‘The Buddhist and the Buddhologist’ (1995)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

1 minute

The Summer 1995 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review contained the article ‘The Buddhist and the Buddhologist’ by Donald Lopez. In this article, Lopez reported on the Dalai Lama’s participation in a private seminar with the faculty and students of the Buddhist Studies program of the University of Michigan.

Because of the Dalai Lama’s stated willingness to adapt Buddhist views to the findings of modern science, Lopez and his students brought up current Western scholarship on the origins of the Mahayana:

“When I mentioned to His Holiness that our graduate students would be making a presentation to him on the origins of the Mahayana, he immediately asked whether they had supernormal powers, suggesting that only someone who had a clairvoyant knowledge of the past could know how the Mahayana began.”

Students and faculty members explained to the Dalai Lama that contemporary scholarship suggests “that the Mahayana did not begin as a single and self-conscious movement, but instead was a disparate collection of ‘cults of the book’ centered around new sutras composed around the beginning of the common era.” Indeed, they explained,  the first ‘Mahayana sutras’ were actually composed some 500 years before the term Mahayana came into fashion. 

Lopez continues:

“His Holiness listened attentively to all of this, sometimes stopping and asking his translator to clarify a term or a point. But at the end of the presentation he remained silent and only spoke after I asked him what he thought about what the students had said. ‘It’s something to know,’ he said in Tibetan, using the term shes bya (literally, ‘object of knowledge’), evoking the Buddhist aphorism ‘Objects of knowledge are limitless.’ That is, there are infinite things that can be known; hence it is important to consider carefully what is truly worth knowing. He went on to say that he has a friend, a great lama, who, when giving a tantric initiation saw all the past masters of the lineage appear in the air along the ceiling of the temple. He was certain that his friend was telling the truth. He conceded that what the students had told him was interesting and that it would be good for Buddhists to have some knowledge of Western scholarship on Buddhism. However, in the end, he seemed to view Buddhist practice and Buddhist scholarship (at least of the Western variety) as ultimately irreconcilable. He told the students that if he accepted what they had told him, he would be able only to believe in the rupakaya, the form body of the Buddha that appears in the world. He could not believe in the sambhogakaya, the body of complete enjoyment, which appears to advanced bodhisattvas in the splendor of the pure lands. And he could not believe in the dharmakaya, the Buddha’s omniscient mind and its emptiness. ‘If I believed what you told me,’ he said, ‘the Buddha would only be a nice person.'”

The Buddhist and the Buddhologist

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.