Apart from the susceptibility of individual perceptions to subjective
influences of various kinds, there is also the risk of cultural stereotyping
which arises in any encounter with ‘the other’. Contemporary writers
such as Edward Said have drawn attention to the West’s tendency to
construct in its art and literature an ‘Orient’ which is more a reflection
of its own shadow-side than an accurate depiction of what is really
there. There is no need to accept Said’s elaborate conspiracy theory to
the effect that the West stereotyped the Orient intellectually as a
prelude to colonizing it politically to realize that in approaching the
study of other cultures we cannot help but be influenced by residual
attitudes and assumptions within our own culture of which we are
barely conscious. In connection with the study of Buddhism,
then, we must be alert to the risk of ‘culture-blindness’, and the
misunderstandings which can arise from the assumption that Western
categories and concepts apply to other cultures and civilizations.
Is Buddhism a Religion?
Problems of the kind just mentioned confront us as soon as we try to
define what Buddhism is. Is it a religion? A philosophy? A way of life? A
code of ethics? It is not easy to classify Buddhism as any of these things,
and it challenges us to rethink some of these categories. What, for
example, do we mean by ‘religion’? Most people would say that religion
has something to do with belief in God. God, in turn, is understood as a
Supreme Being who created the world and the creatures in it. Furthermore, God takes a close interest (or at least has up to now) in the course
of human history, by entering into covenants, making his will known in
various ways, and intervening miraculously at critical junctures.
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