A survey of material from Buddhist journals compiled by Rick Fields, Tricycle‘s Editor-at-Large:


Soyen Shaku (1859-1919). Courtesy of Shambhala Publications.

Close to a century ago, a small band of Asian Buddhists’ came to Chicago to bring the message of the Buddha to the new world. As John McRae writes in the lively academic journal Buddhist-Christian Studies(University of Hawaii), “The World’s Parliament of Religion, held in conjunction with the Columbia Exposition of 1893, was the first time that such knowledge of Asian religions was presented firsthand and with widespread publicity by Asian representatives speaking on behalf of their own religions.” More than four thousand people turned out to hear the Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda, as well as Buddhists including Anagarika Dharmapala, the Singhalese founder of the MahaBodhi Society, and the Japanese Zen master Soyen Shaku, whose translator, D.T. Suzuki, later became the foremost interpreter of Zen to the West.

Yet McRae notes that “the messages presented were not fair and adequate representations of Asian religions, but propaganda messages stitched together from a combination of traditional doctrine and Western social and philosophical theory, tailored according to Western measurements of the standard ideology of human progress.” This message, which stressed the universalism of Hinduism and the “scientism” of Buddhism, “would continue to mold the self-understandings of Asian religionists in their native lands as well.” Thus, McCrae concludes, “the Parliament was an important event in the history of Asian religions, not only in the United States and the West, but throughout the world.”

Buddhist-Christian Studies itself is evidence of the continuing dialogue started at the Parliament one hundred years ago. The current issue, for example, includes a letter issued by the Vatican in 1989, warning Christians about the dangers of attempting “to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian,” along with a number of critiques of the letter by Christians with experience of Eastern meditation. Victoria Urubshurow, of Catholic University of America, says that the Vatican letter “makes a rather honest but serious mistake” by characterizing Buddhism as nihilistic. “In fact,” she writes, “Buddhist theory considers nihilism to be a major pitfall of spiritual practice (along with eternalism).”

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