Matthew W. KingOct 19, 2021
In the Forest of the Blind
The Eurasian Journey of Faxian's Record of Buddhist Kingdoms
Columbia University Press 2022
What would an “anti-field history” of Buddhist Studies look like? What does the social history of knowledge look like when it both includes and exceeds the West/Nonwest binary, the ethnonational subject, the secular humanist gaze, and the moral narratives and metaphysical content of modernism? Matt W. King explores these critical questions and models innovative approaches in his second monograph, In the Forest of the Blind (Columbia University Press 2022), which uses Faxian’s Record of Buddhist Kingdoms to expose “ecologies of interpretation” in both nineteenth-century European Orientalist scholarship and Inner Asian monastic cultures.
Although Faxian’s The Record of Buddhist Kingdoms (Foguoji) is a fifth-century CE travelogue about the Chinese Buddhist monk’s journey into Central and South Asia, it later became the subject of Europe’s first study of “Buddhist Asia” in the nineteenth century in Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat’s Relation des Royaumes Bouddhiques, which was then translated from French into Mongolian by the Buryat scholar Dorji Banzarov, and then by the Mongolian monk Zava Damdin Lubsangdamdin from Mongolian into Tibetan.
Tracing this fascinating history of trans-Eurasian circulation of knowledge production, King argues that “the circulatory history of Faxian’s Record is not simply about Buddhist Asia forged in Europe into other places that were not Europe,” rather, the story is organized “by a chain of site-specific and differing orientations to knowledge itself – of treatments for traces of the past, of methodology.”
In six creatively organized chapters, King discusses first discusses how Faxian’s Record “orders time by means of space” in its early Chinese context, and then delves into the history of Orientalist Buddhist Studies showing how Abel-Rémusat’s “poaching” of Qing sources facilitated the disciplining of Buddhist Asia into an object of a transregional science. In Chapters 3 and 5, we see an inversion of the Orientalist gaze and learn about the reception and reinterpretation of Orientalist scholarship among the “Oriental” subjects themselves, who attempted to make sense of Buddhist history, geography, and Asia’s place and time in the world through Faxian’s Record, via Abel-Rémusat’s translation and scholarship. Here, King shows us that Abel-Rémusat’s science of Buddhist Asia was turned, or rather silenced, into chö-jung (history of the Dharma).
Unlike models from world history and transcultural studies that tend to focus on movement, contact, and exchange, In the Forest of the Blind instead focuses innovatively on connected but place-bound interpreters who hardly knew of each other and “who began anew from the silence of analytical practices staged elsewhere.” As an example of an “anti-field history,” this book, in King’s words, attempts “not to look past the fetish of the subject, but to find the disciplinary implications of centerless, overlapping, and mutually incomprehensible relations of knowledge-power that are coproductive but unbeholden to any specific relation of force (such as colonizer/colonized).” The aim of the book, King explains, is “to imagine new disciplinary futures in Buddhist and Asian studies by implicating the disciplinary present in a more diverse, global, subversive, and dispersed disciplinary past that is more attentive to negative space and absence than to impact or influence.”
Ending the book with a complete, annotated English translation of the Tibetan version of Faxian’s Record, which was translated from a Mongolian translation of the French translation of the Chinese original, In the Forest of the Blind provides the readers with rich notes about continuities and discrepancies across all four trans-Eurasian versions.
Matthew King is an Associate Professor in Transnational Buddhism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. He also currently serves as Director of Asian Studies. He has published numerous works on Buddhism and the social history of knowledge along the Tibet-Mongol interface during the late-and post-imperial periods, such as Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire (Columbia University Press 2019). To listen to his NBN interview with us on Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood, click here.