The European reception of Buddhism

The modern European missionary and philosophical reception of Buddhism construed it either as a superstitious pagan cult or as a negative, pessimistic, and—after the term was popularized in the late nineteenth-century—nihilistic philosophy grounded on the principle of nothingness. The distinction between a vulgar and superstitious set of popular practices, criticized by Christian missionaries, and a higher Buddhist philosophy gradually developed in the early modern European reception of Buddhism.

Philosophers such as Hegel construed Buddhism as understanding “ultimate reality as merely ‘nothing’ or ‘not-being,’” lacking his own dialectical insight that nothing can be a negative name for the consummate and for plenitude.16 The nineteenth-century French historians Edgar Quinet and Ernest Renan would in a similar spirit describe the Buddha as “the great Christ of emptiness” and Buddhism as the “church of nihilism”17 Arthur Schopenhauer reversed the negative analysis of Buddhist “negativity,” portraying it as an ethos— superior to Christianity and religions of redemption—of overcoming the will, its egoism and attachments, and consequently suffering. Schopenhauer’s elucidation and appropriation of Buddhism would shape its German reception—including Richard Wagner and Nietzsche—into the twentieth- century.18

Nietzsche recognized affinities between his philosophy and Buddhism, praising Buddhism at times, while more typically rejecting it as an ascetic and passive nihilistic form of world- and life-denial.19 The word “nihilism” is derived from the Latin word nihil (nothing); neither it nor “pessimism” is a traditional Buddhist concept. Nietzsche’s assessment of Buddhism is an additional example of the intercultural and intertextual character of modern philosophy given how it is interwoven with his critique of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. There is accordingly an intercultural problematic of pessimism and nihilism encompassing Buddhism, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. This nexus was introduced into China, mediated through Japanese scholarship, by intellectuals such as the “pessimistic” philosopher and poet Wang Guowei ^ Ш (1877-1927) and the philosopher and revolutionary Zhang Taiyan ^ (1868-1936).20 Wang first encountered Schopenhauer in 1899 and became interested in Nietzsche through his reading of Schopenhuaer. Wang introduced both thinkers to China with a series of essays such as “Shubenhua yu Nicai” ^ (“Schopenhauer and Nietzsche”) published in 1904, which revealed Schopenhauer’s profound influence on him and that can be seen in his pathbreaking modern interpretation of the canonical novel The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hongloumeng &ТШШ).

Nietzsche’s portrait of Buddhism as a religion based in the negative life- denying emotions of resentment and revenge and a schematization of repression was rejected as dubious and overly psychological by Max Weber.21 Weber shared the perspective of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in which Buddhism was construed as an ascetic world-denying religion. Weber interpreted it as a “theodicy of suffering" a teaching that made suffering meaningful and thereby bearable, and a practical ethos and worldly comportment guiding the everyday life of lay communities in his classical sociological analysis of the economic ethics of the world religions, which was examined in regard to Confucianism in Chapter 1.22

Divergent and contradictory ways of imagining the Buddha and Buddhism emerged, based on the translation and frequent conflation of sources from a diverse range of Buddhist discourses, as European thinkers in the nineteenth- century debated issues such as whether (1) the Buddha’s teaching was world- negating and pessimistic or an other-oriented ethics and way of life emphasizing compassion and tranquility of mind; (2) its epistemology was empiricist or idealistic; (3) its highest principle concerned liberation or annihilation; and (4) its highest reality (nirvana) signified nothingness, the pantheistic unity of God and nature, the absolute in itself, or a primordial potentiality beyond and encompassing both being and not being.

As Confucius faded as an image of the enlightened philosopher in the European imagination, an Enlightenment elucidation and exemplification of the life and teaching of the Buddha grew in prominence. The bodhi (awakening) of the Buddha was construed as a form of Enlightenment in analogy to the European idea of Enlightenment, particularly in Germany in the works of the Indologist Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900). He interpreted bodhi in light of the Kantian idea of Aufklarung as coming into maturity and the achievement of moral autonomy.23

While some figures emphasized Kant in explicating Buddhism, others turned to the paradigm of empiricist philosophy and the natural sciences. Karl Friedrich Koppen (1808-1863) popularized the image of the Buddha in the German context as an ethically oriented empiricist in his 1857 work The Religion of the Buddha (Die Religion des Buddha).24 The Austrian physicist and empiricist philosopher Ernst Mach (1838-1916), a self-described atheist opposed to religion, claimed that he appreciated Buddhism as a nonmetaphysical, non-religious, and radically empiricist philosophy and the Buddha’s refusal to answer questions that were metaphysical pseudo-problems. Mach interpreted the Buddha’s teaching as sharing a skeptical ethos and an empirical analysis of the senses with Hume and himself, while stressing that— despite these affinities—his own approach was developed independently of Buddhism.25

Husserl’s interests in “the awakened one” (Skt. Buddha; the Pali nominative form “Buddho” is used in a number of texts from this era) was also mediated by the European Enlightenment interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. The “original historical” Buddha, as presented via the Pali canon, was interpreted as a philosopher and figure of Enlightenment—in the Western sense—in distinction from what modern Westerners perceived as later Buddhist religious and superstitious misinterpretations. The disparity between the original philosopher and the later “fallen” transmission is still maintained in Karl Jaspers’s 1950s portrayal in the first volume of The Great Philosophers as well as in contemporary appropriations that wish to see a naturalistic progressive thinker in the Buddha in distinction from the incense and idols of popular Buddhist religious practices.26

 
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