"Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for “Tradition”"

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Recently researchers in Buddhist Studies have lamented that nineteenth century Orientalists such as the Theosophists, by imposing their Western values onto their area of study and spreading this “distortion” among Asian Buddhists, produced a decidedly modern (that is, non-traditional) form of Buddhism that has been variously identified as “Buddhist modernism” or “Protestant Buddhism.”

The current climate of Buddhist Studies in relation to contemporary Buddhism would be tinged with a certain amount of disdain for what the history of Western colonialism and imperialism has produced. One may seek to correct, or at least distance oneself from, the West’s interference with and transformation of Buddhism, particularly Buddhist nationalisms and Western-influenced forms like so-called Protestant Buddhism. These forms are seen by Buddhists themselves as authentic, even “traditional”.

The discourse concerning Buddhist modernism has carried with it a subtle claim that so-called “modern” Buddhists— who would not necessarily label themselves as such—are not “really” Buddhist at all; they are tainted by Western culture, philosophy, and religion, and as such are peripheral to the study of the “authentic” Buddhism that resides in a more “traditional” Asia. When mapped onto an essentialized Self/Other or West/East complex, Western Buddhists (of both the convert and so-called “ethnic” varieties), as well as Asian Buddhists of all stripes, are reduced to stereotypes of “traditional” and “modern” that fail to capture the multifaceted nature of their religious traditions, beliefs, and practices. It further produces “good savages” and “bad savages,” condemning those who fail to live up to the standard of a non-Westernized “traditional Buddhism”. At its core, the issue is one of representation and identity.

Dualistic and nostalgic models of tradition and modernity, as well as place and culture— based in ideas of passive/active, pure/corrupted, Asian/Western, self/other—prevent asking and answering important questions in regard to the adaptation of Buddhism to lived realities in an increasingly connected world. A theoretical approach that subtly or explicitly privileges as more authentic those Buddhisms predating Western contact can distort the way Buddhists are characterized, as changes tend to be framed in terms of decline and loss rather than adaptation or creativity.

Concerns about “Buddhist modernism”—those non-traditional, hybrid forms of Buddhism that threaten the preservation of so-called “traditional” Buddhism in places like Sri Lanka—are deeply rooted in salvage anthropology and its separation of authentic, natural natives from inauthentic, corrupted ones. This is evident when scholars identify contemporary Buddhisms as being “distortions” of Asian transhistorical essences now contaminated by Western ideas.

As an invention of the present projecting itself onto the past, tradition is always in movement, being contested, forgotten, remembered, reinvented, augmented, abandoned, revived, and above all, lived. If the constant invention of tradition is to be taken seriously, it must be concluded that there is no “authentic” original; every manifestation of a tradition is based on a previous one, which is in turn based on an earlier one. And if tradition is persistently seen as a transhistorical essence to be protected from modernity, emergent traditions will continue to be described as “not authentic enough”.

In light of these difficulties scholars need to more carefully consider their characterizations of “modern” and “traditional” Buddhism, particularly when this categorization is plotted against a geographic background of West versus East, and especially given their discipline’s history of Orientalism and complicity with colonialism. Then, there is left the need to develop more careful theoretical models to account for the hybrid identities developing in the increasingly transnational world, recognizing that Buddhism is being transmitted through various channels of power—including the academy.

It seems that studies of Western Buddhists—of both convert and “ethnic” varieties—can contribute a great deal to creating a new theoretical framework for the larger field of Buddhist Studies, one that reevaluates the utility of linking authenticity to place, one that recognizes hybridity, and one that challenges the notion of a passive East and an active West. Deeply-seated notions of Western Self/Asian Other continue to dominate the field. Thus, the time is ripe for Buddhist Studies to learn from disciplines such as Asian American Studies and anthropology by developing new notions of “legitimate” subjects of study and recognizing that Western Buddhists (including Asian Americans) are no less “authentic” or worthy of study than those living in Asia.


Reference: Quli, Natalie E., (2009), ‘Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for “Tradition” in Buddhist Studies‘, Journal of Buddhist Ethics Volume 16, 2009.

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