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288 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, notes, bibl., index

$70.00 cloth
ISBN 978-0-8078-2776-5

$30.00 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-5449-5

Published: Spring 2003

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The Cult of Nothingness
The Philosophers and the Buddha

by Roger-Pol Droit

Copyright (c) 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1
The Faceless Idol

In the works of the eighteenth century, the Buddha is frequently considered to be one of the elements of the "primitive world." Nearly devoid of identity, he continued, for the most part, not to have a strong connection with the theme of nothingness.

Buddha, just as the Egyptian Thot, the Greek Hermes, the European Mercury, and Woden of the Gothic nations, etc., is a lawgiver older than Brahman. —Langlès's note in the French translation of the Recherches asiatiques, 1805
Before the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was no clearly defined system attached to the Buddha's name. This founder with many names was not seen as a single individual in either the accounts of travelers or letters from missionaries. Long after it was recognized that the Chinese Fo, the Japanese Xaca, the Sammonacodom of the Talapoin monks in Siam were the same person as the Indian Budda, he was still generally credited with no more than fathering an obscure idolatry exiled on the perimeter of Asia. Bodh, Budh, or Bouddou were the starting points for an archaic idolatry. His vague religion of poorly defined outlines scarcely attracted either interest or concern. The idol incarnated, so it was believed, an ancient and general representation of knowledge and wisdom. It had no existence of its own, it corresponded to no human reality, it held no definite place in history. The status of its reality—legendary or historical?—the detailed contents of its doctrine, and the points upon which it differed from the Brahmanic schools, the paths and circumstances of its spread in Asia, were not of great concern.

Such questions were not even noticed to be missing. They did not even need to be formulated. All kinds of answers, ready made and judged with confidence, were already cluttering the space in which they could have been formulated. The answers available related to requests that had no relationship to anything that differentiated, defined, or specified. On the contrary, they tended to satisfy a need for equivalence and comparison. Authors worked out models with elements regrouped or superimposed one over the other. They forever established new coincidences among images, figures, signs, or names that were initially disparate. Before the development of philology gave birth to positive, ordered knowledge, the question of the Buddha was in a sense no more than a matter of rhetoric. It was a question of inserting the name into a series, not of determining what it stood for.

Current in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, these constructions were still found in a work as late as George Stanley Faber's The Origin of Pagan Idolatry (1816). In his own way, he summarized a form of discourse that was already old. "The primeval Buddha," Faber wrote, "is the same as Vishnu, or Shiva, or Osiris."[1] Why? What documents, what arguments permit this assertion? Such questions do not really appear to be pertinent. All that mattered was the affirmation of a single identity with different names. Other passages from the same work confirm this; we learn that "Thoth and Bouddha were the same person as Idris," or that the Buddha, Vishnu, and Noah were one and the same person. George Stanley Faber was nevertheless not someone with a deranged mind. Dozens of works compared the Buddha to Hermes, to the planet Mercury, to Noah, to Moses, to Thoth, to Odin, or to Wotan. These series of identifications first signaled the Buddha's belonging to the "primitive world." The formula designated the great primordial layer in which, it was believed, the common origin of myths, gods, rites, and words belonging to different places, times, peoples, and languages could be arranged. This idol of indistinct traits thus had no origin; it was original. Essentially, almost organically, it incarnated the very origin from which the "primitive" was inextricable.

What Is the "Primitive World"?
Perhaps we have forgotten what "primitive" meant for a long time. The word's meaning changed with the disappearance of the intellectual construct to which it belonged. "Primitive world," "primitive people," "primitive language and beliefs" did not refer to a state that was immature, prelogical, or even little developed by humanity, as we might have a tendency to think based on Lévy-Bruhl. What was primitive was not a "mentality" or a stage of intellectual, psychological, or social development. It was not a way of being relative to the world that could be placed at such and such a degree on the scale of evolution where we would be placed at a higher level. Nor was it something rudimentary, some yet-to-be-displayed ability waiting for its actualization.

It was, on the other hand, a uniform space-time continuum that constituted the substrate of history—a first, ageless, self-sufficient world where unity supposedly reigned. The same gods were worshiped everywhere, under different names. Despite the disparity in customs and the diversity in appearances, the same beliefs were present everywhere. Given the differences between languages, the same names still referred to the same gods. Jean-Sylvain Bailly wrote, for example: "A crowd of ancient practices claims both an earlier people and a common source."[2]

The constituent formula in this closed world might be worded as follows: X is the same as Y. The primitive was, above all, a function. It intervened like an operator in such a way that it might unify the multiple, reduce the diverse, or make cultures interchangeable. One would be wrong to see in it, after the event, a degree zero of evolution, an initial period of history. Its role was to constitute the original smooth, consistent, and flawless platform whence history one day departed. Historical time lifted itself off this foundation, it rose up from it, but it did not belong to it—just as this early plain escaped from temporal paths.

The purpose of this book is not to be the study of such notions. Born in the classical age and developing in the century of the Enlightenment—in works like those of Court de Gébelin[3] and de Bailly—and extending into the nineteenth century, with George Stanley Faber and Frédéric de Rougemont,[4] the primitive world had, we might dare to say, a long history. This expansive network, in which figures that for us are totally dissimilar become identical through some game of permutations producing the undefined equivalence of forms of idolatry, is very much contemporaneous, from its emergence to its decline, with the opening of Europe to the world as a whole and to the premises of the society that has become ours.

In this long expanse of time, which stretches from the epoch of the great discoveries to the rise of industry, the European conscience tried to conjure up the multiplicity of others, to neutralize the diversity of elsewheres by working to consider them all as a single thing—primitive, idolatrous, pagan. For nearly three centuries, as the world expanded and divided, as space tiered itself into new distances, as the time of history gained depth, efforts to preserve the bearable aspect of a common, homogeneous, compact archaism—in this diffusion and division—intensified. Before and after the Greeks, a multitude of polytheisms, myths aplenty, unsuspected pantheons, new writings, enigmatic monuments were out there to be discovered . . . the principle of a primitive world brought all this multiplicity back into unity. This principle countered a proliferation of differences with the reduction to a single system, where singularities, all with permutations, were all annulled the minute the key that allowed their translation indefinitely into one another was in hand.

Curtailing the proliferation of worlds, the principle of the primitive seems to have had an even greater role in imaginarily compensating for the acceleration of movement specific to the West. Actually, just as—from the Renaissance to the Reformation to the French Revolution—the rhythm and the intensity of European transformation was increasing, the traits attributed to the primitive world as an immobile background, beyond age, so subject to history that it was unable to sense to its own course, hardened. Little did it matter if it was compared, here to a subterranean shadow out of which we proceeded, or there to a milky dawn from which the events of the day were uncoupled. In all cases, the primitive, in both essence and function, was anti-modern. Predating history, it was in opposition to the future and its mobilities, just as much as it was opposed to diversity.

The Buddha's Name Is Mercury
The existence of a single, solitary "primitive world" implied the early communication of the beliefs, the languages, and the myths of Egypt and Persia, of the Greeks and the Scandinavians, of the Chinese and the Etruscans. So it is not surprising to see "the Buddha," with no other identity than an uncertain name, likened to a real diversity of divinities. Among these identifications, one of the most lasting associated Buddha and Mercury. La Loubère, in his famous account from 1691, Du Royaume de Siam (On the Kingdom of Siam), a work crammed with exact notations and precise observations, gives a sense of this similarity. He explains it as follows: "Mercury, who was the God of the sciences, seems to have been adored by the whole earth: because knowledge is undoubtedly one of the attributes of the true God."[5] The idea of likening the Buddha to Mercury comes only from the fact that the name of the day Wednesday in the Romance languages (mercredi, in French), Mercury's day, is budha in Pali and in the languages derived from Sanskrit. This similarity is pointed out by a number of authors.[6] As a matter of fact, the two words have nothing to do with one another, but their resemblance was enough to assure longevity.

The same equivalence is found in Antoine Augustin Giorgi's Alphabetum Tibetanum (Rome, 1762), a work that was frequently cited and mentioned for the half-century that followed its publication.[7] It also showed up in Bailly's text, mentioned earlier, which was written about the "primitive people": "It is with these people that the famous Mercury Trismegistus of the Greeks lived, the Thaut or Thoth of the Egyptians, the Butta of the Indians, who is one and the same individual placed at the common source of these peoples, and whom these peoples appropriated for themselves."[8] This identification of the Buddha with Mercury comes up again a number of times, and for a number of years after the beginning of the nineteenth century, as is shown, in addition to G. S. Faber's book mentioned above, in Friedrich Creuzer's great work Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker (Leipzig-Darmstadt, 1819-23).[9] Most of the time, the Buddha-Mercury similarity was mentioned only in passing, almost as evidence, an accepted fact, a milestone about which there was really not much to say. It was not a question of an opinion that might have been the object of a debate, held or attacked with vehemence. There was one exception to this: the Carmelite Paulin de Saint Barthâlemy, who in 1793, in his capacity as répétiteur at the College des Missionnaires, dedicated a significant portion of a work[10] composed in Latin, in Rome, entirely to the defense and illustration of this thesis. With rare vehemence, this former missionary from the coast of Malabar fought to defend an astrological and symbolic interpretation: Buddha or Gautama, in India, and Fo, in China, were not men, but the unique sign of the planet Mercury.[11] For all peoples, the genius of Mercury would have been considered as the creator of moral laws, and the institutor of the arts and sciences.[12]

One name and one religion, the same, thus met in forms that were more or less corrupted through their pilgrimages, in India with Buddha, in Egypt and Ethiopia with Thot, in China with Fo, as well as in Tibet and among the Scythians, not to mention Scandinavia and Sweden.[13] These different faces of the same idol, about whom, it might be added, little is known besides his omnipresence, were multiplied one by one. Paulin de Saint Barthâlemy wondered if Buddha was not the Manichean Jesus, or perhaps Mithra.[14] In order to have so many faces, the Buddha evidently had to have none himself. An element caught in the play of substitutions and equivalencies, something malleable, susceptible to having the same value attributed to him as that of all sorts of mythological "powers," the number of which was practically indefinite: this too general equivalent had no identity, really. Buddha-Mercury had a particularly long career. Mentioned by Loubère in 1691, he was seen again in 1742 in the great History of Philosophy by Brucker,[15] in the Siaka article from Diderot's Encyclopédie,[16] and several times in the notes composed by Langlès for the French edition (in 1805) of the first two volumes of Recherches asiatiques.[17] He also held an important place, in 1829, in Edward Upham's work entitled The History and Doctrine of Buddhism,[18] where the reader learned, for example, that "the followers of Brahma honored the planet Mercury as the star of Buddha."[19] As we have seen, identification of the Buddha was not limited to just equivalence with Mercury. He was generally mentioned in a chain associating a number of "other" mystical figures. Langlès, for example, wrote that Buddha was "the same as the Egyptian Thot, the Greek Hermes, the European Mercury, and the Woden of the Gothic nations."[20] In one of the last works that developed such speculations at length, Colonel William Francklin declared that "the ancient Bood'h of India is none other than the ancient Hermes Trismegistus of Egypt," before specifying that "this original personnage is from an antediluvian race."[21]

This quite stereotyped list was thereafter used on a number of occasions, with few variations. Despite everything, it far from exhausted the possibilities of the Buddha's identification. One might even say that there is no spiritual tradition or geographic region (with the exception, unless we are mistaken, of the Americas) where his presence has not been spotted and eruditely justified.[22]

Bonzes Deep in the Fjords
Among these strange relationships and identifications that, in hindsight, seemed to disappear almost from one day to the next, particular mention should be made of the identification of the Buddha as "Odinn-Wotanaz-Woden," which was first picked up by the Orientalist William Jones. The point of departure is always Wednesday, the day to which Woden gave his name among the Scandinavians, as Mercury had done among the Latin peoples and, so it was believed, Buddha among the Indians. That Woden is for us the master of knowledge who confuses but does not instruct—the manipulator of dialectical ruses and casuistic tricks—or that he is missing one eye, ugly, deceitful, cruel, cynical, and a misogynist is not of direct concern here. The only thing to be remembered is that the supposed identity of the Buddha with Woden points to the dream of a secret identity of the peoples of Asia and those of the North. This fantasy would not disappear with the advent of assured Orientalist knowledge. Connecting the Scandinavian fog to the Ganges sun is in effect a tenacious illusion from the generation of the Romantics. They would imagine all kinds of migrations in the days of old turning the Germans into the descendants of the Brahmans who set up residence along the Rhine, the Vistula, or the Oder.[23] Similarly, they would work to establish, again quite late, a proximity between the Buddha and the Nordic god. Petrus Benjamin Sköldberg, for example, was the editor of a collective publication on this theme in Uppsala (1822), which was taken over the following year by August Wilhelm Schlegel, in his attentive Indische Bibliothek.[24] But what is most surprising is undoubtedly still to find a trace of their rantings a number of decades later, in scholarly publications, at a time when the field of comparative religions was already well established. Thus, the serious Norwegian linguist Holmboe published in Paris, in 1857, a dizzying thesis entitled Traces du Buddhisme en Norvège avant l'introduction du Christianisme.[25] The following year, this text would be the subject of an article titled "Buddhism and Odinism, their Similitude," published by the serious Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.[26] Holmboe explained in particular the lapses in time between the relative datings of Odin according to the specialists of the period and the chronology of the life of the Buddha by the quantity of time necessary for the migration of Buddhist colonies from India to the shores of the Baltic.

A Distant Christ with Kinky Hair
The Buddha was also, albeit more rarely, identified as Christ, most notably by Guillaume Postel, during the Renaissance,[27] and by de Guignes, in the age of Classicism. For the latter, the doctrinal content of the religion of Fo, which reigned among the Chinese, was identical to that of Christianity. Thus, he wrote in his Histoire générale des Huns, des Turcs, des Mongols et des autres Tartares occidentaux. Avant et depuis Jésus Christ jusqu'É présent, etc. (1756-1758): "In the year 65 the Fo Religion was introduced into China. This religion was established in the part of India where the Mogul is today. I think it is Christianity."[28] This is why Buddhist teachings, in his opinion, contained nothing that was fundamentally puzzling, even though they might have been, over the course of history, debased and altered. "Those who take a look will see only a Christianity such as the Heresiarch Christians of the 1st century were teaching it, after they mixed into it the ideas of Pythagorus on metempsychosis & a few other principles drawn from India. This book might even be one of the false gospels that were current at the time; all the precepts that Fo gives, with the exception of a few specific ideas, seem to be taken from the Gospel."[29] Identifications of the Buddha with Christ were certainly not numerous. Moreover, they were never presented as anything other than possibilities, hypotheses, or inner convictions. They were not arguments supported by long lines of proof. When the question of the relationship between followers of the Buddha and Christian revelation arose, what emerged victorious—an example was seen in the letters sent from Japan by Saint Francis Xavier[30]—was, on the other hand, the urgent need to convert idolaters. Despite everything, in the blur hanging over what the Buddha's religion actually was, given the plethora of identities that were proposed for him, given the juxtaposition of origins and filiations, what people were really searching for was Christian brethren on the other side of the world. The question of rivalry would not be raised in any pressing or conflictual way until the time that "Buddhism" began to be understood. Prior to that, the question of judgment, of battle, of praise or scorn, existed only rhetorically. The figure of Hermes, to the extent that it symbolized the foundation of knowledge and especially the possession of the most powerful and subtle kind of "sapience," was undoubtedly the mark of a respect. The comparison with Christ was undoubtedly a sign of esteem, even though the loss of the original message and corruption in the worship aspect of the religion would have made the followers of the Buddha both pitiful and grotesque. Nevertheless, in this vast game of permutable and substitutable signs, there was no real understanding of a history, a belief, or a representation of the world by which it could have been measured. This primitive exterior had nothing more than relatively undifferentiated and barely distinguishable aspects that could be agreed upon.

Even more than Christ, it was believed, the Buddha might have been an "Ethiopian," with dark skin, thick lips, and kinky hair. This idea was seen as an attractive one by a number of authors. The first remark concerned his hair, and the others followed. On 2 February 1786, in the speech given for the third anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, its president—the poet, Orientalist, and Sanskrit scholar William Jones—pointed out that the name "Ethiopians," in certain texts of antiquity, included the peoples of India, adding: "We frequently see representations of the Buddha with kinky hair, which were apparently aiming at depicting him in his natural state."[31] In the third publication of Asiatick Researches, in 1792, Lieutenant Wilford, in a long article aimed at showing that the Indians had specific knowledge about the course of the Nile, maintained that the physical appearance of the Buddha was of "Ethiopian type," rather than Indian: "Whether the Buddha was a sage or a hero, the head of a colony, or even an entire colony personified, whether he was black or white, that his hair was kinky or straight, or if he even had hair at all…if he appeared ten, two hundred, or a thousand years after Krishna, it is completely certain that he was not of truly Indian descent: in all the images and all the statues of Buddhas, both male and female, which can be seen in a number of places in these provinces and these two peninsulas, there is something Egyptian or Ethiopian in their appearance; and in physical characteristics as well as in dress, he differs greatly from the figures of the ancient heroes and demigods of the Hindus."[32] This assertion was subsequently used on a number of occasions. For example, Captain Robert Percival, in 1803, remarked that "Buddou is always shown with thick, black, curly hair, like an African black man."[33]

In 1819, in the Journal des Savants, the French Sinologue Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat refuted this hypothesis, which he judged to be contrary not only to plausibility, but also to the epithets traditionally attributed to the Buddha, and particularly to his hair, by the traditional Sanskrit vocabulary.[34] In any case, the idea of a "Black Buddha" continued to spread for at least a decade.[35] It was still sufficiently present in memories in 1850 that Eugène Burnouf, whose work was foundational to the scientific analysis of the Buddhist phenomenon, went to the trouble of specifying, in his study "On the Thirty Two Characteristic Signs of a Great Man," that analysis of the Sanskrit and Tibetan terms describing the Buddha's hair, his tightly ringed locks, and the darkness of his complexion, do not allow us "to conclude so quickly that the founder of Buddhism belonged to the Negro race."[36] Not without irony, he concluded his analysis a few pages later: "We are presently in a position to appreciate the correctness of the inductions that a few scholars early in this century reached from the appearance of the hair on the statues of Buddhas. These statues, no more than the written authorities that describe them, do not tell us of kinky hair, but rather of curly hair, two things that are sufficiently dissimilar that they should not be confused."[37]

Nothing seemed to stand in the way of the many combinations of these myriad possibilities. It would have been possible, for example, to envision that the Buddha was an Ethiopian who went to Egypt to read the Pentateuch, who left there to go to Japan, passing through India on his way, where the earliest Greeks had gone to seek the first seeds of their knowledge from him. This combination is not a whimsical invention. We find under Diderot's pen, in the many articles from his Encyclopédie where the teachings of the Buddha are referred to, a quite similar melange of elements that not only erudition, but also simple good sense show to be irreconcilable.

A Quite Discreet Nothingness
Let it be said again: in the gray continuity of that "primitive world," where divinities ended up replacing one another, where mythologies reciprocally answered and translated one another, the unity of the world was intact. There was not a multiplicity of histories with no necessary connection to one another; there were not disperse mythologies; nor were there separate systems, each of which was unique. In the place of disparate, heterogeneous, irreducibly diverse worlds—difficult to grasp since each was singular, and difficult to understand given their dissimilarity—there quite reassuringly reigned a single grand, smooth shore where all the differences ended up being canceled out and melted together through the magical interexpression of symbols, of figures, and of powers.

In this drab unity, the Buddha was still no more than an idol without a face. It was only very slightly a question of nothingness in this literature on primitive religions. There undoubtedly existed, limited solely to an anecdote transmitted by the Jesuits, a portrait of the Buddha depicted as a master deceiver who on his deathbed revealed to his followers that all was nothingness, that that was the only truth, that he had been fooling them all along.[38] But this was no more than an incidental element in a corner of the picture. The total picture would be modified. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Buddha began to be an indistinct idol no longer. He became—and abruptly enough to make one wary—a "distinguished philosopher." This transformation remains to be described.

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