Review: Francisco Díez de Velasco, El Budismo en España: Historia, visibilización e implantación (“Buddhism in Spain: History, Visibility and Establishment”), Ediciones Akal, Madrid, 2013, 348 pp.

El Budismo en España is the first compendious monograph on Buddhism in Spain. The book, as the title indicates, is structured in three parts. The first part provides an account of the diffusion of the presence and the study of Buddhism in Spain. The second part focuses on its visibility, including a brief, yet exhaustive bibliographical survey of Buddhist literature (translations, essays, handbooks) written in Spanish (both in Spain and America). The last part deals with Buddhism from an institutional (legal) point of view.

Further, there is a detailed general introduction that contains a summarized history of Buddhism, including the relatively recent spread of Buddhism beyond Asia.

The work is part of a bigger research project launched by Fundación Pluralismo y Convivencia together with the University of La Laguna (Canary Islands). In method, El Budismo en España seems to follow the lines of Peter Harvey and other scholars who have studied the phenomenon of Buddhism in the Western world, but who have not yet delved into the intricacies of Spanish Buddhism.

El Budismo en España deals not only with Buddhism in Spain, but also with the study of Buddhism in Spain. This double-edged approach is certainly remarkable, because both aspects seem to feed into one another. In a way, the implementation of Buddhist studies in the Spanish academic system is part of the normalization of Buddhism in the country. On the other hand, this approach makes the book a piece of academic research that could deter Buddhist practitioners from reading it, as they may well be indifferent to the way sociologists portray them.

The first part of the book, properly speaking, is a History of Buddhism in Spain. Spain has been traditionally known as a stronghold of Catholicism  (“Spiritual Resort of the West” as the Francoist moto says). The paradox is that, as a result of Catholic intervention in state affairs, Spain has also nurtured a tradition of hardcore atheism. The religious dialectics, therefore, gravitate toward these two parameters. But despite its strong Catholic (and anti-Catholic) tradition, Spain has been acquainted with Buddhism since Imperial times. The country, however, has been resistent to this religion until (approximately) the nineteen-seventies. The reasons are many and they are analysed in the first part of the book.

Díez de Velasco acknowledges that Buddhism in Spain is still a phenomenon of minorities, but the very aim of the present study is, as the author says, to “wander beyond the well-worn paths of majorities”.

The first chapter covers three periods: 1) Before 1977: Buddhism caught between exoticism, esoterism and exceptionality, from Imperial times to late Francoism; 2) 1977–2007: From the first stable communities to the Buddhist Federation and the “notable roots” (notorio arraigo: a legal term from the Spanish constitution, meant to assess the presence of a Religion in Spain and thus grant it official recognition); 3) 2007 to the present: “notable roots” and cooperation agreements.

Due to the overwhelming amount of information in the book it is not possible here to assess this historical sketch as a whole. But as a representative figure of the first period I would like to mention Professor García Ayuso, an old-school orientalist who pursued his research in Munich (1868-70), Paris and Vienna (1876), and Berlin (1881). García Ayuso, who ended his days teaching German language in high school, personifies the failure of Spanish academia in normalising Oriental studies. The figure of García Ayuso will be repeatedly referred to throughout the book as a paradigm of the early days of oriental studies. As a curiosity, García Ayuso is the first Spaniard who used the spelling “buddhismo” instead of “budismo”. I think Díez de Velasco is right in not going back to “buddhismo” (pace Mestanza, who recently argued in favour of recovering the lost aspirated dh[1]).

In contrast to García Ayuso, the figure of Raimundo Pannikar (especially in his essay The Silence of the Buddha) is portrayed as the successful blending of Christianity and Buddhism in Spain that has transcended the borders of the country and its language.

The second period starts with the change in Spanish legislation after Franco’s death. Freedom of meeting allowed certain communities to establish permanent centers of different Buddhist traditions. The most emblematic figure of this period (1977–2007) is Osel Hita Torres (born 1985), the son of two Buddhist pioneers in Spain: Paco Hita and María Torres – connected with one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist temples in Spain, O Sel Ling, near Granada. Osel was considered the reincarnation of the lama Thubten Yeshe (d. 1984), “officially recognised as tulku in 1986 and enthroned as Tenzin Osel Rimpoche in 1987, his image included in cult centres and his importance reflected in the world’s religious leaders directories”. Osel left monastic life at eighteen, as is well known, in order to become a film director. Nevertheless, he has not detached himself from the Buddhist community. His case is certainly exceptional, but it is a good example the implementation of Buddhist practices and beliefs in Spain during the second period.

The third period starts in 2007 with the official recognition of the “notable roots” (notorio arraigo) of Buddhism in Spain. This upgrade has given communities many bureaucratic advantages that have resulted in a much more dynamic presence of Buddhism in the country.

Díez de Velasco’s approach is clearly sociological. In establishing the landmarks of the history of Buddhism, he has chosen especially two points that are related to the legal status of minority religions. Another notable insight of the author is his description of the relationship between touristic areas and the introduction of Buddhism. Indeed, Buddhism has come to Spain from both the East and from the North. The influence of northern Europeans on Spanish Buddhism is something the author opportunely draws attention to.

The second part of the book deals with the visibility of Buddhism. By visibility the author understands the phaenomenic side of religion, its aesthetic impact on a particular social milieu. This fundamental aspect of any religion is treated in detail. The author tackles the problems of the possible stigmatization of foreign creeds in a traditionally Catholic culture – where being non-Catholic is usually synonymous with being foreign, even for Spanish anti-Catholics. I personally recall a visit to a Tibetan monastery on the Garraf Hills, near Barcelona, where I overheard a cyclist who happened to pass by telling his friends: “What’s that, a monastery? We’ve been centuries struggling to get rid of the Catholic Church, and now that we are finally free, people decide to go to another Church… That’s unbelievable”. It is not true, I reckon, that foreign religions are seen with suspicion only because they are foreign. What happens in Spain is that the Catholic Church is for many people the standard of what religion is supposed to be, and therefore the average Spaniard associates religion with Catholicism. But Díez de Velasco goes beyond this mere fact of possible stigmatization. He actually explains the way Buddhism has found a visible way into society through the well-known global phenomenon of catchy branding labels including the words  “Zen” and “Buddha”. In Spain, as in other western societies where Buddhism is seen with sympathy, Buddhist merchandise is all too common. Some Buddhist communites have opted for marketing themselves in order to increase their visibility. That is the case, for instance, of the monastery Sakya Tashi Ling on the Garraf Hills. This monastery achieved national renown in 2005, when it launched the music hit Monjes Budistas (with a precedent in 1999). The 2005 version includes electronic music arrangements which make Tibetan chantings much more easily assimilated in mainstream charts. Another visible campaign was in 2008, promoting the “tantric helmet”, a helmet for motorbikers that incorporates a protective mantra. This campaign, not devoid of controversy, was sponsored by the Catalan government and it was in the framework of a campaign for raising awareness among motorbikers. This is just one example of the different ways Buddhist communities literally sell their product to a society that does not have a definite idea of what Buddhism is.

Buddhist leisure is also an important section of this chapter: Buddhism as a cultural product. And finally, the Buddhist publishing sector in Spain is examined. That small chapter is very important because it is the most exhaustive survey of Buddhist publications in Spanish (including Iberian and American publishers). The author maintains that the language factor is very important in order to articulate the “indigenous” or “Latin” adaptation of Buddhism. A very thought-provoking section deals with Catholic publishers releasing a series on Buddhism.

To make the “visibility” experience easier, the book contains a fine selection of pictures, in black and white and also in colour, of Spanish Buddhist temples, stupas, dharma halls, etc.

In the third and last part of the book the author puts great emphasis on the certifiable presence of Buddhism. He focuses on the legal side of this phenomenon. If the second part is about surface visibility, the third part is about what lies behind the scenes, i.e. the institutional realities of Buddhism in Spain. The author provides abundant primary data such as legal registers and statistics. This makes the book more technical and less entertaining, but at the same time more reliable. After all, this book is meant to be an academic tool. The author himself acknowledges the impossibility of one single scholar covering absolutely all manifestations of Buddhism in the country. It is also true that putting together all Buddhist traditions is not particularly helpful either.

El Budismo en España is a mine of information for the social scientist. Not so for the scholar who is more interested in the peculiarities of Buddhist doctrine in Spain – but again, the book contains the best bibliography, so far, for those who are interested in the very content of Buddhist beliefs and traditions in Spain. Of course, that would be impossible cover in detail due to the diversity of schools and communities professing different views. Therefore Diez de Velasco’s undertaking seems to be the best way to approach Spanish Buddhism as a whole. According to the author, the unity is defined by the geographical borders, by the legal system, etc., and not by doctrinal similarities. This idea runs across the whole work and constitutes, I think, one of its most original features.

 

A. Ruiz-Falqués, Cambridge, 2013

 

[1] Ferran Mestanza, “El Buddha en la lengua de Cervantes: ortografía y traducción de la palabra ‘Buddha’ en español”, in Donald S. Lopez, El Buddhismo. Introducción a su historia y sus enseñanzas (Barcelona: Kairós, 2009).

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