Reclaiming the Comparative Method: Moses and the Buddha as a Case Study
Vanessa R. Sasson
Judaism and Buddhism are currently interacting as they never have before, and yet the Academy has not responded with much interest. A number of factors might explain this dearth of scholarship, not the least of which is the ever-present reality that comparative religion has yet to become an established field, free of mockery or disdain. Despite many strong voices to the contrary, the era of specialization reigns. Whatever comparative work is undertaken is almost always done in order to establish influence. Comparing traditions that are deemed largely un-related, such as Buddhism and Judaism, is an enterprise condemned to the margins.
In my lecture at the 2008 annual meeting of SBL in Boston (in the special session on Moses and Buddha), I will address this dearth of scholarship and explore what might be gained by opening up the field of Jewish-Buddhist Studies. In The Birth Stories of Moses and the Buddha: A Paradigm for the Comparative Study of Religions (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007), the book upon which this plenary is based, I undertook the comparative project of examining the birth stories of Moses and the Buddha in their early literatures. My lecture seeks to dismantle the obstacles barring the way to Jewish-Buddhist comparative research in the hopes of creating more space for similar studies that might not only yield results about historical contiguity or possible universalist underlying tendencies, but also enable clearer discernment about each tradition that might not otherwise be achieved as directly.
The newness of the Jewish-Buddhist phenomenon and the massive corpus of literature one would be expected to master if one is expected to undertake comparative study in the current climate of hyper-specialization are among the many obstacles hindering this new field from developing. But perhaps the most significant obstacle to contend with is the prevailing notion that whatever comparative studies are to be undertaken must be done only in cases where contiguity can be established. It is expected, for instance, that the cross-cultural and intellectual exchange between Jainism and Buddhism be investigated, but the combined study of Buddhism and Judaism is deemed largely irrelevant. The “so what” question looms ominously over such comparative projects, leading to the charge that one is comparing apples and oranges while the Academy prefers comparing various kinds of apples instead. The question of contiguity is consequently inescapable.
While it is surely the case that Buddhists and Jews have never had as much contact in as many different forums as they do presently, this should not be translated as a lack of historical and spatial contiguity. On the contrary, investigation necessarily reveals a connecting thread between India and the West that can be traced far back into history. Commerce knows no boundaries, nor do expanding empires. Maps were drawn and redrawn throughout antiquity and forever thereafter, repeatedly bridging communities and tearing them apart. The very idea that the world can be divided into the dichotomous notions of “East” and “West” is a fabrication of the modern imagination. We are trained to make concrete distinctions between one part of the world and another, but the closer we look, the less such divisions seem realistic.
The Buddhist concept of paticca-samuppāda is here quite appropriate: potentially translated as co-dependent origination, the concept propounds that all phenomena are bound in a web of inescapable interconnections, revealing the fact of contiguity anywhere and everywhere. Some roads are obviously less travelled than others, but a perusal of the inventory being collected by a variety of scholars today suggests that the road connecting India and the Mediterranean was far more frequently travelled than popularly imagined.
But even without testimony for historical and spatial contiguity, the comparative enterprise remains an essential—albeit largely underestimated—ingredient for the successful pursuit of knowledge. As Jonathan Z. Smith has repeatedly argued, the human imagination requires comparison to learn. Be it apples and apples, apples and oranges, or apples and rocks, comparing different phenomena enables discernment and categorization. Comparison is the ultimate pedagogical tool. Without it, we cannot know who we are or what we are looking at.
If we agree that comparison is necessary to the Humanities—and indeed to all fields of research—then we must face the even more difficult question of how one might “do” comparison responsibly and well. Among the various methodologies proposed in the field of comparative religion, my lecture will highlight two priorities that serve as the backbone of any serious comparative project: self-awareness and a balanced inquiry into the combined reality of similarity and difference.
A lack of self-awareness as one approaches two or more phenomena for the purpose of comparison can all too easily lead to projections that do not serve the development of any academic field. The postmodern revolution is a response to that very problem, urging us to remember who we are and why we compare as we do so. Self-awareness is consequently a scholarly virtue that will curtail the kinds of mistakes made in the past.
The key to healthy comparative study likewise entails an open engagement with the possibility of similarity as well as the possibility of difference. Similarity cannot be discarded entirely simply because of the fear that, by identifying some of it, one has erased all of it with orientalist enthusiasm. Contrary to current sentiment, I will argue that similarity does not destroy religious phenomena, nor does it erase the detailed context out of which they are drawn as particularities. Similarity is, effectively, inescapable, if for no other reason than this: the human imagination has limits and human problems are quite similar around the world. It is to be expected that similarities emerge from any comparative study, and one need not fear them because they may have been too hastily drawn out in the past. We can learn from our predecessors to shield ourselves from the mistakes they made, and we can remember in the meanwhile that we will commit our own errors, errors that the next generation of scholars will be only too happy to point out.
With these tools in hand, among many others, the way is paved for the comparative study of fields of research that may or may not have significant contiguity in their histories. Moses and the Buddha can thus be safely studied together, as they deserve to be.
Vanessa R. Sasson, Marianopolis College & McGill University
Citation: Vanessa R. Sasson, " Reclaiming the Comparative Method: Moses and the Buddha as a Case Study," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2008]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=790