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 constructing-or “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.

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5 thoughts on “Europeanizing the Buddha and Constructing a World Religion

  1. Pingback: Europeanizing the Buddha and Constructing a World Religion | Studying Religion in Culture
  2. Pingback: The Politics of Misconceptions | Studying Religion in Culture
  3. I presume you’re aware of The British Discovery of Buddhism by Philip C. Almond

    He makes a similar point. Religion in late Victorian era Europe was in turmoil. Science was seriously starting to undermine religion and the Fundamentalist backlash had yet to gain ground. Liberal minded people like the Rhys Davids were looking for something. They saw in Buddhism a “rational religion” that could replace the superstition of Christianity. Hence they translated bodhi as “enlightenment” to consciously connect the Buddha with the figures of the European Enlightenment.

    However I think this process needs to be seen in context. The very reason that Buddhism takes a different form in every region is because the people living there wanted to and were able to adapt Buddhism to their needs. For example, each culture began producing representations of the Buddhas in their own image, so that they are now quite distinctive and almost instantly recognisable as coming from one region or other. Buddhism is malleable to an extraordinary extent. And all Westerners were/are doing was/is adapting it to their needs, like every other culture that has come across Buddhism and seen something attractive in it.

    Ironically given that the conflict between science and religion drove the change in attitude towards Buddhism amongst Europeans (from heathen religion to possible replacement for Christianity) is now happening within Buddhism. Some want to naturalise Buddhism and claim kinship with science; some see how materialism is incompatible with Buddhism and cannot conceive the two coexisting happily. Some now openly embrace substance dualism of a distinctly Cartesian flavour, while others are staunchly monistic in their outlook. Apologetics for traditional beliefs like rebirth are multiplying at the same time as many Buddhists openly abandon such beliefs as untenable in the face of modern knowledge. Modern Buddhism has hardly got started and is already in crisis.

    The negotiation once seemed relatively simple, but it’s not simple any more. And it is still in progress, because if nothing else “Western” culture is changing so fast that settling on an accommodation may no longer possible.


  4. Your point about context assumes that there is something called “Buddhism” out there in the world that changes over time and space. But there is no “Buddhism” that Rhys Davids and others discovered. Rather, there are various beliefs, practices, and discourses that social actors in various places and times have called Buddhism and attempted to galvanize (with greater and lesser success) into a “world religion” or “tradition.” It is discourse all the way down and it is invented and re-invented over and over again. This is the important point Masuzawa and Richard King (in Orientalism and Religion ) make.


  5. For the sake of argument lets stipulate that it’s turtles all the way down. I don’t find that a very productive line of reasoning. You just said everything that can be said about it. What are you going to teach? There is no such thing as Christianity or any religion. There is no such thing as the English Language. In this line of thinking there is only local custom and practice that cannot be contextualised because that’s how we do things around here.

    On the other hand. there are links that can only be attributed to shared religious profession. Europeans were interested in the way that religieux in Sri Lanka, Burma, laos, Cambodia and Thailand all claimed to be followers of “Buddho”; all claimed that their religion had started in India; and all used scriptures in the language that we call Pāḷi. This at a time when apart from Nepal there were no followers of Buddho in India. There’s no cultural or linguistic connection between Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand: they occupy three different language families and very, very different cultures - even internally Burma and Thailand are far from culturally or linguistically homogeneous. And yet all three have, for as long as we’ve known them, claimed to be followers of Buddho, who was from India, and whose words were recorded in Pāḷi. Was this simply a coincidence?

    Then evidence of ancient followers of Buddho in India began to appear as places like Sarnath and Sanchi. These places were recognisable because they depicted scenes from the Pāḷi Jātakas all over their exteriors. And they were accompanied by snatches of writing that was in a language similar to Pāḷi. Discoveries were accelerated by using the diaries of Chinese Pilgrims, e.g. Xuanzang, who had travelled to India to collect scriptures and described the landscape in its heyday. Back in China they also thought of themselves as followers of Buddho and understood him to come from India. And so on.

    So yes, if you ignore all the connections and only look at local custom then there is no such thing as Buddhism. But the fact is that religion provides connections that cannot be explained by shared culture (outside religion), by shared language, or shared geography. This fact, this ability of the words of Buddho to appeal to radically different peoples was certainly influential in considering following Buddho as an option for Europeans.

    There’s an interesting little fact about Indic languages like Sanskrit and Pāḷi. They have no word for the category of experiences we call “emotion”. One cannot collect up all the words for emotions: anger, sadness, happiness, joy, jealousy etc and place them under a rubric that distinguishes them from “thoughts”. It doesn’t mean that ancient Indians did not experience emotions. Clearly they did and wrote about them very vividly. Only that they did not think of them as distinct categories. Sometimes showing that certain phenomena are related enough to form a category and giving that category a name are purely formal gestures. It doesn’t mean that we’ve invented a new kind of entity or are having a new kind of experience. We’re simply structuring experience in a new way. The globe spanning military-industrial empire that followed in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars brought about changes in perspective and restructuring of experience in many areas. Religion being one of them.

    I would argue that Buddhism wasn’t so much invented, as it was noticed.


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