Report of the Symposium on "Buddhism in German Philosophy and Literature"
February 6 - 7, 2009
Nineteenth century Germany saw an influx of ideas flowing in from the East. It is well known that thinkers such as Schopenhauer in the early period of the century was influenced by Indian philosophies such as Buddhism and Hinduism, as new translations became available in European languages or key canonical texts such as many Buddhist sutras and the Bhagavadgita. Thus the age was an important fermentation period, one that profoundly changed the outlook of many aspects of European culture, most notably perhaps in Germany itself. Through Schopenhauer the ideas received from the East percolated through thinkers and writers as diverse as Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, and perhaps a little surprisingly Bertold Brecht.
The Symposium on "Buddhism German Philosophy and Literature: An Intercultural Dialogue" was held at the campus of Chulalongkorn University from February 6 to 7, 2009, and it was quite well attended, considering that there are many events in the university and the specific nature of the topic. The meeting was supported by the Goethe-Institut in Bangkok, and was jointly organized by the Center for European Studies and Center for Ethics of Science and Technology, both belonging to Chulalongkorn University, and the Thousand Stars Foundation, an independent non-profit focusing on research and other activities in Buddhism in Thailand.
After the opening the ceremony presided by Prof. Dr. Pirom Kamolratanakul, President of the university, the session in the morning of Friday, 6 February began with a brief talk on "Remarks on Philology and Buddhist Studies, with Special Reference to German Philology and Manuscript Studies" by Dr. Peter Skilling. He provided the audience with some details about German contribution of scholarship on Buddhist studies. The next paper was by Prof. Volker Mertens on "Buddhism in the European Middle Ages," where he talked about the reception of Buddhist ideas through Europeans who get the opportunity for contact with the East during the 11th century when the Mongols were in their ascendancy. This was perhaps the first record of European contact with Buddhism (not counting the Romans or the Greeks, where the evidence was not clear).
Then the papers by Prof. Dr. Pornsan Watananguhn and Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Heinrich Detering investigated the influences and the reception of Buddhist ideas in German literature. The authors discussed were Karl Gjellerup, the Danish writer whose work "The Pilgrim Kamanita" was very well known in Thaiand through translation, Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, and Bertold Brecht. The reception of Buddhism by these writers was both positive and negative. As these writers became aware of Buddhist ideas, they gave their own responses, which were reflected in their writings. Thomas Mann, for example, was deeply influenced by Schopenhauer, and the idea of the unknowable will and the Buddhist conception of suffering figures prominently in the discussion during the Symposium.
Three more papers dealed with Buddhist influences in German literature, namely those by Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Dieter Borschmeyer, who focused on Mann's "Die vertauschten Köpfe," and Dr. Ronald Perlwitz, who talked about the writer Friedrich Rückkert and his views on Buddhism. Finally, Prof. Dr. Adrian Hsia talked about Hermann Hesse and his "transcultural reception" blending Buddhism, Hinduism, Protestantism and Catholicism together.
Then there were papers by Thai philosophers, starting with a keynote address by Prof. Preecha Changkwanyuen, whose paper was entitled "Exchange of Religious Cultures between East and West." Then Prof. Dr. Somparn Promta talked about "Literature in Buddhist Perspective," which though it did not touch upon the question of reception of Buddhism in German culture directly, did in fact contribute significantly through his analysis of literature according to Buddhism. Afterwards there were two more papers, by Dr. Soraj Hongladarom and Dr. Theptawee Chokevasin, whose topics were "Schopenhauer's Metaphysics of the Will and Nagarjuna's View on Emptiness" and "Heideggian and Theravada Buddhist View on the Motility of Life" respectively. Dr. Soraj's paper was a detailed analysis of Schopenhauer's argument compared with the Buddhist master Nagarjuna. The topic was what was actually meant by "nothing."
The Symposium ended with a session where everybody convened and gave their viewpoints on a variety of topics. Not surprisingly the topics of Buddhist and Christian dialogs dominated the discussion. The participants talked about how Buddhism and Christianity could be reconciled, and how much of the ideas of pantheism and the philosophy of Spinoza (which, by the way, perhaps found its way into Schopenhauer) could be found in these literary works.
That was to be expected from an academic meeting. The participants in any case agreed that there should be a second meeting after this one. The topic is far too important and too rich just to let this particular event pass by without any further action.