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Buddhadharma : Fall 2012
FALL 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 75 and communal functions that centuries of colonial pressure had displaced them, and quite intentionally. Beginning under the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, and continuing with the Dutch in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the British in the nineteenth, Sri Lankan Buddhists found themselves beleaguered. As Ste- phen Berkwitz describes in his essay in the book, Buddhists were driven out of Portuguese-controlled areas of Sri Lanka, and under Portuguese control Buddhist monasteries (as well as Hindu temples) were dismantled or replaced by Christian churches. Portuguese Catholic missionaries tried aggressively to con- vert Sri Lankans. The result was a mas- sive disruption of Buddhist “practice... scholarship... customs and institutions.” Despite the greater tolerance on the part of the Calvinist Dutch, who replaced the Portuguese in 1658, the Dutch presence too was detrimental to Buddhist institu- tions, and the Dutch also continued the effort to missionize. The arrival of the British shifted the terms of the equation in significant ways. They succeeded in conquering the whole island, including the highland kingdom of Kandy, which had managed to sur- vive as independent and Buddhist in earlier centuries. Even more important, the British view of their “civilizing” mission turned out to be markedly dis- ruptive in its own way. Education and health care, traditionally the domain of Buddhist institutions, were replaced by British-built hospitals and schools. Brit- ish missionaries, unlike their Portuguese predecessors, made an effort to learn about Sri Lankan Buddhism so they could counteract it. What they learned, or thought they learned, did not please them. They saw Buddhism in Sri Lanka as “characterized by atheism, idola- try, and a nihilistic goal of nirvana.” In response, and Berkwitz says due to frustration with their inability to win Sri Lankan Buddhist converts, British mis- sionaries began publishing tracts ridicul- ing Buddhist doctrines. When Sri Lankan Buddhists took offense at these tract publications and were unsuccessful in having them banned by the British government, they resorted to fighting them via Bud- dhist publications as well as through a series of highly public debates. In the process, Sri Lankan Buddhists became involved in trying to reform and mod- ernize Buddhism as a way to revive and strengthen it. At the same time, some among the British civil servants in the colonial administration, such as T.W. Rhys Davids (1843–1922), became actively interested in Buddhism. Men such as Rhys Davids (who would go on to become an important early scholar of Buddhism) began to study Pali, the clas- sic textual language of the Theravada Buddhist canon. Other European colo- nial administrators, adventurers, and scholars of the period elsewhere in Asia focused on Sanskrit and other Asian lan- guages. These men also became inter- ested in the search for Buddhist origins and the figure of the historical Buddha (in a way that paralleled the growing Christian interest of the period in the search for the historical Jesus). Significantly, gaining knowledge about Asian Buddhism was closely bound up with the drive to establish colonies in Asia, both for the British and An international gathering of Buddhists in Ceylon in 1889. Colonel Henry Steel Olcott is seated second row, third from right. for their European counterparts. While Buddhism in the Modern World touches on this colonial history, the brief and somewhat textbook-like format limits the depth of the essays on this point. Readers particularly interested in the connection between imperialism and the European pursuit of knowledge in Asia might want to dig into the short and fascinating study by Thomas Richards, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, or the excellent treatment by Richard King, Oriental- ism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India, and “the Mystic East.” In the midst of the powerful nexus between empire and scholarship, Brit- ish pioneer scholars and their colleagues on the European continent particularly focused on what they saw as the rational aspects of Buddhism, its freedom from ritualism and superstition, and its sys- tems of ethics and meditation that did not depend either on priestly authority or the presence of a creator deity. These in some sense “Protestant” Buddhist preferences in turn had great influence in the Sri Lankan case on Sri Lankan Buddhists themselves, who couched their program of revival and modern- ization in very similar rationalist terms. Arguably the residue of these prefer- ences continues to influence Buddhist developments today. Buddhism along the lines of Sri Lankan Buddhist modernism—with its REVIEWS SOURCEUNKNOWN