EVERYBODY KNOWS there is really no such thing as Hinduism. The name is derived from an ancient word for sea, sindhu, used also for the Indus River. Persians living to the west of the Indus modified it to hind, and used it to refer to the land of the Indus valley. Eventually, Muslims used hindu to refer to the native peoples of South Asia. It was not a term that “Hindus,” however, used to refer to themselves. In the nineteenth century, officers of the British Raj began to use the word Hinduism, especially for purposes of their census, to refer to a purported system of religious beliefs and practices of non-Muslim, non-Jain, non-Sikh, non-Christian, non-Parsi, non-Jewish Indians (Buddhism had disappeared from India centuries before). The Western-educated leaders of these none-of-the-above Indians eventually adopted the term Hinduism themselves, in an effort to name a religious identity that could challenge and surpass in age and authority that of the Christian colonizers and their missionaries. Prior to the nineteenth century, these groups did not have a name for, nor did they consider themselves members of, a single religious community. Since then scholars, both European and Indian, have projected the term retrospectively to name a great historical range of Indian religious formations. In this way, an indigenous term for a geographical feature, the Indus River, evolved, through a series of deformations, into an abstract noun used to name one of the “world religions.”
Is Buddhism also another of those abstract “isms” formulated by the West? It would seem that Buddhism must possess a more stable ontological status than Hinduism. There was, after all, a historical figure called “the Buddha,” he had followers who were called bauddha (Buddhist), and the teachings that those followers attributed to him were called buddha-dharma, which could, under most circumstances, be safely rendered as “Buddhism.” In the nineteenth century, European and American scholars reified the category. Their Buddhism was a historical projection derived from manuscripts and block prints, texts devoted largely to a “philosophy,” that had been produced and had circulated among a small circle of monastic elites. With rare exception, Western scholars had little interest in the ways in which such texts were understood by the Buddhists of modern Asia. The question, then, is whether there is something called “Buddhism” apart from the local practices and institutions referred to in the West as Japanese Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, Nepalese Buddhism, and now American Buddhism.
Buddhist texts often represent the dharma as something ancient, even eternal, to be rediscovered in age after age by a succession of buddhas. And the various Buddhist histories speak of the dharma being transmitted, from teacher to student and from kingdom to kingdom. It is the very portability of the dharma that helps account for the extension of Buddhism through Asia. However, perhaps it is important to think not so much of a disembodied dharma descending on another culture from above, as rather of a more material movement—of monks, nuns, texts, relics, and icons—along trade routes and across deserts, mountains, and seas. Yet despite the rhetoric of transmission and the historical fact of the far-flung travels of Buddhist monks and nuns, it is useful to recall that the words tradition and treason derive from the same Latin root, tradere; a passing on from one to another can also be a betrayal. In the passage change inevitably occurs. For Buddhism the range of practices and institutions encompassed by the term are in many cases so diverse as to be recognized as Buddhist only from the omniscient vantage point of the scholar. Few Theravada monks today, for example, would regard the Pure Land practice of reciting of Namu amida butsu as an efficacious Buddhist practice, much less the single practice for salvation that the Japanese master Shinran declared it to be.
A “world religion” is generally considered to be a tradition that crosses cultural and geographic boundaries in such a way as to produce history. For Buddhist historians, history has meant lineage, an account of who received which teaching from whom. History, in other words, is concerned with the tracing of authority back to its source. Thus, although Buddhist from one tradition may not recognize the practices of Buddhists from another tradition, although it may be more accurate to speak of Buddhisms in the plural, nevertheless one can identify a shared concern with looking back toward the figure of the Buddha, a figure itself represented by a wealth of contradictory forms.