FAILING TO UNDERSTAND HOW TO UNDERSTAND: BY-PRODUCTS OF ORIENTALISM
A full understanding and appreciation of Thich Nhat Hanh's engaged Buddhism is stymied by a long tradition in Western scholarship which distorts and (often unintentionally) misrepresents Eastern thought and behavior. Edward Said asks "how does one represent other cultures? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a useful one, or does it always get involved either in self-congratulation (when one discusses one's own) or hostility and aggression (when one discusses the 'other')" (1978:325)? Orientalism is argued to be the product of a sustained engagement within an occidental, or Western, standpoint. It is a typification and simplification of non-Western cultures in which they are denied history and agency (Said 1978).
Edward Said argues that "anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient...is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism." Orientalism "emerg(ed) very roughly in the late 18th century ... as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (1978:2-3). Influential and foundational sociological scholars have been accused of not criticizing orientalist assumptions, if not reproducing Orientalism themselves. Karl Marx and Max Weber, two of the classic Western founders of the conflict perspective in sociology, essentialized Asiatic modes of production as antithetical to Western material progress. A comparative model of this nature allowed them to draw out the salient differences between cultures and accentuate Eastern asceticism to a more putative industrial Western mind set. Where the East was characterized as struggling to escape the world, the West was seen as embracing rationalism and thus changing the world (Zeitlin 2001:219).
Said comments that Weber, in his study of Protestantism, Judaism, and Buddhism, may also have been influenced by "the very territory originally charted and claimed by the Orientalists. There he found encouragement amongst all those nineteenth-century thinkers who believed that there was a sort of ontological difference between Eastern and Western economic (as well as religious) 'mentalities'" (1978:259). Buddhism tends to be problematized as inactive, passive and disengaged, while more Western modes of thought are proactive, efficient and practical. For example, in the Western paradigm the concept of surrender is considered passive and weak. However, in Buddhism, surrender is a courageous concept, an active definitional shift in which you embrace the vicissitudes of life with emotional and psychological surrender. One does not run away from the fire, but walks toward it, and in doing so, gets to the root of suffering, bringing about insight and healing.
Influential sociological thinking has often brought in implicitly orientalist assumptions. Karl Marx assumed that an Asiatic mode of production is characterized by individuals who were "heavily dominated by their social relations, and anything but free from historical agents" (Archibald 1989:21)--that the "paradigmatic, non-individuated individual was to be found in ancient China," (ibid.:47) and that due to this, "there was very little social change of any kind in societies with an Asiatic mode of production" (ibid.:64).
Of course many critics have pointed out that there has never actually been an Asiatic mode of production in the first place. We do not want to suggest any intentional 'conspiracy' regarding Orientalism; it is best treated as an aggregate affect of unintended consequences. Nevertheless, the way we continue to think about Eastern concepts, attitudes and behaviors, suggests we have not completely extricated ourselves from some fundamentally occidental assumptions. While acknowledging Orientalism, especially in Marxism, and suggesting that 'communalism' rather than 'individualism' is a preferred orientation in the East, Archibald suggests that, for Buddhists, "the only legitimate resolution of conflict between the communal and authoritarian impulses has been the renunciation of real-world activities in pursuit of passive contemplation" (1989:189). …