Future Religion

Making an American Buddha

Judith Snodgrass

Chicago: Open Court, 2004
522 pp.; $49.95

gospel of buddhaIT 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."

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