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Voltaire and the Buddha

Donald S. Lopez, Jr. looks at Voltaire’s early reflections on Buddhism and how, in his desire to separate the Buddha’s teachings from the trappings of religion, the French Enlightenment thinker prefigured an approach now familiar in the West.

After Ignatius Loyola formed the Society of Jesus in 1539, he required that his missionaries send back detailed letters describing their activities and the peoples and places they encountered. In France, over the course of the eighteenth century, these were gathered together and published as Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, thirty-four volumes of which appeared between 1702 and 1776. 
The Jesuit accounts of far-flung lands were widely read during the Enlightenment, serving, for example, as important sources for Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s seminalEncyclopédie. 
The contents of the letters were various, but the Jesuits’ mission being what it was, it is perhaps not surprising that religion figured prominently, with many accounts of what would one day be called Buddhism.

Well into the nineteenth century, Europeans divided the population of the world into four nations, based on their religion: Christians, Jews, Muslims (often called Mahometans), and Idolaters. For centuries, Buddhists fell into this last category. The process of their elevation to having an “ism” of their own is too long to tell here. 
However, one chapter in that story would be about those Jesuits, the intrepid travelers who set out from Europe to spread the Gospel across Asia. St Francis Xavier arrived in Japan in 1549, first imagining a kinship with Buddhists; later he would condemn them. In China, Matteo Ricci first dressed as a Buddhist monk before adopting the guise of a Confucian scholar, writing works in Chinese condemning the “religion of Fo” (fo is the Chinese word for Buddha). Early reports on the Buddhism of Thailand came from delegations sent to the court of Siam by Louis XIV, delegations that included Jesuit priests.

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