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  • The Cult of Nothingness: The Philosophers and the Buddha
  • A. J. Nicholson
Roger-Pol Droit . The Cult of Nothingness: The Philosophers and the Buddha. Translated by David Streight and Pamela Vohnson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 263.

Roger-Pol Droit's recently translated study, The Cult of Nothingness: The Philosophers and the Buddha, is not a book about Buddhism per se. Rather, it is a rich and theoretically sophisticated overview of the reception of Buddhism in Europe that deserves shelf space alongside Wilhelm Halbfass' India and Europe and Raymond Schwab's The Oriental Renaissance. But while some of the figures Droit covers may be familiar from these other studies in the history of orientalism, Droit's book has its own unique narrative thread. Specifically, Droit wishes to examine the once widespread notion that Buddhism is a nihilistic religion, a religion that worships nothingness. His central thesis is that this conception of a nihilistic religion really wasn't about Buddhism at all, but "that Europe . . . was speaking only of herself." Droit sees in the cult of nothingness the subconscious expression of a crisis of foundations among nineteenth-century European intellectuals, as well as a "hidden laboratory for the theoretical development of European nihilism."

Along the way to illustrating this thesis, Droit leads a masterful and extremely entertaining tour of the opinions of early Buddhologists and Eastward-looking philosophers, some of whom have seldom been documented elsewhere. He also provides an enormous bibliography of European writings on Buddhism from 1638 to 1890. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Buddha was often identified as one of many gods belonging to an inchoate and primitive world of mythical concordances. Thus, George Stanley Farber wrote in 1816 that "the primeval Buddha . . . is the same as Vishnu, or Shiva, or Osiris." Writers in this genre were especially fond of identifying the Buddha with the god Mercury. The sole reason, it seems, was simple linguistic confusion-the word for the planet Mercury in Sanskrit is budha, one letter short of buddha. Furthermore, the preeminent Indologist Sir William Jones posited the identity of the Norse god Woden and Buddha; this was later taken up by A. W. Schlegel in his Indische Bibliothek, and eventually influenced the publication of such unforgettable titles as Holmboe's Traces du Buddhisme en Norvège avant l'introduction du Christianisme. Jones elsewhere hinted that the Buddha might have been of Ethiopian, rather than Indian origin, and this set off another wave of speculation. To reconcile theories of a primordial god named Buddha with new evidence that the Buddha had been a man who had lived at a relatively recent date, for a short time a theory of two Buddhas emerged, first suggested by Antione Augustin Giorgi, and later taken up by Jones himself.

Droit sees Hegel as the single figure most responsible for establishing the link between Buddhism and nothingness that endured in the nineteenth-century philosophical imagination. Droit painstakingly charts Hegel's changing attitudes toward Buddhism over the course of his lectures from 1822 to 1831. In spite of, or perhaps because of, Hegel's familiarity with all of the most recent secondary works on Buddhism, he had great difficulty in integrating Buddhism into his philosophical grand [End Page 577] narrative. But his most enduring interpretation of Buddhism came in 1827, when he asserted that for Buddhism, "Saintliness consists in man uniting himself with God, with nothingness, with the absolute in this destruction, in this silence. . . . Man must make himself nothing." Hegel did not get this idea from his contemporaries, but from an earlier stratum of writing on Buddhism, that of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuit missionaries. After this portrayal of Buddhism became prevalent in European philosophical circles, an extraordinary debate developed. The notion of a religion that worships nothingness was so contrary to common sense that it threatened the Enlightenment conviction that there existed a single, universal human nature. Jules Barthélmy Saint-Hilaire summed it up quite clearly: "In the presence of a phenomenon so curious and so deplorable . . . one might ask . . . if, in those climates where life is so horrific and nothingness is worshiped instead of God, human nature is...


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