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The Oriental Religious and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations by Carl T. Jackson
Reviewed by Pedersen, K. Priscilla

These three books present a great deal of useful information about Asian religions in the United States. The first deals mainly with Hinduism and less with Chinese religion or with Buddhism, which was little known in this country and insufficiently distinguished from Hinduism until the 1870s, when advances in scholarship, and especially the publication in 1879 of Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia, made the image of "Buddhism" more distinct. The second and third, as their titles indicate, are about Buddhism almost exclusively. As tradition oriented, historical accounts, all three compensate for the a historical tendency of sociological studies of "new" or "alternative" religions to put all religious activity which does not seem to belong to the "mainstream" of American Biblical religions into a single category. Such classification tends to blur or overlook the fundamental differences of doctrine and practice between one "new religion" and another, and so to lead to inaccurate or incomplete description and analysis. The works reviewed here, as well as any others which take a similar approach, should help to balance this.

Carl Jackson's The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth Century Explorations is a thorough, meticulous historical investigation. Jackson consistently pursues the questions "What was known?" "Who knew it?" "How did they come to know it?" and "What did they make of what they know?" giving detailed answers throughout thirteen chapters, beginning with the late eighteenth century and ending with the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. Decade by decade, he documents with care and precision the growth and change of American understanding of Asian religions, and does not limit himself to the expected well-known figures and movements like Sir William Jones, the Transcendentalists, Theosophy, or Ernest Fenollosa. He also examines the work of early American writers on Asian religions, such as Hannah Adams and Joseph Priestly, and describes (to sample the book's contents) the enthusiasm of John Adams for the study of Asian religions, the reports of Christian missionaries to Asia, the interchange of Unitarians with Rammohun Roy, and subsequent relations of the Free Religious Association and the Brahmo Samaj, and the author also gives a summary of the ongoing progress of American Orientalist scholarship, both academic and amateur.

This book should remain the standard introduction to its subject for a good time to come. For the person who wishes to research a particular area, there could hardly be a better beginning than Jackson's copious notes for each chapter and the extensive bibliography. One of the book's strengths is that it draws on thirty-five different nineteenth century periodicals as well as many other sources. The non-specialist should not be put off by the wealth of minutiae. These Explorations never lose continuity or momentum, and will make absorbing reading for anyone interested in Asian religions, American religion, or the nineteenth century in general. One could pick at a few details: it might be better to update old-fashioned spellings of Indian names (for example, "Majumdar" rather than "Mozoomadar") and to give a somewhat fuller explanation of terms or ideas important in Asian traditions. It is inadequate, for example, to call the ''pansil" received by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott in Sri Lanka "a ritual approximating the Christian confirmation." On the whole, however, the study is exemplary of its type and can be recommended virtually without reservation.

Jackson does not venture a thesis on the significance of Asian religions in America. In a brief after word he notes that "the American discovery of Oriental religion was largely a literary enterprise: in which European influence was crucial, and which was often impelled by negative reactions to Christianity, though this common beginning predicted no uniform conclusion for the many contacts that took place." Jackson rightly states that his study demonstrates that "the American encounter with Asian religion was already advanced by the end of the nineteenth century." As for the present, Jackson believes that "a close observer of the contemporary scene can already see that Oriental religious and philosophical ideas constitute a significant force in twentieth-century American culture." Although he thinks the future is unclear, he is willing to say that "the contemporary American interest in Asian thought will one day be viewed as an important phase in an unprecedented encounter of Eastern and Western societies," and refers to the ideas of Arnold Toynbee, F. S. C. Northrop, and William McNeill on the interaction of civilizations.

In contrast, Charles Prebish holds that Buddhism, at least, "has made almost no impact at all" on American society (p. xviii), though like Jackson he makes no predications. In his American Buddhism he focuses on Buddhism in America with a specific concern: the ways in which Buddhism in the United States is achieving, or failing to achieve, a viable American identity. In his introduction he says, "I will try to outline . . . some of the directions Buddhism must take if it is to become part of the fiber of American religious life. Whether there are distinctly Buddhist answers to American problems remains to be seen." (p. xix).

American Buddhism is the book to read first if one is seeking solid information on the state of Buddhist institutions in America. The current edition of Richard Robinson and Willard Johnson's The Buddhist Religion lists it as "the best book to date, detailed and well-informed." In the first of three sections, Prebish gives an abbreviated historical overview of Buddhist traditions as they have been transmitted to America, and then proceeds to a discursive and interpretive account of the periods 1893 to 1960 ("Buddhist Beginnings in America," starting with the World Parliament of Religions), 1961-1970 ("The Consciousness Explosion"), and after 1971 ("In the Aftermath of Chaos"). The book's second part, which makes it indispensable for the study of the subject, is an examination of eight Buddhist groups Prebish has selected as most "stable," with abundant factual information under the following headings: sectarian affiliation, history; facilities and structure; branches and affiliated groups; key members and/or personnel; membership; key and/or special doctrines; rituals, services, and practices; future plans; and publications. The "concluding remarks" ending the treatment of each group include Prebish's own comments and evaluation. A third and final section is a general analysis further developing Prebish' s own ideas and recapitulating the data, using Robert Ellwood's (Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America) list of typical features of "cults" as an organizing scheme.

It seems that Prebish had to do a great deal of selection and compression to create this two-hundred-odd-page study from what he tells us were massive files. In places the presentation shows signs, in continuity, style, and pace, of the surgery performed to reduce it to its present length. Still, American Buddhism is not only highly informative but lively, with vivid description, illustrative anecdotes, the author's own (often pointed) remarks, and frequent quotations from other interpreters including Martin Marty, Harvey Cox, and Aghenanda Bharati. As is almost inevitable with a work on this subject, the book (which contains no references to publications or events past 1977) is now somewhat out of date, since Buddhist groups in the West are in a phase of rapid growth which sees notable changes in a five or ten-year period.

The view Prebish offers of Buddhism trying to become American is not a fully developed sociological or theological interpretation. A full account would have had to incorporate explanation of what is distinctively American in "American religious life" and of what the especially "American problems" referred to in the introduction actually are. Prebish does not undertake any such sustained discussion of American religion, but confines himself to a series of specific, connected observations. As American Buddhism and the book by Rick Fields reviewed below both show, Buddhism in America has become extensively institutionalized only since the second World War, and mostly in the last decade. In the present situation, Prebish says, "With the task of finding its American identity, the question of the specifics of lifestyle was to become the chief concern for American Buddhists in the 1970s" (p. 39). Answers to this question depend on finding workable ways to do two things: preserve the authenticity of tradition and at the same time make appropriate adaptations to the needs of a new clientele in a new cultural setting. If these things are not done, Buddhism cannot flourish as both truly "Buddhist" and truly "American."

Prebish makes several points about "lifestyle" which are repeated throughout the book. One is that Buddhism in America is a lay movement and must be recognized as such by members of Buddhist communities. The evidence he and Fields present actually suggests that the development of forms of lay and "family" practice, conjoined with an often moderated monasticism, is well under way. Many of the teachers of Buddhism in America are married, and even those who are not are flexible in dealing with lay students. When it is seen as needed for effective self-cultivation, practice in a monastic setting is made available as a long or short term option. This brings us to another of Prebish's points. From time to time he deplores the fact that American Buddhists flee city life hoping to find serenity in rural centers. He emphasizes that Buddhism in America is, or should be, urban, since the very things which make the city a difficult place for Buddhist practices also make it a good training ground. Whether or not this potential has now been recognized, and even if there is, or once was, such an anti-urban attitude in Buddhist communities, no exodus to the country has in fact taken place. The typical pattern for Buddhist groups seems to be an original, founding center in a city, followed by expansion into a network of city and suburban centers, and, when funds become available, establishment of a monastery-style retreat outside the city. The later is not an escape; rather, city and country practice are seen as complementary, often alternating.

A further observation Prebish makes on the concrete forms of American Buddhism is that in the 1960s the Buddhist temples in America were for the most part not only Asian in design (obviously manifest in their architecture) but also in ritual function. Thus, robbed of American sacred centers, American Buddhists ... found themselves expressing a religious ideal and creativity more appropriate for Asia than for America. Buddhist community life in America was consequently handicapped by its lack of mythic meaning.... (p. 37)

It is hard to know just how to assess or respond to this judgment. At this time the majority of teachers of Buddhism in the West are Asians. Many of them have imported Asian Buddhist liturgy, implements, and decor wholesale to their American centers, and they evidently see nothing wrong in this. They are eager to use modern methods of construction but at the same time to reproduce traditional forms. Thus the International Daibosatsu Zendo in the Catskill mountains of New York State is modeled after a Kyoto temple that is a Japanese national treasure. The person who oversaw the building of this impressive facility, Shimano Eidoo Roshi, has said that "Japanese culture is Zen itself' (Fields, p. 365). At Odiyan, the Nyingma community founded by Tarthang Tulku and now under construction, not only a 108-foot stupa but a twelve-ton prayer wheel, powered by electricity and containing millions of mantras printed by modern methods, are planned. Perhaps Prebish would feel that such projects are not successful "American Buddhism," and he might heartily disagree with eidoo Roshi's pronouncement. But it is likely that not only Asian teachers, but many of their Western students as well, regard the shapes, sounds, and acts of traditional Zen or Tibetan Vajrayaana, for example, not merely as culturally determined but as forms which in some essential manner embody sacredness or a Buddhist consciousness. Eidoo Roshi takes this position in one way. In the intensely iconic Tibetan tradition it may be taken just as strongly, if not more strongly, in another way. Nevertheless, transformation is inevitable with the passage of time, and in some cases decisive changes have already been made. It is well known by now that Philip Kapleau Roshi and his teacher, Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, broke off their relationship over a disagreement over the translation of chants into English, yet this practice (which Prebish supports) is now not uncommon. It is interesting to imagine, but impossible to foresee--or prescribe--the innovations which will be made by American Buddhist leaders of future generations if lineages now being transmitted to the West continue and flourish.

Prebish expresses concern that "the integrity of [Buddhism's] various traditions be protected by teachers who bear the authentic seal of their lineage" (p. 177) but says that all the teachers dealt with in his book have "unquestionable ...credentials and religious experience." He alludes, however, to others "not so exemplary." He faults Chogyam Trungpa, in spite of impeccable tradition, for "textually unsound" and "unorthodox" teachings, and for being "out of touch" with the rank and file of his followers, who, according to Prebish, are "often victims of serious misunderstanding that results in a transparent anti-intellectualism" (p. 154). He appears to feel in general that all too often American devotees of Buddhism are likely to have enthusiasm out of proportion to their real grasp of Buddhist ideas. He points out that groups with a grounding in "sound, basic doctrines, shared by all Buddhists, and in solid religious practice" are "slow to develop, conservative in nature, and remarkably stable in growth, activity and teaching" (p. 51). Others, "garnering the 'fallout' of social upheaval," are "inherently unstable." A broad identification with American values and culture is desirable, Prebish says, and groups which identify themselves with counter cultural rejection of these values will prove unable to consolidate any gains that they have made.

Finally, Prebish makes the general statement that "Buddhism's sameness with American values, its affirmation of America's mission, is the key that unlocks the door to Buddhism's future success in this country" (p. 181). These values are characterized simply as "the unique qualities of freedom, equality and justice held dear by so many Americans." It is not clear how Prebish envisions this identification; the participation in American civil religion, to which Prebish gives importance, is not a means to, but a sign of, the thoroughgoing acculturation which, in Prebish's opinion, the Americanization of Buddhism must be. He does suggest, however, that appropriation of American values might entail a "violation" of Asian Buddhist orthodoxy or even a break with the parent tradition (p. 181). If so, one might ask, how is "violation" or compromise to be approached? How is a "break" to be contemplated? Who is to decide, and how, what is right for Asian or Western Buddhists? A rough analogy which could be made is the situation now faced by Roman Catholicism with the growth of its Third World churches. How is a congregation to be at the same time truly "African" and truly "Christian," for example? The same fundamental problem of defining a religious identity arises in both cases. Both Christianity and Buddhism seem to claim from their beginnings to be bearers of a universal message and to have something to say about human experience as such. If this is the case, then something is conveyed in the doctrine, however problematic it may be to locate or expose, which transcends cultural situations. That "something," if it can be found, is the sine qua non of a "Buddhist" or "Christian" identity. It is not necessary, in the case of Buddhism, to think of this in terms of an ur-Buddhism, which Prebish says we cannot talk about, but just, to use his words, "sound, basic doctrine, shared by all Buddhists." If, on the other hand, there is no such essential doctrine, then we must be clear on the fact that when we speak of "Buddhism" or "Buddhists" we are being entirely conventional. This is quite possible, but in this case we have no business making recommendations to any "Buddhists" about what they should teach, practice, or otherwise do.

No such complex normative questions arise in Rick Fields' How the Swans Came to the Lake. A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Here the tone is, "Buddhism is here to stay--hooray!" This book covers much of the same ground as Jackson and Prebish, but the more recent the events discussed the more detail is given, so that it is a very helpful supplement to Prebish but adds little to the insights found in Jackson. "Narrative" for Fields means a period-by-period, and sometimes almost year-by-year structuring, and a chatty, anecdotal, journalistic style. Book One begins with the life of Siddhaartha Gautama and goes through major developments in Buddhist tradition and early Buddhist contacts with the West in two chapters. Following chapters deal with the beginnings of European Orientalism (mostly William Jones), America in the nineteenth century, and Chinese and Japanese immigration. Book Two tells the story of the transmission of Zen and Tibetan Vajrayaana to America, following the work of a number of individual teachers and the growth of their missions. Some information is also given about the teaching of vipassanaa meditation, the congregation founded by the Vietnamese Master Thich Thien-an, and the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn. The very large groups of Asian-American Buddhists carefully treated by Prebish (Nichiren Shoushuu and the Pure Land denomination, Buddhist Churches of America) are neglected by Fields, so that the story of Japanese American Buddhists is begun but not finished. After the historical miscellany of the first section, Fields turns his attention to what clearly interests him most: the Buddhism of Western seekers, mostly Mahaayaana, which in different ways in the work of different teachers is passing from traditional formulations to modernist restatements.

How the Swans Came to the Lake is not a scholarly work. The worst parts are those in the beginning, which to be reliable would require proper use of sources. For example, in recounting the life of the historical Buddha, Fields gives a periodization of his teachings taken from Bu-ston: three "turnings of the wheel of Dharma" as the Four Truths and anaatman, praj~naparamitaa, and "demon-stration of a absolute reality." Of course this "Hinayaana"-Mahaayaana-Vajrayaana classification has nothing to do with the life of Gautama, at least as far as historical scholarship is concerned. Since no other analysis of the development of the Buddha's teachings is given, the relation between such scholarship and the "narrative" being presented is in need of clarification. Fields says in his endnotes, "My source for the life of the Buddha was primarily Bu-ston, the twelfth-century Tibetan historian. For the description of the Buddha's enlightenment, however, I have followed the Zen tradition." He does not explicate the assumptions or principles which for him validate this way of proceeding. The account of the rise of Mahaayaana, almost entirely in terms of Vinaya controversy, is greatly oversimplified. A considerable amount of material on the journey of a party of Chinese monks in the fifth century C.E. to "Fu-sang," taken to be America, is included without criticism of the evidence. Other instances of carelessness could be enumerated, but suffice it to say here that the volume of detail is not balanced by discipline in treatment. The size of the book arouses expectations about its standard which go unfulfilled.

The less scholarly and the more informal and full of stories the book becomes, the better it is. Once Fields begins to write about teachers, living and dead, whose lives are recorded by still-living disciples and friends, How the Swans Came to the Lake is entertaining, moving, illumining, and informative, though not in the solid, systematic fashion of Jackson and Prebish. There is no other single place where one can find so much information on recent and contemporary teachers of Buddhism in America. One could call it (there are photos) a Buddhist People magazine. Much of the material comes from books and the literature put out by Buddhist organizations, but much is also drawn from interviews, personal experience, and broad familiarity with a Buddhist subculture. It is worth reading if only for the flavor provided by irresistible details and quotations like these:

Whitman on Emerson:"I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil." Emerson on Whitman: Leaves of Crass is "a mixture of the Bhagavat-Gita and the New York Herald" (a tabloid of the day). Paul Carus, around the turn of the century, set verses of the Dhammapada to Western classical melodies, saying in defense of this practice, "Chopin's Nocturne, Opus 37, could not be better described than as a longing for Nirvana." The Zen master Sasaki Sokei-an went out for the evening in 1930s New York in a tuxedo and a Groucho Marx-style large false nose and moustache. In 1953 Allen Ginsberg (beat Zen) found Ruth Fuller Sasaki's (square Zen) First Zen Institute "like a university club." In San Francisco in the late 1960s, a fund-raiser for the Zen Center, featuring the Grateful Dead and other local bands, was called a "Zenefit."

Fields' style is sometimes marred by too much of a kind of AmericanVajrayaana pietism. One must also say, however, that he is tactful and sym-* pathetic in speaking of the weaknesses of individual teachers, of rivalry between them, and of the greenness and confusion of their new disciples. In spite of its defects, How the Swans Came to the Lake is a valuable record of cultural change, and there is no other "human-interest" document on who individual American Buddhists and their teachers are, and what they have been doing, which can substitute for it.

Taken together, these three books give a rich and enlightening picture of Asian religions in America. There are several aspects of the history of Asian religions in the West which remain to be accounted for to make the picture we have now in the growing literature more complete.

Firstly, works bringing our knowledge of Hinduism in the West up to date are necessary.

Secondly, the European side of the story needs to be told. Jackson makes clear that the history of nineteenth-century understanding of Asian religions is largely a history of learning gotten from Europe. In the twentieth century, direct contacts between Asia and America increased, but still there has been constant interaction with Europe as influential teachers traveled across the Atlantic between their European and American students. An account, comparable in detail and analysis to the works reviewed here, of the whole history of Asian religions in Europe would be an enormous task, but an important one. If there already is such a major general study, I am not aware of it.

Thirdly, the story needs to be told with much more attention to the Asian point of view. How do Asian teachers themselves view their work in the West, the responses of seekers and students, and the changes in tradition which have begun? What motivates so many to leave Asia to teach and even to live permanently in foreign countries? How are these views and motivations related to so ciai, political, and religious change in Asia, and to modernizatio n (or lack of it) in Asian traditions in the post-colonial era? Both teachers and students frequently go from one continent to another and back again. How is this exchange likely to affect the future of Asian religious thought and practice? How do the Tibetan and Zen "establishments" in India and Japan look upon the authorization of Westerners as successors in their lineages? Altogether, what exactly are the relations between what is going on in the old world and in the new one?

Lastly, if it is possible to claim with Jackson that "Oriental religious and philosophical ideas constitute a significant force in twentieth-century American [or Western] culture," then this claim has to be examined. Doing this involves an assessment of how much is actually known and understood of Asian religions by Westerners, and this in turn entails an assessment of the progress and influence of scholarship[l]. Here more case studies such as Guy Welbon's The Buddhist Nirvaa.na and Its Western Interpreters (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1968) or the recent India in the Mind of Germany: Schelling. Schopenhauer and Their Times by Jean W. Sedlar (Washington: University Press of America, 1982) would be useful contributions. Jackson deals only with American scholarship, so the reader of his book is, as it were, listening to one end (the less talkative one) of a telephone conversation. Prebish, who is abundantly qualified to do so and therefore prudently hesitant, does not say much about Buddhist studies scholarship, centering his attention on organizations and practices. Fields refers to some scholars, but in the second part of his book only as they are directly connected with groups he is discussing. Prebish and Fields both mention the considerable amount of study, including scholarly study, which goes on under the auspices of Buddhist organizations in America, to say nothing of what is done in universities. The interrelation between Buddhist studies in the academic context and the practice of Buddhism by Westerners is not explored by any of our authors, but it is complex and far-reaching. It is frequent that a graduate student or Ph.D. in Buddhist studies also is a Buddhist. it is commonplace for seekers or committed Buddhists who are not scholars to read more or less deeply in translations of primary sources of Buddhism. The same pattern holds true for a number of Hindu groups. Consideration of the present state of scholarship and its effect on religious and intellectual life and a serious look at contemporary nonacademic writings by both Asian and Western adherents of Asian religions are both called for.

It is against this background that we could fruitfully reflect on the nature of Western commitment to Asian religious traditions. It is needless to say that terms like "commitment" or "conversion" need study in themselves, but their use implies at the least that some fundamental decision or judgment is made. It is not my intention here to debate whether or not a Westerner can "really become" a Buddhist or a Hindu. What is important, I believe, is to think about what happens when a Westerner judges doctrines of an Asian religion--as understood by that person--to be compelling or true. This question is not really answered by studies which show that certain conditions predict movement to non-main stream religion or by interpretations which speak mostly of reaction against something, which may or may not be the beginning of this transition but is not its end. The question can be approached historically, sociologically, and psychologically, but its more satisfying clarification requires the application also of methods of theology and philosophy.



1. For overviews of Buddhist studies scholarship, see Alex Wayman, "Buddhism," in Historia Religionum, ed. C. Jouco Bleeker and Geo Widengren (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971), vol. 2, Religions of the Present, pp. 457-461; and J. W. de Jong, "A Brief History of Buddhist Studies in Europe andAmerica," Parts 1 and 2, The Eastern Buddhist, n.s. 7, no. 1 (May 1974):55-106, and no. 2 (October 1974):49-82.


Updated: 1-5-2001

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