Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism / Edition 1

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Over the past century, Buddhism has come to be seen as a world religion, exceeding Christianity in longevity and, according to many, philosophical wisdom. Buddhism has also increasingly been described as strongly ethical, devoted to nonviolence, and dedicated to bringing an end to human suffering. And because it places such a strong emphasis on rational analysis, Buddhism is considered more compatible with science than the other great religions. As such, Buddhism has been embraced in the West, both as an alternative religion and as an alternative to religion.

This volume provides a unique introduction to Buddhism by examining categories essential for a nuanced understanding of its traditions. Each of the fifteen essays here shows students how a fundamental term—from art to word—illuminates the practice of Buddhism, both in traditional Buddhist societies and in the realms of modernity. Apart from Buddha, the list of terms in this collection deliberately includes none that are intrinsic to the religion. Instead, the contributors explore terms that are important for many fields and that invite interdisciplinary reflection. Through incisive discussions of topics ranging from practice, power, and pedagogy to ritual, history, sex, and death, the authors offer new directions for the understanding of Buddhism, taking constructive and sometimes polemical positions in an effort both to demonstrate the shortcomings of assumptions about the religion and the potential power of revisionary approaches.

Following the tradition of Critical Terms for Religious Studies, this volume is not only an invaluable resource for the classroom but one that belongs on the short list of essential books for anyone seriously interested in Buddhism and Asian religions.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226493152
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2005
  • Series: Buddhism and Modernity Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 6.75 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald S. Lopez Jr. is the Carl W. Belser Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism and Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. He is also editor of the series Buddhism and Modernity.
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Read an Excerpt


The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-49315-2

Chapter One

Donald S. Lopez Jr.

In Conrad Rooks's 1972 film of Herman Hesse's novel Siddhartha, there is a scene in which the protagonist's search leads him to the Buddha. The filmmaker is faced with a dilemma: how to depict a religious icon in human form. There is, of course, a century-long tradition of actors playing the role of Jesus on film, from Nonguet's The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1905), to DeMille's silent King of Kings (1927), to Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), to Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ (1988), to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), although each was controversial in its own way. Other directors have adopted a more pious approach by depicting Jesus but never showing his face, as in the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. And in Life of Brian (1979), Jesus is only seen from a great distance, thus exploring the acoustical hermeneutics, as previous biblical films had not, of the Sermon on the Mount. ("I think it was 'Blessed are the cheesemakers.'")

But there has not been a similar genre of Buddha films, so Conrad Rooks had no tradition from which to draw. As Siddhartha approaches the Buddha, the camera adopts the Buddha's perspective, focusing on the faces of Siddhartha and the group of monks who sit at the Buddha's feet. Later, Siddhartha's companion Govinda offers a flower to the Buddha, but all that appears is the Buddha's extended hand; his body is obscured by the trunk of a tree. Later, Siddhartha explains to the Buddha why he will not be joining his order of monks. The scene again is shot from the Buddha's perspective, with the Buddha's hand again extending, to offer Siddhartha a flower. Thus Rooks adopts a kind of filmic aniconism, as if the Buddha transcends depiction. To add to the dislocated quality of the scenes with the Buddha, the monks are portrayed not by Indian actors but by Tibetan monks living in India as refugees at the time the film was made. And the Buddha speaks in an upper-class Indian-English voice, electronically enhanced with a slight echo.

Whether Rooks knew it or not, his reluctance to depict the person of the Buddha had an ancient precedent; art historians have argued for decades that in the centuries following the death of the Buddha, there was a prohibition against his representation. They noted that although the Buddha had died in the early fifth century BCE (although recent scholarship suggests that his life of eighty years may have occurred as much as a century later), no images of him appear prior to the first or second century CE, some five hundred years after he passed into nirvana. The earliest Buddhist monuments seem instead to represent the presence of the Buddha by his absence: footprints, an empty throne, a riderless horse. Elsewhere, he appears to be represented by symbols: a lotus for his birth, a tree for his enlightenment, a wheel for his teaching (or "turning the wheel of the dharma"), a stupa (or reliquary) for his death. Art historians assumed from this absence that the Buddha, or his immediate followers, had forbidden the making or worship of his image. And they speculated that the practice of representing the Buddha in human form had, in fact, been introduced from abroad, specifically by Greeks in the region of Gandhara (in modern Pakistan and Afghanistan).

This story is too lengthy to tell here. It might be noted, however, that the idea that the Buddha prohibited the veneration of his form is consistent with the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century view of the Buddha as a rationalist who never would have condoned idol worship; it could only have entered his tradition as a concession to the masses in the centuries after his passage into nirvana. One might note as well that, a century after the aniconism theory was proposed, no proscriptions against making images of the Buddha have been located in an early Buddhist text, nor have any prescriptions for his representation been found. Yet the debate goes on, with one art historian arguing that in fact there never were such prohibitions; that the carvings do not depict events from the life of the Buddha but instead show pilgrimages to and worship of important sites from his life, such as the Bodhi tree, or festivals celebrating the key moments in his biography, in which a riderless horse would be led from the city to commemorate his departure from his palace on his loyal steed Kanthaka. But images of the Buddha began to be made, and these became the Buddha that Europeans would encounter.

When Marco Polo arrived in Sri Lanka about 1292, on his return voyage to Venice he described Adam's Peak: "And I tell you they say that on this mountain is the sepulchre of Adam our first parent; at least that is what the Saracens say. But the Idolaters say that it is the sepulchre of SAGAMONI BORCAN, before whose time there were no idols. They hold him to have been the best of men, a great saint in fact, according to their fashion, and the first in whose name idols were made" (Yule [1926] 1986, 2:316-17). Polo, like the travelers who preceded and followed him, never identified the religion he encountered with the name Buddhism, referring to the monks he encountered simply as idolaters.

In his entry on Confucius in his Dictionarium Sacrum Seu Religiosum: A Dictionary of All Religions, Ancient and Modern, Whether Jewish, Pagan, Christian, or Mahometan, Daniel Defoe reported that, according to Chinese sources, the Buddha (which he referred to by the Chinese Fe) apparently came from somewhere in the Middle East and introduced idolatry to China.

[Confucius] openly declar'd he was not the Inventor of this [i.e., "Confucian"] Doctrine, that he only collected it out of his Predecessors Writings, and used to say, there was a very Holy Man in the Western Lands, that he was called, by some Zeuximgim, but said no more of him. In the Year 66, after the Incarnation of our Blessed Saviour, the Emperor Thinti sent Ambassadors towards the West, to seek this Holy Man, but they stopped in an Island near the Red Sea, to consider a famous Idol named Fe, representing a Philosopher that lived 500 years before Confucius; this Idol they carried back along with them, with Instructions concerning the Worship paid to it and so introduced a Superstition, that in several things abolish'd the Maxims of Confucius, who always condemned Atheism and idolatry. (Defoe 1704, s.v. "Confucius")

It was only at the end of the eighteenth century that the conclusion was beginning to be drawn that the religions observed in Burma, Siam, Ceylon, Tartary, Japan, and Cathay were somehow the same, that the idols encountered by travelers-whether it be the Godama of Burma, the Sommona Codom of Siam, the Fo of China, the Khodom of Bali, or the Boodhoo of India-were somehow the same person.

Buddhism had effectively disappeared from India by the fourteenth century, so Buddhists and active Buddhist monasteries and temples were not encountered there by the British (although they were found to the north in Nepal by Brian Houghton Hodgson and to the south in Sri Lanka by George Turnour). The Hindu scriptures read by scholars of the East India Company listed the Buddha simply as one of the incarnations of the god Visnu (along with Krsna and Rama). Consequently, this is how the Buddha, and his image, were encountered by the company's most prominent Indologist, Sir William Jones (1746-94). Like most scholars of his day, Jones accepted the biblical account of the origin of the world and its peoples, and sought confirmation of the Mosaic chronology in the Hindu scriptures. Finding in the Hindu epics the story of a great flood, he considered it confirmation of the account in Genesis and assumed from it that the nine incarnations of Visnu were historical figures, whom he then sought to assign a date. In an address delivered to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta on February 2, 1786, he stated that "wemay fix the time of Buddha, or the ninth great incarnation of Vishnu, in the year one thousand and fourteen before the birth of Christ" ( Jones 1801a, 425). But Jones was confused by the attitude of his Hindu informants toward the Buddha. The most pious accepted him as an incarnation of Visnu and honored him for condemning the sacrifice of cattle, as the Vedas had enjoined. Others, however, spoke of the Buddha as a heretic whose followers had been driven from India. Jones attempted to resolve this contradiction by postulating two buddhas: the first, who lived 1014 (or 1027) years before Christ and who was the ninth incarnation of Visnu; and a second, living some thousand years later, who took his name and denounced the brahmins in his teachings (Jones 1801b, 123-26, 145).

Jones felt that the first buddha and his teachings did not originate in India, but had been imported. After speculating at one point that the Buddha was identical to Odin, and that a foreign race had imported the rites of these gods into Scandinavia and India ( Jones 1801a, 425), Jones would later abandon this theory in favor of another: "that Sacya or Sisak [the Buddha], about two hundred years after Vyasa, either in person or by a colony from Egypt, imported into this country the mild heresy of the ancient Bauddhas" ( Jones 1801c, 401). Indeed, Jones believed that Ethiopia and India (or Hindustan, as he called it) were colonized by the same race. He noted that the mountain people of the Indian states of Bengal and Bihar had noses and lips that could hardly be distinguished from Abyssinians. They only differed in their hair, but this seemed to be an effect of climate; the "crisp and wooly" hair of the Africans was the natural state. As proof, he pointed to statues of the Buddha: "we frequently see figures of Buddha with curled hair, apparently designed for a representation of it in its natural state" (Jones 1801a, 428).

Complicating his investigation, Jones had no Buddhist texts to read; he had only Hindu texts provided to him by brahmin pundits, and he found the chronology of these sources so outlandish in their cosmic cycles, so at odds with the Mosaic chronology, that he regarded the writings with some skepticism. He quotes a text that had been provided to him which described the Buddha: "He became visible, the-thousand-and-second-year-of-the-Cali-age being past; his body of-a-colour-between-white-and-ruddy, with-two-arms, without-hair on his head" ( Jones 1801b, 122). Not only was this chronology troubling to Jones, the description of the Buddha was contrary to what he had seen for himself. He had visited "a wood near Gaya, where a colossal image of that ancient deity still remains: it seemed to me of black stone; but, as I saw it by torch-light, I cannot be positive as to its colour, which may, indeed, have been changed by time" (ibid., 123).

Over the subsequent decades, the African origins of the Buddha were debated by scholars, with those in favor of the hypothesis noting the flat nose and thick lips of the Buddha images, but especially the hair, described as "wooly," "frizzled," and "crisped." In 1819, the great French Sinologist Jean Pierre Abel-Rémusat (1788-1832) published an article entitled "On Some Descriptive Epithets of Buddha Showing that Buddha Did Not Belong to the Negro Race" (1825). But the African hypothesis was persistent, so much so that it was addressed by such giants of nineteenth-century scholarship as James Cowles Prichard and Eugène Burnouf. In his five-volume Researches into the Physical History of Mankind (1844), Prichard devotes six pages to "the hypothesis that the Aborigines of India and of the Himálaya were a race of Negroes," concluding that the hypothesis is false and saying of the images of the Buddha, "it is very probable that the countenance imitated in these figures is the broad face of the Siamese and other Indo-Chinese nations, and not the physiognomy of the African" (Prichard 1844, 233). Burnouf, in an appendix to his translation of the Lotus Sutra, published posthumously in 1852, reports and dismisses the view that the Buddha was an African, citing Abel-Rémusat and Prichard for support, and explaining that the Buddha's hair was not frizzy (crépus) but curly (bouclés) (Burnouf 1852, 560). The conclusions of these scholars, however, did not divert the orientalists' gaze from the Buddha's hair and the Buddha's head, and specifically from that thing (a term used advisedly here, as will become clear below) atop his head. The remainder of this essay will focus on the Buddha's head, specifically on the top of his head, an ostensibly insignificant (and to some, invisible) detail, which nonetheless provides a pinnacle from which to observe the changing perceptions of the Buddha.

The descriptions by Sir William Jones and others of the Buddha's curly hair derived from the ancient images of the Buddha they saw in situ and in lithographs. European travelers to various Asian lands had long noted the shaven heads of Buddhist monks. The Buddha, therefore, did not look like a Buddhist monk. Scholars turned from image to text in search of a solution, and encountered an even more puzzling question.

Descriptions of the Buddha and accounts of his life appear in a variety of forms. Lives of the Buddha that encompassed the events from his birth until his passage into nirvana did not begin to appear until the second century of the common era, as many as five centuries after his death. Perhaps the earliest accounts are those found in the collections of sutras, or discourses traditionally attributed to the Buddha. Here the Buddha autobiographically recounts individual events that occurred from the time he left his father's palace and his life as a prince until he achieved enlightenment six years later. The following account occurs repeatedly: "Later, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessing of youth, in the prime of life, though my mother and father wished otherwise and wept with tearful faces, I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe, and went forth from the home life into homelessness" (Ñanamoli and Bodhi 1995, 256). This single sentence would eventually be elaborated into a lengthy account that included the four chariot rides beyond the walls of the city, where the prince first encounters an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a renunciant, and decides that he also must renounce the world and go out in search of a state beyond aging, sickness, and death; the dialogue with his father in which he begs permission to retire from the world; his retirement to his harem, where, as the night wears on, the female dancers and musicians fall asleep in all manner of inelegant postures, causing the prince to declare that women are by nature impure, and to resolve to go forth from the palace; his pausing in his chambers to gaze upon his sleeping wife and infant son, fearing that if he holds his child for one last time, he will lose his resolve; and his triumphant departure from the palace, on his steed Kanthaka with his trusted servant by his side.

None of these famous episodes are mentioned in the Buddha's brief description above. But they are all recounted in a Sinhalese work, the earliest of the Pali biographies of the Buddha, dating perhaps from as late as the fifth century CE. Entitled the Nidanakatha, the "Account of Origins," the narrative is an introduction to a collection of stories of the Buddha's former lives. Here, from Henry Clarke Warren's 1896 translation, is what transpired when the prince cut off his hair and beard:

Next he thought, "These locks of mine are not suited to a monk; but there is no one fit to cut the hair of a Future Buddha. Therefore I will cut them off myself with my sword." And grasping a scimitar with his right hand, he seized his topknot with his left hand, and cut it off, together with the diadem. His hair thus became two finger-breadths in length, and curling to the right, lay close to his head. As long as he lived it remained of that length, and the beard was proportionate. And never again did he have to cut either hair or beard.

Then the Future Buddha seized hold of his top-knot and diadem, and threw them into the air, saying, -

"If I am to become a Buddha, let them stay in the sky; but if not, let them fall to the ground."

The top-knot and jewelled turban mounted a distance of a league in the air, and there came to a stop. And Sakka, the king of the gods, perceiving them with his divine eye, received them in an appropriate jewelled casket, and established it in the Heaven of the Thirty-three as the "Shrine of the Diadem." (Warren 1953, 66)


Excerpted from CRITICAL TERMS for the STUDY OF BUDDHISM Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Impressions of the Buddha
Donald S. Lopez Jr.
Donald S. Lopez Jr.
Charles Lachman
Jacqueline I. Stone
Gustavo Benavides
Reiko Ohnuma
Timothy Barrett
Timothy Brook
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
William Pietz
Craig J. Reynolds
Carl Bielefeldt
Robert H. Sharf
Janet Gyatso
Ryuichi Abé
Marilyn Ivy
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