LOUIS DE LA VALLÉE POUSSIN
Louis de La Vallée Poussin was a pre-eminent member of the second generation in modern academic Buddhist studies. He was born at Liège in Belgium in a distinguished family that had produced several well-known men of science and letters. His family was French-speaking and had close ties with France. As was usual at the time, he received a classical education in the western humanities. But he soon turned to indology, and within this discipline he developed a special interest in Buddhist studies. These he pursued with great application first in Belgium and then in Paris. From the time of the indologist Eugène Burnouf (1801-1852), and also of the tibetologist Philippe Édouard Foucaux (1811-1894), Paris had indeed been a major centre of Indo-Buddhist studies, and it remained so in La Vallée Poussin’s time. There he attended lectures by Sylvain Lévi (1863-1935), with whom he was to develop a close but not uncomplicated scholarly relation. Whereas Lévi considered himself essentially a philologist and historian of India with a strong interest in Buddhism, but averred that he was no philosopher, his colleague from Belgium, also a philologist and historian, soon turned to the exploration of Indian Buddhist thought. La Vallée Poussin perfected his knowledge of Buddhist philology with the indologist Hendrik Kern (1833-1917) at Leiden in the Netherlands. His publications show that he felt a special intellectual affinity with Auguste Barth (1834-1916) and Émile Senart (1847-1928), different from him though these senior French scholars were in many respects.1
1 For the life and work of Louis de La Vallée Poussin, see the ‘Nécrologie’ by É. Lamotte in: Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 38 (1938), pp. 479-483; and the same author’s ‘Notice sur Louis de La Vallée Poussin’ in the Annuaire for 1965 of the Académie Royale de Belgique, pp. 145-168. Lamotte was a personal disciple of La Vallée Poussin. A bibliography of La Vallée Poussin’s writings was published by M. Lalou in Bibliographie bouddhique Fascicule Annexe XXIII bis (Paris, 1955), pp. 3-37. Information on La Vallée Poussin’s work is also found in J. W. de Jong, A brief history of Buddhist Studies in Europe and America (‘Unified Edition’, Tokyo, 1997), who provided the outline of a periodization of the history of Buddhist studies in the west. Sylvain Lévi’s disclaimer of the quality of philosopher is found on p. *27 of the introduction to his translation of the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra (Paris, 1911). Some confusion has been caused for bibliographers and librarians by the fact that our subject’s name was written sometimes as Louis de la Vallée Poussin (especially in his earlier publications), and therefore placed under the letter ‘V’, and sometimes as Louis de La Vallée Poussin, and therefore placed under the letter ‘L’. Unaccountably, he has been cited in Britain (e.g. by the Edinburgh indologist A. B. Keith) under the truncated moniker of ‘Poussin’!
At a critical point in the modern history of Indian and Buddhist studies, La Vallée Poussin and Lévi both came to realize the need for a good knowledge not only of Sanskrit, Pali and other Indian languages but also of Chinese and Tibetan, these being the main languages in which Buddhist canonical texts have been transmitted and in which major works of classical Buddhist thought have been preserved along with their commentaries. The latter tongues were also the languages in which Chinese and Tibetan scholar-pilgrims composed valuable records of their travels and studies in India. La Vallée Poussin’s monumental French translation of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa – a compendium of Buddhist philosophy and psychology composed originally in Sanskrit – was a product of a grand project he and Lévi planned for the investigation of this major treatise on Buddhist
thought. This plan they developed together with Theodore Stcherbatsky, the renowned Petersburg specialist in Indian and Buddhist philosophy. Even before the original Sanskrit text of the Abhidharmakośa and its Bhāṣya had become available to scholars, their plan was to undertake the publication of this treatise in its Tibetan version together with its large Sanskrit subcommentary by Yaśomitra. Translations into European languages of Vasubandhu’s work were also to be published. At the time, Stcherbatsky’s pupil (and future colleague in St Petersburg) Otto Rosenberg was engaged in investigating Chinese and Japanese sources on Abhidharma, on which he was soon to publish an important philosophical study and a glossary of the technical vocabulary. Stcherbatsky was a scholar with whom La Vallée Poussin was later to develop a lively scholarly debate revolving around the interpretation and the rendering in European languages of crucial concepts and terms in Buddhist thought, matters about which these two great scholars often
entertained quite contrasting views. From 1894 to 1929, with an interruption during the First World War when he took refuge in England and was based in Cambridge, La Vallée Poussin was a professor at the University of Ghent (Gand/Gent) in Belgium. Flemish linguistic and cultural policies introduced at his university made him decide to move in 1929 to Brussels, where he was the moving spirit behind the Institut Belge des Hautes Études Chinoises. In the Belgian capital he founded and edited until his death the renowned Mélanges chinois et bouddhiques, one the most significant periodicals ever to be devoted to the scientific study of Buddhism in all its aspects. For this publication he regularly wrote major articles and numerous scholarly reviews and notices on new publications. This activity continued work that he had earlier carried out first for the Muséon and then in his ‘Notes bouddhiques’ in the Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres of the Royal Academy of Belgium. In February 1938 La Vallée Poussin passed away suddenly at his Brussels residence, in the midst of his scholarly work. His best-known disciple was Étienne Lamotte, an eminent scholar of Buddhism who had been his student for a decade.
La Vallée Poussin was thus one of the leading founders of modern Buddhist studies. Indian studies and with them Buddhist studies had of course already been attracting the attention of good scholars and of the educated public. And much very significant work had been done in these fields by pioneering scholars in India and Europe beginning already in the eighteenth century. But it was in his generation living towards the end of the nineteenth century and in the earlier part of the twentieth century that Buddhist studies became established as a major specialism within indology, sinology and japanology, and in what was once known as Oriental (or Asian) Studies. His richly documented and annotated French translations from Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese and Tibetan have been models for succeeding generations of scholars. Intellectually, his interests naturally reflected concerns and preoccupations typical of his period, and sometimes they may perhaps appear to have been overtaken by more recent work and to be out of phase with large sectors of contemporary thinking. This is, of course, because studies in philosophy and religion together with Buddhist studies themselves have developed greatly since La Vallée Poussin’s time. But even if his outlook might on occasion appear a trifle old-fashioned today, he was addressing perennial questions. And his historicalphilological approach to his subject constituted a major contribution that has lost none of its relevance and importance today.
LA VALLÉE POUSSIN AS A HISTORIAN OF INDIA
To begin with, mention can be made of La Vallée Poussin as a historian and the author of a history of pre-classical and classical India in three volumes which were published successively in 1924 (Indo-européens et Indo-iraniens, L’Inde jusque vers 300 avant J.-C.; second ed., Paris, 1936), in 1930 (L’Inde au temps des Mauryas et des Barbares) and in 1935 (Dynasties et histoire de l’Inde depuis Kanishka jusqu’aux invasions musulmanes). In this work he reviewed and analysed relevant archaeological, inscriptional and literary evidence from earliest times until towards the end of the first millennium of the Christian era. And in his exposition he sifted and weighed the main interpretations of this documentation that had been proposed by various scholars. He was well equipped to exploit both classical western sources relating to India and ones in Chinese written by Chinese scholar-pilgrims in that land. This history is among the relatively few to have allotted due attention to the place held by
Buddhists in India and the contribution of Buddhism to Indian civilization.2 Although it differs from other histories of India, and from the forms of historiographical writing on India that have been customary, his exploration of India’s cultural and political history retains its value as a detailed critical survey of what was known (or perhaps only surmised) by scholars at the time. La Vallée Poussin himself was not insensible to the unusualness of a specialist in the philosophy of Buddhism writing a history of India; he explained that he did this at the urgent request of Eugène Cavaignac, a historian of Europe and the editor of the series in which his work appeared.3 TRANSLATION AND OTHER WORK ON BUDDHIST DOCTRINE, RITUAL AND PHILOSOPHY La Vallée Poussin is no doubt best known today as a scholar of Indian Buddhist thought and as a translator from Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan of Buddhist philosophical texts of Indian origin. He was amongst the first to explore in detail earlier Madhyamaka thought and what he called ‘Nāgārjunism’, editing the Sanskrit texts of Nāgārjuna’s magnum opus, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikās along with Candrakīrti’s great commentary on it (the Prasannapadā, 1903-1913), the Tibetan text of Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra together with the author’s own commentary (1907-1912), and the Sanskrit texts of Śāntideva’s Bodhi(sattva)caryāvatara together with Prajñākaramati’s extensive commentary on it (1901-1914). During this very fertile period in his researches he also published fluent translations in French of Candrakīrti’s last named work (1907-1911, incomplete) and of Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra (1907).
2 In his ‘Nécrologie’, pp. 482-3, and in his ‘Notice’, p. 165, Lamotte has cited the self-description of La Vallée Poussin in his Indo-européens et Indo-iraniens: L’Inde jusque vers 300 avant J.-C., p. 345: ‘[E]n ce qui concerne les grandes questions, de solution difficile ou impossible, je m’enferme volontiers dans le rôle de secrétaire-rapporteur; je goûte le mélancolique plaisir de noter les hypothèses ingénues, l’injurieuse suffisance de certains “sociologues”, les rapprochements imprévisibles et bizarres qui s’imposent à quelques indianistes. – Pourquoi tenterais-je au loin des courses inutiles en pays inconnu et accidenté quand certaines provinces de notre philologie offrent de sûrs asiles à une étude modeste mais qui satisfait l’esprit?’ [Concerning grand questions difficult or impossible to resolve, I gladly confine myself to being a recording secretary: I relish the melancholy pleasure of noting simplistic hypotheses, the offensive self-importance of certain ‘sociologists’, the unexpected and bizarre comparisons that gain acceptance with some indologists. – Why would I attempt useless errands afar, in unknown and rough terrain, when certain areas of our philology offer a secure asylum for a modest study that satisfies the mind?] His history of India was apparently intended by its author to be as much a work of philology as of modern narrative historiography. 3 Ibid., pp. 105-06.
During his stay in England during the First World War, La Vallée Poussin published a book on the subject of Buddhist nirvāṇa. At the same time he also published, in association with E. J. Thomas, his two-volume edition of the Mahāniddesa (1916-17), a canonical commentary on part of the Suttanipāta included in the Pali Suttapiṭaka. Also in England he compiled his Catalogue of the Tibetan books in the India Office Library, a pioneering work devoted to Aurel Stein’s collection of Dunhuang manuscripts that was unfortunately to be published only posthumously some forty-five years later (in 1962). The translation for which he is probably best known today is, as already noted, his rendering of the Indian master Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa, a manual on Abhidharma connected with the Vaibhāṣika Sarvāstivādin school of the Buddhist Śrāvakayāna. This imposing French version was published between 1923 and 1931 in five volumes with a sixth containing a long historical introduction and a detailed index. La Vallée Poussin based his
work on materials of Indian origin, including Vasubandhu’s autocommentary (the Bhāṣya) – one of our main sources also for the Sautrāntika school of Buddhism accessible at the time only in Chinese and Tibetan translations –, and Yaśomitra’s extensive Sanskrit commentary; on Paramārtha’s sixth-century and (above all) on Xuanzang’s (Hsüan-tsang’s) seventhcentury Chinese renderings of Vasubandhu’s work; and on further important materials mainly in Chinese, including the Mahāvibhāṣā and Saṃghabhadra’s work on Abhidharma. When La Vallée Poussin made his translation, the complete text in the original Sanskrit of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa(bhāṣya) was not yet available, and his work was therefore based in large part on Chinese and Tibetan materials. The Abhidharmakośa and its autocommentary (the Bhāṣya) are widely recognized as one of the great monuments of the
classical philosophy of Indian Buddhism. It became the object of study also in East Asia. And while founded on Śrāvakayānist (Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika) materials, it has formed part of the curriculum of monastic seminaries in Tibet, a Mahāyānist country, a fact that testifies to its importance for Mahāyānists too. La Vallée Poussin’s translation may be found somewhat less fluent than his earlier renderings of Madhyamaka works had been; and in it he often wove together the Abhidharma’s original technical
terminology in Sanskrit with his French rendering. This so to speak ‘Indo-European’ linguistic complexity was of course attributable to the highly technical vocabulary of the philosophical material with which he had to deal in his work of translation. For the purpose of his great undertaking, La Vallée Poussin informs us in his foreword to the first volume of his translation that he was introduced to ‘Abhidharma Chinese’ by H. Ui, a Japanese scholar then working with him. Thanks to this ground-breaking work of translation-and-commentary, La Vallée Poussin soon became widely regarded as the greatest scholar of Abhidharma to have lived outside Asia. The context in which this translation was planned has already been referred to in the first part of this article. It was published under the auspices of
the Belgian Society of Oriental Studies, a learned organization founded by La Vallée Poussin himself in 1921 and destined to be housed in the Musée du Cinquentenaire in Brussels, which, he hoped, would become a sort of counterpart to the original plan for the French Musée Guimet established some decades earlier, first in Lyon and then in Paris, as a centre for the study of Asian religions.4 A second ground-breaking translation of his from Chinese, Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi: La Siddhi de Hiuan-tsang, is a two-volume rendering (1928-1929) of Xuanzang’s seventhcentury compendium of Vijñānavāda doctrine, an extensive exposition based in the first place on Vasubandhu’s writings on the subject. This work also includes extensive exegetical material drawn from explanations provided by the great Indian masters Sthiramati and Dharmapāla – the heads respectively of the so-called Valabhī and Nālandā schools of the Buddhist ‘Consciousness only’ (cittamātra) or ‘Representation Only’ (vijñaptimātra) system – as well as by Paramārtha, the important Indian scholar of the sixth century who worked in China and exercised great influence there on the understanding of Vijñānavāda. This Chinese exegetical material remains one of the main sources for our knowledge of this Indian (and Indo-Sinitic) school of thought. In the exploration of Vijñānavāda, La Vallée Poussin’s immense contribution ran parallel to Sylvain Lévi’s editions and translations of foundational works of the same school, which were being published at about the same time.5 La Vallée Poussin’s work as translator and explicator thus shed light in a masterly fashion on three of the principal schools of classical Indian Buddhist thought, one (the Abhidharma) belonging to the ‘Lesser Vehicle’ of the Auditor (the Śrāvakayāna, also known as Hīnayāna,
4 See Royal Belgian Academy, Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres for 1921, p. 86. 5 At this time the problem of the identity of the Vijñānavādin Vasubandhu, the brother of Asaṅga, and the Ābhidhārmika Vasubandhu, the Kośakāra, was already being discussed. The dating has still not been conclusively established, but the Kośakāra’s date has been provisionally placed in the fifth century; if identical with Asaṅga’s brother, he would have to be placed earlier. – Résumés and syntheses of La Vallée Poussin’s translations
of Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa and on Xuanzang’s ‘Siddhi’ were very rapidly made available to a wider western public through René Grousset’s Les philosophies indiennes (2 volumes; Paris, 1931). Grousset dedicated this work to La Vallée Poussin, writing ‘en témoignage de respectueuse affection, je restitue ces pages, en si grande partie siennes’. For these résumés see vol. i, pp. 138 ff., and ii, pp. 80 ff., 404 ff. of Grousset’s work, which was an example of ‘haute vulgarisation’ in the better sense of this expression and appeared in Desclée De Brouwer’s ‘Bibliothèque française de philosophie, Nouvelle série’. In the same publication Grousset also provided résumés of La Vallée Poussin’s translations of Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra and Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, as well as of translations of other Madhyamaka texts by M. Walleser, T. Stcherbatsky, G. Tucci, and S. Yamaguchi. 7 in its Vaibhāṣika-Sarvāstivādin and Sautrāntika versions) and the other two (the Madhyamaka and the Vijñānavāda) to the ‘Great Vehicle’ (Mahāyāna). Another strand of Buddhism, the Mantranaya or Vajrayāna – often referred to as Buddhist Tantrism – was not entirely neglected by La Vallée Poussin. Some of his earliest publications dating from the middle of the 1890s were in fact concerned with this less well-explored branch of Buddhism. They included the publication of the Ādikarmapradīpa and the Pañcakrama. The attention he thus very properly accorded to Vajrayāna called forth a very unfavourable reaction from the Cambridge historian E. J. Rapson published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1898 – a poorly informed reception that reflected little but the ignorance and prejudice that have been widely prevalent concerning the subject. In the following year La Vallée Poussin replied in the same journal. But he was seemingly himself not uninfluenced by the reception of his work. At all events, he quickly abandoned the subject and turned to the study of the three great classical Buddhist philosophical traditions detailed in the paragraphs above. He later returned on occasion to the
subject of Tantra; but remarks he then made about its being ‘decadent’ and ‘distressing’, and a mixture of what he termed shamanism and theosophy, indicate that his own view on the matter was not altogether untypical of his time and contemporaries. These remarks added little to the understanding of the significance of this development in Buddhism that combines ritual with religious, philosophical and psychological exploration in difficult territory. Buddhist studies – and indology more generally – were seemingly not yet ready for this stage in the history of Buddhism and Indian religion to be studied effectively and without preconception and prejudice. In summary, La Vallée Poussin’s writings all display great learning and a fairly nuanced approach to his subject; and his earlier translations from Sanskrit and Tibetan – those intended for a wider readership as well as for specialists – are notable for joining faithfulness with fluency. His later translations – made from Chinese as well as from Sanskrit or Tibetan and intended largely for specialists – were written in a ‘macaronic’ style combining French renderings with Buddhist terminology in Sanskrit, and on occasion also in Pali, Chinese and Tibetan. This style doubtless led to his being sometimes regarded as a difficult translator.6 But for good reason his style of translation has not fallen entirely out of favour. 6 In his ‘Nécrologie’ of La Vallée Poussin, p. 481, Lamotte observed that his subject’s works presented themselves as renderings that were half French and half Sanskrit, and which could thus be disconcerting for the uninitiated, but very convenient for the specialist. Lamotte called attention also to the differences in translation technique between La Vallée Poussin, Lévi and Stcherbatsky. Concerning this matter, see the present writer’s ‘La traduction de la terminologie technique de la pensée indienne et bouddhique depuis Sylvain Lévi’, in: L. Bansat-Boudon and R. Lardinois (ed.), Sylvain Lévi (18631935), Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Études, Sciences Religieuses, Volume 130 (Turnhout, 2007), pp. 145-71.
WRITINGS DESTINED FOR AN EDUCATED BUT NON-SPECIALIST PUBLIC
In order to present Buddhism in terms that he hoped would be accessible and meaningful for an educated but non-specialized readership, La Vallée Poussin wrote a number of books in which he addressed central themes in Buddhist thought. As titles for his books he chose Bouddhisme: Opinions sur l’histoire et la dogmatique (1925), Le dogme et la philosophie du bouddhisme (1930), La morale bouddhique (1927), or simply Nirvâṇa (1925). The latter topic was the subject on which he had lectured at Oxford in 1916 and on which he had already published a small volume in English entitled The way to Nirvāṇa (1917); and this was a subject to which he was to return again and again throughout his life. These books related to matters that were attracting interest at the time represented their author’s effort to engage with problems in Buddhist thought in more widely understandable terms. As attempts to make Buddhist thought more easily accessible, they remain of interest today. If La Vallée Poussin was perhaps not always entirely
successful in reaching the non-specialized public he had in mind – or indeed on occasion even certain of his colleagues – this was no doubt due less to a lack of effort on his part than to the problems and difficulties inherent in complex topics requiring treatment in very specialized terms before they can be meaningfully submitted to generalization and popularization – to ‘haute vulgarisation’ to use the French expression. These books probably represent the most controversial and least enduring parts of his immense scholarly legacy. Since his time Buddhist studies have indeed made very considerable progress, and the instruments of intellectual analysis with which the study of Buddhism can now be undertaken have evolved very significantly. It should now be possible to present Buddhism as less exotic, arcane or impenetrable than it may have seemed some 75 or 100 years ago when La Vallée Poussin was writing his books intended for an educated general public. La Vallée Poussin’s style of writing was supple and subtle, often
humourous, sometimes glancing and even playful. It was marked not so much by figures of style as it was, so to say, by figures of thinking. His expository manner was doubtless determined by the complexity – historical, philological, religious and philosophical – of the subjects on which he was writing. When necessary, he was careful to offer his reader more than just one view of a difficult topic or a single solution for a complex historical or theoretical issue. This was probably why he so often juxtaposed and critically examined what he described as ‘opinions’ on the issues he was examining. Buddhist traditions are indeed historically many-faceted and conceptually complex. They may display internal tensions, and some aporias, all of which, however, are not necessarily just logical inconsistencies or contradictions. It has already been mentioned that, in his later translations, La Vallée Poussin often used a combination of the target language (usually French) and the source language (mainly
Sanskrit, but sometimes also Tibetan and Chinese). In his books written for a non-specialized public, however, he generally chose to employ European translation-equivalents. The rationale for this choice is of course understandable and defensible; but it could not fail to raise the difficult – and still not entirely resolved – question of how best to translate the technical vocabulary of Buddhism. The attempt to use ‘plain’ European renderings in order to avoid ‘translationese’ may embroil one in the inextricable semantic and expository thickets of approximation and paraphrase, and in the infidelity resulting from this. Here there lurks a dilemma which La Vallée Poussin, notwithstanding all his great mastery of the subject and his balanced judgement, was not always able entirely to overcome.
SPECIALIZED LATER ARTICLES AND MONOGRAPHS
Among La Vallée Poussin’s articles and monographs – usually written in French but on occasion also in English – destined chiefly for a specialized audience, and therefore more technical in expression than his books just named, mention should first be made of his series of shorter ‘Notes bouddhiques’, papers in which he investigated a large variety of topics and which were published initially in the journal Le Muséon and later in the Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres of the Royal Belgian Academy of Sciences. There followed a five-part series of major articles entitled ‘Documents d’Abhidharma’ and published in the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient in 1930 and in the Mélanges chinois et bouddhiques between 1932 and 1937. The articles on Abhidharma complemented La Vallée Poussin’s translation of Vasubandhu’s Kośa and addressed individual topics in this
system of Buddhist thought on the basis of source texts in Sanskrit and Chinese. A major article of his on Vijñānavada was the ‘Note sur l’ālayavijñāna’ published in the third volume of the Mélanges chinois et bouddhiques (1934-35). Special mention should be made too of his ground-breaking monograph published one year earlier in the same journal entitled ‘Réflexions sur le Madhyamaka’ (1932/3). Nāgārjuna and the Madhyamaka had always been of special interest to him; and this article was one of the earliest western attempts to present early Madhyamaka (what he called ‘Nāgārjunism’) thought historically and philosophically. To it he appended an article on the important sixth-century Mādhyamika master Bhā(va)viveka, a leading commentator on Nāgārjuna. Towards the very end of his life, in the Mélanges chinois et bouddiques for 1937, La Vallée Poussin published a pair of noteworthy articles: ‘Le bouddhisme et le yoga de Patañjali’ and ‘Musīla et Nārada: Le chemin du Nirvāṇa’. In the first he considered yoga as something fundamental in Indian religion, and in Buddhism in particular, a theme he had already explored several times in earlier writings. He there examined links between Buddhist Abhidharma and Vyāsa (the author to whom the basic commentary on the Yogasūtras is
attributed) and Patañjali (to whom the Yogasūtras themselves are ascribed). For La Vallée Poussin, this yoga was originally neither philosophy nor religion strictly speaking; rather, it was a discipline or ‘ascesis’, a regimen or ‘diet’. It was not confined to the Yogadarśana taught in the Pātañjala-Yogasūtras, nor of course limited to the bodily gymnastics and postural exercises so popular nowadays under the name of Haṭhayoga. He also considered that Buddhism was originally not a ‘gnosis’ at all; according to him, it was characterized by what he termed ‘ecstasy’ (dhyāna) and by contemplation (‘recueillement’, samāpatti). (What he called ‘ecstasy’, i.e. ‘ek-stasis, might perhaps be better termed ‘enstasis’.) In the second of this pair of articles, he drew attention to two religious and psychological types identifiable in Buddhist tradition, namely the person who cognizes reality relying on discriminative or analytical knowledge (prajñā), and the person who would instead contact it ‘in the body’, that is, directly and immediately.
(It is to be recalled that, in Buddhism, ‘contact’ or ‘touch’ – Skt. spṛś-, Tib. reg pa – can, in certain contexts, denote direct and conceptually unmediated cognition, being thus connected with the idea expressed by Skt. sākṣātkṛ- ‘realize’; kāyasākṣin/kāyasakkhin- is the name of a type of person on the Path of liberation). This matter raised the important question of ‘mysticism’ in Buddhism. One of his very last articles, ‘Buddhica’, published in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 3 (1938), was the outcome of exchanges and interchanges of views between himself and Stcherbatsky (and their younger colleague S. Schayer). In the course of this discussion, La Vallée Poussin appeared to alter his position on Madhyamaka when he declared (p. 148): ‘J’ai longtemps cru (divers articles de l’Encyclopédie de Hastings, Nirvāṇa, Dogme et philosophie) que le Madhyamaka était “nihiliste”, niait l’Absolu, la chose en soi. [...] Dans un mémoire “Madhyamaka” (Mélanges chinois et bouddhiques, 2), je glisse vers une solution moins catégorique.
Enfin, dans la présente note, je me dispose à admettre que le Madhyamaka reconnaît l’Absolu.’ [I long believed (in diverse articles in Hasting’s Encyclopaedia of religion, and in the books Nirvāṇa, Dogme et philosophie) that Madhyamaka was ‘nihilistic’, denied the Absolute, the thing in itself. [...] In my monograph ‘Madhyamaka’ (in MCB 2), I slide towards a less categorical solution. Lastly, in the present note, I am disposed to accept that Madhyamaka does accept the Absolute.] Yet it is noteworthy that, in his ‘Notice sur Louis de la Vallée Poussin’ published in the Annuaire pour 1965 of the Royal Belgian Academy, his disciple É. Lamotte regarded this last view as not truly representative of La Vallée Poussin’s final and mature understanding of the matter, explaining (p. 162): 1 ‘Ce dernier [[[Wikipedia:Louis de La Vallée-Poussin|La Vallée Poussin]]], lassé d’être mal lu et mal compris,7 et déjà miné par la maladie, sembla faire machine arrière [...]. Mais je persiste à croire que ses ‘Réflexions sur le Madhyamaka’ [...] demeurent l’interprétation la plus exacte de la pensée nâgârjunienne.’ [The latter <La Vallée Poussin>, tired of being misread and misunderstood, and already undermined by illness, seemed to reverse himself. [...] I persist in thinking that his ‘Reflections on Madhyamaka’ remain the most exact interpretation of Nāgārjuna’s thinking.]8 This debate would seem to have hinged, in part at least, on differences in the use of European expressions such as ‘Absolute’ and ‘nihilism’, with La Vallée Poussin seemingly equating the Absolute and the ‘thing in itself’ (la chose en soi, das Ding an sich).9 In other words, the discussion appears to
turn as much around European expressions selected to describe or define concepts and terms in Madhyamaka thought as around the uses and definitions of the original terms and ideas in the Sanskrit and other sources. Attention could consequently stray from the fundamentals (which these scholars indeed knew so well), namely the fact that Madhyamaka is a ‘philosophy of the Middle’ that steadfastly refuses to hypostatize a ‘Reality’ called ‘Middle’, be it positive or negative, and proceeds by means of a deconstructive analysis of all concepts to which a svabhāva ‘self-existence’ might be imputed, without ever positing a reified ‘Absolute’ on the level of paramārtha. These sometimes heated scholarly debates were left unresolved with the deaths first of La Vallée Poussin (shortly before the outbreak of the second World War) and then of Stcherbatsky (soon after the beginning of that war). 7 In his bibliographical note in the Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres of the Royal Belgian Academy for the year 1929 welcoming the appearance of the
Bibliographie bouddhique, La Vallée Poussin deplored the frightening discord and mutual ignorance prevalent among scholars of Buddhism (p. 366: Quiconque connaît l’effrayante discorde et la réciproque ignorance de savants qui fouillent, dans tous les pays et dans toutes les langues, les innombrables champs du Bouddhisme ... [Whoever knows the frightening discord and the mutual ignorance between scholars researching, in all countries and all languages, the fields of Buddhism [...].] 8 Compare the (alas very brief) remarks made by J. W. de Jong, ‘Emptiness’, Journal of Indian Philosophy 2 (1972), p. 2 ff.; and A brief history of Buddhist Studies in Europe and America (as in n. 1), p. 44. The discussion between La Vallée Poussin and Stcherbatsky on the nature of nirvāṇa was addressed by G. Welbon, The Buddhist Nirvāṇa and its western interpreters (Chicago, 1968); regarding Welbon’s treatment de Jong observed (p. 9): ‘The usefulness of this book is diminished by the fact that the author was not sufficiently equipped for this difficult task’. 9 Kantian terminology was often adopted by Stcherbatsky in his translations and expositions of Buddhist thought. This issue has been discussed by J. May, ‘Kant et le Mādhyamika’, Indo-Iranian Journal 2 (1959), pp. 102-11; cf. D. Chattopadhyaya’s introduction to H. C. Gupta (ed.), Papers of Th. Stcherbatsky (Calcutta, 1969), pp. i and xxiv.
As already observed above, La Vallée Poussin’s understanding of Buddhism was very naturally influenced by ideas and currents of thought prevalent in his times and intellectual milieu. His publications intended for a non-specialist readership reflect these interests and concerns. And, very naturally again, La Vallée Poussin’s more specialized publications reflect the state in his time of academic Indian and Buddhist studies. Even though Buddhist studies have made very significant progress since his time, this state of affairs has probably not been entirely outgrown even today. Buddhists and professionals of academic Buddhist studies are increasingly engaged in attempted dialogue with other religious and philosophical traditions. But they find themselves confronted overwhelmingly with preoccupations prevailing in the institutions, academic or otherwise, with which they are connected – especially since, in the academy, Buddhist studies are now being increasingly located in university departments of Theology or Divinity.10 Questionable presuppositions and prejudgements abound; and very often academic fashion is too much in evidence. The outcome is often little short of a dialogue of the deaf because the theoretical and terminological groundwork was not well laid for true interchange.
ENGAGING WITH PERENNIAL ISSUES IN THE HISTORY OF BUDDHIST THOUGHT
Let us consider very briefly some of the difficulties and problems to be encountered in the study and exposition of Buddhism with which La Vallée Poussin had to grapple. If a European rendering of a Buddhist technical term or concept is taken as the starting point – e.g. ‘pain’ for duḥkha, ‘faith’ for śraddhā, ‘self’ for ātman and ‘selfless’ for anātman, ‘seed of buddhahood’ for tathāgatagarbha, ‘Void(ness)’ (‘le Vide, la Vacuité’) for śūnyatā, and so on – discussion may very soon, and almost inescapably, become caught up in a number of semantic thickets and in aporias that are conceptual as well as logical. Even the precise and contextually meaningful rendering of the word dharma can raise immense difficulties: its meanings, and hence its possible renderings, range from ‘religion’ through ‘doctrine’ to ‘phenomenon’. A stumbling-block – and a true skándalon – has been the vexed question as to whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. Nowadays the issue of theism vs. atheism/non-theism
10 University Departments of Religious Studies will, of course, differ appreciably depending upon their academic origin and inspiration, their location, and their membership. Some will be more aware of, and more sensitive to, the specific and the ‘emic’ in Buddhism, while others, maybe less aware and sensitive to this and intent more on the comparative and the ‘etic’, may be prone to believing that all that might be classified as ‘religion’ is reducible to common methodologies, templates, and analytical categories. This last attitude may then become an insuperable barrier for, and indeed the bane of, any intended dialogue, and for the effective academic study of Buddhism. 1 may be viewed rather differently from the way it was in La Vallée Poussin’s time: simply to label Buddhism ‘atheistic’ or even ‘non-theistic’ is known to provide little in the way of clarifications or solutions and, instead, to raise still further questions.11 There has existed a long discussion as to whether Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, ethics, a ‘gnosis’, or something else, such as an ‘ascesis’, ‘regimen’ or ‘diet’ (as thought by La Vallée Poussin). Its followers would no doubt say that Buddhism joins ethical and spiritual practice (caryā, praxis) and theory (darśana, theōria). An example of the kind of problem being considered was and remains, then, the old question
whether Buddhism – which is non-theistic (and sometimes atheistic) in terms at least of the monotheistic conception of religion in the Abrahamic traditions – can be regarded at all as a religion. The upshot of this uncertainty is that certain current definitions of religion might be in need of reconsideration and reconfiguration – an endeavour that, of course, cannot but be useful when appropriately executed. The danger ever remains, however, that Buddhism will find itself being forced under the steam-roller of preconceptions, pre-judgements and prejudices that may be current among scholars of Theology and Divinity, and even some unwary scholars of ‘world religions’, but which fit Buddhism very poorly if at all. In recognition of this danger, an alternative to seeing Buddhism as a religion has been to regard it as being some form of ancient
philosophical thinking (which it was), or as ethics (which it also is). But this change of viewpoint hardly extricates us from our difficulties of description and definition: the word ‘philosophy’ has come to acquire in English usage so specific a set of meanings among professionals of the subject that the term may hardly fit Buddhism as a historical entity. And substituting ‘faith’ for ‘religion’ is of little help in the matter. With some reason, La Vallée Poussin often preferred to see Buddhism as what he called a ‘discipline’ (something which it clearly and incontestably also is). But even his view that it is an ‘ascesis’, ‘regimen’ or ‘diet’ does not altogether dispose of the problems encountered when describing and defining it. Related to this question are the function in Buddhism of śraddhā, usually rendered ‘faith’, and the relation in it between reasoning (yukti) and tradition or scripture (āgama). In Buddhism, the last two factors have usually been regarded as complementary rather than as opposed.
11 It is noteworthy that the original German version of H. von Glasenapp’s book Buddhismus, eine atheistische Religion (1966) was issued in English translation under the title of Buddhism, a non-theistic religion. But this change of term does not truly resolve the difficulty that besets speaking of theism in the context of Buddhism: Buddhism was both ‘theistic’ in a special sense (namely that of admitting divinities, celestials and numina at a certain level) and ‘non-theistic’ (in the sense of not recognizing a Supreme Creator God or a God providentially determining men’s destinies). The Śākyamuni Buddha is famous for having disclaimed the status of a god.
A further issue raised from time to time with regard to Buddhism has been that of shamanism. Linking Buddhism – the way of the Buddhist Samaṇa/Śramaṇa or ascetic monk – and shamanism was suggested, at least in part, by the assonance between the two words. But shamanism is itself in need of precise definition before the concept can acquire heuristic and explanatory power in the context of defining Buddhism – the more so since, as a technique, it has been considered to be ‘ek-static’ whereas Buddhist meditational practices can be better described as ‘en-static’. Another topic that was much debated in La Vallée Poussin’s time – especially by older scholars as different as É. Senart and H. Kern – was whether the Buddha Śākyamuni was a historical personage or a mythic being (perhaps a solar hero or divinity). And those writers who accepted that the Śākyamuni was a real historical personage often involved themselves in the rather tricky exercise of demythologizing his figure as it appears in the Buddha Legend of the sources –
stripping it of what they held, more or less subjectively, to be fabulous and mythical features with the intention of revealing the true historical Śākyamuni. This method – which La Vallée Poussin called the method of subtraction (a sort of ‘onion peeling’ where little of substance may remain at the end of the exercise) – could hardly yield satisfactory results, historical or otherwise.12 The fact was perhaps lost sight of that, in Buddhism, the word buddha (meaning ‘awakened’) has been used to designate both a historical individual recognized by Buddhist tradition – namely Gautama/Gotama, the sage of the Śākya people (Śākyamuni), who lived in northern India several centuries before the start of the Christian era and was associated with historical places which became sacred geographical centres of Buddhist pilgrimage – and the spiritual type of the ‘Awakened One’ defined by the attainment of nirvāṇa or (sam)bodhi ‘Awakening’. An interplay took place between what is archetypal and what is historical. It is worth
recalling by the way that, in Buddhist thought, the question whether a tathāgata exists after death is counted as an ‘undetermined matter’ (avyākṛtavastu) about which any proposition, unless very carefully framed in soteriologically and semantically precise terms and under appropriate ontic presuppositions, is bound to be indeterminable and hence
12 The views of several scholars on this matter have been summarized by J. W. de Jong, A brief history of Buddhist studies in Europe and America (as in n. 1), pp. 28-31. The question was discussed in more detail by È. Lamotte, ‘La légende du Buddha’, Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 134 (1947/8), pp. 37-71. There three possible kinds of interpretation of the ‘legend’ are distinguished: the mythic (including those of Senart and Kern), the euhemerist and rationalist (represented in particular by H. Oldenberg), and the pragmatic. La Vallée Poussin at the end of his career is placed by Lamotte (p. 41) in the second group, with M. Winternitz; but he adds that his teacher had earlier expressed reservations on the subject.
unanswerable. In his writings, La Vallée Poussin fully recognized the complexity of the Buddha figure in Buddhist traditions. Other topics that were in his time attracting attention in relation to the Buddha and his teaching were magic, thaumaturgy and theurgy, concepts which La Vallée Poussin also evoked from time to time. A very significant concept that was (and sometimes still is) a topic for discussion is socalled Buddhist pessimism. There has existed a protracted discussion as to whether Buddhism is ‘world affirming’ and positive in its outlook or ‘world negating’ and pessimistic, the latter description having been a not uncommon (mis)representation of it. This was due in large part to the fact that the first of the four Noble Verities (āryasatya) of Buddhism is duḥkha, a factor conventionally translatable (as mentioned above) by ‘suffering’ or ‘pain’ (the rendering ‘unsatisfactoriness’ has attempted to circumvent the problem). But this understanding has tended to lose sight of the fact that, in Buddhist thought, this
‘pain’ is a complex factor that, in addition to what is scholastically termed the ‘painfulness of pain’ (duḥkhaduḥkhatā), includes the ‘painfulness of change (or decay)’ (vipariṇāmaduḥkhatā) and the ‘painfulness of causal conditioning’ (saṃskāraduḥkhatā). Following a well-attested formulation, the presence of the chain of twelve constituent factors (aṅga) of (internal) conditioned origination in dependence (ādhyātmika-pratītyasamutpāda) – beginning with ignorance (avidyā ‘nescience’), the conditioning factors (saṃskāra) and consciousness (vijñāna) and ending with old age, death and sorrow – is what makes for the origin of the entire aggregate of duḥkha (duḥkhaskandhasya samudayaḥ); and, conversely, it is the stoppage (nirodha) of this mechanism that makes for the stoppage of the entire aggregate of duḥkha. Buddhism and Buddhists cannot, then, be represented simplistically as being ‘world negating’ rather than ‘world affirming’: both characterizations can be misleading and are in fact well-nigh meaningless as
descriptions of Buddhism. Because it regards well-being and happiness (hita-sukha) as worthy and noble ends, Buddhism could probably be described as eudaimonist, even though it considers all conditioned (saṃskṛta) things to be transitory and hence potentially subject to duḥkha. In philosophy, both the apagogic (i.e. the negative prasaṅga-type) critical reasoning of the Mādhyamikas and the more positivist epistemology-cum-logic (pramāṇavidyā) of the Buddhist epistemologists are becoming better understood in their history, methods and aims. And the place in Buddhist thought of an apophatic approach beside a positive or cataphatic one is now better known. Not unconnected with the issue of the apophatic and the cataphatic is the problem of the interrelation between ‘negative’ Buddhist theories of Emptiness of selfexistence (svabhāvaśūnyatā, raṅ stoṅ) and the ‘positive’ Buddhist concepts of Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha) and ‘Emptiness of the heterogeneous’ (gžan stoṅ). Were these two theories radically incompatible and contradictory, or were they perhaps complementary (and
possibly convergent), at least in certain stages in the history of Buddhist thought? La Vallée Poussin never examined the last point in any detail, but he did not fail to allude on occasion to the tathāgatagarbha doctrine. Legitimate questions as to what a Buddhist concept or term signified historically, and what it may imply or connote systemically and in context, have become entangled in the processes of labelling and pigeon-holing, when a European rendering or paraphrase has been allowed to define a Buddhist concept or term and thus to colour or even distort its interpretation. An interesting example has been the question – to which La Vallée Poussin returned repeatedly – whether nirvāṇa represents nihilistic nothingness (‘le néant’ as opposed to ‘l’être’ or ‘l’existant’) or a positive, and perhaps ‘mystical’, state of deathlessness. A debate took place between him and Stcherbatsky as to whether what La Vallée Poussin called Nāgārjunism was nihilistic or absolutist and monistic (see above, p. 10). Either way, however, such an interpretation risks falling into one of the doctrinal extremes (anta) of view (dṛṣṭi) explicitly repudiated by Buddhists, and by Mādhyamikas in particular, such as the twin extremes of eternalism (śāśvatānta) and annihilationism (ucchedānta), or those of reifying nirvāṇa as a hypostatized absolute to be posited as either a positive entity (bhāva) or a negative one (abhāva), a conceptual and linguistic opposition that was in fact analysed and deconstructed by Nāgārjuna himself. Further examples of this kind of situation are provided by discussions as to whether Buddhists (and the Buddha himself) were being agnostic or perhaps just pragmatic when admitting a number of undetermined matters (avyākṛtavastu), and also by the problem of the cognitive (and perhaps performative) significance of ‘Noble silence’ (ārya-tūṣṇībhāva). To postulate here only pragmatism or agnosticism – or perhaps indifferentism – is very likely to be a step too far. Moreover, was śraddhā ‘faith’ – not to speak of bhakti ‘devotion’ – ever a
true substitute for reasoning (yukti) in Buddhism? These are questions that cannot be decontextualized or simplified reductionistically. Discussions of the old canonical description of nirvāṇa as an immortal, or deathless, realm (amatadhātu, amṛtadhātu) – together with certain other Buddhist concepts such as a viññāṇa/vijñāna (translatable as ‘consciousness’) having the status of a sixth dhātu and the prabhāsvara citta ‘luminous mind’ – were to lead to some scholars seeking what came to be called ‘Precanonical Buddhism’. La Vallée Poussin’s researches may have helped to prepare the way for this discussion, which reached its climax in the 1930s. But he always pointed to the great diversity of what he called the ‘philosophemes’ or ‘philosophoumena’ found in the Buddhist canons; and he did not himself postulate and attempt to reconstruct a Buddhism that was ‘precanonical’. He realized the immense methodological difficulties, historical and philological, in the way of doing so on the basis of reconstructions, which are necessarily founded on canonical textual materials that are appreciably later than the postulated
‘precanonical’ stage.13 Once dressed in (etic) garb borrowed from the repertoire of western concepts, premises and terminology, Buddhist thought can hardly do otherwise than fall prey to unresolvable conceptual and logical aporias. And this outcome will inevitably become grist for the mill of sceptical aporetics. For the student of Buddhist thought, however, the avenue must always remain open for gathering and attentively examining the uses and definitions of (emic) terms and concepts attested in the Buddhist texts. And when a European term needs to be employed as a translation-equivalent, it must, once selected, be used and defined no longer in accordance with some meaning listed in a dictionary of English, French, German, etc., but in conformity with the usage(s) of the original Buddhist sources. That is, the translation-equivalent will itself become a technical expression, a ‘term of the art’; and the criteria for defining and explaining it are, then, its uses and definitions as attested in original Buddhist texts. Thus, in any attempt to explain, e.g., nirvāṇa in terms defined by exogenous preuppositions and pre-judgements there may lurk the insidious danger of seeking to interpret an
explanandum by means of an explanans without true pertinence in the context, and hence of stretching the (emic) explanandum out on the proverbial Procrustean bed of ready-made and 13 The hypothesis of a ‘precanonical’ – sometimes also called ‘pre-Hīnayāna’ or even ‘pristine’ (‘primitif’) – Buddhism was summed up in C. Regamey, ‘Le problème du bouddhisme primitif et les derniers travaux de Stanisław Schayer’, Rocznik Orientalistyczny 21 (1957), pp. 37-58. Regamey emphasized (p. 49) that it is not concordance between canonical texts and their doctrines that guarantees the precanonical status of a given concept or doctrine (which might indeed be the result of innovation common to the
Buddhist schools and their canons) but, rather, the basically ‘aberrant’, or exceptional, character of a concept or doctrine. Schayer also searched for ‘pre-āryan’ elements in Buddhism; see his ‘Pre-Aryan elements in Indian Buddhism’, Bulletin international de l’Académie polonaise des Sciences et des Lettres 1-3 (1934), pp. 55-65. This article was soon followed by his ‘Precanonical Buddhism’, Archiv Orientálni, 7 (1935), pp. 121-32, and then by his ‘New contributions to the problem of pre-Hīnayānistic Buddhism’, Polski Biuletyn Orientalistyczny 1 (1937), pp. 8-17. Mention can also be made of his note ‘Is tathāgata an Āryan word?’ in ‘Notes and queries on Buddhism’, Rocznik Orientalistyczny 11 (1936), pp.211-213. (These papers by Schayer have been reprinted in M. Mejor [ed.], On philosophizing of the Hindus: Selected papers [of S. Schayer], Warsaw, 1988.) (In more recent years discussions of ‘Precanonical Buddhism’ have been largely replaced by research into what is now termed ‘Early Buddhism’.) What might be described as the
‘methodology of the vestigial’ and the search for linguistic or cultural substrates doubtless raise interesting problems. But textual Higher Criticism has in-built limitations which have not always been recognized clearly enough; and in the quest for eventual precanonical ‘dialectical’ deviations from a common canonical stock, and for presumed non-āryan or precanonical elements in our canonical documentation, methodology in the history of Buddhism cannot easily follow in the wake of Indo-European studies with their reconstructed Proto-Indo-European Ursprache together with its postulated dialects, or of the search for ‘non-āryan’ linguistic substrates in Old and Middle Indo-Aryan.
ill-fitting (etic) concepts and paraphrase. Understanding of what has been said in the sources can then only be choked off. And this blockage will constitute an insuperable obstacle in the way of the understanding of Buddhism – one that remains with us even today in so far as representations of Buddhism and the Buddha still to be met with have been framed in what are, in terms of the Buddhist traditions, interpretations that are so inappropriate as to be wellnigh meaningless. Such reductionism falls little short of a more or less unwitting cultural colonialism far removed from genuine historical-philological analysis and understanding.
Such were the problems and complexities with which La Vallée Poussin had to engage in the course of his scholarly investigations. He sought to reveal the many-sidedness of his subject not only as a historical entity called Buddhism but also as something represented, individually or collectively, by persons called Buddhists. He wrote extensively and discerningly on Buddhist teachings, on what he termed their ‘philosophemes’ or ‘philosophoumena’, on Buddhist concepts and their interpretations, and on what he called the opinions of those who undertook to speculate on them, all the while noting the diversity – and indeed the weaknesses or contradictoriness – of certain of these ‘opinions’. His own interpretations he sought to keep balanced. He was well aware of the fact that continuing study would reveal ever renewed, improved or corrected perspectives, and that a given stage in research cannot necessarily be regarded as the last word but forms part of work in progress. On occasion, his 19 approach might possibly be described as a kind of scholarly agnosticism.14 His treatment of many a complex issue could also be seen as a kind of scholarly maieutics. Alternatively, it might even be perceived as a kind of indeterminism – one possibly recalling, for the indologist, Jaina aspectualism (nayavāda) – which was in truth neither unphilosophical nor mere indifferentism. Still, as already observed and notwithstanding his best efforts, views that La Vallée Poussin expressed could on occasion hardly escape becoming entwined in problems of conceptualization, description, terminology and interlingual translation. These largely concerned matters that were the focus of attention and debate in his time and milieu.
14 In his ‘Notice’, p. 165, Lamotte has mentioned his subject’s having been reproached for his ‘latent irony’ and ‘agnosticism’. In the same place he wrote of La Vallée Poussin’s ‘doubt’, describing this as not only methodical but congenital. Lamotte cited certain criticisms (pp. 164-5): ‘D’aucuns crièrent au scandale: “Pourquoi, demandaient-ils, un tome entier pour dire qu’il n’y a rien à dire? Il y a dans ce défilé d’opinions discordantes une ironie latente et une leçon pratique d’agnosticisme dont le présent n’a en vérité guère besoin”.’ [Some cried: ‘Scandal! Why, they asked, a whole volume to say that there is nothing to say? In this parade of discordant opinions there is found a latent irony and a practical lesson of agnosticism that are in truth hardly needed at the present time.’] Lamotte also cited his subject’s self-description as a ‘secrétaire-
rapporteur’ (quoted in n. 2 above). In his ‘Nécrologie’, p. 483, Lamotte gave his view of his teacher’s scholarly career, writing: ‘Le travail philologique à doses massives [...] avait développé chez lui jusqu’à l’hypertrophie le sens critique. Ceux qui lui ont reproché d’avoir étudié le Bouddhisme avec plus de curiosité que de sympathie n’ont pas vu que cette attitude doit être attribuée à son esprit critique bien plus qu’à ses croyances.’ [Philological work in massive doses [...] had developed in him a critical spirit to the point of hypertrophy. Those who have reproached him for studying Buddhism with more curiosity than sympathy did not perceive that this attitude is to be ascribed to his critical turn of mind much more than to his beliefs.] Mgr. Lamotte, himself an ecclesiastic and a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, thus minimized the
possibility that La Vallée Poussin’s Catholic faith had unduly influenced him. This was not to deny the influence on him of his intellectual milieu, which was both European and Christian, and Catholic in particular. From time to time La Vallée Poussin delivered lectures at a Catholic institution or contributed to a Catholic publication. Those of his books destined for a general readership mostly appeared in the series ‘Etudes sur l’Histoire des religions’ published by Gabriel Beauchesne, a firm which also published volumes by Catholic writers. In his ‘Notice’, p. 151, Lamotte deplored the fact that, after La Vallée Poussin’s early departure from his professorship in Ghent, no place was found for him as a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain.
Many of them still have to be engaged with by the student of Buddhism today.15 But even if one or the other of his views might seem overtaken by more recent work in Buddhist studies, his writings, and his translations in particular, possess an enduring value that attests to the breadth of his explorations in Indian and Buddhist history, religion and philosophy.
RELEVANCE OF THE PRESENT PUBLICATION
Louis de La Vallée Poussin deserves to be remembered and consulted as a historian of India and one of the foremost modern scholars of Buddhism, as a student of fundamental Buddhist works in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan and Chinese, as the editor, translator, annotator and interpreter of major treatises belonging to three of the main schools of Buddhist philosophy in India, and as an author who made an effort to reach an educated, but non-specialist, readership by setting out the main themes in Buddhist thought in a way that, he hoped, would be intelligible and meaningful for this public. Interpretative templates – grilles de lecture – as well as presuppositions imposed on (so-called) ‘foreign/alien’ documents have not always been appropriate for their full and correct understanding. Yet, whatever might be the limitations of some expression, concept or category that La Vallée Poussin called upon, his contributions deal with perennial issues, humanistic and scholarly, which continue to be very much alive at the present time. His contribution to the study of Buddhism can be said to have set a standard that has not been surpassed. This is reason enough to make his writings readily available once again, this time in an English version.
15 Much energy and ingenuity are nowadays expended on seeking to determine whether, for example, a given religion or system of thought is free-thinkingly ‘innovative’ and ‘progressive’, or whether it is on the contrary unchanging and ‘conservative’. Tradition and innovation are thus presupposed to be antithetical and mutually exclusive things. In order to remain viable, however, a living tradition surely needs to embrace both: in time change is inevitable even in tradition. The issue will then be to discover how a tradition is historically able to maintain an identity through change in time and also in geographical (and inter-cultural) space. This is true in particular for a world religion like Buddhism with a long history in several parts of the world.