Critical Questions Series 3: Category Formation and “Eastern” Traditions


by Sarah F. Haynes

This is the fourth instalment of the Critical Questions Series 3. The first post by Steven Ramey can be found here, the second by Nicole Goulet here, and the third by James Mark Shield here.

QuestionThe varieties of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto, along with the “indigenous traditions” of Asia and the Pacific Islands, are commonly referred to as “Eastern” in the taxonomies of most introductory textbooks. What is your sense of where these categories stand today? How do you grapple with issues of category formation in the study of religion that have been historically filtered through a Euro-western lens? How does your own identity factor into the equation?

Can the categorization of religious traditions into “Eastern” or “Western” taxonomies ever be transcended? Can one ever move beyond the boundaries established by what are seemingly geographic labels? Resolutions to these issues have long been called for but slow in the making. Meanwhile, the limitations and impact of these categories cannot be ignored. As a result of technological advancement and the effects of globalization the world has become more interconnected and the boundaries and categories that established identities blurred. The fact is that we live in a world where static categories are problematic, yet the reification of such taxonomies continues despite the academic world’s recognition of their inherent problems.

I approach the question on the categories of “Eastern” and “Western” from two perspectives: 1) as an academic who studies Buddhism in the “West”; and 2) as a teacher who introduces “Western” students to “Eastern” religions.

As an academic, both in the classroom and in my research, I recognize the importance of questioning the heuristic value of such categories as “East” and “West”. These loaded categories seem entrenched within the field of religious studies regardless of the post-Said discussions engendering progression beyond this dualistic view. Pointing out the ridiculousness of such absolutes to students is easy when asking them how far does one have to travel east around the world until they are west? Where is the dividing line?

More recently my research has focused upon how the categories of “East” and “West”, and all the stereotypes and assumptions associated with them, are being reinforced by individuals within religious traditions, specifically Tibetan Buddhism. While academics have largely moved beyond presenting the “East” and its inhabitants as the exotic, mystical holders of wisdom, there are those within so-called “Eastern” religious traditions who engage in a process of reverse Orientalism that perpetuates the view of the mystical East.  One only needs to look at the manner in which Tibetan Buddhism is filtered and shaped for North American consumption.  As Jane Iwamura has recently pointed out in her book Virtual Orientalism, the Dalai Lama serves as the model for the Oriental Monk figure. The Oriental Monk, whether depicted in Hollywood movies or literature, is the wise sage who bestows his knowledge on outsiders. In this instance, the religion, culture, and people of Tibet are represented by Tibetan Buddhists, not “Western” media and pop culture, in a seemingly uniform and idealized manner. The romanticization of Tibet is done not at the hands of those outside of the tradition, as was the case in the 19th and 20th centuries, but is squarely within the creative control of the Tibetan community. As the Oriental Monk figure, the Dalai Lama is depicted as a peaceful mystic, a simple monk, and Tibet as a Shangri-la. This is an example of how the category of “East” and what defines it has been turned on its head. The agent of identity formation has changed but the audience and methods remain the same. In understanding the power of these categories, we need to acknowledge that their formation and use are subject to change.

Ultimately, I agree with Dr. Nicole Goulet’s final point in the previous blog post, the question that needs to be addressed by religious studies scholars and, in my view more importantly, by students, is why does the depiction of the East continues to have such power in our society? As I reflect upon this issue with my students I am reminded that when engaging in the academic study of religion there is always going to be the need to make distinctions and identify things.  It’s the nature of the conventional world and who we are as humans, especially academics. While the process of identification won’t stop, its nature and results needs to remain fluid, open and ready for criticism.

Sarah F. Haynes, PhD (University of Calgary) is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Western Illinois University where she teaches courses related to Asian religious traditions.  Her areas of research include Tibetan Buddhist ritual and Buddhism in North America. 

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