The West Discovers Buddhism

The West Discovers Buddhism

  • The beginnings of the Western encounter with Buddhism.

Historical Interactions between the West and Buddhism

lIn this lecture, we will cover four loci of early encounters between Buddhism and Western Civilization.  These are:

–Early Greek exposure to Buddhism

–Catholic and Protestant Missionary reactions

–Western Colonialism

–The first generation of Western scholars to study Indian religious texts

Greek Adventures in the East

lMuch of the earliest evidence we have about the history the West and Buddhism comes from the accounts of the conquest of Alexander the Great into India.

lAristotle, his teacher, was with him and scholars speculate about dialogue between him and Buddhist thinkers.

Greek Kingdoms in India

  • Although Buddhism has become a growing religious presence in the US in the last fifty years, contact with Buddhism goes back much further.
  • Alexander’s conquests led the creation of a number of Greek kingdoms, most notable is Bactria which influenced the development of Buddhist art.
  • Many of these Greeks also converted to Buddhism.

Early Greek Histories

  • Greek rule of India was ended with the conquest of Chandragupta, the grandfather of Asoka, who defeated Seleukus Nikator in 305 B.C.
  • The Greeks maintained diplomatic and trade relations with Chandragupta’s court, and sent Megathanes

–He wrote a piece called History of India in which he mentions Buddhist monks, Brahmins and Jains.

Buddhist ideas less foreign to the West than one might think

  • Although the concepts of rebirth or reincarnation smack as distinctly Eastern, a number of Greek philosophers endorsed reincarnation, meditation and total freedom.



  • There is also some indication in the Pre-Christian religions of Europe may have held the notion of the reincarnation.
  • This is recorded in Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul.

Buddhist Missionaries Westward

  • It is known from his pillar inscriptions that Asoka sent Buddhist monks to Greece as ambassadors and missionaries, although there is no record of their reception in Greek histories.
  • It appears that Buddhist missionary efforts made it as far as what today is Afghanistan.
  • Although these are in danger of annhilation, as the factions of the Muslim population regard them as idols.

Christian Missionary encounters

  • Western contact with Buddhism will grow silent until the advent of Western colonialism.
  • Along with traders and explorers, Catholic and Protestant missionaries sent into convert location populations.
  • Their writings represent a second chapter in the Western encounter with Buddhism.

The Portuguese in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

  • The Portuguese were the first Westerns to visit Sri Lanka.

–They were commanded to convert by preaching first, but failing that, to do so by the sword.

  • The Portuguese slaughtered men and women, feeding me to alligators, and impaling women and children on their pikes.
  • They also were commanded to destroy Buddhist images and writings.

The Dutch to the rescue, kinda.

  • One monarch in Sri Lanka, the King of Kandy, a province on the island, allied with the Dutch in an effort to oust the Portuguese.
  • This was successful but the Dutch then forced the Sri Lankan people to convert to the Dutch Reform Church.
  • Something of a half-victory.

Jesuit Missionaries in Japan

  • Christianity was introduced by the Spanish missionary, Francis Xavier.

–He was a member of the Jesuits, the Society of Jesus, founded in part as a counter-reformation movement within the Catholic church.

–This order was (and remains to a degree) responsible for spreading the Catholic faith.

–The Jesuits are a particular academic order, and education is one of their primary concerns.

First studies in Buddhism

  • The first works to reach the West about Buddhism were the records of missionaries as they studied Buddhism with an eye to converting Buddhist populations.
  • Generally, they are faithful accounts of the beliefs and practices of various Buddhist cultures, though filtered through a less-than-friendly theological eye.

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