Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for "Tradition" in Buddhist Studies

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for "Tradition" in Buddhist Studies

Article excerpt

Introduction

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 hybrid 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 regularly labeled Orientalists; (1) Asian Buddhists like Anagarika Dharmapala 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."

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 producing stereotyped caricatures of the people we study. While some may like to say that becoming "all worked up" over categories of representation is fruitless and instead suggest that we move on to the task of description, 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 caring 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 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 religion, and as such are peripheral to the study of the "authentic" Buddhism 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 Buddhists of all stripes, are reduced to stereotypes of "traditional" and "modern" 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 mirror to the modern West. …

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