When Buddha came to Ultima Thule by Jürgen Offermann
When Buddha came to Ultima Thule . The Initial Reception of Buddhism in Sweden during the 17th and 18th centuries.
My dear friends and colleagues
I’m a lonely man. Not only because I am a long way from home but also because my field of research, the early reception of Buddhism in the West, only attracts a few scholars to invest their time and their money in this field of research. While the growing scholarly interest in Western Buddhism during the past two decades resulted in a wealth of important writings on Asian immigrant communities and Western convert communities, socially engaged Buddhism, or interfaith dialogue, research on the historical reception of Buddhism in the West is still in its infancy.
Cursory outlines of the early encounters between Buddhism and Western culture, usually starting with the arrival of Buddhist manuscripts in Europe in the early 19th century, are primarily used as convenient prologues to more specific investigations. But the westernization of Buddhism already commenced in the sixteenth century with the first Jesuit missionary letters from China and Japan and the best-selling travel literature describing the peculiar "religion of the Fo."
These reports not only comprehended information regarding the Buddhist teachings and practices, but were in addition a mirror image of European intellectual history .
During the passing on of the into European culture it was not the subject of faith that was discussed; what really received attention and interest were the theological, philosophical , and social questions in Europe, which could be either supported or refuted by Buddhism.
But let me start my story with an another lonely and grief-stricken man Andreas Dudith, the Catholic bishop in the small Hungarian town of Pécs, was an unhappy man.
The reason for my encounter with this humanist , who was deeply embittered by political and clerical intrigues, was quite simply that he had once been the owner of the book which I read last winter in the archives of the University library of Lund.
The title of the book was Epistolae Indicae, a collection of Jesuit letters from India and Japan compiled by the Jesuit Caspar Barzaeus and published in 1563 in the German town of Dillingen.
How could this copy, one of the earliest reports about Buddhism available to Swedes in the 17th century, have travelled all the way from the Hungarian countryside to the University Library of Lund ?
My investigations led me to Cardinal Franz Graf Dietrichstein, a rich and happy man who resided in Nikolsburg, present day Czech Republic.Dietrichstein’s famous library was ransacked by Swedish troops.
The books were brought to Stockholm and included in the library of Queen Christina . Edmund Gripenhielm was head of the royal library at this time.
It was a fascinating vocation for the book-loving Gripenhielm, a job made gloomier, however, by the queen’s empty treasuries.
Instead of the salary he had been promised, Gripenhielm was allowed to share in the duplicates that gathered in the royal castle due to the Swedish plundering of European aristocratic and Jesuit libraries.
Gripenhielm was not shy and took anything he could lay his hands on, including Barzaeus’s Epistolae Indicae.
After Gripenhielm’s death, King Charles XI bought his library and donated it to Lund University in 1685, where it still exists as a reminder of the past.
As Barzaeus’s “Indian letters” visibly demonstrate, literature obtained through looting played a significant role in the initial reception of Buddhism in Sweden but it was by no means alone.
The establishment of Sweden as a major European power meant that Swedes increasingly came in contact with European ideas and cultural currents, thus allowing them to partake of the international res publica literatum.
They used their new contacts, mainly those with the Dutch , when buying foreign books.
However, German and French book agents also provided rich and learned people in Sweden with recently published literature, sent book catalogues and international newspapers filled with book reviews.
As in the rest of Europe, Jesuit reports and travel books from China and Japan were by far the most sought after.
Importation of travel books rarely caused any problems with the austere Swedish Swedish hostility towards Catholicism, on the other hand, meant that possessing and distributing Catholic literature was in principle an offence against the law.
The large number of Jesuit publications in Swedish university libraries and private book collections demonstrates, however, that these restrictions on Cat holic literature only affected ordinary people.
That Jesuit sources also provided the foundation for Swedish ideas concerning Asian religions as made clear by the first dissertations written about Chinese and Japanese religions at Swedish universities in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Even the Swedish reception of Leibniz’s and Christian Wolff’s theses on China belongs here as do the French Enlightenment writings about China and its religions as described in the works of Voltaire and Diderot , all of which relied on Jesuit
Jesuit missionaries and authors of travel books wrote their reports on Buddhism under different intellectual and practical circumstances.
The Jesuits were religious specialists who had decided to spend the rest of their life among the pagans.
They conversed with Zen Buddhists in Japanese and wrote treaties against Buddhism in Chinese . Their interest in Buddhism was based on the need to be well prepared for the heated discussions with religious rivals.
The travel books of the time, however, were mostly written by Protestant tradesmen (Dutch, German , Swedish ) who lived in foreign countries for rather short periods and who had often to rely on native interpreters (or Jesuits ) to be able to communicate with the local population.
Central to their interest was all information that might improve their business.
But even knowledge of religious commands and holidays could be essential to avoid offending any trading partners and thus to impede potential transactions.
Of course, the function of travel books was not limited to that of providing “useful” knowledge. They were also read as cultured entertainment, something that authors and publishers were well aware of. Thus, dull reports of dispassionate facts were flavoured, for example, with juicy details from the private lives of Buddhist monks.
The result was an entertaining mixture, even for modern standards, of realistic accounts, adventure stories, and scandalous writings which engendered the top-ranking best-sellers in the European book market of the 17th and 18th centuries. What missionary reports and travel books had in common was that they were written in a period when the European observer was still living in a pre-industrial society, the religious, economic and political structures of which resembled those in Asia.
The Jesuits’ and travel-writers’ reports concerning Buddhism, where the information had been collected through personal experience and dialogue, embodied both an anthropological perspective and a contemporaneousness.
The new and exotic could be identified with by drawing parallels to the author’s own culture instead of emphasizing the differences involved.
This meant, for example, that Buddhist meditation practices were compared to contemporary quietist tendencies within the Christian church (Jansenism , Miguel Molinos ) in 17th century France , while Buddha’s pirical evidence that the atheism of the “free-thinkers” would lead to social disintegration.
The contemporaneous interpretation of Buddhism differs greatly from that of the Indologist’s interest in the early history of Buddhism and their philosophical and theological interpretation in the 19th century.
This focusing on and, to some extent, admiration of the earliest history of Buddhism Buddhism as a degenerate, pagan religion practiced by economically and morally backward nations. But what was the picture of Buddhism for the Swedish intelligentsia when they were glancing through their newly acquired books from Holland or the booty taken from some “papist” library? There were a number of terms for designating Buddhism. Frequent expressions were Fo’s sect, Shakya’s sect or common in Sweden Budsdo. Neither Jesuits , nor travel writers had major difficulties in distinguishing between Buddhism and other religions like Taoism. They were well aware that various Buddhist schools existed with different doctrines such as “Jenxii” (Zen Buddhism ), Foquerus (Nichiren-Buddhism ) or “Omitose” (Amida-Buddhism ). The various Buddhist schools were described by the Jesuits as a Babylon of doctrines so complex that even the Buddhists themselves lacked a general view.
This, of course, also served as a description of the post-reformatory situation in Europe, where, according to the Jesuits, Protestants were on the verge of splitting the Christian church .
My Swedish sources, however, do not express any similar concern. Instead, authors like Carl Peter Thunberg frequently emphasize the level of tolerance that exists between different Buddhist schools.
There is no mission, everybody is free to choose between different Buddhist doctrines and people associate in a respectful manner.
The fact that Swedish sources praise the broadmindedness of the Buddhists should be considered in light of Sweden’s involvement in the religious conflicts of 17th century Europe.
One of the official reasons for Sweden’s interference in the Thirty Years’ War was to defend the religious freedom of the German Protestants against the political pretensions and religious intolerance of the papists.
The life-history of Buddha was known in rough outline. It was believed that he was born in 1027 B.C.—a dating based on Chinese calendars —somewhere in India and that he died eighty years later.
His religion had arrived in China in 64 A.D., then spread across Chonchin-China (modern-day Vietnam ) and Korea , finally to reach Japan about 500 A.D. Even if most people were to agree on the facts mentioned above, there were different opinions as to how this foreign religion would fit into the Christian explanatory scheme for the rise of paganism.
Jesuits wavered between considering Buddhism a well-planned ploy by the devil himself to tempt people and understanding it as a degenerated form of the Christian faith assumedly spread in India by the apostle Thomas.
It became an influential idea that the origins of Buddhism could be found in Egyptian and Greek paganism , a notion introduced to a wider audience at the end of the 17th century by the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher and which was still discussed by Swedish sources in the 18th century. Greek gods were turned into Buddhist idols and Egyptian pyramids into Buddhist pagodas .
Catholic and Protestant observers agreed that Buddhist rituals bear witness to idolatry and religious fanaticism . How the reports on the religious life of the Buddhists were interpreted from a Protestant point of view became vitally important for the reception of Buddhism in Sweden .
In Jesuit opinion, Buddhist rituals were an expression of idolatry dependent on deficient reason and the ignorance of the believers concerning true Christian faith However, the reports on Buddhist religious practices provided the Swedish commentators with an excellent opportunity to draw a parallel between Catholicism and Buddhism.
The descriptive accounts range from such simple statements that the principal of a Zen Buddhist monastery plays the same role as a Catholic bishop and serious discussions concerning the function of their rituals to verbal insults.
Swedish sources leave no stones unturned to draw a parallel between “Asian Catholics” and “European Catholics”.
It becomes a comparative issue where Buddhism i s placed in a more favourable light than Catholicism .
Thus, in both cases, countless religious objects are worshipped, but Buddhists at least do not worship a god made of bread. Both religions embrace the commandment of not to kill, but while Buddhists do not even kill animals, the history of Catholicism is fraught with massacres and crusades.
Such fundamental Buddhist doctrines, as the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path are, as far as I know, never mentioned in the missionary reports or travel books of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Furthermore, such terms as karma and nirvana are never used even though the underlying ideas were known.
All my sources, on the other hand, focus their interest on “reincarnation” and the Buddhist shunyata Buddhism. It is in this context that Western observers discuss whether Buddhists believe in some kind of god or are rather atheists. Western writers considered reincarnation mainly a one-way road where human souls are transmitted into animal bodies. Some believed that the human personality might influence reincarnation ; despots turn into tigers and gluttons turn into pigs.
Furthermore, ascetic practices or alms might serve as a guarantee for a more favourable reincarnation, an idea that reminded Swedish commentators of the papist practice of selling indulgences , while the Jesuits especially criticized the followers of Amida-Buddhism who could simply rely on the mercifulness of the god Amida to be absolved of all their sins.
The allusion to Luther ’s “sola fide ” was obvious. The most thorough discussion of the inner doctrine of Buddhism is provided by the Jesuit J. B. Du Haldes ’s comprehensive work The History of China from 1736 that was available in a number of editions in Swedish libraries. According to Du Halde Fo disgorged all the Poison of Atheism by proclaiming that there is only one principle called Emptiness.
Its essence is that it is empty of comprehensiveness, deeds and desires. To understand this principle and the emptiness of all things, one has to meditate . “In order to live happy we must continually strive by Meditation to become like this Principle. We must accustom ourselves to do nothing, to be sensible of nothing and to think of nothing; the nearer one approaches to the nature of a Stone the more perfect he is.”
For Du Halde meditation led to quietism, a doctrine that was strongly criticized by the Jesuits. In the European context, the Jesuits associated quietism with confessional quietists like Madame Guyon , Catholic Jansenists or Calvinists.
As a spokesman for his personal indignation, Du Halde quotes Confucian literati who are strongly critical of the inner doctrine of Buddhism.
They fight against the inner Buddhists “/…/ with all their Might, proving that this Apathy and Stupidity overturned all Morality and civil Society, it would reduce all the Members of a State to a Condition much inferior to that of Beasts”. Du Halde’s criticism concentrates on the anti-social consequences of Buddhism.
The atheist and quietist doctrine of the Buddhists constituted a threat to the social order.
Here, Du Halde alludes to the intensely discussed issue during the Enlightenment whether a state with a moral set of values was possible. Du Halde rejects this thesis which had been a general topic since Pierre Bayle’s Pensées diverses. Those arguments that Du Halde directs against these atheists clearly demonstrate that he was cognisant of the current philosophical and religious discourse in Europe.
Around 1730, the time when his History of China was written, he could no longer accuse the atheists of sodomy or of being the Devil’s emissaries.
If he wished to be taken seriously, Du Halde must express his criticism by means of current issues.
The spirit of Enlightenment that was travelling across Europe was open to the social implications of religion which is attested by the Western enthusiasm for Confucianist
In Sweden , there was no major difficulty to identify with the criticism of Buddhist atheism as presented by the Jesuit Du Halde. Swedish discourse concerning atheism was handled by theologians and philosophers , who, since influenced by Wolffian philosophy and Lutheran orthodoxy , condemned the more radical ideas of the European Enlightenment and most of all any attempts to justify atheism as an alternative to true Christian faith. Du Halde’s atheism , as far as Sweden was concerned, was like preaching to the already converted.
The aim of my talk has been to provide an overview of the initial reception of Buddhism i n Sweden from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
I have also wished to call in question the generally accepted idea among modern researches within the field of religious studies that the Western reception of Buddhism did not begin until the 19th century with the first translations of Buddhist manuscripts at European universities.
As my analysis of the initial reception of Buddhism in Sweden shows, there was already in the 17th century a wealth of information about Buddhism that via missionary reports and travel books even had reached the periphery of Europe.
The Westernization of Buddhism , therefore, was by no means a phenomenon of the 19th and 20th centuries but started already in the 16th century with the first missionary letters and travel books from Japan and China reporting about the strange "religion of the Fo."
He must have become even happier when he had the opportunity around 1609 to buy Dudith’s entire book collection. In 1645, book censorship.
The sources. religious doctrine served, in the 18th century, as em was paralleled by a condemnation of contemporary The first doctrine which in the 17th and 18th centuries was called the “inner doctrine” of social policy.