Book Reviews: The Cult of Nothingness: The Philosophers and the Buddha (Roger-Pol Droit)

This survey of the intellectual history of Buddhism in the West was not written as a full-blown exegesis, but rather as an attempt to trace the prevalence of a single, common thread of thought: why Buddhism was regarded by many prominent 19th-century intellectuals (and earlier than that as well) as a “cult of nothingness” or a religion whose highest affirmation was nihilism.

The first thing Roger-Pol Droit assumes of his readers is that they understand the general history and conceits of Buddhism. His main audience is not laypersons, although an educated person without a scholarly background can make sense of the book without undue effort and derive quite a bit from it. He speaks most directly to people who have a scholarly understanding of Buddhism — and, most importantly, those who already understand without laborious explanation how Buddhism explicitly rejects nihilism and encourages positive action in the real world. For that reason, there is no general introduction to Buddhism in the book, but rather a direct plunging into the fray.

Droit begins by tracing the first appearances of the term “Buddhism” in the West, most of which had not surfaced before the beginning of the 19th century. He notes, surprisingly, how much of antiquity before that time was regarded by thinkers as being, in a sense, all of a piece — that Buddha, Hermes, Thoth, and a great many other figures of the past were considered manifestations of the same primal force. Some of this is forgivable in the light of how little hard evidence there was at the time about each, but today it seems downright affected and odd. It has much the same flavor as theories about ether or phlogiston: they were suited to the scope of the understanding of the day, but we also see now why they were eventually scrapped in the face of other evidence.

What Droit also points out, again surprisingly enough, is that there was little discernible hostility or animosity towards Buddhism during this time. There was some misinterpretation, but no sense that Buddhism was being regarded as some incipient destroyer of thought and civilization. The greatest venom came from the likes of Francis Xavier, who regarded Buddhism as an enemy in part because it stood directly in the way of the bringing of Christianity to Asia. It wasn’t until Hegel came along (in 1827, specifically) and spoke of Buddhism as a religion where “man must make himself nothing” that the first such connections were forged. Buddhism’s goal was “destruction” (Vernichtung), something Hegel had not gleaned from the studies of Buddhism most readily available at the time but rather from writing that echoed the Jesuit strain of thought. Why? Because in Hegel’s lexicon, “nothingness” was actually closest to Godliness; the nothingness that he spoke of in his philosophy was the Absolute, which is actually closer to Buddhism than it might seem. But to support this view, he drew on sources that insisted on something quite different, even if he didn’t intend to cast Buddhism as an enemy to be overcome.

The real sense of a threat came later, ironically enough in parallel with the rise of scientific scholarship about history and religion throughout the century. The problem was that such scholarship was interlarded with, and often inseparable from, reactionary thinking about race (and class, but mainly race) as propounded by the likes of Gobineau. He came right out and called Buddhism a doctrine of nothingness, the religion of an inferior race, one proven to be inferior by the way it was hounded right out of India. Nietzsche got in on the act later on as well, on Buddhism’s side, but more because it was yet another way for him to stand against his hated Christianity than because of proper understanding of Buddhism on his part. The fact that Nietzsche comes into the picture at all should provide a hint as to what it was that was sparking such hysteria about Buddhism: the general upheaval across the continent, the upending of one social order and conventional understanding of man and his place in the universe after another.

Because these details are so key to assembling the whole picture, I’m a little unhappy with the way Droit chooses to pull them all together in the end. He discusses this last element — the chaos of the age — in a final chapter via a summation that seems unsuited to the task. It would have been better to weave in an ongoing examination of just what was happening around these thinkers and writers at the time, for the sake of explicit context. War, revolution, and various other specters were all haunting Europe in different ways. Small wonder many people looked as hard as they could for scapegoats.

Perhaps Droit felt his readers would be just as well-acquainted with European history as they are with Buddhism, and that’s hard to debate, but all the same it gives the book’s summation and conclusion a hasty and tacked-on flavor. That aside, what we do have here is a useful discussion of a part of Buddhism’s history in the West that is typically consigned to footnotes.

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Book Reviews | Books, published on January 13, 2012 7:32 PM.

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