Seeking Sakyamuni

South Asia in the Formation of Modern Japanese Buddhism

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Richard M. Jaffe
Buddhism and Modernity
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , May
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Is Buddhism an essentially Western invention? How does modernity transform Buddhism in Asia and the West? Do Asian Buddhists have a voice to speak for Buddhism? Which role do intra-Asian engagements have in generating new Buddhisms in Asia? Richard M. Jaffe persistently tries to add complexity to these questions by emphasizing that translocality, globality, and circularity of modern Buddhism represent a field of modern religion which is still underexamined. Seeking Śākyamuni adds to this field a historical analysis of Japanese Buddhist travelers between the late 19th and the mid-20th centuries.

Why did Japanese travelers come to South Asia? In investigating the relationships between numerous flows of people, relations, material artifacts, knowledge, texts, and scholarship between Europe, North America, and South Asia, as well as grappling with mobility and exchange which transcends national and cultural borders, Jaffe identifies “a remarkably complex network” (19) of “multilevel global interactions” (239-40) to generate modern (Japanese) Buddhism. International trade, technological change and colonialism offered Japanese Buddhists a way to socially bypass problems—what Jaffe calls “a matter of self-survival” (5)—which made creative forms of modern religiosity possible.

Jaffe describes the actions of those travelers as techniques enabling them to embrace scholarships and models of religious practice prevalent in Europe and the United States to understand Japanese Buddhism’s roots in South Asia, and in turn to use these experiences to reconceptualize Buddhism in modern Japan. From the actors’ point of view, these intra-Asian contacts acted as a kind of catalyst and stimulated Japanese Buddhists to rethink the role of the historical Buddha in their tradition. As illustrated in this book “self-survival” offered Japanese and South Asians the opportunity to gain a voice in a world largely dominated by Western actors.

Jaffe therefore thinks it is reasonable to summarize that the westernization of Buddhism was “overdetermined” (255) and that “Japanese Buddhism was globalized” (255)—as Western scholarship influenced Buddhisms across Asia, but it was at the same time “reconceptualized and transculturated” (238-39) in local practices in South Asia. For instance, South Asian teachers who endeavored to revive South Asian Buddhism gave Japanese Buddhists access to texts, trained them in Indic languages and showed them European orientalist scholarship. Altogether this allowed the Japanese to see Buddhism in a new light, by which the author means that “both the journey to Europe and the journey to India were essential parts of Japanese Buddhism’s modernization” (3).

The fact that those travelers were both trained by Westerners and traveled to the West does not reduce the influence and importance of intra-Asian contacts, but rather reinforces them because the awareness of the gap between Western and Asian worlds encouraged Japanese to reconfigure their Mahayana perspective on Buddhism, and experience the links between Japan and South Asia by visiting archaeological sites, making pilgrimages to Buddhist sites and observing lived religious practice in India, studying languages, as well as transferring Buddhist texts, images, sculptures, relics, and artworks, constructing Indianized temples and organizing public exhibitions in Japan. Traveling, states the author, draws the actors’ attention to the transformations they experience from interactions, such as new perspectives on Buddhism, and illustrates that all traveling actors, objects and concepts are already changing when they meet.

Seeking Śākyamuni intertwines textual culture—which was and sometimes still is predominant within popular discourse and academia—with material culture (art, archaeology, and architecture). This book gives a stimulating inside view on the impacts that the significantly entangled areas of Buddhism and globality have on the real lives of actors in modern societies. Jaffe’s work introduces the terms, concepts, methods, and theories of global and translocal Buddhism, such as “Western,” “westernization,” “transculturation,” “pan-Asianism,” “modern,” “modernism,” “modernity,” “world religion,” “local,” “global,” and last but not least “seeking.”

As already mentioned, in the title the concept of seeking plays a key role in understanding Buddhism historically and in the contemporary world. This book argues that “seeking” refers to translocality, circularity, and entanglement of actors in modern societies. In Seeking Śākyamuni, Jaffe’s positive attitude to global networks sometimes seems like an attempt to disguise the challenges which lie within these same networks. The author discusses comprehensively the notion of seeking, which can be used as a Buddhist reinterpretation of Buddhism; however, the same notion can be utilized by ideologies of (neo-)liberalism and consumerism in the form of tourism, museums, pilgrimages, and politics. Jaffe still makes a strong point for the concept of seeking as an efficient Buddhist practice for transforming religion in contexts of modernity by taking the challenges of globality and translocality seriously.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christian Koch is an Independent Scholar based in Heidelberg, Germany.

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard M. Jaffe is Professor of Buddhist Studies at Duke University.


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