Sunday, April 11, 2010

Charles Allen's "The Search for the Buddha": Book Review

Orientalism's derided in academia, but without scholars in British India, Buddha's teachings might still be regarded as but a Brahmin heresy. Allen sums up in two pages the historical names and places linked to the historical Buddha, but the impact of such discoveries which led to the verification of what were little-known Burmese legends through Sanskrit carvings and archeological excavations proved far-reaching. Recovery of an historic foundation for India's Buddhist past, long hidden by Hindu jealousy and then Muslim destruction, led Asians in Sri Lanka to assert their inheritance of a more rational, less ritual practice that in turn inspired Westerners to take up the cause of spreading the dharma in later Victorian times. Out of this dissemination, the present resurgence of Buddhism can trace its energy to the efforts of bureaucrats, adventurers, and officials employed in British India starting over two hundred years ago.

Allen presents this story straightforwardly. His brisk narrative often gets, perhaps unavoidably, mired in minutiae as he must explain a great deal of rather esoteric lore as background and context and detail. Yet, when he shows how lovely rock paintings inside long-neglected caves were discovered, or how James Prinsep decoded the "Delhi No. 1" script that proved the empirical link between King Ashoka and the contacts with Hellenistic Greece, the excitement of arcane finds infuses the page.

In 1953, the place of the Buddha's great enlightenment at Bodh-Gaya had been regained by the Buddhists. Trails that Fa Hian and Huan Tsang, early medieval Chinese travellers, followed across Asia as they went on pilgrimage to Buddhist sites, are now retraced by tourists and new Buddhists from all over the world. Allen tells how the immense statue of "Maitreya, the Buddha to come," will rise at Bodh-Gaya, 45 stories and 500 feet high. The last chapter ends: "The Maitreya will face north, towards the Land of Snows, as if to signal to Tibet's present occupiers that his time will come." (293)

Allen, with many books on British India to his credit, also offers in this concluding chapter a cogent, if very attenuated, account of the subsequent spread of Buddhist learning as East and West cooperated to advance the knowledge that the Indians themselves had long relegated as an withered offshoot of Hinduism. It seems the chance inquiries of emissaries in the Burmese kingdom of Ava, seeking the holy sites of Buddhism that were recorded, preserved the kernel of the facts that began, after decades of patient study by British and European scholars in cooperation with native priests, to ripen into the solid evidence that concrete proof, long abandoned in jungles and caves or under ground or in a language nobody knew, had preserved for over two thousand years.

One wonders, reading Allen, how much has been lost about this once-dominant faith over much of ancient India. The fragility of what we have been lucky enough to snatch from obliteration humbles, and haunts, for what more has been burned, pulverized, or plundered irrevocably? Allen begins his history noting how the Taliban's dynamiting of the twin colossi, the Bamian Buddhas, in March 2001 echoes. For, "many of the rock-caves in which Osama Bin Ladin and his fellow bigots have sought refuge during the recent war against terrorism were originally excavated by Buddhism for their viharas or monastic retreats." (2)

At least the colonizing British ended, Allen notes, the equivalent Hindu elimination of the subcontinent's Buddhist heritage. The imperialists did not build churches on temple sites, nor did they convert Buddhist images into Christian shrines. The past, which fascinated a few amateur and often self-funded, self-taught scholars, teased a few "griffins" who arrived in India to re-create out of a few surviving hints so much of what we now know about Buddhism's first flourishing there, centuries before Christ.

Certainly, as Stephen Batchelor's complimentary study "The Awakening of the West" attests (also reviewed by me on this blog and on Amazon US), the scraps and shards left reveal but a fraction of what once documented the rise of the dharma. Closing this study, as Allen remarks in conclusion, the reader may compare the fate of the Indian ruins and runes with the equivalent storehouse of Tibetan wisdom, so much of which has been destroyed by the Chinese today. (Posted to Amazon US 8-6-09.)

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