The Gospel of Buddha is a relatively small volume of passages culled from the Buddhist canon and arranged, like the biblical gospels, into “chapter and verse.” First published in 1894, by the turn of the century this collection was probably the single most popular Buddhist catechism in the world. By 1915 it was in its thirteenth English edition, with versions having appeared in Japanese, Chinese, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Urdu. Its broad acceptance among Asian Buddhist leaders of the time was unprecedented: the Zen Master Shaku Soyen wrote that the Gospel which was then being used as a reader at Tokyo Imperial University, served the needs of Japanese students of Buddhism better than did the Buddhist scriptures themselves. A major sect of the Japanese Pure Land school used the Gospel for training its priests, and the Theravada Buddhist reformer Anagarika Dharmapala, head of the Maha Bodhi Society, actively propagated the text in Ceylon, praising its author as the only Westerner to correctly understand Buddhism.
The popularity of the Gospel is not difficult to fathom. It portrayed the Buddha as a gentle, compassionate, tolerant, wise, and eminently rational human being, who had no use for blind faith in institutional authority, or superstitious belief in the efficacy of magic and ritual. This was a compelling image to educated Asians as well as Westerners of the time, all of whom were heirs, for better or worse, to the legacy of the European Enlightenment. Intellectuals throughout the world shared an unbounded faith in the promise of science and technology to better man’s lot, yet many recoiled from the specter of an amoral and godless universe. There was a longing for a spiritual and ethical teaching that affirmed the significance of human life, yet was compatible with modern science and rationality.
Educated Asians had another reason to embrace the Buddhism of the Gospel: there were widespread fears that the rapid spread of Western thought and technology would overwhelm the indigenous cultural traditions of Asia. Some Asian leaders turned to Buddhism for the resources with which to counter Western claims to ethical, intellectual, and spiritual superiority. The Buddhism of the Gospel seemed made to order.
It is then not surprising, then, that the author-editor of the Gospel, Paul Carus, never considered himself a “Buddhist” per se, but was rather an ardent promoter of what he called the “Religion of Science.” Carus was convinced that when the “old religions” were purified of their “errors”—by which he meant their superstitious and irrational elements—they would be found to be fully consonant with scientific truth. Both science and religion move man toward one and the same goal, namely, that truth in which there is no distinction between the immaterial and the material, between subject and object. Carus believed that the discovery of this truth through the exploration of both science and religion would yield a solution to all human problems, and he used his position as editor at the Open Court Publishing Company to disseminate his views. And disseminate them he did: throughout his career he authored some 74 books and nearly 1,500 articles on a wide variety of topics, from philosophy and religion to poetry and mathematics.
Carus never attracted a wide following, and his philosophy is largely forgotten today. Yet his contribution to the acceptance of Buddhism in America was considerable: not only did he vigorously argue the Buddhist case in print, but he was a major influence on the intellectual development and career of that pioneer of Zen Buddhism in the West, D. T. Suzuki.
The son of a prominent reformed minister, Paul Carus was born in 1852 in Ilsenburg am Harz in Germany. After graduating from the University of Tübingen in 1873 he enlisted for a time in the military, and then took a teaching job in Dresden. But Carus was an unrepentant “freethinker,” whose preference for the way of science over religion led to conflicts with his superiors. In the end he felt he had no choice but to abandon his teaching job and his native country for the promise of intellectual and religious freedom in America.
Shortly after emigrating to America in 1884, Carus was brought to La Salle, Illinois, by Edward C. Hegeler, a wealthy industrialist who made his fortune processing zinc. Hegeler had just launched a new journal, The Open Court, and after reading some of Carus’s writings, he invited Carus to help with the project. Carus ended up settling in La Salle and marrying Hegeler’s daughter Mary. He assumed the editorship of The Open Court and another journal entitled The Monist and ran the Open Court Publishing Company until his death in 1919.
While Carus had a long-standing interest in Oriental thought, his wholehearted endorsement of Buddhism can be traced to the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. Carus attended the Parliament, where he befriended a number of the Buddhist delegates, and was soon convinced that Buddhism was the religious tradition closest in spirit to his own philosophy. Indeed, Carus would praise the Buddha as “the first positivist, the first humanitarian, the first radical freethinker, the first iconoclast, and the first prophet of the Religion of Science.” Carus devoted much of his energies following the Parliament to advancing the appreciation of Asian thought in general, and Buddhism in particular.
The Gospel of Buddha appeared shortly after the Parliament as volume 14 in Open Court’s “Religion of Science” series. It is actually a reworking of available French, German and English translations of Buddhist texts, although Carus did not hesitate to alter the texts when necessary in order, as he put it, to bring Buddhism “up to date.” Indeed, in addition to “modernizing” many of the passages, Carus added six original chapters of his own. Not surprisingly, The Gospel was panned by scholars at the time, but Carus took heart in the enthusiastic response it received in Asia.
One of the Japanese representatives to the World’s Parliament befriended by Carus was Japanese Zen master Shaku Soyen, abbot of Engakuji monastery in Kamakura. Carus invited Soyen to La Salle for a week following the conference, and the two of them maintained a regular correspondence following Soyen’s return to Japan. As fortune would have it, when Carus sent Soyen a copy of his Gospel, Soyen passed it on to his young lay disciple D. T. Suzuki to translate into Japanese.
What happened next is a matter of some dispute. According to Suzuki’s later recollection (dating to the 1950s), Carus wanted to publish the Tao Te Chingand asked Soyen to recommend someone to help with the translation. Soyen suggested Suzuki, thus launching Suzuki’s mission in the West. However, as Harold Henderson has shown in Catalyst for Controversy, his recent biography of Carus, the surviving correspondence between Soyen, Suzuki, and Carus is at odds with Suzuki’s version of events. According to documents now preserved in the archives of Southern Illinois University, Suzuki wrote a letter to Carus in March 1895 in which he introduced himself as the Japanese translator of the Gospel, and praised Carus for “rightly comprehend[ing] the principles of Buddhism.” Carus replied immediately, sending Suzuki complimentary copies of some of his books includingThe Religion of Science. Suzuki, then a student of Western philosophy at Tokyo University, was so impressed by Carus’s work that he had Soyen ask Carus to take him on as a student. This letter, in Suzuki’s own hand (Soyen had no facility in English), states explicitly that Suzuki was “so greatly inspired by [Carus’s] sound faith” that he was willing to do whatever was necessary to study under his guidance.
Carus immediately invited Suzuki to La Salle, and when he learned that Suzuki’s trip was in jeopardy for lack of funds, he wrote offering Suzuki remuneration for assistance at the Open Court. While this latter fact lends some credence to Suzuki’s account, there is little doubt that Suzuki’s version represents an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to re-frame the nature of his sojourn in La Salle. Suzuki, it would seem, preferred to have himself remembered as a collaborator to Paul Carus and resident authority on things Oriental at the Open Court, rather than as a young Japanese philosophy student traveling abroad to study the Religion of Science with a somewhat eccentric German-American essayist.
Suzuki went on to spend a total of eleven years in La Salle, earning room, board, and three dollars a week in exchange for odd jobs around the publishing company and the Carus household. (This included everything from translation of Chinese scriptures to cooking and chopping firewood.) Carus did encourage Suzuki to travel, and Suzuki served as assistant and translator for Soyen Roshi during the latter’s tour of America in 1905–6.
Suzuki’s tenure in La Salle had a profound impact on his later thought. His tutelage under Carus, extending over some eleven years, was in many respects as intense and as sustained as his formal Zen training in Japan. (Suzuki’s practice of Zen was cursory by traditional standards; he studied as a lay student under Soyen Roshi for some six years while enrolled in university, commuting from Tokyo to Kamakura during his spare time.) Readers today may find nothing unusual in Suzuki’s belief in the essential unity of all religions, his presentation of Zen as a tradition fully consonant with modern science, and his insistence that Zen eschews ritualism, sacerdotalism, and belief in supernatural forces. Yet all of this has little in common with classical Zen—a monastic tradition that emphasized ritual mastery and the protective powers of a host of supernatural beings. If the claim that Zen traditionally involved the ritual worship of divine beings seems odd to Western practitioners today, it is due in large part to the enduring influence of Suzuki and his intellectual heirs. And Suzuki’s Zen in turn owes a great deal to the thought of Paul Carus.
Suzuki translated the lectures for Soyen’s 1905–6 tour of America, and they were published in 1906 by Carus under the title Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot, becoming, in effect, the first English book on Zen. The following year Carus published Suzuki’s first full-length manuscript, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, written to counter a prevailing prejudice among Westerners against Mahayana. (Western sympathy for Buddhism at the turn of the century tended to be limited to the Theravada Buddhism of South East Asia.) But Suzuki and Soyen were only two of a host of Asian Buddhist teachers whose introduction to Western audiences was facilitated by Carus. Carus was particularly close to Dharmapala, who was to Theravada what Suzuki was to Zen, and Carus helped Dharmapala during all three of his extended visits to America (1896–97, 1902–5, 1913–14). The respect was reciprocal—Dharmapala was known to lecture at times directly from Carus’s Gospel of Buddha.
Carus’s slip into obscurity was hastened as world events prompted him to enunciate his political philosophy, the details of which came as a shock to many of his admirers. The First World War brought out his nationalist and racist tendencies, and he alienated many of his most faithful readers with his staunch denunciations of the English and his ennobilization of the German race. In fact, Carus’s outspoken support of Germany brought him more than simply bad press—the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) engaged in a protracted undercover investigation of Carus. In the end, the investigation revealed nothing more than the obvious fact that he held unpopular views.
Carus’s later ignominy should not detract us from appreciating his substantial contribution to Buddhism in America. He was seminal in fostering an interest in Buddhism among the educated reading public, who were attracted to his view of Buddhism as a “religion which knows of no supernatural revelation,” based “solely upon man’s knowledge of the nature of things, upon provable truth.” While contemporary scholars recognize the historical inaccuracies of such a conception (it is now referred to somewhat derisively as “Protestant Buddhism”), Carus’s image of the Buddha, so vividly expressed in his Gospel, set the groundwork for the acceptance of this “alien creed” in the West.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.