Reading through works on Buddhism by 19th century Unitarians and their liberal religious kin is a humbling exercise. Their hermeneutical tunnel vision is at times painful to behold, particularly because it raises obvious doubts about our own understandings. The only consolation can be that in the modern academy we at least attempt a form of self consciousness and positioning. In comparison these pioneers of the American encounter with Buddhism didn’t merely wear tinted interpretive lenses–frankly, they often seem to have donned glasses made of lead.
The artist who originally crafted these glasses was Luther. Most 19th century essays and books by Unitarians that deal with Buddhism begin with fully formed a priori assumptions that are quintessentially Protestant in nature. The most obvious is that the Buddhism of the Buddha is the true Buddhism, the only authentic expression of the Buddhist impulse. Later developments in Buddhism are treated as degradations, whatever they may be. American Protestants of the 19th century were obsessed with the idea of returning to primitive Christianity, so it is little surprise that they likewise prefer what they imagine as primitive Buddhism.
Another prominent feature of these early writers is that they sought this primitive Buddhism exclusively via texts–the older the better–which conveniently can be appropriated and employed by Western scholars and critics. Again, there should be no surprises here–the Bible was the center of all Protestant religion, even the Unitarianism of the time. The result, of course, was that virtually nowhere in the Unitarian “encounter” with Buddhism were actual living Buddhists consulted. Buddhism was first constructed from Western readings of ancient manuscripts, and then interrogated using Protestant categories and concerns.
A third central feature of such essays that derives from Protestant, especially Unitarian, assumptions is their near universal respect for Buddha the man. Even the most vehement opponent concedes a certain grudging admiration for the reconstructed historical Buddha. But regardless of the level of appreciation shown, it all flows from a single source: esteem for the Buddha’s morality. The cosmology and complex of praxis that supports and flows from this morality is largely dismissed, but Buddha himself is spoken of almost as a little brother to Christ: pure, chaste, self-abnegating, kind, pacific. It’s just too bad he was such a pessimist, you can hear these writers saying, since it resulted in a soul-crushing nihilistic dream of escapist self-obliteration.
Buddhism for 19th century Unitarians and similar liberal Protestants really only came into focus when it was assimilated to previously understood phenomena. Of course the prevailing question was whether or not Buddhism is or is not like Christianity. But the most interesting thing to observe is when and how Buddhism is similar to what type of Christianity. When looking at Buddhist praxis, these commentators were quick to point out the parallels to Roman Catholicism, usually to Buddhism’s detriment. But when looking at philosophy or morality, Buddhism suddenly appears to them as a species of Protestantism, and their regard increases. However, even when Buddhism is being treated relatively sympathetically, there is a common anxiety about the number of Buddhist adherents in the modern world. Unscientific estimates range wildly in the texts–400 million seems to be a particular favorite–but all guesses include a certain alarm that a religion at once so familiar and yet so alien has captured such a large portion of the planet, and may even be poised to pounce upon America.
On a final note, there is the interesting question of Buddhist-related language that has now passed out of the American discourse on Buddhism. How different would our understanding of Buddhism be today if the once popular term “enfranchisement” had won out over “enlightenment,” or “sublime” had continued in the place of the four “noble” truths? Observing early alternative language for common Buddhist concepts partially reveals the value-laden and historically-situated nature of the very words we ourselves use today, even in academic discussions of Buddhism.