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SKETCHES OF BUDDHISM AS A LIVING 
RELIGION 



KENNETH J. SAUNDERS 
Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California 



This article presents in graphic form the activities of Buddhist devotees as they 
would be observed by an eyewitness, and seeks to show what these mean in the experi- 
ence of those who worship and aspire in these ways. Brief interpolations are given 
of the power of Buddhism and the status of Christian ideals in Burma and Ceylon. 



I. IN BURMA 

It is morning, and the golden pagoda is shining and scintil- 
lating in the clear air. Far below the great city is astir and 
humming with life: here all is quiet. In the monastery a 
class of boys from eight to fourteen years old are seated 
around a kindly old monk. They are shouting loudly in 
unison, repeating over and over certain words, about whose 
meaning they do not seem to be thinking. As we draw near 
we realize that they are phrases from a popular Buddhist book 
known as Mingala Thot, a summary of the Buddhist beatitudes, 
which describe the happy life of the Buddhist layman. First a 
word of Pali and then a word of Burmese, and then lastly the 
whole verse. There are twelve such verses, of which the 
following are typical : 

Tend parents, cherish wife and child, 
Pursue a blameless life and mild: 
Do good, shun ill and still beware 
Of the red wine's insidious snare; 
Be humble, with thy lot content, 
Grateful and ever reverent. 

Many times must these phrases be droned through, before 
they are got by heart, but gradually their meaning sinks in, and 
simple explanations and grammatical notes are part of the 
teacher's task. 

418 



BUDDHISM AS A LIVING RELIGION 419 

Or it may be a short summary of the excellent qualities of 
the "Three Jewels" of Buddhism — the Buddha, his order of 
monks, and his law or teaching. Having mastered these 
preliminary books, the boys will learn the chief Jdtakas, a 
strange medley of folklore dressed up in Buddhist guise, and 
purporting to be stories of the former existences of the Founder 
Sakyamuni. For, besides being a system of moral teachings, 
Buddhism is a religion and has an elaborate system of beliefs. 
It makes very great demands upon faith ! These former lives 
of the Buddha are taught in legend and hymn, in popular sum- 
maries or proverbial sayings, and are universally believed. 

As we study this strange educational system which per- 
meates the whole country, we shall be amazed to find that 
there are about two monasteries to every village, and that, 
however great a drain they may be upon the country, they have 
made it one of the most literate of all the lands of the East, 
with a larger percentage of men who can read and write than 
modern Italy. We shall learn too that these boys must all 
undergo "ordination" before they are regarded as human 
beings (so great is the power of the monks), and shall realize 
that some of them are caught by the lure of the monastic 
life and the glamor of the yellow robe. Yet most go back to 
the world after a short experience. The young shin, or novice, 
may in due course pass on to ordination. Then, dressed in 
princely robes, he celebrates the time when the Founder of 
Buddhism left his royal state to become a mendicant. His 
head is shaved, his gorgeous clothes are taken from him, and 
henceforward he is to be clad only in the yellow robe of this 
ancient order, older, more widespread, and more picturesque 
than any religious order in the world. He has " taken refuge 
in the Three Jewels," and now begins for him the regular life 
of the monk. He must go out daily with a file of others and 
collect food; he must attend to the needs of the older monks 
and to simple household tasks, and he must continue to study 
until he has a working knowledge of the three "Baskets," of 



420 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

Discipline, Narratives or Dialogues, and Higher Religion, 
which make up the Buddhist canon. 1 Later he may himself 
become a teacher. 

Watch him now as the great sun goes down and the pagoda, 
glorious in the sunset, as it changes from gold to purple and 
from purple to gray, is thronged with devout worshipers. 
He is prostrate before the great jeweled alabaster image of 
Buddha, unaware of the people round him, it would seem, who 
honor him as a being of a superior order; or if conscious of 
them it is with a sense of his own aloofness. " Sabba Dukkhd" 
("All is sorrow"), he is murmuring; "Sabba anatta" ("All is 
without abiding entity"), and mechanically the lay-folk 
repeat words which have been for twenty-five centuries the 
Buddhist challenge to the world. 

Here kneels a young wife offering strands of her hair, and 
praying that her child may have hair long and beautiful; 
here is an unhappy wife who prays that her husband may 
become pure as the flower which she lays at the Buddha's 
feet, and here is one very old and trembling woman who has 
bowed first to the great image and lit her little candle before 
it, and then turning back is patting a great tree lest the Nat, or 
spirit, which lives within be offended. As has been said: 

The spirits are always malignant, and have to be propitiated. The 
world Renowned One, is he not benign ? So the Burman does his best 
to serve both, but it is of the demons that he thinks most 

There is a Pagoda at or near every village in the country, and prob- 
ably also a monastery; but there is a spirit shrine in every home and the 
spirits are consulted before homes are built, marriages made, bargains 
struck, or journeys begun. 

Let us consider this group of women. What are the living 
truths of Buddhism for them ? (a) In the first place there is 
the order of monks, the great "field of merit"; did not the 
Master teach that offerings to them are potent in bringing 
benefits in this world, and even in helping the dead in the 

1 The Tipitaka: (i) Vinaya; (2) Sutta; (3) Abhidhamma. 



BUDDHISM AS A LIVING RELIGION 421 

dim life of the underworld? (b) Secondly there is the fact 
that Buddhism is a great social force providing festivals and 
giving color to life. In theory it may be sad ; in practice it is 
very cheerful! Some Christian women go to church to see the 
latest fashions; can we wonder that Burmese Buddhist 
women delight to gather on the great pagoda for a smoke, 
gossip, and friendly intercourse ? (c) Here too they hear the 
well-known Buddhist stories, often miraculous, always with a 
moral, and they know by heart the lives of certain great 
Bodhisattvas, buds of the lotus which later on will bloom into 
full Buddhahood. Before them is a picture of "Godama" 
when he was a hare and jumped into the fire to feed the hungry 
Brahmin, and here, more familiar and more poignant still, is 
his appearance as Prince Vessantara, giving away his wife 
and beloved children to a hunchback beggar. Do they ever 
question his right to do so ? (d) Then again Buddhism influ- 
ences them because it appeals to their imagination and their 
sense of mystery with its solemn chanting, its myriad shrines, 
its candles twinkling in the dusk, and the sexless sanctity of its 
monks. How wise and good they are ! Here one little woman is 
lifting a heavy stone; the monk has told her that if it seems 
heavy her prayer will surely be answered — and it weighs 
forty pounds. And then to make sure she will go and consult 
the soothsayer, whose little booth is beside the shrine — -a 
cheerful rogue, not without insight and a sense of humor. A 
friend of mine once "read" his hand and told him in fluent 
Burmese that he would be hanged. "Ho, ho!" he chuckled, 
"There are no bones in your tongue." 

Watch now this group of men. Here is one who between 
prostrations before the image is keeping his long cheroot alive 
and enjoying a puff at it. He is like many men one meets, 
making the best of both worlds, and for him Buddhism has 
its appeal because (a) it is the custom of his people; and in the 
national movement which is alive in Burma and elsewhere 
Western influence (of which Christianity seems a part) is 



422 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

resented, (b) Moreover it has launched a strong appeal to his 
reason. He understands why there is inequality in human 
lot, why some are rich and some poor, some healthy and some 
diseased. It is the law of Karma that is working out; it 
explains everything ! Men suffer now because they have sinned 
in a former birth. Listen to this conversation: old U Hpay 
is telling a neighbor of a foolish old sister who has adopted a 
calf, and is petting it because its voice is so like that of her 
dead husband! And while the old men chuckle at her belief 
that his spirit is reincarnated in this way, yet they do believe 
that that is the law. If you kill a mosquito it may be your 
mother-in-law in a new body, and still going strong! (c) More- 
over they know that there are times when there comes over 
them a wistful yearning for something which this world has 
not given them, and that in these quiet moments in the evening 
of life, when they are no longer concerned with making money 
or raising a family, the appeal of Nibbdna and its peace comes 
home to them. They do not hope to reach it, they do not 
understand what it means; for some of the monks say it will 
be "annihilation," and some say the "extinction of all passion 
and a great calm", but either way it has its appeal, especially 
to the world-weary. I remember meeting a Christian mis- 
sionary once, one of the noblest, who longed for just that 
quietude and relief from the bustle and flurry and staleness of 
life, which he felt could only be found in ceasing to be. A 
tropical climate had gradually in twenty-five years sapped his 
vitality. 

Playing around, while the old people talk or pray, are 
some children. Here a fat, naked baby takes a puff at his 
grandfather's cigar, and here is a little girl devoutly imitating 
what she sees her parents doing in the front of the image; she 
too will light her candle and offer her marigolds. And here is 
an older child for whom already there is beginning a hero- 
worship of the great being who has done so much for the world. 
She is thinking wistfully, maybe, of her brother, lately her 



BUDDHISM AS A LIVING RELIGION 423 

playmate; now a young shin with shaved head and yellow 
robe, aloof and removed from her. 

What wonder that there are over 75,000 monks in the 
country, for every mother desires that one of her sons shall 
take and keep the yellow robe, and for many this means a 
long and anxious struggle of wills. The young educated Bur- 
mese are frank in calling the monks a "yellow peril," not 
because they are bad men — public opinion will not usually 
tolerate that in Burma — but because there are so many of them, 
and because to feed them is a costly business, while to rebuild 
and gild a pagoda may mean that they will receive a decimated 
inheritance! "The pagoda is built and the village ruined" 
they quote ruefully. Moreover in the government schools and 
in contact with the "free thought" of the West they have 
learned to call themselves "heretics." Very few are really 
Buddhists; among my students not more than 10 per cent 
were orthodox. And so the old people are anxious and the 
young are restive; and Burma like many other countries is 
going through a strange period of transition. Yet undoubtedly 
Buddhism still has a great hold upon the people. How shall 
we estimate it ? 

We had read in many wise books that it was a pessimistic 
religion. As we see it in Burma it seems a strange power for 
making people happy and content — unless it be only the cheery 
temperament of the Burmese; there is certainly a wonderful 
joyousness about these gay-robed crowds of happy, smiling 
people, " the Irish of the East " we called them in happier days ! 
"A most Christ-like thing is their cheery optimism," says a 
Christian missionary, even though it has no deep roots. 

Moreover we had heard that Buddhism had degraded 
women; we find that while it does not give her nearly so high 
a place as the religion of Christ, yet it has certainly given her 
a better standing than she has in any part of India. She is the 
"better half" in Burma and knows it; while she prays to be 
born next as a man, she does not tell her husband so! 



424 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

Buddhism again has not developed a caste system and has 
made for democracy and for the education of the masses. Nor 
has it led on any large scale to religious persecution or to war: 
its lesson that "hatred is only ended by love" is one the 
world sorely needs. 

These are no small services; and yet as we get to know 
the life of the people we shall find strange evidences of want 
of control, and of lack of purpose and seriousness in life, and, 
above all, we shall find an unsatisfied longing which we believe 
can only be satisfied when they find that the great unknown 
God is near and loving and that he is not in a remote Nibbana. 

There are only about 20,000 Burmese Christians as yet, 
though the Karens are largely Christian. What then are the 
reasons which make us confident that Burma will be a Chris- 
tian country, even if, as we believe and hope, its Christianity 
is to differ profoundly from ours ? 

a) In the first place the natural instinct of the Burmese for 
religion is very strong; they have deified the great teacher 
Gautama, and gratitude to him is a strong motive. They 
tend to look upon Gautama as a savior. So strong is this 
longing for a savior that as the father blesses his child he says 
to him: "May you be reborn when the loving one, Maitri, 
comes." For Gautama himself promised a loving savior; 
and some of our most pietistic hymns are imitated: "Yes, 
Buddha saves me; yes, Buddha saves me." Buddhism, even 
in Southern Asia, is changing from a way of merit and self- 
mastery to a way of salvation by faith. 

b) Again, it is clear that Buddhists are generally much 
more ready than they were for the idea of a Christian heaven. 
This heaven preached as a state of progress, a meeting place of 
friends, and the beatific vision of God is attracting them far 
more than the old doctrine of Nirvana. "We are walking in 
darkness," said a Buddhist leader in Ceylon, "without seeing 
a light, a person, or a hope." "Nirvana," said a monk in 
Burma, "is a fearsome thought. I have no hope of attaining 



BUDDHISM AS A LIVING RELIGION 425 

it." Missionaries both in Burma and Ceylon are agreed that 
the outlook of Buddhists is changing, and a well-known mis- 
sionary, after forty years' service in Burma, has written: 
"Buddhism has changed very greatly in its teachings among 
those who have come directly or indirectly in touch with 
Christianity. Formerly, no supreme God, Nirvana, total 
quiescence, almost total annihilation, man his own savior, no 
possible escape from the penalty of sin; now there must be a 
God, Gautama a savior, sin forgiven by one God and a heaven 
in place of Nirvana." 

None the less it remains true that in very many parts there 
are no Christian doctrines which arouse more opposition than 
just these, and it would seem as if Buddhism is making a great 
last stand against the gospel of Christ. Indeed it is not clear 
yet that our Christianity is loving enough and sacrificial enough 
to win these people, who have had so high a standard set by 
their own religion. Nor is Christendom sufficiently Christian 
to be a very good argument for the efficacy and truth of our 
faith. As in other parts of the East nothing but the best is good 
enough. 

c) Yet the moral situation clearly demands either that a 
revivified Buddhism or Christianity in its most vital form 
should come to the rescue. The need is grave. 

The moral sense of the people is diminishing with a slackening of 
religious observances. With the decay of ancient beliefs the Buddhist 
religion is losing its moral sanction as an inspiring force in the lives of 
its adherents, and drunkenness, gambling, drug-taking and vicious 
habits, increasing as they all are, tend to produce a weakening of self- 
control and a loss of self-respect which in favoring circumstance easily 
create the criminal. 

So reads the government bluebook on the administration of 
criminal justice for 1912, concerning the province of Burma, 
which is at once the most literate and most criminal province in 
the Indian Empire. The fair-minded missionary would add 
that these deplorable results are in large part due to the intro- 



426 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

duction of Western "civilization," and that it is up to us in 
ordinary justice and fair play to see that the West is represented 
by the very best we can send out for mission service, in com- 
merce and to government posts. If this be done the future 
of Christianity is assured. 

Again if Christianity is indeed alive it will go out in loving 
social service; and when it does this, whether in work for the 
lepers, for the deaf and the blind, or for any other needy class 
in the community, it is welcomed with open arms by the 
people. Buddhists are generous in helping Christian work 
for the afflicted. Let us do more and still more. 

And lastly Christianity must show its power in the demon- 
haunted villages and in the stews of the great cities; it is not 
a system of ethics which these countries need. They have an 
admirable one already. " The kingdom of God is not in word 
but in power." 

II. IN CEYLON 

Let us now set over against this composite picture of the 
Buddhism of Burma a scene in a neighboring Buddhist land, 
the island of Ceylon, where for 2,500 years the religion of the 
yellow robe has held undisputed sway. It is early spring. 
The rains are over, and in the brilliant moonlight the Singhalese 
peasants have gathered from their little malarial villages to a 
hillside to listen to the preaching of the Buddhist law. Life is 
dull, and any incident and any teaching will be welcome; 
it is a strange world from which they have come, "a world of 
bare and brutal facts; of superstition, of grotesque imagination; 
a world of hunger and fear and devils, where a man is helpless 
before the unseen and unintelligible forces surrounding him." 

As in Burma, so here, demonism is inexplicably interwoven 
with the Buddhism of the people, and here it is a darker and 
more sinister demonism, as it is also a more somber and pessi- 
mistic Buddhism which speaks through the monotonous sing- 
song of the yellow-robed monk who is speaking to them and 



BUDDHISM AS A LIVING RELIGION 427 

urging upon them that life is transient and full of sorrow; that 
none the less their chief duty is to avoid taking the life of the 
meanest animal; that they are not even to kill the malarial 
mosquito or the plague-bringing rat, against which government 
edicts have gone out. The men listen dully for the most part, 
chewing betel nut the while. They have not much use for the 
"brethren," who own one-third of the arable land of the 
country and are a heavy drain upon its resources, and who, 
except fitfully, are not schoolmasters like those of Burma, but 
tend to be drones in the hive; almost all they teach the children 
are the doctrines of rebirth and of not killing. Yet, as we listen, 
here too there is a certain sense of religious peace, of an other- 
worldly calm; and, if we are fortunate, we may find some 
Buddhist layman who will talk of the deep roots which the great 
tree of Buddhism has put out in the island of Ceylon, (a) In 
the first place there are signs in these jungles everywhere of 
an ancient civilization which Buddhism undoubtedly built 
there. It taught the inhabitants to irrigate their fields, to build 
cities, to write books, and when so little has been spared, as 
wave after wave of European aggression has swept over the 
island, do they not inevitably hold on to what is left them of 
the old Buddhist past ? They venerate the relics of a civiliza- 
tion two thousand years old. Moreover in these days of dis- 
illusionment there are many world-weary men to whom the 
attraction of the monastic life is overpoweringly strong. The 
fact that there are still about eight thousand monks in Ceylon 
shows that, though men may despise the yellow robe, there 
are some who find under it protection and peace, and some 
few who use its influence for noble ends, (b) Moreover the 
intelligent layman will tell you how it has done away with 
caste and has cleansed religion. He will compare the dignity 
and harmlessness of the Buddhist temple with the gross inde- 
cencies of a Saivite shrine in South India, (c) He will show 
that Buddhism has still the power of molding public opinion, 
as for example in the strenuous appeals which the Buddhists 



428 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

have made to the government of the island to suppress instead 
of encouraging the liquor traffic. Buddhists too supported 
the Christian missions in their courageous campaign which 
closed whole streets of licensed brothels. 

These points will go home to your mind and conscience, 
and yet you will be constrained to say that the people of Ceylon 
do need Christ as Burma does, and indeed as America and 
England need him ! Here is after all the nerve of the missionary 
enterprise. We are not missionaries because we have a superior 
civilization; we go because of the fact of Christ, and because, 
though we as Western nations have not given him his rightful 
place, we are anxious that these Eastern people should bring 
their rich gifts and lay them at his feet. Are we not to be 
partners in a glorious enterprise ? 

But let us return to our moonlight preacher. While we 
have been chatting, a change has come over the audience. All 
are now alert and eager. Seated around his platform, they 
are holding a string which seems to bind them in some mystic 
circle. It is "Pirit." The preacher is reciting the ancient 
runes by which evil is averted and demon armies kept at bay. 
He is telling how the bandit Angulimala, who had killed 999 
victims and wore their fingers as a chaplet, tried to kill the 
Buddha, and was converted before he could put his thousand 
up! "May the merit of this be yours," he says, and they all 
cry "Sadhu, Amen." "All humbug," grunts our layman. 
" Come let us go to the Y.M.B.A., where a Singhalese advocate, 
newly returned from home [i.e., England], is going to read a 
paper on 'Buddhism a Gospel for Europe!'" As we leave 
the palms and fragrant trees of the jungle, silhouetted against 
the brilliant sky, and pass the white buildings of the Buddhist 
high school and the famous Temple of the Tooth (a precious 
relic of Gotama), we talk of this possibility. There is, we 
learn, a movement on foot to send a mission to Europe, and 
my friend smiles sympathetically when I say, "Well, better be 
a good Buddhist than a Christian who can think of God as a 



BUDDHISM AS A LIVING RELIGION 429 

God of battles, and attribute to him some of the strange things 
which the old Jews believed of him." We are agreed, too, that 
there are certain quarters where such a mission might begin 
its activities at once, and to my joy I find that this young Bud- 
dhist is in hearty agreement with me that if Christians were 
real followers of Jesus of Nazareth, such missions would not 
be needed. "We see your Christ," he says, "in his beauty, 
because we have first seen the beauty of our Buddha." Here is 
a preparation for the gospel indeed ! And I find myself wonder- 
ing if all we who are idealists — Buddhists, Christians, and 
others — may not co-operate much more freely in great causes. 
In Ceylon, as in Burma, Buddhism is in some degree adapting 
itself to a changing world, and its old cry of pain, " All is fleet- 
ing, transient, sorrowful," is giving place to some attempts at 
social service and positive living. Yet the predominant note 
is one of world- weariness and despair, far more emphasized 
in Ceylon than in Burma. 

Contrast these two scenes: 

A great Singhalese abbot has passed away. The hillside 
is thronged with great companies of monks in every shade of 
yellow and brown, and around them surges a somber sea of 
the faithful laity. In the center is the funeral pyre, draped in 
white and red, and, standing beside it, a monk is telling in 
solemn and mournful tones of the greatness and goodness of 
the departed, who, though he had not come in sight of Nirvana 
had his feet surely set upon the upward path leading to a good 
rebirth in some heavenly place. Then amidst solemn chanting 
and the wailing of flutes and throbbing of drums he applies a 
torch to the pyre. While the people bow their heads and cry 
Sadhu, the body returns to dust. Then solemnly and silently 
the great crowd disperses, the lay people to the ordinary duties 
of life, the monks to meditate upon its transient character and 
unreality. And here a boy monk, to whom the dead man had 
been dear, stays weeping, while the last embers die and night 
comes swiftly down. 



430 THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION 

Another funeral scene; it is that of a Buddhist monk in 
Burma, a Hpongyi. The whole countryside has turned out. 
In clothing of exquisite silk, like a brilliant swarm of butterflies, 
they surround the great catafalque blazing with tinsel and gold 
leaf. On it lies the embalmed body of the monk. Presently 
it is taken down in its coffin, and the young bloods of the 
village, in two carefully picked teams, are ranged about it. 
Then begins a tug of war, and the victorious team which 
pulls the body over the line will treat the defeated group to 
drinks and sideshows at the little booths which cluster around 
awaiting custom! It is a glad and jovial scene and all rejoice, 
for has not the good man been released from this transient life 
(which, nevertheless, is good and satisfying, while blood is hot 
and youth lasts) ? " Youth for pleasure, middle age for busi- 
ness, old age for religion." Has he not returned to a life of 
glory, and won much merit for his own folk and for all the 
faithful ? 

Soon the body is restored to its resting-place, the pyre is 
lighted, and the whole mass flares up in flame and smoke, 
consuming not only the body, but with it paintings of numerous 
demons, including an Englishman with a gun! Then with 
shouts of merriment the crowd disperses, well content, not 
least the relatives of the departed. They have put up a good 
show, the dead has been honored, the family name has been 
distinguished, and everybody is satisfied. If for the next 
year or more the family exchequer has been depleted, still it 
is the custom, and one must follow it. It has been well said 
that Buddhism is a cheery and a social thing in Burma, 
"from festive marriages to no less festive funerals." 

With one-tenth of the population nominally Christian, and 
with a revived Buddhism strongly nationalist, Ceylon may well 
be said to be at the crossroads in religion. Which of the faiths 
can produce the sincere and unselfish leaders whom she needs 
if she is to win her place as a self-governing dominion, and to 
make her own contribution to the life of the world ? Scottish 



BUDDHISM AS A LIVING RELIGION 431 

German monks, converts to Buddhism, have toiled to revive 
the drooping faith and spirit of the Buddhists of the island, 
and theosophists like Madame Blavatsky, Colonel Olcott, and 
Mrs. Besant have helped them to build schools and colleges. 
Now as she looks wistfully to the two greatest teachers of the 
world to make her strong and free, now is the time for their 
disciples to vindicate their teachings! It is a challenging 
appeal alike to the Sangha of Gotama Buddha and to the 
church of Jesus Christ. The former has held undisputed 
sway from the time of the gentle prince-missionary Mahinda, 
and has done great things for this lovable nation; the latter, 
greatly handicapped by the Prussian methods of its Portu- 
guese exponents, has now a clear field to reveal the spirit of 
its Master. There are many things in which a purified Bud- 
dhism and a really Christian Christianity can co-operate. 
Prosint!