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  • Jesus the World-Protector:Eighteenth-Century Gelukpa Historians View Christianity1
  • Michael J. Sweet

The assumption that religion was so seamlessly woven into non-Western and preindustrial cultures that it was not even distinguished as a separate entity, let alone regarded as an object for study, has been a commonplace among Western scholars of religion for some decades.2 From this point of view, which can be broadly characterized as postmodernist and postcolonialist, the concept of religion "is not a native category . . . it is a category imposed from outside . . . it is the other . . . colonialists who are solely responsible for the content of the term."3 This is a somewhat reductionistic and Eurocentric perspective that ignores the universal human capacity to empathically understand other belief systems.

One counterexample to this school of thought is found in the works of three eighteenth-century religious historians, all of whom were learned monks in the Gelukpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism: Gombojab (Mgon po Skyabs, late seventeenth century–after 1766),4 Sumba Khembo (Sum pa Mkhan po Yes shes dpal 'byor, 1704–1776), and Tuken (Thu'u Bkwan Blo bzang Chos kyi Nyi ma, 1737– 1802), authors of The History of Buddhism in China, The Auspicious Wish-Fulfilling Tree,5 and The Crystal Mirror,6 respectively. These scholars had clear conceptions of their own and other religious systems (Tib.: chos lugs), and compared to earlier Tibetan accounts they present relatively tolerant evaluations of other religious philosophies—for example, Chinese Buddhism, Daoism, and the Literati Tradition (Ru jiao, "Confucianism")—while asserting the superiority of the Gelukpa form of Tibetan Buddhism.7

As a case in point, we will see how they describe and evaluate Christianity, a religion that was quite foreign to them and that they appear to have understood only imperfectly. Earlier Tibetan Buddhist religious histories, of which the best-known are the Blue Annals of 'Gos Lotsawa and Bu ston's "History of the Dharma," are immensely valuable sources, but they are more parochial in their range of interest than those of the eighteenth-century Tibeto-Mongol scholars.8 For the earlier historians Indo-Tibetan Buddhism was the only religious system worth serious consideration, and Chinese Buddhism, Indian non-Buddhist religious philosophies, Bon, [End Page 173] and Islam were dealt with in a polemical or (especially in the case of Islam) a frankly hostile fashion. Something changed in the eighteenth century that produced works closer to modern comparative religion than to medieval heresiography.

A major motive for this shift was surely the triumph of the Manchu Qing dynasty, which by the mid-eighteenth century had incorporated Tibet and Mongolia definitively into its sphere. Thus, the horizon of the Tibeto-Mongol intelligentsia widened to include the vast Manchu empire, whose leadership in its turn was becoming increasingly aware of other Asian societies and of the European colonial powers. I believe it is significant that Sumba Khembo, Tuken, and Gombojab were all of Mongol ethnicity, the first two from Amdo and the last from Mongolia; they were able to combine an encyclopedic mastery of Tibetan Buddhist texts and ritual with the greater objectivity available to people stemming from the geographical and cultural periphery of that tradition. All three of them were exposed to the cosmopolitan world of imperial Beijing, where they had ample opportunity to meet followers of non-Buddhist religions of a wide range of ethnicities.9

By the mid-eighteenth century there were four Catholic churches in Beijing, serving thousands of Chinese Christian converts. Dozens of European priests were employed by the imperial court as well.10 The prevailing syncretic view of the three major Chinese religious philosophies (sanjiao)—Buddhism, Daoism, and the Literati Tradition—as being mutually complementary,11 prevailed in the capital. This is the view that is approvingly cited by Tuken: "there are three great traditions (lugs srol) which clarify the ultimate nature of things, the Literati Tradition, Daoism, and Buddhism."12

In turning to these scholars' treatment of Christianity, we find the earliest notice of this religion in Gombojab's History of Buddhism in China,13 written around the mid-1730s.14 Gombojab renders the name of Jesus in its traditional Chinese form of Yesu; he is called the World...


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