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All is Change

A book review by Andrew May

First published in The Middle Way, February 2007

ALL IS CHANGE: The two-thousand year journey of Buddhism to the West, by Lawrence Sutin. Little, Brown & Company, New York, 2006. ISBN 0 316 74156 6, pp. 406, 19.99 (hardback).

In spite of its subtitle, this book spans some two and a half millennia of history, documenting the various interactions that have occurred during this period between Buddhist and Western culture. Even during the Buddha's lifetime, in the 5th and 6th centuries BCE, there were established links between India and Greece, although there is little evidence of significant philosophical dialogue in either direction. The most famous incident, the conversion of King Menander of Bactria recounted in the Milindapanha, is probably nothing more than a legend.

While it is difficult to prove that any interaction with the West took place during Buddhism's first thousand years, there is plenty of scope for speculation. Did Buddhist ideas find their way into Neoplatonism and Gnosticism? Did early Buddhist iconography borrow elements from Greek art, and was the emergence of the Pure Land school influenced by Nestorian Christianity? Such speculations, while intriguing, generally remain minority views among academics.

The sad fact emerges that, for century after century, the West had no interest in interacting with Buddhism in any way at all -- it simply wanted to eradicate it wherever possible and replace it with Christianity. The book contains a fascinating chapter on the Jesuit mission to Japan, and its rather bewildered encounters with Zen and other forms of Buddhism.

The first faltering attempts by Westerners to understand Buddhism did not come until the eighteenth century, with the rise of what at the time was known as "orientalism". In its early years the movement was driven more by enthusiasm than serious research -- with, for example, Sir William Jones (1746 - 94) declaring excitedly that "Stonehenge is evidently one of the temples of Boodh".

Wild theories were gradually replaced during the course of the 19th century by more careful scholarship, through the efforts of such people as the Frenchman Eugene Burnouf, the German Max Muller and the Englishman T.W. Rhys Davids. At the same time, mainstream European philosophy was developing a growing disenchantment with Christianity, and a new breed of "atheist" philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell began to profess a greater sympathy for Buddhism (though not always coupled with a deep understanding of the subject). By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Buddhism was starting to enter Western popular culture, with works such as The Light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold, Kim by Rudyard Kipling and Siddharta by Herman Hesse.

It was during the 20th century that Western Buddhism underwent the transition from abstract academic subject to religious practice. Roughly the second half of the book is concerned with the various forms taken by this practice, with particular emphasis on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. There is a tendency in this part of the book to interpret "the West" as "the United States", although our own Buddhist Society does get a brief mention (and The Middle Way is described as an "influential journal").

This is a book of enormous scope, and Lawrence Sutin has done a commendable job in covering as many topics as he has in the space available. Sutin is not a professional historian or religious scholar, and his treatment of some subjects may strike experts as glib or superficial. However, this is a book about breadth, not depth, and it provides a fascinating narrative for anyone interested in the various ways that disparate cultures interact with each other.

Copyright © 2007 Andrew May

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