Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

The Traditional Asian Buddhist ‘Other’—a Western Construction?

The standard go-to argument against Buddhist Modernism is that it was created by the West, in the process of its colonization in parts of Asia, was imposed on Asian Buddhism, and in response—defensively—some Asian Buddhists incorporated Modernism into their practice as a form of resistance to Western colonialism. This supposedly resulted in the forms of Buddhism today called ‘Protestant Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhist Modernism’, which was then imported back into the West, and has now become ‘Western Buddhism.’ The contention is that Buddhist Modernism is the bastard child of Western colonialism, a racist, corrupt and defective form of Buddhism. The implication is that the creation of Modern Asian Buddhism resulted in the defilement and loss of “Traditional Asian” Buddhism. I will not go into the rest of the argument here, which was set in stone by David MacMahan in The Making of Buddhist Modernism, (2009) and has become the Rosetta Stone for interpreting everything to do with contemporary forms of Buddhism today. If you really must go over this again, read MacMahon’s book.

If you’ve already read MacMahan’s book, and like me, you are sick of the distortions and lies that it has perpetuated, that South and Southeast Asian Buddhists could not have modernized Buddhism themselves for their own reasons, could not have introduced modern science and rational discourse into Buddhist philosophy, except if they were forced to do so and only under the tutelage of Westerners, then you are ready to smash that Rosetta Stone and find better explanations for Asian Buddhist Modernism.

To that end, I will direct your attention to a 2009 article by Natalie E. Quli, Ph.D., Cultural and Historical Studies of Religions Graduate Theological Union: Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for “Tradition” in Buddhist Studies. Quli says what I have been trying to say for several years, only she says it far better and more completely than I could, backed up with rigorous argument and empirical scholarship.

I will just post the Introduction here, but you should read the rest of the article as she wrote it, because she makes the arguments better than I or anyone else could present in summary form.


There has been considerable rancor and finger-pointing in recent years concerning the intersection of the West and Buddhism. A new wave of research has focused on Orientalism and the ways in which Western ideas about Buddhism, and even Western criticisms of Buddhism, have been appropriated and turned on their heads to produce a variety of hy- brid traditions most often called Buddhist modernism and Protestant Buddhism. Western scholars and early adopters of Buddhism, as well as contemporary Western Buddhist sympathizers and converts, are regu- larly labeled Orientalists;1 Asian Buddhists like Anagārika Dharmapāla and D. T. Suzuki are routinely dismissed for appropriating Western ideas and cloaking them with the veil of tradition, sometimes for nationalistic ends, and producing “Buddhist modernism.”

* Cultural and Historical Studies of Religions, Graduate Theological Union. Email: natalie@shin-ibs.edu

Quli, Western Self, Asian Other 2

With the not always friendly tone that has accompanied many of these indictments of Westernization and Orientalism, it is no wonder that many researchers have grown tired of the discussion. However, as taxing as it may be, it benefits our work to recognize the biases and theoretical missteps that may confuse our understandings and risk pro- ducing stereotyped caricatures of the people we study. While some may like to say that becoming “all worked up” over categories of representa- tion is fruitless and instead suggest that we move on to the task of de- scription, I would argue that for those of us who are on the receiving end of these categories, or have family and friends affected by the continued cultivation of Orientalism and related modes of Othering in Western scholarship and popular culture, we do not have the privilege to set aside the discussion for a later time. I would suggest that it is, in fact, our desire to avoid the painful recognition of our complicity in the matter coupled with the privilege of not having to confront such stereotypes in our personal, daily lives that drives us to set the issue aside as if it were mere quibbling. I have no such luxury, and I make no apologies for car- ing deeply about the sometimes demeaning, though usually well- intentioned, representations of Asian American and Western convert Buddhists in the Buddhist Studies literature that continues unabated. I would stress that there are times when an interrogation of theoretical concerns is necessary to producing more accurate and useful descriptive work. This is one of those times.

This paper seeks to address some of the more rancorous strands of the discussion, noting that the fuel for claims of Orientalism and the related idea of a Westernized Buddhist modernism can more often than not be traced to a concern for the preservation of a “tradition” that scholars fear is being lost to the ravages of modernity. While I do not wish to contribute more hostility and finger-pointing to the field, I think it is important to recognize that these accusations have contributed to an attitude of dismissal toward a significant and growing population of

Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Buddhists, who, though certainly worthy of study, appear to be marginal to the main project of Buddhist Studies, which is overtly concerned with a non-Western Other. The discourse concerning Buddhist modernism has carried with it a subtle claim that so-called “modern” Buddhists— who would not necessarily label themselves as such—are not “really” Buddhist at all; they are tainted by Western culture, philosophy, and re- ligion, and as such are peripheral to the study of the “authentic” Budd- hism that resides in a more “traditional” Asia. When mapped onto an essentialized Self/Other or West/East complex, Western Buddhists (of both the convert and so-called “ethnic” varieties), as well as Asian Budd- hists of all stripes, are reduced to stereotypes of “traditional” and “mod- ern” that fail to capture the multifaceted nature of their religious traditions, beliefs, and practices. It further produces “good savages” and “bad savages,” condemning those who fail to live up to the standard of a non-Westernized “traditional Buddhism” that we have created as a mir- ror to the modern West. At its core, the issue is one of representation and identity.

Buddhist Studies has made ample use of the concept of “identity” in Buddhist Asia in recent years. For example, scholars have demonstrat- ed that Japanese nativism in the 1900s produced certain Buddhist identi- ties that were in line with nationalistic aims. Researchers working in Sri Lanka studies have noted a similar rise of “fundamentalist” Sinhala Buddhist identities that also play into to Sinhala nationalism. The scho- larly works that use Buddhist identity as a tool for understanding have indeed offered valuable insights into the ways people mark the bounda- ries of social groups. But such identities can be either/both self- consciously assumed or ascribed by an outsider, roughly corresponding to emic and etic perspectives. The dominant framework of “Buddhist modernism” makes use of an etic perspective to describe Buddhists in ways that they would likely not describe themselves, and furthermore

Quli, Western Self, Asian Other 4 employs distortional dualities that muddy our understanding of Buddhism and Buddhists in the contemporary period.

What I would like to call attention to in this paper is the issue of an etic, ascribed identity—“Buddhist modernism”—and its relationship to a discourse dominated by tropes of decay and decline. Western Budd- hist Studies scholars appear to be experiencing a certain amount of guilt over our field’s complicity in the colonial project, leaving us with a pro- found sense of loss at what our forefathers and -mothers destroyed and altered through colonial practices and even critical Buddhist Studies scholarship. This sense of guilt is what Renato Rosaldo has described as an “imperialist nostalgia,” a profound sense of longing for pre-Western traditional culture that the colonial agent herself destroyed. In Western Buddhist Studies, we recognize that it was our own Western predeces- sors who “infected,” dismantled, or destroyed traditional cultures. We appear to be in the midst of coming to terms with this unsavory past.

It is no surprise, then, that the current climate of Buddhist Stu- dies in relation to contemporary Buddhism would be tinged with a cer- tain amount of disdain for what this history of Western colonialism and imperialism has produced. We may seek to correct, or at least distance ourselves from, the West’s interference with and transformation of Buddhism, particularly Buddhist nationalisms and Western-influenced forms like so-called Protestant Buddhism. But nostalgia can never cor- rect the past, and as displeased as we might be over the transformation of Buddhism through its interaction with the West, these forms are here to stay. More importantly, these forms are seen by Buddhists themselves as authentic, even “traditional,” and unless we wish to continue to force our own subjective readings of the past onto the subjects of our study in a quite colonial fashion, we would do well to incorporate a more emic, less dismissive perspective.

Journal of Buddhist Ethics

This essay seeks to recognize how Buddhist Studies continues at times to employ Orientalizing strategies even as it seeks to distance itself from them, notably in the attempt to discount convert Buddhists, Asian American and other “ethnic” Western Buddhists, and certain forms of Asian Buddhism as “modernist,” that is, not traditionally Asian and therefore not authentic. This nostalgia, with its characteristic trope of decay and distortion, goes hand-in-hand with the tendency to discount hybrid identities. Indeed, this tendency to reject the hybrid as inauthen- tic is an extension of the colonial search for pure races and pure cul- tures, and as such is part and parcel of what anthropology identifies as “salvage studies,” described more fully below.

This paper is explicitly focused on developing more robust theory in the field of Buddhist Studies. I suggest that Buddhist Studies scholars would benefit from dismantling those dualistic notions of culture and place that prevent us from recognizing the value of studies of Buddhists in non-Asian locales. I suggest that, by beginning with an essentialized Asian Buddhist “tradition,” many scholars have become preoccupied with protecting authentic, “traditional” Asian Buddhism from the con- tamination of Western-influenced “Buddhist modernism.” This simplis- tic model of Asian versus Western, traditional versus modernist, repeats the stereotype of a passive Asian and an active Westerner, perpetuating the researcher’s inclination to “save” Asian (and by extension, Asian American) Buddhism from the West. Others have used this dichotomy of the passive Asian/modernist Westerner to promote a new, supposedly “culture-free” form of Buddhism in the West that is unlike the tradition- al, conservative Asian Buddhism against which they paint it.

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This entry was posted on 2021/07/23 by .


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