The Cult of Nothingness:
The Philosophers and the Buddha
Translated by David Streight and Pamela Vohnson
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003
288 pp.; $59.95 (cloth), $24.95 (paper)
What do people think about when they think about Buddhism? Maybe it’s the Dalai Lama, beaming amid a clutch of eager young monks or smiling benevolently at a throng of Hollywood admirers. Maybe it’s a bald, bespectacled, and black-robed woman from lower Manhattan, presiding over the neighborhood zendo. Or maybe it’s Keanu Reeves, in a flattering dhoti and heavy eyeliner, sitting unperturbed beneath the Bodhi tree amid a blizzard of special effects.
While the images that Buddhism evokes these days are varied and eclectic, they are also, for the most part, benign, if not downright boosterish. Even Madison Avenue has assumed that position, serving up lotus-posed business executives as a modern beau ideal—clear-eyed, compassionate, efficient, and wise. But as The Cult of Nothingness makes abundantly clear, this wasn’t always the case—especially not on the Continent in the early years of the nineteenth century, when avid “Orientalists” versed in Sanskrit and Pali were beginning to decipher sacred texts that talked of suffering and emptiness and a maddeningly unfathomable state called nirvana.
“In the beginning, the existence of Buddhism, a quite late discovery, was like a bad dream for Europe,” writes Roger-Pol Droit, a philosopher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. “It was seen as a paradoxical and horrible religion of nothingness. . . . The fright raised by the Buddha in the minds of some philosophers was not unlike what happens with specters.” The philosophers Droit has foremost in his own mind are Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Victor Cousin, whose pronouncements on the subject did indeed have many scholars brandishing verbal pikes and pitchforks.
Consider the opinion of Jules Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire, a prominent politician and academic, who was a fervent disciple of Cousin. “More than any other author,” Droit notes, “he piled on the disparaging epithets. . . . The Buddha’s teachings are ‘deplorable and absurd,’ his system is ‘hideous,’ founded on ‘sad principles,’ stuffed with ‘monstrous errors,’ full of ‘gloomy meaning’ and leading to a ‘moral suicide.’ In short, it was the ‘most revolting of religions.’”
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