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Buddhadharma : Fall 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 09 80 Franklin begins his investigation by comparing the poems The Light of Asia (1879) by Edwin Arnold and The Story of Gautama Buddha and his Creed: An Epic (1871) by Richard Phillips. The Light of Asia was tremendously popular and influential in Victorian England, and is still in print. It describes the Buddha as a hero who preached a positive doctrine that encouraged people to rid themselves of a false self and seek the “nameless joy” of nirvana. Phillips’ poem was less popular, probably because it praised the Buddha but condemned his message. Both, Franklin says, were cultural arti- facts that appealed, in different ways, to the image of an exotic Orient. Even Arnold, according to Franklin, was guilty of subtly manipulating Buddhism so that Victorian sensibilities and worries were fed—hiding, for example, the more rigor- ous aspects of doctrines such as anatta. The second case study shows that a number of Victorian hybrid religions were influenced by Buddhism. After surveying mesmerism and spiritualism, Franklin focuses on theosophy. The Theo- sophical Society was founded in 1875 in America by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1907) and Colonel Olcott (1832– 1907). It soon spread to Britain. It was a movement that eventually looked to Buddhism and Hinduism for truth that would unite all religions (except Chris- tianity, to which theosophists were hos- tile). Franklin concentrates on Blavatsky and A.P. Sinnett, leader of the London theosophical lodge and author, in 1883, of a book called Esoteric Buddhism. Demonstrating that both appropriated Buddhism to “complete” a recipe that drew on many sources, Franklin rightly contends that the Buddhism of Blavatsky and Sinnett would not have been recog- nized by Asian Buddhists. Dukkha (the pain and unsatisfactoriness of existence) was edited out, as was nirvana. In their place, an evolving self was elevated. Marie Corelli (1855–1924) was a writer of romantic melodramas that were loved by ordinary people, but hated by literary critics. One of her aims seems to have been the reconciliation of Christianity with such concepts as rein- carnation. Franklin argues that although Corelli denied her debt to Buddhism, she drew on it extensively to invent a hybrid “new age” Christianity that could coun- ter materialism, science, and atheism. Rider Haggard (1856–1925), another Victorian novelist, also uses the concept of reincarnation in his books She and Ayesha. Franklin expertly demonstrates that both writers offer “a vital record” of late Victorian concerns about spiritu- ality and the afterlife. In the fourth case study, which focuses on the novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), Franklin finds the title character fascinating. Kim is portrayed as struggling with his identity, but he refuses to bow to Victorian notions of self-help and self-realization. Franklin’s conclu- sion is that Kim’s character expresses a concept of the self that is closer to Bud- dhist notions of anicca (impermanence) and anatta than to the Western views of identity that made imperialism possible. The final case study examines the difficulty Victorians had with the Bud- dhist doctrines of anatta and nirvana. The debate focused on whether nirvana was annihilation (the most common view among Christian missionaries), or a merging with the infinite (the view that Arnold conveyed in The Light of Asia)—in other words, whether it was linked to annihilationism (Pali: uccheda- vada) or eternalism (sassatavada), two theories that the Buddha categorically rejected. Franklin argues, provocatively but plausibly, that European identity in the nineteenth century was influenced by this debate because some began to won- der whether nihilism could lie behind the Victorian obsession with progress and self-help. This, in turn, Franklin says, could have contributed to a school of philosophy in Europe that has been called nihilism—as expressed in the writ- ings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, T.S. Eliot, and Joseph Conrad— and to the struggles concerning selfhood in the works of D.H. Lawrence. Franklin must be commended for this book, which should be of interest to any Western Buddhist who is intrigued by what he calls “the counter-invasion” of Buddhism into European consciousness in the nineteenth century. It might lead some to read Arnold, Corelli, Kipling, and Haggard. But the book is not only about the past. Some interesting ques- tions can be asked of the nineteenth cen- tury’s influence on Western Buddhism today. For instance, do Westerners, and even some Western Buddhists, still find it difficult to cope with concepts such as anatta and nirvana? Or, with its stress on the evolution of a self, is there still something of the theosophical version of Buddhism in the West? There are some minor errors. Allan Bennett, for example, was not the first British person to become a Buddhist monk. That privilege must go to Gor- don Douglas, ordained in Colombo in 1899. And the concept of acquiring merit is not more common in Tibetan Buddhism than Theravada Buddhism, as Franklin asserts. In fact, it is very com- mon in Theravada countries such as Sri Lanka. Franklin makes it clear that his book is concerned with the Western end of the encounter between Buddhism and the West, rather than with what hap- pened on the ground in Asia when Western imperialists encountered Bud- dhism. Few of those who figure in The Lotus and the Lion had any dialogue with Buddhists or witnessed Buddhism in practice. So, to complete the picture, this book could be read in tandem with Notto Thelle’s Buddhism and Christian- ity in Japan: From Conflict to Dialogue 1854-1899 (1987, University of Hawaii Press) or my Theravada Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Mis- sionary and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka (2006, Routledge). In conclusion, though, this is a fas- cinating book, meticulously researched and accessible to specialist and nonspe- cialist alike. Reviews