Monkey Mind, Monkey Trial

cdarrowClarence Darrow was born on this day in 1857. Darrow, of course, is most famous for being the defense attorney at Scopes “monkey” trial. As a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he participated in a number of cases that today we would call high profile, including the defense of the two notorious child killers, Leopold and Loeb. But it is that one case, in 1925, when the State of Tennessee prosecuted educator John T. Scopes for teaching “the Evolution Theory” that usually comes to mind when his name is mentioned.

Did you know that Buddhism played a role in the Scopes trial? A very small role, almost minute, but nonetheless an interesting, and somewhat amusing one.

Darrow’s opponent was William Jennings Bryan, a politician. If you’ve ever seen Inherit the Wind, the play (and later, a film) based on the trial, your impression of Bryan might be that of a turn of the century Rush Limbaugh with a bit more class. However, that would be a mistaken impression. Byran was a pacifist during the First World War, he supported “popular democracy,” and he hated banks, the railroads and had little use for the gold standard. One thing for sure, he was a man of faith, a devout Christian.

Byran (left) and Darrow
Byran (left) and Darrow

And it was for that reason, in a bit of Perry Mason-like strategy, that Darrow called Bryan as an expert witness on the Bible. The judge of the monkey trial didn’t care for that idea much, but Bryan agreed. The exchange between the Darrow and Bryan is priceless:

DARROW: Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?

BRYAN: I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there. Some of the Bible is given illustratively; for instance, “Ye are the salt of the earth.” I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people.

DARROW: But when you read that Jonah swallowed the whale — or that the whale swallowed Jonah, excuse me, please — how do you literally interpret that?

BRYAN: When I read that a big fish swallowed Jonah — it does not say whale.

DARROW: Doesn’t it? Are you sure?

BRYAN: That is my recollection of it, a big fish. And I believe it, and I believe in a God who can make a whale and can make a man, and can make both do what He pleases.

Darrow and Bryan went back and forth like that for about two hours. At one point Bryan expressed his belief that all human life was destroyed by The Flood some 4200 years before. Darrow pointed out that Chinese civilization was estimated to be about six thousand years old. Bryan stated that there were records that documented The Flood and Darrow asked about those documents. When Bryan couldn’t really answer Darrow asked him if he knew anything about religions other than Christianity:

DARROW: What about the religion of Buddha?

BRYAN: Well, I can tell you something about that, if you would like to know.

It took a while but after he first expounded at length on the subject of Confucius, Bryan eventually shared his knowledge of Buddhism:

BRYAN: Now, Mr. Darrow, you asked me if I knew anything about Buddha?

Darrow: You want to make a speech on Buddha, too?

BRYAN: No sir, I want to answer your question on Buddha.

DARROW: I asked you if you knew anything about him.

BRYAN: I do.

DARROW: Well, that’s answered, then.

BRYAN: Buddha…

DARROW: Well, wait a minute. You answered the question.

JUDGE: I will let him tell what he knows.

DARROW: All he knows?

JUDGE: Well, I don’t know about that.

BRYAN: I won’t insist on telling all I know. I will tell more than Mr. Darrow wants told.

DARROW: Well, all right, tell it. I don’t care.

BRYAN: Buddhism is an agnostic religion.

DARROW: To what? What do you mean by “agnostic”?

BRYAN: I don’t know.

DARROW: You don’t know what you mean?

BRYAN: That is what “agnosticism” is — “I don’t know”. When I was in Rangoon, Burma, one of the Buddhists told me that they were going to send a delegation to an agnostic congress that was to be held soon at Rome and I read in an official document…

DARROW: Do you remember his name?

BRYAN: No sir, I don’t.

DARROW: What did he look like? How tall was he?

BRYAN: I think he was about as tall as you, but not so crooked.

DARROW: Do you know about how old a man he was? Do you know whether he was old enough to know what he was talking about?

BRYAN: He seemed to be old enough to know what he was talking about. [Laughter.]

DARROW: If Your Honor please, instead of answering plain specific questions we are permitting the witness to regale the crowd with what some [man] said to him when he was travelling in Rangoon, India . . .

JUDGE: I will let him go ahead and answer.

BRYAN: I wanted to say that I then read a paper that he gave me, and official paper of the Buddhist church, and it advocated the sending of delegates to that agnostic conference at Rome, arguing that it was an agnostic religion and I will give you another evidence of it. I went to call on a Buddhist teacher.

DARROW: I object to Mr. Bryan making a speech every time I ask him a question.

JUDGE: Let him finish his answer and then you can go ahead.

BRYAN: I went to call on a Buddhist priest and found him at his noon meal, and there was an Englishman there who was also a Buddhist. He went over as ship’s carpenter and became a Buddhist and had been for about six years, and while I waited for the Buddhist priest I talked to the Englishman and he said the most important thing was you didn’t have to believe to be a Buddhist.

DARROW: You know the name of the Englishman?

BRYAN: No sir, I don’t know his name.

DARROW: What did he look like? What did he look like?

BRYAN: He was what I would call an average looking man.

DARROW: How could you tell he was an Englishman?

BRYAN: He told me so.

DARROW: Do you know whether he was truthful or not?

BRYAN: No sir, but I took his word for it.

JUDGE: Well, get along, Mr. Darrow, with your examination.

And on they went, absurdly, to other topics.

Now, in a completely unrelated matter, a Facebook friend shared the image below. I don’t know if either Darrow or Bryan, if they were around, would agree with the sentiment, but I like to think they both would.

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