Philip C. Almond, THE BRITISH DISCOVERY OF BUDDHISM
Cambridge University Press, 1988 (2006)
This book shows that contacts with Buddhism were sporadically made in the UK before the 19th century, but Campbell main argument refers precisely to this century since it focuses on constructive representation of Buddhism in Great Britain during the Victorian period.
Victorian Buddhism was “an imaginative creation” of the early nineteenth century when a number of aspects of Eastern culture were defined and interpreted (p. 4). Buddhism was mainly analysed through textual material, and therefore it became an interpretive construction built by those who participated in the debate about it.
Until the 1840s, Buddhism was “instanced and manifested” (p. 12) in the Orient and seen as other (p. 12). In the next twenty five years “its primary location was the West, through the progressive collection, translation, and publication of its textual past. Buddhism, by 1860, had come to exist, not in the Orient, but in the Oriental libraries and institutes of the West” (p. 13). Towards the end of the Victorian period, an expanded interest in Buddhism was due to the huge popularity of Edwin Arnold’s blank-verse poem The Light of Asia, first published in 1879. This imaginative approach was contrasted by interest in historical and factual evidence. Only towards the end of the century there were British conversions to Buddhism, and one influential source of diffusion was Madame Blavatsky’s esoteric Theosophical Movement.
Throughout the period examined the superiority of the West was rarely questioned in British debate. The Oriental mind was considered “inferior” (p. 41), and Buddhism was seen as the expression of “childish” attitudes (p. 48), even when these were approached sympathetically by Western intellectuals.
Some of the areas of discussion were similar to other European debates with local accentuation of specific aspects. One of the topics discussed was the historical existence of Gautama. The Buddha was often seen as an example of moral positive values, especially compassion and tolerance, compatible with Victorian ideals, but at the same time “the most common criticism levelled at Buddhist morality was its selfishness” (p. 115). Interest was raised around the topics of nihilism and atheism in relation to Buddhism. Curiously, to some Victorians in the UK, rebirth appeared “to have a compatibility with an evolutionary vision of the world” (p. 90) in that, like Darwin, it did not employ the concept of creation. Nirvana and enlightenment were predominantly seen as the “annihilation of the individual” (p. 102).