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Buddhism or Buddhisms? Lexical consequences of geo-political categories

By Richard Payne


In a previous post, we argued that the geo-political categories commonly employed in both popular and academic representations of Buddhism are problematic. The problems were grouped into rhetorical and lexical; the rhetorical consequences having been considered there, we now turn to the lexical. Specifically, the lexical distinction between mass nouns and count nouns clarifies how thinking about the subject of study logically (and implicitly) follow from ways of talking about that subject.

The term “Buddhisms” may feel awkward when uttered or written (my spell check certainly doesn’t like it). That very awkwardness points to the confusion that can result from failing to distinguish between mass nouns (“the gravel in that heap”) and count nouns (“the cars in the parking lot”). One speaks of gravel in the singular for a heap of it because there is no significant reason to distinguish each individual piece from all the others; one speaks of cars in the plural because each one is identifiably different, and that is the kind of difference that makes a difference. Buddhism as a mass-noun (e.g., Buddhism in China) implicitly treats Buddhism as a kind of whole, of which each instance is a part indistinguishable from the whole. Buddhisms as a count-noun clearly says that there are a whole bunch of different kinds of Buddhisms that happen to be located in China. A further problem with the mass-noun Buddhism, is that it in turn supports the kind of essentializing — “Chinese Buddhism” — discussed in the previous post.

Dance of the Lord of Death (Paro, Bhutan). Photo by Jean-Marie Hullot, 2008. Creative Commons License.

While this may be considered “merely” a grammatical issue (or even diminished to the level of an innocent stylistic usage), such a view fails to take into account the ways in which the logic of such grammar structures conceptualization within the discourse of Buddhist studies. For example, from accepting a category such as Tibetan Buddhism, treated as a mass noun, it would then follow that one could reasonably talk about the characteristics of Tibetan Buddhism, such as for example, the tulku system. From that, it would in turn follow that any form of Buddhism found in the Tibetan context that did not include a tulku system deviates from the norm. What follows then is that it is the abnormality itself that requires explanation, not the tulku system. Such judgments all too easily shift over into exercises of power and authority — who determines what is normal also determines what is abnormal. Normal and abnormal are themselves ambiguous descriptors. They are simultaneously capable of signifying a more literal value-neutral judgment as to “most common” (most frequently occurring), and a value-laden connotation implying unacceptably different, pathological. Normal in the “statistical” sense of typical is a matter of empirical verification or falsification, and therefore serves a valid intellectual function. Uncritically accepting characterizations that instantiate one form of Buddhism as more normal (in the symbolic sense of “healthy”) than another is, however, intellectually dysfunctional.

This is, of course, not to affirm the naïve belief that academic inquiry is separate from the travails of religious realpolitik. Certainly scholarship whether willingly or not becomes involved in practical religious issues, including sectarian conflicts. The geo-political categories that dominate the field of Buddhist studies are not natural ones, but rather social constructs. As social constructs they have been created in the service of many different purposes, not all of which are to the benefit of an academic inquiry. Of course, academics aren’t free from such purposes, and I’m not proposing some simplistic and idealized image of objective, value-neutral scholarship — an unnuanced “view from nowhere,” in Thomas Nagel’s phrase. Rather, the responsibilities of scholarship require self-critical reflection on its formulation, including reflecting on the lexical consequences of using a mass noun, when a count noun is more appropriate. No matter the discomfort that such critical self-reflection produces for those of us who have built our academic careers, not to mention personal identities, within the frameworks being questioned. It is still a matter of responsible scholarship to pursue such reflections.

Richard Payne is the Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley; serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Institute’s annual journal, Pacific World; is chair of the Editorial Committee of the Pure Land Buddhist Studies Series; and is Editor-in-Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism. He also sporadically maintains a blog entitled “Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought: Contemporary and Classical.”

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  1. [...] “Buddhism or Buddhisms?: Lexical Consequences of Geo-Political Categories” is now available on the Oxford University Press blog site. This is the follow up to “Buddhism or Buddhisms?: Rhetorical Consequences of Geo-Political Categories.” Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Uncategorized by rkpayne. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  2. [...] higher education, leftist philosophy, the 60s, and the world at large.In somewhat puzzling news, Dr. Payne’s follow-up to last week’s OUP blog post about the rhetorical consequences of geo-political categories [...]

  3. [...] raising issues directly relevant to the discussions made here regarding the rhetorical and lexical consequences of categorizing Buddhism according to the convenient artifice of the nation-state. [...]

  4. [...] have lexical and rhetorical consequences, and should only be used when theoretically relevant. There is no one [...]

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