Resemblances Between the Buddhist and Roman Catholic Religions
The Tibetan lama listened respectfully to the Jesuit priest and replied, "Your religion is the same as ours."
Those who strive to establish a monopoly of labor are accustomed to sneer at the Chinese as “Pagans.” They urge that citizenship ought not to be granted to them, because their religion is different from ours. Yet those who talk in this way make no objection to receiving Irish emigrants and intrusting them with the elective franchise. But is the Buddhist religion, which prevails in China, much more foreign to our customs and our modes of thinking and believing than the Roman Catholic religion is? There are, in fact, many striking resemblances between the two, and in some particulars the parallel is so close that it is difficult to perceive any difference, except in names. I will verify this declaration by pointing out some of the most obvious points of similarity.
Buddha Sakia — which means the Holy Sakia, or Saint Sakia — is reverenced by his numerous followers as Christians reverence Jesus Christ. The date of his birth is veiled in obscurity, and varies much in different countries. According to Mongol records it was two thousand one hundred and thirty-four years before the Christian era; but, according to Chinese records, it was one thousand twenty-nine years. Sir William Jones and other learned Oriental scholars, who have examined the subject, think they find sufficient evidence that lie came into this world about a thousand years before Christ.
The Hindoo Trinity Consists of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva; often represented by an image with one body and three heads. The populace worship these as separate gods, but the more intelligent say: “There is but One First Cause, One Supreme Source of Being, who is invisible, infinite, and incomprehensible. We say Brahma creates, Vishnu preserves, and Siva destroys; but all these expressions denote but One Supreme Being.”
Buddha Sakia is believed to have been an incarnation of Vishnu. His advent upon this earth is thus described: “He who is omnipresent and everlastingly to be contemplated, the Supreme Being, the Eternal One, the Divinity worthy to be adored, appeared in this ocean of natural beings, with a portion of his divine nature.” He was born into a family of a kingly line. His mother is said to have been a Virgin named Maia, who conceived him by a ray of light. His birth was foretold by a miraculous dream, and when he was born, a marvellous light shone all around. A holy hermit in far-off forests received supernatural information that Vishnu had just become incarnated in a human form. He flew through the air to the place indicated, and said, “I come to see the new-born child.” As soon as he looked upon him, he pronounced him to be an incarnation of Vishnu, who had come into the world to introduce a new religion. The Buddhist Sacred Books describe him as having left the joys of Paradise and descended to this earth because he was filled with compassion for the sins and sufferings of mankind — It being a divine law that every sin must be atoned for by an ordained amount of suffering, he relinquished his princely rank, denied himself all worldly pleasures, and underwent severe penances, that he might thereby expiate the sins of mortals. So great was his tenderness, that he even descended into the hells to teach the souls in bondage there, and by his own sufferings abridge their period of punishment. By the perfect holiness of his life he was enabled to ascend to Paradise without dying. The rocks in various countries are covered with inscriptions and sculptures recording his sayings and doings. In some places he is represented as crushed a serpent under his heel. Many titles are bestowed upon him: such as “Lion of the Race of Sakia,” “Lord of the Earth,” “Son of Maia,” “Dispenser of Grace”; but his most common title is “The Saviour of the World.” The Buddhist Sacred ‘Writings describe him as “One with the Supreme from all eternity”; as “one substance and three images.” By prayers offered in his name, his followers expect to secure for themselves the rewards of Paradise, and to become one with him, as he was one with the Supreme Being. They believe he will again appear on earth to bring mankind into a state of order and happiness.
Hindoos believed themselves to be exclusively intrusted with revelations of divine truth. They held no communication with foreigners, regarding then as spiritually unclean, because they had not been purified according to their own religious rites. The laws of their Sacred Books divided society into four castes, and the higher castes became polluted by any companionship with the lower. Buddha Sakia conformed in the main to the religious doctrines, ceremonies, and customs of his native land; but he sought to introduce several important reforms, the most offensive of which was his abrogation of the laws of caste. Many centuries before his time, it was a very common thing for Hindoo devotees to retire from the world and live in the depths of forests, where they devoted themselves to perpetual prayer and to the mortification of the senses by a variety of painful penances, as the appointed means of becoming one with the Supreme Being, — an object which was with them paramount to all others. These devotees gained such great reputation for wisdom and holiness, that they were believed to be inspired teachers and workers of miracles. The young flocked to them in great numbers to be instructed; and in this way religious communities grew up in the forests, tilling the solemn silence with their prayers and psalms. Women were not allowed to devote themselves to this saintly life; and the lower castes, as well as foreigners, were rigorously excluded from these religious instructions. Buddha Sakia rejected these narrow limitations. He declared that the road to oneness with God was open to all the world, natives and foreigners, high and low, men and women. This is recorded as one of his sayings: “All men are equal; and my doctrines are a favor and grace to all mankind.” The priestly caste, called Brahmins, despised him for this, and said sneeringly, “ He and his disciples teach even mean and criminal men, and most wrongfully admit them to a state of grace.” As the new sect increased, its innovations not only offended the spiritual pride of the Brahmins, but also alarmed their selfishness; for if all men were allowed to become teachers of righteousness, the hereditary priesthood must, as an inevitable consequence, find its importance and its revenues diminished. Persecution waxed hotter and hotter. Great numbers of Buddhists were put to death. They were finally driven entirely out of Hindostan, where the sect has been extinct for many centuries. But persecution only fired them with increased zeal for their doctrines, which they preached in all the surrounding regions. It is said that eighty thousand Buddhists went forth from Hindostan as missionaries to other lands. Their doctrines spread peacefully and quietly, but with wonderful rapidity. Their religion now prevails in China, Japan, Thibet, Ceylon, the Birman Empire, and a large part of Tartary. Its votaries are computed at four hundred millions, — more than one third of the whole human race. The birth of Buddha Sakia is the era from which many nations count. His followers everywhere consider Hindostan as their Holy Land, and great numbers of them make pilgrimages to Benares, which they especially regard as their Holy City.
Thousands of years ago, the Hindoo hermits and communities of saints, who lived in the forests, were accustomed to go through their ritual of many prayers by the help of strings of beads. Buddhists have retained this ancient habit. Pilgrims are constantly met on their way to Benares repeating prayers incessantly, while they pass their fingers over long strings of beads, just as Catholic pilgrims, on their way to Jerusalem or Rome, may be seen performing their devotions by the help of rosaries.
Centuries before Buddha Sakia was born, it was one of the leading doctrines of the Hindoos that each individual sin must be expiated by an exact admeasurement of suffering, and its consequences averted or diminished by a prescribed number of prayers; and it was believed that these penances could be borne and these prayers repeated efficaciously by proxy. Hence, if a man inflicted upon himself more penances and recited more prayers than were necessary for the expiation of his own sins, the overplus might be placed to the credit of deceased relatives or friends, whose term of punishment was supposed to be abridged thereby. As prayers were deemed efficacious in proportion to the holiness of the intercessor, it became a general practice to pay priests for reciting prayers for the dead. This mode of helping souls out of purgatory brings in a large revenue to the Buddhist priesthood as well as to the Roman Catholic.
Buddhists revere a multitude of saints, who by their great holiness became one with Buddha Sakia, and thereby attained to his power of working miracles. Large images of these saints abound in their temples, and small ones are consecrated by the priests with divers ceremonies and forms of prayer. These last are sold in great numbers to the people, who wear them as amulets, and believe them to be a sure protection from witchcraft and other forms of evil. The Roman Catholic priesthood likewise derive a large revenue from the sale of Crosses and images of the Virgin and of a multitude of saints, which people believe to be safeguards against peril, and endowed with miraculous power to help them in emergencies. A small image of a Lamb, called Agnus Dei, is almost universally worn by the peasantry of Catholic countries, who have undoubting faith that the consecrating ceremonies performed over it by the priests have rendered it a sure protection against evil spirits.
In Japan almost every mountain, hilt, and cliff is sacred to some Buddhist saint, to whom travellers are requested to address a prayer. In all parts of Catholic Europe images of the Virgin and the saints are placed by the roadside, with inscriptions inviting the traveller to leave offerings on their altars, accompanied by the recitation of a prayer.
Every Buddhist house contains the image of some saint, to whom the inmates pray for abundant harvests, healthy children, prosperous journeys, and such other blessings as they may desire. If they fail to receive what they pray for, they sometimes beat the poor images and call them ugly names. The people of Catholic countries make similar intercessions to the images and pictures of saints which they keep in their dwellings; and if their prayers prove fruitless, they often turn the picture of their saint to the wall, or strike his image, saying, “You ungrateful good-for-nothing! Every day I have brought you prayers and offerings, and not a thing have you done for me.”
Buddhist priests exhibit many relics of saints, which are believed to have the same power of working miracles that the saints themselves had while living. The temples which contain the most celebrated relics attract the largest number of pilgrims, whose offerings become a great source of wealth. The richest of all is a temple in Ceylon, where is preserved a tooth of Buddha Sakia, said to have worked many wonderful miracles. It is enshrined within four golden cases, set with precious gems. A vast concourse of pilgrims continually resort thither, with the hope of being cured of “all the ills that flesh is heir to.” Roman Catholic churches abound with similar holy relics, to which miraculous power is ascribed. The cross on which Jesus was crucified was said to be dug up on Mount Calvary three centuries afterward. Small bits of the wood, set in gold and adorned with precious gems, were eagerly bought by the people and worn as a protection against dangers and all sorts of evil influences. The demand was so great it would have been impossible to supply it, had not the priests discovered that the holy wood was endowed with a miraculous power of reproducing itself as fast it was diminished. An immense amount of it is now extant. There are two entire skeletons of St. Denis, beside two other skulls of him, exhibited in different places, each having a papal certificate of genuineness. Samples of the Virgin’s hair are enshrined in various churches; some of it is flaxen, sonic brown, some red, and some black. The house where she lived is believed to have been brought in the night by an angel to Loretto in Italy, where a magnificent church was built over it. Thousands of pilgrims go there to deposit offerings, more or less costly, for the privilege of dipping their rosaries in a little mug from which it is supposed the infant Jesus was accustomed to drink. Volumes might be filled with accounts of Catholic relics and the miracles they are said to have performed.
In every Chinese house there is an altar covered with inscriptions and images of saints, before which the members of the family kneel and say prayers, as Catholics do before the image, usually set up in some part of their dwellings. The most common image on Chinese household altars is that of Shing Mou, which means the Mother Goddess. It represents a woman with a glory round her head and a babe in her arms. The tradition is that she was a Virgin who conceived by contact with water-lily, and gave birth to a wonderful child, who became a holy man and performed great miracles. If the Chinese were to visit the churches and chapels of Catholic Europe and see the numerous images of the Virgin Mary in spangled garments of blue and crimson, with a gilded halo round her head, and that of the infant Jesus she carries in her arms, they might easily mistake them for representations of their Shing Mou. It is said that holy images in Buddhist countries sometimes raise their eyelids and nod their heads in response to prayer; and, even within a few years we have heard of similar miracles performed by images of the Virgin Mary.
Water from the Ganges and other holy rivers is supposed by Buddhists to be imbued with some supernatural qualities. They travel far to obtain jars of it to use for religious purposes. Catholics have a similar feeling concerning the river Jordan, from which water was brought for the especial purpose of baptizing the Prince Imperial of France. Buddhist priests also consecrate water with prayers and ceremonies, and sell it to the people as a protection from evil. They are often summoned to sprinkle it over the sick and the dying, on the thresholds of dwellings where a bridal pair are entering, and over new-born infants. Catholics also attach great value to water which their priests have consecrated by certain religious ceremonies. It is a common practice with them to keep, little vials of such holy water under their pillows or by their bedside. A vase of it is always placed at the entrance of their churches, in which they dip their fingers and make therewith the sign of the cross. Priests also scatter it over their congregations with little sprinklers.
Buddhists burn fragrant sandal-wood for incense in their temples. Catholics make similar use of frankincense in their churches.
On the approach of evening all the men, women, and children in Thibet, at a signal given by the priests, quit their avocations and plays and assemble in the public squares, where they kneel and chant prayers. Catholics do the same at the sound of the vesperbell.
As Buddhists became numerous, the huts they originally used for places of worship disappeared, and magnificent temples rose, gorgeous with gilding and filled with painted and sculptured representations of Buddha Sakia and the saints. Most of these have the grotesqueness characteristic of Asiatic works of art. But the likenesses of Buddha Sakia have always a serene, majestic expression, with large, mild eyes, and long, curling hair. Lassa, in Thibet, is the Rome of the Buddhists; and the temple they have erected there ranks above other temples in grandeur, as St. Peter’s does above other Catholic churches. It is four stories high, surrounded with columns covered with gold, and terminating in a dome roofed with golden plates. The interior is adorned with innumerable sculptures, and filled with sacred images in gold and silver.
The priests of Thibet are called Lamas, which means Shepherds. The Supreme Pontiff is called the Grand Lama, or Great Shepherd. He resides at Lassa, which originally became a holy city by the presence of Buddha La, or Saint La, a celebrated follower of Buddha Sakia, who by exceeding holiness became one with him, as he was one with the Supreme. The soul of Saint La is supposed to be regularly transmitted to every successive Grand, Lama, who thereby becomes the direct successor and visible representative of the immortal old saint. By this process he is supposed to be rendered immaculate and infallible. He is regarded as the vicegerent of God, with power to dispense blessings on whomsoever he will. His exposition of the Sacred Books is regarded as Divine inspiration; and when he lays his hand on the head of a worshipper, he is supposed to confer remission of sins. When lie is carried in grand procession to the temple, princes and beggars alike prostrate themselves as he passes; and when he enters the holy building, the attendant priests follow him barefoot, and prostrate themselves before him. One o the ceremonies he performs is dispensing little bits of consecrated dough, which are eagerly sought for amulets. On state occasions he wears a yellow mitre and a mantle of purple silk, and carries in his hand a long staff in the form of a cross.
There is no known record concerning the period when the devotees, who from time immemorial had lived a life of celibacy and prayer in the great forests, began to congregate together in buildings. But institutions strikingly similar to monasteries have been numerous in Buddhist countries for many centuries. It is said that the city of Lassa alone contains three thousand such establishments, which are called Lamaseries. They are usually built on mountains or hills, in the most picturesque situations, and are the handsomest buildings in Asia, except the royal palaces. Some of them are occupied by sisterhoods of holy women. All who adopt this mode of life take a vow of celibacy, shave their heads, and drop the name by which they were known in the world. Children are sent to the Lamaseries to be taught religious ceremonies and doctrines, and instructed in such knowledge as Asiatics have to impart. The sick and the poor are received there, and are kindly ministered unto. The other occupations of the Lamas are to recite prayers and perform ceremonies to shorten the punishment of the dead and protect the living from the influences of evil — spirits; to consecrate images and other amulets; to distribute holy water; to gather herbs, prepare medicines, and preserve fruit. They sell many extracts from their Sacred Books, which they write with great care and often embellish with gilding and bright colors. Many rich men seek to obtain the rewards of Paradise by leaving large bequests for the erection of Lamaseries, where prayers are said for their souls, where the sick are tended, the poor relieved, and travellers hospitably entertained. Borri, a Jesuit missionary to Cochin China, says: “It looks as if the Devil had endeavored to represent among the Gentiles the beauty and variety of religious orders in the Catholic Church. The priests have chaplets and strings of beads about their necks. There are among them persons resembling bishops, abbots, and archbishops; and they use gilt staves, not unlike our crosiers. If any man came newly into that country, he might easily be persuaded there had been Christians there in former times, so nearly has the Devil attempted to imitate us.”
When Father Huc, a French Jesuit missionary, visited one of these Lamaseries, not many years ago, he was struck with the same resemblance. He says: “The reception given us recalled to our thoughts those monasteries raised by our own religious ancestors, in which travellers and the poor always found refreshment for the body and consolation for the soul.” The same missionary tells us that when he tried to persuade the Regent of Lassa to become a Roman Catholic, he listened courteously and replied, “Your religion is the same as ours.”
Some of the Lamas do not live in communities, but lead a wandering life and subsist entirely by beggary. This class is numerous in China and very troublesome; the members being often as filthy in their persons and manners as are many of the mendicant monks in Italy and Spain. Some of the Buddhist priests are truly good, intelligent men, while others are licentious and knavish, and know no more about the meaning of the Sanscrit language, in which they repeat their prayers, than some Catholic priests do of the Latin they recite by rote.
Intelligent Catholics find spiritual significance in their various ceremonies, and are far from indorsing many of the superstitious observances of the ignorant multitude. The case is the same with the more enlightened among the Buddhists. When Father Huc spoke of the Lamas who claimed presents as the means of casting out devils from people who were possessed by them, a Superior of one of the Lamaseries replied: “That devils may possess rich persons is credible; but that they will depart in consequence of costly presents is a fiction invented by ignorant and deceiving Lamas, who seek to accumulate wealth at the expense of their brothers.” And the Regent of Lassa said to the same missionary: “You have doubtless seen and heard much to be blamed in Tartary and Thibet, but you must not forget that the numerous errors and superstitions you may have observed were introduced by ignorant Lamas, and are rejected by well — informed Buddhists.”