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  • Theravada Buddhism and The British Encounter: Religious, Missionary, and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka
  • Terry C. Muck
Theravada Buddhism and The British Encounter: Religious, Missionary, and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka. By Elizabeth Harris. London: Routledge, 2006. 274 pp.

Of all the facets of the multifaceted interactions among Buddhists and Christians, the one sure to generate the most heat is mission: Christians spreading the gospel, Buddhists spreading the dhamma, Christians preaching and Buddhists preaching at the same time in the same places. This is the central topic of Elizabeth Harris’s Theravada Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary, and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth Century Sri Lanka. By throwing light on this crucial encounter, Harris greatly reduces the heat generated by these competing missions and makes greater understanding possible. At least, that would be one hoped-for outcome.

Harris challenges the standard postcolonial critique (SPC) of what happened to Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism and Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists when Christian missionaries, riding on the coattails of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonialists, invaded the peaceful and pristine island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. SPC posits Western colonial missionaries gaining power through their political proxies, shaping Western understandings of Theravada Buddhism to fit their Puritan and rationalistic preconceptions, and then attempting to destroy this made-in-the-West Buddhism, using aggressive and triumphalistic mission tactics that not only failed, but generated such a backlash that still, today, Buddhist-Christian relationships in Sri Lanka are poisoned almost beyond remedy.

Harris challenges the SPC not by denying the obvious truths embedded in the various elements of this version of the sad story, but by convincingly showing us that the SPC is only one side of a very complex story. The SPC, Harris argues, needs to be complexified by realizing that not all British in nineteenth century Ceylon fit the stereotypical missionary model, that Sri Lankan Buddhists had agency in shaping what became known as Protestant Buddhism in the twentieth century Buddhist revival, and that the Buddhist mission effort that corresponded to the Christian mission effort led to a system of competing mission efforts that must be factored into any attempt to understand the influence of the nineteenth century on the twentieth—and the twenty-first.

British Christians

Harris uses three paradigms to show the diversity of British interlocutors with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism and Buddhists. The first paradigm is an early (1796–1830), middle (1830–1870), late (1870–1900) periodization that corresponds to parts 1, 2, and 3 of the book. By means of this paradigm Harris shows that development took place in British understandings of Buddhist precept and practice. The earliest observers made mistakes, even when they based their observations on texts and [End Page 188] practicing Buddhist informants. As with most such developments, the changes and depths of understanding were uneven, with later commentators sometimes repeating the howlers and biases of the earliest commentators, even as they in some areas went far beyond them in depth of understanding. Later was not always better, but it usually was.

The second paradigm one might call vocational. The British did not all come to Ceylon for the same reason. Some came as political overseers for the colonial government. Some came as merchants, looking for a way to turn the island’s abundant natural resources into pounds in their bank accounts back home. Some came simply as “tourists” looking to find out more about what was in the nineteenth century a very exotic culture indeed to European eyes. Some came as missionaries to spread the Christian gospel story. And a trickle of scholars seeking data for research topics gradually turned into a fairly broad stream by the end of the century. Each of these five groups came asking slightly different questions. Because Buddhism was so ubiquitous among the people of Ceylon, Buddhism was always part of the answer to the different questions politicos, businesspeople, travelers, Christians, and professors asked, but the different questions produced different products: statements of public policy vis-à-vis Buddhism, Southeast Asian versions of Weber’s observations about religion and economics, diaries and travelogues, theologies of religion, and...