Dwight Eisenhower, a president not particularly remembered for his wit, once remarked that “all isms are wasms.” He was presumably referring, rather presciently, to the largely forgotten isms that were once perceived as a threat to truth, justice, and the American way: socialism and communism. But his remark points to the vaguely pejorative quality of “ism,” which suggests something that someone else believes in but will eventually abandon when they see the error of their ways. Where there is the one true faith—Christianity, for example—its rivals are isms of one kind or another. In the seventeenth century, only four religions were identified in the world: Christianity, Judaism, Muhammadanism, and Paganism (also known as idolatry). The history of the academic study of religion is in one sense a process of replacing Paganism with a larger list of isms: Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Sikhism, and Buddhism.

Hinduism is a term derived from hind, a Persian word for the Indus River valley, an area now located in Pakistan and populated by Muslims. Hinduism has no correlate in Sanskrit, its sacred language. Buddhism is a somewhat more complicated case. We really cannot say with certainty what the Buddha himself called what it was that he said. Nothing of what the faithful regard as his words was written down until some four centuries after he passed into nirvana. However, when they were written down, we find the Buddha referring to what he taught as the dharma vinaya. Vinaya refers to the rules of monastic discipline. Dharma is famously untranslatable, with one commentary providing ten meanings, from “phenomenon,” to “virtue,” to “life,” to “vow.” Nineteenth-century translators used to render dharma as “law.” These days it is often translated as teachings or doctrine. Thus, the Buddha divided what it was that he taught into rules of discipline and, perhaps, a set of doctrines. And, indeed, when we look up “ism” in Webster’s Third International Dictionary, we find the third definition to be “doctrine, theory, or cult (Buddhism).” The corpus of his teachings came to be referred to in Sanskrit as buddhadharma, the teaching or doctrine of the Buddha.

The word Buddha as it appears in Chinese, Thai, Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan
The word Buddha as it appears in Chinese, Thai, Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan


Of course, what counted as Buddhist has been a subject of controversy for many centuries. The Tibetan pilgrim Chag lo-tsa-ba went to India in 1234 to find the major Buddhist monasteries and places of pilgrimage either destroyed by Muslim armies or barely under Buddhist control. Even Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, was tended by a small band of monks, not from India but from Sri Lanka. One might imagine that the threat of annihilation by Muslim raiders would inspire a certain solidarity among the Buddhists. But as Chag lo-tsa-ba entered the monastery at Bodhgaya with a copy of the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Stanzas carried on his back, he was stopped by a Theravada monk who said, “You are a good monk; the Mahayana text you are carrying on your back is not good. Throw it in the river. This so-called Mahayana was not spoken by the Buddha. It was fabricated by a clever man named Nagarjuna.” Thus, even in ancient India, there seems to have been little consensus about what was authentically Buddhist and what was not. Nonetheless, there is a word in Sanskrit, bauddha (the adjectival form of Buddha), that may be accurately rendered in English as Buddhist. But to change the final “t” to a final “m” required something of a stretch.

In Sri Lanka, what we might call Buddhism is simply referred to as the sasana, the teaching. In Tibet, it is most commonly referred to as nang pa’i chos, the religion of the insiders. In China, it is fo jiao, the teaching of the Buddha (fo used to be pronounced as budh in Chinese). In Japan, it is butsudo, the way of the Buddha. Over the history of these traditions, apart from a general recognition of India as the birthplace of the Buddha, there is little sense of the referents of these various names being a single entity that we might call Buddhism. They were, instead, like a variety of dialects, not always mutually comprehensible.

If there was little cognizance among the Buddhists of belonging to a single pan-Asian tradition, there was confusion among the European travelers who encountered them. Only in 1801 does the Oxford English Dictionary record the use of the term Boudhism, changed to Buddhism in 1816 in the phrase of a Mr. Joinville, “The name and peculiarities of Buddhism have a good deal fixed my attention.” In 1829 Edward Upham published The History and Doctrine of Budhism, the first work in English with the word, albeit lacking one “d”, in its title. But even at the end of nineteenth century the meaning of the term was not always clear, and its spelling was, in one famous case, intentionally altered: Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, remembered as a key figure in the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, distinguished between the corrupt practices of Asian Buddhists, which she called Buddhism, and a more esoteric science of enlightenment, called Budh-ism, a synonym of Theosophy.

It is only with the invention of the category of religion, with its obligatory constituents of a founder, sacred scriptures, and fixed body of doctrine, that Buddhism comes to be counted among the chosen. And only with the Christian identification of the competitors of Christianity did the competitors themselves use the term, and Buddhists began talking about Buddhism as a world religion. One of the early attempts to unite Buddhism under a single creed (and a single flag) was made not by an Asian Buddhist but by a Theosophist, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a lifelong friend of Madame Blavatsky. In 1891 he formulated a set of fourteen rather bland principles called the “Fundamental Buddhistic Beliefs,” which, with some effort, he persuaded a variety of Sri Lankan, Burmese, and Japanese Buddhist leaders to endorse, though the principles were never put into practice.

The question then, is not whether Buddhism is a wasm, but whether it ever was an ism.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .