Buddhism arrived in the West as a topic of scholarly investigation, colonial occupation, missionary conquest, and popular fascination in nineteenth-century Europe. The Lotus Sūtra, now as then the most widely read and recited sutra in Southeast Asian Buddhism, was unheard of in the West until translated into French by Eugène Burnouf in 1837–1841. Not until 1884 did a second European-language translation appear, this time into English by Hendrik Kern. This paper analyzes the early reception of the Lotus Sūtra in the West in two stages: from Burnouf's translation up to the 1880s and then from Kern's translation into the twentieth century. In what ways and for what contextual reasons did Burnouf's responses to the Lotus Sūtra shape the subsequent reception of it in the West, to this day? How did a range of discourses characteristic of mid-nineteenth-century Europe come to privilege the Pali canon over the Sanskrit canon and therefore Theravada over Mahāyāna? How did the responses of Christian missionaries in East Asia to the Lotus Sūtra following Kern's translation in part reverse the critical Western response to one in which Buddhism came to be seen as potentially compatible with Christianity? Crucially, what features of the Lotus Sūtra did these responses fail to recognize and why? How has cultural context determined the historical series of receptions of the Lotus Sūtra, and how has this text absorbed and transformed its own history of receptions?


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