A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to attend the American Academy of Religions annual conference. As has become the norm, there was hardly anything in the two days, with hundreds of presentations, that discussed Early Buddhism, or indeed anything that happened in the first 500 years of Buddhism. There were a couple of papers, but these dealt with extremely minor issues in an almost apologetic way, as if the very idea that we could talk about the Buddha was embarassing; and it was notable that they were given by European scholars.
We’ve just been sent the latest round of topics, and this time, I can’t find a single mention of anything at all to do with Early Buddhism. Perhaps it might be squeezed in under one of the other headings, although I kind of doubt it. Here’s the list of sessions organized by the AAR Buddhism Section itself:
A23-105 Buddhism Section and Japanese Religions Group
Theme: Committed Scholars: Buddhist Studies and Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Japan
A23-205 Buddhism Section and Confucian Traditions Group
Theme: Collaborative Arenas: The Seventeenth-Century Intersection of Buddhist-Confucian Philosophizing, Politicizing, and Publishing
A24-105 Buddhism Section
Theme: Millennialism, Eschatology, and the Latter Day of the Dharma
A24-311 Buddhism Section and Religion in Southeast Asia Group
Theme: Material Culture, Politics, and Religion in Burmese and Tibetan Buddhisms
A25-103 Buddhism Section
Theme: Buddhist Masculinities: Rhetorics and Representations
A25-211 Buddhism Section Quadsponsorship
Theme: Self-Immolations in the Tibetan Buddhist World
A26-106 Buddhism Section
Theme: Vision, Text, and Image in Buddhism
There’s a long list of other miscellaneous sessions that are of potential interest to people doing Buddhist studies. These include the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies on Deep Listening and Spiritual Care; Seen and Unseen: Revelation through Science Fiction (which I would totally attend!); Urban Buddhism in Modernizing Asia, 1850–1950; and so on.
There is nothing at all that mentions anything in the first 500 years of Buddhism.
How on earth has this happened? How has an entire academic discipline so completely lost the plot? How is it possible that we can even begin to speak about “Buddhism” while studiously avoiding paying any attention whatsoever to the Buddha?
It seems to me there are a number of influences we can identify.
- The pragmatic tendency of American philosophy, as opposed to the classical, pure-knowledge approach of Europe;
- The prevalent influence of Sino-Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism in America, as opposed to the colonial experience of England, which exposed it to the Indic cultures (but Germany is also a major player in early Buddhist studies);
- Trends in academic approaches, specifically postmodernism, with its distrust of overarching narratives (except, of course, the overarching narrative of postmodernism!), and focus on the local, diverse, and specific;
- The jobification of education, which prioritizes fields with immediate financial opportunities, and marginalizes disciplines such as early Buddhism, which require long disciplined study in obscure languages with little prospect of employment;
There are, of course, more specific things, such as the influence of particular academics.
One thing that I have suspected, but am not sure about is funding. I know that most universities struggle to get funding, and that the more obscure humanities are the worst hit. In Australia, universities sometimes make up their funding by support from Buddhist institutions. In some cases this is unproblematic: the funding is supplied without any attempt to influence the academic priorities. In other cases, especially when Dhammakaya is concerned, there has been serious concerns regarding academic objectivity, which has resulted in their funding being rejected by at least one major Australian university. I wonder whether American universities receive funding from Chinese/Japanese/Tibetan sources, and whether this influences the direction of their studies?
Within the academic communities, of course, the putative reason for the neglect of Early Buddhism is because of none of the above, but because the attempts to study early Buddhism have failed, and the entire field is discredited. This is exemplified by a remark in a recent essay by Steven Collins:
It is my view that, given the complete impossibility of knowing what ‘early’ Buddhism was, the practice of offering speculative pictures of it inevitably casts all subsequent Theravada history in a pejorative light, which is a bad thing.
I find this quote to be very revealing. Knowing anything about early Buddhism is “completely impossible”. This is despite the existence of, perhaps, 10 million words of text, as well as the substantial archeological finds of Ashoka and the like. Most of this text has never been translated or studied in modern academia. Frankly I think it just seems too hard, so rather than getting on with the job, it’s easier just to issue some ex-cathedra proclamation that it’s all useless.
All the attempts to make a description based on this vast volume of textual and ther evidence are dismissed by Collins as “speculative”. This is a standard form of denialist rhetoric. There is no attempt to meaningfully distinguish between valid and invalid forms of inference, no discussion of what can be known with greater or lesser degrees of certainty; the entire field is just dismissed outright.
And most astonishingly of all, Collins claims that the attempt to understand Early Buddhism is immoral, because it makes later forms of Buddhism look bad. Indeed it does: the Buddha was the greatest spiritual leader of humanity, and Buddhist cultures have struggled to live up to his ideals. This is common sense, and is accepted as axiomatic by all Buddhist traditions.
The very notion of a Buddhist culture is defined by this dynamic, by the idealization of a certain way of seeing the “Buddha”, in a more or less historical sense, as an exemplar for how to live life here and now. The tension between the ideal and the reality is the crucial source of energy that has fuelled the creation of “Buddhist” cultures. And we can’t understand this without a sense of the historical situation of Early Buddhism.
It’s not impossible to understand Early Buddhism; in fact, it’s not that hard. What’s impossible is understanding any later form of Buddhism while ignoring its origins.
One of the things that really strikes me about the list of topics at the AAR is how old-fashioned it is. It seems to be stuck in some 1980s postmodernist timewarp. Surely we have moved on? The defining feature of culture in the past couple of decades has been the spectacular revolution in digital technologies. This is probably the most radical and important shift in human culture since the invention of writing; possibly, in fact, since the invention of language itself. Yet there is nothing in the AAR conference that explicitly adresses digital culture and the many, many issues relevant to Buddhism that it raises. Among many other questions, our evolving capacities to deal with natural language processing (NLP) gives us the potential for unprecedented forms of analysis and insight into early Buddhist texts. Yet as far as I know there is nothing being done in this field in Buddhist academia.
Rather than expanding our potential for knowledge, too many academics have become stuck like a broken record telling us that we can’t know anything. This nihilistic, destructive dogma has way outlived any purpose it may once have had.