Chinese Buddhism and the Threat of Atheism in Seventeenth-Century Europe

By Meynard, Thierry | Buddhist-Christian Studies, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Chinese Buddhism and the Threat of Atheism in Seventeenth-Century Europe


Meynard, Thierry, Buddhist-Christian Studies


When the Europeans first came to Asia, they met with the multiform presence of Buddhism. They gradually came to understand that a common religious tradition connected the different brands of Buddhism found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan, and China. I propose here to examine a presentation of Buddhism written in Guangzhou by the Italian Jesuit Prospero Intorcetta (1626-1696) around the year 1668. This text was later edited by the Flemish Jesuit Philippe Couplet (1623-1693) and published in Paris in 1687, within an encyclopedia on Chinese thought titled Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (The Chinese Philosopher Confucius, hereafter called CSP).

In the first part of this study, I shall introduce the background of the Jesuit encounter with Buddhism, first in Japan and then in China, as well as their literary production on the subject. Then, I shall examine Intorcetta's presentation of Chinese Buddhism, especially his understanding of the two faces of Buddhism: Pure Land Buddhism, which he categorized as superstition, and Chan Buddhism, categorized as atheism. These two notions of superstition and atheism seem contradictory, but in fact they are derived from Intorcetta's interpretation of the Buddhist theory of the "two truths." I shall conclude with an evaluation of Intorcetta's account. Because this early presentation of Buddhism exists only in Latin, I have inserted excerpts that I have translated.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE ENCOUNTER WITH BUDDHISM

Since the sixteenth century, missionaries have traveled to different regions of Asia and collected information about the religions they encountered, including Buddhism. They also exchanged information among themselves, asking questions of colleagues in order to confirm and complete information. The missionary reports were sent to Europe for their superiors and were sometimes published as such, but more often incorporated into larger works.

The First Encounter, from Japan to China

Among the first reports reaching Europe about Buddhism were the letters of the Spanish Jesuit Francis-Xavier (1506-1552), who drew information from Yajiro, a Japanese he met in Malacca in 1547. During his own stay of more than two years in Japan, in 1549-1551, Francis-Xavier had exchanges with monks and could progress in his understanding of Buddhism. His letters were very influential among the network of Jesuit schools in Europe, being copied and read at many venues. (1) Other missionaries in Japan, like Cosme de Torres (1510-1570), Lufs Frois (1532-1597), and Baltasar Gago (1515-1583), went further in understanding Buddhism.

Also, when, at the end of the sixteenth century, the Jesuit missionaries approached Buddhism in China, their understanding was already shaped by fifty years of knowledge gained in Japan. Just as in Japan, the China Jesuits were interested in Buddhism because it provided them with an indigenous vocabulary in which to express Christian ideas. Thus, the missionary was perceived as a kind of Buddhist monk. The symbolic identification with Buddhism went even further than in Japan, because for more than ten years in Guangdong, from 1579 to 1595, they adopted Buddhist dress and shaved their heads.

However, as the missionaries deepened their understanding of the Buddhist doctrine, they realized that many tenets could not be reconciled with Christianity. Since they were greatly concerned about disseminating the orthodox faith and avoiding dubious theories, which they believed to be the tricks of the devil, they distanced themselves from Buddhism and became closer to Confucianism, whose discourse, which focused on moral life in the present world, did not directly conflict with the supernatural truths of Christianity. While Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) had initially started interacting with Chinese culture by using Buddhism, later on Ricci abandoned this approach and started to use Confucianism as the main medium. …

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