In 1995 Donald Lopez, Jr., published an edited collection of essays, Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism (University of Chicago). That collection marks a turning in the academic study of Buddhism. Although there were other works prior to this that had begun to shift toward self-conscious critical reflection on the study of Buddhism (such as Gregory Schopen, “Archeology and Protestant Presuppositions in the Study of Indian Buddhism” History of Religions 31.1, Aug. 1991; and contemporaneously, the 1995 issue of the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, “On Method“), Lopez’s collection of essays gave coherence and urgency to the issues involved in thinking about how the academic study of Buddhism has developed to date, and encouraged consideration of how it should develop henceforth. Today, two decades later, the theoretical and methodological work of reflection still proceeds, despite academic inertia and an all-too-human resistance to change.
The rise of commodified Buddhism has almost created a new specialization, that of the study of Buddhism in the context of globalized market capitalism. One worthy example of this is the use of “Zen” in marketing a variety of products, which is the subject of the blog Zensanity, by Megan Bryson (University of Tennessee)—go there, take a look, have a laugh. The papers introduced below are largely representative of this study of “commodified Buddhism.”
A look back at the contents of Lopez’s collection, however, suggests another important dimension to this study. That is the way in which capitalism, particularly in its contemporary globalized form, is reconfiguring academic conceptions of Buddhism as an object of study. Reflection on the sociology of knowledge in the formation of Buddhism as an object of academic study is not simply academic “navel-gazing” as some cynics might facilely object. As Peter Gottschalk points out “Although interregional contact, trade, and intellectual exchange have flourished for millennia, an unparalleled epistemic order now dominates the globe. The European empires that simultaneously existed between the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries slowly forged a hegemonic intellectual system that suffuses much, if not most, of the planet in the twenty-first century” (Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India, Oxford, 2013: 5). Of the papers below, the study by Charles Orzech (University of Glasgow) is the one that takes this approach most clearly.
and now on to the academic update—
Two panels at the American Academy of Religion conference this year (San Diego, 22–25 Nov, 2014) addressed issues of the relations between Buddhism and capitalism. The first, under the auspices of the Buddhism section chaired by Lori Meeks and Christian Wedemeyer, titled “Buddhism and Capitalism: Religious Economies in Modernizing Asia,” looked at four different instances of encounters between the two from mid-nineteenth century Burma, to early modern Japan, to revolutionary-era Mongolia, to contemporary Japan.
The second, under the auspices of the Buddhism in the West group chaired by David McMahan, “Buddhism, Capitalism, and Consumer Culture,” focused on contemporary instances.