September 21 2021

A Counternarrative of Buddhism in Modern History with Matthew W. King

image of the cover of Matthew King's book, "Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood," with text that reads "Conversation with Matthew W. King 2020 AAR Book Award Winner"

Through a case study of Zava Damdin, a monk living on the frontier of Mongolia at the end of the Qing empire (early 20th century), Matthew King invites scholars to consider non-Eurocentric ways of studying religion in modern history.

King is associate professor in transnational Buddhism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside, and he is the author of Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire (Columbia University Press), which won the American Academy of Religion's 2020 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the textual studies category. He is interviewed by Kristian Petersen.

 

Transcript

Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host Kristian Petersen. And today I'm here with Matthew King, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California at Riverside, and winner of the AAR Book Award in Textual Studies. He's here to speak to us about his book, Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire published with Columbia University Press. Congratulations Matt and thanks for joining me.

Matthew King:

Thank you so much. It's my pleasure.

Kristian Petersen:

What a title that is. It's striking and the book cover as well, it really brings you in already.

Matthew King:

Thank you.

Kristian Petersen:

A lot of listeners may not be familiar with this subject or this geographic region. I'm wondering if you could just start off a little bit thinking about Buddhism in this post-Qing Mongolian sphere. What are some of the key things we need to know about Buddhist religious life in early 20th century to begin to understand your project?

Matthew King:

Thank you very much. Well, I think that what we need to understand are the geographies of scholarship about that period. There is scholarship about the very deeply braided connections between the Qing Empire and one of the, by that period, dominant traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelug tradition, the tradition of the Dalai Lamas, which had this relationship with the Qing since the 17th century. And that was really responsible for spreading mass monasticism, scholastic culture, literacy, medical knowledge, philosophical traditions, all kinds of literary and intellectual traditions.

Not only into China and to the capitals of the Qing and into the Manchu court and so on, but also across all Mongolian societies, the Sino-Mongolian to that in frontiers, and really all the way up to Siberia and eventually in the early 20th century to St. Petersburg.

There's this trans-Asia formation, this Qing Gelug tradition formation that was political, was institutional, but it was also a frame by which all sorts of disparate peoples understood themselves in relationship to one another and in relationship to global history.

And so, by the time of the collapse of the Qing in 1911, 1912, from a Buddhist perspective, these monastic perspectives, there was a very large historiographical tradition of writing world history through this synthetic Qing frame. And so, this idea of synthesizing languages, previously disparate histories, for example of China, of the Mongol Empire, of Tibet, of India, of Europe, of ideologies. For example, twining Buddhist philosophical history with new encounters with Daoism, or Confucianism, or Christianity, and so on.

My book begins at the apex of this, by then maybe two-century-long synthetic tradition by a very particular social group that my book explores, which have been, I think, understudied, which are these go-between monks who were working, writing into that and speaking various Mongolian dialects. In many cases speaking Manchu and Chinese. Also these guys were talking to Jesuits in Beijing and then walking back to the Himalayan Plateau or up to the Gobi desert and making sense of Indian canonical works in new ways.

It was really, in some ways I don't use the word renaissance in my book at all, but maybe for a general audience that's a useful frame. And it's not one though that's tied to an epochal contact with Europe as starting the modern. The whole point of my book is that this is not a Buddhist modernist progressive story. This is like a slow burning synthetic history, wherein Buddhist monastic scholars, very particular one from these frontier regions were basically making sense of the world in radically new ways.

By the time we get to the early 20th century and the collapse of the Qing, my book starts with the question of, how do monks who inherited this vast tradition make sense of the ruins of the Qing? In other words, how did they use a historiography that depended upon the Qing Gelug synthesis to make sense of a world wherein the Qing was absent, politically, at least. And in very short order, new revolutionary governments were not only antagonistic, but exacting profound state violence against these monks in their institutions. So it's sort of a crisis of history type project in the midst of Asia's first socialist revolution.

Kristian Petersen:

I was going to ask this later, but I think it ties in with what you're talking about, these tensions between history and modernity and you demonstrate or reveal this Buddhist countermodernism. So, could you talk a little bit about this aspect of the book. What's the broader conceptual intervention you're trying to make through this case study in terms of this idea of modernity and countermodernity?

Matthew King:

Thank you. The immediate project was to link late imperial studies with an area studies model, looking at the nation state and thinking about forms of social, political, religious imagination that really escape the national subject, and which exceed the Qing, but still understand the world in its frame. But in terms of a Buddhist studies audience, the book eventually ended up focusing on basically trying to provide a counterbalance to a really robust and interesting field of scholarship on what has been called, Protestant Buddhism, Buddhist modernism. Among mostly progressive Buddhist thinkers trained in the European tradition often in colonies or else in Imperial Japan who were basically trying to reimagine the Buddhist tradition in ways that were very legible to the national subject, to science, democracy, and so on.

And this "Buddhist modernism" is the one that ends up circulating into Europe in many ways and it's adopted by converts in North America, and Europe, and elsewhere. Really important story absolutely, but my question in this book is like, well, what else was happening among Buddhist thinkers who were at the same global crossroads who were engaging the same globally circulating forms of knowledge, but who actively refused the authority of science, refused the idea of nationalism and were working outside of the national subject as a frame for thinking about religion, history, language. I think this is a real black box or blank place in our map is we're thinking about Buddhism plus modernity in Asia during the collapse of the Qing, especially, and also of other colonial formations and what emerges from its ruin.

So, this idea of ruins becomes really important in my book, which has been studied by other scholars of colonialism. But this idea of ruins as a set of often gendered possibilities that are sort of on the margins of emerging progressive dominant visions of identity in history, is really where my book dwells. And I think that for every one of these Buddhist modernists, D. T. Suzuki or whoever who's taught in an intro to Buddhism class, there was a chorus of critics of those figures who we don't really know much about.

What were the terms by which they were understanding the "turn to the modern, turn to nationalism, turn to revolution," what other topographies of the imagination were at play? And so, my book is just a micro historical exploration of one such example, but there are thousands. And I think the import is not only to understand Buddhist life in the upheavals of early 20th century Asia, but also there are theoretical and methodological implications that have to do with the study of religion, the study of Asian religions, generally as well, which my book explores in various ways.

Kristian Petersen:

You zoom in on this Mongolian monk, Zava Damdin. He's a fascinating figure, but part of what makes him so interesting and really comes out in the translations you do is the types of sources that are available. Could you talk a little bit about what his oeuvre has provided you in terms of trying to understand his perspective?

Matthew King:

Absolutely. As I said before, this theme of synthetic scholasticism out of the Qing period is central. But where you're referring to in a way is Zava Damdin's position during the end of the Qing. And then it's the 25 years that followed of the circulation of various European, mostly academic sources into the Inner Asian monastery. So, whereas for two or three centuries before Zava Damdin's predecessors were encountering say Chinese dynastic histories and Confucian Classics. Things that had not been available to them as widely before the 17th century, as well as Copernican astronomy and Jesuit mathematics. In Christianity, there were some inklings of European culture that were being brought in.

But in the context of a radical, political and social turn to nationalism, to pervasive rhetoric of development, of social emancipation in 1911. And then after 1917 to Soviet models of socialist emancipation, and a real embrace of scientism, a whole flush of new sources are emerging and coming into these Inner Asian spaces and into Zava Damdin's institutions in Mongolia. And these include everything from basically childhood textbooks on introduction to science and the weather. Also though to early iterations of Buddhist studies from the Russian buddologist, like Shcherbatskoy and Tubyansky, work on Altaic linguistics, archeology, Silk Road discoveries, really importantly for Zava Damdin.

He's being shown pictures of, it's unclear whether it's Stein or Pelliot, but some of these folks that were digging out Buddhist statues and texts from central Asia. And even Zava Damdin was in contact with a member of the Bakhtin Circle, while adamantly refusing their modernist projects and the proposals of progressive Buddhists around him to, for example, secularize the monastery, embrace scientific education, democratize social hierarchy and et cetera.

He was a global leader who was actively refusing many of the markers of the "modern" that have been very much emphasized in Buddhist studies from this period. And so that takes us into new territory and requires new treatment and new narratives in my opinion. I've been asked about this book by some who have said, "How did this guy way out there in the frontiers and nowhere?" But to be honest, if you're looking at these sources that's absolutely a false margin. Mongolia and Eastern Tibet, this is a poly-lingual through ways for Eurasia. And it had been for a thousands of years before. So really this is a center for such translation, synthesis, boundary crossing or whatever you want to say. And Zava Damdin just happened to be a prolific writer of society at those crossroads during a really fascinating, but ultimately bloody period in Inner Asia.

Kristian Petersen:

You structure the book into two major parts, which are under the headings of enchantment and disenchantment terms. Of course, that would be well known to folks in religious studies. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you use these categories in the narrative of your book? And then, how does this two-part structure operate in your project? Sure.

Matthew King:

Sure. I'm not using it as a sort of classical sociological sense exactly. I'm using the terms in the ways that Zava Damdin did which had to do with a pervasive attention to presence, [14:45] in Tibetan, presence of the enlightened on the stage of the human. This'll be familiar to anyone familiar with Inner Asia reading iteration sources, but for a wider audience, basically this is just the idea that human history had been curated in a sense by, in enlightened figures Buddha is taking the bodies of mostly men, whether they were monks, or whether they were khans, or kings, or emperors. And this was the historical frame that Zava Damdin inherited from the Qing where all history, whether it's Qing Han, or the Manchu Emperors, or King Ashoka in ancient India, these are all emanations of enlightened Buddhas purposely intervening on the human stage and not only teaching the Dharma, but also enacting laws and institutional forms literacy and all this kind of thing.

So, basically if you were a monk historian working as Zava Damdin was, you were looking for traces and evidence of how the enlightened were appearing on the human stage. And so, in examining about 1500 folios of his autobiographical writing, and about 1500 folios of his historical writing, it became clear that Zava Damdin understood his times in this frame of presence and absence of the enlightened. He never uses the word modernity. He never uses the word modernization. He never uses the word socialism or revolution. And as revolutionary events unfold, he's very careful to censor himself. I think because others around him were being basically killed or imprisoned. But this language of presence and absence, which were, by the way, not tied to the arrival of Euro-centered notion of national formation and revolutionary emancipation. He actually sees all of those events as things that are being celebrated elsewhere as the modernist awakening of Inner Asia.

He sees that all as simply symptoms of a decay that had occurred earlier in the 19th century. So, I won't give it away here, I'll go down into the details, it's all in the book. But he comes up with a global historical argument, I guess, for why social religious political bonds had come undone in the way that they had. In his lifetime, by the time we get to his last works which are his autobiography written just before he dies and just before many tens of thousands of monks around him were murdered, he thinks that history has ended.

Literally history has ended. There's no language, no interpretive apparatus by which to know the present, no place where Buddhist monasticism could exist. And there was no future for him or for the world as he knew it. And that is played out in a variety of ways that I explore in the book. It's not a sort of disenchantment as secularization or anything like that. I purposefully use the word to draw a contrast, which is... This is an entirely other model of writing the "modern" into time and place by those very much engaged in global currents, but refusing terms issuing from the European enlightenment.

Kristian Petersen:

It works well. And then certainly for people in religious studies, they'll be drawn to that. And then this contrast is a little more striking. I'm wondering if you could just think for a moment about how you imagine your colleagues in religious studies more broadly might benefit from the book, those that aren't doing a Tibetan Buddhism or working on Asia, are there ways that they can apply some of your conclusions or methodologies that might be more relevant for people working outside of your subfield?

Matthew King:

I think that there are. I think that the book offers a really useful case study in the classroom because Zava Damdin's writing really confuses a lot of ways that we in the humanities generally, and in religious studies specifically inadvertently, I think teach history, world religions and so on. Because Zava Damdin is writing time and place and community and power in ways that are, have, have nothing to do with the public or private. Do not in any way fit into religion and political modernity or tradition, stasis or progress. All of these ways that basically we write the West/non-West difference in explicit or implicit ways.

And of course, I'm not the first to point out the problems and limits of that, but there has not yet been many case studies from Inner Asia that exemplify how that was working on the ground in rich detail. And part of my interest in the book and in my new book and in wider scholarship that I'm after in general is that, these conversations that are familiar to us from say post-colonial studies or subaltern studies. And also in other scholarship on Buddhist modernism, these are often within the frame of the colonizer and the colonized, in South Southeast Asia, but Inner Asia was never a colony of Europe. It was never beholden politically to Europe. It never had that kind of relationship.

And here, I guess what I'm trying to do is to center other interpretive ecologies, world historical orders, i.e, the Qing and its frontiers as also offering us ways of decentering, provincializing some of our categories that have all this colonial baggage. And to not just understand the life of some monk in Mongolia in the early 20th century, but to really center the diversity of ways that the collapse of empire or the transition to the 20th century was understood in place and time.

In the book, I try to draw as many lines as I can to a scholarship that has pushed back against the metaphysics of the modern, the pervasive rhetoric of progress. All of these sorts of things that we are good at naming is having Eurocentric genealogies. We still struggle with doing our scholarship, doing our teaching outside of that frame. And I think that the more case studies like Zava Damdin's we can find, whether in Latin America or in North America, indigenous community or whatever, then we can actually be finding models of history and agency in place that will allow us to diversify our teaching and to make some good trouble in our disciplines. That was ultimately the point of my book and what I'm most interested in thinking about Inner Asia in these bigger frames.

Kristian Petersen:

That's great, Matt. And it was a real pleasure to read the book. Congratulations again, on the award.

Matthew King:

Thank you.

Kristian Petersen:

Thanks for making time to talk about it.

Matthew King:

It's my pleasure. Thank you very much.