Fictional ‘Protestant Buddhism’


BY Dr. Susantha Goonatilake

A few weeks ago, Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe wrote in The Island an article - really an appeal - asking that the flawed invention by Obeyasekara and Gombrich, titled ‘Protestant Buddhism’, be retracted. This referred to the absurd claim that during the Buddhist revival against Protestantism, Buddhism changed to become ‘Protestant’. Wickremasinghe mentions that Vijitha Rajapakse and Michael Ames opposed this Protestant fiction and Bond supported it.

Let me recall that Wickremasinghe’s article is about how a Western cult namely Protestantism had a rogue development in Sri Lankan anthropology denigrating facts of the Buddhist revival of the colonial period. This in some ways was partially reminiscent of Max Weber’s take on Protestantism. Weber had implied that non-Protestant countries like those in Asia could not develop. But today, one hundred years after Weber’s views, we are witnessing a civilisational shift towards Asia. Rejecting Weber, Asian countries have today become industrialists to the world and the West.

Obeyesekera et al ignored the large amount of Buddhist literature translated since the 19th century as part of the Buddhist revival and exported to the Western world. This was mostly through the Royal Asiatic Society, the Pali Text Society and their connected networks with more than 40 scholar monks of the country. Obeyesekera was twisting the anti-Protestant Buddhist revival to its cultural opposite. The revival was but a continuing cultural resistance begun after repeated attacks by European colonialists on Buddhism after the early 16th century. The revival was thus but a ‘natural’ attempt to regain the country’s dominant culture which had existed since the third century BCE.

Although Wickremasinghe mentions only Bond as a follower of Obeyasekara’s fictional ‘Protestant’ Buddhism, there were other ‘Protestant Buddhism’ followers like Brow, Holt, Kapferer, Malalgoda , Mcgowan, Prothero, Roberts, Spencer and Stirrat, to name but a few others. And of those who objected to this new missionary position was also Guruge, who long before the invention of Protestant Buddhism fiction published nearly 1,500 pages of raw correspondence of the Buddhist revival between us and Westerners. The absurdity of the alleged Protestant influence on Buddhism is very easily seen in Guruge’s and others’ primary documentation.

Further, Olcott and Blavatsky, the Theosophists, who according to Obeyasekara allegedly brought this ‘Protestantism’, were those who most angrily rejected Protestantism. And these Theosophists beseeched in their letters to our monks "to save them" - their exact words - from Christianity. This supplicant appeal was after they had read reports of the debate with Protestant Christians at Panadura. In the US, not only during the time of Olcott but also at the present, such blatant fabricators of ‘Protestant Buddhism’ would be called "snake oil salesmen".

The article by Kamal Wickremasinghe reminded me immediately of an urgent request by the late Venerable Bellanwila Wimalaratne, which I hurry up with a Sri Lankan edition of my book "Anthropologizing Sri Lanka: A Civilizational Misadventure" where among others I covered, in detail, this Protestant fiction. The book published several years ago by an American university publisher was sold out in a few months. The request by the monk was about four months before the Venerable Thera’s unfortunate death. And a few years earlier, to urge me he had even written an introduction to the Sri Lankan edition. But the delay was entirely mine, because going back to a book one has already written is painfully boring.

Each time the Thera went to London, he would go to the library of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and check on the recent books on Sri Lanka. Both he and I had used that library in our PhD studies as did my wife who did her PhD at SOAS. All his library visits were painful because the books that he saw on Sinhalese Buddhists were untruthful and very negative, very unlike the many positive books during our British occupation and immediately afterwards. Realizing that the lack of exposure to centres of excellence like SOAS had led to our academics not being able to correct this mischief, I appealed to several heads of tertiary education to send our academics abroad, but to no avail.

Although practitioners in the Sri Lankan anthropology’s colonial direction would have been annoyed by my book, there were two Western intellectual responses in the public sphere. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)’s Phillip Adams in his popular nearly half hour ‘Late Night Live’ programme, astonished at my findings, asked how these distortions by Obeyesekera and others could be made. My reply related to how these books are not properly read even in Sri Lanka’s social science departments. In the second instance, Lingua Franca the American Journal on academic matters had a special feature on my book titled "Sri Lankan Showdown", where both Obeyesekera and I were interviewed on the book. Obeyesekera had no real defence and only said that he had not read the book, which I believe was not true.

Anthropologists had once written disparagingly of Sub-Saharan African and similar non-literate societies which did not have the sophisticated written thought systems that we had. Yet after their independence in the 1960s, African and similar countries, soon began to denounce anthropologists and threatened to chase them away considering anthropology and anthropologists as ‘handmaidens of imperialism’. So what Dr. Wickremasinghe has now described is how a local had tried to spread negative and false views on us as did the colonisers of Africa.

Obeyesekera was working in Peradeniya when he wrote his ‘Protestant’ perversion, claiming that the deeply anti-Protestant Theosophists like Olcott brought in Protestant ideas. But in the nearby city of Kandy, a veritable transformation in the West’s view of Buddhism was occurring because of a continuation of the work in the Western coast in the 19th and early 20th century. This was primarily through translations of the excellent Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) of Kandy founded in the 1950s. This publication society was started with connections to Germans who had become Buddhist monks in a Sri Lankan monastery at the beginning of the 20th century. The dates of this important German monastery in Sri Lanka, we should note was almost exactly around the time that the other German, Max Weber was writing his ethnocentric material on Buddhism and other non-Western belief systems and giving primacy to his Protestantism. Protestantism was the Christian cult found in Weber’s part of Germany.

While Obeyasekara was on his anthropology pilgrimage, there were others like Ralph Peiris who were writing more objectively on Sinhalese society. But shorn of its scientifically unprovable material like views on an afterlife, Buddhism however has material on the human condition based on observation and philosophy, just like anthropology claims to have. It was this material on the human condition that was being exported from Kandy at the time this new colonizing Protestantism was being invented by a few colonised minds at Peradeniya. Part of this BPS cultural export eventually resulted in psychotherapeutic uses such as the medical use of Buddhist meditation, which has been shown to be far more effective than the practices of a Sigmund Freud. However, Obeyesekera precisely at the time that Freud was being thus rejected in Western medical circles had also wanted to use Freud’s grubby theories on Sri Lankan history.

We should here note that in 1835, McAuley wrote his notorious minute in India that there were no historical writings in South Asia and that a single shelf of European literature was better than all South Asian literature. A more recent Englishman, Charles Allen, who has written on the British discovery of both the Buddha and Emperor Asoka, has noted how the translation of the Mahavamsa radically changed this view. That translation gave the early history of India as well as explained the new archaeological findings of the then British India. No need of Freud.

As Freud’s perverted ghost was being excised out of Western psychology, two Western psychologists who had studied our material in Kandy come to mind. One is R.D. Laing with his two influential books The Divided Self and The Self and Others and the other Daniel Goleman, who wrote the important book Emotional Intelligence. But Goleman’s first book was published in Kandy, in which he writes of the Visuddhimagga, (the fifth century Anuradhapura classic), as a map to the mind. Unfortunately, Obeyesekera and his ‘Protestants’ have not read any of this literature

This mindset of internalised colonialism has been described by many, including in Frantz Fannon’s The Wretched of the Earth or Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized - books published several decades ago.The serious question we now have to ask is why Sri Lankan universities, including those who have Buddhist Studies Departments still accept in their social science syllabi not only the ‘Protestant’ distortions of the more serious Weber but nearer to hand, that of Obeyesekera and his followers.

Unfortunately, clearing up such discrepancies require discussions in formal academic settings such as academic associations. There are, however, no functioning sociology associations in Sri Lanka although over the decades I had tried my best to advocate for, and sponsor two such organisations. They do not meet.

The effect of no platform hit me starkly while writing my anthropology book when I visited the Colombo University’s Sociology Department. I asked its then head whether she had read this anthropology literature on Sri Lanka and whether she and her colleagues agreed with their contents. Her reply was simple, namely that her department had no money to buy those books. I then said that I would buy all the existing anthropology, related books on Sri Lanka (amounting then to tens of books). In addition, I said I would buy any such book that would appear in the coming decade. I however had a condition, namely that when such a book would come to her department, they would have a discussion on it, which is a normal practice in other academic milieus. I also requested her to invite me to the discussions if I was around. Unfortunately, there were no takers for my offer.

Buddhist revival in the late 19th and early 20th century, which Obeyasekara and others described as a Protestant incursion, occurred when we were under a Protestant country, namely the UK. This article is being written while travelling in the US and a few instances illustrate how this country with a Protestant majority is changing. In New York, I visit a large branch of Barnes and Noble, the largest national bookstore chain in the US. Strolling to the magazine section I am surprised at finding the "Mindful" magazine devoted to Buddhist meditation. At the Washington airport and later at the Houston’s Hobby airport, I discover the book "Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment" by the evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright. This book I notice has been on The New York Times bestseller list. Its blurb says that it ignores the supernatural, and examining it, I noticed that most of its contents on meditation could have come straight from Visuddimagga. And in Houston part of the archconservative south, and deeply Christian (Catholic, Protestant, even Ethiopian) I walk to the checkout counter of the local supermarket. Those who are familiar with magazines sold at US checkout counters would know that they are mostly gossip and celebrity trash targeted at the under educated, whites. I notice an anomaly in the form of a special issue of the news magazine "Time" titled "The New Mindfulness", which is reporting on the many benefits of meditation.

The word ‘mindful’ was invented by the translator of Pali Buddhism Rhys Davids in consultation with Sinhalese monks. The initial Buddhist thrust In the US was not spoken by the mystical Theosophists like Olcott but by Dharmapala's lectures. The big Buddhist push came after World War II when Americans had first-hand experience in Japan and so became involved with Zen. This resulted in a major impact on American literature in the 1950s and 1960s by the so-called Beat Generation. This Zen adventure was followed by the Tibetan impact mainly through the followers of the Dalai Lama. These two traditions were essentially later developments of early Buddhism. In-between, about 20 years ago, my wife took me to a New York University event on feminism where the event centred around the Therigatha as the world’s earliest collection of feminist poetry, written, we should note, by Bhikkhunis starting from the time of the Buddha

But what is occurring today in the mindful field was a return to the study of texts like the Visuddimagga exported from Sri Lanka from the 19th century and since the mid-1950s through the BPS of Kandy. So one might say that in the educated Western imagination (but not in anthropology) the perverse fiction of Protestant Buddhism was not having an impact. But unfortunately, it does feed the anti-Sri Lankan ethnic studies industry.

At the time of the critique of anthropology in the post-independence era, there was also evidence of the use of foreign connected anthropologists to spy on the local population on behalf of the US. Some anthropologists were actively working to disarm the morale and confidence of the population. One book related to this genre, not necessarily by spies is the locally published Unmaking the Nation. It made the preposterous claim that Anuradhapura was discovered for us only by foreigners and that the Mahavamsa was an imagined history. The pro-colonial local authors who wrote that did not have the sense of a Geiger, Charles Allen and the like who found that the Mahavamsa was the most reliable historical document in South and South East Asia. They also did not know that the memory of Anuradhapura resonated widely among the Sinhalese and that popular gathas like on the atamasthana and solosmasthana celebrated key buildings of the ruined capital. The authors, however, are not yet in the mold of Cold War spy anthropologists of the US, who were determined to destroy other countries.

But there is one, who perhaps fits the bill. He is a key gatekeeper in selecting academics and potential academics moving between the US and Sri Lanka. At a meeting in the Department of English of our Open University, he made the atrocious and false claim that "international scholarship, particularly that produced at elite institutions, in the West, had moved away from the nation as a category of analysis". He further added that he was writing a new history for Sri Lanka taking those changes into account. And to support him, another white in the audience went up to the mike and said that in Rogers’ new history book he should expunge references to Dutu Gemunu. The latter King we should note is also a central figure as a hero in the historical chronicles of South East Asia. The audience appeared mesmerized (meaning looking dumb and not dumbfounded).

I walked up to the mike and reminded him that the US, his own country, had by far the largest military presence in the world. And of the very many Western countries I had lived in, it was the most nationalist. And that, contrary to the rubbish that he preached to us, leading US universities were the ones getting the most defence funds to bolster the American nation and its massive empire. America was hardly antinationalist - just the opposite.

There was a Sri Lanka Studies Conference operating in the West where foreigners writing on Sri Lanka would come together. This group had a meeting in India in Jaipur, where none of the founding Westerners attended. At my suggestion, the next meeting was held in Sri Lanka at the Ruhuna University and later in the Open University, but again no Westerners attended. Kelaniya University then arranged for a meeting at Portsmouth University in the UK and this, too, was boycotted by the Westerners. The only conclusion was that they did not want to interact with local academics who might contradict some of their fairytales.

The world is rapidly changing towards Asia and we must be a part of that development. To do that, we must have self-confidence and not the supine attitude fed to us. Unfortunately, we are not practising the "science" part of social science. Science grows only by rejecting fiction.

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