19 April 2024

Early Buddhism as an Orientalist Construct.

European scholars did not at first realise that the many religious sects of East and Southeast Asia were closely related. So different were the extant forms of Buddhism from each other that they seemed like totally different religions. However, it soon became apparent that they all claimed to have been founded by a figure called "Buddha" (A story now told several times: Almond 1988, Bluck 2006, Franklin 2008).

It was apparent that all the different forms of Buddhism must have some common history. In the early decades of the 1800s, scholars assumed that the history of Buddhism would follow the same course that all (true) religions were believed to follow. They believed that the history of European Christianity was an ideal to which the history of other religions would conform. European imperialists saw their own nations, as well as their own self-views and values, as reflecting universal ideals. And they set about fitting Buddhism into this mould. There was, at that time, no critique of his monolithic, Eurocentric view. European imperialism was at its peak. From initial speculations about primitive Buddhism, eventually emerged the idea that we now call "early Buddhism" (I drop the quotation marks from this point, but in my mind they are always applicable to this phrase). The idea of early Buddhism is that we can and have rediscovered the origins of Buddhism within the Pāli suttas. 

Since taking those early faltering steps, recovering primitive Buddhism or early Buddhism has become a Holy Grail for Buddhist Studies. Buddhist modernists even seem to believe in the possibility of re-enacting early Buddhism.

And yet we can say with some confidence that, before the 19th century, no Buddhist in the world was concerned with early Buddhism. Until their encounters with European imperialists, Buddhists around the world simply did their thing -- in the many and various ways that Buddhists do. As far as Buddhists were concerned, they were already following the ancient ways of their ancestors, which could be traced back to the Buddha. Even now, most Buddhists take this view of their own traditions. The mythology of the Buddha's life was always part of this tradition, but the story was steeped in magic and superstition. The Buddha was known, for example, to have been born from his mother's side (rather than her vagina), and immediately after this he took seven steps and spoke some lines. And this is the story that Buddhists told until very recently. 

This is not to say that Buddhists did not adopt reform movements from time to time. But these reform movements were seldom if ever based on literal readings of texts. Reform mostly emerged from personal experiences of awakening and this usually led to entirely novel formulations of Buddhist doctrines.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Pāli suttas reflect real life to some extent, the simple fact is that over time, gradually perhaps but inexorably, all Buddhists abandoned those teachings we find in Pāli suttas. Significantly, these are the very same teachings that supposedly constitute early Buddhism. Buddhists themselves, all Buddhists everywhere, abandoned the lifestyles, attitudes, and practices that we find described in the suttas. All Buddhists everywhere chose to believe other, newer, ideas; chose to perform new types of rituals; to practice a new (communal) form of monasticism. Buddhists stopped memorising and copying those texts and they memorised and copied other, newer, texts. They stopped doing this kind of practice and they started doing that kind. And so on, right across the board. Later Buddhists abandoned early Buddhism. Presumably for what seemed like good reasons at the time.

What this means is that the various versions of early Buddhism identified by scholars, and more recently by religieux, have almost no relationship with any modern form of Buddhism. For example, Sujato (who now describes himself as "not Theravādin" but somehow still a "bhikkhu"), has self-published a (relatively conservative) list of differences between early Buddhism and Theravāda to emphasise the discontinuity.

Buddhists did not just adopt new teachings across the board, they also repeatedly disagreed about which of the new teachings were better and splintered into competing sects that began to change things in different ways. This process was already well underway by the time Buddhist beliefs began to be documented (and thus became a historical phenomenon for the first time).

Early Buddhism is an answer to a question that no Buddhist in the world before about 1840 would have thought to ask.

Jonathan S. Walters (1998) has contested terms like "Buddhism" or "early Buddhism". The problem is that such terms hypostatise and take agency away from what Buddhists think and do. This causes us to think of "Buddhism" as a transcendental essence. We start to see phrases like "Buddhism says..." or worse "Buddhism teaches...", giving the impression that Buddhism is monolithic and has its own agency. In the final analysis, "Buddhism" is an abstraction. Abstractions don't have agency; agency is a product of sentience. For the purposes of this essay, agency is human. When we focus on, for example, what actual Buddhists teach (as opposed to what Buddhism teaches), we see that they teach a huge range of ideas, attitudes, and practices that don't form a single, coherent whole. In many cases what one group of Buddhists does and says qua Buddhists may seem totally unrelated to what another group does. Different Buddhist groups are not necessarily comprehensible to each other (though this is more and more downplayed as we head into the 21st century).

That said, Walters notes that Buddhists tend to present a united front when interacting with non-Buddhists, even while they argue vehemently when dealing with other Buddhists who accept a different orthodoxy. Scholars have played along, presenting Buddhist history and doctrine in terms of "What Buddhism says..."

As noted, once some more coherent views on early Buddhism began to emerge from the mining of the Pāli Canon, it became clear that Buddhists in Pāli suttas behaved in ways that were unlike anything being practised by living Buddhists (as already noted, Buddhists moved on from early Buddhism and adopted late Buddhism). When early Buddhism emerged as an idea, no Buddhists anywhere still practised anything like what we now think of as early Buddhism. Notably, this included all of the various Theravādin sects (some of whom don't even recognise each other's ordination lineages).

Joseph Walser (2022) has emphasised this kind of disconnect. An example of a monolithic "Buddhism teaches X" scenario, found in virtually every scholarly account of Buddhism, is the idea that Buddhism teaches the anātman doctrine (for brevity's sake I will set aside the ongoing dissensus on what this doctrine actually means). Walser notes that if you go to traditionally Buddhist countries and ask about their beliefs, almost no one has heard of the anātman doctrine that features so prominently in textbook accounts of Buddhist belief. And, on the contrary, almost everyone in traditional Buddhist countries accepts some kind of ātmavāda.

Such inconvenient facts are usually absent from textbooks and encyclopaedias on Buddhism because they don't fit the idealised account of hypostatised "Buddhism". The hypostatized account of early Buddhism, which is widely promoted in academic studies of Buddhism, is based on reading certain suttas literally while excluding those suttas that resist a literalist reading. What can be read literally, is taken as a factual, and can be used without any further caveats to reconstruct early Buddhism, while what cannot be read literally, is not read.

If Buddhists were not asking these questions, then who was? Jonathan Walters (1998) has argued that it was Protestant European imperialists. That is to say, people who believed that Europe (not to say England) represented humanity in the ideal, and who sought to impose European values wherever they went, andwithout any irony at allat the same time, expropriating indigenous peoples' lands and murdering those who resisted. Moreover, they saw Protestant Christianity as the ideal religion. So when they met Buddhism in, say, Sri Lanka, British scholars interpreted the history of Buddhism on the model of European Christianity (and ultimately on the history of Rome). It was this parallel that motivated them to try to identify and valorise the origins of Buddhism as portrayed in Buddhist normative texts and hagiographies.

Lacking modern historical training, the Victorians simply ignored questions about the provenance and dating of the Pāli texts. Rather, they proceeded as though these religious documents were exactly what they purported to be: the very words of the Buddha.

This innocence regarding historical theories and methods of inquiry has remained a feature of Buddhist Studies down to the present, much to the annoyance of those with historical training. I also picked up these bad habits because I taught myself Buddhist Studies by reading publications. It wasn't until I decided to educate myself in some basic approaches to historical inquiry that I realised the problems with the standard accounts of what Buddhism says. Now my thinking is undergoing a paradigm shift.

Outside of the academe, we regularly find that Buddhists have a religious conception of Buddhist history. Ironically, the Buddhism that many modern Buddhists believe in and assert is an idealised account of ancient Buddhism that emerged from the European imperialist project in the 19th century. Many Buddhists believe that early Buddhism was a more authentic form of the Buddhist religion and, importantly, that it can be again. Some even believe that we should try to re-enact early Buddhism. Indeed, my impression is that some Theravādins believe that they are re-enacting early Buddhism.

The Buddha's historicitythat is, the question of whether the Buddha was a historical figureis particularly vexed because common sense and folklore are not aligned with the academic field History. Those with no education in History routinely take statements like "the Buddha is not a historical figure" or "the Buddha is a figure of Buddhist mythology", to mean that "the Buddha didn't exist". To be historical, in this view, is to be real. And to be mythological is to be unreal.

The resulting confusion is projected so that people confused in this way see the confusion as a fault of historians writing in counter-intuitive ways. In trying to discuss these issues in a Buddhist forum, for example, promoting the historian's approach attracted waves of hostile criticism. Users denounced the view that the Buddha was not historical based on an uneducated layperson's understanding of "historical". Some also vehemently denounced what they saw as the whole corrupt enterprise of academia which produced this view.

To try to bridge the gap between historians and Buddhists, I want to go over in brief how historians approach history. What follows is an outline of some basic historical methods based on about a dozen modern accounts of what History is and how historians approach learning. 


The theory and methods of History are hotly contested, especially following the emergence of the postmodernist critique in the 1960s and the publication of Edward Said's (1978) critique of "Orientalism". Some lay people are aware of these criticisms and like to use them as a club to beat academics with. Lay people often forget that the post-modernists and Said were themselves academics. Said was professor of literature at Columbia University. These criticisms came from within academia.

It's not the case, for example, that uneducated lay people are driving some intellectual movement away from the benighted past towards a more enlightened view. With respect to academia, even well-read laypeople are spectators at best. So lay people writing vicious critiques of academia that no academic ever reads make no difference whatever. As I have discovered, even publishing in academic journals is no guarantee that academics will take one seriously.

Said's target was mostly 18th and 19th-century historians. And, by the way, Said had no problem with the term "oriental" (he uses it throughout the book), he just wanted European historians to address their evident biases. This they did and continue to do. One sometimes sees the suggestion that Orientalism is still prevalent in academic writing, but the story of Orientalism in academia did not stop in 1978. Edward Said was taken very seriously by European academics, as were the critiques emerging from mid-20th century France which undermined many aspects of historical methods at the time. Historians wrestled with these new ideas and incorporated what was useful into their approach.

The irony here is that "early Buddhism" is itself an Orientalist construct. It's part of the attempt to describe ancient Indian religions by shoehorning them into idealised European moulds. It relies on assumptions introduced by those early 19th century Indologists, such as the idea that Pāli suttas can be mined for history by ignoring everything that cannot be read literally. If the Buddha meets a king, it can be read literally and taken as historical, despite the absence of any corroborating historical facts related to that king; whereas, if the Buddha meets a god such as the Vedic creator, Brahmā, that cannot be read literally and can be considered mythological. Those involved in early Buddhism re-enactment societies tend to see "mythological" as synonymous with "irrelevant".

This historical/mythical distinction is not a distinction that the authors of the Pāli suttas made or would even recognise. This distinction belongs to the European Enlightenment, not the Buddha's enlightenment. For the authors of the Pāli canon, all these stories are on the same level. Traditionally, all suttas are buddhavācana. Suttas are not traditionally divided into "real" and "imaginary".

There is some use of allegory in Pāli. There are extended similes. Some suttas are obviously not meant to be taken literally. But they are mixed in with all the other texts and they are not marked in any way. When the topical collection of the Saṃyutta Nikāya was composed, sometimes more obviously mythological suttas were clumped together (such as the Devatā Saṃyutta SN 1). Still, at other times they were simply mixed in with the rest. The process of curating the canon of Buddhist writings never seems to have made a distinction between texts we can take literally and those we cannot. Nor, to the best of my knowledge is this distinction found in modern-day traditional Buddhist countries. This is a modernist, European distinction.

Despite ongoing debates about historical theories and methods, there are some ideas and practices that are commonly taught and applied by all historians (though not by all people who have written histories of Buddhism).

Historians study documented events. And thus ancient history effectively begins when writing begins. In India, evidence of the use of writing slightly precedes the appearance of coherent documents (Asoka's edicts). See Strauch (2024) for a recent overview of this issue. But the first documents in writing in India are precisely the Asoka edicts. These do mention the Buddha, but they provide only very scant information and it is mixed in with a lot of propaganda. 

Archaeology allows us to see what people did in antiquity but we get little or no information about why they did that (and not something else). Lay people seem to think of History as simply telling the story of the past. Historians, by contrast, see History as an attempt to explain the past. Historians prefer causal explanations that tell us why people did what they did. Such explanations require that we have access to the thought processes involved. It is not until people start writing things down that we begin to get clues about why events unfolded the way they did.

In the sense that historians seek causal explanations, History is similar to science. However, in scientific discourse, causal explanations generalise, and can often be expressed in mathematical form, such as Newton's laws of motion, or the various gas laws. Scientific laws enable us to make statements like: F = ma. What this means is that if a force of 1 N is applied to a mass of 1 kg, that mass will accelerate at 1 ms-2 in the same direction as the force operates. Such equations can be used to predict the future. 

Causal explanations in history don't generalise in this way, since they concern the motivations of people, and people are vastly more complex that a simple 1 kg mass. We can explain history only retrospectively, and even then such explanations don't easily extrapolate for the deeper past or the future. 

So a historical figure (a figure who possesses historicity) is someone who is described in writing by someone who met them and wrote about it at the time. Such first-hand accounts are referred to as "primary sources". Without primary sources, there is no history.

Popular or general accounts of history may simply narrate the past and rely on secondary sources; that is to say documents written later and/or by people who did not personally witness the events. A good example of this approach is Sally Wriggins' (2004) popular book of Xuanzang's journey to China. Wriggins summarises historical research, sometimes making use of relatively obscure secondary sources, but she does not contribute anything new to our understanding of Xuanzang and does not use any primary sources. This is not the same as historical research which is how we produce new explanations of the past. Wriggins is merely describing a journey, and provides us with no causal explanations for the events she narrates. Wriggins is referred to as "a writer and and lecturer", rather than "a historian". And this is fine. Her book is well-written, very entertaining, and conveys such facts as were considered "known" at the time. But if you want to read critically about Xuanzang, then you need to turn to, for example, the oeuvre of Max Deeg and especially his forthcoming multi-volume commentary on Xuanzang's Records of the West (Dà Táng Xīyùjì 大唐西域記; T 2087). 

Historians take documents as reflecting views at the time of writing, since, even when someone is ostensibly writing about the past, they do so from their own point of view (note that this orientation is at least partly a result of the postmodern critique of History). This is especially true in the ancient Indian world when historical awareness was often lacking. On the other hand, in China, for example, writing and historical awareness both arose much earlier than in India. So I can say with confidence that the oldest Heart Sutra artefact was commissioned on 16 March 661 CE, by Yang Shesheng 楊社生, a minor aristocrat serving in the military with the rank of Guoyi duwei 果毅都尉 (Courageous Commander). Because such things were recorded for posterity in China.

Another basic point is that historians require a fact to be corroborated. A single source does not suffice to write a history. Ideally, in writing a history we have access to multiple primary sources written from different points of view. That said, ancient written documents inevitably reflect the concerns of a literate elite. When Asoka wrote his first edict, there cannot be been more than a handful of literate people within 5000 miles of his capital, Pataliputta. So, while the edicts reflect his views, they are not corroborated by other documentary sources and they are not a general account of the history of India. Rather, they are primary sources that have to be interpreted with care. 

In explaining these simple facts to Buddhists, I have often seen the complaint that this "places far too many restrictions on us". Historians are concerned that their work has integrity. The limitations help to ensure this. That such limitations are routinely ignored by Buddhist Studies scholars is an indictment of the intellectual integrity of the field.

I want to now return to the topic of Pāli and the Buddha. 

—Buddha and Pāli—

No documents were written at the time of the Buddha for the simple reason that writing was not in use at that time, in that place. Writing came into use slightly before Asoka's edicts in the mid-3rd century BCE, but the earliest documents with written texts are the edicts themselves. And the Buddha is supposed to have died ca 400 BCE, if not substantially earlier. For this reason, the Buddha is not a historical figure. This is not at all controversial. Amongst historians, there is no dispute over this. Rather the disputation comes from academic philologers and Buddhist apologists (with considerable overlap) who don't understand the theories and methods of historians.

Presenting this material to Buddhists—especially to (Pāli-worshipping) Theravādins—inevitably raises a storm of protests. Though they don't come right out and say it, the main message seems to be: "How dare you say the Buddha didn't exist?"

But existence and being a historical figure are distinct issues. No one, I think, is denying that the Buddha existed. Given the way that religions work, it is certainly possible that Buddhism had a founder. Indeed, to most historians, a founding figure seems both plausible and likely. Of course, we cannot be certain because there is no documentary evidence of the Buddha during the period in question and no corroboration from other sources. All that we know was part of a religious tradition that was passed down orally for many centuries before being written down, and that by the mid-3rd century, Buddhists attributed their religion to Buddha.

Nor is there any archaeological support for the Buddha. While archaeology confirms that cities such as Sāvatthī and Rājagaha did exist, and when they began to exist, there is no physical sign of Buddhism before Asoka, let alone a person called Buddha.

Much of the dissent is focused on the Pāli suttas. On one side we have a group of positivist-historicists who claim to be able to prove that the Pāli suttas are "authentic" records of the Buddha's teaching from that time. Some on this side are happy to reassert the old Theravāda conceit that the Buddha spoke Pāli (whereas I have argued that we will never know what language the Buddha spoke).

On the other side are historians who point out that the oldest extant Pāli documents are from the 5th century CE. The earliest corroborating evidence for a canon of Pāli texts is also from the 5th century CE. There are much older manuscripts in Gāndhārī and much older texts in China, there is no Indian canon in either place. The Chinese had to curate a canon of their own. So did the Tibetans.

Buddhist myth tells us that the Pāli canon was written down in the first century BCE, but again, this is from sources composed in Sri Lanka in the fifth century CE. As documents, the Pāli suttas are primary sources for 5th-century Sri Lankan Buddhism.

The corollary of this is that, despite the elaborate special pleading, the Pāli texts can tell us little or nothing about "early Buddhism", using the methods that have been adopted. From the historian's point of view, we can date the written Pāli texts to the 5th century CE. And as such the Pāli texts are primary texts for Sri Lankan beliefs in the 5th century, and they are not primary sources for Indian beliefs in the 5th century BCE.

This is not to say that nothing happened in India in the 5th century, or that Indian beliefs were not encoded in this way. Sri Lankan Buddhist converts obviously adopted and developed a form of the Indian religion. But Sri Lankan Buddhism is far from simple or straightforward. Antagonism and competition between the great monasteries is a defining feature of Sri Lankan Buddhism. And in the end the most conservative monastery won out and got to define Sri Lankan Buddhism down to the present. In practice, this involved purging Mahāyāna and Tantric forms of Buddhism which were popular at the time, as well as purging sects of Theravāda that did not conform to the Mahāvihāra ideal. The Pāli texts are not simply Sri Lankan in origin, they are the records of the Mahāvihāra.

Indian Buddhists were already diversifying by this point, but Pāli obscures this on the whole. The Kathavatthu is an exception and shows how much the Theravādins were at odds with other Buddhists about the correct interpretation of the Buddha's doctrines; the disagreements were fundamental and vehement. Buddhists were not unified even at this early stage of Buddhist history (and likely this reflects trends from Buddhist pre-history, though here we enter the realm of speculation).

Historians are bound to respect the epistemic horizon represented by the advent of writing and to remain silent about the history of places and time for which there are no primary sources (such as pre-Asoka India). While historians may indulge in speculation, as we all like to do, historians are bound to make a distinction between what happened, which is unknown, and their speculations about what might have happened.


Buddhists emerge onto the stage of history as members of several related and competing religious movements and alongside some other religious movements with similar methods and concerns. We get a sense of these new religious movements being partly a response to the emergence of relatively belligerent city-states along the middle Ganges Valley, and partly to the influx of Brahmin migrants from the west. Why did Brahmins migrate into lands that they had previously described, e.g. in the Śatapatha Brahmaṇa, in disparaging terms? No one seems to have an explanation for this.

In addition to the two groups of Indic-speaking peoples in the region, North Indian people spoke a range of languages from at least two other families, Dravidian and Munda, as well as many "tribal" languages, which in modern times include a number of language isolates. And Buddhism clearly shows influence from a range of cultures. Yakkhas, for example, are definitely not Indo-European.

As Walters (1998: 247) has said:

Buddhologists, anthropologists, and historians of religion have raised serious doubts about the naïve use of the suttas as sources for reconstructing Theravāda Buddhist history.

The whole idea of early Buddhism emerged from Orientalist, imperialist European scholarship. That it has been taken up by Buddhist Modernists should not distract us from the orientalist nature of the project.

Buddhist Modernists have taken the re-enactment of early Buddhism as the ultimate solution to Buddhists' long-standing over the authenticity of their teachings. In this view, ultimate authority is vested in the person of the Buddha, and in the "records" of his sermons. A living Buddhist authority is thus an expert in Pāli (with a sideline in Chinese and/or Gāndhārī). One can see this being played out in, for example, the remaining Buddhist online forums.

It is interesting that this move to co-opt the scholarly conceit of early Buddhism is paralleled by the widespread emergence of openly enlightened teachers. When I started blogging it was still widely considered a major faux pas to "claim" that one had any kind of attainment (including even first dhyāna). There was a lot of discussion of "claims". Fast forward to the present and many Buddhists now openly talk about enlightenment from their personal experiences. Such Buddhists may or may not refer to Pāli texts, but the point is that they don't need to refer to any text because they know from experience. A sentiment, incidentally, that we find peppered throughout the Pāli suttas but which is mostly downplayed by Modernist Buddhists.

The focus on Early Buddhism has led to a hypostatisation of the idea. This gives agency to an idea and removes it from Buddhists themselves. 

There is no "early Buddhism" apart from what actual Buddhists did and said in that period. Knowledge of this type requires writing. And there was no writing at that time. And of this period we can know little and do know less.

The reconstruction of early Buddhism relies on privileging Pāli suttas that can be read literally and rejecting those that cannot be read literally. A sutta that can be read literally is assumed to reflect history. However, the authors of the suttas did not think this way.

The Buddhism that is reconstructed by this method does not resemble any extant Buddhist tradition. This is partly because Buddhists abandoned early Buddhism in favour of newer doctrines. This is no surprise to anthropologists, but it rather undermines the claim to authenticity that accompanies this reconstruction.

Discussing this with Buddhists is more or less impossible because they are not aware of how historical enquiry works nor what words like "historical" mean in this context. This is reinforced by Buddhist apologists and allies in academia who are also (apparently) ignorant of the methods of the field of History.

There are numerous caveats on using Pāli suttas for historical research. The oldest extant Pāli documents are from the 5th century CE. The idea that they were written down earlier is based on 5th-century Sri Lanka texts. There is no corroboration for a canon of Pāli texts until the 5th century. The impression is that no such canon was known in Gandhāra (where the surviving texts are far more eclectic, and largely standalone or part of smaller collections). The Chinese and Tibetans had to invent their own canons, which they did in very different ways.

There is no archaeological support for the existence of Buddhism until Asoka. And the evidence we get from Asoka is thin at best. Substantial evidence for Buddhism emerges a little later in the form of elaborate stupas with narrative friezes illustrating the Buddha's life story (including Jataka stories). No figure from the Pāli canon has ever been linked to a historical fact or event. Not even the kings are historical figures.

The early Buddhist narrative is largely focussed on valorising Pāli texts, and other texts only when they reinforce the monolithic, hypostatised view of early Buddhism.

Early Buddhism (as currently presented) is a fantasy that is only plausible in ignorance of the theories and methods of history. Having belatedly studied these methods, I find my attitudes have substantially changed. In fact, we know nothing and can know nothing about early Buddhism because there are no primary sources relating to those times and places. Adopting the practice of treating suttas that can be read literally as though they are factual documents, is not consistent with the best practice adopted by historians.

Early Buddhism probably never existed in the form that it is presented, and even if it did exist, we'd have no way of knowing how accurate the portrayal is. What the modern accounts of early Buddhism seem intended to do is to salve the constant anxieties that Buddhists feel about the authenticity and authority of the copies of copies of copies of 5th century Buddhist documents that they have inherited. When one has no personal experience of awakening to fall back on, religious literature takes on a much greater significance as an arbiter of orthodoxy.



Almond, Philip C. (1988). The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge University Press.

Bluck, Robert. (2006). British Buddhism: Teachings, Practice, and Development. Routledge.

Carter, John Ross. (1977). "A History of Early Buddhism". Religious Studies 13(3): 263-287. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20005420

Franklin, Jeffrey J. (2008). The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire. Cornell University Press

Lillie, Arthur. (1881) Buddha and Early Buddhism. London: Trübner & Co.

Strauch, Ingo. (2024). "Aśoka and the Use of Writing in Ancient India". In The Ancient World Revisited: Material Dimensions of Written Artefacts. Edited by Marilina Betrò, Michael Friedrich, and Cécile Michel. De Gruyter.

Walser, Joseph. (2022). "Buddhism without Buddhists? Academia & Learning to See Buddhism Like a State". Pacific World. Series 4, Vol. 4: 103-170. https://www.shin-ibs.edu/documents/pwj4/3/4-3-4-Walser.pdf

Walters, Jonathan S. (1998). Finding Buddhists in Global History. American Historical Association.

Wriggins, Salley Hovey. (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang. (Rev Ed.) Icon Editions, Westview Press.

12 April 2024

Notes on Finding Buddhists in Global History

Jonathan Walters was kind enough to correspond with me and send me a pdf copy of his extended essay in book form: Finding Buddhists in Global History (1998). The book has three chapters

  1. Problematizing the Buddhological Construct
  2. Historicizing the Buddhological Construct
  3. Beyond the Buddhological Construct

Walters is a historian, and thus his work can be bracketed with other historians of Buddhism such as David Drewes, Bernard Faure, Charles Hallisey, Frank Reynolds, Gregory Schopen, and Joseph Walser. All of these historians have been critical of how the history of Buddhism has been handled within Buddhist Studies. Note that the book and its argument are aimed at historians who wish the see Buddhists in their global context. Other approaches to history are available and valid.

What follows are my notes on reading this essay (thus my understanding of Walter's argument). Numbers in parentheses, e.g. (4), are page numbers in Walters 1998. My comments are in [square brackets].

Note that the preface has footnotes but the main text uses endnotes.

Problematizing the Buddhological Construct

The Buddhological Construct is a master narrative of Buddhist history in five key moments:

  1. The historical Buddha founded Buddhism
  2. Early Buddhism
  3. Asoka and general propagation through Asia
  4. Medieval decline
  5. Early modern revival (19th and 20th Centuries)

Within this framework, various Buddhological arguments have raged over:

  1. The dates of the Buddha and the authenticity of the texts
  2. The character of early Buddhism
  3. The chronology of Buddhist missions
  4. The causes of medieval decline
  5. The details of the modern revival

This master narrative was a product of nineteenth-century European colonialism (5). It produced massive overviews of Buddhism [such as Etienne Lamotte's History of Indian Buddhism]. Since then Buddhological scholarship has become increasingly specialized, but it has continued to presuppose the master narrative. Walters is critical of this narrative:

"The Buddhological Construct is a crude and misleading interpretation of the evidence, and we now need to move beyond it... the Buddhological Construct obscures [the global significance of Sri Lankan texts and monuments] with pat generalizations that have little or no relationship to the evidence itself." (4)

Rather than being updated due to more specialized studies that undermine it, the Buddhological Construct has remained in force and become a dogma.

Historicizing the Buddhological Construct

Many of the ideas and concepts that seem basic to Buddhist Studies—such as "Buddhism" and "the historical Buddha"—were invented in the period 1820–1840. By the 1840s Europeans had discovered that Buddhism was a religion, though they saw it as "moribund" [i.e. dead] (8). In the 1850s, Buddhists themselves were challenging the idea that Buddhism was moribund.

19th-century scholars were far from systematic in their approach.

Scholars did not begin by deliberating about what should be asked of the primary evidence, which questions should be answered on the basis of which evidence, nor what sort of evidence it was in the first place. Instead, being thinkers of their age, these scholars dived right into the evidence as though its nature and the questions to which it represented answers should be transparent and obvious. (8).

The Buddhological Construct reflects 19th-century preoccupations. Walters suggests that it "was little more than the extrapolation to Buddhist history of 19th-century Protestant historical self-understanding." (9). So the five key moments of Buddhist history are modeled on a Protestant understanding of the history of Christianity, i.e. founder, original church, missions, decline, and revival (9). The history of Buddhism was shoehorned into this model by 19th-century Buddhologists.

Walters suggests that this outline of history was so ingrained in 19th-century European scholars that it was presupposed before they ever opened a Buddhist text. And the "discovery" of this same pattern in Buddhist history was more or less inevitable. This led to subsequent questions about Buddhist history being framed in the same Christian terms. Walters suggests that Buddhologists and Theologians were concerned with more or less the same questions, with only the names being different. (10)

At the same time, Buddhologists insisted that their methods were "strictly historical", though this relied on "that nineteenth-century oxymoron 'scientific history' (also known as empiricism, historicism, or positivism)" (10). This approach "entailed numerous presuppositions about the nature of historical evidence and historical knowledge."

[I think Walters could have expanded on what these presuppositions were because they are not obvious to me. OTOH, it's obvious, for example, that Wynne (2019), Hinuber (2019), and Levman (2019) are all still operating largely in this 19th-century positivist mode when they write about the "historical Buddha"].

The problem with this is that Buddhist texts were not written with history or historicism in mind. The questions that concerned nineteenth-century scholars were, on the whole, completely unrelated to the concerns expressed by the authors of the Buddhist canonical literature.

This question has led an increasing number of Buddhologists today to argue that we are gravely mistaken to read Buddhist texts as though they had been written by nineteenth-century Europeans. (10)

In a note (41 n.4), the only name that Walters cites is Gregory Schopen, particularly his 1991 article "Archaeology and Protestant Presuppositions in the Study of Indian Buddhism".

[Given the "increasing number" I would have expected more citations here, but see also note 3.]

If Buddhist literature is conceived of as a series of answers to questions, then the questions asked in that literature are utterly unrelated to the questions being asked by 19th-century European historians. Moreover, European historical methods have changed significantly in the meantime. As Walters (11) says: "Our questions, presuppositions, historiographies, and sociopolitical realities are drastically different than those early nineteenth-century European men."

The classic example of this is the mining of Buddhist texts for historical details, while at the same time excluding any and all non-historical details as examples of "self-edification", "bias", "superstition", and appeal to "the psychological needs of the masses" (11). The insistence on this approach, Walters argues, "was rooted in one of the most basic Enlightenment European presuppositions: What I call the imperial dogma of universal human nature." (11).

This involves Europeans taking themselves to be exemplars of universal human nature; and assuming that "all people ask the same basic questions because all people experience the same basic reality in the same basic way" (11). And this goes to explain why European historians saw their own history as paradigmatic of world history.

[This view of history is still prevalent in "scientific" works of history such as Yuval Harari's Sapiens. It is directly challenged by David Graeber and David Wengrow in their book The Dawn of Everything (2021), which makes the argument that European culture is very far from being representative.]

Moreover, the picture of Buddhist history that premodern Buddhist texts do present varies wildly (12). Different Buddhist groups had different ideas about questions such as the dates of the Buddha and never arrived at a consensus (unlike modern scholars). [This section of Walters' essay—Philosophical and Political Problems—is more difficult to follow and understand]

Walters again argues that a majority of Buddhologists have left behind these outdated methods, embracing modern approaches to Buddhist literature and art, while leaving the "historicists" to argue about the details of their anachronistic approach.

[And again, I wish he had thought to provide some evidence to support this sweeping generalization because it's not self-evident].

Walters asserts that the "stale and unresolved debates of 19th-century historicists" effectively stymie efforts to place Buddhist history in a global context. (13)

He then returns to consider the epistemological presuppositions of the Buddhological Construct and the "scientific" paradigm in history.

[The latter is important because both Drewes and his recent detractors refer to taking a "scientific" approach to history.]

Walters makes a strong claim: that "Buddhism" did not exist before the nineteenth century. At one level he is talking about the term "Buddhism", coined by English-speaking scholars. On another, he points out that 19th-century accounts of global history did not see Buddhism as significant. He argues that, around the 18th century, there was a sea change in the way European writers refer to Buddhism and how they see it in a global context. Before this time, Buddhism is seen as serving the agency of Asian kings and their subjects. Afterward, Buddhism becomes a "transcendental essence" (13) with its own agency that followers merely enact. Again this reflects the idea of European Christianity as the model for all religions. As a result, Walters says: "I avoid the term Buddhism whenever possible" (13).

For Walters, the term Buddhism represents a hypostatization of a complex social phenomenon. We see this in phrases such as "Buddhism teaches that life is impermanent and without essence" (14). In this view, "Buddhism" is conceived of as a monolithic agent. Walters would rather that Buddhists, in all their diversity be seen as agents, rather than

[The obvious parallel for me is the routine hypostatization of science, in phrases like "Science says that the supernatural doesn't exist" (which is something I might have said). To my mind, this hypostatization is not peculiar to Buddhism but reflects a general pattern in European thinking. Walters (14) notes the same pattern in religious concepts like God, the Church, and the Holy Spirit as the agents of Christianity].

[I think here Walters is presaging Joseph Walser's (2022) idea of "Buddhism without Buddhists". Walser notes that while scholars assert that "Buddhism teaches anātman", if you go to Buddhist countries and ask Buddhists about this, they (A) have not heard of this doctrine, and (B) assert some kind of doctrine that would be considered ātmavāda.]

Next Walters draws attention to the political consequences of "hypostatization of 'Buddhism' as the agent of Buddhist history" (14). This view sees Buddhists as "passive victims of their own beliefs and practices".

The overwhelming evidence that Buddhist thought and practice were closely tied to political fortunes in separate kingdoms and across the premodern interregnal Buddhist world---Buddhist wars and warriors, Buddhist economies and monopolies, Buddhist courts and diplomacy, royal sponsors of Buddhist activities and Buddhist participants in royal activities---was dismissed as "un-Buddhistic", a mere accretion of what "Buddhism" was essentially supposed to be. (14)

The depoliticization of "Buddhism", or its deliberate dislocation from its socio-political context served the ends of European Christians and politicians. Since where Buddhists were involved in politics, this could be portrayed as a degeneration of the pure religion and contributed to the "decline" narrative.

What Buddhologists did for "empire" (wittingly or unwittingly)—providing its intellectual justification because Buddhist political statements and actions are not really political, or else they are not really Buddhist—they simultaneously did for Christian Mission. Making Buddhist agency into a "religion", showing that Buddhists do not really live up to their own "gospels" and insisting on the decadence and dormancy of contemporary "Buddhism" at that time, all dovetailed quite nicely with missionary goals. (15)

The Buddhological Construct obstructs the historian. It fails to answer historical questions [e.g. What was the relationship of Buddhists to their polity/king?] but it prevents such questions from even being asked by placing them out of bounds.

The invention of Buddhism was thus part and parcel of colonialism, the intellectual counterpart to a military regime that denied the sovereignty of those who were imperialized. (14).

As a historian, Walters is concerned to know how specific Buddhists saw themselves fitting into the world. He's interested in knowing how they saw themselves in relation to competing groups of Buddhists. Was there, in fact, a sense of shared identity amongst Buddhists? And so on. The standard kinds of questions that modern historians ask, but which never seem to have occurred to the scholars who constructed and promoted the Buddhological Construct.

Beyond the Buddhological Construct

For Walters, the way to go beyond the constraints and obstruction of the Buddhological Construct is provided by the British philosopher and archaeologist, R. G. Collingwood. Walters recommends reading An Autobiography and An Essay on Philosophical Methods rather than the better-known The Idea of History (this was published posthumously against Collingwood's wishes and supplemented with one of his student's notes that are "quite out of line with Collingwood's larger systemic writings" (40-41 n. 4)

Walter's essay undergoes a major change in style in this last chapter. The precise criticisms of the formation and application of the Buddhological Construct are replaced by more impressionistic statements about "global history" and "global perspective".

We need to bring a global perspective to bear on each bit of primary evidence we study, rather than to expect to cobble all the bits together into a global perspective. (18)

[This chapter introduces a suite of novel ideas and practices, along with several neologisms for concepts (whether they need them or not). For anyone unfamiliar with Collingwood, which I suspect is the majority of us, the endnotes provide important contextualisation. A lot of these notes could have been included in the body of the text]

Interregnal Buddhism

A term that is important for Walters is interregnal Buddhism (20-23). It is used several times before it is defined (on p. 20), which is confusing for the unfamiliar reader. Interregnal is being used where we might have expected to find international and reflects relations not between modern nation-states but between medieval kingdoms. However, "interregnal" and "global" are somehow not the same thing and the two terms continue to be used.

Walters argues that the societies in which Buddhism thrived, and for which we have primary sources, were kingdoms marked by constantly shifting relations (20). He argues that (unnamed) "orientalists" viewed the changing nature of the political landscape as evidence of disorder. Curiously, here, Walters introduces an emic concept "Buddhists... described change itself as a form of order" (20) and suggests that this is the key to seeing order in ever-changing Asian kingdoms.

At times we are deep in an unfamiliar jargon:

At any particular point in time, this "medieval" Asian world can be understood as a scale of forms being constantly revised across space, within which the entire interregnal Buddhist world... was but one large part. (20)

But what is a "scale of forms"? This is presumably evident to those who know Collingwood. The rest of us have to go back to the Preface and consult footnote 1.

The scale of forms, embodying hierarchical relationships of kind and degree among overlapping classes, is a technical term in R. G. Collingwood's philosophy of history. (xv n.1.)

But there is still more information in the endnotes (44 n 4). Here we find that the term "scale of forms" refers to the way an individual is embedded in overlapping social units:

An individual always acts as a member of a family, a resident of a village or town, a participant in a region or district, a subject-citizen of the king, of the king's circle of allies, and ultimately of the entire world. (44 n.4)

Note that in use, Walters defines "the scale of forms" and in his text "a scale of forms". The former suggests something monistic, the latter something pluralistic. Which is it? It's not clear to me what we gain from using this unfamiliar, rather counter-intuitive, terminology for facts that seem to be self-evident because, for example, I'm familiar with the works of Robin Dunbar, who has attempted to put upper limits on the size of these categories for human societies. Given this, the "scale of forms", which tells us nothing at face value, is a poor choice.

What is the point of this? (Unnamed) "Scholars" who take the view that there is something called "Buddhism" (qua hypostatized transcendental essence with agency) see "Buddhism" as all the claims to be Buddhist. Walters wants to contrast this with his concept of the "interregnal Buddhist world" which is...

a shifting, dynamic context within which Buddhists were the agents of their own history and their essence was contested, to be fully known only on the basis of what particular Buddhists in particular times and places thought and did. (21)

Walters asserts that every individual action reveals its global context (22). For example:

Each particular claim made by whatever particular Buddhist about one of the countless areas of contestation among Buddhists themselves and between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, when taken seriously as an informed action of a self-conscious human mind, reveals its global context wherever and whenever we look for it. (22)

[I think this is similar to my feeling that Buddhist history is written in isolation from world history. For example the periodisation of Buddhism doesn't relate to any periodization of Indian history more generally. Buddhist histories often play down the extent to which Buddhists were still embedded in wider social dynamics. It's almost as though Buddhists existed in a hermetically sealed environment in which external forces play no role. When examining changes in doctrine over time, we see descriptions and generalizations but not explanations: positivists work inductively to produce generalizations; historians work abductively to produce causal explanations.].

On the other hand, Walters notes that most particular Buddhists were not involved in the production of texts and thus we know little or nothing about them (22). This is important because the people who produced texts were an educated elite who could be expected to have a broader interregnal (perhaps even global) perspective of where Buddhists fit into the world.

Shared Paradigms and Opposing Interpretations.

As important as Buddhist interregnal interactions, were intra-Buddhist conflicts in which both sides were "claiming to represent the Buddhist whole". Walters notes that "Buddhist sources greatly disagree on virtually every topic of interest to historians, including the topics that constitute the five key moments of the Buddhological Construct" (23). Note that through this section, Walters works through each of the moments in the Buddhological Construct one by one.

  1. The historical Buddha founded Buddhism
  2. Early Buddhism
  3. Asoka and general propagation through Asia
  4. Medieval decline
  5. Early modern revival (19th and 20th Centuries)

1 & 2. The Buddha and Early Buddhism.

The 19th-century approach to this pluralism was to attempt to adjudicate between them. In practice, this usually meant championing one of the medieval Buddhist polemics. But no evidence from the historical Buddha or early Buddhism as imagined by Buddhologists survives, so there is no historical basis for adjudicating. "Given that none of the evidence survives from the 'historical Buddha' or 'early Buddhism' as imagined by Buddhologists."(23).

Moreover, rather than trying to eliminate the contested nature of Buddhist history, we should be focused precisely on conflict:

When we ask what this contestation was intended to achieve, what rules made it possible, and how it proceeded in any particular instance, we are well on the way to finding Buddhists in global history (23).

Rather than take Buddhists at face value, and a pluralistic community riven by internal and external conflicts, 19th century historians sifted Buddhist documents for the one true Buddhism. Modern historians should focus on those periods for which we have reliable, dateable primary evidence, since the kinds of questions that historians ask can only be answered by documents of how Buddhists thought. And such documents as we have date from the "medieval" period (24).

3. Asoka.

Similarly, with respect to the variety of Buddhist stories about Asoka, Walters asserts

Rather than ask which version [of many] depicts "the historical Ashoka", we should wonder what it meant to be talking about Ashoka at all many centuries after he and his entire empire had crumbled to dust. The global historian should ask: Why did all Buddhists maintain their own version of the Ashoka Maurya story? (24-25)

[It annoys me that people use the Sanskrit form of the name Asoka Moriya, given that we know the man himself communicated in Prakrit and Buddhists did not use Sanskrit until several centuries after his death. Sanskrit in this context is an anachronism at best.]

Walters introduces a spatial metaphor for the five key moments identified as constituting the Buddhological Construct. We should think of these as "sites" (25). He argues "Viewing the five key moments... as key sites in the interregnal Buddhist world is to take seriously the contestation over them." (25). [On 34 Walters confusingly gives a completely different list of "five key sites": see "Conclusion" below]

Rather than focusing on the content of conflicting Buddhist accounts of Buddhism, we should stay with the fact that there were conflicting versions of these stories. Noting that Buddhists have argued amongst themselves about such issues, and trying to explain why, is what should interest the historian. The fact that Buddhists (one-sidedly) recorded intra-Buddhist debates and composed polemics should not be glossed over. 

[No historian would think of taking the approach of adjudicating which of the different Greek myths was the most accurate version of history].

Walters notes that all the various sects tended to claim to be the one true Buddhist path and criticized or even denigrated the others. They vied with each other to be the official representatives of Buddhism. They all claimed that their identity as Buddhists was the only true Buddhist identity. Walters points to a shared paradigm with contested interpretations.

The claim to be Buddhist was always a particular claim about the Buddha; which Buddha claimed was a vital factor in the sociopolitical import of those claims. All others may have lesser or even heretical understandings of the details, but even they share in taking the Buddha as the paradigm of all authentic human existence. (26).

The many contradictory biographies of the Buddha are not "windows into the time of the historical Buddha", which is itself restricted to a brief period in Northern India. Rather, such competing stories reflect medieval Buddhists attempting to define their identity and their place in the world.

As such the Buddhological Construct is not helpful because it projects the global Buddha back in time to "an ultimately irretrievable and decidedly nonglobal situation" (26). The Buddha imagined as a man living during the second urbanization is diminished compared to the medieval Buddha. [Note that this approach is exemplified in Bernard Fuare's (2022) recent book on the life of the Buddha].

In this manner, the Buddhological Construct distracts from one of the most central bodies of evidence we have for reconstructing the roles Buddhists played in global history. (26)

Much the same can be said for the subject of the number and chronology of the Great Buddhist Councils, the contents of the authentic Tripiṭaka. Common standards of ethics and etiquette, common "church" languages, and shared epistemic frameworks (like karma and rebirth) made a broader Buddhist identity possible, and this, in turn, created pan-Asian institutions (like Nālanda), artistic movements, economic exchanges, and the justification for empires (via the idea of the cakravartin). But the study of these well-documented aspects of Buddhist history is minimized by the Buddhological Construct and the focus on "early Buddhism", a non-global history which Walters again refers to as "irretrievable" (27).

Stories about Asoka vary but there is a common core to the story. Asoka presents us with the first global paradigm for a Buddhist ruler. And yet Buddhists contested the details. Walters makes the comparison with different interpretations of the intent of the "founding fathers" of the USA.

...the agreement that there is a (more or less potential) Buddhist imperial claim of which Ashoka is the ordinary paradigm, made championing one's own version of the Ashoka story consequential, generating a potentially imperial prize worth fighting for. (28)

[It's rare to see ancient Buddhists being described in such human terms. It reminds us that they were human beings.]

4. Decline

A similar case can be made for the idea that the Buddhist teachings will one day disappear. Note that this belief seems to have been ubiquitous amongst Buddhists. Again, the details are contested, but the decline narrative is also different from the previous three aspects of the Buddhological Construct. (28)

Ideas like the decline of Buddhism became more prominent when Buddhists felt their world to be in decline, be it a natural disaster, military invasion, or a loss of status for the saṅgha under a non-Buddhist king (and most kings in Indian history were not Buddhist), or simply a perception of declining standards of morality within the saṅgha.

Walters argues that all these kinds of calamities tended to make Buddhists unite (rather the disagree). He notes that a sense of decline in China drove Chinese Buddhists to visit India, where they witnessed the decline of Indian Buddhism. However, he also asserts that Buddhist kingdoms often existed in relative isolation from each other:

The main reason for disagreements in Buddhist accounts of the Dharma's decline may be a lack of much interaction of any kind. Buddhist kingdoms became entities unto themselves, exercising the potential political agency of the claim to be Buddhist, if at all, only in the limited region. (29)

[This is by far the weakest point in the article. Walters begins by arguing that the Buddhological Construct reflects 19th-century preoccupations. But now he tells us, and I agree, that the decline of the Dharma is a pan-Buddhist concern over an extended period of time, and as well as leading to the usual divergent accounts, it also led to a kind of trans-sectarian unity in the face of a common enemy].

5. Revival

The last plank in the Buddhological Construct is the revival of Buddhism beginning in the 19th century. This revival is conceived as coming out of the blue: "it has no premodern precedent" (29). The putative "revival" supposedly takes the same form as revivalist Protestant Christian movements from 19th-century Europe and the USA. In fact, we "are hard-pressed to find any premodern counterpart" (30). In essence

The revival of Buddhism is thus the impossible revival of something ("Buddhism" itself) that did not previously exist. (29)

This reflects Walters' earlier contention that "Buddhism" per se was an invention of the 19th century.

On the other hand, Walters argues that the changes we see in Buddhist doctrine and practice in this period reflect attitudes that are evident in the earliest evidence: Buddhists asserting that they are the Buddhists.

"Revivals" of the premodern sort did not just happen; rather, the powerful complex agents consisting of kings, courtiers, monks, and nuns set out to make them happen, articulating and effecting the particular shared vision of the interregnal Buddhist world, and their own place within it, which proved true at the particular place and time in the interregnal Buddhist world in which they found themselves. (30)

The point seems to be that Buddhists were constantly evaluating their attitudes and practices and changing them in response to changing conditions. Buddhists have pursued "revivals" throughout global history, and these have to be understood in their own context. Walters again emphasizes that change is not random or imposed on Buddhists by "Buddhism" qua "transcendental essence". Agency resides in people, not institutions.

Changes were made not as an inevitable result of creeping "Jesuitism" but as a result of reasoned argument, multireligious debate, political realism, enforced submission, and wished for and realized power. Human agency, Buddhist agency, made such "revivals" happen. (31).



Walters' concern throughout is with global history, the broadest view of human history. Buddhists clearly played an important role in this history. But the study of Buddhists in global history is hampered by the insistence on the 19th-century imperialist Buddhological Construct because so much effort goes into shoring it up and the results tell us nothing about global history.

He contrasts the Buddhological Construct with the records left by Chinese pilgrims who visited India.

The Chinese pilgrims cataloged the interregnal Buddhist world as a system of overlapping pictures of the whole—the whole Buddha's corpse and its worship, the whole sangha and its divisions, the whole potential empire and its constituent kingdoms—whose landmarks were the actual stupas, monasteries, and royal courts that the visited and described. (34)

From the pilgrim's accounts, we can say that Buddhist identity is twofold: to the outside world, Buddhists typically present as members of a single unified religion. At the same time, amongst themselves, Buddhists incessantly debate and negotiate what it means to be "Buddhist".

[There is a confusing use of "five key sites" on p 34 that are not the "five key sites" of the Buddhological Construct. But when "the five keys sites are mentioned again on p.35, it seems that the original set is indicated]

To understand the role of Buddhists in global history we have to take this into account. However, the global context is seldom so explicit. And recovering it is not easy. For his part, Walters endorses the view of Collingwood.

We cannot access the past; we can only imagine it, which is an activity of the present that will be as rich or poor as the imaginations of the historians who engage in it. (35)

Walters tries to address a potential criticism by stating that the Buddhological Construct is also a product of the imagination.

[The Buddhological Construct] is an interpretation of the very same evidence that all Buddhologists now know, and from the perspective of global history, it is not a particularly believable or well-thought-out interpretation at that. (35)

For Collingwood, according to Walters, the only hard facts that historians have are artifacts. The rest is a matter of interpretation. Collingwood's approach is not the only one, but it is a lot better than the "dead-end" Buddhological Construct. Moreover, not everyone need be concerned with global history. But for those who are concerned with seeing the place of Buddhists in global history, this approach allows primary sources to suggest answers to our questions. This is in contrast to the Buddhological Construct which aims to limit which questions can be asked and to provide standardised answers to those questions.

Still the global cannot simply be reduced to the particular and vice versa. One has to see the stupa both as a reflection of Buddhist soteriology and as a product of the (usually royal) patronage that paid for it. Building a stupa to worship has global ramifications.

Buddhist philosophy was both a quest for truth and a quest for power, each quest making the other more pressing; religious experiences were not only transcendent human realities but also self-conscious enactment of human agency, even on a global scale. (37)



Walters' essay makes a compelling case for rejecting the (19th century) establishment view of Buddhist history which hypostatizes Buddhism, giving it agency over Buddhists. He makes the case that agency resides in human beings; in this case, in Buddhists themselves. And that Buddhists were in constant dialogue with both non-Buddhists and other Buddhists over what it meant to be Buddhists.

Buddhists have played an important role in global history, but this role is effectively obscured and the history of Buddhists has been cut off from the global context by the imposition of the Buddhological Construct by 19th century imperialists.

That said, I think Walters (writing in 1999) has missed the extent to which reconstructing "early Buddhism" has become a Buddhist project, with prominent Theravāda bhikkhus and Tibetan Lamas taking leading roles within academia. The infiltration of Buddhist Studies by religious Buddhists since Walters composed this essay has only further entrenched certain biases and fallacies. While not entirely in sympathy with their imperialist predecessors, they nevertheless use the idea in the classic way that Walters describes: that is to say they use the construct of "early Buddhism" to mount a defence of an original "pure" teaching and claim to be representatives and defenders of that original teaching.

Rather than the idealized picture of unified Buddhism that Buddhists themselves present to non-Buddhists, historians should pay attention to what Buddhists were saying about each other in writing. And the most reliable sources we have are "medieval" (or at least post-Asoka).

I noted that Walters can be bracketed with other historians, amongst whom there has been a paradigm shift away from the Buddhological Construct and arguments based on it. Amongst the things these historians insist on is that a "primary source" is a first-hand account, written down by someone who lived through the events in question. There are no such sources for Buddhism before Asoka. Importantly, the idea of "early Buddhism" also known as "primitive Buddhism" is an invention of the non-Buddhist European scholars who first presented Buddhism to a modern European audience. (My next blog post will be a deeper exploration of this issue).

Whether or not Walter's use of Collingwood's ideas and the associated jargon moves us forward is moot. Looking at citations of Walter's essay I don't see any great enthusiasm for Collingwood.

For me, the great value of this long essay is that it speaks in a new voice about a new paradigm for doing Buddhist history that actually takes historical theories and methods into account. In the last few months, it has become apparent to me that this is rare in Buddhist Studies. Many of the combatants in the conflict over the historicity of the Buddha, for example, seem to have no idea that their methods are at odds with the whole field of history (see my critique of Levman 2019, which is representative of the positivist-historicist approach).

Ironically, this whole conflict, while being mainly carried on by people with doctorates in Buddhist Studies or Philology, pivots on approaches to history—primary sources, corroboration, etc—that are taught explicitly in high school, and have become background assumptions even in undergraduate history courses. Countering the Buddhological Construct in terms of (the field of) History is difficult because historians are not interested in publishing high-school level critiques of their professional colleagues in Buddhist Studies, and those professionals in Buddhist Studies are not interested in History because it contradicts their articles of faith (which combine religious and scholarly conceits).

I am already following up on some of the recommended reading and processing the change in paradigm that is demanded by paying attention to historians. What I found during this exercise is that it deflated my belief that we know anything about "early Buddhism". I've come around to seeing arguments over early Buddhism as an imperialist European conceit.


Faure, Bernard. (2022) The Thousand and One Lives of the Buddha. University of Hawai'i Press.

Graeber, D. and Wengrow, D. (2021). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Everything. Allen Lane.

Harari, Yuval Noah. (2011). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random House.

Schopen, Gregory. (1991). "Archaeology and Protestant Presuppositions in the Study of Indian Buddhism". History of Religions Journal 31(1): 1-23. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1062872

Walser, Joseph. (2022). "Buddhism without Buddhists? Academia & Learning to See Buddhism Like a State". Pacific World. Series 4, Vol. 4: 103-170. https://www.shin-ibs.edu/documents/pwj4/3/4-3-4-Walser.pdf

Walters, Jonathan S. (1998). Finding Buddhists in Global History. American Historical Association.

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