Mahāyāna Phoenix: Japan's Buddhists at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions
A remarkable group of Japanese Buddhists traveled to Chicago's Columbian Exposition to participate in the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions. These delegates combined religious aspirations with nationalist ambitions. Their portrayal of Buddhism mirrored modern reforms in Meiji Japan and the historical context of cultural competition and religious exhibition on display at the 1893 World's Fair. Japan's primary contribution to the Exposition, the Hō-ō-den temple architecture, demonstrated the symbiosis between Buddhism and Japanese national interests in Chicago. Religious and aesthetic dimensions of culture balanced Japan's reputation for rapid modernization. Moreover, the symbolism of the Hō-ō, or phoenix, was apt for Buddhist renewal succeeding devastating Meiji persecution, Mahāyāna revitalization following withering attacks of Western critics, and Chicago's resurrection from the ashes of the Great Fire. I examine Japanese journals, letters, and reports as well as contemporaneous Western accounts of the 1893 Exposition and Parliament in order to assess the Japanese delegates' motivations, strategies and representations of Buddhism.
Representatives from various sects of Japanese Buddhism united behind a common drive to exhibit their modern rendition of Mahāyāna. They portrayed Mahāyāna as authentically ancient, pragmatically modern, scientifically consistent and universally salvific. Delegates promoted Mahāyāna to introduce Japanese Buddhism to the West, to repair negative evaluations of the “great vehicle” of Buddhism, to differentiate Japanese Buddhism from the Buddhism of other countries, and to distinguish Mahāyāna as the evolutionary culmination of all religions. The Japanese representatives associated Mahāyāna with positive aspects of Asian religions and Western civilization. They strategically dissociated Japanese Mahāyāna from perceived negative aspects of Western material excess, Christian imperialism, supersition, nihilistic interpretations of Buddhist nirvana, and degenerate forms of Mahāyāna, such as the “Lamaism” of Tibet. Their performances were interpreted through the hosts' symbolic systems. However, they were not mere objects of orientalist projection. The Japanese delegates were active, and sometimes successful, agents who seized the opportunity of the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions to further their own objectives.