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Buddha on the Thames: Buddhist Studies in Europe and the UK

Buddhism is still very much a minority religion in London. Interest in Buddhism began with Wesleyan missionaries and preachers of other denominations, who sought to expand their knowledge of the Dharmic religion in order to contest and debunk it in the eyes of its believers. This desire to learn Buddhism for the sake of converting Buddhists often credited their scholarship and writing little legitimacy by modern standards. Fortunately, this sinister agenda was not successful on the whole, and does not hold water in higher studies about one of India’s greatest religions.

Academia is now different in Europe as a whole. When it comes to Buddhist Studies in the United Kingdom, the isles have produced a line of scholars who have made very important contributions. Among many are Peter Harvey, Paul Williams, Richard Gombrich, and Damien Keown. These four have produced seminal works that have been made into foundational textbooks for aspiring scholars in Buddhism. While not every Buddhist scholar is a Buddhist (to my knowledge Williams is a Catholic whilst Keown and Gombrich have disassociated themselves from formal Buddhism), contributions from many have been significant in advancing contemporary Buddhist studies for successive generations of students.

Buddhist Studies is many things. It is the critical (the application of critical theory) study of all facets of the Buddhist story, including its philosophy (epistemology and logic, metaphysics, and ethics), its teachings and doctrines, its history and languages, and its importance in contemporary debates and action about poverty, hunger, environmental degradation, human rights, bioethics, and more. Essentially, it is an extremely rich, deep, and fertile field of studies, one which is inexhaustible in the wealth of intellectual and spiritual rewards it offers its students. It is the study of the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom and his love for all beings. This is perhaps what drew scholars like Max Muller in a bygone age, who loved Buddha and admired Buddhist ethics with the critical precision of a true university scholar. This heritage persists in England through several universities (most famous amongst them the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), where learning in languages and tireless research forms the modern British spirit of approaching Buddhism.

Thanks to critical studies in religion, a diversity and multiplicity of opinions have been able to express themselves with careful deliberation, argument, and research. This had been proliferating in England during the dominance of Christianity, with theologians at home (like William Connor Magee) as well as on the Continent (such as Bultmann and Kierkegaard) bringing new dimensions of religious thinking into the Christian story – some of which advanced its thought into the modern age whilst simultaneously challenging the old ways of thinking about God, Jesus Christ, and the Church. By the turn of the 1960’s, persuasive writers like Thomas Merton (who was baptized in the Church of England but converted to Catholicism) were passionately arguing for the unity of different religious believers and deeply interested in the moral harmony between religions. The era of interfaith dialogue has now descended from the academic level to a more practical one, but Merton’s words about the relationship between Zen and Christianity are still striking to this day:  

In other words, we begin to divine that Zen is not only beyond the formulations of Buddhism but it is also in a certain way “beyond” (and even pointed to by) the revealed message of Christianity. That is to say that when one breaks through the limits of cultural and structural religion – or irreligion – one is liable to end up, by “birth in the Spirit,” or just by intellectual awakening, in a simple void where all is liberty because all is the actionless action, called by the Chinese Wu-wei and by the New Testament the “freedom of the Sons of God.” Not that they are theologically one and the same, but they have at any rate the same kind of limitlessness, the same lack of inhibition, the same psychic fullness of creativity, which mark the fully integrated maturity of the ‘enlightened self’ (Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 8).

Europe (and the rest of the world) has come a long way since “Sanskrit-mania” gripped the Continent, for many reasons aside from Orientalism and the obsession with linking the Vedic Aryans to Western peoples. I think London and the United Kingdom as a whole is uniquely placed to continue moving Buddhist Studies forward, because the worst is behind us for now. Perhaps this is the beautiful thing about England – that it just “gets on with it?” There is a certain nonattachment about the wounds and glories of the past here – and that is ironically very Buddhist!

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