The Western World And Buddhism

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Today Buddhism has a firm presence in England, France, Germany and the United States. With time these roots of the religion of Buddha will only go deeper. Surprisingly, it was the effort of western scholars and not Buddhist missionaries that brought Buddhism to the West.

Buddhism came to the West in the early 19th Century when scholars from Europe studied Buddhism as a part of the Indian culture and thought and oriental studies. Subjects of study then were Sanskrit, Tibetan, Pali and Chinese. Quite some Buddhist texts were translated raising interest in Buddhism. Some of the scholars of these texts soon accepted Buddha’s message and became Buddhists themselves. There were two kinds of scholars then, one who wrote on Buddhism and studies it through inspiration and the others who did for purely academic reasons. A number of Westerners converted into Buddhism after reading writings by these scholars. This was when Asian Buddhism was stagnating or was suffering in the hands of colonial and suppressing rules. Since there was no missionary activity on part of the Buddhists, these books filled in the space.

Buddhist Works by English Scholars

England made the greatest contribution to the spread of Buddhism. In 1837, George Turner published the book ‘The Pali text of the Mahavasma ( The great chronicle of Ceylon)’ together with its translation. From 1821 to 41, B.H. Hodgson had collected Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts from Nepal and brought them to European and Indian libraries. In 1864, two more British civil servants came to Ceylon and became prominent Buddhist and Pali scholars. One was Robert C. Childers who contributed majorly to Pali with his Dictionaries of the Pali language that were published from 1872 to 1875. The other was the most prominent contributor to the study of Buddhist and Pali studies â Professor T.W. Rhys Davids. He was the founder of the Pali Text society that began in 1881. His Pali-English dictionary that he started in 1916 is the most consulted. This was completed in 1925 by his assistant Dr. W. Stede. Professor Davids had also written, translated and edited voluminous Buddhist works. After his death, his co-worker and wife, Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys Davids conducted the activities of the Pali Text Society and added to her husband’s genius works. The work of the society was then continued by the third president Miss I.B.Homer till she dies in 1981. Eminent Buddhist and Pali scholars from varied nationalities have assisted the society in publishing the Pali texts of all works in the Tripitaka in Roman characters and many of the post canonical works. Quite some English translations have been published as well. The spread of Theravada Buddhism in the Western World and the onset of international Buddhist studies has been largely due to the Pali text society.

Max Muller was another famous English philologist, born in Germany ( 1823 â 1900) who is the father of Indian studies in the West. His editions, translations made unsurpassed contributions to the progress of Buddhist and Pali studies. The 50 volume series of the Sacred Books of East by Muller encouraged professor Davids to start the Sacred Books of the Buddhists that still continues.

Sir Edwin Arnold was another Englishman who popularized Buddhism. The Light of Asia published in 1879 was his epic poem that increased Western interest in Buddhism. It made such converts as Charles Henry Allen Bennet who at 18 went to Burma to study Buddhism and receive his ordination. He devoted his life to Buddhism and as a monk was called Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya, he led the first Buddhist mission in 1908 to England. With this Francis Payne and family converted to Buddhism. In the early 20th century, the Buddhist society of Great Britain and Ireland was formed on 26th November, 1907 functioning till 1923. In 1924, it gave way to the present day Buddhist Society that was founded by Mr. Christmas Humphreys. Two new Buddhist viharas also help in the cause of Buddhism in present day England.


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