Through Eastern Eyes

The dharma comes to America

Stephen Prothero

Presenting Japanese Buddhism To
The West: Orientalism, Occidentalism,
And the Columbian Exposition

Judith Snodgrass
Chapel Hill and London: University of
North Carolina Press,
2003 352 pp.; $21.50 (paper)

The World’s Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, is widely acknowledged as a turning point in American religious history. The event, which gathered Buddhists and Christians, Taoists and Muslims from around the world, was largely forgotten until new forms of Asian religions began to bloom in the spiritual hothouse of the 1960s. Today, the World’s Parliament stands as a linchpin in the new narrative of America’s march from the Protestantism of the Founding Fathers to a pluralism that adopted Buddhist monks into the spiritual family.

In Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition, Judith Snodgrass follows Richard Seager, whose World’s Parliament of Religions (1995) remains the definitive interpretation of the event. Focusing on the contest between the Christian organizers and the Asian delegates, she argues that Japan’s Buddhist representatives used the occasion to promote their own political and cultural agendas. However, Snodgrass—a senior lecturer in Japanese history at the University of Western Sydney in Australia—looks at the proceedings from the Japanese point of view, examining not only what the six Japanese Buddhist delegates (four priests and two “politically active” laymen) said and did but also what they were trying to accomplish and how successful they were. For the Japanese, chafing under a series of “unequal treaties” with the West, the chance to display the “superiority” of Buddhism was a step toward redressing the imbalance. The World’s Parliament, the author asserts, was “one in a series of events in the revitalization of Buddhism” in Japan.

Snodgrass draws a parallel between the “Orientalism” of the Western delegates, who tended to critique the East in light of Protestant norms, and the “Occidentalism” of the Japanese delegates, who used Buddhist principles to criticize Western civilization. Just as John Henry Barrows, the Presbyterian organizer of the parliament, appropriated Buddhist symbols for Christian purposes, Shaku Soen and his Japanese colleagues drew on Western authorities to legitimate their view of “Eastern Buddhism” (so named to distinguish it from the “Northern” Buddhism” of the Himalayas and the “Southern” Theravada tradition) as a new religious form that, although rooted in Japan’s past, was sufficiently philosophical and scientific to serve as a “universal” religion for the modern era.

For all her attempts to correct the pro-Western bias of most accounts of the proceedings, Snodgrass still imputes too much power to the Christians and too little agency to the Japanese. In design, the parliament was “essentially an American Christian event,” as she points out. But it is not true that the Christians “controlled the discourse” or that the Japanese labored under “the confines of Christian domination.” And although Barrows’s edition of the Parliament speeches was selective, to be sure, he did not, as Snodgrass claims, have “the final say in defining what was said of Buddhism at the Parliament.” The World’s Parliament reverberated across the globe, and subsequent decades, via at least four other collections of speeches, as well as newspaper articles, conversations, and—perhaps most importantly—the books and lectures of Shaku Soen and his successors, including D. T. Suzuki.

For many readers, however, the real virtue of Snodgrass’s carefully researched book will be the light it shines on Buddhism in America today. Americans discovered Buddhism through the Transcendentalists in the 1840s, and for more than a century thereafter, “real” Buddhism was associated with the Theravada tradition—with Pali rather than Sanskrit sutras, with Ceylon rather than Japan, with arhats rather than bodhisattvas. The Protestant establishment, fiercely anti-Catholic, hailed Shakyamuni as a Luther-like reformer and dismissed Japanese Buddhism as an all-too-Catholic degradation of what Theosophist Henry Olcott, the great Buddhist champion who toured Japan in 1889, called “pure, primitive Buddhism.” It has always been something of a puzzle to observers of dharma in America how all this turned around, so that by the 1950s, Zen came to represent the epitome of Buddhist philosophy to Americans, with zazen its sine qua non.

Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West thus provides an intriguing back story not only for the World’s Parliament of Religions but also for contemporary Buddhism, revealing how factors like an obscure nineteenth-century treaty dispute between the United States and Japan affected Buddhist practice today.

Stephen Prothero is chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University. His books include The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott and, most recently, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon.

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