The Opposite of Buddhism §4

Names made infamous in retrospect: Rhys-Davids and Max Müller.

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


Moving forward almost two hundred years from de Guignes, I find the same patterns in the work of Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys-Davids,1 who similarly struggled to impose her own interpretation onto the Buddhist sources.

One of the most famous (and most plainly stated) principles of Buddhist philosophy is that there is no soul,2 and that everything is impermanent --not even the gods are immortal. In an argument no less absurd than de Guignes before her, Mrs. Rhys-Davids sought to prove the diametric opposite: that the “original” and “true” teaching of the Buddha had immortality for its goal. (Rhys-Davids, 1939a) And what sort of immortality? An “eternal adolescence”, enjoyed by a “spirit” that departs the ailing body at its death. The impossible is made to seem plausible by comparing short quotations from the Theravada Canon to extracts from the Vedas and the Upanishads. (ibid.)

Her campaign to deny that the historical Buddha refuted the existence of the soul is also found, e.g., in a book-length treatment titled What was the original gospel in 'Buddhism'? (Rhys-Davids, 1939b) I found a contemporaneous review of the latter comprised entirely of clamorous praise, both for the book as a whole and for its re-interpretation of the soul in particular; yet even here there's a moment of misgiving I would note, as it reflects two features of Mrs. Rhys-Davids' peculiar logic:

"…if all these doctrines …are not only ancient Brahmanical doctrine, but have also been universally taught… how can we attribute their presence in the Pali canon to a 'late monastic' perversion of 'original gospel'? …Incidentally, is it not perhaps high time to abandon the anti-monastic prejudice by which our reading of religious history is so often discolored?" (Coomaraswamy, 1938, p. 685.)

The argument offered by Rhys-Davida (1939a) is spurious, and yet, in its form, it seems to be a mode of spurious thinking endemic to Europe: a few points of comparison are presented in isolation, and contradictory evidence is either omitted from mention or dismissed under one of the headings aforementioned --as “exoteric”, or as “later accretions”. In a prior lecture I pointed out that this type of argument is not only found in articles (stated explicitly) but is also incorporated into the dictionary entries that define the Pali terms. (Mazard, 2009) When an argument becomes an implicit part of the machinery of European interpretation it is far more difficult for readers to detect, to doubt, or differ from. It would be very difficult to explain to a Cambodian audience what the cult of Theosophy once was, or how this strange religion (that arose in Europe) has formed and informed modern assumptions about Theravada Buddhism.

It would not be any easier to explain the influence of Christianity, partly because the most influential interpreters of Buddhism often were the innovators of their own (unconventional) ideas about Christianity. I could mention both Max Müller and Sir William Jones as important examples under this heading, but it would be equally important to say that Christianity influenced each of them in very different ways: today, William Jones is resented for his attempts to construct a racial history that incorporated Asia into the lineages of the Bible, whereas Max Müller is resented for being an exponent of the Aryan race theory (built on linguistic terminology that replaced the names of Biblical patriarchs in the earlier theory). The two men can both be criticized as racists, and simply for being wrong, but they were not wrong in the same way, nor did their notions of Christianity have much in common.

Although it is not the purpose of this paper to explain these controversies for a Cambodian audience (nor a Chinese one), it may be a necessary task for some book, or some series of lectures, to attempt to do exactly that. These European assumptions, in aggregate, have now returned to Southeast Asia's shores in the guise of a definitive canon.

[Footnotes for this section:]

1 To avoid confusion, the two authors are here distinguished as “Mrs.” and “Mr.” Rhys-Davids (and this is explained somewhat in §5, below); however, in their own publications, their names are always stated as C.A.F. Rhys-Davids and T.W. Rhys-Davids (following the authors' own preference in using their initials).

2 It seems absurd to supply a citation for a theme that dominates so much of the Theravada canon material, however, see, e.g., the 148th sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, the Cha-chakka sutta.