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Shambhala Sun Interview with the Council

July 9, 2010

From the Shambhala SunSpace, The first Parliament of the World’s Religions Event, held in 1893 in Chicago, was not only one of the earliest and most important interfaith gatherings in modern history, but also a watershed in the history of Buddhism’s transmission to the West. This past December saw the fifth Parliament in a 116-year period occur in Melbourne, Australia. The theme of this event, Make a World of Difference: Hearing Each Other, Healing the Earth, reflected “the urgent need for religious and spiritual communities and all people of goodwill to act on their concerns for the environment, peace, and overcoming poverty, and to take responsibility for cultivating awareness of our global interconnectedness. As with all of the Parliament events, this one included significant meetings and discussions between Buddhists and others. My friend and former Naropa University colleague Alisa Roadcup, who now serves as Outreach Director and Development Associate for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions spoke with me via email about significant aspects of the Parliament for Buddhists… The first Parliament event, held in 1893 in Chicago, was not only one of the earliest and most important interfaith gatherings in modern history, but a watershed in the history of Buddhism’s transmission to the West. Would you say something about the role that that Parliament, subsequent Parliaments, and the Council have played in this sense? The 1893 Parliament was not only a fundamental event in the history of the interfaith movement, but also the first formal presentation of Eastern religions to the West. This introduction presented the opportunity for Buddhist study that helped to develop an emerging field of comparative religious studies that today is so important to the interfaith movement. For Buddhism to emerge from the 1893 Parliament with as much respect and popularity as it did says a great deal, given the auspices of the first Parliament as a subtle means to announce the universal supremacy of Christianity. Buddhist presenters endured the assumption that religions outside of Christianity were inferior. This sleight of hand is obvious in some of the 1893 titles alone, such as “Some Characteristics of Buddhism as it exists in Japan Which Indicate that it is Not a Final Religion”, and “What the Christian Bible has Wrought for the Orient”. Buddhist presenters forged ahead in spite of this discrimination and courageously established their religion as one worthy of respect and admiration. This forbearance and humility played a role in Buddhism’s establishment in Western conversation. A remarkable Buddhist presence was Anagarika Dharmapala in 1893. With an ancient statue of the Buddha resting on the platform beside him – Dharmapala gave two addresses on the Four Noble Truths and The Law of Karma, presenting formal teachings to a Western audience for the first time. Shaku Soyen was another remarkable leader, remembered as the person who brought the beloved Zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki to the West. At one point, Dharmapala compared the 1893 Parliament to the Council of Asoka, and predicted that Dr. Barrows (an 1893 Parliament organizer) would be remembered as the “American Asoka”. This comparison offers insight into the high esteem Buddhist leaders held for the 1893 Parliament and the level of importance they believe it had for Buddhism’s transmission to the West. These presenters were also influential representatives from different traditions within Buddhism, which provided the 1893 audience with a glimpse of Buddhism’s rich diversity. Paul Carus’s contribution is of key importance. In 1894, the year after the inaugural 1893 Parliament, Dr. Carus wrote The Gospel of Buddha, the classic text on Buddhism, which introduced many Westerners to the teachings of the Buddha. Because it resembled a Christian “gospel” in structure, it was more culturally compatible for Christian audiences. Paul Carus is remembered as a bridge-builder between religions and science, philosophy and society and Buddhism and Christianity. Today, the Carus family remains a major supporter of the Council by offering The Paul Carus Award for Outstanding Interreligious Achievement, which provides a $100,000 grant to leaders in the interfaith movement at every Parliament. The Parliaments have certainly played an important role in terms of Buddhism becoming a global phenomenon. While Parliaments from 1993 onward have brought many people to greater awareness of the dharma, the religion was already a global phenomenon by the 1993 Parliament, in large part due to the precedent set in 1893. The expanse of time between the 1893 and 1993 Parliaments did not hinder Buddhism’s flourishing in the West. Both an increase in Asian immigration and continued intrigue in Buddhism post-Parliament led to Buddhism’s growth. This set the stage for Buddhism occupying a much greater role in terms of the large number of Buddhist participants and programs at the 1993 Parliament and subsequent Parliaments. Click here to read more about Buddhist participation at the 2009 Parliament