THE GOSPEL OF BUDDHA: ACCORDING TO OLD RECORDS
PAUL CARUS, INTRODUCTION BY MARTIN VERHOEVEN, FOREWORD BY DONALD S. LOPEZ
Chicago: Open Court, 2004
522 pp.; $49.95

insideerosion

It is a great pleasure to see this old friend in such a splendid new edition. I first came across The Gospel of Buddha about twenty years ago when surveying early Western representations of Buddhism, and, inspired by the then-new ideas of Michel Foucault, produced a paper on it called “Zen and the Author Function.” It was, in the deconstructive mode of the time, a close textual analysis disclosing Paul Carus’s masterly control in conveying the message of his religion of science and the reasons behind the academy’s exclusion of his work from serious consideration. Carus (1852–1919) was dismissed by Orientalists and philosophers alike because of his failure to comply with the rules of either discipline. My university library had the original 1894 edition, as well as the 1915 edition with Olga Kopetsky’s illustrations. A local bookshop carried the 1973 paperback. The cover, bearing a painting by Japanese artist Keichu Yamada, claimed even then “More than 3 Million Copies Sold.” This latest edition, a well-deserved beautiful memorial volume, will find its place among the flood of books testifying to the current global interest in Buddhism.

The foreword by Donald Lopez describes Carus’s contribution to what Lopez calls “Modern Buddhism.” This is not just the Buddhism that happens to be around in modern times, but a “new school of the global age,” one encompassing manifestations of Buddhism from East and West that share a commitment to the characteristically modern ideals of “reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom, and the rejection of religious orthodoxy.” It is a universal Buddhism, “cured of cultural and clerical ossification,” neither Theravada nor Mahayana, but encapsulating the essence of the teachings of all, a Buddhism that has “transcended all regional and sectarian affiliation.” This Buddhism, Lopez proposes, is now sufficiently well established to have its own canon: Carus’s Gospel holds a place of prominence as a pioneer in the field and as a key text in the early East-West encounter.

Martin Verhoeven’s long introductory essay, “The Dharma Through Carus’s Lens,” analyzes the Buddhism of the Gospel in the historical context of Carus’s life and work, reconciling his post-Kantian monist philosophy with his interest in Oriental thought. While unquestionably admiring of Carus, he is not uncritical. Carus’s Buddhism is undeniably idiosyncratic, a hybrid of Christianity, science, and monism. As Verhoeven observes, however, “the obvious and regrettable conflation of Buddhist conceptions with his own philosophy notwithstanding, The Gospel of Buddha faithfully renders key and frequently still misunderstood concepts.”

But is it fair to be critical of it as “Buddhism” at all? Carus did not, after all, set out to write about Buddhism. As he himself tells us: “If this Gospel of Buddha helps people to comprehend Buddhism better, and if in its simple style it impresses the reader with the poetic grandeur of the Buddha’s personality, these effects must be counted as incidental (my emphasis).” Like everything Carus wrote in his extraordinarily productive career, Gospel was part of his mission to hasten the formation of the religion of the future. “The present book has been written to set the reader thinking on the religious problems of today. It sketches the picture of a religious leader of the remote past with a view of making it bear on the living present and become a factor in the formation of the future.” As a man of science following the evolutionary fashion of his time, he believed that progress toward this religion of the future—which he saw as neither Buddhism nor Christianity in their current forms, but a universal religion that subsumed both—would be hastened by bringing these two great protagonists into closer proximity. Comparison and competition with Buddhism in the minds of a Christian audience would force the evolution of Christianity to its inevitable and ultimate perfection. It was not, as Lopez suggests, a “Gospel for Buddhism” but The Gospel of Buddha, teaching a universal monism.

CARUS DESIGNED GOSPEL for a popular readership because such a change would have to take place within the body of the church, not just among a few intellectuals. His genius was in finding—occasionally creating—and bringing together appropriate episodes from various Asian accounts of the life of the Buddha, and stitching them together into a very readable text with immense popular appeal. His mission is evident in the beautiful illustrations by Keichu Yamada that are reproduced in this volume. They are not the scenes of any traditional telling of the life of the Buddha, but those commissioned by Carus to resonate with the more familiar events in the life of Christ: walking on water, the wedding feast, questioning the sages, receiving the courtesan, the woman at the well, cleansing a leper, bearing insult with dignity, and so on. Kopetsky’s illustrations are even more strikingly Christ-like. The encouragement to thoughtful comparison is also evident in the biblical format and language of the text, and in the Table of References, which directs the reader to equivalent ideas in the Christian Gospels. The whole is far too strategically organized to be accounted for by what Verhoeven refers to as “cultural presuppositions that color even the most sincere effort of understanding.” Carus knew exactly what he wanted to do and set out to achieve it. He did it brilliantly.

Carus’s mission created a Buddhism imbued with modern (American) cultural values. In Verhoeven’s terms, he “Americanized the Buddha.” The inevitable hybrid proved extremely successful in “easing unfamiliar Buddhist conceptions into more comfortable American thought-ways,” making them attractive and nonconfrontational. This, too, was part of Carus’s design. As Thomas Tweed astutely observed in his bookThe American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912, even for people seeking alternatives to orthodox Christianity at that time, there were limits to dissent. Core social values had to be preserved. What America needed, Carus realized, was not the contemplative Buddha of the East, but a robust, positive, and energetic Buddha.

Verhoeven’s conclusion raises the question of the validity of republishing at this time: “Does a sympathetic distortion really succeed in bringing a wider understanding of Buddhism, or merely produce a ‘Buddhism’ that many can understand?” The tendency to confuse Christianity and Buddhism persists; Buddhism continues to be “rather facilely lumped together with an indiscriminate mix of New Age fads, the occult, and vestiges of Theosophy,” its techniques appropriated “to improve athletic performance, and make us better Christians, Jews, or non-believers.” As Verhoeven thoughtfully observes, “We tend unwittingly to take for granted that our intellectual tradition and global pre-eminence uniquely qualifies us to give definitive statements on the Buddha’s teachings.” He concludes that the value of the book now is to remind us of how historical context and cultural presuppositions condition our assumptions; of “how easy it is to notice and embrace only those elements of Buddhism that seem consonant with our way of life and disregard the rest.” Verhoeven also sees the Gospel as “a reminder of how far we have come in our understanding of Buddhism since 1894, and of how far we still might go.”

There are certainly better guides to Buddhism available now, and books are no longer the only resource. Buddhist studies have moved beyond the aggressively secular, rationalist, humanist paradigm of the modern to encompass the lived reality of Buddha relics, ritual, pilgrimage, the power of images, and much more that was unthinkable a century ago.

LOPEZ’S LINEAGE of Modern Buddhism stops at about 1980. Is Modern Buddhism the product of a previous time, a time we have moved beyond? Is it really a Buddhism stripped of cultural accretions, or simply one imbued with cultural assumptions so dominant that they are, or at least were, invisible? Lopez’s definition of Modern Buddhism—its claims to original authenticity, its emphasis on Enlightenment ideals, its disregard for two millennia of Asian development and its insistence on possessing the truth, and especially its claim to be the essence of Buddhism—seems disturbingly like the Orientalist constructs of the nineteenth century that so arrogantly excluded Asian Buddhist reality.

The idea of Modern Buddhism may be useful in focusing the diverse factors that have shaped popular perceptions of Buddhism over the last century, particularly the networks of exchange between Asia and the West in its formation, but with the notable exception of the dalit Buddhists of India, Modern Buddhism in Asia is an elite movement, a product of wealth and the emergence of middle classes created through global capitalism and massive social change. It exists alongside the traditional practices of the many. While we might rejoice in the fact that this essentialized reduction of a long, rich, and venerable tradition has created a welcoming space for Buddhisms of all types in our present globalized world, an examination of the political underpinnings of some of its Asian forms should give us pause.

I feel sure that Carus, with his keen sense of the meaning of form, would appreciate this book. Its importance is signaled by the vellum print of the dust jacket. The authenticity of the text has been preserved by photographically reproducing the individual pages of the 1915 edition, its original small pocket-book format (a deliberate strategy in its popularization) thereby elevated to art book format. Keichu Yamada’s paintings make it so. It is a beautifully produced memorial to a patriarch of Modern Buddhism, combining the historical archive and a thoughtful reassessment with the eulogy he was denied in his lifetime.

 

Temple
Get Daily Dharma in your email

Start your day with a fresh perspective

a photo of a Buddhist meditating
Explore timeless teachings through modern methods.

With Stephen Batchelor, Sharon Salzberg, Andrew Olendzki, and more

See Our Courses

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.