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  • Defining Modern Buddhism:Mr. and Mrs. Rhys Davids and the Pāli Text Society
  • Judith Snodgrass (bio)

Early Western Buddhist scholarship was archetypically "orientalist" both in the various senses implied by Edward Said's work on the West's colonization of knowledge of the Orient and in the proud lineage of the dedicated and immaculate translation and interpretation of Asian-language primary sources. In this article I examine the work of Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843–1922) and Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids (1857–1942), his wife and colleague in scholarship. T. W. Rhys Davids founded the Pāli Text Society in 1881 and served as its chairman until his death in 1922. Caroline, whom he married in 1894, then continued in the position. Together they dominated Pāli studies for sixty years. Their contribution includes the almost complete publication of the Pāli canon, a Pāli dictionary, numerous expository works, and the training of a large number of colleagues and students to perpetuate their influence. More than just pioneers in the field, they have provided the standard interpretation of Pāli Buddhism. They are, to extend Charles Hallisey's observation, the "inaugural heroes" of academic studies of Buddhism.1 While unquestionably an orientalist construct, the features of Buddhism they documented and validated through their meticulous and dedicated study of Pāli texts remain the basis not only of Western understanding of Buddhism but of many modern Buddhist movements in Asia. They established the parameters of the rational humanist schools of Buddhism that are characteristic of what Donald Lopez has usefully referred to as modern Buddhism.2

Lopez's premise is that there are forms of Buddhism found around the contemporary world—in the West and in Asia—that share sufficient key beliefs and practices to be seen as a new school, a Buddhist sect of the global era. While it is in no way monolithic, its various manifestations have arisen over the past century as a result of Western imperialism and its scholarship, of encounters of traditional Buddhist societies with modernity, and, more recently, of political upheavals that have caused migrations of Buddhist populations to the West. Lopez offers a lineage for the new "sect," tracing it from Ceylonese Buddhist resistance to missionaries in 1876, through writings of early Theosophists, a selection of familiar Western [End Page 186] and Asian practitioners and popularizers, culminating in the culturally hybrid teachings of Chogyam Trungpa, founder of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.3 D. T. Suzuki and other major figures in Western writing are awarded a place in the lineage. Oddly, however, the Rhys Davids are not.4 Their absence is underlined by Lopez's description of modern Buddhism, which encapsulates the interpretation they propagated precisely: "It is ancient Buddhism, and especially the enlightenment of the Buddha 2,500 years ago, that is seen as most modern, as most compatible with the ideals of the European enlightenment that occurred so many centuries later. . . . Indeed, for modern Buddhists, the Buddha knew long ago what Europe would only discover much later."5 Modern Buddhism is thoroughly humanist. The Buddha is a historical hero who taught "a complete philosophical and psychological system, based on reason and restraint, as opposed to ritual, superstition and sacerdotalism, demonstrating how the individual could live a moral life without the trappings of institutional religion."6 Its practice is egalitarian, lay centered, and socially committed, imbued with modernity's ideals of reason, empiricism, science, universalism, tolerance, and the rejection of religious orthodoxy. It is an understanding of Buddhism that depends on a human founder as a model of the path to personal development.

While no Buddhist questions the historical existence of the Buddha Sakyamuni, until the emergence of modern Buddhism in the mid-nineteenth century he was not seen as the founder of the religion, or as the only Buddha, but as one of a series of Buddhas born into the world to teach the eternal dharma. This is made abundantly clear in the archaeology of Indian Buddhism—the bas-reliefs of Bharhut and ornate gateways of the Sanchi stupas represent previous Buddhas—in its earliest texts and in any number of schools of Buddhism persisting through to the...


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