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The Historical Turn: How Chinese Buddhist Travelogues Changed Western Perception of Buddhism
Keywords: Faxian, Xuanzang, Yijing, William Jones, Buddhist travelogues
Abstract: Information about Buddhism was scarce and vague at best in the West until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The first Orientalists studying Indian sources had to rely on Hindu texts written in Sanskrit (e.g. Purāṇas) which portrayed the Buddha as an avatāra of the Hindu god Viṣṇu. The situation changed with the discovery of the Pāli texts from Śrī Laṅkā through scholars like George Turnour and the decipherment of the Aśokan inscriptions through James Prinsep by which the historical dimension of the religion became evident. The final confirmation of the historicity of the Buddha and the religion founded by him was taken, however, from the records of Chinese Buddhist travellers (Faxian, Xuanzang, Yijing) who had visited the major sacred places of Buddhism in India and collected other information about the history of the religion. This paper will discuss the first Western translations of these travelogues and their reception in the scholarly discourse of the period and will suggest that the historical turn to which it led had a strong impact on the study and reception of Buddhism—in a way the start of Buddhist Studies as a discipline.