Saturday, October 5, 2019

Buddhism in Ancient America (video)

Vladimir K. (; Native drum; Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly
The international "Buddhist flag" created by American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott

The first of two sections in How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, in nine chapters, deals with the early history of Buddhism when Native Americans in the Southwest and Mexico* made contact with Buddhist missionaries from Afghanistan and China. This section continues up to the beginning of the 20th century.
  • *The American Southwest, including all of Alta and Baja California, were part of Mexico before the USA occupied and stole these lands to expand and form an empire -- which immediately continued overseas to engulf the Philippines, Hawaii, and many smaller lands and islands in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific -- using the pretext-doctrine of "Manifest Destiny."
Buddhism before Columbus
The second section of the book picks up the story in the 20th century and introduces the more familiar characters of early Buddhism in the West like Alan Watts and the 14th Dalai Lama, the "Beat Zen" movement of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder.

This is certainly a “narrative history” of Buddhism. This is almost exclusively about Buddhism in America rather than the West in general, although the earlier chapters cover the work of the Europeans in India, Tibet, and Sri Lanka rather than China.

The early years of the transmission of Buddhism from East to West is marked by the work of well-meaning scholars, civil servants, and religious ideologues. These 19th century translators and interpreters often had a great misunderstanding about Buddhist doctrines because much of their information came from India's Brahmin class, who really didn't have much sympathy for Buddhism.

However, gradually the exclusively-Buddhist language Pali (the language of Magadha, where the Buddha lived and taught because there was no "India" yet) was learned over the Brahiminical language Sanskrit, and original canonical Buddhist texts were translated.

These very early works became known in America and Europe, among elites and the well-educated, over later, apocryphal Chinese Mahayana works based on Brahminical Indian teachings.

American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott
What is surprising in these early modern days was the role of the Theosophical Society in the late 19th century. The society, created in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky, a mysterious Russian psychic and American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott.

This was the era of Spiritualism, a time when mysterious rappings, knockings, and levitations were the rage in séance groups meeting in parlors around in America and England, under the guidance of mediums.

The Theosophical Society was set up to “collect and diffuse knowledge of the laws which govern the universe” (p.89) but, as Blavatsky later claimed, “The society was founded at the direct suggestion of Indian and Tibetan adepts” (p.90). These so-called adepts were referred to as The Masters, mysterious spiritual entities who were guiding humankind to a better and brighter future.

Only Blavatsky spoke regularly to The Masters, and Col. Olcott had but one  from a Master, who left his turban behind on Olcott's desk. One could call these people the first New Agers.

Their search for spiritual sustenance and knowledge drove the two of them to India in 1875 and then to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where they took Buddhist vows in front of a huge crowd. The American Olcott set about reviving Buddhism among the Sri Lankans, writing The Buddhist Catechism, designing a colorful Buddhist flag, as well as raising money for Buddhist schools and petitioning the British government to ease the restrictions on Buddhists in Sri Lanka.

Fields' book gives the impression that Col. Olcott singlehandedly revived Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In 1888 he was invited to lecture on Buddhism in Japan and spoke to an estimated 187,000 people over three months (p.108). 

Col. Olcott went on to Burma, and in 1890 called a meeting of Asian Buddhists in Adyar in an attempt to unite all the various Buddhist schools. History has shown that he largely failed in this noble attempt.

Olcott was undoubtedly sincere in his Buddhist beliefs and did much to proselytize Buddhism in the East and West, but there were many others in the late 19th century who took it upon themselves to promote Buddhism.

One of the most significant turning points was the World Parliament of Religions, held on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago in 1873 as part of the Columbian Exposition. Although the majority of delegates were Christian, it was here that for many Americans and Europeans the exotic East met with the staid West for the first time.

Hindu Swami Vivekananda was one of the most memorable Indians at the conference, which led to an interest in yoga among Westerners. Chinese and Japanese delegates “arrayed in costly silk vestments of all the colors of the rainbow” (p. 121) impressed everyone. Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) gave the concluding speech at the opening ceremony, which for many was the first time they had heard the preaching of Buddhism.

Dharmapala was instrumental in promoting Buddhism and reviving Bodh Gaya, India ("Enlightenment Grove," where Siddhartha awakened and became the Buddha, the "Awakened One"), as a center of Buddhist learning. A large bust of him was installed at the Maha Bodhi Rest House in 1991 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Maha Bodhi Society founded by Dharmapala (Singh, 2003:90).

On the third day of the World Parliament of Religions, Zen Master Soyen Shaku (Rinzai), one of D. T. Suzuki's teachers, was introduced to the audience as the first Zen master to come to America.

Zen in the USA after WW II
Twelve years after the conference, Soyen Shaku returned to America as a Buddhist missionary, intent on bringing Zen to America. A year later, in 1906, Sokatsu Shaku, one of Soyen Shaku's disciples arrived. Included in this group was the young artist and Zen student Sokei-an, who went on to become the first Zen master to settle permanently in America, going on to found the Buddhist Society of America in New York (which later became the First Zen Institute of America) and marrying Alan Watts' mother-in-law, Ruth Fuller Everett, in 1944.

Ruth Fuller Sasaki went to Japan after Sokei-an's death in 1945 and established a branch of the institute on the grounds of Daitoku-ji, where much translation work was done and many Westerners passed through, including Gary Snyder in 1956.

And so the flow of Westerners to Japan turned from a trickle to flood, and these Westerners -- along with the Japanese teachers -- brought the swans to the lake.

Rick Fields' book remains the first attempt to document the Buddhist movement in America. By my very rough count, there are approximately 800 people and places named in the book, from Shakyamuni (Prince Siddhartha, the historical Buddha), who started it all, through to the Tibetans, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Japanese, the Sri Lankans/Sinhalese, the Chinese, and a plethora of Westerners.

It's a fascinating story full of eccentric characters, good intentions, and great effort. Although Fields' book is well written, with a light touch that makes it easy, entertaining reading, it is only a beginning.

We now have an opportunity to leave an accurate legacy for the future about Buddhism's migration to new lands, and it would be a shame if this too was left for decades or centuries after the event. A new Rick Fields is needed (even though this is the new third edition with a little more about Thich Nhat Hanh and the post-Vietnam War Vietnamese-American contribution to Buddhism in the USA).

Modern technology and a highly literate public means that much is already recorded, and baring any cataclysmic event it should be available to future generations of scholars to sift through. One danger, however, is an overabundance of Dharma materials.

Fields has covered a vast amount of material in a single volume, beginning with Shakyamuni 2,500 years ago. Left for a relatively brief mention in the final chapter is a discussion of scandals that have hit American centers in the latter part of the century. These, too, are part of the history of Buddhism in the West and should be included, if only to prevent the history from slipping into myth and hagiography.

How the Swans Came to the Lake is not the last word on the early years of Buddhism in the West, but it is the first comprehensive history of it. As such it deserves a place on the bookshelves of Buddhists throughout the English-speaking world.

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