BG 131: Buddhist History 101

Episode Description:

This week we speak with esteemed scholar, and the former professor of Buddhist Studies at UC Berkely, Dr. Lewis Lancaster. Lewis shares with us the important history of the Buddhist tradition, focusing in particular on the unique attributes of Buddhism that made it the first “world religion,” a religion that is able to detach from it’s original homeland and language and travel wide and far.

We also discuss the recent history of Buddhism transitioning to the West, and how Buddhism continues to morph and change through time. Listen in for a great dose of geeky history!

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello, Buddhist geeks. This is Vince Horn. And I’m here today speaking over Skype with Dr. Lewis Lancaster. Lewis, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Lewis: Oh, I’m happy to be with you.

Vince: And just a little background. You were the first student to complete your PhD in Buddhist studies at the University of Wisconsin. Does that mean you were the first student ever in the United States to complete a Buddhist studies degree?

Lewis: Well, you know, we have many people who have PhDs from religious studies or Asian studies who did a focus on Buddhism. But Wisconsin program was the first one in the U.S. at that time that actually gave a degree in Buddhist studies, a PhD. And I was the first one to complete that program.

Vince: Gotcha. And then you went on to teach for many years at the University of California at Berkeley.

Lewis: Yes, I started teaching at Berkeley in 1967 and retired in 2000.

Vince: Fantastic. And during that time you were mainly teaching Buddhist studies-type courses, I’m assuming.

Lewis: Yes. I organized the PhD program in Buddhist studies at Berkeley and directed it from 1972 until I retired. It’s still a very active ongoing program and since my retirement I think it’s improved a lot; it’s right now, I think, one of the strongest programs in the country.

Vince: Fantastic. And the last thing I wanted to mention about your background is that you were the creator and now director of something called the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative. But it’s apparently a very interesting and innovative way of looking at Buddhist studies, I hear.

Lewis: Yes, I started that twelve years ago. The problem that we have is that we’ve entered the digital age and I’ve felt for a long time that I wanted to be part of pushing for Buddhist studies to be in the forefront in the digital age. So in 1988 I began to devote a lot of my time to the computerization of Buddhist texts and worked with making a complete digital copy of the Chinese Buddhist canon, from the 13th century block prints in Korea’that took almost ten years to do.

Vince: Wow

Lewis: And I worked with the Mido University in Bangkok to put the Pali canon into CD-ROM format. So, since then I’ve also added on, continued work with input of Sanskrit Buddhist texts.

Vince: Wow. So tell me what the idea is behind the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative. Cause it sounds like a really interesting project.

Lewis: It’s based on the fact that in the digital age we’ve, of course just getting more and more information. The amount of data that’s available to us today is far beyond anything that we’ve had in the past. And it’s not only verbal, it’s also image, and it’s sound. And the problem is, how, how do you catalogue it, and how do you deal with it? So we’ve come up with the idea of being able to put things in a map so that all our information is basically indexed by latitude and longitude. If you do that then you can always find your information even if you don’t know what word to look for, and go to a map and you enter and search through the map as the first of your look for, how to handle the material.

Vince: Nice. That sounds similar to things we see in a lot of Web 2.0 programs that kind of geomap certain pictures, for instance, where you can go to a certain location and see all the pictures that have been taken from that area.

Lewis: Yes. It’s making use of the software GIS (Geographic Information Systems). Since then, however, we in the ECAI as we call it, the Cultural Atlas, ECAI, have expanded beyond just using latitude and longitude. We’ve also created ability to deal with time, because at any single spot too much happens. So we worked with University of Sydney on an early called Time Map Software. Since then Google Earth has come into existence and we have adapted a lot of our activity to the Google Earth format, because it’s very robust and easy to use, and it allows you to put your points into latitude and longitude on a map. We continue to develop a whole range of new ideas, but interfaces and ways of accessing large amounts of digital data.

Vince: Now, are you one of the few people you know doing this type of thing in the Buddhist studies arena?

Lewis: In Asia, there’s a great deal of this, and I work closely with a number of these groups. For example, there’s one in Taiwan which people know of as C-Beta that people use for the Chinese digital canon. That group is at Darma Drum Buddhist College in Taiwan. That’s one of the premier places for dealing with Buddhism in the Digital Age. There are groups in Korea also doing this, Japan’s Tokyo University. So, we in the United States, our Buddhist studies to a degree lags behind some of these other places in Asia. That’s because of course they have more funding for Buddhist studies, and they are taking the lead in many ways. One of the things that I’ve been trying to do is to help to spark some of the direction in which this development would occur from an academic point of view. So ECAI has influenced a lot of people, I think. We’ve introduced a number of people to GIS and we’ve helped a number of groups get started. We’re just about to launch some of our own projects; in October we’re going to launch an atlas of Chinese religions. And that will be done in Taiwan. So there’s a lot going on–it’s very active.

Vince: Yeah, it sounds like it. And, is this the type of thing, ECAI, that only academics could access or is this something that anyone could access?

Lewis: Oh no, it’s absolutely free, it’s open. All of our software is open source. People can use it. One of the things that I’ve tried to do is to, as much as possible, keep information open and available to everyone.

Vince: Nice, nice. Well, we’ll definitely put a link to ECAI in our episode notes, but what’s the URL just in case people want to go straight there?

Lewis: Yes, it’s just, and it’ll get you there.

Vince: Nice, perfect, cool. That sounds like an amazing project, and that kind of fits in with some of the types of questions I wanted to ask you about because I watched a video where you’re giving a lecture on Buddhism in a global age of technology. One of the things you did in the very beginning of that interview is try to explain to those people that may not be familiar with Buddhism, which, of course, on a show like Buddhist Geeks, most of our listeners are. But, one thing you said that was interesting that I didn’t actually know was that Buddhism was the first world religion, and I wondered if you could say a little bit about what that means.

Lewis: Well, I feel that when you define “world religion” as a religion which breaks free of its geographic homeland, breaks free of the languages of its homeland and its cultural patterns, that Buddhism was the first religion that I know of that we can really see all of these attributes. It first spread throughout to south continent then spread along the Silk Road through central Asia into East Asia then along the Maritime routes into Southeast Asia. It found its way into many different languages. It was what I call a portable sanctity or religion. It was not fixed by, as, say in traditional Hinduism, you’re born to it otherwise you can’t have it; otherwise you’re out of caste, and out of caste you can’t be a priest. A Brahman priest is by birth, that’s a kind of fixed sanctity. With Buddhism, they really did have the ability to follow the merchants across central Asia and along the Maritime routes and in that sense I called them a world religion. Christianity later on is a world religion, as well as Islam. To some degree, Islam has struggled with what it does with Arabic as a fixed language. That means that people have to learn Arabic in order to really get part of the tradition.

With Buddhism, translation into other languages was just accepted and a normal part of its expansion into the world. In that sense it was unique for its time and I can’t find another religious pattern that has been able to escape from all these fixed patterns of geography, language, and culture.

Vince: Very interesting. And another thing you mentioned about the portal of sanctity is that sacred relics actually played a huge part in how Buddhism was spread. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about that because I never—even having a degree in Religious Studies–really run across much information of the importance of using sacred relics in the Buddhist tradition.

Lewis: Well, I think all you have to do is look at the archaeological evidence that is the number of stupas you find in Buddhism. There are tens of thousands of stupas. In the early days we know that there was no use of the Buddha image. Instead, people simply gathered around stupas where there were relics. I first kind of tumbled into the importance of relics in, of all places, Korea. There is a monastery in Korea that has a large relic platform, which is said to hold a relic of the Buddha.

The main hall in that monastery has no images. It’s the only major building in Korean Buddhism that has no image at all in it. When you ask the locals, “Why don’t you have a Buddha image here at the altar, which is just blank?” They say, “Well we have Buddha’s body so we don’t need an image. We have his relic.”

That got me thinking that in fact Buddhism started as a relic cult and only much later developed into an image cult.

Vince: Interesting. And that somehow was part of how it was able to spread to other countries.

Lewis: Yes. The relic is really the most, in terms of Buddhism, the most portable kind of sanctity that you could imagine. You could take a relic anywhere and where you put it build a stupa. That site becomes sacred. So therefore Buddhism could create its own sacred spots all over the world. There’s no place that you couldn’t take a relic.

This is in very stark contrast to fixed ideas about image and relics. Some relics it’s thought that you can’t move them from their home place, otherwise they’ll just go back. Magically, I suppose you would say. And the same with image. Some images can be moved, some can’t. The Buddhist images were always moveable. People could carry them from place to place, so images were portable, relics were portable, texts were portable. Texts could be translated into many different languages. Monks could go from one place to another and not be polluted. These were all signs of how portable Buddhism was.

Vince: Wow. So in that sense it makes me think that the Buddha and some of the early Buddhist community were sort of innovative in a way. I don’t know that they were consciously choosing to do that, but it sounds like they were sort of innovative as far as a religion goes.

Lewis: Yes. I think they were “both-and”, that is, innovative in a number of ways and yet at the same time convinced that in order to be effective, they had to speak to their time and place. I’ve sometimes called Buddhism a rainforest religion in India, that much of the way it developed and structured itself was based on the monsoon, the forest, as opposed to the areas of urban islands in the forests. So, I can see that it was a religion of its time and place, and what we are not so sure about is how some of the things which were found in Buddhism that aren’t found in the Brahmanic tradition, where did they come from? Some people feel the Buddha invented them. Some of them, I suspect, were just part of a general cultural life which we don’t hear about. And, for example, the Buddha did allow female ascetics. I think that was probably one of the most… that was the greatest departure, perhaps, from the religious life in India. There are not many religions that have allowed women to be religious aesetics, that is to practice the aesthetic life, and to achieve the states of that asceticism. Even though later on Buddhists have acquired some very anti-women concepts, if you will, and put women into a secondary position culturally, when you go back and look at the tradition itself, I think that we have to say that Buddhism was very innovative in the way in which it opened itself up to women.

Vince: And, one thing I found interesting, while you were in that same lecture talking about Buddhism and its history and its spreading, you mentioned that Buddhism really impacted what would become Christianity to the Greek culture. And there’s usually a common belief that Buddhism and Western Society had very little exposure to one another, prior to say the twentieth century. And it seemed like that wasn’t true in your giving some very specific examples for how Buddhism had impacted Western Society, and I was wondering if you could share a little of those with us?

Lewis: Yeah, I’ve come to believe that we’ve made a big mistake in our studies. We have separated things into East Asia and Central Asia and South Asia, Southeast Asia, the near east. All of these are divisions of the Eurasian landmass. And, none of them, in some sense, are adequate divisions. It’s no more adequate than dividing things up by nation-state. China today is not the same as of the Tang Dynasty or China of the early Zhou Dynasties. So, that’s why I think that when we look at how we’re going to study Buddhism, I want to stop studying it as these discrete units and study it as Eurasian. And if you do that, and you start thinking in those terms, then we know that across the trade routes and the mercantile communication that was taking place, ideas were flowing back and forth across the trade routes in ways which we don’t recognize if we just limit our study to South Asia, then we don’t know what’s going on, on the Silk Road, or the trade routes. I believe that Buddhism had the first professional monastics that the idea of a monastery where people live by rule was a Buddhist invention. I believe that the use of relics and the relic cult that developed was also something which the Buddhists brought into full use. This went across the trade routes.

Christianity admits that the first relic came from India. They thought it was Saint Thomas that went to India, and his relic is returned to Syria. I believe that if you look at Buddhism as a Eurasian religion, then you have to say that they had shared these forms and these institutions, and they were picked up and were developed, in particular, in different ways, in the Western part of the Eurasian landmass. Conversely, I think that the Greek ideas of portrait imagery and three dimensions came in with the Bactrian Kingdom in Central Asia and that they gave us the real model for the Buddha image. I think that Gnosticism is filled with things that sound very Buddhist. We know there were many Indian merchants and officials in what we called the Near East or the Middle East, and that we need to study this. I’m very delighted that Dorothy Wong down at the University of Virginia is setting up a conference next year called “”Crossings”” as an attempt to break down these strict barriers between regions and try to see the art world in a wider sense, too.

Vince: This whole conversation is making me wonder. As a Western Buddhist convert–and many people that listen to this show probably would identify themselves similarly: people that have come to Buddhism but were not raised Buddhist, they may be practicing meditation or reading contemporary literature, they may even be doing some historical study of Buddhism–but do you feel that understanding Buddhism’s history and the way that it spread and its kind of unique contributions to the world; do you feel that’s important for these type of Western Buddhist converts to know, and if so, why?

Lewis: I’m doing an online course–it’s a University of the West-Summer, just for fun, really, I have never tried to do it–but I’m trying to talk about Buddhist influences in America. And in order to teach that course, I said to them, “You first have to recognize where did the influences come into America?” It didn’t come directly from Asia at first, it came through Europe. It was the Europeans who got a hold of some of the ability with Sanskrit and Pali language and started translating sutras. Those ideas were introduced to the Transcendentalists in New England. So, we had that form of influence that came in, then when immigrants of Asia started to come–first the Chinese, then the Japanese, then the Koreans, and later of course the Southeast Asians–that brought another whole wave of influence. For American Caucasians who have become Buddhist converts, somebody has called them “Nightstand Buddhists”–they’re the ones who read the books.

Vince: And listen to the podcasts.

Lewis: [laughing] And listen to podcasts. So these as contrasted to immigrant groups were were born into it or whose families have been Buddhists and who represent that tradition from their home countries. So many influences have come to us, I think that as we look, for example, recently in New York–I went back just to see it because I really was interested in it and I was not disappointed–Guggenheim Museum had a large exhibit called the “Third Mind”, which was tracing the Asian influences on art in Europe and America. And it was just an eye-opener, I think, for many people who went to see it. Who knew that almost everybody that you’ve ever heard of in more modern times was influenced from Asia? And that people were reading books about Asia, and the ideas were coming into their art? Who ever thinks about Whistler and his mother as being influenced from Asia? And yet, not only was it influenced from Asia, but he was probably very much influenced by Buddhism. So I think that we have so many influences that have come toward us.

Teaching at Berkeley over the years, I’ve watched the flood: 1967; the Summer of Love in San Francisco; that Fall, I started teaching the first… the only course on Asian religions on the Berkley campus. Well, you can imagine the kind of students that I got [laughs] and the numbers. It was amazing. People were being attracted to Buddhism from this counterculture movement. Later on, after the Vietnamese War, it was just as if overnight it changed. My classes changed, and instead of counterculture, they filled up with the growing number of Asian immigrants who were looking for their roots. And I finally had a kind of standing joke; so many people said the same thing to me about why they took my course that I would ask at the beginning of the year, “will everyone whose grandmother is Buddhist raise their hand,” because people would tell me “I want to know what my grandmother was talking about, because my grandmother was a Buddhist. My parents weren’t, but my grandmother was.” And it was interesting that at least half of every class for a while was filled with “my grandmother was a Buddhist” people. And then that changed again by the end of my teaching career. The Caucasians had come back again. That’s where we are, in a sense, today.

Buddhism has thrived because, in 1965, we changed our immigration law, and that allowed a flood of immigrants to come into the United States, and that’s what brought on this enormous increase in Buddhist activity for Thai, Laotian, Taiwanese… it’s all been based on that change of law. Since 9-11, there’s been a different feeling. We closed down our visas; we made it very difficult for people to come in, and that again changed the tenor of what our country was like. Whether or not we will open our doors again, as we did before 9-11, I don’t know, but these influences come and go in great waves of ideas, practices, laws, people. So, I don’t know that that answers your question. It’s complex…

Vince: Yeah.

Lewis: …but it’s a fun topic.

Vince: But it sounds like you’re saying that having an understanding of how Buddhism has come into our culture through the many different cultures that it did come through, first through Europe, like you were saying, and later through Asian cultures somehow does that give us a better sense of what Buddhism is, the way we’re currently practicing it? Does it help inform our current practice as practicing Buddhists?

Lewis: Well, I think we certainly can see that Buddhism in America is primarily lay-Buddhism. It is not monastic. There are monks and nuns to be sure, but the large number of “Nightstand Buddhists” are laypeople. They have to make a living. There’s no community to support them if they were to become monks and nuns. Some people have gone over to these new immigrant communities and become monks and nuns in them, where there is enough of a support base, but I think that what the Americans are doing is to really experiment with a Buddhism which is lay-oriented, which is based in education, and that influence has begun to spread to Asia, and Asians have become much more aware of the need to educate their members then was ever the case is the past.


Lewis Lancaster