Theories of the Self, Race, and Essentialization in Buddhism in the United States during the “Yellow Peril,” 1899-1957
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Religion & Culture / Religious Studies
Faculty of Arts
This dissertation is an intellectual history tracing developing notions of the Self in Buddhism through Buddhist publications during the years from 1899-1957. I define this time period as the Era of the Yellow Peril, due to common views in the United States of an Asian “other” which formed a larger clash of civilizations globally. 1899-1957 was marked by pessimism and dread due to two World Wars and the Great Depression, while popular and academic cultures argued for the validity of race sciences, and the application of these “sciences” through eugenics. Buddhism in the United States was created through a global network of influences, involving Japanese Buddhists in Japan and the United States, as well as Metaphysical Buddhists. I also analyze issues of colonialism in the development of Buddhism.
Buddhists were influenced by global discussions of race, science, and the Self, in adapting their religious presentation for new audiences at a time when they felt threatened by encroachment, not only internationally but domestically as well. Following Victorian-Era narratives regarding colonialism and the development of the Aryan myth, Buddhists attempted to reverse these dominant tropes in order to show the superiority of Buddhism over a perceived “West.” They combined emic discussions about the “Aryan” present in Buddhism through the Sanskrit term, ārya, meaning “noble” and comparisons of Buddhism and science, in order to disprove colonial tropes of “Western” dominance, and suggest that Buddhism, represented a superior tradition in world historical development. Metaphysical Buddhists in the United States similarly utilized the Aryan myth and discussions of a Buddhist Self in order to show the evolutionary corruption which had taken place in the religion; this perceived corruption supported the idea that “true Buddhists” would eventually retake the religion from those who had degraded it.
Buddhism in the United States was formed within a global network of influences and actors, including developments in colonized nations in Asia, imperial powers such as Japan, and the influence of Buddhist immigrants within America. Buddhists variously used science, and discussions of the Self and modernity, in order to place themselves at the pinnacle of world historical development. These tropes were used to reverse common Orientalist and colonialist beliefs of the time. Finally, I argue that this presentation of a Buddhist tradition of superiority helped Buddhists to create space for Buddhism within the American religious landscape, laying the foundations for Buddhism in America, post-1957.
Anningson, Ryan, "Theories of the Self, Race, and Essentialization in Buddhism in the United States during the “Yellow Peril,” 1899-1957" (2017). Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive). 1968.
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