The Opposite of Buddhism §10

Eurocentric Intersections

[Reminder: this lecture was written for a Cambodian audience, and intended for translation into Cambodian.]


The circularity of references is a fourth major pattern in the European approach to Buddhism (I mentioned a list of three, above). Urs App has done us a great service in tracing out the circle that starts with Joseph de Guignes in 1756, and leads directly to the interpretation of Buddhism by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer, in turn, influenced almost everyone in the next generation of Europeans to tackle Buddhism (including Max Müller, Mr. and Mrs. Rhys-Davids, and so on). The influence of Schopenhauer on the PTS editors is not a subject of speculation. Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys-Davids wrote that virtually all of the European critics and commentators of her generation, "…have followed, consciously or unconsciously, the direction of Schopenhauer's pointing finger…". (C.A.F. Rhys-Davids, 1898, p. 47) What App's article shows us is that Schopenhauer's theories were already being “written into” the definitive accounts of Buddhist philosophy within Schopenhauer's lifetime. A similar cycle took place with Schopenhauer's interpretation of Hinduism after his death. (Hacker, 1995, esp. p. 297 et seq.)1

In establishing her own voice, Mrs. Rhys-Davids quotes William James, she invokes earlier essays by Eugene Burnouf, and she alludes to conversations she has had with Professor Stcherbatsky. Scholars work in isolation, but they assert their conclusions as if they represented a consensus of European authorities. This conjures up a self-selected unit of corroborating witnesses, both living and dead, to disguise eccentricity and private spirituality as an authoritative interpretation of the text. My fear is that such findings are now regarded as scientific.

In one of her introductions, Mrs. Rhys-Davids explains her interpretation of the 12-Links Formula (that has now inspired an amazing array of European theories) came from a spiritual experience that she had when reading the earlier work of Eugene Burnouf --and the latter theory was not even based on the Pali text. Mrs. Rhys-Davids was among the first to set to work on the primary source concerned, but she did not approach the evidence with an open mind, instead, she sought to validate an earlier assumption. Having formed this expectation, based on a Frenchman's interpretation of (primarily) Chinese sources,2 she was very disappointed, she tells us openly, with what she found when she finally came to translate the original Buddhist text; however, despite what she saw as the deficiency of the primary source, she says that she did her best to emulate the earlier interpretation of Eugene Burnouf.3 As is typical of her writing, she also directs insults, in passing, to the Buddhist monks whom she assumes have corrupted the texts --based on her own notions of what the Buddha's teaching was originally supposed to be, with all evidence to the contrary dismissed as a “later accretion”.

This is a clear case of circular reasoning, and the result is that European ideas are “written into” the source text, even if the author of these ideas did not intend for this to happen (certainly, neither Schopenhauer nor Burnouf had any such plan). I have never seen a direct criticism of Mrs. Rhys-Davids on this point; typically, in the European tradition, criticism is stated indirectly, or simply through “faint praise”. In dealing with this passage, I found one source rejecting the misinterpretations of un-named “Theosophists” (that is, choosing not to name Mrs. Rhys-Davids as the subject of criticism). (Nyanatiloka, 1957, introduction) These overlapping influences are difficult for anyone to make sense of, but, I think, even more difficult for someone native to Cambodia: differences of culture, more than language, would make the puzzle of oblique references and evasive criticism completely baffling.

[Footnotes for this section:]

1 Hacker's account traces the etiology of Schopenhauer's interpretations in India, and their subsequent appropriation as definitive by Hindu teachers, with Paul Deussen assigned an important role. On the more general question of Schopenhauer's impact, I would quote Joshi, 1973: “We must note that these Upaniśads are minor texts of Vedic literature, appended at different dates, to this or that Brāhmaṇa or Āranyaka text belonging to a particular tradition of a Saṃhitā. Chronologically they are the latest of Vedic texts. These Upaniśads did not enjoy such high prestige or authority in ancient India as they have earned in modern age since the time of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). The Dharmasūtras are generally opposed to their tenets. … There is no evidence that the Upaniśads were very influential in Brāhmaṇical circles before Gauḍapāda and Saṃkara… The religion and philosophy of the older Upaniśads formed a small and very late part of old Brāhmaṇism, and we are not justified in taking these texts as representatives of the whole of Vedic Brāhmaṇism.” Influence of the latter kind is more broad and more durable, as it concerns not merely the interpretation of particular texts, but the selection of whatsoever texts are read at all (what emphasized and what ignored) within a genre of extant literature.

2 For a study that includes some detailed discussion of the manuscripts that Burnouf had in hand, see Yuyama, 2000.

3 I am referring to the PTS translation of SN, vol. 2, p. xiv, listed in the bibliography as C.A.F. Rhys Davids, 1922 (the convention in essays on Pali being, “PTS SN Trans vol. II”). Her musings in the introductions to each volume of the SN translations are worth considering, in this respect.