Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Early Western Buddhist Scholars

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

Awhile back I found an article written in the Jan. 1940 Life magazine by Quentin Roosevelt about his travels and thoughts about Buddhism in Tibet. I decided to do a bit more digging in Google books to see what other interesting things I could find. It's hard to imagine Western writers of the 19th and early 20th century tackling the subject of Buddhism, but to my amazement, there is no shortage of books and articles about it. In fact, I found a few of these books rather eye opening in subject matter, depth and content of discussions concerning how Buddhism fits into a Western world view. I think you might be surprised that these Victorian and turn of the century writers tackle subjects that are still hotly debated today such as how Buddhism corresponds to psychology, science and other religions.

Here are a few of the works I found and a little bit of information on each one. Some of these you may have heard of, some you may not; and a warning, much of what you may find in these texts is inaccurate, biased and perhaps even a bit offensive to Asians or Buddhists in general.

Buddhism by Annie H Small - Published 1905- I think this preface she wrote gives a good idea of the intention of this book. Odd, how in 1905, people were looking at how Buddhism fits into a Christian world view. This work was recently republished and is better known than other turn of the century literary works.

The journal of philosophy, psychology and scientific methods, Volume 2 By JSTOR Published 1905 - Many of the first studies on Buddhism by Western scholars focused on the Theravada and a little on the Tibetan traditions. This study, published in a scientific journal, is one of the first serious attempts to look at the Zen tradition. While the text is fairly well written, and some of what the author has to say intriguing, there is a good portion of it that is skewed by limitations of knowledge of psychology and science of the day, and general European enlightenment bias found in most turn of the century scientific writing. However, this is definitely still worth the read if you are interested in Zen, and how Westerners first viewed its practices.

The Mahávansi, the Rájá-ratnácari, and the Rájá-vali: forming the sacred and histroical books of Ceylon By Edward Upham, Published 1833 - A Victorian age book looking at more of the Theravadan tradition of Buddhism as found in what today is called Sri Lanka. It was not 30 years before this book was published that the British finished it conquest of the Indian sub-continent, and many British scholars of the time, as demonstrated by this book, spent a plethora of time studying all the aspects of the culture, religion and traditions of the day.

The Light of Asia, The Great Renunciation by Edwin Arnold. Published 1879 - This is a better known piece, but none the less, an interesting read. Arnold tackles the subject in both as almost a scientific approach and as some first person abstract conclusions.

Esoteric Buddhism By Alfred Percy Sinnett Published 1888 - One last piece that is a bit odd, but interesting none the less.

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1 comment:

  1. In case you didn't know, A P Sinnett was a major figure in The Theosophical Society. And if you don't know about The Theosophical Society and its relationship to early Western views of Buddhism you need to do some Googling. The Theosophical Society's impact on Western ideas about Eastern religions was both incalculable and sadly misleading.