Future Religion

Making an American Buddha

Judith Snodgrass

But is it fair to be critical of it as "Buddhism" at all? Carus did not, after all, set out to write about Buddhism. As he himself tells us: "If this Gospel of Buddha helps people to comprehend Buddhism better, and if in its simple style it impresses the reader with the poetic grandeur of the Buddha's personality, these effects must be counted as incidental (my emphasis)." Like everything Carus wrote in his extraordinarily productive career, Gospel was part of his mission to hasten the formation of the religion of the future. "The present book has been written to set the reader thinking on the religious problems of today. It sketches the picture of a religious leader of the remote past with a view of making it bear on the living present and become a factor in the formation of the future." As a man of science following the evolutionary fashion of his time, he believed that progress toward this religion of the future—which he saw as neither Buddhism nor Christianity in their current forms, but a universal religion that subsumed both—would be hastened by bringing these two great protagonists into closer proximity. Comparison and competition with Buddhism in the minds of a Christian audience would force the evolution of Christianity to its inevitable and ultimate perfection. It was not, as Lopez suggests, a "Gospel for Buddhism" but The Gospel of Buddha, teaching a universal monism.

CARUS DESIGNED GOSPEL for a popular readership because such a change would have to take place within the body of the church, not just among a few intellectuals. His genius was in finding—occasionally creating—and bringing together appropriate episodes from various Asian accounts of the life of the Buddha, and stitching them together into a very readable text with immense popular appeal. His mission is evident in the beautiful illustrations by Keichu Yamada that are reproduced in this volume. They are not the scenes of any traditional telling of the life of the Buddha, but those commissioned by Carus to resonate with the more familiar events in the life of Christ: walking on water, the wedding feast, questioning the sages, receiving the courtesan, the woman at the well, cleansing a leper, bearing insult with dignity, and so on. Kopetsky's illustrations are even more strikingly Christ-like. The encouragement to thoughtful comparison is also evident in the biblical format and language of the text, and in the Table of References, which directs the reader to equivalent ideas in the Christian Gospels. The whole is far too strategically organized to be accounted for by what Verhoeven refers to as "cultural presuppositions that color even the most sincere effort of understanding." Carus knew exactly what he wanted to do and set out to achieve it. He did it brilliantly.

Carus's mission created a Buddhism imbued with modern (American) cultural values. In Verhoeven's terms, he "Americanized the Buddha." The inevitable hybrid proved extremely successful in "easing unfamiliar Buddhist conceptions into more comfortable American thought-ways," making them attractive and nonconfrontational. This, too, was part of Carus's design. As Thomas Tweed astutely observed in his book The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912, even for people seeking alternatives to orthodox Christianity at that time, there were limits to dissent. Core social values had to be preserved. What America needed, Carus realized, was not the contemplative Buddha of the East, but a robust, positive, and energetic Buddha.

Verhoeven's conclusion raises the question of the validity of republishing at this time: "Does a sympathetic distortion really succeed in bringing a wider understanding of Buddhism, or merely produce a ‘Buddhism' that many can understand?" The tendency to confuse Christianity and Buddhism persists; Buddhism continues to be "rather facilely lumped together with an indiscriminate mix of New Age fads, the occult, and vestiges of Theosophy," its techniques appropriated "to improve athletic performance, and make us better Christians, Jews, or non-believers." As Verhoeven thoughtfully observes, "We tend unwittingly to take for granted that our intellectual tradition and global pre-eminence uniquely qualifies us to give definitive statements on the Buddha's teachings." He concludes that the value of the book now is to remind us of how historical context and cultural presuppositions condition our assumptions; of "how easy it is to notice and embrace only those elements of Buddhism that seem consonant with our way of life and disregard the rest." Verhoeven also sees the Gospel as "a reminder of how far we have come in our understanding of Buddhism since 1894, and of how far we still might go."

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