We are surely familiar with the pattern by now: members of an Asian tradition are concerned about supposed corruptions in their tradition which depart from the intentions of the tradition’s historic founders, so they turn with renewed focus to the historical texts that they take to be at the tradition’s centre. We, with our historical hindsight, now know that this Asian concern with texts and founders is an alien importation, the work of colonial subjects aping their Protestant missionary rulers’ search for textual historicity.
Except for one thing: it isn’t.
My first sentence about this pattern could have been speaking about the 19th- and 20th-century Sri Lankan reforms of Anagarika Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula, so often now maligned as exemplars of a supposedly Western-corrupted “Protestant Buddhism”. But it could just as easily have been speaking of the works of Dai Zhen, a fascinating Chinese thinker whom I encountered in Justin Tiwald and Bryan Van Norden’s excellent reader in “later” Chinese philosophy. (While I recognize it is standard usage in the study of Chinese thought, “later” remains an odd word to describe a period that begins in 200 BCE.)
Dai Zhen was the leading practitioner of a field of study called kaozheng xue 考證學 (usually rendered “evidential learning” or “evidentiary research”), which, according to Tiwald and Van Norden, sought “rigorous methods of textual analysis and historical and linguistic evidence” (310) to reconstruct the works of Confucius and Mencius. That is, it was what we would now call philology. And moreover, Dai’s philology had a specific purpose: to purge Confucianism of accretions it had unknowingly received from Daoism and Buddhism. Dai was particularly worried about the emphasis on li 理, a presumed metaphysical pattern underlying all things, that he found in the works of Neo-Confucians like Zhu Xi; Dai argued, with reason, that such an idea had little foundation in the ideas of the historical Confucius and Mencius, and we could find that out by turning to back to the original works of the founders. So surely, then, he must have been imitating the Protestants as we all know Dharmapala and Rahula did, right? Well, Dai died in 1777, and at least on a Wikipedia version of history, the first Protestants didn’t even arrive in China until thirty years later. So one would have to stretch pretty hard to identify a Protestant influence on him.
And if you are tempted to stretch that hard, consider further: it isn’t even just chronologically post-Protestant thinkers like Dai who follow this pattern. Steven Collins’s excellent article “On the very idea of the Pali Canon” rightly points out how we should not equate the term “Theravāda” with early Buddhism, since the term wasn’t coined until many hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death, probably in Sri Lanka a thousand miles from where the Buddha lived. Collins is reminding us that Theravāda was a movement – but specifically a historicist one, one aimed at preserving a tradition taken to be historically attested. It is the common pattern in the history of philosophy that a different Collins, Randall Collins, would describe as “innovation through conservatism”, and one with a strong consciousness of historicity and textuality.
Unlike most other South Asian traditions, the newly emerging Theravādins composed vaṃsa texts – the Dīpavaṃsa and the Mahāvaṃsa – which aim to describe the history of transmission lineages, and which Heinz Bechert has called the only “historical literature in the strict sense of the word [in South Asia] prior to the period of the Muslim invasions.” The Dīpavaṃsa (circa 4th century) appears to be the first place the term “Theravāda” is used to describe something Buddhist. What we see emerging in the Dīpavaṃsa and Mahāvaṃsa – alongside the works of Buddhaghosa, who wrote after the Dīpavaṃsa but after Mahāvaṃsa – is the idea of a “way of the elders”, a thera-vāda, that was distinct from, and defining itself against, other “ways” of being Buddhist. (These did not specifically include Mahāyāna, because that movement was barely a player in the Sri Lanka of the early centuries CE; the Mahāvaṃsa describes many non-Theravāda traditions but Mahāyāna is not among them.) And the Theravāda defined itself in relation to a newly closed set of texts that it now identified as a canon. The vaṃsa texts identify, using historical records, how the Theravāda lineage is purer in part because of its set of texts, more than a thousand years before the birth of Martin Luther.
Human beings and their ideas are shaped by their history, so history matters. It should not be so surprising that that view has been taken up in multiple places across human history. And it has been a common pattern across premodern societies to prioritize old, received wisdom over new. Texts, whether oral or written, are the repository by which that wisdom can be preserved across generations. Why then should we be surprised that several different premodern societies all tried to establish what they took to be an accurate history of that wisdom, its texts, and its putative founders? It seems far stranger to me that we now so routinely assume such an attitude is “Protestant” or “structurally Protestant”. Such an approach, I think, gives Protestants far more credit than they deserve.