The West’s Skewed Vision of Buddhism

In 1893, Japanese delegates presented Buddhism to the West at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.[1] They presented what they viewed to be the superior branch of Buddhism, a type that would attract the West since it shared similarities with Western philosophy. Existing Buddhist scholarship written in the West contained orientalist visions of what Buddhism was that often compared it to Christianity. These pre-conceived notions of Buddhism stemmed from a few factors – arguably, it was mostly due to Western scholars looking at Buddhism through a Christian lens. Judith Snodgrass explains that ‘Buddhism was informed by Christian presuppositions from the time of the pioneering work of missionaries who described Asian religious practice by seeking answers to questions formed within their own belief systems’.[2] This can be seen even with the term ‘Buddhism’ itself, a name that implies a similar dependence to Buddha that Christianity has to Christ. Overall, the West’s vision of Buddhism was a double-edged sword as it meant Buddhism was accepted more, but a lot of the true meaning of Buddhism was lost.

Problems with translation were at the root of the West’s skewed vision of Buddhism. When faced with Buddhist teachings and customs that they were unaccustomed to, Christian scholars tended to look to their own religion to find suitable comparisons. This can be seen with the term “nirvana”; this Buddhist ideology was so outside the realm of Christian understanding that there was great difficulty relaying it to a Western audience.[3] In the end it was likened to Heaven, but this lost the true essence of what nirvana was. Heaven is a place of the highest holiest order that one reaches after death, whereas nirvana is a state of being, a complete liberation of oneself. Overall translating Buddhism into English was an impossible task, one that was likened to, ‘attempting to scratch one’s foot with one’s shoe on’.[4] It led to the lines being blurred between Christianity and Buddhism, by equating the Buddha to God, for example. The distinct features of each religion were lost but due to the predominance of Christianity in the West, it was Buddhism that was at the disadvantage, losing its own identity and becoming an ‘other’ Christianity.

As mentioned, the figure of Buddha was widely debated by Western scholars during the nineteenth century, a debate that led to unjust comparisons to Christianity’s version of God and Christ. The French philosopher J. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire spoke of the Buddha with the highest praise, placing him only second to Christ.[5] A big problem Christian scholars had with the figure of Buddha was his lack of divine intervention. Viewing the Buddha as a simple human meant to teach and guide people and not as a divine figure caused Buddhism to be viewed as atheistic. This also led to other charges against Buddhism – Christian missionary Robert Spence Hardy viewed Buddhism as idolatrous as he saw the Buddha as a ‘uninspired mortal’ whose teaching was ‘not divinely inspired but was formed by a man or men’.[6] Not only was this dismissive of Buddhist belief and teachings, but by branding it atheistic and idolatrous, Western Christian intervention in the way of missionary work and political action was then warranted in their eyes.

In the end, Japanese delegates used this Western misinterpretation of Buddhism to their advantage to boost their own version of Japanese Buddhism that claimed to speak for all of Buddhism. Buddhism was interpreted to be beneath, on the same level, or even above Christianity depending on who was writing on the topic, but the delegates chose to focus on pre-existing admiration of Buddhism. Buddhism shared a lot of the same morals with Christianity such as ‘sincerity, purity, meekness and truth’ and the lives of the Buddha and Christ also shared similarities.[7] However, the Japanese delegates wished to elevate Japan above the West and gain prestige beyond that of being viewed as equal, so they also focused on what their Buddhism had that Christianity lacked, though this was something Christian scholars had already picked up on and were writing about. T.W. Rhys David believed that Buddhism was more optimistic than Christianity, as it offered salvation for its followers in this world instead of just in Heaven.[8] So in this way, the West’s orientalist interpretation of Buddhism could be seen as a positive. By highlighting where Buddhism prospered while Christianity lacked, the delegates were able to present what they viewed as ‘Japan’s gift to the world’.[9]

[1] Judith Snodgrass, Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p.1

[2] Ibid. p.4

[3] Ibid. p.93

[4] Ibid. p.93

[5] Ibid. p.103

[6] Ibid. p.98

[7] Ibid. p.105

[8] Ibid. p.109

[9] Ibid. p.181