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I n t r o d u c t i o n When a dozen years ago I began to study oriental influences on Richard Wagner’s operas in the mid-nineteenth century, I had no idea where my investigations would lead. Having done some research on the Western discovery of Japanese religions in the sixteenth century, it did not take me long to find traces of this discovery in the nineteenth century. But Raymond Schwab’s La renaissance orientale and studies on the history of the Western encounter with Asian religions such as Henri de Lubac’s La rencontre du bouddhisme et de l’Occident presented an utterly confusing mass of data arranged according to modern notions such as ‘‘Buddhism’’ or ‘‘Hinduism’’ and to modern geographical units such as ‘‘India’’ or ‘‘China.’’ A major reason for this confusion was the fact that the primary sources seem to come from a different world where such neat delimitations do not exist. They tend, for example, to distinguish between esoteric and exoteric ‘‘branches’’ of a pan-Asian religion or to connect the creeds of various countries of ‘‘the Indies’’ to some descendant of Noah. Another factor that complicated matters was the sheer mass of data in many European languages that used different local pronunciations and transcriptions for the same person or thing. Thus, the Portuguese missionaries in Japan often called the Buddha ‘‘Xaca,’’ the French missionaries in China ‘‘Xekia’’ or ‘‘Foe,’’ the Italians in Vietnam ‘‘Thicca,’’ and so on. Some were aware of their identity, others not; and again, others claimed that the Indian god Vishnu, the Persian prophet Zoroaster, or the Egyptian Hermes Trismegistos were alternative names of Buddha. An additional complicating factor was the maze of authors and texts. Trying to distinguish the trailblazers from imitators, embellishers, copyists, and plagiarists turned into a laborious enterprise that involved burrowing through heaps of multilingual literature in libraries on several continents in order to find out where specific items of information came from. This often was difficult. However, patient investigative work over a decade clarified matters to a certain extent and allowed me to isolate a number of ideas, figures, PAGE 1 ................. 17751$ INTR 05-21-10 15:27:28 PS 2 introduction and texts that played key roles in the drawn-out and complex process of the premodern European discovery of Asian religions. These I will present in this introduction. Key Ideas 1. Esoteric and Exoteric Forms of Religion One of the ideas repeated in countless European sources about Asian religions is the distinction between ‘‘outer’’ or ‘‘exoteric’’ and ‘‘inner’’ or ‘‘esoteric’’ forms. It was already used in early Christian literature, for example, by Eusebius of Caesarea and Lactantius, to characterize heathen creeds around the Mediterranean. But its roots lie in ancient Greek views of Egyptian religion where Egyptian priests are said to have encoded secret esoteric teachings in hieroglyphs while feeding the outer, exoteric bark of religion to the people. This idea gained renewed popularity in the Renaissance when texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistos (‘‘hermetic texts’’) were translated into Latin and portrayed as vestiges of ancient Egyptian ‘‘esoteric’’ monotheism. In Europe, this inspired proponents of ancient theology (prisca theologia) like the seventeenth -century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher as well as many missionaries. Several case studies in this book will show how this notion of esoteric and exoteric teachings allied itself with sixteenth-century reports about Japanese Buddhism and became one of the dominant ideas about Asian religions. The Japanese views, in turn, have roots in Chinese and Indian Buddhism and are thus about as old as their European counterparts. Having heard of this Buddhist distinction in the second half of the sixteenth century, the missionaries to Japan used it to classify the Buddhist sects of that country. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, a long-time resident of Japan, João Rodrigues , first applied it to all three major religions of China (which today are called Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism). In the 1620s, the Italian Jesuit Cristoforo Borri in Vietnam used the esoteric/exoteric distinction to characterize two phases of the Buddha’s life and to classify religious movements in India, Vietnam, China, and Japan. In the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this distinction became not only the most conspicuous feature of the Buddha’s biography (the story of his deathbed confession) but also the dominant way of explaining the connection between various religions of Asia in terms of esoteric and exoteric branches of a huge pan-Asian religion...


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