Buddhist Asia: Traditions, Transmissions and Transformations

  An NEH Summer Institute ~ May 25 to June 26, 2015 ~ Honolulu, Hawai'i ~ Hosted by the Asian Studies Development Program

Intellectual Rationale

Buddhism is customarily referred to as one of the great “world religions.” But it is a religion without a defining creed, a revelatory core text, a centralized authority structure or indispensable practices and institutions. In fact, thinking about Buddhist traditions and practices as aspects of a single, pan-Asian religion is largely an artifact of early modern, trade-mediated, and politically-charged interactions among Euro-American and Asian cultures and societies.

The word “Boudhism” entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1801, and the now standard spelling “Buddhism” was first used some fifteen years later in the Asiatic Journal, a publication of the British East India Company. And although the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, famously proclaimed Buddhism to be “the finest of all religions” in the early 19th century, it was only at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions—held in Chicago in conjunction with an early world fair, the World Columbian Exposition—that “Buddhists” from across Asia began to self-consciously identify themselves as such. Prior to this, Buddhists in various parts of Asia thought of themselves as members of locally vibrant, family-like lineages of teachers, teachings and ritual practices that were as distinct from those in other parts of Asia as were their climates and cuisines.

Over much of its twenty-five hundred year history, then, Buddhism has not been a world religion in the modern sense. Rather, it has been something more like what religious scholar Robert Campany refers to as a “cultural repertoire.” And all evidence points to the fact that the Buddhist “repertoire” was both remarkably appealing and adaptable. Buddhism became the most widely—and diversely—practiced religion in Asia, bridging cultures from the Swat valley of present-day Afghanistan to volcanic Java, from the tropical forests of Sri Lanka to the Siberian steppes, and from the bustling manufacturing and market centers of the Indo-Gangetic plain like Mathura to the imperial capitals of China, Korea and Japan.

Yet, granted the complex of associations that surround Buddhism today, its adoption across virtually all of Asia within a thousand years of the life of its nominal founder, Siddhartha Gautama (traditional dates: 566-486 BCE), presents a considerable puzzle. Buddhism is now commonly viewed as a religion that was founded on the insight that “everything is suffering” and on the practical response of renouncing one’s social roles, retreating to an isolated place in order to devote oneself to meditation, and eventually gaining release from the cycle of life-and-death through a “blowing-out” or “cooling-down” (nirvana) of the ignorance-fueled flames of passion and desire. This characterization of Buddhism, which can be found in any number of American humanities and world history textbooks, has the merit of being simple and succinct. But it renders mysterious the appeal of Buddhism and its adoption by hundreds of millions of people, including educated and culturally sophisticated ruling elites, illiterate farmers, and keenly profit-motivated merchants. Whether among those living in luxury, those uncertain about the source of their meal, or those climbing commercially-crafted social ladders, world renunciation has never been an easy sell or popular ideal. The proposed institute aims in part at “solving” this mystery.

In doing so, a unifying concern will be to explore how Buddhism functioned at various times and locations as what George Tanabe and Ian Reader have termed a “total care system”—a system that addresses not only the full range of one’s personal needs from birth to death, but also those of society as a whole. These include needs that can comfortably be characterized as religious or spiritual. But they also include needs for promoting social cohesion, expanding economic productivity, and legitimizing state authority. Presenting Buddhism in this more holistic fashion will help to dispel many common misconceptions about Buddhism, and will provide a model for exploring the diverse social, political, economic and cultural ramifications of Buddhism in the undergraduate classroom.

Importantly, this will mean placing the widespread modern image of Buddhism as an “innocuous” religion of peace and compassion in conversation with the historical reality that it was not always warmly embraced or happily tolerated. For example, there were three major purges of Buddhism in premodern China. The most severe of these took place in the mid-9th century, at least in part due to imperial concerns about the great accumulation of wealth by tax-exempt Buddhist institutions, and led to the destruction of some 4,500 temples and monasteries, the burning of Buddhist libraries, and the forced laicization of over 250,000 monks and nuns. In medieval Japan, bands of armed monks (sōhei) in the Tendai School not only intimidated adherents of other doctrinal schools, they brazenly contested imperial policy in the streets of the capital. And, although it was from Korean copies of the Buddhist canon that Chinese Buddhist libraries were replenished after the purge of 841-845, the fervent embrace of Neo-Confucian thought by Korean elites in the late 14th century led to the prohibition of many Buddhist rituals and a banning of Buddhist institutions from the capital. Finally, as a complex result of ideological conflict, cultural absorption and changing patterns of Eurasian trade, Buddhism had all but disappeared from its South Asian homelands by the end of the 11th century.


Reimagining Buddhism

There are a number of reasons for wanting to explore the complexities of Buddhism’s expansion across Asia. The most obviously compelling of these is that any account of Asian histories and their relevance today would be incomplete without accurately and comprehensively taking into account the emergence and spread of Buddhism across Asia.

By the 7th century, Buddhist philosophy provided thinkers across Asia with a shared conceptual framework and a remarkably flexible toolkit of critical resources. Buddhist monastic colleges were the largest institutions of learning in the world with “international” student bodies engaged in a multi-disciplinary curriculum that included linguistics, medicine, mathematics and astronomy. When the Chinese pilgrim, Yijing (635-713), visited the most renowned of these monastic universities, Nālandā, in the 7th century, it comprised eight colleges, a student population of over 10,000, and a faculty of more than 2,000.  Buddhist ideals of good governance played crucial roles in the 6th century reunification of China, in the founding constitution of imperial Japan, and in the consolidation of multi-ethnic states across Southeast Asia. The spread of Buddhism—first referred to in China as the “teaching of the images” (像教)—across Eurasia in the early centuries of the common era dramatically transformed both art practice and aesthetic theory, triggering, for example, an explosion of interest in figural painting and sculpture. Buddhist texts and narratives similarly transformed the literary imagination. Buddhist cosmology and mythology became woven into both popular and elite culture. And Buddhist rituals and institutions led to new forms of material culture and to the advent of “economies of liberation” that became key drivers of both trade and diplomacy across Asia for almost a thousand years.

In sum, understanding Asian histories without a robust appreciation of the complex roles played therein by Buddhist traditions would be akin to understanding the histories of Europe and the Americas without a fairly sophisticated understanding of Christianity and how it significantly and dynamically shaped political, economic, literary and artistic ideals and realities, as well as such fundamental social institutions as the family and the school. Or, given the great diversity of Buddhist traditions and their evolution into distinct “ecologies of enlightenment,” a more accurate comparison might be constructing a history of the West armed with only a cursory understanding of the so-called Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

A second important reason for investigating the historical dynamics of Buddhist Asia is that it has the potential for helping to answer such contemporary questions as how global circulations of ideas and ideals enhance local creativity, how value systems cross or bridge cultural boundaries, and how global circuits of exchange and interdependence can be compatible with the resurgence of traditional religious identities. In sharp contrast with foundational Jewish, Christian and Muslim narratives of returning to a Promised Land, ascending to Heaven, or regaining access to Paradise, the founding narratives of Buddhist religiosity are expressly open-ended. The term most commonly used to describe the system of Buddhist teachings and practices, the Middle Path, emphasizes the process of traveling rather than arrival—specifying a “direction” for practice rather than a final “destination.” The historical Buddha was often referred to as a “caravan leader” (sārthavāha) who had discovered an “ancient road” that could be reopened by practicing the so-called Eightfold-Path (mārga).And in keeping with this, the primary metaphor for Buddhist instruction was “turning the wheel” of the Dharma or Buddhist teachings, and the main branches of Buddhist diversification were referred to as distinct yāna or “vehicles”—the “small vehicle” (Hinayāna), the “great vehicle” (Mahāyāna) and the “diamond vehicle” (Vajrayāna)

The preponderance of travel and vehicular metaphors was not coincidental. During the Buddha’s lifetime and the centuries that followed, the Indian subcontinent was undergoing a dramatic rural-to-urban transition as major trade crossroads became both manufacturing hubs and centers of regional political power. While many of those who left their villages to take up residence in these new urban centers carried their natal religious and cultural traditions with them, they also experienced opportunities for significant upward social mobility. With heightened commercial activity came new prospects for wealth accumulation, accompanied by heightened materialism and hedonism. And under these conditions of social and cultural dislocation it was possible—and at some point perhaps imperative—to consider which identities and traditions to retain and which to abandon. Buddhism emerged and spread in symbiotic relationship with these dramatic changes, with major monastic centers growing up along trade routes linking the Indian subcontinent through Central Asia to Persia in the west, and China in the east, and across the Indian Ocean to states in both mainland and island Southeast Asia.

The pan-Asian spread of Buddhism was thus inseparable from actively addressing what anthropologist James Clifford has termed the “predicament of culture”: a sense of being off-center in a world of competing meaning systems or “being in a culture while looking at culture.” This condition has become more widespread and intense over the last two hundred years. But the need to respond thoughtfully to the interplay of distinct and often competing meaning systems was a familiar reality in the multicultural trading hubs along the overland and maritime “silk routes” that linked Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The successful spread of Buddhism depended on pairing mutual cultural accommodation with effective advocacy for the distinctive salience of Buddhist teachings and practices in the context of competing value systems, institutions, and both material and ritual technologies.

A third, perhaps less apparent, reason for dissolving the mystery of Buddhism’s integration into societies across Asia is that—at least indirectly—it will facilitate greater understanding of our own histories and traditions. European contacts with Buddhist Asia go back at least to the 13th and 14th centuries when the Mongol empire fostered interactions among the peoples of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. But it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries—the age of European imperialism and colonialism—that Westerners began wrestling with the complexity and fundamental unfamiliarity of Asian intellectual and spiritual traditions. Buddhist texts in translation had important impacts on many of the architects of the European Enlightenment, including Diderot and Voltaire, as well as later and more iconoclastic thinkers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

But perhaps more relevantly for undergraduate educators, Buddhism has assumed a place in the popular imagination. Buddhism remains a relatively minor religious tradition in the United States, with just 1% of the population self-identifying as “Buddhist.” Yet, interest in Buddhism has grown steadily over the last fifty years and Buddhism has a significant and positive presence in contemporary media. Terms like “karma,” “nirvana” and “zen” have become part of the lexicon of American popular culture, and in addition to self-identified Buddhists there are many “nightstand” or “client” Buddhists—people who read about Buddhism for inspirational or self-therapeutic purposes, or who participate in meditation classes in search of personal insights or reduced stress. While these popular appropriations of Buddhism might be excused as typical of the casual borrowings that often take place across cultural borders, undergraduate students will benefit considerably from a more accurate understanding of Buddhist histories and traditions, especially when interacting with people from Buddhist Asia on their own campuses and after graduation.

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