Making an American Buddha
There are certainly better guides to Buddhism available now, and books are no longer the only resource. Buddhist studies have moved beyond the aggressively secular, rationalist, humanist paradigm of the modern to encompass the lived reality of Buddha relics, ritual, pilgrimage, the power of images, and much more that was unthinkable a century ago.
LOPEZ'S LINEAGE of Modern Buddhism stops at about 1980. Is Modern Buddhism the product of a previous time, a time we have moved beyond? Is it really a Buddhism stripped of cultural accretions, or simply one imbued with cultural assumptions so dominant that they are, or at least were, invisible? Lopez's definition of Modern Buddhism—its claims to original authenticity, its emphasis on Enlightenment ideals, its disregard for two millennia of Asian development and its insistence on possessing the truth, and especially its claim to be the essence of Buddhism—seems disturbingly like the Orientalist constructs of the nineteenth century that so arrogantly excluded Asian Buddhist reality.
The idea of Modern Buddhism may be useful in focusing the diverse factors that have shaped popular perceptions of Buddhism over the last century, particularly the networks of exchange between Asia and the West in its formation, but with the notable exception of the dalit Buddhists of India, Modern Buddhism in Asia is an elite movement, a product of wealth and the emergence of middle classes created through global capitalism and massive social change. It exists alongside the traditional practices of the many. While we might rejoice in the fact that this essentialized reduction of a long, rich, and venerable tradition has created a welcoming space for Buddhisms of all types in our present globalized world, an examination of the political underpinnings of some of its Asian forms should give us pause.
I feel sure that Carus, with his keen sense of the meaning of form, would appreciate this book. Its importance is signaled by the vellum print of the dust jacket. The authenticity of the text has been preserved by photographically reproducing the individual pages of the 1915 edition, its original small pocket-book format (a deliberate strategy in its popularization) thereby elevated to art book format. Keichu Yamada's paintings make it so. It is a beautifully produced memorial to a patriarch of Modern Buddhism, combining the historical archive and a thoughtful reassessment with the eulogy he was denied in his lifetime.
Judith Snodgrass, Ph.D., is a researcher for the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney. She is the author of Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition.