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The Indian: “What do you want! He has the prejudices of his country, of his party and his own prejudices.”

The Japanese: “Oh! See, too many prejudices.”

Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary

Unlike Islam, which has suffered a lot of bad press in recent times, Buddhism is seen in a rather more favorable light in Western society today. However, this has not always been the case, as is reflected by Orientalist discourse from the nineteenth century. Western missionaries and colonizers often lumped Islam and Buddhism together and considered them to be the cause of social, economic, political, and spiritual degeneration in the colonized societies. The current high regard in which Buddhism is held is a sign of real progress since that era, when it was met solely with fear or disdain, although this change in attitude remains tinged with ideas of Orientalism.

Today, the media have moved on from their vision of Buddhism as a fashion trend followed by a few intellectuals and now emphasize the sociological importance of this development in Western countries. Despite this trend reversal, what do we actually know about Buddhism? While our knowledge has certainly progressed considerably since the nineteenth century, it is nevertheless often constrained by certain ingrained ideas which restrict the range of issues addressed and questions asked.

The average person on the street is often confronted with certain very specific forms of Buddhism which are presented as if they represent the norm. These include, most notably, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and Theravpart_image001.jpgda (or the “Way of the Elders”). Tibetan Buddhism, while strongly influenced by the Indian tradition of the “Great Vehicle” (Mahpart_image001.jpgypart_image001.jpgna), is the result of a specific development, a mixture of Tantrism and scholasticism. The Zen tradition, which appeared during the sixth century in China (under the name of Chan), assumed its current form in medieval Japan. Despite its significance, Zen is merely a branch of the “Great Vehicle” such as it developed principally in China and Japan. The other schools of East Asian Mahpart_image001.jpgypart_image001.jpgna are virtually unheard of in Europe and the United States. Theravpart_image001.jpgda has become the most dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos) and is simply a modernized version of one of the many schools of ancient Buddhism; indeed, it is the only one to have survived.

Despite all of these different forms, for most Westerners the word “Buddhism” evokes primarily Tibetan Buddhism. This version of Buddhism, which is very specific despite making universal claims, is featured on every page of successful books such as The Monk and the Philosopher, which features a dialogue between the “philosopher” Jean-François Revel and his son, the “monk” Matthieu Ricard, a disciple of the Dalai Lama. The book provides a handy catalogue of received ideas, which are accurate to a greater or lesser extent, yet also reflects a certain level of orthodoxy that should be examined closely, even if it means playing devil’s advocate (or rather Mpart_image001.jpgra’s advocate, the Buddhist equivalent). Let’s start by exploring some landmarks in time.

Before questioning received ideas about Buddhism, it should be remembered that they often include a significant dose of truth. Furthermore, when these ideas are held by a great many people, they end up becoming truth or at least orthodoxy (literally meaning correct opinion). In Buddhism, these ideas form part of what is known as the conventional truth – as opposed to the ultimate truth. This notion of Two Truths, conventional and ultimate, favors the latter, yet this does not detract from the value of the received opinion: a half-truth still has some truth-claim. Even if they do not go far enough, half-truths are a means of accessing the ultimate truth.

When it comes to the question of who can speak in the name of Buddhism, it is tempting to reply that, obviously, Buddhists can. However, it is less easy to determine who, in fact, Buddhists are. In the absence of criteria accepted by all, it could be said that a Buddhist is someone who declares himself or herself to be one.

While historians and sociologists usually refrain from adopting a stance on the content of the Buddhist doctrine, they are heavily involved in describing the development of this doctrine and the communities that profess to follow it as objectively as possible. From their point of view, there is no Buddhism; strictly speaking, there are only Buddhists. Or, put another way, Buddhism is not an essence in itself, it is something Buddhists do.

However, we quickly come across another stumbling block: in the US, for example, the beliefs and practices of recent – and usually Caucasian – converts differ greatly from those of Buddhists of Asian origins. When one Buddhist declares something in the name of Buddhism and another Buddhist declares the exact opposite, who are we to believe? In this case, historians restrict themselves to analyzing the many available sources and practices with the aim of including rather than excluding.

Sometimes, received ideas about Buddhism are not supported by tradition. These ideas often imply and reinforce each other. The majority are derived from a fundamental bias, which is also an act of faith: the belief in a “pure” Buddhism, devoid of any “superstition,” which was miraculously transmitted through various cultures over the centuries to reach the modern Western world. In fact, this Buddhism is a relatively recent invention, the result of a series of reforms in various Asian countries and of increased contact with the West. It has developed in response to colonization, the requirement to modernize, and the influence of Protestantism.

In one sense, these ideas adopted and retained by Buddhists as part of their tradition are part of the Buddhist experience. They also enable us to adopt an initial approach that can be modified as we explore the practices further and develop our understanding – we have to start somewhere after all.

Some of these ideas are simply incorrect while the majority are partially correct but have been overly simplified, thus weakening the Buddhist tradition. They tend to take what was essentially one of many aspects of the doctrine and regard it as a dogma and impose orthodoxy by falsely assuming that certain ideas form part of the long-standing Buddhist tradition. By calling such ideas into question, the complexity and richness of the Buddhist tradition can perhaps be restored, at least in part.