The Opposite of Buddhism §1

European Colonialism and Interpretation

Originally Presented as a Lecture in Phnom Penh, Cambodia,

July 15th, 2010, All Rights Reserved, All Wrongs Reserved.

[Author:] Eisel Mazard (大影)

[Abstract:] Scholars and students of the 21st century inherit the diverse (and divisive) legacy of earlier centuries of research; instead of becoming obscure, these “old” sources have become instantly available in digitized formats that are beguilingly easy to use and refer to. Are there some drawbacks to this legacy? Certainly. This essay draws attention to debates that provided the context for the initial “production of knowledge” about Theravada Buddhism amongst an important subset of European researchers, and points to important sources of bias that continue to vitiate contemporary research --and that are certainly baffling to “cultural outsiders” now inheriting the debates and documents of former generations. The author illustrates his concern both with the discontinuity between eras and between continents, as a new generation of Asian scholars now appropriates from the past analyses of European Buddhology in the construction of their own interpretations.


In undertaking original research on Theravada Asia we are now burdened with a legacy of earlier authorship that was produced by (and for) European imperialism --and this literature is increasingly digitized and instantly accessible. These sources are full of innuendo, bias, and intentional omissions that very few Europeans of the current generation are able to interpret; the same cultural cues and understated criticisms can only be more baffling to students in Cambodia, Taiwan, or elsewhere in Asia. My methodological concern has applicability to many subjects unrelated to Buddhism: the legacy of the European “social sciences” is laden with many assumptions that are, in their origins and authors' intentions, completely unscientific. In examining a few, in the pages that follow, we can draw some cues and clues as to how to make the best use of the greater whole.

To borrow an example from another discipline, Europeans colonized Southeast Asia with a mania to exterminate “slash-and-burn” (刀耕火地) rice farming (what we now call swidden agriculture).1 This resulted from the Europeans' own animus against “nomadism”,2 their own interest in logging and territorialization, and an equally unscientific assumption that it was for the natives' own good that should they be forced to settle in farms and plantations that resembled European (cultural) expectations. This pattern played out in British-occupied Malaya, French-occupied Laos, and many places in-between. However, after attaining political independence in the late 20th century, the pattern continued: local governments had come to regard the old colonial agenda as a set of scientific facts, and pursued the same means to no clear ends. Still today, the independent government of Laos is attempting to exterminate swidden agriculture (with the frequent collaboration of U.N. advisors and international development funding) and so, incongruously, the colonial agenda has continued, in the guise of an objective science, as if it were unrelated to the colonial circumstances that had produced it.

My point here is not that the extermination of swidden agriculture is wrong, but that the rationale for it is incomprehensible without reference to European colonialism: without understanding its purpose, it is neither right nor wrong but simply makes no sense at all. Sadly, this is not the only example that agronomy can contribute. On the other side of the cold-war divide, we could just as easily say that Lysenko-ism (李森科主義) cannot be understood without reference to Communist ideology. In both cases, the ideology was regarded as scientific fact in its heyday; in both cases, the origin and intent of the dogma is uniquely and inextricably European, but there have been ramifications of an astounding scale here in Asia (e.g., mass-starvation during the 大躍進, “great leap forward”).

Likewise, in the study of Theravada Buddhism, we have several centuries of accumulated assumptions that are now presented to a new generation of Asian scholars as if they were scientific facts; even for those who are inclined to be skeptical it is extremely difficult to unravel the innuendo and politics that are implicit in this legacy.

Barriers of language and culture, here and now, are certainly part of the problem, but the problem of living scholars seeking to sanitize the colonial past, and to glorify European learning at present, is an even more dangerous element.3 As difficult as it might be to explain, earnestly, how European interpreters were so far wrong in the recent past, this is entirely necessary in transmitting learning from one generation to the next and from one continent to another. There would be no progress in science if we were constrained to make excuses for Lysenko's (李森科) theory of evolution, and there would be no progress in the development industry if its purpose is merely to preach the imitation of European agriculture, reproducing European errors.

[NB: This is part 1, here’s the link back to the index of chapters.]

Lysenko (front left) delivering a lecture in front of Stalin (back right), image c/o Wikipedia.

[Footnotes for this section:]

1 The contemporary use of the term “swidden” is largely the result of the researches of Karl Gustav Izikowitz (1903-1985) in Northern Laos, though it is not his coinage. (Sprenger, 2006, p. 9 et seq.)

2 This “animus” dates back to a remarkably early period, including colonialism within the continent of Europe, notably, e.g., English justifications for the colonization of Ireland. (Armitage, 2000, p. 49-50 et. seq.)

3 I would mention two examples that are, though each different from the other, both diametrically opposed to the gist of the present essay; both originate as lectures delivered to an audience in Asia, i.e., as attempts to summarize some aspect of the Western tradition for an audience of Asian scholars and Buddhist Monks. (1) Shaw, 2007. The words “colonialism”, “imperialism” and “conquest” do not appear in this essay; instead, Shaw remarks, p. 2, that “Britain’s historical links with countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka have not always been happy or worthy of pride.” She also states, falsely, that they began in the 19th century. (2) Balbir, 2008. I attended the lecture (and it was later published); I consider this extremely flattering to the West.

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