Buddhist Studies beyond the Nation-State
Abstract and Keywords
This essay examines a variety of dysfunctional consequences of employing modern nation-states as the default organizing category for Buddhist studies regardless of the period being studied. Two of these consequences are directly related to one another: conflating contemporary nation-states with religious cultures, and equating religious and ethnic identities. Additionally, the organizing category tends to privilege some particular tradition as representative of or the essence of Buddhism in a specific nation-state, marking that tradition as uniquely authoritative. More broadly, research is constrained within the boundaries of nation-states, and the continuity of Buddhist traditions that cross nation-state boundaries is obscured. At the same time artificial continuities are retrospectively imposed, and the tradition comes to be defined by forms located at the center of political power. The work of four contemporary scholars is discussed as exemplifying the arguments for and value of moving away from nation-state categories. Consideration is given to the formative role of the training of missionaries and other agents of empire in the institutionalization of nation-state categories.
Our concern here is with the épistème structured by the category of nation-state.1 The concept of nation-state has come to be so naturalized, that is, taken as a natural category, that calling it into question as the default organizing principle for Buddhist studies requires some examination of the concept itself. The category of nation-state brings together geography, language, culture, ethnicity, and political authority into a single unified conceptual entity, a social fiction, these disparate elements now often held together by a rhetoric of inherent right of a people to govern themselves and their own land.2 The term “nation” has come to be so widely used to indicate all political systems that its recent origin as a way of conceptualizing political systems, and the unique significance of it, are commonly lost sight of. It has, in other words, become “naturalized” as the default conception of political systems. It does, however, make a difference if we speak, for example, of the “Tibetan empire,” the “Tibetan kingdom,” or the “Tibetan nation.”3
Joep Leerssen identifies the “rediscovery of the early medieval vernacular roots and rootedness of the various European languages and literatures” that took place between 1780 and 1840 as having “revolutionized the European self-image and historical consciousness and led to the national diffraction of the Enlightenment’s idea of culture and literature.”4 Concomitant with this fracturing of culture and literature along the lines of national identity was the rise of national histories and national languages, but most important for our purposes here, national religions.5 Particularly in the nineteenth century, in such works as Georg W. F. Hegel’s philosophy of history and Leopold Ranke’s theorizing on historiography, history itself came to be defined in terms of the nation-state. In other words, history was the history of nations, and historiography was the writing of national histories. This itself reflected the rise of the modern nation-state as the dominant form of social organization, but also professionalized historians as writing history in the service of the nation.6 Professionalization as historians of the nation led, as formulated by Ranke, to a methodological commitment to primary sources, which were to be found in state archives.7 Borrowing from philology and biblical studies, historians created the textual categories that continue to inform Buddhist studies. Thus history itself comes to be defined in terms of the nation-state, and in most cases that definition included the religion of the nation-state. In a “natural” progression, this then led not only to the writing of histories of nations outside the familiar Euro-centric domain, such as histories of India and China, but also histories of their religions.
Similarly, the Euro-American academic study of Buddhism, Buddhist studies, originates in the nineteenth century at the same time that the modern concepts of nation-state8 and of religion9 were being formulated. “Modern national master narratives in Europe emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century,”10 and historiography came to largely be defined as the writing of national histories—histories in the service of the newly created category of nation itself.11 National histories are not merely records of events, but rather constitutive of the personal identity of the individual within that nation. There is, therefore, a dialectic between the narratives of nation and the narratives of person, a dialectic that implicates the religious as well. Matthew Kapstein summarizes this complex interrelation when he describes the world-formative function of nation-forming narratives, that is,
through our narratives we do not just orient ourselves to the world, but in large measure we create the very world to which we orient ourselves. It has been the task of every author of national history to do more than describe the facts; for national history underwrites, at least among those who belong or feel strong affinity with the nation in question, the sense that one participates in a community in which certain desirable values may be actualized. The values and ends that seem possible objects of individual striving are precisely those engendered by the world in which the individual lives and acts, and that world is in turn engendered by its past, present, and possible actors.12
This essay does not attempt to enter into the debate regarding the status of nation-states. We will instead here simply accept them to be social constructs—social conventions constructed in large part by the very project of writing of national histories. For the study of Buddhism the intellectual utility of these social fictions is entirely heuristic—when the category of nation-state is employed, does it help to reveal something of value about Buddhist history, thought, or practice? The heuristic reading of nation-state proposed here is informed by the critique of “methodological nationalism,” which operated under the “methodological assumption that a particular nation would provide the constant unit of observation through all historical transformations, the ‘thing’ whose change history was supposed to describe.”13 This naïve conception of the nation as the constant entity whose changes are the object of historical study is easily adapted mutatis mutandis to the idea of nation-state Buddhism. Thus, the reification and retrojection of the nation-state is matched by reification and retrojection of forms of Buddhism defined by nation-states.
Our inquiry here is into the effects of constructing the field of Buddhist studies by unreflectively defaulting to an organizational system itself structured by geopolitical and nation-state categories. The categorization of Buddhism along geopolitical lines, that is, by nation-state, is perhaps its most common organizing principle today. And, indeed, its common usage contributes to it being accepted uncritically, that is, “the apparent naturalness and givenness of a world divided into societies along the lines of nation-states,”14 and therefore accepted as simply the most obvious and natural way to categorize Buddhism. Thus, we find, without explanation, such expressions as “Indian Buddhism,” “Tibetan Buddhism,” “Chinese Buddhism,” “Burmese Buddhism,” and so on. These categories predominate not only in popular representations of Buddhism, such as the Buddhist magazines, but also in textbooks of both “world’s religions” and of Buddhism,15 in academic societies,16 and publishing,17 and perhaps the most durable entrenchment, in academic appointments.18 Despite recent discussions regarding nation-states as the organizing principle for the field of Buddhist studies, continued use of these categories implicitly reinforces the assumption that dividing the field along these lines is unproblematic—that it is a simple reflection of things just as they are. Naturalized in this way, the categories mold both decisions regarding research and the ways in which research is presented. The category system and its consequences continue to require conscious evaluation, either so that they may be used with more theoretical nuance, or alternative categorizations may be employed more freely.
The problems with such categories can be examined under two general rubrics. These may be identified loosely as the rhetorical and the lexical. Section I will consider the rhetorical, while the lexical will be considered in section II.
I. Rhetorical Consequences
When spoken of in the singular, geopolitical categories (e.g., “Chinese Buddhism”) support the all too human tendency to essentialize and reify what is taken to be the object identified by such a category term. That is, the category segments the object of study in a particular fashion and supports a reading that implies that there is something uniquely “Chinese” about the kind of Buddhism thus segmented. Six kinds of consequences follow from an essentializing rhetoric.19
1. It tends to confuse the geographic boundaries of nations as they exist today with religious cultures and supports further conflation by identifying geopolitical boundaries with linguistic communities.
2. It feeds into the politicized rhetoric of ethnic identity, and a rhetoric of the unity of ethnic and religious identities, the goals of such rhetorics seeming all too often to be attained at the expense of historical accuracy.
3. It tends to privilege certain strains of Buddhism as more authentic, treating them in isolation as adequately representative of the putative essence of some nation-state Buddhism, thereby creating a dialectically self-supporting rhetoric in which the essence is described by reference to the representative, while the representative is chosen by reference to the essence, that is, a petitio principii fallacy.
4. Claims that some particular tradition is more authentically representative of some particular geopolitical categorization play into sectarian politics, employing the propagandistic claims of sectarian historiographies, rather than rationales of representativeness explicitly justified in any objective fashion, such as historical or sociological.20
5. The scope of inquiry becomes artificially constrained by the boundaries of the nation-state. As a consequence of the nation-state having been naturalized as the proper unit of research, Andreas Wimmer and Nina Schiller note that “almost no thought was given to why the boundaries of the container society are drawn as they are and what consequences flow from this methodological limitation of the analytical horizon—thus removing trans-border connections and processes from the picture.”21
6. This further distorts our understanding because it then reinforces the tendency to treat those forms of Buddhism considered to be authentically representative of the “national spirit” hermetically, that is, only looking at antecedents within a tradition, rather than other sources of influence. There is a scholarly tendency, perhaps grounded in the theological bases of religious studies and the sectarian bases of Buddhist studies, to believe that what is important for understanding a religious tradition is only the history of that religious tradition itself. Under such a hermetic conception of religion, for example, to understand Zen only requires investigating the Zen tradition itself—its almost sui generis origin in China, its historical transmission to Japan, and its development there as uniquely representative of the essence of Japanese Buddhism, as we find in some still influential though dated treatments.22 This scholarly tendency toward hermetic conceptions of religion converges with sectarian exceptionalism, and a historiography based on lineages.
The counterargument may be made that being supported by or oriented to aristocratic courts, Buddhism was always and everywhere nationalistic. And further, that these nationalistic forms of Buddhism have played an important historical function in creating Buddhism as it is known today. As an obvious, because both extreme and explicit, example of a nationalistic form is Nichiren Buddhism, the origin of which is sometimes referenced to Nichiren’s concern for the nation of Japan.23
To the extent that one could interpret Nichiren as “nationalistic,” and that other similar examples may be found, this counterargument should be treated empirically, as one in which the categories are based on generalizations from evidence. In other words, for this hypothetical counterargument to be effective, a majority of Buddhist institutions would have to place a doctrinal emphasis on nationalistic concerns for the category system to be justified.
The proposed counterargument also suffers from the historically anachronistic projection of the modern social, political, and ideological institution of the nation-state back onto earlier historical eras. Nichiren died in 1282, and what we think of today as Japan can reasonably be traced only as far back as the mid-nineteenth century with the Meiji Restoration—a full six centuries later.24 In contrast to the modern nation-state that we know as Japan (the four major islands, a single currency, an educational system that promotes a unifying language and sense of identity, an integrated transportation system, and so on), Nichiren’s concern was focused instead on the aristocratic court with its legitimating authority and political power. Thus, his concern may be described as “centripetal” (moving toward the center), rather than “centrifugal” (bounded by the edges).
One of the legitimating rhetorics of the modern nation-state is continuity with historically pre-existing forms, no matter how tenuous or purely rhetorical that continuity may be.25 The same logic is applied to nation-defined forms of religion. Across the divide of the Communist and Cultural Revolutions in China, the suppression of Buddhism during the Meiji Reformation in Japan, and the conquest of Tibet by China in 1959, what does it mean to speak of Chinese, Japanese, or Tibetan Buddhism as if these were monolithic entities whose histories stretch back to the first, sixth, and eighth centuries respectively? Discussing Juewei’s research on celebrations of the Buddha’s birthday,26 Lewis Lancaster comments that
“Chinese” Buddhism is hard to identify during the period of the Northern and Southern dynasties. Kingdoms ruled by nomadic and Turkic peoples of the steppes had a dedication to Buddhism that was not equaled among the Han people in terms of investment in architecture, art, and monastic institutions. It is something of a misnomer to call all of these activities among the Buddhists of the Northern kingdoms “Chinese”. And yet, much of what we see in “Chinese” Buddhism was being developed among these non-Han peoples.27
Not only are there temporal variations in practice, but Lancaster goes on to point out that there are regional differences as well. Considering donor inscriptions in the caves at Fang Shan, he concludes that the postmortem goal for donors in this locale was the Dharma Realm described in the Avataṃsaka sūtra, which is at variance from other postmortem goals. Thus, the record of donor inscriptions “indicates that Buddhist practice was regional and it is misleading to assume that there was a unitary form of the religion throughout the kingdoms or over time.”28 Thus, both chronological scope and geographic scope require definition.
In addition to continuity over time, another important legitimating rhetoric is that of homogeneity throughout a tradition. An instance of this in regard to the use of Buddhism as evidencing homogeneity is seen in the claim by D. T. Suzuki that “Zen typifies Japanese spirituality. This does not mean that Zen has deep roots with the life of the Japanese people, rather that Japanese life is itself ‘Zen-like.’”29 Similar homogenizing rhetoric regarding Zen as the ultimate expression of what is uniquely Japanese are also found in the work of Masao Abe.30 Although some scholars are aware of the rhetorical motivations of both D. T. Suzuki and Masao Abe, and therefore consider their work outdated and unreliable, such conceptions of a homogeneous Japanese culture and Japanese spirituality that has its highest and best manifestation as Zen continue to be propagated. A more recent instance of this kind of homogenizing of a religiously diverse culture by identifying a single form as foundational is found in Steven Heine’s claim that “we cannot appreciate the dynamics of Japanese business practices without understanding the profound underlying connection with Zen.”31 Addressing the representation of Japan as homogeneous, Fabio Rambelli and Patrizia Violi note that
Homogeneity is a myth fostered mainly by modernization, in the attempt to unify the country and strengthen it against Western invaders. After all, how can a country be homogenous where several dialects, some mutually incomprehensible, are still spoken, where there is a very active local life, and where until a hundred years ago the intellectual elite spoke their local dialect, wrote in Japanese and Chinese, and prayed in Sanskrit? And yet, official rhetoric tries to erase all traces of cultural difference within: it assimilates the Ainu and the Okinawans by considering them as early stages of the evolution of the Japanese people, it ignores the discriminated burakumin communities, and treats third generation immigrants as “foreigners.”32
Religion, including Buddhism, has often been employed as part of both legitimating rhetorics, that of continuity and that of homogeneity. Homogeneity is implicit in the very idea of a nation-state as formulated in the nineteenth century—a nation is constituted by a homogeneous group of people who share an ethnic identity, language, history, geography, ancestry, and so on (as found in the rhetoric of “Blut und Boden,” and whose political organization takes the form of an autonomous state. Homogeneity is then reflected backward by a selective construction of a national history. Such rhetorical usages produce a reflexivity between national and religious identities, where the continuity and homogeneity of one both entails and implicates the continuity and homogeneity of the other.
Stepping through the veils of geopolitical reifications, one might well ask not only in what sense is, for example, the present-day People’s Republic of China continuous with the Tang Dynasty but also, more specifically, in what sense are contemporary Buddhist institutions, thought, and practice in China continuous with those of the Tang? Given the repeated discontinuities, does it make sense to employ a single category, “Chinese Buddhism,” as if it applied equally appropriately across all of those dimensions and the entirety of that time? Equally important, to do so creates the impression that a single, unified institution is the norm, and that it is breeches to continuity that require explanation.33 This is not, of course, to say that there are not continuities, but rather that continuities should be demonstrated, rather than simply presumed on the basis of the rhetorical power of a system of categories to mold our ways of thinking.34
II. Lexical Consequences of Geopolitical Categories
The term “Buddhisms” may feel awkward when uttered or written (my spell check certainly doesn’t like it). That very awkwardness points to the confusion that can result from failing to distinguish between mass nouns (“the gravel in that heap”) and count nouns (“the cars in the parking lot”). One speaks of gravel in the singular for a heap of it because there is no significant reason to distinguish each individual piece from all the others; one speaks of cars in the plural because each one is identifiably different, and that is the kind of difference that makes a difference. Buddhism as a mass noun (e.g., Buddhism in China) implicitly treats Buddhism as a kind of whole, of which each instance is a part—a part that is given identity by being an indistinguishable part of the whole. Buddhisms as a count noun clearly says that there are a whole bunch of different kinds of Buddhisms that happen to be located in (what we conventionally identify as) China. A further problem with the mass noun Buddhism is that it in turn supports the kind of essentializing discussed in the section I. There is an inherent ambiguity in any mass noun reference to a nation-state form of Buddhism.
The ambiguity of the phrase “American Buddhism” is such that it can mean either Buddhism as it is found in America or a uniquely American Buddhism,35 and this ambiguity highlights the issues consequent upon using nation-state designations in the study of Buddhism. Under the former meaning of “American Buddhism,” Shingon is one kind of Buddhism that is found in America and can be studied as an Americanized form of Shingon.36 However, under the latter meaning—a uniquely American Buddhism—however, Shingon would be excluded. This conception of an Americanized Buddhism is widespread enough that when Helen Tworkov declared that Asian-American Buddhists have not so far “figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism,”37 everyone understood what she meant, whether they found it insightful or offensively ignorant. Jeff Wilson has suggested that scholars of “American Buddhism” have been complicit in this construction. He asserts that “there has been a tendency to look for some sort of uniquely American form of Buddhism as necessary for the justification of the subfield in the first place.”38 Further, the racialist construction of “America” as an inherently and homogeneously white society constitutes “American Buddhism” as inherently and homogeneously white as well.39
Colonial Singapore presents some important similarities, in that there were several different kinds of Buddhism being imported into the colony beginning in the latter nineteenth century. There is, however, nothing that can be identified as “Singaporean” Buddhism in the sense of some form of Buddhism uniquely Singaporean in nature. In Anne Blackburn’s study of “Ceylonese Buddhism in Colonial Singapore”40 during a period exactly comparable to the introduction of Buddhism to the United States, there were several different Buddhisms being introduced. In addition to the Ceylonese, who are the focus of her study, these included Burmese, Thai, and also Chinese Buddhisms. Cooperation and competition between groups was influenced not by any national form of Buddhism, but rather by language and lineage. While there were both Pāli and Chinese institutions created to maintain traditional practices and teachings, English-speaking Buddhists across ethnicities also cooperated in the creation of new institutions. Blackburn notes that by 1935, the end of the period of her study,
some Chinese Buddhists (including, but not limited to, Anglophone Chinese) sought access to new forms of Buddhist practice via Ceylonese Buddhist monks conversant in English and Malay. The history of Pali-oriented Buddhism in Singapore (and, indeed, in wider Malaya) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is thus one that reveals interesting forms of institutional collaboration and cross-fertilization across the borders of Mahayana and “Theravada” Buddhism, and Chinese-language and Pali-language liturgical space.41
The complexity of immigrant Buddhism seems distinctly parallel in the two cases of Singapore and the United States. There is a petitio principii argument sometimes made by advocates of “American Buddhism” that there is a unique form of Buddhism being developed, one that meets the “spiritual needs”42 of Americans. This appeals to an understanding of American culture that treats it in the same fashion as an ethnic category in relation to other nation-states. Not only does this argument marginalize immigrant Buddhists as either irrelevant or inadequately Americanized, but it also directly contravenes conceptions of Buddhism as universal. Any conception of a nation-state Buddhism, including the forecast and imaginal American Buddhism, is a social construction the shape of which is dependent upon the social power of those cooperating and contesting the process of construction.43 Historically important forms of Buddhism may, thereby, be submerged below the visible level of Buddhism as defined by a dominant minority.
While the difference between mass and count nouns may be considered “merely” a grammatical issue (or even diminished to the level of an innocent stylistic usage), such a view fails to take into account the ways in which the logic of such grammar structures conceptualization within the discourse of Buddhist studies. For example, from accepting a category such as Tibetan Buddhism, treated as a mass noun, it would then follow that one could reasonably talk about the characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism, such as for example, the tulku system. From that, it would in turn follow that any form of Buddhism found in the Tibetan context that did not include a tulku system is abnormal or deviant.44 What further follows is that it is the abnormality itself that requires explanation, not the tulku system.45 Such judgments all too easily shift over into exercises of power and authority—who determines what is normal also determines what is abnormal. Normal and abnormal are not only co-constructed, but are themselves ambiguous descriptors. They are simultaneously capable of signifying a more literal value-neutral judgment as to “most common” (most frequently occurring), and a value-laden connotation implying unacceptably different, pathological. Normal in the “statistical” sense of typical is a matter of empirical verification, as well as falsification, and therefore serves a valid intellectual function. However, normal in the sense of normative, entails “abnormal” as its semiotically marked opposite. The semantic range of normal as normative also then extends to the symbolic sense of “healthy” as versus pathological. Characterizations that instantiate one form of Buddhism as normative, that is, more normal than another form which is then therefore abnormal, are particularly dysfunctional when such judgments are simply asserted, and based on covert, rather explicit, criteria. (Much the same critique can be applied to claims of authenticity and purity.)46
This is, of course, not to affirm the naïve belief that academic inquiry is separate from the travails of religious realpolitik. Certainly scholarship, whether willingly or not, becomes involved in practical religious issues, including sectarian conflicts.47 The geopolitical categories that dominate the field of Buddhist studies are not natural ones, but rather social constructs. As social constructs, they have been created in the service of many different purposes, not all of which are to the benefit of an academic inquiry. Of course, academics is not free from such purposes, and I am not proposing some simplistic and idealized image of objective (in the popular sense of value-neutral) scholarship as a de-located “angelic” perspective—an unnuanced “view from nowhere,” in Thomas Nagel’s phrase.48 Rather, the responsibilities of scholarship require self-critical reflection on its formulation, including reflecting on the lexical consequences of using a mass noun, when a count noun is more appropriate. The difference between the two entails consequences of greater significance than just a stylistic choice or a merely grammatical distinction.
III. Studying Buddhism beyond the Nation-State
Concern with the limitations imposed by presuming contemporary geopolitical divisions as the organizing principle for scholarship is not new, nor is it limited to Buddhist studies. Jonathan Skaff opens his recent Sui-Tang China and Its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power, and Connections, 580–800 by quoting Marc Bloch’s 1928 address to the International Congress of Historical Sciences: “It is high time to set about breaking down the outmoded topographical compartments within which we seek to confine social realities, for they are not large enough to hold the material we try to cram into them.”
Skaff is not alone in his intention to overcome “the normal practice of professional historians to take the nation-state as the primary unit of analysis.” At the 2013 Association for Asian Studies (AAS) conference, four scholars, each in their own way, spoke to the constraints imposed by privileging geopolitical categories as the structures by which Buddhism is apprehended, raising issues directly relevant to the discussions made above regarding the rhetorical and lexical consequences of categorizing Buddhism according to the naturalized artifice of the nation-state.
Reflecting on the problematic organizational hierarchy of contemporary Buddhist studies, which employs regional categories based on the “area studies” model subdivided further into national categories, David Gray questioned the category “Tibetan Buddhism.” In his essay “How Tibetan is Tibetan Buddhism? On the Applicability of a National Designation for a Transnational Tradition,” he points out that today there is no Tibet to which this label can refer. Additionally, arguably the majority of practitioners of “Tibetan” Buddhism are neither ethnic Tibetans, nor do they speak or read Tibetan. More significantly, while Tibetans considered themselves Buddhists, and had a sense of Tibet as a distinct geopolitical category, “they simply did not conceive of their tradition in nationalistic terms.” (p. 6) Since there is no equivalent for “Tibetan Buddhism” in premodern Buddhist literature from Tibet, Gray suggests “Vajrayāna.” This is itself an emic category (rdo rje theg pa), and also identifies a form of Buddhism that stretches across many national boundaries. Thus, it allows for further designation as needed, but without precluding meaningful comparisons. For example Kūkai and Tshong Khapa can be juxtaposed as Vajrayāna teachers, rather than separated as Japanese and Tibetan, respectively.
Anya Bernstein further examines the way in which Buddhist social identities can be both formed by and recognized in terms of lineage and reincarnation, rather than nationality or ethnicity. In her essay “Indigenous Cosmopolitans: Mobility, Authority and Cultural Politics in Buryat Buddhism,” she focuses on two ethnically Tibetan monks from the (new) Drepung Monastery, who are recognized by Buryat Mongolians as having Buryat “roots.” The first is a reincarnated Buryat lama who had gone to Tibet in the late 1920s and died while incarcerated by the Chinese. He reincarnated in a Tibetan expatriate family in Nepal and is now a member of the Drepung monastery. The second was the disciple of a Buryat monk. Both lineage and reincarnation serve to establish connections with the Buryat Buddhist community on bases distinct from nationality or ethnicity. (Bernstein has also treated these topics in her published work, Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism.)
That the convenient nation-state model is inadequate for an accurate in-depth understanding of Buddhism in the context of Asian history is also made evident by Tansen Sen. Focusing on the works of several figures from the 1920s and 1930s, Sen shows that the idea of peaceful cooperation between India and China on the basis of Buddhism was invented by projecting back the contemporary nation-states into the ancient past. The consequence of constructing this imaginary history is that the contributions of all the other peoples—Sogdians, Tokharians, Uighurs, and so on—were left out. Instead we find “simplistic models and misperceptions that continue to have considerable impact on contemporary views about the pre-colonial interactions between South Asia and the region that is now within the borders of the People’s Republic of China.” (pp. 1–2)
While the epistemological issue of contemporary intellectual concerns molding historiography is well-recognized, Sen reveals something more blatant. The political goals held by individuals in the early twentieth century created a pan-Asianist rhetoric, including a mythology of peaceful relations between two continuously existing unitary nations. The representation is false on both counts; not only were the relations not peaceful, but the contemporary nation-states also do not constitute continuous political entities stretching back to the second century ce. This representation was created to serve divergent political purposes. When the goal was resistance to the European colonial powers, Japan was included as part of the pan-Asianist rhetoric. When China was requesting India’s help in resisting Japan’s invasion, the rhetoric was restructured to emphasize only the Buddhist connection between only these two countries.
Johan Elverskog has addressed the ecological impact of Buddhism across the entire landscape of Asia in an essay entitled “The Buddhist Exchange: Irrigation, Crops and the Spread of the Dharma.” The term “exchange” here, borrowed from environmental studies, refers to the way expansion of human societies transforms the environment by transmitting new crops and agricultural technologies from one region to another. Clearing away the misconception of Buddhism as inherently environmentally friendly, a “green” religion, Elverskog then provides a panoramic overview of the impact of the expansion of Buddhism across the entirety of the Asian continent. The expansion of the monastic institution was not simply a “religious” event, but included introducing wet-rice agriculture and the irrigation technologies required to support that form of agriculture into new regions. This affected vast regions across Asia, simultaneously creating population growth and the conditions for urbanization. Seen thus, Buddhism is not only a collection of abstruse doctrines, but a complex social institution affecting people’s lives and transforming the environment in very concrete ways across national boundaries. (Elverskog has also treated this topic in a published essay, “The Buddha’s Footprint.”)
As organizing principles, lineage and reincarnation can work across ethnicity and nationality. “Tibetan Buddhism” is neither emic to premodern Tibet, nor does it identify a presently existing nation-state, nor were the forms of Buddhism called “Tibetan” ever delimited by either ethnic or national boundaries. The mythology of Buddhism as a peaceful bridge between India and China ignores the important roles played by other groups that were the links between the two. As Buddhism spread across Asia, it brought new crops and new technologies. If the modern conception of religion (an individual belief system supported by private experience) is taken for granted, then new crops and new technologies may be marginalized as “baggage.” If, however, we understand Buddhism as itself a form of social organization, then these are far from merely incidental to its expansion. The categories that have long served to organize Buddhist studies have been largely based on nation-states, giving us such familiar categories as Chinese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism. The recent work by these scholars and others reveal that such categories are problematic. While there may be particular research programs for which categories based on contemporary nation-states are appropriate, they cannot simply be presumed and used by default.
IV. Buddhism or Buddhisms
In terms of the way Buddhism is academically apprehended, the implication of Johan Elverskog’s argument in “The Buddhist Exchange: Irrigation, Crops and the Spread of the Dharma”—that Buddhism should be seen as a civilization—runs directly counter to the standard view of the relation between civilization and religion codified in contemporary religious studies. In the “standard model” a civilization is conceptualized as the societal container within which different religions may be held. Distinguishing church and state was an important part of Europe’s response to the otherwise intractable wars of religion, which stretched across a century and a half (1524–1697). The privatization of religion followed,49 and the plurality of religions within a society created a frame for conceiving of the state as a container with religion one category of items it contains. While it is the normative conception of the relation for post-Enlightenment liberal societies in the West, we cannot presume that it was so for all peoples at all times.
Such a theoretical conception of Buddhism as a civilization would do much to shift away from an almost exclusive focus on Buddhist doctrine, with its implicit cognitivist fallacy, while at the same time avoiding the Buddhist modernist notion that meditation sanitized of any doctrinal commitments can be adopted. The tension between these two opposing understandings of what is important about Buddhism appears unresolvable. A shift to a category other than “religion” or “philosophy” would provide a means of comprehending Buddhism more adequately.
Consider, for example, translators who judged texts of the “profane sciences” worthy of translation from Sanskrit into Tibetan. While a distinction was drawn between that which is directly conducive to awakening, and that which is indirectly conducive, it was the entire culture of the Buddhist civilization that was of interest. Even more telling in their specificity, however, are the debates between different Tibetan teachers on the question of whether epistemology (hetuvidyā, grtan tshigs rig pa) is properly one of the sciences conducive to awakening or not.50 Thus, not only do the boundaries between “sacred and profane” trace out different contours in Buddhist thought (“awakening” having a different intellectual configuration from “salvation”) but also the borders are not sharp. Additionally, making the distinction between “religion” (sacred) and “civilization” (profane) turns out to have been an area of contestation.
Anya Bernstein’s research highlights the difference between emic bases for categorization among contemporary Buryat Buddhists and the etic categories predominant in contemporary academia. As discussed previously, the default academic categories tend to be based on contemporary nation-states. Thus, we find much talk of Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Burmese Buddhism, and so on. For the Buryats studied by Bernstein, however, connections are based not on nation-states. (David B. Gray’s argument, summarized above and discussed again below, demonstrates the problematic character of the category “Tibetan Buddhism,” which even with several possible interpretations does not identify a coherent entity.) Rather, they rest on “karmic affinities,” that is, those of teaching lineages and reincarnation. Since these ways of categorizing socio-religious groupings are also used by at least some Buddhists themselves, they are an important additional system for contemporary researchers to take into account.
At the same time, the relevance of ethnic and nationalistic categories also emerges from Bernstein’s study. These are especially clear in conflicts between the authority of the officially recognized Buryat Buddhist establishment and the ethnically Tibetan lamas who operate on the basis of relations that not only cross, but effectively deny the religious significance of national boundaries. One dimension of this conflict is that of “tradition versus reform,” with the Tibetan lamas and their supporters asserting authority from within a modernist rhetoric of reforming and purifying, while their opponents based their claims on a politics of identity and tradition. The specific site of conflict discussed by Bernstein was ritual offerings to local deities which traditionally include vodka and meat. The Tibetan lamas asserted that “true” Buddhism, that is, a modernist claim regarding originary purity, did not include such offerings, while the local lamas claimed that the indigenous spirits would not take orders from outsiders. Thus, the conflict reveals that categories based on nation-states are not irrelevant to the study of Buddhism. However, rather than being employed uncritically as the default organizing principles, such categories need to be used for situations in which they are appropriate.
Gray’s inquiry on the question “How Tibetan is Tibetan Buddhism?” points to an alternative structure by which the study of Buddhism can be organized, that of religious movements and schools. Like Vajrayāna itself, the category Gray suggests as an alternative to “Tibetan Buddhism,” other important movements and schools extend across the boundaries of nation-states. For example, the cult of Amitābha extends throughout the Mahāyāna cosmopolis. Such cross-border continuities are important for understanding the coherence of the tradition, which a focus on the characteristics thought to unify the variety of Buddhist forms within a nation-state ignores, obscures, or minimalizes.
The category “Tibetan Buddhism” appears firmly entrenched in popular culture. Thus, one sees groupings such as “Zen, Tibetan, and mindfulness” as if these represented the range of Buddhism. On the one hand, this reveals the tendency of accepted categories to endure despite being dysfunctional in one way or other. On the other, it highlights another aspect of the social structures sustaining such categories. In other words, the popular formulations of the categories of Buddhism directly affect the academic categorizations. The popular formulations stand then in a dialectic relation to the scholarly categories, with both being influenced by the economics of popular religion, on the one hand, and the funding of academic institutions, on the other.
Tansen Sen’s essay on “Rediscovering and Reconstructing Buddhist Interactions between ‘India’ and ‘China’” explores the ways in which modern political ends were at work in reimagining a historical relationship between an India and a China that serve as symbolic surrogates for the modern nation-states. This relationship was represented as one of peaceful sharing in which Buddhism was both the content being shared and the motivator for the sharing. The pan-Asianist rhetoric that Sen examines formed a common discourse among many different authors in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century South and East Asia. Sen specifically focuses this essay on figures working at Cheena-Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, India, in the 1930s and 1940s. When considering the effects of using contemporary nation-states as the default organizing principle for Buddhist studies, Sen makes an important observation:
The use of “India” and “China” as distinct, homogenous, and “politically identifiable” units found in the writings of intellectuals and scholars associated with pan-Asianism and Cheena-Bhavana was not necessarily due to the limitations of modern vocabulary. Rather, they were deliberately used to accomplish the idealistic, nationalistic, political, or religious goals of these writers. The reconstructions of the ancient linkages between India and China were often part of the emerging nationalist historiography that let the concerns of the present shape the perceptions of the past. (p. 2)
In addition to the endurance of these directly politicized motivations regarding “India” and “China” as monolithic constructs continuous over millennia, another implication of Sen’s study is worth considering. The goal of early twentieth-century pan-Asianist rhetoric was to imagine a peaceful relation between Asian countries, in this case based on Buddhism. As indicated above, not only was Buddhism the content of exchange, but it was also presented as the motivator of change. In other words, the contemporary image of Buddhism as a “religion of peace” may itself also be a consequence of the pan-Asianist rhetoric examined by Sen.
Categories have lexical and rhetorical consequences, and should only be used when theoretically relevant. There is no one right way to categorize Buddhism—whether in terms of nations or ethnicities, lineages or mentalités, monastic institutions or doctrinal teachings, civilizations or individuals. Other studies may find a focus on regional categories or on such processes as globalization or glocalization fruitful. Each of these, and other kinds of categorizations, can be heuristically useful for different kinds of research depending upon the theoretical framework of inquiry. Employing any of them as the single overarching default category system, however, distorts and limits our understanding.
V. How Did We Get Here? Empire and Mission
It is worthwhile to ask “Why are we using these categories?”—or more specifically, “Why are they the default categories that structure the field?”—rather than simply accepting them uncritically, or considering them to be irrelevant to research. Simply accepting them as given, as “the way things naturally are,” and thus not requiring any self-reflexive consideration of the actual scope of one’s research is no doubt the easiest course of action. In such fashion, everyone who uses the categories agrees that we all know what we are talking about, an implicit consensus hegemonically maintained by the community of discourse.51
In the case of the nation-state categorization of Buddhist studies, I would suggest that there are two identifiable, interrelated historical reasons—empire and mission. These two dimensions of the history of Buddhist studies identify an important set of historical factors that contributed to the construction of many academic specializations including Buddhist studies along geopolitical lines. The British empire, and later the American one, systematically educated its administrative and military agents, including familiarizing them with the religious traditions of the nations they were expected to administer and dominate. The British empire’s administrative needs also contributed to structuring the study of Buddhism along geopolitical lines. Indeed, some of the founding figures for Buddhist studies were British colonial agents. For example, Brian Houghton Hodgson, a diplomat at the British Residency in Nepal from 1820 to 1843, has been identified as “the founder of all our real knowledge of Buddhism.”52 While presenting their findings in academic settings, the function of their research, like that of most such academic bodies founded in the nineteenth century, was to aid in the functioning of empire. Likewise the presence of Buddhist studies in twentieth-century American academies was facilitated by, or justified in terms of area studies as conceived and supported by the US government.
The organization of such educational programs were, naturally enough, geopolitical—consider, for example, the funding of what was known as “area studies” in the United States in the 1960s. Since such educational programs were intended to be comprehensive—history, culture, language—they also included religion. Russell T. McCutcheon has examined the effective use of the rhetoric of a crisis in our educational system following the launch of the first earth orbiting satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union. Given other, more recent traumas, October 4, 1957, may no longer be recorded as a transformative date in the American psyche, but half a century ago it certainly was. Responding to this “crisis” created a vast outpouring of federal funding for educational programs in the 1960s.53 The funding that followed the fear of losing global leadership to the Soviet Union flowed not only to scientific and technical programs in higher education but also to the humanities. At this time much of the funding for area studies in American universities came from the Department of Defense. The groundwork had already been laid, however, by the naturalization of the idea of nation-state, which made it the unquestioned category system for research. “Naturalization owes its force to the compartmentalization of the social science project into different ‘national’ academic fields, a process strongly influenced not only by nationalist thinking itself, but also by the institutions of the nation-state organizing and channeling social science thinking in universities, research institutions and government think-tanks.”54
The primacy of focus on geopolitical organization also informed thinking about the study of religion generally, in this case through the vehicle of the training of missionaries. In his 1959 essay “The History of Religions in America,” Joseph Kitagawa noted that “most seminaries in America consider either comparative religion or the history of religions a tool for the Christian world mission….[And note] that comparative religion was a favorite subject of American seminaries from the latter part of the nineteenth century to the 1920’s.”55 In other words, missionaries would be trained for service in specific geopolitical regions, and therefore the curriculum would have been organized in a way reflecting the various mission fields. The organization of some textbooks of world’s religions continues to reflect this cultural organization structured geographically. Some, for example, include chapters devoted to regionally limited traditions (the religions of Africa, of North and South America, and in some cases of East Asia—Confucianism, Daoism, and Shintō), as well as the common listing of traditions that are not constrained by a regional or ethnic basis, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. (The items, their groupings, and the terms used to identify them may differ in specifics between different textbooks, but the overall pattern remains largely consistent across textbooks.)
Detailing the effects of empire and mission on the formation of Buddhist studies offers fertile ground for future research. One important instance derives from the coterminous development of the nation-state concept and the modern conception of religion.56 Empire and mission were both forces that led to the almost universal adoption of the nation-state model of social and political organization. The latter in turn imposed a conception of religion defined as individual, private, subjective, experiential, and a system of personal beliefs onto indigenous traditions that came to either be categorized as instances of one of the “world religions,” or as local superstition to be suppressed.57 Buddhist modernism, which determined understanding of Buddhism in academic contexts over the course of the twentieth century and continues to do so in popular contexts, adhered to models of religion introduced by Christian missionaries in the attempt to assert parity.58 Modernist proponents of Buddhism created the familiar image of Buddhism as disdaining ritual and local cult, emphasizing meditation and individual experience, and embodying a very modern rationality, including a program of “demythologizing” the Buddha and asserting a human founder fully equal in historical actuality as Jesus.59 It seems clear—at least to me—that the structuring of Buddhist studies along geopolitical/nation-state categories reflects the political, economic, and military interests of empires, and the segmentation of mission fields. Of course, missionary work often went hand in hand with empire, so the two cannot in fact be entirely separated from one another.
VI. Alternatives to Thinking in Nation-State Categories
We have argued here that categorizing Buddhism according to contemporary nation-states entails problematic consequences, and that therefore nation-states should not be the automatic default categories for studying Buddhism. What this does not mean, however, is that nation-state categorization is necessarily worse than any other, nor does it mean that there is any one category system that is better than the others. All category systems are contextual, and their use in any particular study of the Buddhist tradition needs to be evaluated heuristically.
There are several alternative candidates to nation-state categories. One mentioned above is the suggestion that Buddhism is best understood as a civilization. Timothy Fitzgerald notes that as a descriptive concept, civilization is more encompassing than religion and therefore may be preferable in some instances. Particularly in the modern conceptualization of religion as “a merely private, personal and voluntary practice,” it appears at least inadequate and at worst misleading when the values and practices of Buddhism “directly or indirectly embrace every institution.”60 Civilization is a troubled alternative, however, particularly in light of Samuel Huntington’s use of the term as a way of describing the alignments of international actors into a set of blocks competing with one another for domination of the future. Considering the idea that major world religions are the basis for major civilizations, Huntington argues that in its Mahāyāna form Buddhism became a component within the various societies into which it was introduced, but did not provide a sense of unifying identity. The exceptions, relatively minor, are a “Therevada” (sic) civilization in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and a “Lamaist” one in Tibet, Mongolia, and Bhutan.61 Of these two he cites Arnold Toynbee’s evaluation of them as “fossil civilizations.”62 The orientation of both Huntington and Toynbee, however, is the present and how we got here. Consequently, their usages marginalize Buddhism, treating it either as a religion within a nation-state, or as a failed contender for any important role in the present world. Huntington’s understanding of Buddhism, however, is itself constrained by the dated sources on which he depends. The notion that Buddhism was a religion in decline is not uncommon in the period after World War II, when Buddhist countries were suffering the dual depredations of colonialism in withdrawal and the war itself. The current global reach of Buddhism suggests, however, that something important changed over the course of the second half of the twentieth century.
This then suggests another alternative model for the study of Buddhism, globalization, and its “refined” version, glocalization.63 Given its background in business and management, globalization theory may be expected to treat Buddhism either as a commodity, or as incidental baggage brought by immigrants. In exploring the ways in which globalizing Buddhism could be categorized, Jan Nattier made a threefold distinction: elite Buddhism (imported), evangelical Buddhism (exported), and “baggage Buddhism,” a descriptively accurate image, even if some found it offensive because of the connotations of “baggage” as something one can or should dispense with, as in the phrase “unnecessary baggage.”64
Because it originates in the context of discussions of global capitalism, discussions of the globalization of religion maintain the standard image of religion as individual, private, experiential, and doctrinal.65 David Lehmann has made this point, noting that “in a globalized world of democratic capitalism, all authority is expected to be rational and impersonal, all economic agents to be optimizing automata, and religion a matter of private personal choice experienced in an institutional setting governed by the same democratic principles as the state itself.”66 Instances of the latter are evident in the legal requirements for incorporation as a religious nonprofit corporation. One prominent example is the Buddhist Churches of America in which the Bishop is elected to his office and there are term limits for tenure in the office, and local temples are owned and run in most cases by boards of directors made up of lay leadership. This has created complex and sometimes conflicting sets of authority—ministers are employed by the temple, but are at the same time appointed by the Bishop. Another instance is the legal statuses of Sri Lankan temples in northern California studied by Natalie E. F. Quli.67
Globalization theory has also developed in relation to modern nation-states. Lehmann has noted that one of the assumptions of Roland Robertson and Peter Beyer’s foundational works on globalization is “the use of ‘societies’ as basic units of analysis whose boundaries coincide with those of nation states.”68 In contrast to this, Mark Juergensmeyer has emphasized that religions have “always been global, in the sense that religious communities and traditions have always maintained permeable boundaries.”69 He goes on to identify three forms of religious globalization: global diasporas, transnational religions, and religions in pluralist societies—each of which applies to different forms of Buddhism today.
A different approach is that of regionalism. This has been applied on the intra-national level, for example, by Jeff Wilson. He argues that there is so much variation between the kinds of Buddhism found in different regions of the United States that studies depending on one region cannot be extended to others. Internationally, Donald Swearer has written on Buddhism in Southeast Asia, noting the disjunction between Buddhism as it exists in the region and homogeneous conceptions of Theravāda. “We much reject the notion that there existed in mainland Southeast Asia any kind of Theravada Pali ‘orthodoxy’: this is an ahistorical projection, first constructed by monks of the Sinhalese Mahavihara monastic lineage and subsequently perpetuated in the modern period by both Buddhist adherents and Western scholars.”70
Alternative to any categorization according to geography—nation-state, global, regional—is the model of local and translocal. Like all politics, all religion is local, and may be transferred from one location to another, but is then “re-localized.” For example, the Shingon Buddhism practiced in Los Angeles and Lahaina are not “glocal” forms of a globalized religion. Each has its own unique history and is connected to specific local forms of Shingon in Japan.71 Translocal has also been used to identify phenomena that stretch across several local sites, such as the cult of Jizō at Osorezan, as in the work by Miyazaki Fumiko and Duncan Williams.72 A third formulation balancing local and the relations created by increasing ease of travel is “transnational localism.”73
A philosophic alternative draws on Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblances,” and the very similar notion of polythetic definitions. While many authors have been attracted to this understanding of how to describe or define a category, most frequently one finds the concept alluded to, but not actually employed.74 Thus the author avoids giving a definition and suggests instead that the category can be understood as constituting a set of family resemblances. Yet, those family resemblances are not detailed nor are their extensions across different subsets of members of the category identified. Thus, it seems that this alternative has great potential, but that its potential remains unfulfilled.
Lastly, systems theory suggests an alternative to nation-state categories. Francisca Cho and Richard King Squier have argued for a systems approach, identifying three specific areas in which the modern discourse on religion is problematic.75 These are (1) inadequate conceptions of boundaries between traditions; (2) the existing “fragmentation of knowledge” and a consequent “inability to see the emergent patterns of behavior that instantiate a larger system, which cannot be discerned in the component parts alone”; and (3) the inability of existing conceptualizations to discern “structures that form persistent patterns within dynamic processes of evolution and change.”76 The authors qualify their project by noting that no theory, including systems theory, can provide a comprehensive account of complex phenomena such as religions—and that despite which theorizing is still an inherent part our epistemology.77
As with the concept of nation-state itself, each of these alternatives needs to be employed critically. Each carries connotations that need to be considered for their theoretical validity in relation to any specific study being undertaken.78
In the eighteenth century, the modern nation-state came into existence. In Benedict Anderson’s analysis, a nation is an “imagined community” created out of the identification of geography, language, and centralized political authority, and made possible by print capitalism.79 In the nineteenth century, there then arose the still dominant though now not unchallenged historiography that takes the nation as the natural unit of historical action. The function of this historiography of the nation is nation-building, that is, to create the nation as an apparently natural entity and natural source of personal identity. This includes projecting the nation as an identified unity, homogeneous throughout its breadth and continuous in its history.
To call into question the division of the field of Buddhist studies into separate domains defined by contemporary nation-states is not to claim that there is no utility in such studies when explicitly theorized as such. For example, Alicia Turner, Laurence Cox, and Brian Bocking note that one of the markers of modern Buddhism (i.e., new forms created in the period following the Indian Revolt of 1857 through the collapse of direct European rule in Europe) is “the development of national sanghas and ethno-nationalist Buddhist discourses.”80 For the study of such modern Buddhisms that have been formed in relation to “nationalism, decolonization and the creation of multiple Buddhist nation-states,”81 the study will of necessity be theorized in terms of nation-state categories. When stated explicitly the underlying assumptions regarding the category of the object of study are made visible, at least enough to begin to see their limitations. As Turner, Cox, and Bocking go on to note, the “insularity” of the majority of research on modern Buddhism, has been “focused on the unfolding of Buddhism and modernity in a single country, perhaps unconsciously moulded by the ideas of Buddhist as a national entity that came to dominate the twentieth century.”82 When such assumptions remain implicit—or unconscious—however, they mold the work in ways that are effectively invisible because the assumptions that structure the work are taken for granted. That is, the naturalization of the nation-state constrains the study of Buddhism within the boundaries of specific nation-states, and this constraint is invisible because the category of nation-state is not seen as problematic. Indeed, as they go on to point out, despite the ideological role of nationalism in the formation of some modern Buddhist institutions, “the creation of modern Buddhisms was not set mainly on a national stage, nor was it the product of local conversations alone. Instead, it was the fruit of extensive interactions and interconnections across a wide variety of national, ethnic, cultural and colonial boundaries.”83 The same is true mutatis mutandis of the entire history of Buddhism.
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Wilson, Jeff. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.Find this resource:
Wimmer, Andreas, and Nina Glick Schiller. “Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences.” Global Networks 2, no. 4 (2002): 301–334.Find this resource:
Wuthnow, Robert. Communities of Discourse: Ideology and Social Structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European Socialism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.Find this resource:
(1) This épistème is found in many academic disciplines, see, e.g., Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller, “Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences,” Global Networks 2, no. 4 (2002): 301–334. While defaulting to nation-state categories, that is, employing a nation-state form of Buddhism as the unquestioned terminus ad quem of Buddhist history, consistently distorts Buddhist historiography, to call it into question is not to ignore “the overwhelming and obvious fact that nationalist politics and conflicts have shaped the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (303).
(2) Though the concept of race has now fallen into well-deserved ill-repute as scientifically groundless, the idea of a nation-state deployed conceptions of race as a fixed, determinative, and inherent set of characteristics, abilities, and personality traits that was widespread in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although often cloaked today in terms such as ethnicity, the basic conceptions continue to mold the idea of an organic relation between nation-state and religion into the present. The Romantic rhetoric of “Blut und Boden” (blood and soil) still resonates in contemporary popular culture, now manifest in claims regarding authenticity.
(3) Regarding the complexities of using the term “nation” in relation to Tibet, see Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Prisoners of Shangrila: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), together with two essays by Georges Dreyfus, “Proto-Nationalism in Tibet,” in Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, ed. Per Kvaerne (Oslo: Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, 1994),1:205–218; and “Are We Prisoners of Shangrila? Orientalism, Nationalism, and the Study of Tibet,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 1 (October 2005), http://www.thlib.org/collections/texts/jiats/#!jiats=/01/dreyfus/.
(4) Joep Leerssen, “Literary Historicism: Romanticism, Philologists, and the Presence of the Past,” Modern Language Quarterly 65, no. 2 (June 2004): 221.
(5) A recent and very important countertrend to the tradition of national histories is evidenced by works that not only expand the discursive horizon to regions but also look at wide interactions across and between regions. This countertrend includes works such as Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System, a.d. 1250–1350 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Victor Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009); Jonathan Karam Skaff, Sui-Tang China and Its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power, and Connections, 580–800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).
(6) Even as nation-based historiography has come into question from the last half of the twentieth century, the idea of history as being in the service of some group has survived in the form of the idea that history should be of use to some group—i.e., historiography remains closely linked with identity.
(7) Thomas Gil, “Leopold Ranke,” in Aviezer Tucker, ed., A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography (Oxford, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 385.
(8) See E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Canto Editions, Cambridge University Press, 2012); and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London and New York: Verso Books, 2006).
(9) Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 154.
(10) Stefan Berger, “National Historiographies in Transnational Perspective: Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Storia della Storiografia 50 (2006): 3.
(11) Stefan Berger, “The Invention of European National Traditions in European Romanticism,” in The Oxford History of Historical Writing, vol. 4, 1800–1945, ed. Stuart Macintyre, Juan Maiguashca, and Attila Pók (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 19. Also Chris Lorenz, “History and Theory,” in The Oxford History of Historical Writing, vol. 5, Historical Writing since 1945, ed. Axel Schneider and Daniel Woolf (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 32.
(12) Matthew Kapstein, The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 36.
(14) Wimmer and Schiller, “Methodological Nationalism and Beyond,” 304. They go on to point out that the consequence of naturalizing the nation-state is that the higher order category becomes “international” (emphasis in original).
(15) Exemplary instances: for the first, Warren Matthews, World Religions, 7th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2013); and for the second, Donald W. Mitchell’s Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 2d ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). The dominance of the category “experience” in such works constitutes a separate problematic area.
(16) After about twenty years of having a single section for Buddhism, the relatively recent expansion of the American Academy of Religion has opened an opportunity for the constitution of some interesting groups with more diverse organizing themes, alongside the more traditional world’s religions, geopolitical, and nation-state/ethnic categories.
(17) As with academic societies, the entrenchment of world’s religions and nation-state categories is gradually weakening. In this case, however, it takes the form of new journals or new series.
(18) Full disclosure thing: my own title is that of professor of “Japanese Buddhism.”
(19) This critique may be fruitfully applied mutatis mutandis to the category of Buddhism itself.
(20) Consider, e.g., D. T. Suzuki’s claim that “after Nāgārjuna and Vasubandhu and their immediate followers, [Buddhism] could not continue its healthy growth any longer in its original soil; it had to be transplanted if it were to develop a most important aspect which had hitherto been altogether neglected—and because of this neglect its vitality was steadily being impaired. The most important aspect of Mahāyāna Buddhism which unfolded itself in the mental climate of China was Ch’an (Zen)…. This was really a unique contribution of the Chinese genius to the history of mental culture generally, but it has been due to the Japanese that the true spirit of Zen has been scrupulously kept alive and that its technique has been completed.” Daisetz Teitarō Suzuki, “An Interpretation of Zen Experience,” in The Japanese Mind: Essentials of Japanese Philosophy and Culture, ed. Charles A. Moore (Honolulu: East–West Center Press, University of Hawaii Press, 1967), 122.
(22) While several scholars have called this received tradition regarding Zen into question, it remains not only in popular representations but also in fields such as Buddhism and psychology, as well as in decontextualizing “practical applications” of Buddhist praxis. See for an example of the latter, Steven Heine, White Collar Zen: Using Zen Principles to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Your Career Goals (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
(23) Similarly, consider the function of the category “Tibetan Buddhism” in present-day international politics.
(24) See Susan L. Burns, Before the Nation: Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
(25) Consider in this regard the claims made by the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī, that he was heir to a continuous monarchy dating back 2,500 years to Cyrus the Great. It is the function of national histories to create the illusion of continuity in order to legitimate the nation-state in the present.
(26) Juewei, Parading the Buddha: Localizing Buddha’s Birthday Celebrations (Los Angeles: Buddha’s Light Publishing, 2013).
(27) Lewis Lancaster, “Chinese Buddhist Studies: Its Character and Established Limits,” https://www.academia.edu/8413931/Chinese_Buddhist_Studies_Its_Character_and_Established_Limits.
(29) D. T. Suzuki, Japanese Spirituality (1944; repr., Tokyo: Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and Japanese Ministry of Education, 1972), 18; cited in Fabio Rambelli, “The Empire and the Signs: Semiotics, Cultural Identity and Ideology in Japanese History,” Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici, Special issue, “Reconfiguring Cultural Semiotics: The Construction of Japanese Identity,” 83/84 (May and December 1999), 16.
(30) See Robert H. Sharf, “Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited,” in Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism, ed. James W. Heisig and John Maraldo (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press), 40–51.
(32) Fabio Rambelli and Patrizia Violi, “Introduction: Semiotics and Japan,” Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici 83/84 (May and December 1999): 3–4.
(33) This presumption that stability is the norm, while change requires explanation, is fundamental to functionalist theory in anthropology. This has now long been critiqued within anthropology itself.
(34) Although the concern here is with the legitimating fictions of continuity constituted by the nation-state, the same questions may be raised about those legitimating fictions constituted by lineages.
(35) This ambiguity is discussed more fully by Wakoh Shannon Hickey in her “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism,” Journal of Global Buddhism 11 (2010): 1–25, http://www.globalbuddhism.org/toc.html.
(36) Richard K. Payne, “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invisibility of the Shingon Mission to the United States,” in Buddhist Missionaries in the Era of Globalization, ed. Linda Learman (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004).
(37) Helen Tworkov, Tricycle (1991): 4; cited in Hickey, “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism,” 8.
(38) Jeff Wilson, Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 21–22.
(39) See Joseph Cheah, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Race is also a theme discussed throughout Scott A. Mitchell and Natalie E. F. Quli, eds., Buddhism beyond Borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015).
(40) Anne Blackburn, “Ceylonese Buddhism in Colonial Singapore: New Ritual Spaces and Specialists, 1895–1935,” Asia Research Institute, Working Paper Series, no. 184, National University of Singapore, May 2012.
(42) “Spiritual needs” is placed in quotes as the theory of such needs seems to me to be entirely ungrounded and rhetorical.
(43) See, e.g., Wakoh Shannon Hickey’s discussion of the mismatch of power between Helen Tworkov and Ryo Imamura, one of Tworkov’s most strident critics. Hickey, “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism,” 10.
(44) As is well-recognized in the scholarly community, there was a time before there were tulkus. The difference between such historical analyses and sectarian rhetorics of legitimating continuity are not always so clear-cut, however. Consider the construction of founder cults in early modern Japan in response to governmental pressures to justify the legitimacy of Buddhist traditions on the basis of modern, i.e., Euro-Christian standards of the historicality of Jesus. Similarly, sects created “seiten” (聖典), that is, one volume compilations of key writings (“scriptures”), on the model of the Bible.
(45) For a discussion of the origin of the tulku system, see Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1982), 495–498.
(46) These considerations could be recast in terms of the semiotics of marked and unmarked categories, the former being normative, while the latter is distinguished in some way from that norm. This same analysis would apply to Buddhism and its various nation-state identifications, the latter being the marked form. Yet a different analysis would be to see this as an instance of Aristotelian definition by genus and species. Depending upon how the relationship if left untheorized is understood by a reader, different implications are entailed.
(47) Such issues are in turn compounded by any pre-existing religious commitments of Buddhist scholars themselves. See Oliver Freiberger, “The Disciplines of Buddhist Studies: Notes on Religious Commitment as Boundary-Marker,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 30, no. 1–2 (2007 ): 299–318.
(48) See Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
(50) See Helmut Krasser, “Are Buddhist Pramāṇavādins Non-Buddhistic? Dignāga and Dharmakīrti on the Impact of Logic and Epistemology on Emancipation,” Hōrin 11 (2004): 129–146, which opens with a good overview of the secondary literature on the topic.
(51) The term is from Robert Wuthnow, Communities of Discourse: Ideology and Social Structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European Socialism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). I am using it here, however, in a somewhat looser sense, as a way of referring to the way in which social groups maintain, enforce, and reinforce accepted ways of thinking.
(52) Perceval Landon, Nepal (London, 1928), 1:85, quoted by Michael Hutt, “Hodgson and the Hanuman Dhoka,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd series, 5, no. 1 (April 1995): 1.
(53) Russell T. McCutcheon, “‘Just Follow the Money’: The Cold War, the Humanistic Study of Religion, and the Fallacy of Insufficient Cynicism,” Culture and Religion 5, no. 1 (2004): 41–69, doi: 10.1080/0143830042000200355.
(55) Joseph M. Kitagawa, “The History of Religions in America,” in The History of Religions: Understanding Human Experience, ed. Joseph M. Kitagawa (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1987). Original in Mircea Eliade and J. M. Kitagawa, eds., The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1959), 13.
(56) Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions; or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). Also David Chidester, Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
(57) Kate Crosby, Traditional Theravada Meditation and its Modern-Era Suppression (Hong Kong: Buddha Dharma Center, 2013). Jason Ānanda Josephson, “When Buddhism Became a ‘Religion’: Religion and Superstition in the Writings of Inoue Enryō,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 33, no. 1 (2006): 143–168. Also idem., The Invention of Religion in Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
(58) Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990). Also Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
(59) David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Also Richard King, “Imagining Religions in India: Colonialism and the Mapping of South Asian History and Culture,” in Secularism and Religion-Making, ed. Markus Dressler and Arvind-Pal s. Mandair (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
(60) Timothy Fitzgerald, personal communication via email, June 29, 2015.
(61) Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 47–48.
(62) Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations, 326n20. More affirmatively, Trevor Ling used the concept of civilization in relation to Buddhism in his The Buddha: Buddhist Civilization in India and Ceylon (New York: Penguin Books, 1976). Reprinted as The Buddha: The Social-Revolutionary Potential of Buddhism (Onalaska, WA: Pariyatti Press, 2013).
(63) Roland Robertson, “Globalisation or Glocalisation?” Journal of International Communication 1, no. 2 (1994): 33–52.
(65) Jørn Borup brings Fitzgerald’s critique of this modern concept of religion to bear in his study of Zen at Myōshingji. As a site-specific study, Borup’s work is also relevant to the local/translocal formulations as alternatives to nation-state categories. Jørn Borup, Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism: Myōshinji, a Living Religion (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008).
(66) David Lehmann, “Religion and Globalization,” in Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations, ed. Linda Woodhead, Hiroko Kawanami, and Christopher Partridge (London: Routledge, 2009), 409.
(67) Natalie Quli, “Laicization in Four Sri Lankan Buddhist Temples in Northern California,” PhD dissertation, Graduate Theological Union, 2010.
(69) Mark Juergensmeyer, “Thinking Globally about Religion,” in Global Religions: An Introduction, ed. Mark Juergensmeyer (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 5.
(70) Donald Swearer, The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia, 2d ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), x.
(72) Miyazaki Fumiko and Duncan Williams, “The Intersection of the Local and the Translocal at a Sacred Site: The Case of Osorezan in Tokugawa Japan,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 28, no. 3–4 (2001): 399–440.
(73) See, e.g., Afe Adogame and James V. Spickard, eds., Religion Crossing Boundaries: Transnational Religious and Social Dynamics in Africa and the New African Diaspora (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010).
(74) See for one example Victoria S. Harrison, “The Pragmatics of Defining Religion in a Multi-Cultural World,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 59, no. 3 (June 2006): 133–152.
(75) Francisca Cho and Richard King Squier, “Religion as a Complex and Dynamic System,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81, no. 2 (June 2013): 357–398.
(78) Some scholars work within an already delimited intellectual framework and may therefore feel that such theoretical reflections are unnecessary, e.g., textual scholars for whom the standards of scholarship may seem well established and not in need of theoretical reflection of this kind. Recent work, however, demonstrates that the notion of an Urtext, which informs the project of creating critical editions, is itself a theoretical one, and the metaphoric entailments that follow from it can be misleading.
(80) Alicia Turner, Laurence Cox, and Brian Bocking, “A Buddhist Crossroads: Pioneer European Buddhists and Globalizing Asian Networks, 1860–1960,” Contemporary Buddhism: An Interdisciplinary Journal 14, no. 1 (2013): 2.