Jens Braarvig

The basic tenet of Buddhism is the idea of impermanence, relativity and the philosophical premise that nothing is absolute and eternal: existence is an everlasting flux, and each entity is dependent on another. This tenet gives the tradition its identity as distinguished from other ancient traditions of India in whose context Buddhism originated. Thus, believing in an eternal self, the basis of all Brahmanical philosophy, to which the Buddhists aimed their philosophical and rhetorical skills, was according to Buddhist insights the most basic misunderstanding of all: believing in and trying to find a self —or oneself —will always keep sentient beings attached to existence. Giving up the hope that anything is permanent, however, will eventually liberate men from bondage and the circle of rebirth to which we are all doomed by the fruits of our actions “since beginningless time,” as it is expressed in Buddhist literature. There can also be no eternal god, nor any basic cause of existence: everything is created by the actions of sentient beings in various states of existence, men, gods, animals or various classes of spirits. We see that Buddhism in this way is based upon what we might term a philosophical or even a psychological tenet, rather than faith in a transcendent being or a metaphysical reality, a philosophical premise that remains as such in the various philosophical transformations of Buddhism throughout its history. The basic premise of Buddhism, then, can be seen as less a creed based upon faith than an attempt to formulate a philosophical or “rational” premise for the system of knowledge, even though much of Buddhism of course seems irrational in the modern sense. However, this semi-rationality of Buddhism makes it easier to study as a conceptual system producing fields of knowledge, and it can be studied as a fairly limited or closed conceptual system.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    The Globalization of Knowledge in History

    Chapter 10

    The Spread of Buddhism as Globalization of Knowledge

    by Jens Braarvig

    We see that Buddhism is spread most of all through its literature, on which great emphasis is placed. In Tibet, this literature was translated in a highly systematical way, but in China to a lesser degree. Still, the Buddhist canonical scriptures as established on the basis of these translations became enormously influential throughout East-Asia for very long periods of time. We must presume that these texts were mostly interpreted in a “correct” way by their translators, who recreated the conceptual systems underlying the Sanskrit languages in the new linguistic media of Chinese, Tibetan, and so on, since these concepts are well recognizable in the receiving languages. It is unclear, however, whether a concept transferred to a completely different cultural background retains its original content; a basic problem that is connected with all kinds of translations. And indeed, many of the translations of Buddhist texts, especially into Chinese, may be characterized as rather inaccurate and have often lost some of the conceptual subtleties present in their Sanskrit form. However, if one analyses the Tibetan translations of Buddhist terms, these are found to be considerably more accurate than the Chinese translations. This is probably explained by the fact that the Tibetan written language was created to translate exactly these Buddhist texts and to express exactly this conceptual system of Buddhism; the Tibetan language was prepared with grammatical structures that could accommodate the Buddhist Sanskrit language and its semantic contents.

    Buddhism, as described above, was also spread by the social system of its monastic community as well as by the crafts employed in the propagation of the Buddhist faith: those connected to the writing of sacred texts and to the art depicting the Buddhist motifs, arts and crafts that were developed further during contact with counterparts in the receiving cultures. However, there are also examples where Buddhist motifs have been communicated without being recognized as such in the receiving cultures, as in the legend of Josaphat and Barlaam. Another possible example of diffusion of Buddhism, which is difficult to prove, though, is that of monastic life and the idea of hell. This last example pinpoints the difficulty one may encounter in the description of the globalization of knowledge, since similarities in fields of knowledge may be found, but whether these are a result of diffusion or independent ideas, is often hard to decide. Buddhism, though, as a conceptual and cultural system exemplifies a number of types of diffusion, spanning from historically well-documented examples to those that can only with hesitation be proposed as diffusion of knowledge.


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