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Portuguese Encounters with Buddhism in the 16th and 17th Centuries

The imperial and religious projects of the Portuguese in early modern Asia brought about some of the earliest sustained contacts between Asian Buddhists and European Christians. Portuguese agents of the Crown and the Church traveled to many different lands throughout Asia and wrote letters and reports describing the new peoples and cultures that they encountered. Some of these documents include observations of Buddhist practices, ideas, and sites that reflect the initial European impressions of a religious culture that previously was virtually unknown.

My research project involves researching and analyzing Portuguese accounts of their meetings with Buddhists and their attempts to situate this religion within an early modern interpretive framework that privileged the teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church. These religious and cultural encounters took place in locations across Asia, including the lands of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, China, Bhutan, Tibet, and Japan. I expect to find evidence of a religious encounter that deviates from the Orientalist model wherein other Europeans sought to gain knowledge over Buddhism by studying its ancient texts. In contrast, the Portuguese encounters with Buddhism present an alternative historical paradigm whereby contemporary cultures were the focal points of investigation and many observers were deeply skeptical of the truth and value of Buddhist traditions. As such, these early modern Portuguese accounts may shed more light on how Europeans initially viewed Buddhists and their religion prior to the Age of the Enlightenment.