The British Discovery of Buddhism

The British Discovery of Buddhism by Philip C. Almond
Cambridge University Press, 1988. BQ162.G7

This book could better be titled “The British Invention of Buddhism”, since Almond demonstrates how the British were tying together a multitude of traditions dispersed throughout Asia. As he writes: “The religion having been ‘created’, there came the ensuing realization that its adherents outnumbered those of Christianity.” (12) Rather than putting scare quotes around the world “created”, I think they would be better placed around the words “religion” and “adherents”, since the Chinese being labeled by the British did not think of themselves as “adherents” of anything endorsed in Thailand, and vice versa.

In terms of religious-secular discussions, it is also extremely interesting to see the British nation as a religious icon in this period, pitted against the falsehoods of the pagans. One jeremiad bewails that as the British flag “is displayed over the mountain capital of Ceylon, it tells us of principle sacrificed, of religion dishonoured, of atheism perpetuated, of idolatry countenanced, and of a false and wide-spread superstition protected and maintained.” (134) Parallels might be drawn with the modern British anxiety about protecting the Muslims in their midst, or the use of “secular” American symbols in the evangelical community–do we not hear similar complaints emanating from that group, even today?

There are all sorts of treats to be found in this text, such as Francis Wilford’s quest to identify Mount Caucasus with Britain, the theory that Buddha was really African or Mongolian, the identification of Buddha with Odin (!), or the fact that these inquiries proliferated for decades before a single examination was done of any Buddhist teaching, probably out of disinterest–Christianity, after all, had superior knowledge!

When the dhamma begins to leak into the narrative, I feel an intense annoyance with how the conservative Christians responded to this new and unusual culture. Although they were a minority, they approached the topic with an insistence on superiority and domination, an demeaning attitude towards those interested in foreign things, constant comparison of “Orientals” to children, and so forth. Consider how John F. Davis described Buddhist monks: “They have, nearly all of them, an expression approaching to idiotcy [sic], which is probably acquired by that dreamy state in which one of their most famous professors is said to have passed nine years with his eyes fixed upon a wall!” Almond simply says that these writers were overwhelmed by a monastic simplicity that “contrasted so much with their more active, ‘muscular’ vision of the Christian life.” (122)

We can be indebted to Almond for his cool, neutral exposition of these poor excuses for debate; today’s evangelical movement can only hope for such an undeservedly fair treatment a century from now. But at the same time, even the positive Victorian image of the Buddha, exemplified by The Light of Asia, is clouded in Oriental fantasy and British inventions. This is where Edward Said comes into play, as the creation of the Orient, even in a positive light, constructs a West that is necessarily in opposition to “Oriental” ideals. I am very glad that I was not alive at that time!

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Book Reviews, Secular-Religious