Buddha, The Atheist Who Loved God, and The Other James Baldwin

Last week I found a copy of The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus at my friendly neighborhood thrift shop. It was first published in 1894 (this copy is from 1973) and I could tell from the title and from skimming through it that it was like a lot of other books on Buddhism from that period, but at only a $1.50, I couldn’t resist buying it. Besides, I had always thought Carus to be an interesting figure and thought it was time I should finally look at his work.

Painting used on the cover of the 1973 edition.

The writings of early scholars and interpreters of Buddha-dharma are saturated with Biblical language and to me they often seem hopelessly antiquated. This book is no exception. “Gospel” is a word that has almost exclusively Christian connotations. Its meaning in Old English is “godspell” or god (good) + message/news. Calling the teachings of Buddha “gospel” seems to be an unfortunate choice of words. Yet, when I got the book home and began to pursue it, I enjoyed the sections I read. Perhaps the rather spare, straightforward prose style had something to do with it.

Paul Carus (1852 –1919) was an author, a professor of philosophy, and a student of comparative religion. He was born in Germany and moved to the United States in 1884. During his life, he wrote 75 books and 1500 articles. Spinoza (1632-1677) who was critical of Western philosophy and maintained that God exists only as a concept, was a major influence on Carus as a philosopher.

Paul Carus

Carus described himself as “an atheist who loved God” and called his own philosophy a “Religion of Science.” In his 1896 book by the same name he wrote,

In order to establish the Religion of Science it is by no means necessary to abolish the old religions, but only to purify them and develop their higher possibilities, so that their mythologies shall be changed into strictly scientific conceptions. It is intended to preserve of the old religions all that is true and good, but to purify their faith by rejecting superstations and irrational elements, and to discard, unrelentingly, their errors.

You could say that Carus was the Stephen Batchelor of his day, although I feel he was closer in spirit to Joseph Campbell, who some seven decades later explained that religious teachings are misunderstood because we take the myths literally instead of understanding them as metaphors for spiritual truths.

In 1893 Carus met a young D.T. Suzuki in Chicago at a meeting of the World Parliament of Religion, where the latter had translated Shaku Soen’s public address. Carus persuaded Suzuki to stay in the US and gave him a job working for his publishing house. In 1898, Carus and Suzuki published the first US translation of the Tao Te Ching. Years later, Suzuki’s individual work would be instrumental in generating interest about Buddhism in the West.

The Gospel of Buddha was one of the earliest translations of Buddhist teachings into English. In telling the story of the Buddha and his dharma, compiled from a variety of Buddhist texts, Carus modeled his approach on the New Testament, which actually is effective as overall Carus toned down both the Biblical language and the mythological elements.

Here’s a short section that I liked, largely taken from S. Beal’s 1876 translation of the Chinese Dhammapada, called “The Light of the World”:

There was a certain Brahman in Kosamba, a wrangler and well versed in the Vedas. As he found no one whom he regarded his equal in debate he used to carry a lighted torch in his hand, and when asked for the reason of his strange conduct, he replied: “The world is so dark that I carry this torch to light it up, as far as I can.”

A samana sitting in the market-place heard these words and said: “My friend, if thine eyes are blind to the sight of the omnipresent light of the day, do not call the world dark. Thy torch adds nothing to the glory of the sun and thy intention to illumine the minds of others is as futile as it is arrogant.”

Whereupon the Brahman asked: “Where is the sun of which thou speakest?” And the samana replied: “The wisdom of the Tath?gata is the sun of the mind. His radiancy is glorious by day and night, and he whose faith is strong will not lack light on the path to Nirvana where he will inherit bliss everlasting.”

As I mentioned, Carus was interested in comparative religion. In the back of the book he put a Table of Reference where he cited the chapter and verse from the book, named the source(s), and then drew his “Parallelisms.” Most of the parallels correspond to verses in the New Testament Gospels, but in the case of this story, it’s with the story of Diogenes and his lantern.

The other James Baldwin

Here is that tale about the famous Greek philosopher as interpreted by James Baldwin – not the author you are probably thinking of, but another – a James Baldwin (1841–1925) who was white, from a backwoods Quaker family, a largely self-educated man who became a teacher at 24 and later embarked on a career in publishing as an author and editor of school books for the American Book Company.  This account of the Diogenes story is from Fifty Famous Stories Retold, a children’s book Baldwin published in 1896:

At Corinth, in Greece, there lived a very wise man whose name was Diogenes. Men came from all parts of the land to see him and hear him talk.

But wise as he was, he had some very queer ways. He did not believe that any man ought to have more things than he really needed; and he said that no man needed much. And so he did not live in a house, but slept in a tub or barrel, which he rolled about from place to place. He spent his days sitting in the sun, and saying wise things to those who were around him.

At noon one day, Diogenes was seen walking through the streets with a lighted lantern, and looking all around as if in search of something.

“Why do you carry a lantern when the sun is shining?” someone said.

“I am looking for an honest man,” answered Diogenes.

When Alexander the Great went to Corinth, all the foremost men in the city came out to see him and to praise him. But Diogenes did not come; and he was the only man for whose opinions Alexander cared.

And so, since the wise man would not come to see the king, the king went to see the wise man. He found Diogenes in an out-of-the-way place, lying on the ground by his tub. He was enjoying the heat and the light of the sun.

When he saw the king and a great many people coming, he sat up and looked at Alexander. Alexander greeted him and said,–

“Diogenes, I have heard a great deal about your wisdom. Is there anything that I can do for you?”

“Yes,” said Diogenes. “You can stand a little on one side, so as not to keep the sunshine from me.”

This answer was so different from what he expected, that the king was much surprised. But it did not make him angry; it only made him admire the strange man all the more. When he turned to ride back, he said to his officers,–

“Say what you will; if I were not Alexander, I would like to be Diogenes.”

Have a good day and remember to let your light shine.


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