The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology by Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa (eds.)
Mircea Eliade was born in Bucharest in 1907 and began teaching in the field the history of religions in 1946 at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was a member of the University of Chicago faculty from 1957 until his death in 1986. His many books include: Cosmos and History (1959), The Sacred and the Profane (1959), Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (1960), Images and Symbols (1969), and Myths and Reality (1963). Published by University of Chicago Press, 1959. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
On Understanding Non-Christian Religions by Ernst Benz
Joachim Wach was concerned with the historical and systematic study of the world’s religions. The goal of his research was always the interpretation of religions, especially the non-Christian high-religions of Asia in their ethical and social, their liturgical and aesthetic, as well as their theological forms of expression. In one of his last articles, "General Revelation and the Religions of the World," (Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. XXII, No. 2 [April, 1954]) he was still aiming to contribute to a better and more positive interpretation of religions on the basis of a new conception of "general revelation," and to press toward a profoundly theological understanding of the inner structure of the history of religions. He thus tended to reject what he felt was the "arrogance" of some Protestant dogmaticians in their judgment of the non-Christian high-religions as forms of a "human self-enfolding."
During the annual Eranos meetings in Ascona in the years 1951 to 1955, Joachim Wach often told me about the deep impression that the contact with the living forms of religious expression in modern Islam and Hinduism had made on him during his travels in Morocco and India. He emphasized repeatedly the enormous value of this kind of personal contact with the contemporary religious forms for the student of religion who ordinarily studies these forms only from literary documents belonging largely to the historical origins or early classical epochs of those religions. In these conversations about the understanding of foreign religions we talked again and again about the difficulties confronting a Christian and a European in attempting to understand the non-Christian high-religions of Asia.
I was invited to be a guest professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto. At that time I had the opportunity to travel through the countries of the Middle East and the Far East, and I often remembered these talks during those years, as I came to learn about the many forms of religious expression in the Asiatic countries.
I felt I was well prepared for my experience in Asia. I had worked out lectures in English for the extensive teaching activity awaiting me en route. I was to lecture at universities in India, Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, and at my host university in Japan, as well as at numerous other Christian, state-supported, and Buddhist universities. For this task, I tried to orient myself inwardly for the intellectual and religious conditions under which I had to teach. I also acquainted myself with the professional literature of the science of religion concerning, especially, contemporary Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism.
"Understanding" had not been a real problem to me during this time of preparation. From my ecumenical studies and works, I knew the various intellectual, liturgical, constitutional, and social forms of expression adopted by Christianity in the various churches and sects in the past and the present. I had studied with the Eastern Orthodox church for some decades, and visited its monasteries on Mount Athos, in Constantinople, in the Balkans, and in Russia from Kiev up to the Valamo Monastery at Lake Ladoga. For months I had lived in Orthodox surroundings. After these experiences I was confident that I would also find an inner access to the forms of religious life in Hinduism or Buddhism. Besides, my encounter with the Asiatic religions occurred under particularly friendly circumstances. I was guest at numerous Hindu and Buddhist centers and lived there in the community of teachers and students. For years before my arrival I had colleagues and friends in India and Japan with whom I had been in correspondence. Accompanied by my friends, I visited the sanctuaries and participated in the worship services and ceremonies of the various religions. With their sympathetic view and their knowledge, they graciously explained to me the religious symbols of the temple and the forms of religious expression in the ceremonies. Discussions often followed my speeches or visits to the temples, and here I had an opportunity to ask many questions about these matters. While in Japan a serious illness forced me to a long stay in a hospital. This unfortunate experience, however, served to deepen my relationships with my colleagues and friends. After my release from the hospital, I was moved to find them even more willing to introduce me to the manifold and somewhat esoteric life of the various religions which existed side by side on Japanese soil. With all this experience, I thought I was in a favorable position to proceed with my work.
The problem of understanding, however, assailed me like an enemy. I had never anticipated how difficult the task of translation, for example, would be. While translating my own lectures into English, I realized how hard it is to reproduce in English theological concepts and religious experiences originally expressed in German. In translating my lecture on the history of Christian mysticism, I found it difficult to express in suitable English the experiences and thoughts of a Meister Eckhart or a Jacob Boehme. And how can one possibly express in English the meaning of the German Geist? All the terms available -- spirit, ghost, mind, reason, reasonableness -- prove to be inadequate. They imply at the most one single element of the complex German term Geist. More difficult still proved to be the attempt to translate ontological terms. In trying to give the different meanings of sein, Wesen, Wesenheit, Wesenhaftkeit, Substanz, Essenz, not to speak of translating terms like Nichts, Nichtsein, Nichtigkeit, and Ungrund, I met repeatedly with the adamant resistance of the English language. In the process of translating I found that the very structure of language itself seems to impede understanding.
But this difficulty of translation of one European language into another is a simple matter compared to the attempt to translate a European language into an Asiatic one. Since I myself didn’t know any of the Eastern languages fluently, I was protected by my friends and hosts against some gross misunderstandings, for I always had the best interpreters at my disposal. I would always pass on to my interpreters the English version of my lectures so that they had the opportunity of becoming familiar with my material and preparing an adequate translation. Nevertheless, I repeatedly felt like the Rider on Lake Constance when I had read my English text and then listened to the interpreter delivering it in Singhalese, Burmese, Siamese, or Japanese. I had not the slightest possibility of controlling what he was telling my audience. Till the last day of my stay in Asia I never felt quite happy about this. In Japan, however, most of the interpreters were my friends, and I had the fullest confidence in them.
Some American colleagues, who had already experienced these difficulties, recommended a kind of test method. One such test was to insert a joke in the lecture occasionally. If the audience laughs when the joke is translated, the speaker may assume that the interpreter is doing his job faithfully. But even this rather crude method yields no certain proof among Asian peoples. Sometimes the audience smiles or laughs at points in the translation where in the original manuscript there is not the faintest cause for humor. Such experiences make a speaker feel so uncertain and so helpless that even the best "joke test" fails to reassure him. I have also had the opposite experience of telling an excellent joke which in the Japanese translation left the audience completely untouched. It was not noticed at all because the translator had not noticed it. Such experiences are apt to give the speaker an acute anxiety complex, to the extent that he completely doubts his ability to make himself understood.
One experience of this kind was impressed on me very deeply and painfully. I had been asked by the university of a non-Christian religious community, especially interested in the history of Christian missions, to give a lecture on the origin of Protestant missions in German Pietism and English Puritanism of the eighteenth century. In analyzing the foundations of this newly awakened missionary activity, I spoke on the idea of the Holy Spirit which had inspired the Puritan zeal for missions. I dealt especially with the concept of the new pouring out of the Holy Spirit as found in the theology of missions of Cotton Mather and other Boston Puritans. An interpreter was assigned to me, a young teacher who had just returned from two years study in America. He was considered an expert in English by his colleagues. I had a large audience and it was listening with the closest attention. During my lecture a friend placed a note on the lectern which read: "Your interpreter is not a Christian; he does not know the Japanese word for ‘Holy Spirit.’ Please pass on to him this paper on which I have written the right Japanese term for it." There followed some Japanese characters. When I passed the paper on to him, he read it, nodded, and continued to translate, evidently using the new phrase. I never dared inquire what he actually made of the Holy Spirit in the course of my long treatment of it before the correction was made. The audience, at any rate showed no sign of a reaction. They listened to the conclusion of my lecture with the same silent attention as they had to the long first part. The introduction of the right word for "Holy Spirit" seemed to make no appreciable difference to them. This experience caused a kind of epistemological "seasickness" in me, and I had doubts even about Wach’s theory of understanding. How many key terms in my lectures had been unknown to previous interpreters? How might they have improvised upon my carefully prepared lectures? May God pardon me and my translators!
In this connection I might mention that shortly after this I either completely revised my prepared lectures or threw them into the wastebasket, because I slowly began to sense how they might be received by my Asiatic audience. Theological education in Japan is patterned after German and Anglo-American models, yet it was impossible simply to read to Japanese students from a manuscript addressed to European listeners, because their assumptions about historical, philosophical, and theological subjects were so different. This became especially obvious with lectures on history. If one speaks to a European audience on Luther and the Reformation, one can assume at least a basic knowledge of the spiritual, cultural, and political background of the Reformation period. One can allude to certain generally known facts of the history of art or the life of the church and can count on invoking certain associations. This is impossible in Asia. The period of the Reformation, naturally, is foreign to the Japanese student, perhaps not intellectually but emotionally, just as the period of Shogun Hideyoshi is strange to a German student of theology. Or Peter Lombard is no closer to a Japanese student than Dengyo-Daishi is to our German student. To make the history of the Reformation intelligible to a Japanese student, means to explain it to him in terms of his own historical thinking and his knowledge of history and in positive or critical relationship to it; otherwise any such lecture remains incomprehensible. It takes an enormous effort and constant self-criticism for a speaker who wants to be really understood by an audience whose way of thinking is so different from his own. Most European and American guest professors have to resort to reading prepared manuscripts. One of my Japanese friends politely suggested that this is like setting off a firecracker. Sometimes the firecracker goes off and sometimes it proves to be a dud.
As I came to understand the essence of one non-Christian religion, it became at once increasingly clear to me to what extent and to what degree of depth our Western attitude, our intellectual, emotional, and volitional reaction to other religions, is modified by the European Christian heritage. lt. is one of the basic rules of the phenomenological study of religions to avoid judgment of other religions by criteria of one’s own. However, I was repeatedly surprised by how difficult it is in practice to observe this rule. Our scientific-critical thinking, our total experience of life, our emotional and volitional ways of reaction, are strongly shaped by our specific Christian presuppositions and Western ways of thought and life. This is true even as regards the pseudo-forms, and secularized forms of thought and life, which are antithetical to the claims of Christianity. Indeed, we are frequently, in most cases even totally, unconscious of these presuppositions. Permit me to mention three points in this connection.
1. Our Western Christian thinking is qualified in its deepest philosophical and methodological ideas by a personalistic idea of God. This concept makes it particularly difficult to understand the fundamental disposition of Buddhism, which knows of no personalistic idea of God. The traditional Western reaction, in Christian theology as well as in Western philosophy, is to characterize Buddhist theology as "atheistic." It is difficult for a Westerner to comprehend the specifically Buddhist form of the approach to the transcendent. As for me, I had theoretical knowledge from my acquaintance with Buddhist literature, of the non-theistic tenets of Buddhism. But it became clear to me only when attending Buddhist "worship services," or in conversation with Buddhist priests and lay people. It is difficult for us to understand the non-theistic notion of Buddhism because the personalistic idea of God plays such a fundamental part in our Western logic. It took constant effort and new trials on my part to realize that the basic difference between the two is not one of abstract theological concepts. It goes deeper than that, because this particular form of expression is attained by a certain training in meditation. It is here that the experience of the transcendent is cultivated and secured for the total life of Buddhism.
From Christian lecterns and pulpits we hear proclaimed in noisy and confident terms detailed information concerning the essence of God, the exact course of his providential activity and the inner life of the three Divine Persons in the unity of the divisive substance. But the reverent silence of the Buddhists before the "emptiness" of the transcendent, beyond all dialectic of human concepts, is pregnant with its own beneficence.
Buddhist art was the most important help to me in overcoming this intellectual "scared-rabbit" attitude toward the theological "atheism" of Buddhism. I was especially impressed by the representations of Buddha himself in the various positions of meditation. Our traditional theological ideas and concepts of God are a serious obstacle in understanding the Buddhist forms of transcendental experience. At best, Meister Eckhart’s idea of the divine Nothingness, or Jacob Boehme’s notion of the Nonground (Ungrund) in God may serve as bridges of understanding from a Christian experience of the transcendent to a Buddhist one.
2. Hindu and Shinto polytheism confronted me with still another problem. I simply felt incapable of understanding why a believer preferred just one god or goddess among the vast pantheon. What attracts the wealthy can manufacturer of Kyoto to the shrine of the rice god Inari and causes him to donate whole pyramids of his cans and his pickles? I saw such offerings literally piled up beside other pyramids of rice wine casks and cognac bottles which other dealers had donated to the god of this shrine. In the Shinto pantheon of 800,000 gods this singling out of one of them was a real enigma to me. What moves the devout Hindu to pass by the Kali temple and the Vishnu temple on one day, and hurry to the sanctuary of Krishna to offer him his sacrifice of flowers and his prayers and to participate the next day in the Kali festival? In the mind of the devotee what role does the individual god play beside the other gods? Our understanding of all these problems is blocked by many factors. Consider for example the vigorous denouncements by the Old Testament prophets of idols and idolatry among the ancients. Consciously or unconsciously, the modern Christian is influenced by such traditional attitudes. Nor can he fully appraise the strength of these attitudes if he reduces them to theological arguments. The battle waged against polytheistic practices by the Mosaic and Christian religions must be seen as a total emotional response which penetrates our attitudes more deeply than any intellectual affirmations.
Even the various European renaissances of classical antiquity have not appreciably changed this. We are still accustomed to seeing the ancient abode of the gods in the light of the poetic transfigurations of Humanism and Classicism. This whole world of gods defamed by Christianity, flares up once again in a kind of aesthetic romanticism. But these gods are for us at best only allegories. We are no longer able to imagine the religious significance that they had as gods for the faithful who prayed and sacrificed to them.
In Asian lands, however, polytheism is encountered not as literary mythology, but as genuine religious belief and as living cultic practice. It appears in an overwhelming diversity and at the most varied levels of religious consciousness. As in the Hellenistic religions of late antiquity there occurred also in India a development toward monotheism. The Hindu deities Krishna, Vishnu, Kali, and others were worshipped as manifestations of Brahma, the one transcendental God, the Hindu God, much more reverently, however, than was the God of Plotinus, because the Hindu religion presupposes a plurality of worlds as over against the geocentric narrowing of the world picture of classical antiquity.
This development is the result of a profound change in the religious consciousness of India. In Shintoism, however, this change has not yet occurred. Its 800,000 gods have hardly been put into hierarchical order, each god being a particular manifestation of the Numinous by itself. While visiting Shinto shrine festivals, I often asked myself what moved the Shinto faithful to profer this or that particular god, to sacrifice to him and worship him in a special way. (The shrines require rather substantial sacrifices after all state support has been withdrawn.) To seek the answer to this question in custom or convention in the relationship of certain occupational groups to certain deities is only to put off the question. Rather it seems to be the case that one worships the divine in such form as it has emerged impressively and effectively in one’s own life, whether it be as helper, as bringer of luck, as protector and savior, or as a power spreading horror and awakening fear. It is the experience of the numen praesens which is primary and decisive for cultic devotion. Manilal Parekh, in his book on Zoroaster, puts this thought into an excellent phrase when he writes of the devotees of the Rig-Veda epoch: "They invoke a god because they need something from him, and for the time being he fills all their horizon. Thus it happens that there is no god who is supreme in this pantheon."
I asked my Shinto friends repeatedly: What is the essence of Shintoism in the veneration of the numerous gods at the various great and small shrines? One of them, a priest at a Shinto shrine, answered that it is the devotion to the creative forces in the universe in the bodily, the cosmic, the ethical, the intellectual, and the aesthetic realms. This answer doubtless meets the most important point. Decisive for this stage of the religious consciousness is the encounter with the self-realization of the transcendent in its individual form and expression of power. This encounter is the crucial factor, whether it occurs on a holy mountain or at a holy tree or fountain or in the meeting with an ethical hero. Correspondingly, the world of the gods is never finished; only the dead polytheism of our classic literary antiquity is "perfect," its Olympus complete, and philologically conceptualized. Living polytheism constantly creates new gods. One of the most important Shinto shrines is dedicated to the veneration of General Nogis, who in 1921 committed a demonstrative hara-kiri which was consummated in all the liturgical forms of religious self-sacrifice. By his act the dangers of Westernization were called to the attention of Japanese youth who habitually sense, recognize, and worship the transcendent in constantly new forms of appearances. It is precisely from Shintoism that in recent times there have emerged not only new gods, but also new religions. Living polytheism, therefore, is extraordinarily flexible and is open to systematization and a hierarchical organization. It is also capable of being accommodated to the various high-religions, as was the case in the monotheism of the Vedas, and also in Buddhism. Only Judaism understood the idea of the unity of God in the exclusive sense that all other gods beside Yahweh are "nothing." In the tradition of Jewish monotheism the Christian Church has used the exclusive interpretation of the unity of God to denounce the non-Christian gods of its neighbors as demons and to abolish their cults. Christian theology itself has screened the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, sometimes interpreted in a polytheistic sense, in such a way that the understanding of genuine polytheism was no longer possible.
3. The third point is that Hinduism, like Buddhism and Shintoism, lacks one other distinction so fundamental for our Christian thinking: the belief in the basic essential difference between creation and Creator. For our Western Christian thought this absolute discontinuity between Creator and creation is normative, but it does not exist in Buddhism and Shintoism. The same central importance that the idea of the absolute otherness of Creator and creation has for us, the idea of the unity of being has within Buddhist and Shinto thought. This idea of unity is connected not only with the particular method of direct religious experience, meditation and vision but also has a bearing on logic and conceptualization even where they are wholly unrelated to religious experiences as such.
Many other points might be mentioned in this connection, such as the relationship of man to nature, to the universe, and especially the idea of deification. It is baffling to the visitor from the West to note again and again how in the Eastern religions outstanding personalities are swiftly elevated to the rank of god, or recognized and worshipped as incarnations of certain divine attributes. This, however, only surprises one who holds the basic Western presupposition of the absolute discontinuity of divine and human existence. Viewed from the idea of the unity of existence, this step is self-explanatory just as the impassable gulf between Creator and creation is self-evident to us.
Another basic assumption which we hold as part of our Western Christian thinking is the common preference we attribute to theology, the doctrinal part of religion, when it comes to the interpretation of the forms of religious expression. But this preference is a specific sign of Christianity, especially Western Christianity of the Protestant variety. Whenever this viewpoint has been applied to the critical examination of Asiatic religions, an emphasis on their didactic and doctrinal elements has resulted. Thus, in interpreting Buddhism and Hinduism, some Western authors have placed undue stress on their teachings and philosophy.
I myself was extremely surprised to find that in contemporary Buddhism, a much more central role is played by its liturgical and cultic elements. One element of religious life which has almost completely vanished from religious practice in Western Christianity, the exercise of meditation as a spiritual and ascetic discipline, is accorded a tremendous importance in Buddhism. This became clear to me only as I had the opportunity of seeing it first hand.
Meditation in Buddhism is not the privilege of a few specialists, but a practice directly shared by the majority of Buddhist lay people. To this day it is assumed in Buddhist countries that before taking over an important position in government, administration, science, or elsewhere in the social and military life, men must have undergone some training in meditation. Today it is still customary among many educated Buddhists to spend their vacations as temporary novices in a monastery and to give themselves to meditation. In Hinduism, too, meditation is still very much alive and is practiced in an astounding variety of forms and methods, because most of the great Gurus and founders of ashrams have developed their own form of meditation and Yoga and transmitted it to their disciples.
The importance of Eastern meditation has gradually been recognized in the modern Western literature on the science of religion and elucidated in various technical studies. However, the whole vast area of the symbolic language of Eastern religions as well of their liturgy and cults has hardly been noticed. I was surprised over and over by the power of the symbol in Buddhist worship services. Symbolic details were often explained to me by obliging priests. Especially in Buddhism does this symbolic language appear highly inaccessible. Above all, the symbolism of the movements of hands, arms, and fingers is very strongly developed. This hand and finger symbolism has in Eastern religions been brought to high perfection in two fields. It plays a role in the liturgical dances of India, where to this day a large number of symbolic hand and finger movements (mudras) have been preserved. It also figures in the practice of meditation and in the cult of two Buddhist schools, the Tendai and Shingon schools. Within the esoteric tradition of these schools, hand and finger symbolism was cultivated to an incredibly skillful and complicated system of expression which makes it possible to express through finger and hand symbols the whole content of the school’s secret doctrine in one worship service. Just as significant are the symbolic positions of one’s body, hands, and fingers during meditation. This is so because the person meditating puts himself into the position corresponding to the position of Buddha or some Bodhisattva on his way toward attaining full enlightenment.
It is often said that the religious life of Christianity is not confined to its teachings and its theology. This is certainly even more true for Buddhism, which, in essence, is practiced religion, practical meditation, symbolic representation, and cultic liturgical expression.
The Western Christian also must beware of transferring to the Eastern religions his own ideas concerning the organization of religion. We always assume more or less consciously the ecclesiastical model of Christianity when analyzing other religions. This approach suits neither Hinduism nor Buddhism nor Shintoism. The Japanese Buddhists do not form a Buddhist "church." Buddhism is, in fact, represented by a diversity of schools with their own temples and monasteries, and their own educational institutions and universities. These are not co-ordinated in any organizational fashion. Moreover, within the individual schools there is only a minimal organizational connection between the temples and monasteries. They are basically autonomous and economically independent units. A Buddhist federation was only very recently formed in Japan. This, incidentally, was inspired by the formation of the "Buddhist World Fellowship" in connection with the Sixth Buddhist Congress in Rangoon in 1954-56. But its concern is merely the representation of common interests among the different Japanese and Buddhist groups. It has nothing to do with ecclesiastical organization.
It would be equally misleading to apply to Eastern religions the idea that a person can be a member of only one religious community. This is a notion which stems specifically from confessional Christianity. It does not apply to Japan, nor to China, where in the life of the individual Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism mix and interpenetrate, as Shintoism and Buddhism do in Japan. The Japanese is a Shintoist when he marries since the wedding ceremony is conducted by the priest at the Shinto shrine; and he is a Buddhist when he dies, since the funeral rites are conducted by Buddhist priests, the cemeteries are connected with Buddhist temples, and the rituals for the souls of the dead are held in Buddhist temples. Between the wedding and funeral, the Japanese celebrates, according to private taste, preference, and family tradition, the Shinto shrine festivals and the Buddhist temple festivals. After the occupation, when the Americans took a religious census in connection with the religious legislation carried out by them, it was found, to their great surprise, that Japan, with only 89,000,000 inhabitants, registered 135,000,000 as the number of the faithful of all religious groups. In point of fact, there was no fraud involved. The curious surplus of religious adherents had resulted from individuals registering as members of both Shinto and Buddhist temple communities. For this reason they appeared twice in the religious census. The "Pure Buddhism" mentioned in our textbooks of the history of religions does not exist at all. For even in the various Buddhist centers of meditation and teaching, Buddhism is amalgamated with various levels of religious consciousness expressed in local mythologies.
I had occasion to attend the celebration of the consecration of a Buddhist priest. According to the ritual, the newly consecrated priest first offers his obeisance to the Sun-Goddess Amaterasu and afterwards to the person of the Emperor. This type of connection between Buddhism and Shintoism occurred in Japan as early as the eighth century. It followed from the teachings of Kobo-Daishi, who in his sermons taught the people that the Shinto gods are identical with the Bodhisattvas of the Buddhist doctrines. This identification occurred not only on the intellectual theological level, but on all levels of the liturgy, the cult, the religious symbolic language, and the mythology. It led to practical forms of conduct which cannot be judged by criteria of dogmatic thought and the division of religions on a doctrinal basis.
Another aspect of Eastern religions which was difficult for me to understand was that of magic and sorcery. I came into contact not only with exorcism and sorcery, but also with forms of magic in cultic dance, words, writings, and pictures. Here the Western Christian finds access to a wide dimension of religion otherwise completely barred to him by his own tradition. Christianity denounced the whole aspect of magic as "demonic" and banned it from the realm of Christian faith. This is just another of those surprising examples of how in Hinduism and Buddhism all levels of religious consciousness and all varieties of religion continue to exist side by side and to intermingle with each other. The European observer always feels himself pressed to create divisions and differentiations. Hindu friends of mine have observed that many European visitors interested in Hinduism ask the same question. Observing the devotion of Hindus in their temples, they ask How is it possible for such variant and mutually exclusive opposites to exist side by side in Hinduism? Together with the highest spiritual and ethical form of monotheism and the most elevated form of asceticism and of meditation, they are amazed to find such primitive sorcery and magic as might be seen in African fetishism. The Hindu’s answer to this question will always be that such things are not at all mutually exclusive opposites, but represent stages in the development of religious consciousness.
There is a similar situation in Buddhism. Many of the cult rituals that I was permitted to attend were based on completely magical notions. I was particularly impressed for example, by the new year’s service in a Zen monastery. On three consecutive days the festival of the so-called Daihanya, the physical turning-over of books, was celebrated. The basic idea of this festival is to set into motion the total content of the teachings of Buddha. But since this doctrine fills about 600 volumes, it is quite impossible for a small monastic community to recite it in its entirety in one service of worship. Such a recitation of the canon could only take place at an occasion such as the Sixth Council of Buddhism, where thousands of monks were occupied for a long period of time reciting the sutras consecutively.
Instead, at the Zen monastery, the spiritual moving of the content of the 600 volumes is magically accomplished by moving them physically. Piled on a low table in front of each monk are some ten to fifteen volumes of the canon. During the worship service each one of the volumes, written on a continuous folded strip, is unfolded like an accordion and folded again with a fluent ritual movement. The monk swings it briskly over his head while he calls out its title and first and last line. The idea is that through this physical motion the spiritual content of the books is actually set into motion. This liturgy counts as particularly meritorious, both for the liturgists themselves and for other Buddhists too.
For our Western thinking it appears absurd to set into motion the spiritual content of a book by liturgically leafing through it. We no longer have a sense for the meaning of magic, any more than for the difference between black and white magic. The peculiar basic assumptions on the relationship of spirit and matter underlying this idea are foreign to our thought and difficult for us to comprehend. These assumptions operate on a still more primitive level in the system of Buddhist-Lamaist prayer mills. This system consists of producing the spiritual content of a prayer through physical movements of the parchment on which the prayer is written.
It was equally difficult for me to understand the practice of sacrificing and its meaning. The ultimate emotional and spiritual motives for a sacrifice, the estimated value of a sacrifice, the enormous variety of sacrifices (sacrifices of flowers, incense, drink, animals, all with manifold liturgical and ritual variations) are extremely hard to fathom. This whole world is one which is largely closed to Europeans, especially to those of Protestant persuasion. It is a world to which we lost access centuries ago. The abyss separating us from the ancient idea of sacrifice cannot be bridged simply by an intellectual jump. There are, however, a few European philosophers of religion whose work is significant here. In studying the various types of sacrifice in the history of religions, Franz von Baader, for example, has been able to understand something about the mystery of sacrifice.
One other danger of misunderstanding lies in evaluating the mission of non-Christian religions. Here, too, Western observers are easily inclined to presuppose the Christian form of mission and propaganda, and its methods and practices among the nonChristian high-religions. Such assumptions can only lead to misunderstanding. It is true that a certain analogy exists between the expansion of Hinduism and Buddhism on the one hand, and the mission of Byzantium and of the Nestorian Church of the fifth to the tenth centuries on the other hand. The basis of mission here is not, however, a missionary organization, but the free and partly improvised activity of charismatic personalities who, as itinerant monks, counselors, and teachers, collected a group of disciples around them. As a rule, this type of activity is related to the formation of monastic centers. In Hinduism we note the appearance of individual leaders who founded ashrams, and from these ashrams began missionary expansion or reform activity. In the same way the history of the expansion of Buddhism is most strongly connected with the appearance of such charismatic personalities. As itinerant preachers and founders of monastic communities, these men contributed their own particular forms of teaching and meditation. It has been only in very recent times that Buddhism adopted an organized mission activity. In this case, it is significant to note that the model for its methods of propaganda, as well as for its organization, is furnished by the organization and method of the Christian world mission.
Contrary to what may seem to be the case in this essay, my purpose here has not been to reproach or intimidate. I have enumerated some of these problems because I believe it is essential to clarify them if we would advance toward a better understanding of Eastern religions. Allow me to make a personal confession here in conclusion. What has repeatedly comforted me most in this work was the thought that we carry within ourselves the most essential condition for the understanding of other religions. In the structure of the human personality there is doubtless a tradition of earlier forms of religious experiences and of earlier stages of religious consciousness. Christian theology has succeeded in displacing most of these archaic ideas but has not been able to remove from our heritage those earlier stages of religious consciousness. Here in Germany, for example, we look back upon some thirty generations of Christian tradition. It goes without saying that the religious ideas and experiences of these generations were shaped in a more or less Christian way; but behind them lie, if mankind is really 6,000,000 years old as anthropologists have reason to assume, 180,000 generations whose religious consciousness has run through all the stages of animism and polytheism. It would be nonsense to assume that the experience of these early peoples has had no decisive effect on the spiritual and moral development of present-day mankind, as also on Christians of our own times. Somewhere in the bedrock layer of our religious awareness, the religious experience and various conceptual forms of our primitive forefathers live on. Somewhere in us also lies the heritage of the sibyl and of the haruspex; in some hidden corner we still harken to Pan’s flute and tremble at the sound of the sistrum. Our aversion to horse meat is probably due to Christian influence, and is still not quite overcome. It lingers as a strong reminder of the sacred appetite with which our forefathers consumed the sacrificial horse thirty generations ago. We cannot separate ourselves from the experience and ideas of the countless generations behind us.
To Buddha in the night of his illumination under the bodhi tree was revealed the insight into all his earlier incarnations. For myself I covet another intuition: a clear insight into the earlier stages of the religious consciousness of mankind. I should like to know the way in which man has passed through these stages up to the present and how they lie submerged in the depths of our humanity in some form that is now barred and veiled from us. This is not the same as the desire to return to these stages. It is rather a wish to know the inner continuity of meaning in the development of the varied forms and stages of religious consciousness. And this desire does not seem to me to be non-Christian. For if history is in a sense the history of salvation, then this history cannot have begun with Moses in 1250 B.C. The history of salvation is as old as the history of mankind, which we assume is some 6,000,000 years older than Moses. And if this is so, then the history of religions and the history of the development of the religious consciousness must be seen as coterminous with the history of salvation. If the revelation in Christ is really the fulfillment of time, then it must also be the fulfillment of the history of religions. Then also, the earlier stages of religion which mankind passed through stand in a meaningful and positive relation to this fulfillment of time and of the history of mankind. On this basis, one of the most important tasks of contemporary Christian scholarship would be to set forth a new theology of the history of religions. The way would then be open to a real "understanding" among the religions of the world, as Joachim Wach envisioned it.
Viewed 118966 times.