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Europeanizing the Buddha and Constructing a World Religion

The Buddha, as many in the West understand him, was invented in the nineteenth century, says Donald Lopez.

This Europeanized image of the Buddha emerged after hundreds of years of Christian misconceptions about the Buddha, argued Lopez. During visits to Asia, Europeans had seen different images of the Buddha, represented in the various artistic styles of places such as Thailand, India, China, and Japan. In each country, the Buddha also had different names that were translations of Indian names and epithets into the local languages. Seeing different images and hearing different names, Christian writers assumed that Buddhists worshipped multiple gods, and that the representations of the Buddha were idols of several different deities.

Eventually, European scholars gained the skills to translate Buddhist texts, and European readers began to have a better understanding of Buddhist thought and beliefs. At the same time, however, the Buddha became more European.

Lopez’s point about the various representations of the Buddha that European (and American) missionaries encountered is well taken. It took a long time for Europeans and Americans to unite “Lamaism” in Tibet and “the religion of Foe” in China and those texts and statues they found in India under the term “Buddhism.” In A Dictionary of All Religions, Hannah Adams scattered what we now call Buddhism among various groups including: “Birmins,” “Budso,” Chinese, and “Thibetians.” And, of course, all of these fell under the larger rubric of “heathens.”

But I do take issue with the idea of “misconceptions” and a later “better understanding.” Hannah Adams did not necessarily get it wrong. There’s good reason to treat what folks are doing in Burma or Thailand as something very different from what they are doing in Japan or Tibet. There was no essentially real Buddhism out there to be misconceived or better understood. As Tomoko Masuzawa wrote in her excellent chapter on Buddhism in The Invention of World Religions:

In effect, the scholarship on Buddhism was from the beginning constructingor “discovering,” as one might prefer to put it–a decidedly non-national religion, a qualitatively universal(istic) religion, that is to say, a Weltreligion, or world religion.

Europeans and Americans conceived of Buddhism as a world religion not because of “misconceptions” that were corrected by “better understandings,” but because it served their purposes within a growing discourse of “world religions” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Buddha became European because Europeans imagined him in their own image to server their own purposes. The “Europeanized image of the Buddha,” is not a misconception of a pan-Asian religion, but an example of a European construction of religion that can reveal something about what was on the mind of nineteenth century European and American scholars of religion.

Incidentally, I’m teaching a class along these lines in the fall.

Review– Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South

My review of Jeff Wilson’s wonderful recent book Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South is now online at the journal Sociology of Religion. Here’s a taste:

Deciding where to look is often the most important decision a researcher makes. Jeff Wilson’s choice to look for Buddhism in Richmond, Virginia, instead of Los Angeles or San Francisco or Boston, is the jumping off point for a series of important discoveries about pluralism, hybridity, and region in American religious communities. In Dixie Dharma, Wilson draws on nearly a decade of ethnographic research at the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha of Richmond to challenge our current scholarly assumptions about Buddhism in America and religion in the South. Through nuanced description and precise theoretical tools, Wilson examines a community of Buddhists working to form a community in the middle of an evangelically Protestant red state.

Read the full-text at Sociology of Religion

The Sacred & Profane: Buddhism and Science, Gold’s Gym and Scientology, Jesus and Yoga

Buddhism and Science: Problems and Perils

My colleague at Emory, Kenny Smith, compares the function of authenticity in Scientology and Gold’s Gym

Apparently, most U.S. pastors don’t think Obama is a Christian…or Glenn Beck, for that matter.

Stephen Prothero asks who owns Jesus and Yoga. I wonder when religions became a matter of ownership.