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C h a p t e r 3 Diderot’s Buddhist Brahmins In the first volumes of the central monument of the French Enlightenment, the Encyclopédie, there are several articles about Asian religions that are either signed by or attributed to Denis Diderot (1713–84). The most important ones in the first volumes are entitled ‘‘ASIATIQUES. Philosophie des Asiatiques en général’’ (1751:1.752–55), ‘‘BRACHMANES’’ (1752:2.391), and ‘‘BRAMINES’’ (1752:2.393–94). Today, these articles have such a bad reputation that they are often criticized and held up for ridicule. For example, Wilhelm Halbfass wrote, In the article ‘‘Brachmanes,’’ Diderot discusses what he calls ‘‘extravagances tout-à-fait incroyables,’’ stating that the persons who had referred to the Brahmins as ‘‘sages’’ must have been even crazier than the Brahmins themselves. The article entitled ‘‘Bramines’’ is essentially a summary and in part literal paraphrase of the article ‘‘Brachmanes’’ contained in Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique; it also reproduces a mixup of Buddhism and Brahminism occurring in the original: citing the Jesuit Ch. LeGobien, Bayle described a Brahminic sect thought to be living in China as worshippers of the ‘‘God Fo.’’ (Halbfass 1990:59) Diderot’s ‘‘inaccuracy and lack of originality’’ (p. 60), Halbfass argues, is evident in his use of ‘‘Bayle’s and Le Gobien’s portrayal of the Chinese ‘Brahmins’ and Buddhists’’ to conjure up a vision of ‘‘quietism’’ and love of ‘‘nothingness’’ among the Indians and thus to highlight ‘‘their desire to stupefy and mortify themselves’’ (p. 59). Halbfass cites the following passage from Diderot’s article on the ‘‘Bramines’’ as an illustration: PAGE 133 ................. 17751$ $CH3 05-21-10 15:29:16 PS 134 chapter 3 They assert that the world is nothing but an illusion, a dream, a magic spell, and that the bodies, in order to be truly existent, have to cease existing in themselves, and to merge into nothingness, which due to its simplicity amounts to the perfection of all beings. They claim that saintliness consists in willing nothing, thinking nothing, feeling nothing. . . . This state is so much like a dream that it seems that a few grains of opium would sanctify a brahmin more surely than all his efforts. (pp. 59–60) Diderot’s only contribution in this passage, Halbfass contends, was to add to his paraphrase of Bayle the reference to opium; but even this was not original since this is ‘‘a motif which we find also in the Essais de théodicée, which Leibniz published in 1710’’ (p. 60). As is well known, this ‘‘opium’’ motif reappeared in the nineteenth century ‘‘among Hegel and other critics of Indian thought’’ (p. 60) and, broadened by Marx to apply to religion in general, found its way into the minds of hundreds of millions of twentiethcentury communists: religion as opiate for the people. Halbfass could also have cited the very first sentence of Diderot’s article, which precedes the given quotation and presents his ‘‘mixup of Buddhism and Brahminism’’ in a nutshell: BRAMINES, or BRAMENES, or BRAMINS, or BRAMENS, . . . Sect of Indian philosophers anciently called Brachmanes. See BRACHMANES . These are priests who principally revere three things: the god Fo, his law, and the books that contain their constitutions. (Diderot 1752:2.393) Diderot here clearly defines the subjects of his article, the Brahmins, as priests of the ‘‘god Fo’’ who, as we have seen, was already in the seventeenth century often identified as Buddha. Diderot’s Brahmins believe in this Fo, preach his doctrine (the dharma or law), and value the books that contain his teachings. Today we are able to identify these three items as the ‘‘three jewels’’ or ‘‘three treasures’’ that are ceaselessly evoked and pledged allegiance to by Buddhists of all nations. While the first two (Fo  Buddha and law  dharma) clearly evoke the first two treasures, the third treasure is now known to be the sangha, that is, the Buddhist community, rather than its sacred scriptures. Historians of the European discovery of Buddhism, who tend to be PAGE 134 ................. 17751$ $CH3 05-21-10 15:29:17 PS Diderot’s Buddhist Brahmins 135 rather unforgiving schoolmasters, of course also denounce Diderot’s terrible ‘‘mixup.’’ In 1952, Cardinal de Lubac used even stronger terms than Halbfass: Diderot makes himself the echo of such phantasmagoric science. The diverse articles of the Encyclopédie that touch on Buddhism (several of which are by Diderot himself) rest on some superficial readings without the slightest attempt at critique...


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