The anti-Protestant view of religious studies has come out particularly strongly in the study of Buddhism. By most accounts of the field, one of the leading scholars of contemporary Buddhism is Gregory Schopen. Most of Schopen’s work criticizes scholars’ emphasis on Buddhist texts, advocating a turn instead to archaeological and epigraphic data. Schopen claims that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Buddhist scholarship focused on texts because of “Protestant presuppositions” about what religion really consisted of. He advocates instead for a scholarship of Buddhism in which “texts would have been judged significant only if they could be shown to be related to what religious people actually did.” What Schopen never considers, to my knowledge, is the idea that scholarship in Buddhism might be seeking the truth found in Buddhist ideas, rather than “what religion was” in remote and hoary periods of human history. Perhaps, in other words, we think about texts not because we have been trained to think as Protestants, but because we are trying to think as Buddhists.
Anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere took methodological anti-Protestantism a step further, effectively labelling not merely scholars of Buddhism but Buddhists themselves as regrettably Protestant. Obeyesekere coined the unfortunately widespread term “Protestant Buddhism” to describe what I have called Yavanayāna, the new modernist and rationalist form of Western-influenced Buddhism whose roots go back to nineteenth-century Sri Lanka and the reformers Henry Steel Olcott and Anagarika Dharmapala.
What’s wrong with calling this modernized Buddhism Protestant? First of all, neither Olcott nor Dharmapala were Protestants themselves. Dharmapala was born and raised a Sri Lankan Buddhist. While born and raised a Protestant family, Olcott had converted away from Protestantism to “spiritualism” well before calling himself a Buddhist. Moreover, as Stephen Prothero has rightly argued, Protestantism was only one influence on Olcott’s thought; secular modernism was at least as important. For example, Olcott was a firm believer in the theory of evolution, rejected roundly by the Protestants of his time, and was enthusiastic about Buddhism partially because he took it – unlike Protestantism – to be compatible with evolutionary theory.
But beyond that historical point, one must also ask: what’s wrong with Protestantism? The term “Protestant Buddhism” carries the whiff of an accusation that there’s something wrong with this Buddhism, that these Buddhists are not really Buddhists but Protestants in Buddhist disguise. In a class I took from him, Robert Gimello once criticized Yavanayāna Buddhists who would make claims like “??kyamuni and I have got it right, and 2500 years of Buddhist tradition has got it wrong.” The class laughed, and Gimello added “I think that’s extremely arrogant.” Looking back on that experience, I sorely wish I had raised my and and asked the following question: “So may I clarify, Prof. Gimello? You are, in fact, telling us that the Protestant Reformation should never have happened?”
For after all, what was Martin Luther doing except to say “Jesus, Paul and I have got it right, and 1500 years of Catholic tradition has got it wrong”? To make a claim like Gimello’s is effectively to claim that Protestantism is a tradition founded on illegitimate arrogance. And one can reasonably make that claim – as a matter of anti-Protestant apologetics. Indeed Gimello – always a devout Catholic – has since moved to the University of Notre Dame to help develop “robustly Catholic” theological views of Buddhism. I believe in the value of apologetics, of theological or sectarian claims aimed at persuading members of one tradition to move to another. I only have a problem with apologetics when it poses as neutral, disinterested scholarship, as Gimello had once claimed his class to be. It may well be that a “robustly Catholic” sectarian apologetic helps us understand Buddhism better – but only if we acknowledge that that is what it is.