Buddhism or Buddhisms? Rhetorical consequences of geo-political categories
Richard Payne | August 13, 2012
The categorization of Buddhism along geo-political lines is perhaps the most common organizing principle today. It also tends to be accepted uncritically. Thus we find, without explanation, such expressions as “Indian Buddhism,” “Tibetan Buddhism,” “Chinese Buddhism,” “Burmese Buddhism,” and so on. These categories predominate not only in popular representations of Buddhism, such as the Buddhist magazines, but also in textbooks of both “world’s religions” and of Buddhism, in academic societies, and publishing, and perhaps the most durable entrenchment, in academic appointments (full disclosure, my own title is that of Professor of “Japanese Buddhism”). The general absence of discussion regarding contemporary geo-political divisions as the organizing principle for the field of Buddhist studies, much less its justification, suggests implicitly that dividing the field along these lines is unproblematic — that it is a simple reflection of things just as they are. Naturalized in this way, the categories become hegemonic, molding both decisions regarding research and the ways in which research is presented. The category system and its consequences need to be consciously evaluated, either so that they may be used with more nuance, or replaced with less problematic and (one hopes) more intellectually productive ones.
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