Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Philip Almond’s “The British Discovery of Buddhism”: Book Review

This monograph surveys the Victorian reaction. Up to about 1840, the “discovery” of a vast religion in the East depended for its export upon incantations, idolatry, and superstition to peddle its shiny wares to an English public. Then, this emphasis on decadence shifted into an “ideally construed Orient.” That is, progressive Christianity aligned against a decayed Buddhism, fallen into suspiciously Romish parallels in “Lamaism” as opposed to a purer, primitive Theravada strain closer to its founder. The Reformation in Europe seemed to find a ghosted pattern in Mahayana Buddhism, as degeneration into worship and images, in the eyes of Victorian interpreters, who countered the “ideal textual Buddhism of the past with its contemporary Eastern instances.” (40)

As the historical Buddha was pinpointed thanks to archeologists and historians, by 1840, he becomes a “textual presence.” Critics analyzed the Bible, India fell under imperial sway, and geology and biology colored how scholars approached religious texts and rituals. Etymology, geography, and exploration helped determine a Buddha within time and place in India. Mythological suppositions faded; by the 1870s, the Buddha as we generally accept his setting and lifespan now had been located.

From “out there” in the Orient, Buddha migrated from a mystical Other to a figure perceived as part of Western power—for European scholars began to translate and publish primary texts. The West controlled Buddhism’s past. The British believed they had rescued the texts from their dissolute holders, the idolaters of the present Asian practitioners of a feebler dharma. From being sent Eastern legends to Western readers, European guardians kept what was sent and improved upon it, scouring with dictionaries and grammars the tainted overlays that obscured the Buddha’s original message.

Not that this message was accepted. Rather, it often suffered by comparison to secular, rational, or scientific sources—if not Christian ones. Buddhism aroused fear within secular as well as Christian hearers, for it seemed to undermine the impact of religion as a motivating force to save a people from corruption. Idealistic as Buddha may have been, Victorians tended to regard his followers as fallen.

No matter the slant, the British tended to favor a textually constrained angle. This fidelity to an earlier source became—similar to biblical criticism emerging by the 1870s—the criterion against which to test the texts. The southern manifestations as closer to a Protestant attitude gained, understandably, favor in Victorian eyes; those further north were relegated to a more lax judgment in the eyes of critical British students.

Being 1988, Almond published this study with an eye to Orientalism and the counter-reaction to this. He uses academic jargon sparingly, however. Although written for an audience assumed familiar with Buddhism and Victorian history, this book remains accessible for the inquirer outside these fields. Illustrations could have enriched this short work; I suspect a limited press run for their lack.

Almond does not explore in this brief study the actual practice of Buddhism in 19c British Isles, nor does he relate the teachings themselves. Rather, he focuses on their critical reception, not by adepts but by academics and bureaucrats. Yet, he also delves into such as “The Penny Cyclopedia” attentively to track the progress of knowledge of Buddhism as recorded within editions of popular reference works. He also relates the unease such progress revealed to a populace confident in their own values and mindset.

Victorian pride tended to diminish the contributions of this burgeoning faith, three hundred million strong then, that threatened to rival Christianity in numbers. Almond passes over reactions of everyday citizens to Buddhism; perhaps this would have been minimal to non-existent for nearly all British folks. A wider social history may have not been possible given the practical gulf between everyday lack of knowledge of Buddhism and that—half comprehended, half distorted-- filtering into the libraries of a few intellectuals or missionaries. However, this gradual awareness of Buddhism has taken two centuries perhaps to filter into even the mindset of a small minority of people in the Isles in any “true” fashion.

Almond shows how slow a process this construction of Western Buddhism has been. He also sets the scene for why-- given formidable challenges in language and culture-- the Victorians, in their own way, attempted to begin at least to understand this complex tradition. They stressed its morality, its seeming atheism, its philosophical emphases on nothingness, its preoccupation with human nature and its taming control. No less than these inquiring predecessors, we view Buddha in the West through similarly challenging preoccupations of our age. (Posted to Amazon US 4-19-10)

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