At the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions

The 1893 Parliament included a number of Buddhist delegates, among them Zen MasterBecause the Chan (Zen) tradition eschews traditional Buddhist textual, institutional, and ethical guides for the attainment of Buddhahood, the master has a critically important role in directing his or her students along the right path. The Japanese Zen t... Soyen ShakuSoyen Shaku (1859-1919) was the first Rinzai Zen teacher to come to the United States. He initially came in 1893 in order to participate in the World Parliament of Religions. Soyen returned to America 12 years later for a nine month stay, during which tim..., the Japanese layman Hirai Kinzo, and the Sri Lankan Buddhist reformer Anagarika DharmapalaAnagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) is best known for the important role he played in restoring Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, which had badly deteriorated after centuries of neglect. In order to raise funds for this project, Dharmapala.... The Parliament was organized by a wide spectrum of ProtestantProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists... and Unitariana belief in one God that rejects the three persons of the Trinity that has much in common with the belief in the early Christian church about the superiority of God over Jesus and the Anti-Trinitarian writing that emerged during the Protestant Reformation... leaders, many of whom sought to demonstrate that the world’s religions affirmed the unity of humankind and that ChristianityChristianity is the religious tradition of Christians: those who confesses faith in Jesus Christ, follow the path Christ taught, and gather together in the community of the church., ultimately, had the unique capacity to embrace this unity.

The Buddhists present were eager not only to participate, but to challenge the Western Christian tradition in a debate over what the true characteristics of a “world religion” might be. For example, Soyen Shaku’sSoyen Shaku (1859-1919) was the first Rinzai Zen teacher to come to the United States. He initially came in 1893 in order to participate in the World Parliament of Religions. Soyen returned to America 12 years later for a nine month stay, during which tim... major speech sharply contrasted Buddhist notions of karmaKarma means action and the consequences of action, both in the world and for oneself. It is important in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions where rebirth is presupposed and karma shapes one’s ongoing life. Every action leaves an imprint. In the Ja... as the principle of causation with Christian notions of GodGod is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality. as “prime mover.” With arguments he purposely constructed to appear “rational” and “nontheistic” to his Western audience, he suggested that Buddhist principles of karma were completely compatible with modern science. Although Shaku himself insisted that he did not intend to antagonize Christians with his speech, both its content and style challenged many Christians’ ideas about what constitutes “religion.”

Dharmapala also challenged the organizers’ understanding of Christianity as the great “universal religion” by pointing to the “universal” teachings of the BuddhaBuddha means “awakened one” and specifically refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama (traditional date, sixth c. BCE), the historical founder of the tradition that became known as Buddhism. All Buddhist traditions agree that ther..., who taught long before the time of Christ. He emphasized the Buddhist ideals of tolerance and gentleness as crucial for the world’s religions in modern times. Many in the audience were apparently very impressed with Dharmapala. Several days after the Parliament, at a meeting of the Theosophical SocietyColonel Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky were the founders of the Theosophical Society, a group with interests ranging from the mysteries of ancient Egypt and Greece to Eastern religions. In 1878 Olcott and Blavatsky went to India and Sri ... of Chicago, he presided over the initiation of the first person to become a Buddhist on American soil, Charles T. Strauss, a New York businessman.

Finally, the Parliament elicited some sharp criticism from Japanese Buddhists such as Hirai Kinzo, who pointed explicitly to the anti-Japanese feeling in America. He deplored the signs he had encountered in California that read “No Japanese is allowed to enter here” and said, “If such be the Christian ethics—well, we are perfectly satisfied to be heathen.” The Japanese were not so concerned with whether someone is called a Buddhist, a Shintōist, or a Christian. Instead, Kinzo explained, it was “the consistency of doctrine and conduct is the point on which we put the greatest importance.”

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