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The Buddha, the Dharma and Me: The Rise of the Individual in Modern Buddhism. Representations and Inventions (1/2)

Panel Chair: John Harding | Monday, August 24, 9-11 a.m.

Since the mid-19th century Buddhism has been reshaped as a result of its encounter with Western imperialism, Christian missionaries, and the globalization of Enlightenment ideas such as the development of the idea of “religions”. Among the effects of this encounter, Buddhism has been rephrased as a religion of the individual with a primacy placed on experience, (e.g. D.T. Suzuki). The accompanying secularization of Buddhism casts it as a practice or spirituality compatible with other religions. Claims elevate this invention of the Buddhist tradition as more faithful to the Buddha’s intent, accompanied by an imperative to untangle Buddhism from superstitious “folk practices/beliefs”. The World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 showcased Buddhism as scientific, and therefore uniquely modern. This panels will address the question of how the re-phrasing of Buddhism as a religion of the individual has transformed the tradition and how it is being globalized.

Donald Lopez

The Two Buddhas of 1844

In November 1839, Eugène Burnouf, holder of the chair of Sanskrit at the Collège de France, completed his translation of the Lotus Sutra. He had the translation printed but did not have it published, because, as he wrote, “I would like to give an introduction to this bizarre work.” This would become Introduction à l’histoire du Buddhisme indien, the most influential work on Buddhism of the nineteenth century. In 1843, he published in a journal a translation of one chapter of the sutra, the famous “Medicinal Herbs” chapter. Burnouf’s piece was translated into English and published by Thoreau in The Dial: A Magazine of Literature, Philosophy, and Religion in January 1844, opening with Burnouf’s description of the Buddha. Yet the Buddha described by Burnouf sounded very different from the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra. This paper will explore the dissonance.

Victor Sōgen Hori

Authentic Buddhism: Personal Experience vs. Academic Objectivity

From the mid-1800s on, it was widely agreed in the Western world that Buddhism as practiced in Asian countries was a degeneration. Scholars like Rhys Davids and Max Müller assumed the Buddhism that they found in Pāli texts was authentic Buddhism and declared all of Mahāyāna Buddhism decadent. In the twentieth century, D.T. Suzuki expounded the primacy of personal experience: only one who had personally experienced satori or awakening knew what authentic Buddhism was. Contemporary scholars now consider D.T. Suzuki’s invoking of personal experience to be an ideological ploy. It allows insiders, the practitioners of Zen Buddhism, to defend themselves from outsiders, the academic scholars who critique Buddhism from an objective point of view. This paper asks what is the criterion of authentic Buddhism for scholars who claim to assess Buddhism from the stance of academic objectivity. It finds that “authentic Buddhism” is itself an ideologically defined term.

Shin’ichi Yoshinaga

How the “Experience” was Experienced: The Debate over “Religious Experience” during Meiji 20s

In the latter half of Meiji 20s (1892-1896), there appeared some heated discussions among young Buddhist intellectuals about religious matters on periodicals. Furukawa Rōsen, one of the leading young Buddhists (Bukkyō seinen) published an essay “Kaigi jidai ni ireri” (Entering the age of doubt) in 1894. He admitted the critical research of Buddhism as a necessary step of its development, which meant the birth of the individual independent of the sect and the loss of faith. A year before that, Kitamura Tōkoku, a literary critic, published a monumental essay “Naibu seimei ron” (Theory on the inner life), in which he stressed the importance of the inner experience as the ethical guide. Though Kitamura was a Christian, both of them relied on the inner experience for conquering the doubt. This paper will deal with the discussion about “experience” and its relationship to the selfhood of modern Japan.

Micah Auerback

The Buddha in Torment on the Prewar Japanese Stage

Beginning early in the twentieth century, the Buddha appeared in modern Japanese writings for the theater, many of which were actually staged. These works included the opera Śākyamuni (1912); its adaptation for the popular musical theater (1920); Śākyamuni in Despair on the Earth (1922), by a reformist Buddhist cleric; Śākyamuni in Anguish (1922), by the scholar of Indian Buddhism Tejima Fumikura; The Light of the Four Oceans (1935), by the silent-film star Hayakawa Sesshū; and Tathāgata Śākyamuni (1936), by onetime expatriate Okina Kyūin. These dramas projected onto the figure of the Buddha new interests in religious faith and individual commitment, so characteristic of “modern Buddhism” across Asia. No longer a wonderworker or even a great philosopher, the human image of the suffering Buddha, as developed in this body of art for the stage, remains in circulation to this day.


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