By seven o’clock on the morning of August 26, 1873, a crowd of some five thousand had gathered around a raised platform in the town of Panadure outside of Colombo, Ceylon—what is now Sri Lanka. On one side of the platform stood a table covered in white cloth and adorned with evergreens. This was the side occupied by the Christian party and its spokesman, Rev. David de Silva. The other side, more richly decorated, was filled by some two hundred Buddhist monastics and their spokesman, a monk named Gunananda. For the next two days, that platform would be the sparring ground for a heated debate over which religion would liberate the people of Ceylon: Buddhism or Christianity.
The Rev. de Silva spoke first, quoting Pali scriptures that declare there is no soul, that a person is only the aggregation of various impermanent parts. According to Buddhism, then, human beings have no immortal soul and are “on a par with the frog, pig, or any other member of the brute creation.” If there is no soul, there can be no punishment for sin or reward for virtue in the next life. Hence, he concluded, “no religion ever held out greater inducements to the unrighteous than Buddhism did.”
When it was his turn, Gunananda attacked the missionary’s knowledge of Pali, explaining that according to Buddhist doctrine, a person reborn was neither precisely the same as nor different from the person who had previously died. He then turned to the shortcomings of Christianity, noting that in the Book of Exodus, God instructs the Hebrews to mark their doors with blood so that he would know which houses to pass over as he killed the Egyptians’ firstborn children. The monk concluded that an omniscient god would not need such instructions. In the end, the five thousand onlookers declared Gunananda the winner. It was not the first time that Buddhists and Christians had debated the primacy of their respective faiths. Jesuit missionaries had challenged Buddhist doctrine in Japan, China, and Tibet. In each case, the Christians failed to conquer these lands or convert their peoples. But because Ceylon was a British colony, Gunananda’s denunciation of Christianity would have far-reaching ramifications. He painted the first broad strokes of what could be called Modern Buddhism.
The dharma that Gunananda sought to describe was not the result of a long historical evolution, but the Buddhism of the Buddha himself. Indeed, what I am calling Modern Buddhism seeks to distance itself from those forms of Buddhism that immediately precede it and even those that are contemporary with it. Its proponents viewed—and still view—ancient Buddhism, and especially the enlightenment of the Buddha 2,500 years ago, as the most authentic moment in the long history of Buddhism. It was also the form of Buddhism most compatible with the ideals of the European Enlightenment, ideals such as reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom, and the rejection of religious orthodoxy—precisely those notions that have appealed so much to Western converts. It stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual above the community. In fact, what we regard as Buddhism today is a modern creation. Its widespread acceptance, both in the West and in much of Asia, is testimony to the influence of an array of figures from a variety of Buddhist lands, including the United States and Europe.
Gunananda’s presentation signaled important changes that would spread throughout the Buddhist world into the twenty-first century. In the first place, Gunananda was an educated monk who not only knew the sutras but had studied the Bible as well. Like him, the leaders of the various Modern Buddhist movements in Asia would be drawn from the small minority of learned monks and not from the vast majority who chanted sutras, performed rituals for the dead, and maintained monastic properties. Second, the Buddhism portrayed in the debate, and in Modern Buddhism more generally, had to do with technical doctrine and philosophy rather than daily practice. Indeed, Buddhism came to be portrayed—whether in Sinhalese, Chinese, or Japanese—as a world religion, fully the equal of Christianity in antiquity, geographical expanse, membership, and philosophical profundity, with its own founder, sacred scriptures, and fixed body of doctrine.
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