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.”
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