Notes Towards a Critique of Buddhist Karmic Theory

Religious Studies 18 (3):277-291 (1982)
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Abstract

Western Buddhology, the responsible scholarly study of Buddhist languages, history and ideas, is now more than a century and a half old. For most of that time scholars working in this field have been primarily concerned to understand and expound their sources, not to criticize or assess the views found therein, much less to make any attempt at deciding whether the central views of Buddhist philosophers are likely to be true statements of the way things are. There are good reasons for this restriction; before a given set of philosophical views can be assessed it must be understood, and in the case of Buddhism the gaining of such understanding has involved the collective philological labours of several generations of scholars and is still in many respects in its infancy. What is the case for the scholarly community as a whole is magnified for the individual working in this field; the effort involved in becoming competent in several Buddhist canonical languages and in becoming familiar with a range of philosophical ideas and preconceptions which are in many respects alien to one's own culture tends to mean that the Buddhologist's apprenticeship is long, his publications so clogged with jargon as to be inaccessible to any non-specialist, and his appetite for truth stifled by Sanskrit syntax and Tibetan declensions. There is the added problem that the Western intellectual who makes the study of Buddhism his avocation is likely to be, in some more or less well defined sense, a Buddhist; and the dangers of making religious commitment the major motivation for scholarly study have been so amply illustrated by Christian history that they scarcely need rehearsing here.

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