by Eva Pascal (originally posted here.)
What do Buddhist monks and Christian friars have in common? Quite a bit, in fact. While travelling widely across Asia in the late sixteenth century, Franciscans had rich encounters and exchanges with Buddhist monks that led them to identify Buddhism as a unified tradition and a powerful religion in the region.
Westerners encountering new cultures in the early modern period often found it difficult to categorize unfamiliar traditions. For many, the religious landscape was divided into Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Anything outside of that landscape was lumped together as idolatry or paganism – often described as superstition. Repeated new encounters with other traditions prompted new categories with newly identified religions. Many scholars of the process of the transformation of how Westerners categorized and understood religion agree that Buddhism, when it came to be identified as a single entity in the West, had the special distinction of being the first religion parallel to Christianity, and the first “world religion” next to Christianity. Scholars have largely assumed the idea of Buddhism as a common religion across Asia emerged in the west in the nineteenth century. Continue reading