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.
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.