Buddhism has profoundly touched the Western imagination in a surprisingly widespread way and has done so for well over a several hundred years, evoking a sustained fascination. It was not until the late 19th century that “Buddhist philosophy” was first recognized as an independent subject for scholarly inquiry. Prior to this time, the treatment of the Buddhist philosophical systems, as a field of study distinct from Buddhist religion and literature, was virtually non-existent.
The intention of the lecture is to show that perhaps the most significant feature in the Western construction of ‘Buddhism’ was the tendency for orientalists to reify the object of their discourses and to locate that reified ‘essence’ firmly within a clearly defined body of classical texts. An imaginative creation of Buddhism as a textual object in Europe progressively enabled certain aspects of Asian cultures to be defined, delimited, classified and interpreted through its own textuality. Ideas of what is and what is not Buddhism are very much the product of the contingent historical circumstances and the evolution of the modern tradition of interpretation. In each generation the new problematics of Western philosophy have yielded correspondingly new but not necessarily more “correct” readings of the Buddhist tradition.
In spite of the more recent advances in modern scholarship dealing with the perception of Buddhism in the West, it seems we still face a lack of critical reflections on the immensely complex cross-cultural problems associated with the transfer of a system of knowledge from one culture to another. The elaboration of doctrine and argument in traditional Buddhist settings necessarily responded to the intellectual cultures of the times and places concerned. We cannot rightly expect to find ready-made answers to the problems that confront our contemporary philosophical culture.
William Jones’s assumption that Asian materials are of crucial interest because of what they can tell us about ourselves clashes with the methodological goal of exegetical objectivity. A conclusion can be made that if we cannot eliminate the conceptual background engendered by our time, place, and personal circumstances, we can, however, with sufficient care, discern some of the ways in which our vision is at once constrained and enabled by it. Thus, the function of Buddhist studies and Asian studies in general becomes that of helping the West define its own self-image.