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Philosophical Thought

Formation of the image of Buddhism in Russia (the end of the XIX the beginning of the XX centuries)

Nesterkin Sergei

Doctor of Philosophy

Leading Scientific Associate, Institute of Mongolian, Buddhist and Tibetan Studies of Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences

670047, Russia, Republic of Buryatia, Ulan-Ude, Sakhyanova str., 6

Other publications by this author








Abstract: This article examines the sources of formation of the image of Buddhism in the Russian cultural environment and determine the degree of representativeness of this image. The author highlights the three main sources: 1) academic research works of the Western Schools of Buddhology (based on Pāli and Sanskrit material); 2) research conducted within the framework of the Russian School of Buddhology (based primarily on Tibetan- and Mongolian-language material); 3) research of the Orthodox Russian missionaries. It is determined that the fundamental theoretical position developed by the Anglo-Germanic School of Buddhology is the thesis on authenticity of Theravada Buddhism, which is considered as “initial”, and its other forms (such as Mahayana, Vajrayana) are considered as its later modifications that emerged under the influence of external factors. The key features of Buddhism in Buddhology imply that: 1) Buddha Shakyamuni was not a transcendent being; 2) his nirvana is understood nihilistically, as a complete cessation of the process of being; 3) Buddhism, denies the existence of soul; 4) the existence of God and the representation of the transcendent are also denied. Despite the fact that the studies of Mahayana and Vajrayana material indicated inadequacy of such assessment, these theses were reproduced over again. This is explained by the interest of significant social groups in such image of Buddhism: many Orthodox figures interpreted Buddhism as a philosophical-ethical, rather than religious system; atheistically-oriented scholars and scientifically-oriented public also supported such interpretation. The rational aspects of Buddhism, which give common grounds with science, were uncritically absolutized; Buddhism was viewed as an ally of scientific thinking, completely alien to faith.


Buddhology, culture, Indian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Russian Buddhism, Mahāyāna, Theravāda, Orthodox Buddhology, missionary work, Buddhist culture

Buddhism began to appear in the intellectual landscape of Russia starting from about the middle of the 19th century, evoking a wide spectrum of attitudes, from complete rejection to enthusiastic reverence. These assessments are still being reproduced at present time, some passed down uncritically over the past century and a half, shaping the attitude of modern Russian society towards Buddhism. Thus, it is important to consider what gave rise to these assessments, how Buddhism was seen by Russian culture at that time and, importantly, to what extent the image of Buddhism that became the object of these assessments is actually representative.

Knowledge about Buddhism in Russia was formed primarily under the influence of European studies of Buddhism, which became widespread not only in the academic environment, but also among the general public due to the publication of numerous translations into Russian of sutra texts and research works (such as G. Oldenberg's book The Buddha, His Life, Teaching and Community, 1881), as well as works of the Oriental Studies school in Russia (I.P. Minaev, V.P. Vasiliev, F.I. Shcherbatskoy, O.O. Rosenberg, A.M. Pozdneev, G.Ts. Tsybikov and others). In addition, there were missionary works, composed either by clergy themselves (Nil, Veniamin, Popov, Gury, Podgorbunsky), or by secular researchers with a clearly expressed proselytizing orientation, among which the detailed work of V.A. Kozhevnikov [1] should be highlighted. Moreover, it should be noted that although the works of the missionary genre declared themselves, to a large extent, as a critical response to the “Buddhophile” texts coming to Russia from Europe, they often borrowed their assessments of Buddhism from these texts (for example, as rationalistic and atheistic teachings) when it seemed convenient for the purposes of criticizing Buddhism.

Among the vast expanse of Buddhist civilizations, India and Ceylon (then under the colonial rule of Britain)as well as the Buddhist regions of Russia were the most accessible to researchers at the time when the systematic academic study of Buddhism began in the mid-19th century. Tibet, which preserved many texts that were lost in the original language in Tibetan language translations, was closed to foreigners; and travelers there right up until the middle of the 20th century tended to be risky adventurers, with little inclination to systematic research work. This makes it very difficult to verify the data obtained by the few researchers who did travel to Tibet at the time. Other Mahāyāna countries (for example, China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam) were more accessible, but not by much. This explains the fact that the leading positions in Buddhist Studies in the world were occupied by the French, British and German Buddhist academic traditions, which studied mainly southern (and later, Russian) Buddhism. They conducted studies on the basis of material they had access to and received support from their own governments, which viewed research in this area as a prerequisite for competent policy (this can be especially attributed to the British; it is well known that British Oriental Studies were created by officials of the British colonial administration).

As for research on Indian material, it focused mainly on the study of Theravāda Buddhism from the Pali sources, since the Sanskrit sources on Mahāyāna Buddhism (which are few in number even now) were little known to researchers at that time. Thus, the first acquaintance of European scholars with the Mahāyāna occurred through the doxographic writings of Brahminical authors, such as, for example, The Compendium of All Systems (Sarva-Siddhānta-Saṅgrahaḥ), the authorship of which is attributed to the famous 19th century VedantistShankara and The Compendium of All Views (Sarva-Darshana-Saṅgrahaḥ) of the VedantistMadhava, 14th century. Inthese texts, the Mahāyāna teachings were treated in a critical way; and their assessments of Buddhism as a purely nihilistic doctrine, which asserts that everything is illusory, were also assimilated by the European academic tradition.

The first significant studies of Buddhist Sanskrit Mahāyāna texts proper were carried out by the French Indologist Eugène Burnouf (1801-1852), who began his academic career as a specialist in Pali and Southern Buddhism. In 1844, his main work, “An Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism” [2], was published, in which the Prajñāpāramitā and Laṅkāvatāra Sūtras, as well as numerous fragments of Sanskrit texts are cited. In 1852, he published the Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra in translation from Sanskrit. However, his assessments of Buddhism are also nihilistic. The goal of Buddhism - nirvāṇa - he views exclusively negatively, as absolute nothingness. It is difficult to say whether this erroneous interpretation is due to his previous experience of studying the Pali texts and to aprojection of ideas about nirvāṇafrom the Vaibhāṣika school to the Mahāyāna tradition; or whether the Euro- and Christian-centric orientation, to a large extent inherent in the French Buddhological school in general, played a role here.[1] Regardless, for a long time this interpretation determined the attitude to this central issue in Buddhist literature. Eugène Burnouf’s book, giving the first systematic description of the history and teachings of Buddhism, served for many years as “the prototype of the European concept of Buddhism.” [4, 239]. In the 1850s, a boom in Buddhist research and translation began in Europe. However, for European researchers of this period, Buddhism served primarily as a textual object found in books stored in libraries of the East and West. The living Buddhist tradition was outside the scope of research interest.

At this time, interest in Buddhism began to go beyond the professional academic environment. The work of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1869), who was significantly influenced by Buddhism, caused an increase in interest in Buddhist philosophy and ethics among the European intellectual and artistic elite. In the United States, the transcendentalists Emerson (1803-1882), Thoreau (1817-1862), and Whitman (1819-1892) made research and translations of European scholars available to the American middle and upper classes [5, 112]. The circles of the intellectual and artistic elite, in turn, served as a means for spreading interest in Buddhism to the general public.

However, a more significant influence on the formation of the image of Buddhism in the academic environment and among the general public was the research carried out in the mainstream of British and German Buddhist academic traditions. The main feature of these schools, which are very similar in their approaches, is the almost exclusive interest in Pali Theravāda Buddhism, especially through Thomas W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922) and his wife Carolina Augusta Foley. The Pali Text Society, founded by them in 1881, aimed at translating and researching Buddhist texts in Pali. As part of this project, the Tripiṭaka texts and major post-canonical works were published and translated into English. Russian translations of the Sūtras (from English) began to be published in the Oriental Library Series at the turn of the century [6; 7]. In Germany, Hermann Oldenberg (1854-1920) wrote the famous work based on Pali sources, The Buddha, His Life, Teachings and Community (1881), which popularized Buddhism more than any other work at the time. Its Russian translation was published in 1893; it became one of the main sources of knowledge about Buddhism for Russian readers.

The main theoretical position developed by Anglo-German Buddhological researchers (which was largely supposed by Russian Buddhologists) was the thesis about the authenticity of Theravādan Buddhism. It was considered as a kind of “original,”“pure” Buddhism, “the Buddhism of Buddha Shakyamuni.”All other forms of Buddhism - Mahāyāna, Vajrayāna - were considered as its later modifications that arose under the influence of external factors. Moreover, this model of “true” Buddhism was reconstructed from the texts of the Pali canon through the use of philological methods, without involving other texts in the Buddhist tradition that were suspected of distorting “true Buddhism.” With this approach, quite understandable hermeneutical difficulties arose from interpreting texts out of context, without taking into account the pragmatics of its functioning in culture. This was aggravated by the influence of biased research attitudes. One of the reasons for this situation was the spirit of historical hypercriticism that prevailed at that time in historical science. It was a kind of "infantile disease" of science, which escaped from the ideological tutelage of the church and began to develop a taste for the position of a judge and the highest authority, which it began to acquire in public opinion.[2]

The main features of Buddhism were considered to be that 1) Buddha Shakyamuni was not God, but a man who, thanks to his own efforts, achieved “spiritual perfection”; 2) this perfection was understood purely nihilistically, as a complete negation, the absence of anything; nirvāṇa - the goal of the cultivation process - was seen as simply annihilation, the termination of the process of being; 3) 3) Buddhism denies the presence of a soul in an individual; and4) the existence of God is denied and, moreover, there is no idea of the transcendental. A similar interpretation of Buddhism, with certain reservations, can be applied to some schools of Hīnayāna Buddhism, but not to Buddhism in general. Even contemporary Theravādan Buddhism did not quite fit into this scheme. Therefore, it was considered as a form "spoiled" by later layers. What was presented in these works as “true,”“original” Buddhism, was an artificial reconstruction carried out by philological methods based on the analysis of texts, without taking into account the actualtradition. Buddhism was presented primarily as an ethical teaching, but it was denied the status of a religion.

All forms of Buddhism that existed at that time were considered as later formations. The rise of Mahāyāna, in particular, was attributed to the influence of Christianity, and Vajrayāna was seen as the result of contamination with archaic forms of religion.

Such assessments of Buddhism became accepted in academic circles and public opinion, and for a long time they remained dominant, despite the significant amount of empirical material introduced by researchers of MahāyānaBuddhism. For example, in 1857,V.P. Vasiliev published the fundamental work Buddhism, its Doctrines, History and Literature (Part 1) [9] and, somewhat later (1869) a translation of the famous History of Buddhism in India by Tāranāthaas the third part of this work. The first part of the study is an analysis of the philosophical literature of Buddhism and an investigation of the main concepts presented in it, based on Tibetan texts both translated from Sanskrit and in the original. In this book, Vasiliev, for the first time in Western Buddhology, turned to the Tibetan scholastic philosophical literature proper; in particular, he used the works of the major Tibetan Buddhist philosophers Kunkhen Jamyang Shepa and Changkya Rölpe Dorje. This book was quickly translated into German (1860) and French (1865) and was highly regarded in academic periodicals. However, as noted by S Ruegg [10, 370], it surprisingly did not have any significant impact on Buddhist research, despite the quality and originality of the materials presented and the novelty of the research approaches. The apparent reason for this is that the material presented in the book contained a substantially different model of Buddhism than that developed within the framework of European Buddhist studies (although V.P. Vasiliev himself was not able to go beyond a Christian-centric approach).

The views of Buddhism in the academic community began to change in the second half of the 19th century. E. Torchinov’s perspective that by the middle of the 19th century, Buddhologists practically abandoned the main thesis of the Anglo-German school - the standard character of the Theravāda Buddhism in Pali [3, 221] - seems incorrect. We can observe returns to these evaluations of the Pali school in modern academic literature, not to mention in popular literature.

In part, this propensity can be explained by a certain rigidity of conceptual constructions in relation to empirical material, especially when it comes to subjects that are new as an object of research. In this case, a kind of scientific "imprinting" took place, in which a research paradigm, constructed for the first time, acquired a normative character of phenomena. This paradigm then began to serve as a filter for selecting new empirical material, and the material was interpreted so as not to contradict this paradigm.

However, this pattern in the development of scientific knowledge cannot explain the constancy with which the model of Buddhism we are discussing was reproduced (and continues to be reproduced), in spite of the contradiction to facts.

This leads to the conclusion that there were motivations among socially influential groups for cultivating this kind of model of Buddhism in public opinion.

First, this view was supported by many Orthodox Christian church leaders and Christian-oriented scholars and publicists. The interpretation of Buddhism as a philosophical and ethical system created by man, and not a religious system,placed Buddhism beyond the spiritual search of people looking for support in faith and guidance in religion, thus expanding the circle of the potential followers of Christianity. In addition, in the proposed model, the basis of morality was in the doctrine of “not causing harm” (ahiṃsā). The ideal of a bodhisattva (and, accordingly, the doctrine of compassion and love) was considered as being introduced at a later timeinto the “original” Buddhism and not intrinsic to it. This provided an advantageous position for criticizing the moral teaching of Buddhism as escapist and indifferent to the suffering of others.

Secondly, such an interpretation of Buddhism suited atheist-minded scholars and a scientifically oriented public. The features of Buddhism that brought it closer to science, were uncritically absolutized, and in Buddhism they saw the most ancient and authoritative spiritual tradition as an ally of scientific thinking, completely alien to faith. The demand for this kind of assessments of Buddhism continues to this day, feeding its image described above in the works of modern authors.

[1]His student B. Saint-Hilaire, for example, stated that the main benefit of studying Buddhism is that, in relation to it, one can better understand all ofthe advantages of the Christian religion (see: [3, 219])

[2]A curious example of this criticism is the theory of E. Senart, who argued that the Buddha Shakyamuni did not really exist; and his life, recorded in the sources, is only a reflection of a solar myth [8, 25].

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