[Reminder: this lecture was written for a Cambodian audience, and intended for translation into Cambodian.]
I would conclude with an observation that serves as a counterweight, because the past is something that cannot be disregarded --and the legacy of colonial interpretation cannot be easily discarded.
Apart from all our ethical objections to it, colonialism supplies us with raw material for the study of history, even if the material is a set of fragments from a culture that the colonists had set out to destroy. This is something like the Archaeologist's ambivalence in finding a village that was both destroyed and preserved by a volcano (that is, the people and their culture were destroyed, but some evidence and remains were sealed away under lava). The destruction is vast and terrible, yet we can learn a great deal from the fragments that were preserved in that same act of destruction.
The problem is that we, who set to work on Buddhism today, are neither archaeologists nor botanists: we are neither digging up artefacts that explain themselves, nor working to sketch out an image of nature on a blank sheet of paper. I think that our role has been, lamentably, similar to the development workers and charities that have been trying to eradicate swidden agriculture (so called “slash-and-burn farming”, 刀耕火地) with no clear understanding of its indigenous significance, nor of the colonial agenda that prefigured the present interventions.
In facing the legacy of past scholarship on Buddhism, soon to be indexed and instantly available in digital archives, we need to be consciously engaged in a critique of it as a genre of European literature, as a sort of religion unto itself, and as a pseudo-science that evolved to support Western hegemony.
When we read uncritically we learn less than the book contains and are misled by the author's assumptions. When we read critically, and in a context of historical comparison, we learn more than the authors knew themselves because our attention is directed to the limits of their authorship, delving into what their omissions can now disclose.
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