influenced by individuals from the Theosophical society to fight back against the inroads of Christianity in Sri Lanka. Though a resistance movement to Christian missionaries was already emerging, the impact of Westerners was clearly non-trivial in the emergence of what has sometimes been termed a “Protestant Buddhism.” The term is meant to be ironic, but I think it reflects the crystallization of an elite Buddhism which could communicate effectively and intelligibly with Westerners, Christian and non-Christian. Though elite Buddhism has always had a transparent and fundamental non-theistic side, Buddhism does exhibit some axiomatic logic, many of the 19th century intellectuals in the West reinterpreted Buddhism through a definite Enlightenment lens. This sensibility has also spread to many elite Asians, many of whom already saw Buddhism as a meditative avocation as opposed to a mass religion. Just as Native Americans sincerely embrace a self-perception of being “close to Nature” after several centuries of European depiction as Noble Savages, so educated Asian Buddhists can see in their religion’s ambiguities and complexities vis-a-vis the uncompromising simple message of the Abrahamic faiths as a testament to its sophistication. Dharmapala was also a man of his time insofar as he fused Buddhism with Sinhalese racial identity (mimicking Western racialists who would declare that Europe was the faith, and that the faith was Europe), formulating the precursor to the compound identity espoused by many Sinhalese nationalists today.

In many ways it seems to me that Christianity and Buddhism are inverted in their sociological role in the Pacific Rim and the West. I have spoken to many Taiwanese converts to Christianity who speak of how it is a more rational religion than “superstitious” Buddhism. And yet one can find the exact same sentiments from Westerners who accept Buddhism after leaving a Christian background. In South Korea Christians tend to be more well educated than Buddhists, while in the United States the reverse is true. In Japan Christianity and its ideas are culturally prominent in relation to its numbers, and one may say the same about Buddhism in much of the West. This illustrates I think a parallel process to modal religiosity, and that is the systematic rational religiosity of segments of the elite. If by chance Buddhism had lodged itself in the lower classes of the West its modal nature in the West would be, I suspect, far different. Similarly, in Taiwan Christianity is a middle class religion, while in parts of North India is fundamentally a lower class religion. These social realities may strongly shape belief and practice.

The history of the Buddhist Churches of America is shows the nature of the cleavages in Western Buddhism. This ethnic Japanese offshoot of Pure Land Buddhism has been present on American soil for a century, but it remains by and large stuck in its ghetto, and has had very little impact upon the convert community. In contrast, Zen has been far more influential, and I think that that is due to Zen’s more individualistic and less devotional orientation. Western “seekers” aren’t looking for another “Church,” they are looking for the Way. Similarly, Sokka Gakkai devotional form of Buddhism is known to have a far larger proportion of blacks and Latinos than is common amongst converts. I believe this is a function of the fact that Sokka Gakkai resembles religion as these communities experience and understand them to a far greater extent than mainstream American Buddhism, which has been shaped by an elite white sensibility.

In regards to the elite sensibility, I think it is important to observe, as Sutin does, that a disproportionate number of Buddhists in the United States are of Jewish ancestry. Sutin states that about 1/3 of American Buddhist leaders are Jewish ethnically, and offers that some have estimated that 3/4 of the whites who reside in Dharamsala are Jewish. Sutin offers that the attraction of Buddhism is of a spirituality that speaks to Jews who can not find what they are looking for in their natal religion, but do not wish to turn to “rival” religions like Christianity. Sutin is under the impression that Jews did not convert to Christianity in great numbers in the past, or today. This is false. The American Jewish Identity Survey shows that a large minority of Jews are Christian, and the historical record is clear that converts formed a large minority of “Jews” in many nations of the West in the past few centuries. But, surveys of Jewish identity do show that Christian Jews, for lack of a better word, tend to be much closer in socioeconomic profile to the Christian population than Jews. I would argue that Jews attracted to “New Religions” or neo-Eastern faiths are of a different orientation than those who would be attracted to conservative Christianity. In The Future of Religion the authors show that Jews are very over represented in “New Religion Movements” (e.g., Hare Krishna), as the educated as a whole are. This doesn’t surprise insofar as small exotic sects often have an appeal to avant garde elites. Some have made the case that Hellenistic Jews were the core of the early Christian community, viewing this faith as a way to assimilate into Roman society without turning their back on their Jewishness, so I think we are seeing the same process again in a different guise.

Finally, the entrance of an enormous immigrant Buddhist community in the last generation is changing things. Theravada traditions arrived from southeast Asia with the waves of Cambodian refugees, as did Mahayana movements with the Vietnamese. A new pulse of Chinese immigrants in the last generation also has resulted in a boom for Buddhism in that community (which, like the Japanese, had been nominally Christianized after the Oriental Exclusion Act). These factions haven’t interfaced much with the large convert community, the small Japanese Buddhist Church, or the devotional movements. Religion is a hard thing to define, and it means many things to many people. The difficult part is to keep all the various elements in mind and assign them their appropriate quantitative weights in making our model of the world, and making each weight appropriate to the context. This means an exploration of psychology, evolution, sociology and history, in the general and specific cases.

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2 Comments

  1. Lots of early Bahais were Jews too.

  2. and zoroastrians.

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