Buddhism or Buddhisms? The Hegemony of Postmodern Rhetoric


My studies of Buddhism have always been with a philosophical bent. My first academic conference paper was titled, “The Use and Abuse of Ontology in Buddhist Philosophy of Mind,” trying to trace the history of how Buddhists have understood the connection between mind and body, and how Westerners have labeled those understandings. I think I covered everything from the Pali texts to Merleau-Ponty and John Searle. It was a mess, but a fun one.

More recently I’ve looked at the categories Westerners have applied to Buddhism in the West (Three Buddhisms, Two Buddhisms, One Buddhism?) as well as the ways that we might come to better understand Buddhist ethics specifically. Categories, those created by Buddhists and by scholars, have always been on my mind.

This week, the blog for Oxford University Press posted an article called “Buddhism or Buddhisms? Rhetorical consequences of geo-political categories” by Dr. Richard Payne, the Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

The argument in the article is simple enough: discussing categories of Buddhism based on country or regional names can obscure the realities of how Buddhism is actually understood and practiced in those areas. For example, in discussing Tibetan vs Chinese Buddhism, we may begin to think that:

  1. there is ultimately just one kind of Buddhism in each, and
  2. there are essential features of each which have persisted consistently over time.

Of course both of these are false. In my experience this isn’t really a problem, except perhaps with some practitioners or overly biased scholarly enthusiasts. Every scholar I have studied with knows that these are false, but is still happy to use the categories.

But Dr. Payne, and I know there are others out there, do see a problem. So lets get to the arguments.


The article begins [in block quote with my responses to the side]:

The categorization of Buddhism along geo-political lines is perhaps the most common organizing principle today.


It also tends to be accepted uncritically.

By whom? Be careful here. As I would tell a student, whenever you accuse someone of being “uncritical” you’d better have evidence. As I mentioned, I have experienced some practitioners/enthusiasts taking these (and other) categories uncritically, but scholars, especially those who focus in these areas, are well aware of the complexities involved.

Thus we find, without explanation, such expressions as “Indian Buddhism,” “Tibetan Buddhism,” “Chinese Buddhism,” “Burmese Buddhism,” and so on.

We may find this, but the expressions themselves are not a problem (as I’ll explain).

He goes on to explain that these categories are used all over, that this is a problem, and that we need to reevaluate the categories. He says he’ll discuss 5 problems with the rhetorical use of geo-political categories (lexical use will be covered next week). These five problems, using “Chinese Buddhism” as an example are:

  1. It tends to confuse the geographic boundaries of nations as they exist today with religious cultures, and support that confusion by identifying geo-political boundaries with linguistic communities
  2. It feeds into the politicized rhetoric of ethnic identity at the expense of historical accuracy.
  3. It tends to privilege certain strains of Buddhism as more authentically Chinese [or Tibetan], treating them in isolation as adequately representative of the putative essence of Chinese Buddhism. This privileging creates a dialectically self-supporting rhetoric and petitio principii fallacy.
  4. It claims that some particular tradition is more authentically representative of some particular geo-political categorization: playing into sectarian politics, and employing propagandistic claims rather than explicitly justified and objective rationales, such as historical or sociological.
  5. It further distorts our understanding because it tends to treat particular forms of Buddhism hermetically.

That’s a lot to dissect, and he does give examples for #4 and #5, which I’ll discuss as I go. But for now:

  1. Again, this isn’t my experience (except amongst some practitioners/enthusiasts). In studying Tibetan Buddhism, for example (as this is what I’m personally more familiar with), I’ve never seen anyone point to China’s TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) as “where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced.” We may look at that map on day one, alongside older (pre-invasion) maps of Tibet. But by day 3 we know that “Tibetan Buddhism” can trace its origins in part to India (Nalanda) and modern day Bangladesh (Atisha), and has, at times, spread throughout Central Asia through Mongolian expansion and trade – and even to Europe (see Kalmykia / Buddhism in Kalmykia). We know that they can practice “Tibetan Buddhism” in Bhutan, for instance, without getting confused. Naturally, we look to historical “power centers” such as Lhasa, Padmasambhava, Sakya Pandita, and the Dalai Lamas and prevalent languages such as classical Tibetan, but we don’t ignore the many other influences that shaped these.
  2. same as #1
  3. same as #2
  4. Thinking of the recent Olympic ceremonies, Danny Boyle had to pick and choose which aspects of British culture to showcase to the world, and while he was able to cover a dizzying array of musical styles, dance, and dress, I’m sure much was left out. Where was the homage to Bertrand Russell? To Hume or Mill? Alan Turing? Surely they’ve impacted British culture as much as Jessie JSimilarly, when an academic writes a book or teaches a course, he/she must choose what to include, what to cover in depth (at the expense of other areas), and so on. This isn’t necessarily claiming that “some particular tradition is more authentically representative of some particular [place].”Danny Boyle is in the entertainment industry, so it shouldn’t be much surprise that he didn’t bother with Britain’s great philosophers and mathematicians. Scholars also pick and choose, and most do, to some extent at least, explicitly justify their general direction (if not point by point).

    Payne cites D.T. Suzuki’s polemic against non-Chinese Buddhism. Similar polemics exist for every nation/region as far as I know, as Buddhists throughout history have been obsessed with having/practicing “the right one.” As long as I have been studying Buddhism, I have been told to treat all such polemics with caution.

  5. back to #1. I was always encouraged to look at outside influences in my studies of Tibetan Buddhism. One of the first books I was told to read was Don Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, an excellent debunking of some popular conceptions of Tibetan Buddhism. I would hope students of other regional forms of Buddhism are encouraged to examine similar texts.

I haven’t given any knock-down counter arguments, mostly because I’m not convinced that there is a case to be argued against (in terms of scholarship at least; again, in terms of popular misunderstandings, I generally agree with Dr. Payne).

The article continues with a proposed counter-argument and a defense against it; and again without instances, I can’t help but wonder if it’s a kind of straw man. He writes, “The counter-argument may be made that nationalistic forms of Buddhism do exist, and that they have played an important historical function in creating Buddhism as it is known today.” So now the discussion is of “nationalistic forms of Buddhism” – not just the categories based on contemporary countries.

That’s a very different thing, it would seem. However, one might also say that to some extent, our categories (thinking again of Tibetan Buddhism) do reflect some degree of historically-moulded nationalism.  Having spent some time in Burma and Thailand, I’ve seen nationalism in major forms of contemporary Buddhism there as well. Some of that is quite recent while some of it goes quite far back. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “they have played  an important historical function in creating Buddhism as it is known today” but I would say that, often, the form of Buddhism that was successful in a region was the form that was able to play politics the best.

He concludes that “for this argument 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.” Again, not necessarily. Instead of a doctrinal emphasis, we might say that they had to have a clear geo-political awareness. I’m thinking here of the Tibetan aliances (first Sakya, then Geluk) with Mongolia’s power, both to solidify religious power within Tibet (over other forms of practice) as well as to protect against other outside (Chinese) influence. Surely this kind of religio-political confluence occured elsewhere.

Further, he argues that “The proposed counter-argument also suffers from the historically anachronistic projection of the modern social, political, and ideological institution of the nation-state back onto earlier historical eras.” Maybe. But again from my own experience this isn’t the case. Tibet may be an easier case because even in the 1950s it barely had what might be considered a “modern social, political, and ideological institution of the nation-state.”

And even in my Buddhism 101 class, we began by learning that the India in which the Buddha was born was nothing like it is today. It’s clear (at least it always was to me) that when we talk about India 2500 years ago, we’re talking about a geographic entity, NOT a geo-political nation state. If this were really a problem, Michael Wood’s (excellent) “The Story of India” would have to be renamed, “The Story of [insert myriad names for places and regions of modern-day India and surrounding areas].” Dr. Payne suggests that:

One of the legitimating rhetorics of the modern nation-state is continuity with historically pre-existing forms, no matter how tenuous that continuity may be. (Consider the claim of 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.) Religion has often been employed as part of that rhetoric of continuity.

Yes. Exactly. For some reason I think this hurts his point about scholarly imposition of an historically anachronistic projection… In fact he could point instead to the 5th Dalai Lama, who claimed to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, directly tying himself to the foundation myth of the Tibetan people. There, religion, politics, and legitimating rhetoric became one.

He continues:

Stepping through the veils of geo-political categories, one might well ask in what sense is the present-day People’s Republic of China continuous with the Tang Dynasty? More specifically, in what sense are contemporary Buddhist institutions in China continuous with those of the Tang? Does it make sense to employ a single category, “Chinese Buddhism,” as if it applied equally appropriately across all of Chinese history? The impression that a single, unified institution is the norm requires explanation. This is not, of course, to say that there are not continuities, but rather that those should be demonstrated, rather than simply presumed because of a system of categories that molds our ways of thinking.

Okay, let’s take a look at language. Think of a tree. No not that tree, another tree. No, not that one either. Did you think of three different trees?  (need help? click here)

How were they related? They were all “trees” in your mind. But what is “tree”? It’s a category. It doesn’t actually correspond to any particular thing in the world. Trippy, huh? In the world, there is just “this particular tree” and “this particular tree.”

Now look at this guy:

A Loris, via Discovery.com

and this guy:

Young gorilla with a very unfortunate duck at Bristol Zoo
Young gorilla with a very unfortunate duck at the Bristol Zoo.

And look in the mirror.

[ you ]

In what sense are these continuous?

Does the category “primate” really make sense? Sure does.

But then we should go on to make further distinctions. Even though the loris and you might be incredibly different today, common roots (that have been demonstrated) allow us to lump you both under this category: primate. Similarly with Tibetan [or, I imagine, Chinese] Buddhism, the continuities (as well as myriad external influences and historical contingencies) have been demonstrated by many scholars.

This is both common sense and good scholarship. Of course common sense might not be so common, and a lot of scholarship isn’t good, so I agree with Payne’s suggestion that we always reevaluate our categories. But unless something convincinglybetter comes along to replace them, they should stand and do the work that they’ve done for so long. Perhaps further sequencing of the human genome will prove that we’re all decendants of an alien race and completely unrelated to gorillas and lorises. Probably not. For now, we’re primates, just like them.

And the Chinese Buddhism I experienced in China a few years ago is Chinese Buddhism just like the Chinese Buddhism that Kumārajīva experienced in China 1600 years ago. Of course it is different – only a fool would ask where the Maoists kept their tanks in 365 C.E. or some other historically anachronistic question. (Okay, maybe fool is too strong a word, as we could be dealing with people with no historical awareness whatsoever, but still, the category “Chinese Buddhism” isn’t the problem here.) Just as we create taxonomies of animals, we create taxonomies of Buddhism and other -isms. Sometimes we’re wrong: some early Westerners thought Tibetan Buddhism was just Catholicism which had been contorted… by the devil.

Within those taxonomies, we can further hone our understanding through discoveries such as the Dunhuang cave manuscripts that reshape our understanding of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism or the DNA links that tie modern humans and Neanderthals (we interbred — or didn’t).

The article concludes:

Academics are sometimes accused of simply following fashionable trends of thought. Thus, critical concepts such as “essentializing” and “hegemony,” might negligently be dismissed as merely shallow thinking. However, essentializing rhetorics, in this case geo-political ones, mold the field of Buddhist studies in profound ways and shouldn’t be employed uncritically. It is through critical self-reflection on the established field that new research and insights become possible.

I agree that critical self-reflection is always needed. But it can become navel-gazing if there is nothing concrete to be gained. I’m not sure how many physicists, for instance, are worrying, “should we really call them neutrinos? Won’t that confuse people?” Or “can we really call it an atom any more, now that we know it’s divisible?” (Atom is from the Greek atomos, “indivisible.”)

I sat in on a graduate class not long ago in which a student asked at the beginning, “can we talk like humans and leave crap like ‘hegemony’ and ‘refication’ out of the conversation?” The instructor shrugged, asked if there were objections, and said yes. There is a certain level of discourse at which this jargon might become helpful, but that level is generally well beyond the hegemonic reach of the blogosphere. And “essentializing” is as old as Aristotle or the Upanishads.

People do it.

It’s generally wrong.

Some categories have come down that are clearly wrong. “Hinayana,” when used to denote any non-Mahayana Buddhist tradition, was onced used (and surely still is at times). “Lamaism” is another one. Plenty of other terms have been SHOWN to be offensive or inaccurate and clearly REPLACED with new ones. If this is what is needed regarding our regional designations today, lets find those new ones.

Note, my taxonomy suggestion above isn’t new. It comes from Jonathan Silk’s “What, If Anything, Is Mahāyāna Buddhism? Problems of Definitions and Classifications” (Numen, Vol. 49, No. 4 (2002), pp. 355-405). See also the introduction to Paul Williams’ “Mahayana Buddhism“. If anything in my experience has been difficult to classify or categorize, it’s Mahayana Buddhism. If anyone has done it masterfully, it has been these two scholars.

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