“Buddhism”—the “great world religion” we have today—was invented in the 1800s. The following ideas—which profoundly shape our practice—date to that century:
- There is such a thing as “Buddhism”
- It is a religion
- It is one religion with several sects
- It is a “world religion,” with an unchanging essence, suitable for all peoples in all times
- It is a rational philosophy (and so maybe not a religion after all)
- It is mainly an ethical philosophy
- It is mainly about the relationship of the self with the Ultimate Truth, revealed by non-ordinary experience
This “Buddhism” was invented as a competitor to Christianity: just like Christianity, only better: more rational, more ethical, more tolerant, more spiritual.
We’ve been somewhat stuck with this “Buddhism.” It’s the root of what I call the Consensus, or “mainstream Western Buddhism.” But its late-1800s ideology is obsolete, and the imitation/competition thing it’s got going with Christianity is increasingly irrelevant.
I hope we can chuck it.
Understanding its brief history is the first step.
Christianity humbled by Reason
By the mid-1800s, God wasn’t quite dead yet, but his Alzheimer’s was well along. A lot of what He said had stopped making sense. Science showed that much of the Bible was factually wrong, and liberal humanism made many of Christianity’s ethical teachings seem barbaric. Liberal Westerners could only read the Bible selectively, and as allegory. “Reason” had taken over many of the functions of religion.
Why not go whole hog and abandon Christianity altogether? Some did, of course. But most feared that it would lead to nihilism and social breakdown. Without religion, there would be no ultimate meaning to life.
To preserve meaning, progressive Christians carved out three domains as the rightful property of religion, where science could not go:
- the mysterious, innermost, deep self, which scientific psychology could not penetrate
- the Infinite, the Absolute, the Ultimate Truth, which was ineffable and therefore not subject to reason
The essence of religion was, on the one hand, to act ethically; and on the other, to cultivate the mystical experience that brings your deep self into the right relationship with the Absolute.
Liberal Christianity was considered the best religion, for several “rational” reasons. Of these, the most important was that it was universal. “Reason” held that what was true, was true everywhere, always. The remarkable thing about the Law of Gravity is that it was the same for all men. Christianity, likewise, was the religion for all peoples everywhere: the only world religion. Judaism and Mohammedanism were merely national religions, of the Jews and Arabs. [In this case of Islam, this claim was absurd; but Islam was the enemy.] Both national religions also were subject to change and decay. The true essence of Christianity was exactly as Jesus had taught it, immutably.
Besides that, Christianity:
- Was (mostly) rational (or rationalizable)
- Had an ethical system based on universal principles of benefit and harm, not the insane, vicious taboos of ancient Middle-Eastern goat herders
- Was socially concerned
- Was the biggest religion in the world, which proved that it was the evolutionarily strongest, and therefore destined to eventually replace the others
Embarrassingly, however, Christianity had split into numerous sects, and there seemed to be no good way to choose between them. Progressively-minded people came to the opinion that all denominations should be regarded with tolerance, as partial truths, pointing toward the single ultimate truth by different paths.
Perhaps tolerance could be extended even beyond Christian sects. That opened the possibility that something better might be discovered—or constructed. Something with even more of the good qualities Christianity had, without the ugly bits that needed to be explained away.
The discovery of “Buddhism”
Two centuries ago, Europeans considered that there were three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism. Also, there was paganism. Christianity was true and just; Judaism and Mohammedanism were false and wicked. Paganism, practiced by savages in vague far-off places, wasn’t really a religion at all. It was an incoherent mass of ignorant local superstitions, demon-worship, idolatry, and abominable rituals.
Growing world trade brought word that some “Oriental” peoples were less primitive than previously imagined. They showed signs of civilization, worthy of grudging respect.
There came a gradual recognition that the disparate “pagan” customs of various Oriental tribes had something in common. They told similar stories about various gods, named Sommona-Codom, Che-kia, Bootisat, and Bouddoon. Some Europeans guessed that these myths might all have a common origin.
Early translations of scriptures confirmed this. [All those god-names were, in fact, mispronounced names of Shakyamuni Buddha. “Sommona-Codom” is Shramana Gautama, “Che-kia” is Shakya, and “Bootisat” is Bodhisattva.] Not only were these all the same person, but he was supposedly a flesh-and-blood person, whose sayings the scriptures recorded. This was unexpected from paganism.
In fact, the analogy of Buddha to Christ and Mohammed as founders, and the scriptures to the Bible and Koran, was compelling. Apparently some Orientals were not simply pagans, after all. A new religion was announced: Buddh-ism, parallel to Christ-ianity and Mohammed-anism.
Creating the new World Religion
If Buddhism was a religion, then it must be a world religion—because it was the faith of many different nations. That was disconcerting: Christianity was no longer uniquely universal.
Still worse, it was soon discovered that there more Buddhists than Christians. That was dire. Christianity’s numerical superiority had been proof of its evolutionary strength, and therefore its ultimate rightness.
Of course, there were those who welcomed new competition for Christianity. Could Buddhism even be the superior world religion European liberals were looking for?
There was a problem. Buddhism, as actually found in Asia, was much more like the European idea of “paganism” than a “great world religion.” “An incoherent mass of ignorant local superstitions, demon-worship, idolatry, and abominable rituals” would not be an unfair description.
However, there could be found—in odd corners of ancient Buddhist scriptures—the raw materials needed to construct a “world religion” to European specification. (This is probably not true for—say—Shinto or the Yoruba religion.) As one scholar declared in 1854, “Buddhism was not always that decrepit and worn-out superstition that it now appears.”
To get started, the ground had to be cleared, by declaring that what people had practiced in Asia for the past couple thousand years was not really Buddhism. The true Buddhism was the “original” Buddhism, as found in the scriptures. This was the essential, vital core of the religion, common to all sects across Asia—almost entirely buried beneath “local cultural accretions” and “unfortunate mixing with primitive folk beliefs.”
The actual beliefs and practices of Asians were irrelevant, because they did not conform to scripture. Buddhism in the 1800s was declared a “hopeless degeneration” or “unrecognizable corruption” of the true religion.
In fact, Asian Buddhists seemed appallingly ignorant of their own faith. Few even knew the languages of their scriptures. Writing in Sri Lanka in 1860, a British scholar observed that the doctrine of anatta (anatman) “is almost universally repudiated. Even the [Buddhist] priests, at one time, denied it; but when the passages teaching it were pointed out [by white people], they were obliged to acknowledge that it is a tenet of their religion.”
Evidently, it was Westerners who understood the scriptures properly, and Westerners who would define what true Buddhism was. And, they had an agenda. Buddhism was to be universal, rational, ethical, and socially conscious. It would be more scientific than religion; more humane than Christianity; more Protestant than Protestantism; more spiritual—in a good way—than Science.
Buddhist scripture is inconceivably vast. In it, you can find support for almost anything—even the Victorian conception of a superior version of Christianity.
The new world religion: an East-West collaboration
Buddhism was not, and never had been, anything like this fantasy. If the “Buddhism” project had continued exclusively in Europe, it would probably soon have failed, as hostile forces pointed out inconvenient facts.
“Buddhism,” as a “world religion,” was saved by Asian collaborators.
Fortunately, Asian leaders and Western liberals had a shared enemy: evangelical conservative Christianity. And Asian leaders had their own reasons for wanting to radically reform Buddhism.
The legal justification for colonialism, in the 1800s, did not apply to “real nation-states” which had “proper religions.” The framework for international law was the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended a horrific series of religious wars in Europe. The essence of the Treaty was that the ruler of each nation-state had the right to choose its religion, and other nation-states were not to interfere. Regions that were “not real nation-states” and had “no proper religion” were fair game for colonization.
So, reworking “Buddhism” into a “proper religion”—and reorganizing a kingdom into a nation-state—was a way to hold off the colonial powers. Thailand, in particular, was successful with this strategy; I’ll discuss the history in a later post.
Asian Buddhists, at state command, studied Western science, philosophy, and religion. They re-read Buddhist scripture, in dialogue with Western scholars, looking for passages compatible with Western ideas. Then they made large changes in Buddhist doctrine and practice.
Buddhism in Asia partly became the fantasy world-religion of Westerners. Over the past century and a half, it has been made more and more universal, rational/scientific, compatible with Western ethics, and socially conscious.
The best-studied collaboration was the total overhaul of Sri Lankan Theravada by Henry Steel Olcott (an American) and Anagarika Dharmapala (a Sinhalese) working closely together in the 1880s and ’90s. That is an extraordinary story. (Follow the links for some basics, or the references at the end of this post for details.)
Anagarika Dharmapala also founded the Maha Bodhi Society, in 1891. That was the first “Buddhist” organization in Asia since the destruction of Nalanda University 800 years ago. He brought together Buddhists from many different Asian countries on a shared project. Prior to this, there was almost no awareness of shared heritage or goals among the various Buddhisms.
This East-West collaboration is still going. Contemporary mainstream Western Buddhism is a co-creation of Asians (e.g. HH the Dalai Lama and Thich Naht Hanh) and Westerners (e.g. Bernie Glassman and Stephen Batchelor). And, hot damn, it’s more universal, rational/scientific, compatible with Western ethics, and socially conscious than ever.
And, the motivations are partly the same as in the 1800s. The Dalai Lama wants to portray Tibet as a nation-state. If it was a nation-state, then China’s colonization of it would be clearly in violation of international law. Part of being a nation state is having a modern, world-class religion. Thich Naht Hanh created a modern Buddhism as part of an effort to stop the quasi-colonial U.S. war in Vietnam. Bernie Glassman teaches Buddhism as inseparable from social action. Stephen Batchelor writes that the original teachings of the Buddha, as revealed in the scriptures when properly interpreted, are rational, empirical, humanistic, and compatible with modern science.
My point is not that these changes are illegitimate, or that the new “Buddhism” is necessarily a bad thing.
Instead, I want to point out that “Buddhism” contains large amounts of Western ideology from 150 years ago. Most Western Buddhists wrongly assume this stuff is “timeless Eastern wisdom,” and the essential core of our religion. If instead it’s our own recent history fed back to us, it is open to question.
Here are some questions I will ask later in this blog series:
- Is it useful to look at “Buddhism” as one thing? (I think not.)
- Do all the various Buddhisms have anything in common? Is there any essential core? (I think not.)
- “Buddhism” views meditation as a creating a mystical connection between the deep self and the Absolute. Is this a good way to understand meditation? (I think not.)
- Are there other, more accurate ways of understanding meditation to be found in traditional Buddhisms? (I think so.)
- How much of “Buddhist ethics” is actually Victorian-era Western ethics? (I’m still researching this.)
- How much of “Buddhist ethics” is actually contemporary Western ethics? (Nearly all of it, I think.)
- Does traditional Buddhism contain any ethical teachings that are both distinctive and valuable? (I haven’t found any yet.)
- If not, why are we pretending that “Buddhism” is the framework for our ethics? (I have some guesses.)
- “Buddhism” was invented partly as an antidote to Western secularism and materialism. Is that working? (I doubt it.)
- Are there other resources, in traditional Buddhisms, that might be better antidotes? (I hope so.)
- What other dubious Western assumptions have been incorporated into “Buddhism” without our realizing it? (I’m working on it.)
This post, and this blog series, were inspired by David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism.
There is a large, rapidly-growing academic literature on the re-making of Buddhism as a “world religion” in the late 1800s. Below are some starting points.
There are three aspects to the creation of Buddhism as a world religion: the activities of Westerners, the activities of Asians, and their collaborations. I find the collaboration the most interesting, but it’s the least-studied so far.
The Olcott-Dharmapala collaboration is discussed by McMahan (pp. 91-101), although he treats the two separately. The classic study is in Gombrich and Obeyesekere’s Buddhism Transformed. Obeyesekere has a talk transcript here. Stephen Prothero’s The White Buddhist is a full book-length treatment; I haven’t read it, but there are excerpts here. There’s an enjoyable short account in Rick Fields’ How the Swans Came to the Lake. Fields’ book is a history of how Buddhism came to America; it’s fascinating and highly readable.
Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions is excellent for background history on the concept of “world religions” in the late 1800s. It has a full chapter on the invention of “Buddhism” by Europeans; a good overview, although somewhat lacking in specifics.
Philip C. Almond’s The British Discovery of Buddhism is a detailed study. The title is somewhat misleading, as he emphasizes (p. 12) that the British created, not discovered “Buddhism.” Although fascinating, the book is limited by completely ignoring the aspect of co-construction with living Asian Buddhists.
Charles Hallisey’s “Roads Taken and Not Taken in the Study of Theravada Buddhism,” in Donald Lopez’ Curators of the Buddha is somewhat tiringly academic, but makes some good points about the East-West collaborative construction of modern Buddhism, starting from page 47.
I will discuss the remaking of Japanese Zen and Thai Theravada as “Buddhism, the world religion” in some detail later in this blog series.
The quote about Sri Lankan priests repudiating annata is from R. Spence Hardy’s A Manual of Budhism [sic], In its Modern Development, p. 397.
You can find much or all of the text of the books cited above on-line, via the Amazon “look inside” feature and/or Google Books.