Review – Genealogies Of Mahayana Buddhism (Ananda Abeysekara)

Joseph Walser, Genealogies of Mahāyāna Buddhism: Emptiness, Power, and the Question of Origin. Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2018. 288 pages. IBSN: 978-1-13-895556-1. .

Since Talal Asad’s landmark work Genealogies of Religion, some scholars in the humanities have slowly begun to consider the relation between power and religion. But the same cannot be said about Buddhist Studies. As I have argued in detail elsewhere, even the historically minded field of Theravāda Buddhist Studies, which still operates within area studies, has not critically thought about power, authority, and tradition (Abeysekara “Review”; “Religious”; “Protestant”).

These supposed “histories” cannot manage to get away from their atemporal and transcendent (transcendent because they are, in fact, a priori) ideas of the “agency” of local Buddhist history contrasted to colonial power, or “Buddhism as a whole” against which the “local” or “change” is to be judged. Often what is left out of the historical accounts is the temporality of power within the genealogy of a discursive tradition. One way to think beyond the problem of area studies is to attend to this question of temporality constituted by genealogy—which is a matter of returning our attention to the ways that ideas of Buddhism, Mahāyāna, and emptiness are used within specific life-worlds or “forms of life.” Instead of ideas being two-dimensional and free-floating signs available primarily to the scholar, genealogy sheds light on a form of life enmeshed in aspirations, anxieties, fears, and disputes within social relationships.  

 Walser’s ground-breaking and impressively wide-ranging Genealogies of Mahāyāna is indeed meant to be an implicit critique of Buddhist Studies as an area study, a topic to which I return at the conclusion of this essay. Walser begins this critique by arguing that the neglect of power and authority in Mahāyāna Studies has rendered “emptiness” (and “mind-only” thesis or antithesis)—along with the related problem of the origin of Mahāyāna—“intractable.” The neglect of power has often led scholars to represent the concepts of Buddhism in general as containing universally retrievable meanings, universal to the extent they are thought even to explain the shifting conditions of social and political change.

I want to situate Walser’s critique by discussing how this neglect of power is as true today as it was a couple of decades ago. For example, in the early 1990s, in a largely misguided review essay on Philip Almond’s The British Discovery of Buddhism, Jonathan Silk claims that the creation of Buddhism as an object is not just a product of Orientalism because “historically speaking, of course, Buddhists in Asia, to the extent that they have been aware of the existence of others who share their faith but manifest it in a different fashion, have historically ‘created’ Buddhism all along” (“Victorian” 175).[1] Astoundingly, Silk sees the historical creation of Buddhism by Buddhists (i.e., social change) as already reflecting a supposedly core philosophical proposition in Buddhism, which remarkably is said to be found in both “Indian philosophy” and “Western thinking.”

To use a notion made explicit in Indian philosophy, but probably implicit in much Western thinking and perhaps in Almond’s formulation of his problem, to exist in itself means to have a single, unchanging nature. If ‘Buddhism’ existed, it could not be many things but only one, and it could not change through time or place. This idea lies at the root of the Buddhist philosophical rejection of self,” and at the root of our acceptance of the idea that Buddhism need not be “floating in some aethereal Oriental limbo” to nevertheless pre-exist its “creation” in a Western discourse. (175; emphasis added)

Put differently, it is the universal (and, therefore, permanent) Buddhist “law of impermanence” that already and ultimately explains historical change and not merely the distinct social conditions such as Orientalism that make possible that change. On Silk’s view, Orientalism itself then can be fitted into an already existing and static Buddhist model of change. This view of Buddhism and change hardly remains an outdated instance. In an essay on the history of the Theravāda published in 2009, Peter Skilling explains the social changes in Buddhist history as tokens of specifically “Buddhist” epiphenomena within an overarching scheme of an essential doctrinal logic in Buddhism. Ironically, warning against essentializing the tradition of the Theravāda, Skilling writes:

The prominence given to an essentialized and ahistorical Theravāda inhibits the study of the history of ideas and the history of social expressions of South and Southeast Asian Buddhism. Theravāda is not an unchanging entity: to assume so would contradict the law of impermanence. (“Theravāda” 72)

And even more recently, in a talk given at a conference on the “Varieties of Self” in 2015, philosopher of Mahāyāna Buddhism Dan Arnold unambiguously condensed the tradition of Indian Buddhist thought to a single essence that mediates everything else: “The cardinal doctrine of Indian Buddhist thought, the claim that every other philosophical position in the tradition is about or is elaborating, is the doctrine of anātmavāda, or no-self.”[2]And in an essay published in 2019, in “an interpretation of Madhyamaka,” Arnold sees Nāgārjuna’s work reflecting precisely this “cardinal doctrine.”

Nāgārjuna’s arguments thus advance a case for recognizing that a conventionally true level of description is finally ineliminable from a complete account of what there is—and particularly, I want to join Nāgārjuna in emphasizing, from acomplete Buddhist account of how things are. Indeed, the point of Madhyamaka is finally that there is nothing essentially “more real” than the conventional—and this is a point, I aim to show, that makes perfectly good sense as expressing the cardinal Buddhist doctrine that persons are ultimately “without self” (anātman). (Arnold “Sense” 3)[3]

         The temptation for scholars has not been just to reduce Buddhism to an essence, but to equate it with the idea of no-self or impermanence. In his article “When did Buddhism become Anti-Brahmanical?” Walser argues that claims that no-self represents some cardinal doctrine—defining a distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism—can hardly be justified either empirically or theoretically because even the reference to it occurs in less than 10 percent of a sample of more than 5,000 suttas he examined in the Pali canon. One can find authoritative discourses by Buddhists about no-self that inhabit specific moments of time, but those discourses cannot be generalized into a proposition because they are effects of power, whose analysis, I will argue, remains largely foreign to (Mahāyāna) Buddhist Studies.

That is to say, the use of the concept of no-self at given moments presupposes particular abilities to make claims about it, debate those claims, and be affected by them within a particular “form of life” in distinct kinds of institution and community. Such abilities and dispositions cannot be reproduced universally unless they are abstracted (as Arnold does) from moments of power that authorize them. What the abstraction forecloses is that the sensibilities embedded in putting a concept to use within the limits of particular institutions and forms of power—limits that enable one to act and feel in particular circumstances in particular ways and not in other ways—are not things that individuals carry about as “doctrines” or “tenets,” as scholars like Arnold misidentify.

Part of Walser’s task in the Genealogies of Mahāyāna is to argue how Mahāyāna Buddhism is represented in terms of doctrines in such a way that those doctrines can often be abstracted, preexisting social-political power and discourse. Even erudite historians of Buddhism claim not to “fathom” the varying uses of concepts in Buddhist history precisely because of the scholars’ a priori assumptions about what such concepts should mean.

Thus, Peter Skilling writes elsewhere:

But how did the notion that all dharmas are unborn and unceasing gain a foothold within a system of thought which maintained that all things are impermanent, that all things arise and then cease, and that only nirvana is unborn, unarisen and unfabricated? I find this difficult to fathom—and many traditional Buddhist thinkers and practitioners found these ideas difficult to swallow. (“Unborn” 46)

The variant uses of an idea point to competing uses, and the fact that “many traditional Buddhist thinkers and practitioners found [some of] these ideas difficult to swallow” only points to the nexus of power in which they argue about the meanings of the concepts. The mistake is to try to find instances of congruence between the historical arguments by Buddhists in a specific community—itself formed by the act of entering into a debate about an idea in a given text—and scholarly assumptions about them as doctrines found in a given text.

         In Genealogies of Mahāyāna, Walser argues that the “apolitical” presentations of Buddhist concepts as doctrines “confine our analysis of Mahāyāna exclusively to the realm of internal, private experiences and motivations,” which, he says, leaves unanswered even a basic question: “Then what should we say about major political leaders throughout history who not only practice Mahāyāna traditions but in fact represent [and debate] them?” (13).

Yet “that Buddhism pertains most naturally to one’s private life appears to be simply taken for granted” (12). Even Paul Williams’s Mahāyāna Buddhism: Doctrinal Foundations, which acknowledges that the “doctrinal diversity” of Mahāyāna does not constitute “one unified phenomenon” and so resists a “definition,” is situated within

the Tibetan “representation of the tenets” genre. This tells us something about the distinctions that Buddhists have made between different sects and schools of Mahāyāna, but tells us little about why anyone would want to keep it around, fund it or defend it with troops. In other words, Williams doesn’t give the reader much of a sense of the political and social use of the ideas that come to be identified as Mahāyāna. (8)

Walser contrasts the “historical narrative of the arch of Mahāyāna’s development” to a genealogy of Mahāyāna. The conventional story of “development”—a notion we find also in the nineteenth-century accounts of Buddhism—is “one of religious ideas arising one after another like a string of pearls stretching from one end of Asia to another with no reason for its existence and perpetuation other than its utility for human liberation” (12). Drawing on Quentin Skinner and especially Friedrich Nietzsche, Walser argues, “Mahāyāna doesn’t have a definition, it has a genealogy” (6). This question about genealogy—and power—that concerns Walser has not been considered by the historical development narratives that merely recognize the doctrinal diversity of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

To better appreciate Walser’s argument, we need to understand some of the consequences of power and genealogy being left out in how the history of Mahāyāna Buddhism (i.e., the question of “origin”) and practice (i.e., change) are represented. Scholars who write about “the origin of Mahāyāna” have been stymied by how to define the diversity of its history. The attempts to account for this historical diversity and not subsume it under a “monolithic entity” have produced fewer analytical insights than a questionable concept of multiple Buddhisms, leaving the very notion of multiplicity unquestioned.

Take, for instance, Jonathan Silk’s essay “What, if Anything, Is Mahāyāna Buddhism?” where he proposes to settle the problem of origin vis-à-vis history in terms of a “problem” of multiplicity: “We should speak of these Mahāyānas in the plural,” says Silk, because “a conflation of the multiple traditions of Mahāyāna literature into ‘the’ Mahāyāna, that is into a unitary and monolithic entity, inevitably produces considerable confusion and apparent contradiction” (372).

But for Silk, the “problem of the multiplicity of texts” in Mahāyāna is already compounded by the “problem” of the fluidity of a given text itself (372). “In addition to the problem of the multiplicity of texts, we must also confront the problem of the inherently fluid state of any single text itself” (372). As a “problem,” it requires, for Silk, sorting out “the whole question of the identity of Mahāyāna Buddhism,” which has been cast “in entirely the wrong terms” by “underlying models of definitions and classifications” insofar as “the failures of their theories to adequately account for all the relevant data” (383; emphasis added). Silk proposes to recast the relation between what is Mahāyāna and what is not:

Once we reject the groundless assumption that Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna Buddhism are related in the fashion of cladistic classification, then we are freed to explore other dimensions of the definitions of Mahāyāna Buddhism. We are enabled and empowered to think in terms of degrees of similarity and relatedness, rather than simply the dichotomy related/unrelated.

This in turn enables us to think more fluidly about the ways in which, for example, a Mahāyāna Buddhist text may borrow literary conceits of earlier literature, or a mythological episode, while reformulating the doctrinal content of the episode. It gives us a tool to think about multiple ways that one and the same object might be used, while the object itself remains essentially unchanged. A stone image of Śākyamuni may have different meanings in different ritual contexts, just as a textual pericope may shift its meaning—or we should better say, have its meaning shifted—by its changing context. (396-397; emphasis added)

Numerous problems abound with Silk’s claims about Buddhism, identity, and history, not the least of which is the indefensible assertion that “the object itself remains essentially unchanged” despite multiple uses and shifts in the meanings of “one and the same object.” Silk’s notion of different uses by, and different meanings for, a given historical subject in terms of its relation to an object that never changes is itself groundless as the same object is assumed to always preexist the changing contexts. Silk’s asking questions about “how to define Mahāyāna Buddhism” in the first place is itself founded on an unsound assumption.

That is the assumption that the ostensive difference between Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna must turn out to be available as enumerable and itemized “features.” These items will be naturally obvious to the curious scholar much the same as the giraffe and the amoeba naturally differ to an observer because the former has a spinal cord and the latter does not. So ultimately Silk proposes to settle that problem with the claim that Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna cannot be classified in any other way than by a phenetic distinction in features just as it is not “possible to clarify a mixture in a glass”:

Even theoretically, there is no way to produce a clean schematic of the relations in question, any more than it would be possible to clarify a mixture in a glass after orange juice had been poured into soda, that mix poured into coffee, then added back into the orange juice, and so on. The contamination is complete, its history irreversible. This leaves us only with the possibility of clarifying various aspects of the phenetic, synchronic relations between objects of our interest.

But this does not in any way mean that we are to ignore traditional information. Yijing—and of course he is not the only source—tells us that worship of bodhisattvas is definitive of Mahāyāna Buddhism. We need not take this, even if he so intended it, as a necessary and sufficient condition to accept it as one point in our data set, one object which is to be brought into conjunction with others.

The same applies to the problem of the identification of a given text as, for example, a Mahāyāna sūtra. Chinese sūtra catalogues do not give us a definitive answer but provide one feature to be taken into account in the process of formulating a polythetic definition. And so too for features such as the mention of emptiness, bodhisattvas, the perfections, and so on. With such tools in hand we may be able to approach anew the problem of the definition and classification of Mahāyāna Buddhism. (397-398; emphasis added)

Clearly Silk’s attempt to figure out the difference between cladistic and phenetic and finally to foreclose on the former merely reiterates the scholar’s predetermined ideas about what is and is not “Mahāyāna” independent of power and genealogy. To paraphrase Nietzsche here, the problem with Silk’s use of the terms Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna is that every word is already a pre-judgement.[4]

Walser’s point is exactly the opposite of that which Silk labors to make: what is Mahāyāna can be traced only within a genealogy. What is questionable is not merely the analogy Silk draws between a mixture in a glass containing orange juice-soda-coffee and the “contamination” of Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna, an example replete with echoes of a syncretistic amalgamation model. But Silk’s assumption that the history of Mahāyāna is to be seen as contaminated quite simply disregards one crucial element in the history of Mahāyāna: power. Lest we miss the obvious, identity and difference do not lie in the itemized features of any object.

As Walser emphasizes repeatedly in his book, “distinctions are something that people make” or don’t make (99). “Difference” is not and cannot be a feature of the thing itself. Distinguishing is an act of power where one points out authoritatively why something should constitute a difference. And it is power that authorizes what constitutes the differences between Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna. The capacity to designate what constitutes Mahāyāna, and for whom that designation becomes intelligible, is part of a relationship in which the question of its identity emerges for debate at a particular historical moment.

Silk’s a priori historical “contamination” (or the historical contamination of an a priori Mahāyāna with its equally a priori non-Mahāyāna) hardly accounts for how such debates do indeed make authoritative distinctions between Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna, effecting distinct attitudes, and why the conditions of their possibility cannot be explained in terms of a theory. Silk’s theory may explain how he prefers to think about Mahāyāna, but it tells us nothing about how competing discourses seek to secure authority in terms of producing capacities to understand what is Mahāyāna for particular Buddhist communities.

 Silk’s account does not and cannot consider power and authority because although he claims in rather bland terms that “this does not in any way mean that we are to ignore traditional information,” he simply groups so-called information about figures like “Yijing—and of course he is not the only source [that]—tells us that worship of bodhisattvas is definitive of Mahāyāna Buddhism” within the scheme of his “data set” (i.e., “features”). Silk takes it to be self-evident that “Chinese sūtra catalogues do not give us a definitive answer but provide one feature to be taken into account in the process of formulating a polythetic definition” (398).

Silk’s view of a polythetic definition, which reiterates the problem of multiple Buddhisms vis-à-vis that of “Buddhism as a whole,”[5] makes it hard to understand how authoritative definitions do indeed seek to secure in definitive terms a common form of (Mahāyāna) life within clear boundaries; and these authoritative definitions cannot be seen, as Auguste Barth (1898)—cited by Silk—conjectures, in terms of

the Mahāyāna [which] thus appears to us as a movement with rather vague limits, at the same time an internal modification of Buddhism and a primitive series of additions to this same Buddhism, alongside of which the old foundations were able to subsist more or less intact. … It is thus probable that there are many degrees and varieties in the Mahāyāna, and that it is perhaps something of an illusion to hope that, when we define that of Asaṅga or Vasubandhu, for example, we will thereby obtain a formula applicable to all the others. All things considered, we can suppose that things here are as they so often are in this so unsteady and murky Buddhism, and that the best way of explaining the Mahāyāna is to not try too hard to define it. (qtd. in Silk 361; emphasis added)

 The limits seem “vague” and “murky” to Barth and Silk, but they do not seem vague to Buddhists for whom limits are demarcations of a discursive space when they, like Yijing, can state authoritatively: “Those who worship the Bodhisattvas and read the Mahāyāna Sūtras are called the Mahāyānists, while those who do not perform these are called the Hīnayānists” (qtd. in Silk 360). But Silk misses this point and goes on to write:

At the same time, however, Barth remained extremely cautious. He suggested, even argued, that it was in Yijing’s own interests to persuade his audience that there was little or no fundamental difference between the Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna, since Yijing was trying to propagandize among his Chinese compatriots, almost all exclusive Mahayanists, the Vinaya of the Sarvāstivāda. (371; emphasis added)

Again, what Silk fails to notice is that “to persuade his audience that there was little or no fundamental difference between the Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna” is already for Yijing to carry out an act of authoritative definition whose turf of argument others would have to enter to confirm or contest it. To draw a boundary is precisely an attempt to make clear where that boundary exists in a given instance.

As Wittgenstein says, when someone tells someone else, “stay roughly here,” making a pointing gesture to a spot where, say, they are standing, that act of pointing is a definition of a spatial limit for a specific task, in terms of a conversation between them at one given point in time, and it is not to be taken as a fact about the preexisting availability of a multiplicity of spaces within the spectrum of one’s life free of that conversation.[6] Because for Silk the word “Mahāyāna,” like the indexical “here,” has potentially an infinite number of referents, we should abandon its definition as meaningless. This clearly is absurd.

Thus, the problem of multiple Buddhisms is simply taken as self-evident within the history of Buddhism, which we find in the works of others for whom the multiplicity of practice stands in tension with “Buddhism as a whole.” Consider how distinguished scholar of Mahāyāna Buddhism Paul Harrison construes this problem in relation to “the task of comprehending Buddhism as a whole.”

In an essay titled “Making sense of Buddhism in Theory and Practice” devoted to reviewing Frank E. Reynolds and Jason A. Carbine’s edited volume The Life of Buddhism and Paul Williams’s Mahāyāna Buddhist Thought, Harrison is concerned not just with the difference between theory and practice, but with “this or that localised expression of Buddhism” and “Buddhism as a whole” as well. He writes: 

It goes without saying that Buddhist practice cannot in fact be understood without reference to Buddhist thought, and thus one can in the end never dispense with the study of texts; the trick, however, is to keep them in their proper place. … However, even the study of contemporary practice —in other words the anthropology and sociology of present-day Buddhist societies — also depends on textual understandings. The best Buddhist anthropology—here one thinks above all of the work of Stanley Tambiah—proceeds on the basis of a sound grasp of the results of Buddhist philology, and indeed yields results which can be applied back to texts as well, to illuminate the practices and the ideas of the past. However, the researches of Tambiah and others typically focus on Buddhism in a particular place, limiting themselves to this or that localised expression of the religion. How then to rise above these particularities, and to convey an idea of Buddhist practice as a whole? Is this an impossible task, reflective of the fact that Buddhist practice, like Buddhism itself, does not exist as such, is not a unitary phenomenon? (134-135; emphasis added)

Harrison heedlessly reproduces the old (colonial-anthropological) problem of theory (i.e., texts) and practice, in turn reproducing a contrast between “Buddhism as a whole” and “this or that localised expression of the religion.”[7] Harrison’s distinction reiterates the problem of origin as something already given. Harrison thinks even the best anthropological work on the “localised expression” of the religion is “limiting” to comprehending “Buddhism as a whole.” He momentarily questions if “Buddhism itself” exists because of the particularities of practice, but he concludes that “the task of comprehending Buddhism as a whole can only be accomplished by combining the approaches taken by the two volumes under review here”—that is, determining how “Buddhist thought” (doctrine) corresponds to Buddhist practice (138). Harrison’s equation of Buddhist practice with “this or that localised expression of the religion” is not a mere rhetorical move.

And it does not just render practice secondary to what is a priori religion proper; it also treats practices as symbols or symbolic rituals—that is, as expressions of meaning to be interpreted.[8] According to the logic of Harrison’s distinction, the language (that is, the language of Buddhism to be marked by the study of “texts” that “one can in the end never dispense with”) becomes disconnected from its symbolic “expression” (in practice), already constituting a problem that requires a labor of decoding that expression. That is, the question for Harrison is about whether local expressions refer to “Buddhist thought.” Harrison takes the relation of “reference” between thought and practice as an axiomatic and indubitable requirement made necessary by a de facto Buddhism itself: “It goes without saying that Buddhist practice cannot in fact be understood without reference to Buddhist thought” (134).

This arbitrary assumption leaves it up to the scholar to decide the correspondence between thought and practice, and it hardly leaves any space for understanding why the use of a concept by Buddhists as a practice of power does not depend upon some “reference” to a preexisting Buddhist thought. The very use of a concept in a form of Buddhist life already presupposes that its intelligibility lies in the use made possible by a given relationship, and not in some preexisting Buddhist thought. As Wittgenstein says, when a person says “I am conscious” to a doctor who believes that the person is in a faint, she is putting the word “conscious” to use in the instance of a conversation between them at that moment and is not referringto a preexisting and original “phenomenon” called “consciousness” that mediates all instances of its use (§416).[9]

Harrison’s distinction between Buddhist thought and the local expressions of it is implicated in a classic linguistic problem where language is thought to have a “primary purpose” that must accord with but can be isolable from the communication of its message. This is the view that words are translations/transferences of (private) thoughts as thoughts are assumed to preexist expression (speech). In a discussion of how “translating the Qur’anic vision into the sensible body (and especially as it is enunciated in ritual prayer) is rendered possible by the language of the Qur’an as well as by supplementary discourses that seek to teach certain virtues central to it,” Talal Asad argues that “the primary purpose of Qur’anic language here is not simply to communicate but to model—with the help of relatives, friends, and teachers—a process in which communication is, of course, an element but an element that cannot be ‘abstracted’” (Asad Secular 96).[10]

Thus seen, language does not merely express/communicate, but effects, and is affected by, an attitude. Inquiring into the reason for someone crying, for instance, is not merely a quest for information, but is already an intervention. The question “why are you crying?” can be an expression of concern or a show of irritation in a given situation, but it is only rarely a request for data. Where we find this relation between language and attitude, language does not remain in the domain of the private-cognitive preceding its expression.

An attitude, that is, how one is affected by, or disposed toward, a given situation is not a natural and permanent property of the cognitive-private domain; one can learn a disposition, acquire a sensibility, but as an effect, a disposition is an ability that one may not embody absent the conditions of its training and cultivation. Walser calls attention to this relation between language and sensibility when he keeps saying throughout Genealogies of Mahāyāna that the use of concepts like emptiness is made possible by forms of disposition. Walser’s notion of genealogy challenges precisely the sort of distinction Harrison espouses about Buddhism and history, Buddhist thought (in the texts), and the local expressions.

Just as Silk talks about the “Mahāyānas in the plural,” for Harrison the very local expressions of the religion constitute a problem of how to reconcile multiple Buddhisms with “Buddhism as a whole.” Emerging as a problem in the nineteenth-century missionary and Orientalist representations of religion, the idea of plural Buddhisms continues to be used as a worthy analytic by other modern scholars.[11] The point is not to compare the Orientalist to the modern scholar, but rather that this talk about Mahāyāna Buddhisms in the plural is a result of the failure to think about Buddhist practice without creating a problem that in effect requires scholars to always interpret that seeming plurality.

The problem of plurality is simply taken to be apparent, having a tautological existence of its own. The plurality of local Buddhisms is assumed to be an obvious historical fact that can always be identified across history. Asad has argued that to decide on what is local is to decide on what is not local, and this scholarly exercise itself is an effect of power and not some natural fact (Asad Genealogies 2-9).[12] The local, in other words, is not a mere empirical reality, but it is power that identifies it as such.

The alleged “locals” who practice Buddhism in a particular place—say, a village in Sri Lanka—would not be self-consciously thinking of it as a local practice unless it were part of a different conversation that demanded a contrast to another locality. The local is not a permanent feature of a self-consciousness but a contingent mode of a language game. In terms of an analogy, consider the asymmetry of power in the ubiquitous characterizations of Christianity in non-Western societies in terms of “local expressions of Christianity” or “East African expressions of Christianity.” How often is the category of the “local expression” used to describe Christian practice in, say, Wisconsin?

The point is not that it is never used, but what that use means for whom, and what modes of sensibility it evokes. The problem of multiple Buddhisms that Silk and Harrison set before us forecloses precisely such a question because multiplicity itself is taken be a natural phenomenon self-evident in local expressions of Buddhism. In so doing, the local itself is simply taken for granted.[13]

The very multiplicity of competing discourses within a historical tradition already presupposes its aspiration to coherence.[14] Coherence can only be (temporarily) aspired to amidst contending claims about a given tradition, so they don’t translate into universally identifiable pluralities. Recognition of plurality is an act of power; the ability to argue about a given tradition, what kinds of practice and interpretation belong to it, and what is to be excluded from it, is generated within the limits of that tradition.

The limits of a tradition themselves are productive in the sense that they are not permanent but are discursively authorized. To reduce that multiplicity to a problem of Buddhisms is to privilege the power of the academic observer while occluding the play of power relations that make possible competing and authoritative claims about what the tradition should be.[15] It is this relation between tradition, genealogy, and power that Walser’s book wants us to think about in the study of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Is it, then, a mere coincidence that Silk’s and Harrison’s works don’t make even a single allusion to the word “power”? Walser’s opening charge in the book is that Mahāyāna Buddhist Studies has ignored precisely this question of power.[16] Why is this the case? In 1994, in a move that was unheard of in Buddhist Studies at the time, in his landmark study of how to understand a healing ritual called Yaktovil within the genealogy of a discursive tradition of Buddhism, anthropologist David Scott persuasively argues that the study of Buddhism should always ask questions about how power authorizes what counts as Buddhism.

One must ask why that question of power never caught up with scholars like Harrison and Silk (whose above two works were published in 2001 and 2002) and Mahāyāna Buddhist Studies in general. Given Harrison’s own reasoning, one must ask if it was because a work like Scott’s Formations of Ritual is simply seen as a study of a local expression of Buddhism having little to do with (canonical) “texts,” and therefore limited regarding the problem of Buddhism as a whole.[17]

Walser’s argument is that the so-called textual doctrines have their purchase in social-political life, and not in the texts themselves. It is the social “use”—in Wittgenstein’s sense—that lends the concepts their intelligibility, and not their residence in some urtexts.[18] He develops this argument by undertaking a retrospective look at the changing political career of concepts like the three bodies (trikāya) of the Buddha, emptiness (which comes to be understood as dharmakāya itself), compassion, the mind of clear light, and so forth, particularly in the context of the Dalai Lama’s career in Tibet and India.

Framed by a discussion of how such concepts are represented in modern books on Buddhism including The Essential Dalai Lama available at Barnes and Noble, Walser suggests that the Dalai Lama’s totalization of Buddhism as a non-violent religion compatible with science is part of particular discursive spaces. The same can be said of the Dalai Lama’s lectures on the meditation of dharmakāya as emptiness, which seeks to produce dispositions to recognizing the institution of the Dalai Lama as a sovereign body, as well as his renunciation of the “traditional” worship of the deities like Dorje Shugden, and his drawing connections between mental cultivation and environmental concerns and human rights, and so forth.

These activities, Walser shows, are part of a career traversing the changing landscape of discourses of power from the beginning of the Tibetan exile during Neru’s controversial China policy, to the drafting of the Constitution for the new Central Tibetan Administration in the 1960s (which would enable negotiations with China for the next forty decades), and the earlier rise of human rights discourse, and so on. These practices are not merely contradictions as assumed by Donald Lopez. Lopez, according to Walser, simply assumes that the relationship between the Dalai Lama and his Western and Tibetan audiences constitutes a form of “communication … [based on] a two-way Sausseurian sender and receiver model” where the Dalai Lama is simply preaching to gullible followers (21).

Walser’s is not the common and facile attempt to suggest that Buddhists have agency, a misguided project that for some reason has captivated so many scholars of Buddhism. Tracing the connections between power and emptiness, where “power is only power to the extent it is recognized” (29), Walser juxtaposes the sixteenth-century judicial idea of the king’s two bodies in England and the sovereign body politic of the Dalai Lama’s incarnation as Avalokiteśvara who stands outside of judicial time. He notes a shift of emphasis in the Tibetan Constitution where the Dalai Lama does not stand for the bodhisattva he is known as, but now occupies the position of the primordial Buddha himself (dharmakāya).

If the English in the sixteenth century were not genetically predisposed to recognizing the divine sovereignty of the king without the particular state-sponsored programs like the Homilies and the Book of Common Prayer initiated by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, by the same token, the Tibetans and other new non-Tibetan initiates today cannot recognize the new sovereignty of the Dalai Lama’s office without programs like kālacakra initiations making possible a new set of dispositions. Attended by hundreds of thousands, the kālacakra initiations that the Dalai Lama performs reconstruct the relation between his office and the idea of dharmakāya/emptiness that is political and yet now not recognized as such. In simple terms, the “religious” office of the Dalai Lama defines a new sovereignty in which he is no longer political but a “purely religious” figure who embodies the sovereignty defined as emptiness—a qualification that is different from the Qing dynasty and its pasts (35).

The point is not that emptiness has taken on a new political role under the guise of the religious, but that emptiness is part of a genealogy where its use determines its meaning in changing conditions, and the disposition that such use presupposes cannot be subsumed into a seamless historical narrative about emptiness. The implicit challenge, then, is how to think about this use of emptiness within a discursive tradition of Mahāyāna (Tibetan) Buddhism constituting a form of life, on which I will comment later.

The retrospective genealogy continues in chapter three, where Walser discusses how the ideas of mind-only and emptiness came to be understood during the early days of the republican China and the preceding Qing dynasty (1644-1912). The first decades of the republic in which the newly coined concept of “religion” (zongjiao) urges a distinction from “superstition” also see the reforms to Buddhism proposed by Chan monk Taixu. As Taixu sees it, the central feature of Mahāyāna Buddhism that surpassed even science is “the doctrine that all things are nothing but the mind” (43). Once presented as philosophical “doctrine,” Taixu’s Buddhism is not concerned with carving out a political domain that would infringe upon the dominion of the newly founded state.

Taixu’s reforms are a legacy of the immediately preceding generation’s efforts to reform the Qing Dynasty in its final days. Indeed, the Yogācāra philosophy and in particular its doctrine of mind-only played an important role in both educational reform and the establishment of Buddhism as a “religion.” (44)

Following the Christian Taiping Rebellion and the First and the Second Opium Wars, the attempts to dissociate Buddhism from the state in the late Qing coincided with policies like the confiscation of monastic property and the conversion of unregistered academies and temples into “schools” in the contexts of reforms proposed by Kang Youwei (1858-1927). But a couple of centuries earlier, under Emperor Yongzheng (1678-1735) and his son Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), the state’s authority was positioned relative to Buddhism in different ways. In order to suppress the Ming loyalists who claimed to be Zen experts and questioned the legitimacy of the Qing dynasty, Emperor Yongzheng not only wrote treatises on Confucian virtue and Chan (aka Zen) emptiness for the Confucian scholars who at the same time were patrons of Chan Buddhism and debated with others about the essence of Zen; during his practice of Zen as a prince, he also claimed to have attained enlightenment/great wisdom, which was confirmed for the first time by a Tantric master whose later incarnation would initiate his own son Qianlong. Qianlong studied Tantra under a Mongolian Gelukpa monk, and later his initiation was compared to the initiation of Kublai Khan (1215-1294) by Pakpa (a relation that would be pivotal to the creation of the institution of the Dalai Lama under Altan Khan), in turn pointing to the historical relations between the Mongol lords and lamas that “would become the backbone of the Chinese/Tibetan relations” in the Qing (55).

It also suggested that Qianlong was a manifestation of the same sword-wielding bodhisattva Mañjuśrī as Kublai Khan himself was seen as a manifestation of the same bodhisattva. Qianlong, who saw his own father as an incarnation of the Buddha, sought to define a relation between his imperial power and his use of the concepts of mind and emptiness with polyvalence, which would oblige his Buddhist, Confucianist, and Daoist audiences to engage them. One can find such polyvalence, Walser says, in the inscriptions that Qianlong erected in and around the Yonghegong temple in Beijing. One inscription is seemingly cast in a Confucian language of filial piety, subordinating city gods to the Beijing temple, but it was placed within the larger economy of a Buddhist mandala (“circle”), which “was first a political term for the schematization of political alliances, with the sovereign in the center and the orders of his allies from the inner circle to more distant allies” (51).

Indeed, when the Qing took over Beijing, they rearranged the city in terms of a mandala by rearranging its population according to perceived ethnic rank. In another inscription stating that the title of Dali Lama is to be confirmed by the Qing, Qianlong states that he has absolute authority over the Tibetans and Mongols not simply because of his military power but because of his knowledge of Buddhism, which includes the practice of meditation. As in the reported confirmation of his Enlightenment, the emphasis on his practice of meditation is not about private experience but has to be seen against the backdrop of the debates about Zen, a debate into which he enters by publishing his own authoritative account of Zen, inviting any who disagree with his claims to debate him in his court.

Against the claim by some scholars that the late Imperial China was Confucian and not Buddhist, Walser argues that the emperors of late Imperial China were working on multiple religious registers simultaneously. Walser’s analysis makes us rethink the boundedness of “Buddhism” in terms of distinctions of Buddhism and Confucianism and rather see the relation between Buddhism and the generation of a new sovereignty. And, as I would put it, that distinction has to be rethought in terms of a form of life constituted by the attitudes and arguments at specific times that we now come to designate as an entity called Buddhism already different from Confucianism. 

The ambitious chapter four extends the discussion of the relation between emptiness and authority in a landscape of power spanning the second millennium B.C.E. to the sixteenth century C.E. Walser’s argument is that the Chinese could “recognize” Buddhist discussions of emptiness in part because the use of the “image” of emptiness was something already familiar to them well before Buddhism’s arrival in the country. This does not imply that emptiness was a universal signifier, but that power deployed in courtly circles would create dispositions for recognizing emptiness as an existing image of apical authority. Building on Stuart Hall’s argument, Walser writes:

We all know what emptiness is. I walk to where I parked the car and to my horror find the parking space empty. Similarly, I assume that we have at least a passing acquaintance with our relatives and ancestors and with the pole star in the sky or soil from the ground. These are items that are simply among the realia that populate our lives. But when used in discourses of power in China, they have to be treated as what Stuart Hall has dubbed “coded signs.” (74)

Coded signs are like Peirce’s “iconic signs,” but for Hall, the mode of their decoding that makes the coding invisible is part of a “discursive practice” (Hall’s words). Thus, following Pankenier and Puett, Walser argues that the notion of Di in the Shang dynasty becomes a coded image of emptiness—by coupling the remoteness of the celestial pole with the authority of the maximal abstraction of the remoteness of ancestors. The resulting Di gets encoded in the Zhou dynasty as the ultimate ancestor, and later as dao qua emptiness in the Warring States period.

For Walser, the connection between the apex and political domain is not self-evident. Its connection to power had to be repeatedly argued: “That the dao that it offered up was understood to be political is borne out of the fact that other texts explicitly instruct the king to meditate on it to consolidate his rule” (80). With a brief discussion of the rise of Feng and Shan rituals of the Qin dynasty (rituals that would be crucial to other dynasties for the next 1,200 years) and of the history of attempts to appropriate the old icons of imperial authority, as well as of the cosmogonic texts by the Daoist Celestial Masters, Walser says that the important question is not whether the emphasis on emptiness in later Daoist or Buddhist texts (like the Treasure Store Treatise) is really “Buddhist” or “Daoist,” but that the decoding and encoding of that notion operated in relation to authority and power for those persons with the particular competency who can recognize it as such. He writes:

when Buddhists came to China, they were already using emptiness as an icon of ultimacy and were able to rather quickly decode the emptiness of Daoist and Confucian discourse as their own emptiness. In return, courts from early Han onward begin to coopt the dao or Buddhist icons of emptiness or the bodhisattva to decode the authority of their own emperors. (84-85)

One can get a sense of the workings of such authority, for example, in how neo-Confucians like Zhang Zai (1020-1077 C.E.) began to articulate an apical notion of emptiness to be inherent in the cosmic order and the use of emptiness as the ultimate ancestor by Buddhist and Daoist monastic orders to create a mirror image of the imperial lineage within the fictive kinship of the zong lineage system. Buddhist and Daoist priests were hired to manage the local shrines, to conduct rituals like chanting sūtras for the ancestors, and to perform exorcism rituals in order to subordinate these temples to the imperial hierarchy of temples.

This hierarchy was initially defined by the granting of soil by the emperor to subordinate lords and their subsequent establishment of “soil altars.” This hierarchy of temples ascending to the pinnacle occupied by the emperor himself becomes a way of incorporating local authority into the pyramid of the empire with the emperor at the apex.

The title of chapter five, “Buddha Veda,” is an allusion to the fact that at least one Tang author using Tantric translations of texts called that form of Buddhism “Buddha Veda” or “Buddhist Veda.” “Buddhist Veda”—according to Robert Sharf—is a term that Yixing (683-727) uses to talk about the Buddhist “appropriations” of the Vedic ideas. But, unfortunately, in a manner typical of Buddhist Studies that naturalizes a distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism, Sharf calls Yixing’s views of Buddhism “Brahmanization of Buddhism,” a characterization that fails to understand how the use of ideas in an embodied tradition works without a modern sense of amalgamation or hybridity.

The very idea of a Buddhist Veda would not simply appear as a mixture of two things to one who uses it within a form of life unless it were part of a different discursive space where questions about it would arise, rendering it a problem. The “Brahmanization of Buddhism” or the “amalgamation of Buddhism to Hinduism,” as Walser argues, runs the risk of treating it “as if the resulting hybrid Mahāyāna were a religious mule, the offspring of a Brahmanical horse and a Buddhist donkey. The assumption here is that the default or natural state of each religion is marked by incompatible or incommensurate doctrines” (99).

What often escapes scholars, Walser says, is that religious distinctions are what people make, and they do not pre-exist in religions or in nature retrieved by the academics as universal representations. The ensuing discussion in the chapter shows how the nineteenth-century non-Brahmanical sect of the Mahima Dharma Saṃpradāya in Orissa came to identify God with alekha (the unwritten) and śūnya (the empty). The identification of God with emptiness, not uncommon in Eastern India, is already found in the sixteenth-century santha tradition where Caitānya himself is considered to be both the Buddha and Lord Jagannātha. Lord Jagannātha himself is earlier called the “Empty Person” (Śūnyapuruṣa), a practice bound up with the politics of the kings who sought alliances with tribal groups by identifying their deities with pan-regional “Hindu” gods.

Particular gods could be both recognized as regional deities and misrecognized as forms of “Śūnya Brahman” because the empty god can take any form. In the fourteenth century, the Orissan Vaiṣṇavite tradition describes the Buddha himself “in the form of the wooden Brahman—Jagannātha” (104).

In attending to the ways in which the image of emptiness gets encoded in these discursive terrains, Walser hints at a critique of other scholars without naming names—as he often does in the book, to the frustration of the reader:

Modern scholars may want to associate emptiness exclusively with Mahāyāna Buddhism, but if we were to take a trip into the way-back machine[,] we would find that emptiness is better described as a partially detachable image that shuttled between traditions (Buddhist/non-Buddhist, Brahmanical/non-Brahmanical and tribal) to function as its apex—with or without accentuating an air of “otherness.” (105)

Thus, Walser details how for Tibetan Buddhists like Maitrīpa (1010-1097), the teacher of the founder of the Tibetan Kagyu Yogi Marpa, “Buddhism is not … the polar opposite of Brahmanism” (109). As opposing medieval interpretations show, emptiness was “not understood to be exclusive property of Buddhists. It held pride of place among Buddhists precisely because it was a prize that everyone (ok, almost everyone) was after” (109-110).

Indeed, Walser says, śūnya is hardly treated as a Buddhist term in the works of later Kashmiri Saivism, nor was it employed as a particular marker of sectarian difference, a fact not easily translatable into our modern distinctions between Buddhism and Hinduism. For example, Walser argues that when the Kashmiri Śaiva Kṣemarāja (tenth to eleventh century) and the Vedāntin Sadānanda (fifteenth century) claim that the (Madhyamaka) Buddhist śūnya is based on their reading of specific Vedic ideas, they are not only making authoritative claims about emptiness, but also “probably characterizing Buddhists they knew” (111).

After all, according to the seventeenth-century Jesuit Roberto de Nobili, Buddhists did not die out in India as popular accounts would have us believe; the Tamil Buddhists that de Nobili encountered were Brahmins wearing the sacred thread! What Walser’s reading of this history suggests is not just that Buddhism and Brahmanism were not categorically opposed, but that emptiness was a social discourse and not merely the philosophy of private meditation as scholars of Buddhism often assume. What needs to be emphasized, however, is that the very idea that the figures (like Maitrīpa) came to contest even the disciple’s (śrāvaka) non-Mahāyāna meditations on emptiness or others (like Kṣemarāja) who could lump the Madhyamaka with Vedic ideas only speaks to how the concepts of a so-called Buddhist philosophy exclusive to Buddhists are hardly intelligible unmoored from the social domain where they become the subject of discussion. If they were private and cognitive Buddhist concepts, non-Buddhists could not make rival claims about them.

In the rest of the chapter, Walser goes on to show that if Maitrīpa assumed that “Mahāyāna is the pinnacle of Buddhism” in his debates with others in the sixth century, the Madhyamaka author Bhāviveka distinguished but did not separate the Mahāyāna from the Śrāvakayāna or Yogācāra (111, 116). Even in his responses to the opponents’ claims that Mahāyāna isvedānta—interestingly Śaṅkara himself was accused of being crypto-Buddhist by Bhāskara and Vijñānabhikṣu—Bhāviveka “does not flatly denounce vedānta” but includes it within the Mahāyāna “with a twist.” Bhāviveka says that “everything that is well spoken (sūkta) in the Vedānta is taught by the Buddha” (119).

Walser’s point is that we cannot understand this kind premodern practice of Buddhism—Halbfass inadequately called Indian doxographic works “inclusivistic”—with the modern scholar’s assumptions that the historical Buddhist only read Buddhist texts just like “Muslims revere the Koran while the Mormons use the Book of Mormon” (119). Thus, when Bhāviveka “equates the Mahāyāna dharma body of the Buddha with the brahman,” he is part of a game that he wants to win; to deny brahman would be to deny the game itself (121-122).

Chapters six through nine are largely designed for the specialists, and I will comment on what this may say about the state of Mahāyāna Buddhist Studies vis-à-vis the problem of area studies. Now among Bhāviveka’s claims against opponents of Mahāyāna is that they have not quite grasped the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 lines. Bhāviveka is saying that “the cessation of cognition (i.e., non-apprehension) marks the culmination of that for which both Buddhists and vedāntins aspire—and as such it is distinguished as the Mahāyāna” (123). In chapter six, Walser argues that, contrary to the claims by scholars like Orsborn, the central teaching of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) was not suchness, selflessness or even emptiness.

These concepts begin to make their way into the text as it gets “changed”—depending on who views it that way in history—growing from a few paragraphs to 8,000, 10,000, 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 lines. Walser does not, however, consider these changes secondary because he says, “it is in the textual accretions [a word not without problems as Buddhists reading it as a coherent text would not see them as “accretions”] that we learn how its early communities understood its teaching.” Indeed, “‘emptiness’ (śūnyatā) … makes its first appearance at the beginning of the second chapter” of the text (151). The same can be said for “suchness” (tathatā), which Orsborn thinks is the central part of the Perfection of Wisdom. Here Walser disagrees with other scholars like Schmithausen to suggest that the absence of emptiness does not mean that the early part of the text was based on “the Hīnayānist teaching of selflessness.” Walser writes:

Both emptiness and suchness were already well-established terms in the canon, and yet, as the discussion of Bhāviveka in the previous chapter shows, the Mahāyāna-inflected “emptiness” never really loses its sense of non-perception and non-conceptualization. What the Perfection of Wisdom does then is to inflect each of these already familiar terms through juxtaposition with non-apprehension and mindlessness. As such, we cannot claim, as Schmithausen would have it, that the ur-sūtra was simply a Hīnayānist teaching of selflessness. (151)

The point is not so much that the text had multiple authors, but that the connections made between the text’s concepts and the Buddhist doctrines that already had social intelligibility show that it was “work that needed to be done to convince constituencies that needed to be convinced” (151). In other words, what we have here is a discursive tradition of a historical text in that what gets counted as Mahāyāna is something that has changed over time in terms of the relations of power between its authors, expected readers/audience, and commentators. This is what we see in part as the text’s emphasis changes, where, Walser says,

its authors initially understood its teaching on non-conceptualization not to mark out a different path, but to epitomize the path that everyone already subscribed to. This, of course, changes in later strata even within the first chapter so that we get the passage later in the first chapter saying that the samādhi of non-grasping is not held in common with the śrāvakas [disciples] or pratyekabuddhas [the Buddhas who cannot help enlighten others]. (154)

So, where the Buddhalogists consider ideas such as emptiness, suchness, and even Mahāyāna itself to be “doctrines” needing their philosophical interpretation, one must, according to Walser, find relations of power where the use of such ideas entails capacities to do certain things in particular ways as part of a mode of living.

Walser’s concern in the next chapter is to take up a question about the Perfection of Wisdom that many Buddhalogists would consider inadvisable because they would prefer to take its ideas at face value, as doctrines limited to the texts’ own architecture that have to be made sense of within the bounds of the text itself. For example, even though a scholar like Paul Harrison infers that the early Mahāyāna texts are based on “older traditions, both textual and ritual,” he still thinks that those traditions remain “out of reach” for modern scholars (158-159; Harrison’s words). Walser wants to question precisely this assumption by Harrison and what it presumes about the relations between texts, language, and tradition. With a discussion of Bakhtin’s ideas of language and heteroglossia, Walser understands the Mahāyāna sūtra as a “palimpsest”:

Some palimpsests boldly announce themselves while others blend in, and some texts even preserve signs of attempted erasure of the iterated source. In the following, I will attempt to show that the opening section of the Perfection of Wisdom contains a number of speech patterns adopted or adapted from a rather small suite of texts and as such it should be seen as engaged in and taking up a position within the set of concerns being debated with the suite. (160)

For Walser, the Perfection of Wisdom makes “intertextual” references, a concept I don’t find particularly illustrative; the use of language that Walser thinks of in terms of “iterated utterances” like quotations, parodies, and allusions presupposes power, and not something called intertextual. After all, it is precisely such a question of power vis-à-vis the Perfection of Wisdom that is ignored by scholars like Harrison.

Indeed, deciding what is and not a palimpsest (or a trace) within a text always involves power, a distinct disposition to be affected by what is deemed to be so. Thus, the semiotics of language (e.g., if a given utterance is a parody or an allusion) cannot be understood independent of power that cannot be assumed to preexist in all situations.[19] Walser’s point is both simple and important. That the Perfection of Wisdom is a text that draws on previous Buddhist texts is not, he says, an idea that is his alone. For example, Schmithausen, according to Walser,

takes the earliest kernel of the Non-Apprehension section to center on the thesis that the bodhisattva is not perceived (na sam-anu√paś)—a teaching that he argues is tantamount to the standard “hīnayānist” Buddhist doctrine of “essencelessness” or selflessness of the person (pudgala-nairātmya). (165)

“Schmithausen is,” Walser says, “on to something here,” as the former grants that the Perfection of Wisdom is “an adaptation of the genre of the selflessness sermons to suit the interests of bodhisattva groups,” but “exactly how Subhūti’s non-apprehension would have been recognized as having anything to do with selflessness is not immediately obvious” (165; the question in the first section of the sūtra is about non-apprehension, which has to do with Subhūti saying that even though the Buddha asked him to teach the perfection of wisdom to bodhisattvas, the latter cannot see any dharma bodhisattva).

If this text were on selflessness, it is unclear, Walser says, why it did not spell out that notion more clearly in the way the suttas talk about anatta, as in anattalakkhana sutta where the Buddha says form is not self, etc. The idea that one does not see a bodhisattva does not teach about selflessness in any way to suggest that it is based on the “Hīnayāna” prototype. Clearly in a move to engage the scholars of Mahāyāna Buddhist Studies whose works center around the translations and hermeneutics of texts—a problem, as I will note later, that continues to ghettoize the discipline as part of area studies—Walser locates numerous instances where the idea of non-seeing appears in the canonical texts in ways that shed light on its use in the Perfection of Wisdom.He argues that the latter’s non-perception of any bodhisattva “was meant to be read against canonical texts” (177).

The text is talking about non-perception, and not selflessness or, for that matter, emptiness. This is further evident, Walser says, in the way the very perfection of wisdom is said to accompany a “lack of fear.” Walser says that the key moment in the Perfection of Wisdom in which the Buddha lauds the one who does not grasp and see the bodhisattva does not fear must be seen against one particular canonical text called the Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta. So the question that Walser wants to pose at the end of the chapter is whether the Perfection of Wisdom is drawing on the existing ideas or redefining them. His answer is that the text should be read as a particular conversation.

To the 21st-century English-speaker who approaches Conze’s translation of the opening of the Perfection of Wisdom with no other background in early Buddhist literature, Subhūti’s inapprehension of the c appears incoherent. … But this is because it was not written for that reader. To paraphrase Riffaterre, the opening section of the Perfection of Wisdom is a “sequence of embeddings, with each significant word summarizing a syntagm situated elsewhere” in the Tripiṭaka. The lack of sense on the page is resolved when understood or recognized as a response or a rejoinder to larger conversations. … Indeed, it is only against such a backdrop that the passage makes any sense [for the modern scholars]. (186)

In other words, where others find a historical text in isolation, Walser finds a conversation that necessarily involves relationships of power where what is being said presupposes a social background of the intelligibility of ideas. Or, as R. G. Collingwood would say, any historical text is an answer to a question, and while that question is lost on most modern scholars, it certainly would not have been lost on the Buddhists who read it in the context of its composition (29-43).

It is that question that Walser takes pains to tease out. But Walser grants (later) that an ongoing tradition of reading the Perfection of Wisdom at different times can interpret and translate it in other terms.[20] The Buddhists reading the Perfection of Wisdom in the eighteenth or the twenty-first century need not necessarily refer to the same question that the text sought to answer in the second century. A twenty-first-century Buddhist reading of the text could be made possible by different configurations of power that suppose different kinds of questions and sensibilities.  

Chapter eight continues the concern with the text as a palimpsest. Whereas in the previous chapter his concern was with non-apprehension, here Walser wants to offer one “possible” way of understanding the seemingly enigmatic “punchline” of the Perfection of Wisdom.

After Subhūti tells Śāriputra that “the thought or mind [of the bodhisattva] should not think itself to be a bodhisattva,” we come to what we would expect to be the punchline of the entire sutra. Why should it not recognize a bodhisattva? The answer is … drumroll … “that thought is no thought!” (tac cittaṃ acittaṃ) <sound of crickets chirping>. (190)

This is one of Walser’s many witty statements that at times help to retain the reader’s attention, especially in the chapters that seem to involve eccentric doctrines attractive largely to those of philological orientations and occasionally to some Buddhist wisdom enthusiasts. The statement is nonsensical, Walser says, because

if Subhūti had said that the bodhisattva’s thought does not cognize itself to be a bodhisattva, it might make sense to say that it is not aware of it because bodhisattvas don’t exist or because bodhisattvas are somehow insentient. But the optative here means that bodhisattva’s thought should not cognize itself as a bodhisattva (i.e., some bodhisattvas might do so but they shouldn’t) because for all bodhisattvas (good and bad) that thought is apparently already insentient. (190)

Walser says that even if we accept Conze’s translation that “‘thought is no-thought since in its essential original nature thought is transparently luminous’ (prakṛtiś cittasya prabhāsvarā) …, it is not immediately clear why a luminous awareness would not be aware” (191). Walser’s point is that if we want to understand what “thought is not thought” is speaking about, we must read it against the background of Brahmanical writings. First, after a careful survey of how the tradition views the relation between no thought and cessation in different ways, Walser suggests that nothing akin to the statement can be found in canonical texts. For him, the most suitable candidate is to be found in the Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad.

Even though other Brahmanical texts like the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa say, “There was then neither the non-existent nor the existent; for Mind was, as it were, neither existent nor non-existent,” the word used in that context is manas and not citta. But the Maitrāyaṇīya Upsaniṣad uses manas and citta as synonyms when it describes the ultimate state as “acitta” (206-209). In that same Upsaniṣad, there is a “full-blown hymn to mind” where “the simile … likens the mind becoming pacified ‘in its point of origin’ to a fire that dies down ‘in its hearth’ due to lack of fuel” (209). More importantly for the Perfection of Wisdom, the Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad says: “Acitta is in the midst of citta (accitaṃ citta-madhyastham), unthinkable, hidden, and ultimate; there, citta should meditate on itself and (know) its subtle body [liṅga] to be without support” (208). And indeed, the very idea of a “luminous” mind is said to eliminate karma. Walser writes:

In verse 4 we are told that the tranquility (or luminosity – prasāda) of the mind destroys karma. Van Buitenen then has “with tranquil spirit (prasanna ātma) abiding in one’s self (ātmani sthitvā) enjoys eternal bliss.” Since the prasāda modifies citta at the beginning, and ātman in the second half, I think we are safe in identifying atman with citta and manas in this case. (210)

And later in verse seven, Walser says, we find a discussion of how manas that becomes “stable” enters into a “state of mindlessness” (amano-bhāvaṃ), and amana here becomes a synonym for acitta! Mind becomes mindless only when it has returned to its original state. Walser says that

Van Buitenen has it that this bliss occurs “when the pure mind has been brought into the self.” While the Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad is not shy about discussing atman, I think that the context of the immediately following verse requires us to read atmāni here as a reflexive pronoun, “When the pure mind has being brought into itself.” (210)

That is, as the next verse says, “for the one whose mind enters inside [itself] (antar-gataṃ) [like] water in water or fire in fire or void [vyoma] in void is no longer distinguished, so he is fully released.” “So too,” Walser says, “the mind returned to itself can no longer be distinguished” (210). This is the background against which “thought is no thought” has to be read if we want to understand it. Again, this does not mean that a historical discursive tradition of Buddhists reading this text has to necessarily conform to the context of its writing.

There are, Walser says, other fascinating connections between the Brahmanical and Buddhist writings, with winks to the audience who came from the Maitrāyaṇībackground. So Walser wonders if it is an accident that the main interlocutor of the Perfection of Wisdom is named “Subhūti” because Maitrāyaṇī Samhitā alone has the word “subhūtāya” in its opening line. The Maitrāyaṇī śākhā would then be the sole Vedic branch whose tradition “lauds the ideal mind as an acittaṃ cittaṃ” (215). And even in the early part of the Perfection of Wisdom, in a discussion of mindlessness, someone named “Pūrṇa Maitrāyaṇī-Putra” appears from nowhere and asks Subhūti a question about the Mahāyāna. Walser suspects Maitrāyaṇīputra

gets his cameo here because he was known for his likening of the Buddhist path to “a relay of chariots,” (Rathavinīta) in the Majjhima Nikāya sutra of the same name, and indeed, the appearance of Maitrāyaṇīputrahere and his exit later in the chapter brackets the entire discussion of the Great Vehicle. … In all early versions, Maitrāyaṇīputra’sname would occur immediately after the sentence about mindlessness. (215-216)

Walser’s question is not simply whether the Perfection of Wisdom is really a “Brahmanical” variety, even though it may surprise some that a MaitrāyaṇīBrahmin became a monk, the examples of which can be found in other historical contexts. But viewed from our modern lenses of Buddhism and Hinduism, we cannot quite understand how a text like the Perfection of Wisdom drew on “non-Buddhist” ideas to cast them differently, supposing an audience that would have “Brahmanical competencies” to understand them.

This points to the “needs of a community” that consisted of Brahmanical Buddhists (again, something Walser says that modern scholars have difficulty thinking about because of their disciplinary assumptions about essences like “selflessness” that supposedly separate “Buddhism” from “Hinduism” across historical contexts). After all, we find references in canonical texts to monks who never lose their status as Brahmins. The ideas like the “mindless mind” are not confined to the Perfection of Wisdom, and they are also found in the Tripiṭaka.

Thus, if the Perfection of Wisdom is drawing on ideas and wording from the Maitrāyaṇīya Upaniṣad, then it is in keeping with a practice that had already begun in the canon itself. “The Perfection of Wisdom thus becomes a ‘revolution’ only in this retrospect. From the vantage point of its authors, it was what their group had been doing all along” (218). Chapter nine, which could also have been titled “Where Else are the Brahmins?” tries to locate relations of power between Brahmins and Buddhists in the genealogy of the ideas in the Perfection of Wisdom. In the first part, Walser argues that there were other texts that sought to “represent an early form of Mahāyāna Buddhism.” “Early,” he says, because “proto-Mahāyāna” texts such as the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthānasūtra take up ideas like bodhisattvas without ever mentioning the word “Mahāyāna.”

This text, unlike the Perfection of Wisdom, “presents Brahmins (and especially their aversion to eating cows) as ‘outsiders’” (225), which in itself is a recognition of a power relationship between Buddhists and Brahmins. But Walser is interested in texts more contemporary to the Perfection of Wisdom which “do mention Mahāyāna and/or bodhisattvas found among the Late Han Dynasty and early Three Kingdoms Period Chinese translations” (225). One such Chinese-translated text is Mañjuśrī’s Inquiry Concerning the Office of the Bodhisattva Sūtra.

This fascinating text, which “comes closest thematically to the Perfection of Wisdom,” mentions the Buddha teaching the office of the Tathagata to some 500 Brahmins, “and yet, there is no indication that the practices here were understood to have anything to do with something called ‘perfection of wisdom’” (226, 229). “The text is certainly aware of six perfections. … But when the text comes to describe the perfection of wisdom itself, it merely glosses it as ‘having heard much’ … (i.e., one becomes a ‘learned’ bāhuśrūtīya monk” (229).

What we have here, then, is a competing discursive tradition; while some texts assume to describe “Mahāyāna” ideas to an audience without having to explain them as Mahāyāna, connecting these ideas with something called Mahāyāna was “(a unique?) innovation of the early Perfection of Wisdom” (229).

Even though Walser does not explicitly pursue this question of tradition in this or other chapters, the suggestion is nonetheless here for the reader’s consideration. What I think needs to be spelled out more broadly is what these competing views of “Mahāyāna” mean for thinking about a tradition whose coherence both depends on and is rendered unstable by such rival views. This seems important because Walser himself mentions the idea of coherence vis-à-vis the early Mahāyāna concepts. As I have already noted, such a notion of tradition helps to dispense with modern assumptions about multiple (Mahāyāna) Buddhisms (e.g., Silk and Harrison), a notion that occludes the role of power in a coherent form of life.

In other words, competing views within a tradition cannot simply be explained as mere examples of multiple Mahāyānas as they already suppose power—that is, competencies to understand what concepts constitute “perfection of wisdom,” “having heard much,” “Mahāyāna,” and so forth—making possible a coherent form of life in an organized “community,” to which Walser makes a passing allusion in the chapter. The study of such premodern religious power has necessarily broad implications for thinking about forms of power that inform the questions of modern life.

In the rest of the chapter, Walser tries to locate the earliest circulations of the Perfection of Wisdom by discussing in part a technical point about the concept araṇavihāra. Walser says that the connection between the statement in the Perfection of Wisdom that Subhūti is—according to the Buddha—foremost at the practice of araṇavihāraand the bodhisattvas’ achievement of “irreversibility” that Schmithausen finds hard to grasp only makes sense if we understand the Brahmanical and Sarvāstivādin contexts(234). The notion that Subhūti can help to “stop the defilements in someone else” because he “dwells in araṇa” makes sense only if Subhūti can enter other people’s minds (234, 238).

Entering others’ minds is an idea, Walser says, found in the Mahābhārata where a Brahmin “nun” (bhikṣukī) is said to have entered a king’s mind—an idea also in the Maitrāyaṇīya Upsaniṣad. But it is only in Northern Sarvāstivādin texts and in the Khotanese version of the Vajracchedikāsūtra that we find the ability to enter another person’s mind stream referred to as araṇavihāra. This is “regionally specific and not some pan-Indic understanding of the state” (234). Based on the ideas in the Perfection of Wisdom that intersect with other texts, Walser argues that the former was written in Mathura in the first century C.E. Again, the larger point that needs to be emphasized here is about the connection between language and tradition; the Perfection of Wisdom’s “intersection” with other texts already presupposes an audience with distinct abilities to understand the texts within a discursive tradition that clearly competes with other interpretations of such concepts.

This is why the concepts—araṇavihāra, non-apprehension, mind-is-mindless, and so forth—are not simply given as independent signs for scholars’ philosophical decoding and interpretation. Scholars can, of course, decode and abstract their own interpretation of such Buddhist concepts through—as Nietzsche would surely say—a will to power. But that abstracted version of their decoding may have nothing to do with how Buddhists thought about the concepts in history; or, by some chance (akin to a broken watch being right twice a day), it may echo one interpretation among competing Buddhist interpretations of such concepts, ignorant of power relations that made them possible at a moment in time.[21]

What is complex about a genealogy of concepts is that a scholar cannot simply echo a given historical definition without running the risk of neglecting such historical power and debate whose social-temporal sensibilities and stakes cannot be easily reproduced to yield the same consequences across time. This opens up fascinating questions about the limits of concepts vis-à-vis the bounds of debates. At one point, Walser himself notes that “the bounds and the boundaries of debates determine the boundaries of the tradition” (248). But thinking about such questions is preempted by the scholars’ attempts to secure particular conceptions of Buddhism in terms of “the cardinal doctrine of Indian Buddhist thought … is … no-self” (Arnold) or “the task of comprehending Buddhism as a whole” (Harrison) or how “we should speak of these Mahāyānas in the plural” (Silk). I will return to this problem in the conclusion.

In the last chapter, Walser tries to open up a broader inquiry into what sort of dispositions were needed to understand concepts such as emptiness and mind-only. He does so by commenting on the relation between the genealogy of such concepts and power:

The Buddhist Brahmins of the first and the second century had a set of concerns and literary capital that were radically different from those of Tsongkhapa, Mazu, Bankai or Alan Watts. When each of the latter decode Mahāyāna discussions of emptiness and mind, they do so within the codes bequeathed to them by their immediate teachers and environments. And yet, despite the fissiparous effects of time we find that the doctrine of emptiness, the luminous mind, or the Buddha mind are as important within Buddhist debates of the 21st century as they were in the first century.

So, am I saying that the Yogācāra doctrine of mind-only is somehow the same as the Madhyamaka doctrine of emptiness? To say that the two are the same or different would similarly be to take a normative stance on something that in fact was long debated. … The suite of early Mahāyāna texts may (returning to Hall) have encoded a set of concerns about mind and authority then current among first-century Kṛṣṇa Yajurvedins, but these texts were taken out of the social milieu of the communities that had the proper literary capital to decode them in the way they were encoded. It was pretty easy for Tsongkhapa, etc. to assume that Mahāyāna had nothing to do with the Vedic tradition, because they didn’t know any Brahmins. (248)

Part of the attempt in the chapter is to locate how “debate” about the foundation (brahmodya) worked in the Brahmanical and Buddhist texts. In particular, Walser undertakes a reading of how the Uṇṇābhabrāhmaṇasutta and the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad take up seemingly metaphysical questions about the ground of beings. These two texts, Walser says, are structurally similar. In the Uṇṇābhabrāhmaṇasutta, in response to a series of questions, the Buddha tells the Brahmin Uṇṇābha that he should not ask questions about what nirvana depends on because, unlike other things, nirvana depends on nothing.

And in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, we find a dialogue where, in a response to a series of questions about the ultimate ground of all things, the sage Yājñavalkya says to the interlocutor Gargī that she should not ask such questions about the worlds of brahman. These dialogues, for Walser, mark a “contest” where the mastery of particular ideas, being able to answer questions about “what is prior to thought,” does not involve “private” meditations; rather they constitute social competencies that texts talk about as marks of knowledge and distinction within a discursive arena. Indeed, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad describes the site in which one can demonstrate such knowledge as brahmodya whose ideal arena was the coronation sacrifice.

For Walser, the social competencies needed to understand these kinds of questions were possible within “‘ideological state apparatuses’ to the extent they disseminated and inculcated [a word, again, I think is not the most apt for describing the acquisitions of] dispositions to centralized authority in the form of mythological monogenesis of cosmic power” (250).[22] To further show how even Buddhist texts take for granted such social dispositions to authority, Walser reads a Brahmanical depiction of the horse sacrifice in connection with a Buddhist narrative about the monk Nandika committing a pārājika (one of four grave offenses by which a monk becomes “defeated”).

In the former, we find a queen depicted as having sex with a horse while the king, who has been celibate for a year, watches the act. In the Buddhist narrative, we find the monk Nandika, who violates the pārājika rule forbidding sexual transgressions—not just by having sex—but by having sex with a dead horse! (The monk chases after a Māra’s daughter, who tempts him and then hides herself near the carcass of a horse in a moat.)

It seems that for Walser, the question of why the monk is reported to have sex with a dead horse can only be read against the Brahmanical narrative that has to do with a question of political sovereignty. He sees in the Buddhist narrative a form of willful misrecognition.

Thus, when Nandika commits the first pārājika offense and has sex, he is no longer hyper-masculine like the [celibate] sovereign at the Horse Sacrifice, but his gender is rather deliberately mis-recognized and inverted to that of the queen, who does have sex with the dead horse. While the queen’s gender virtues may be augmented by this association, power is always gender-specific and reading Nandika as the queen only highlights his distance from the masculine power of the king. Thus, the Buddhists in embracing celibacy were not thereby resisting some universal Brahmanical order but were rather disseminating and naturalizing its mark of sovereignty so that it might be universally recognized when the king performs it in the legitimation of his rule. (266)

 Some scholars may ask for “direct evidence,” but, of course, historical Buddhists did not have to footnote texts as we do. After all, Walser’s argument is that the premodern texts animate distinct relationships where the audience is assumed to be attuned to their rhetorical allusions, that is, power that helps to authorize the Buddhist misrecognitions of Brahmanical ideas. To recognize those misrecognitions, one needs to have trained dispositions. Lest one mistake his argument, Walser is not claiming that Buddhists misrecognized Brahmanical ideas to simply mock them as, for example, Richard Gombrich says. For Gombrich, the Buddha often inverted Brahmanical ideas because there was already something called “Buddhism” pitted against “Hinduism” whole cloth.[23] 

Walser understands the formations of dispositions vis-à-vis the early Mahāyāna texts in terms of an “ideological state apparatus,” an idea by which Althusser sees “state power” and “state apparatus” to be distinct but related. In using Althusser, he tries to show how power is reproduced within changing political contexts of reading and interpreting Mahāyāna concepts—from the twentiethcentury to the time of the Perfection of Wisdom—while noting that “Buddhist monasteries and Brahmanical ashrams were not political in the sense of exercising administrative control of sizable populations in early India” (250).

As for his question about the reproduction of power, I think it would have been more fruitful to think about Talal Asad’s argument about power and authority in the medieval Christian practice. (I am puzzled by the lack of any reference in Walser’s book to Asad’s work). The question of how power gets “reproduced”—this is not exactly how Asad would put it—cannot be addressed without attention to the obvious conditions that make it possible.

One of Asad’s arguments is that the relation between power and authority in medieval Christian practice operated within the necessary conditions and limits of a monastic community. Thus, living a common form of life in relation to medieval works like the Rule of St. Benedict, the penitentials, De sacramentis christianae fidei by Hugh of St. Victor, the sermons by Bernard of Clairvaux, and so forth required “programs of discipline” enforced within an organized community.

The programs allowed monks to cultivate Christian capacities to understand what constituted a proper sacrament, penance, confession, gesture, definition of heresy, and so forth, as they lived a form of life. The authority of the program informed by a binding relationship between monks and the abbot sought to “achieve coherence in doctrines and practices” but within an ongoing tradition of argument (Asad Genealogies 62). Hence, power as capacity itself was not so much a natural property as it was something to be cultivated in a scheduled program of disciplinary practices. So Asad says that the texts themselves were “programs.”

While Walser is attentive to different historical configurations of Mahāyāna concepts, we don’t get a sense of what sorts of institutional structures, networks of relationships, programs of discipline, techniques of administration, and so forth were at work in these early Mahāyāna communities. We now know that even the practice of Buddhism in contemporary societies like Sri Lanka takes place within competing institutional networks. The lack of such a discussion is not necessarily Walser’s fault, but it speaks to the paucity of material. Nonetheless, I think that the historical studies of Buddhism (and Hinduism) cannot take for granted that they in themselves provide ready-made explanations of the relation between religious power and community.

And, in my view, we have yet to see any work on premodern practice of Buddhism or Hinduism that takes into account the relation between power, community, and tradition in the way Asad thinks about medieval religious practice. Thinking about the premodern relations between power and practice in the way Asad does has implications for understanding what programs and institutions become necessary to the modern formations of collective selves and ways of living.[24]

To sum up, I want to note two related points. Genealogies of Mahāyāna is a difficult but rewarding work, and contrary to the jacket description, I think that at least half of the book is not so easily accessible to undergraduates or even a scholarly audience outside of (Mahāyāna) Buddhist Studies. Clearly the book is intended to be a critique of the study of largely Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism. But while there are glimpses of passing critiques of some scholars of Mahāyāna, I think Walser could have made them broader. At times Walser assumes that the readers are already aware of the problems of the works against which he wants to provide a counter-history.

A close critical reading of the scholars’ claims about Mahāyāna Buddhism would have provided something of a theoretical backdrop that would have made the book more accessible to a wider readership in the humanities. A critical reading is necessitated by the book’s own theoretical framework. As I read it—and this a great strength of the work—Walser does not treat the Mahāyāna Buddhism as a direct object of study. The very genealogy of Mahāyāna Buddhism allows it to be approached only indirectly—that is, the question of what constitutes Mahāyāna can only be encountered in specific moments of authoritative debate.

Concepts like emptiness are debates in that what they mean can only be found in the historical moments of such debates and the forms of power that animate them. According to Walser’s initial framing of the question of genealogy, this is not how many modern scholars doing philosophical hermeneutics and translations of Mahāyāna texts think of Mahāyāna. Put differently, the point about genealogy and power is not about how “a grand picture of reality … is utterly misguided” because, as philosopher of Mahāyāna Buddhism Georges Dreyfus claims, “when human beings try to form an image of totality, I think it is important to understand that what they are doing has to be understood as some kind of mythmaking.” Dreyfus says that there is “nothing wrong” with such mythmaking, but he nonetheless finds it “unconvincing from the point of view of what I would call a more philosophically grounded inquiry.”

Dreyfus finds such a philosophically grounded inquiry, the presumed antidote to mythmaking, in the “Madhyamaka philosophy, that is, idea of the middle way, emptiness, and so on” Curiously, Dreyfus imputes the mythmaking of totality to human “imagination” across history. Thus, for Dreyfus, such mythmaking is as much a part of the modern attempts (Buddhist or otherwise) to construct a view of grand reality by combining science and religion as it is of the ancient “myth of the creation of the universe by Prajāpati … or the narrative of the genesis.”

The basic point, lost on Dreyfus, is that it is power and not imagination that forms “images of totality” in Buddhist history. And no philosophical inquiry (based on the Madhyamaka view of emptiness) can be separated from power that forms ideas of totality. Indeed, a “form of life” authorized by power always supposes a totality otherwise that life itself could not be lived in any moment of time.

And the Madhyamaka view, if there ever was such a thing, itself presupposes a totality, a total worldview, from the standpoint of those who talked about it as such a view in given moments of history. Call it “imagination” or call it “philosophy,” they are simply two sides of the will to power. This is one of Walser’s basic points of the book. But I think Walser should have carried out this kind of critique of scholarship more pointedly because the analysis of power has obviously not taken hold in Mahāyāna Buddhist Studies.

Walser’s book is an implicit critique of that problem in Mahāyāna Buddhist Studies because the thrust of his argument is that the concepts of Mahāyāna cannot be studied within the authorized disciplinary configurations of knowledge that go under the rubric “(Mahāyāna) Buddhism.” The book’s very thesis is that any genealogy of Mahāyāna must necessarily include what is not obviously “Mahāyāna”: the histories of Chinese Daoist, Confucian, Vedic, Brahmanical, and royal strategies. The rival uses of emptiness make it not easily possible to designate the concept of Mahāyāna purely under the sign “Buddhism” anymore. Scholars of Mahāyāna will ignore Walser’s arguments at the risk of reproducing the problem of area studies. 

The second point is that many of his extended discussions of Indic and Chinese texts could have been summarized by teasing out their main points and connecting them to broader questions about religion, politics, and power in the humanities. But the ostensible necessity of those discussions in the book, obviously aimed to meet the expectations of the textual scholars, points to a problem that continues to confine questions about (Mahāyāna) Buddhism to the disciplinary protocols of empiricist knowledge shaped by the larger politics of “area studies,” whose problems have been well noted.[25] The problem of area studies is perhaps even amplified in Buddhist Studies.

This is, of course, the challenge of Nietzsche’s genealogy where, given Walser’s account, scholars will have to ask different questions about the concept rather than simply include it in the history of Buddhism, even if in multiple geopolitical spaces. But that idea of genealogy—again, if we take Walser’s book as the exception—remains still largely unexplored in Mahāyāna Studies, including questions about how one may think about a concept with a genealogy that cannot easily be inherited.[26]

We find in Walser’s book rich instances that gesture toward reflecting upon such questions about genealogy, but at the same time, the emphasis on the textual discussions designed for the textualists remains in tension with, if not overshadows, the initial theoretical framing that has the potential to make the questions of Mahāyāna find purchase beyond Buddhist Studies.

This is part of the colonial and postcolonial legacy that ghettoizes Buddhist Studies as an area study, whose particular examples are rendered usable for empiricist universal stories about Buddhism (as a “world religion”). If Walser had written a book with a large theoretical concentration, the textualists whose attention he clearly seeks to command would have asked something to the effect of “What does this have to do with Mayahana?” and dismissed the work entirely. Given my own experience with reviewers in Buddhist (and even religious) Studies, I suspect that even scholars of non-Indic Mahāyāna Buddhism are likely to wonder what the genealogy in the first part of the book has to do with “Buddhist emptiness.”

Indeed, the book anticipates and seeks to preempt precisely these assumptions about Mahāyāna, but the attempt to command the textualists’ attention runs the risk of leaving its theoretical insights mired in a mound of technical detail and of the whole being pulled back into the cul-de-sac of area studies. My point is not that the book is not theory-heavy. As I have noted in the review, there are fascinating theoretical insights throughout. But given the relation between (Mahāyāna) Buddhism and area studies, the field of Buddhist Studies is hardly considered by social and critical theorists as a proper locus of “theory,” in a legacy that cannot easily be isolated from historical inequalities of power and representation in the (post-)Orientalist authorizations of the distinctions between the West and East.[27]

One can, of course, find token gestures toward Buddhism among even well-known Western theorists, but they are often made in the form of singling out nirvana or emptiness as timeless essences of Buddhism. In his well-known book A Secular Age—while noting how Buddhism, like Christianity, “in spite of the great difference in doctrine,” calls on the followers “to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing” whose “normal understandings … assume a continuing self,”—Charles Taylor describes Buddhism in terms of a doctrinal principle: “The Buddhist doctrine of anatta bring us beyond this illusion.

The way to Nirvana involves renouncing, or at least going beyond, all forms of recognizable human flourishing” (17). More recently, in a remarkably faulty set of statements about how “Buddhism is a doctrinal system that denigrates our embodiment and our aspirations to lead a free, finite life,” philosopher and literary critic Martin Hägglund characterizes the ideal of nirvana as “self-contradictory” and something that even learned monks themselves could not live up to.

The ideal of a desexualized, desocialized, immaterial individual is, however, self-undermining. Even the most advanced Buddhist monk must in practice understand himself as an agent and exercise his spiritual freedom in order to submit to religious meditation. Yet the supposed goal of his purposive activity is to be released from all sense of agency and purpose. His life project is to let go of all projects in favor of an empty tranquility. My argument is that such an ideal is indeed empty and not worth striving for. (207; emphasis added)[28]

This kind of caricature of Buddhism, which could have been written by any Orientalist a century and a half ago, authorizes a contrast between social theory and Buddhism/Buddhist Studies in such a way as to render Buddhism as such universally identifiable. Yet these philosophers’ universal judgements about Buddhism are not different from the more learned (area studies) scholars’ claims that “the cardinal doctrine of Indian Buddhist thought … is … no-self” (Arnold) or “the task of comprehending Buddhism as a whole” (Harrison) or that “we should speak of these Mahāyānas in the plural” as “the contamination is complete, its history irreversible” (Silk). All these claims by both social science theorists and experts of Mahāyāna Studies operate in relation to a problem that animates area studies, that is, the translations of complex life-worlds into identifiable, universal knowledge.

Arnold’s view of the Buddhist “philosophy” of no-self and Harrison’s idea of “Buddhism as a whole” are all such translations into universal idioms. Even the very claims about multiple Mahāyānas/Buddhisms that we saw in Silk’s formulation already suppose a notion of contaminated hybridity, that is, a translation of a history that is “irreversible.”[29] And even the area studies of Theravāda Buddhism that claim to be more attuned to postcolonial “local” histories have been overtaken for the last decades by the task of translating local practices of Buddhism into a universal language of human “agency” and “resistance” (against colonial power).[30] The local is made meaningful through the universal idiom of self-owning subjectivity, which is a decades-old anthropological problem.[31]

As it was with that anthropology, ironically, reading local practice into universal language has prevented contemporary scholars of Buddhism from examining “many spatio-temporal complexities” as being “external to locally observable discourse and behavior.”[32] Both social science theorists and specialists of Buddhism, I hope, read Walser’s book because it urges us to think that competing uses of Buddhist concepts like emptiness that constitute a genealogy of a tradition are social practices of power, and they are not, as Harrison thinks, examples of “this or that localised expression of Buddhism,” some cultural manifestations of an area of Buddhism requiring translation.[33]

When I was a graduate student, I enrolled in a course on Mahāyāna Buddhism. As someone from Sri Lanka who had a bit of acquaintance with what Buddhists do on the island, I once asked the professor of that course, “where is politics in all this?” But the professor, with marked irritation, dismissed my question by saying, “there is no politics,” and moved on to discuss the doctrines he was really interested in. He never gave my question a second thought. Walser’s book is a sustained answer to that question.

Ananda Abeysekara is Associate Professor of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  His research and teaching have to do with Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka, South Asia, tradition, religion, and politics, religious practice and temporality, religion and secularism, political theories of sovereignty and state, liberal tradition and secular dispositions. He is the author of Colors of the Robe: Religion, Identity, and Difference (University of South Carolina Press, 2002).


[1]   For a critique of the same idea widespread in Theravāda Buddhist Studies, see Abeysekara “Protestant.” Two years before Silk’s essay, Aijaz Ahmad made a similar set of claims about how it was not just Europeans, but Muslims and Hindus in India as well, who make “epistemological and ontological distinctions between the East and the West” (31-39). For a critique of Ahmad, see Asad “Comment.”

[2] This view is not limited to the philosophers of Buddhism. Even historians of modern Theravāda Buddhism cannot resist the temptation to explain Buddhism in “one sentence.” In a response to a question about how “in Buddhism there is a real awareness … that there isn’t … a self-sufficiency of identity,” Erik Braun recently remarked: 

That’s quite true. You know, I often tell students a story about Suzuki Roshi, who founded the San Francisco Zen Center, that he was asked by one of his students—I think it was in the sixties— to tell them what Buddhism was in one sentence. And his response, after a pause, was: ‘everything changes.’ And that fundamentally gets to the idea that everything is what is called paṭiccasamuppāda in Pali or ‘Dependent Origination’; everything is in a causal matrix, so it’s all kind of bound up with one another. That’s quite true; there is no autonomy whatsoever. 

In abstracting a statement by a Buddhist at one particular point about “change” as demonstrative of what Buddhism is in one sentence, Braun takes “change” itself to be readily apparent to everyone at all times; that is, the perception of what constitutes change is assumed to be a universal capacity.

[3]        It is surprising that Arnold sees no problem with attempting “an interpretation of Madhyamaka” devoid of power despite the well-known criticisms of why religion cannot be simply interpreted without attending to modes of power that make it a practice contingent upon specific social conditions. That is, the very idea of “an interpretation of Madhyamaka” is an unsound exercise including the effort to figure out “the sense Madhyamaka makes as a Buddhist position.” The question is rather what competing discourses in history sought to define Madhyamika as Buddhist or not Buddhistand more importantly, for whom?

[4]        Nietzsche says: “Gefahr der Sprache für die geistige Freiheit. – Jedes Wort ist ein Vorurtheil” (WS 55).  

[5]        This is how Silk puts the supposed idea of “Buddhism as a whole”: “If we start with the assumption that there is something called Mahāyāna, but we do not know what its features are, we will want to look at the objects which we think might be definitive of Mahāyāna and extract from those the qualities which group or cluster them together. Moreover, if we think these same or other objects might also belong somehow to another set—even on a different logical level, for example, the set of Buddhism at large—we will want to have a way of determining to what extent the object is Mahāyāna and to what extent it is simply Buddhist” (95).

[6]        Wittgenstein is arguing against Frege, who “compares a concept to a region and says that a region without clear boundaries can’t be called a region at all.” “This presumably means,” Wittgenstein says, “we can’t do anything with it. — But is it senseless to say ‘Stay roughly here’? Imagine that I were standing with someone in a city square and said that. As I say it, I do not bother drawing any boundary, but just make a pointing gesture, as if I were indicating a particular spot” (§71). The important point is that Wittgenstein is not saying that we can only have a vague notion of a concept contrary to Frege’s claim, but that the drawing of a boundary is possible where there aren’t any boundaries yet (drawn visible to the one who is drawing it). For a discussion of boundary drawing as a particular cultural competency, see Walser “Classification.”

[7]        For a splendid discussion of how this problem emerges in colonial anthropology, see Scott Formations.

[8]        The idea of rituals as symbols “expressing” meanings has been criticized by Asad “Toward” and Scott “Exorcisms.”

[9]        As for the distinction between thought and expression, Wittgenstein asks famously, “Now if it were asked, ‘Do you have the thought before finding the expression?’, what would one have to reply? And what to the question, ‘What did the thought, as it existed before its expression, consist in?’” (§335). Here as elsewhere Wittgenstein shows, “we do not analyze a phenomenon (for example, thinking) but a concept (for example, that of thinking), and hence the application of a word” (§383).

[10]       Also see Genealogies, especially 125-135, for an argument about why the instruction of virtues in medieval Christianity is not merely based on communication.

[11]       For a recent claim about multiple Buddhisms, see Lammerts . 

[12]       As Asad explains, “modern capitalist enterprises and modernizing nation-states are the two of the most important powers that organize spaces today, defining, among other things, what is local and what is not. Being locatable, local peoples are those who can be observed, reached, and manipulated as and when required. Knowledge about local peoples is not itself local knowledge, as some anthropologists have thought (Geertz 1983). Nor is it simply universal in the sense of being accessible to everyone” (8-9). 

[13]       This category of the “local” is repeatedly and uncritically invoked, and contrasted to colonialism, in Theravāda Buddhist Studies. I comment on this in the conclusion.

[14]       As Asad writes more recently, “the ‘essence’ is not naturally determinable because it is subject to argument. A living tradition is not merely capable of containing conflict and disagreement; the search for what is essential itself provokes argument. A concern with ‘essence’ is therefore not quite the same as a concern with authenticity” (Asad Secular 95; also see his “Thinking”).

[15]       Jan Nattier’s idea of “mainstream Buddhism” is an example of the problem of not considering the concept of discursive tradition in Mahāyāna Buddhist Studies. As a neutral category, mainstream Buddhism treats the “mainstream” as an obvious space, obfuscating any questions of power that allow one to recognize what is mainstream, that is, what institutional nexuses and constraints are necessary to such recognition.

[16]       In a critique published in 2018, Drewes suggests that some prominent scholars such as Gregory Schopen, Paul Harrison, and others who “have criticised the idea of Buddhism as a religion or philosophy originally and essentially focussed on the quest for religious experience or enlightenment” still find it difficult to distance themselves from a Mahāyāna ultimately concerned with such things as “inward experience.” What is lacking in Drewes’s essay is attention to power, whose operations cannot be reduced to a question of the “actual history they neglect or efface … to depict peripheral tendencies” (87). Drewes takes both “actual” and “peripheral” as objective truths within texts, and not as distinctions made visible by power.   

[17]       Scott’s work was largely ignored by Buddhist Studies following an uncritical move to write “agency” into Buddhist history in colonial modernity, a move advanced by Charles Hallisey and followed by many other scholars. In his much-cited essay, Hallisey counsels other scholars: “We should avoid attributing too much force to the ‘West’ (or Christianity, or Protestant assumptions, or Orientalism) in the changes to Theravāda Buddhism which occurred in the nineteenth century,” as “it has the unintended consequence of once again hypostasizing and reifying an absolute divide between ‘the West’ and ‘the Orient’” and the “ironic effect of once more denying any voice to ‘Orientals’” (48–49, 32). For a critique of Hallisey and how this notion of agency—which ignores the relationship to power as power itself—is wrongly seen to contrast with the reason of subjectivity, see Abeysekara “Protestant.’” This notion of agency “individualizes” (a new legal-moral subject of) responsibility, something we see, for instance, in the modern history of insurance. That history marks “a radical shift in the scope and direction of mutual responsibility and aid—and therefore of the kind of society it encourages. In this shift, statistics were accumulated, parsed, and put into motion by the centralized nation-state and its corporate allies—including, most importantly, the stock exchange” (128). And the increasing shift to the privatization of insurance is “based partly on the economic argument that individualizing risk would lead to lower claims on collective resources and partly on the moralistic argument that individualizing responsibility was good for character” (Secular 191n60).  

[18]       Even though Donald Lopez mentions briefly in Prisoners of Shangri-La that the Tibetan Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”—whose mystical “meaning” the Orientalists and modernists sought to decode—has no meaning apart from its “use,” he does not discuss anywhere how that use works in terms of distinct dispositions made possible by power.

[19]       One wonders what Walser thinks about Derrida’s much-discussed claim that “there is nothing outside of the text,” a claim that can easily be misunderstood to mean that a text is confined to itself. But can it not be argued that a text confined to itself already presupposes power that delimits the text?

[20]       On tradition and translation, see Asad Secular.

[21]       I made this point in my Colors.

[22]       On why dispositions are not simply “inculcated” in religious practice, see Asad Genealogies, especially chapter four.

[23]       I have critically analyzed this text in my “Religious.”

[24]       On a study of the modern reformers of Hinduism and community in India who claim to shun any authority, priestly or otherwise, although their texts themselves become authoritative programs, see Scott Spiritual.

[25]       See, for example, Szanton.

[26]       I tried to think about this question of inheritance in some preliminary ways in Politics.

[27]       For a provocative argument about how postcolonial anthropology came to identify what constitutes “religion,” “ritual,” “politics,” “violence,” “terrorism,” etc., in colonial and postcolonial Sri Lanka as objects of empirical knowledge, see Scott Formations; Jeganathan; Ismail. On the ways in which the demarcations between theory and knowledge are authorized by area studies of the Middle East, see Mitchell 74-118.

[28]       Hägglund is critiquing Steven Collins’s work.

[29]       For a critique of hybridity, see Asad “Multiculturalism.”

[30]       I have made this point in several places, most recently in my “Protestant.”

[31]       Thus, Sherry Ortner wrote in 1984: “It is our capacity, largely developed in fieldwork, to take the perspective of the [small communities we study] that allows us to learn anything at all—even in our own culture—beyond what we already know. . . . Further, it is our location ‘on the ground’ that puts us in a position to see people not simply as passive reactors to and enactors of some ‘system,’ but as active agents in their own history” (qtd. in Asad “Ethnographic” 80).

[32]       As Asad argues, “many spatio-temporal complexities and variations were excluded from the object of study because they were not directly observable in the field. For example, the systematic force of European economic, military, and ideological powers in non-European regions was, and still is, often conceptualized as being external to locally observable discourse and behavior or as being an abstract system having little to do with the belief and conduct of people ‘on the ground’” (“Ethnographic” 58). 

[33]       On the question of translation, see Asad “Concept”; Secular. Also, on how social science translates local knowledge about the Middle East, see Mitchell.

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