In 1922, when he was thirty-one years old, Osip Mandelstam published “The Nineteenth Century,” an essay in which he deplored what he saw as widespread Buddhist influence on European culture then and called for a return to the robust intellectual rationality of the eighteenth-century French Encyclopedists.
This may sound odd now. For most Europeans knew little of Buddhism in the nineteenth century, and had known almost nothing at all in the preceding centuries, when much of Asia had remained closed to European traders, missionaries, and imperialists. It was in the early nineteenth century that scholars based in Europe began to collate the religious practices European visitors claimed to have seen in China, Korea, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries. Around 1800, they invented the word “Buddhism” in an attempt to categorize what seemed to be widespread reverence for a figure called the Buddha (“the enlightened one”).
It was not until 1844 that Eugène Burnouf, an academic at the Collège de France, published Introduction à l’histoire du Buddhisme Indien, the first comprehensive explanation of the Buddha’s teachings available in the West. The book was excerpted the same year in The Dial, the journal of the New England Transcendentalists, and went on to inspire, among others, Arthur Schopenhauer, whose deeply pessimistic and largely misleading take on the Buddha influenced in turn Nietzsche and helped to associate Buddhism with such vaguely ominous words as “nothingness, “void,” and “extinction.”
These words appear to have worked upon a devoted reader of Schopenhauer, the young Jorge Luis Borges. In 1922—the same year Mandelstam wrote about Buddhism—Borges published an essay called “The Nothingness of Personality” in which he attacked the “romantic ego-worship” that he claimed nineteenth-century Europe specialized in and quoted approvingly a German book on Buddhism to support his repeated assertion that “there is no whole self.”
Borges later disowned his precocious essay. It may be that Buddhism to both Borges and Mandelstam was a useful prop in their youthfully ambitious polemic—much in the same way it served Nietzsche, who in his last writings rarely lost an opportunity to compare Christianity unfavorably with Buddhism. Certainly, their notions of Buddhism as a nihilistic religion will strike most Buddhists as limited, if not wrong. But then Mandelstam and Borges are unlikely to have met many Buddhists in the 1920s.
There were a few Zen Buddhists from Japan in America. But there were in the West hardly any monks and teachers from the Tibetan diaspora disseminating, as happens now, to large middle-class audiences a subtler sense of what the Buddha first spoke of near Benares two and half millennia ago: how neither the individual self nor the world is stable, how our desire for things innately impermanent makes for frustration, turning life into an experience of perpetual discontentment, and how human beings could achieve liberation, or nirvana, not by plunging into some unspecified “void,” but by freeing themselves from greed, hatred, and delusion.
The word “Buddhism” made the Buddha seem the founder …