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Colloquium on Asian religions | Buddhism and Fetish: How the Western academic world must be more than a bystander to the 21st Century’s Emerging Buddhisms

When:Mo 27-10-2014 16:00 - 17:30
Where:Oude Boteringestraat 38, Groningen

Speaker: Dr. David Webster (University of Gloucestershire)

On first glance religious Orientalism seems to be the European intellectual fetish that refuses to die, to take the post-colonial discourse to heart. In the case of Buddhism it seems steadfastly fixed and unlikely to shift. Certain recent developments are instructive in demonstrating and understanding this. The first is the Mindfulness movement: be it in it claims to be a mental-health panacea, a source-book for faintly anti-consumerist smugness, or the rising backlash from - notably - Western Buddhism (broadly defined) itself. The second is the dismay at Buddhist fundamentalism/extremism, as typified by the 969 Movement, Wirathu, et al. Here we see a mirror, albeit with an altered refraction, of the unedifying spectacle of George Bush and Tony Blair telling Muslims the ‘true’ meaning of Islam was peace. In this case, we find Western academics (often non-Buddhist ones) telling Thai Monks that they don’t really understand what the Buddha meant. We even find an edge of resentment at Really Existing Buddhism’s refusal to be what we imagine/want it to be for us.

               This paper will work through these cases, before trying to stumble towards a controversial conclusion - and one rooted in Buddhist philosophy itself. I will posit that there can be no such thing as an authentic form of Buddhism anyway - and that the craving for authenticity is the real fetish here. The paper will argue that the true post-colonial response is not to ‘leave the changes to the actual Buddhists in “real” Buddhism; scholars can study from a conceptual and geographical distance’: but to really engage. This is to acknowledge privilege, difference and context - but still be ethically driven to take positions, condemn behaviours, take ethical stances and acknowledge that we, scholars, are also active players in this drama and that the stance of disinterested observer is both intellectually dishonest and ethically dangerous.