Illustration from Hampden C. DuBose, The Dragon, Image, and Demon, 1887 (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“We are surrounded on all sides by monks who treat us in a friendly manner and every evening come to hear about the things of God; up until now… there has been no way to protect ourselves from the multitude which gathers to see us; we show our altar to the most important of them and they do reverence to the image of the Saviour.” 

These are the words of Father Antonio Almeida, a Portugese Jesuit priest from the sixteenth  century. Without any context, one would assume that Father Almeida is describing an experience that must certainly have taken place in Europe, in Christendom among his fellow Catholics. In fact, this is an excerpt from a 1595 letter he wrote in China. The “monks” and the “multitude” are not fellow Christians, but actually local Buddhists. 

Why did Chinese Buddhists show such affection and familiarity for Christian priests and imagery, despite never having come in contact with the religion before? Although the local Buddhists whom Father Almeida writes about certainly recognized him and his fellow priests as foreigners to China, they did not at first realize that these men were also the missionaries of a foreign religion. 

Simply put, they thought the Jesuits were Buddhists. 

Christianity and Buddhism have completely separated histories and traditions. Each is geographically dominant in their respective spheres. It seems almost ludicrous that Chinese Buddhists would mistake a Christian priest as one of their own. Yet this is only one example of a much more significant religious phenomenon in East Asia. There are many striking similarities between Christianity — and more specifically Catholicism — and Buddhism that came to define early Christian missionary activity in China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

The Jesuits, who were the first Catholic missionaries to East Asia, wrote about many of these similarities and used this knowledge in their attempts to convert the Chinese people. For example, one of the first similarities that the Jesuits noticed were the striking parallels between Buddhist and Catholic clergy. Both take strict vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity. Both have counterpart female orders. Both are often set apart from society in monasteries and nunneries. Crucially, they both also wear special clothing to mark their religious status. This would soon change, but when the Jesuits first came to China, they wore the iconic orange robes of the Buddhist monks to indicate their religious mission. Is it any wonder, then, that locals would mistake the identity of these Catholic priests as Buddhist monks? 

Photograph from Frederic Courtland Penfield, East of Suez. Ceylon, India, China and Japan, 1907 (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The similarities do not end there. Ritualistically, both religions share a love of images and song in their ceremonies. Father Matteo Ricci, the pioneering Jesuit missionary to China, once noted: “When (the Buddhist monks) recite, their chants seem just like our plainsong.” Buddhist temples are also decorated with a host of holy images and religious iconography, just like Catholic churches. 

There are also theological similarities. Like many religions, Buddhism and Christianity place a focus on almsgiving. They both have a concept of the afterlife that includes a heaven and a hell. Their origin stories are also similar. The Buddha and Jesus Christ are obviously not interchangeable, but ancient scriptures record their births were both heralded by prophets and other omens.  

Beyond these theological, ritualistic, and hierarchical parallels, Buddhism and Christianity also have similar ways of looking at the world. They encourage their adherents to live a life poised between living in the world and rejecting the world. In Buddhism, this is called the Middle Way. In Christianity, this is exemplified by the life Jesus lived, as a man among his family and friends and community, in the Roman Empire. 

Today, Buddhism is typically thought of as a deeply abstract and philosophical religion compared to Christianity. This is true to an extent. Comparative religion theorist Rudolf Otto noted: “Christianity is a religion of revelation, but Buddhism is a religion that is proud of the fact that it knows nothing of it.” Buddhism, however, is more than its orange-clad monks, exemplified by the genial and ubiquitous Dalai Lama. It is more than the dogma-free spirituality that so many of its modern-day Western fans have turned it into. Among Buddhism’s believers, there is a rich tapestry of art and song, as well as a faith with real goals for salvation. Buddhism, as the Jesuit missionaries encountered in the sixteenth century, had a more complex and significant role in Asian societies like China than simply as a mode of philosophical thought. 

Matteo Ricci wearing shenyi (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This appreciation of Buddhism’s history and tradition helps to explain why Father Almeida and the other Jesuits were so joyously welcomed by the Chinese Buddhists over 400 years ago. 

The seemingly serendipitous relationship between the Catholics and Buddhists in China, however, was not to last. As the Jesuits continued to establish themselves, they came to align their mission more closely with the interests of the Confucian literati elite. The priests exchanged their orange Buddhist robes for shenyi, or the robes of the Confucian scholars. They saw in the Confucians a way to get closer to the Chinese emperor because many of them were government officials. They hoped that increased contact with the emperor would eventually result in his conversion, and from there the conversion of all of China. Whatever relationship initially existed between Catholic priests and Buddhist monks ended when the Jesuits began to ally themselves with the anti-Buddhist sentiments of many of the Confucianists, to the extent that they began to write their own anti-Buddhist works. 

Thinking about how Catholicism and Buddhism are mirror images of each other in China, Father Almeida later said: “In this place, I have seen how the devil imitates the holy ceremonies of the Catholic Church.” This became the dominant view of many missionaries in China: Buddhism was a diabolical imitation of Catholicism in the East and had to be opposed on every front. 

By the eighteenth century, the Vatican itself had grown leery of how far the Jesuits had gone in adapting Christianity to the seemingly idolatrous Confucian traditions. In what historians now call the Chinese Rites controversy, the pope severely curtailed the relationship between the Jesuits and the Confucians. Had the Jesuits in China taken a more accepting view of Buddhism as a religion similar to Christianity, their syncretic missionary efforts may have been more successful. 

Anastasia McGrath is a senior at Fordham University studying Chinese and a 2020-2021 Duffy Fellow.