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Buddhism in the West
By Jagannatha Prakasa (© 1987; last updated March 24, 2017)

The story of the Buddha's life and enlightenment is well known even in the West, where as a popular discipline it is comparatively neoteric. In this study I will therefore assume that the reader has a basic understanding of Buddhism or, more properly, of the Buddha dharma (the way to awakening; SW 47). Rather than offer an introductory paper on Buddhism, herein I will discuss Buddhist development in the West and consider the Dharma's application and relevancy to contemporary Anglo-American experience.

Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha ("the enlightened or awakened one"), lived in the sixth century B.C.E. in northeastern India (MoF 93) ( 1 ). At the time of his birth, India was in a state of transformation. As today in the West, the Indian people of his day were questioning the traditional religious methodologies and values of their society. The writings of the Upanishads were nearing completion, and philosophical speculation was everywhere present. The emerging Atman Doctrine (i.e. the teaching that both Atman (or Self) and Nirguna Brahman (the a-cosmic substrata of all existence) are identical) was offering hope that perhaps Truth could be realized individually through meditation and direct experience, rather than through the external sacrifices of the hierarchal Brahminical priesthood. During this period of uncertainty and philosophical exploration, Shakyamuni's enlightenment and teachings presented a radically different perspective (WR 223).

Due in part to the current philosophic and scientific suppositions concerning relativism, many people are again questioning the basic assumptions upon which traditional western religions, especially Christianity, are based. I discuss this in detail in my study The Great Awakenings. Many people today find these conventional beliefs lacking in substance, yet continue to feel the need for spiritual insights and experiences. In Buddhism, many of these people are finding an ancient tradition that is capable of satisfying their spiritual necessities, while at the same time, is fully applicable to current scientific and philosophic understandings. Considering the growing popularity of the Buddhadharma in the West, as well as its influence on the emerging cognitive sciences, it is vital that we have at least a basic understanding of Buddhist thought and how it is entering into western religious, philosophical and scientific paradigms.

Buddhism has a long and respectable history in the West, although it has never commanded the large following it does in East. This may be changing however. Today western religious, philosophic and scientific speculation is converging with Eastern insights, especially those of the Buddha dharma (SW 6,7).

The designations of East and West are far more arbitrary than many would care to believe (MiD 199). Throughout recorded history, explorers and travelers have circumambulated the globe. Certainly there were regions with little or no outside contact, however these were in the minority (S 13,14). It is not surprising therefore, that Buddhism has existed in the West for centuries, perhaps not as a mature religious system, but its influences have clearly been felt.

At least as far back as the Persian ruler Darius I (c.500 B.C.E.), the West has had first-hand knowledge of basic Eastern concepts ( 2 ). By the time Alexander the Great conquered Darius III (Codomannus) at the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C.E. western influence was permanently established in India (HA 6,7). Even the Buddhist architecture of Asoka with its pillars and winged lions owed much to western influence (S 13,14). Indeed, the link between India and the West, in architecture, language, economics, religion, and philosophy is of great antiquity.

After the Christian subjugation of Europe however, the exchange of ideas between what the Church viewed as the "heathen East" and the "godly (i.e. Christian) West" was largely halted. As Rick Fields points out, regardless of how pure their ideals or sound their ethics, the eastern masters were condemned as unrepentant heathens destined for eternal torment. Hence, eastern thought was generally rejected in the West and most communication ceased due to Christian religious and cultural intolerance (S 20).

It is incorrect to say however that during the Church's theocratic stranglehold on the West only its missionaries confronted Buddhists. While contact was minimal, it did occur. For instance, there were the travels of famous explorers such as Marco Polo (1254-1324). La Loubere, Louis the XIV's envoy to the king of Siam (1678-1679), discussed "the difficult concept of nirvana" in detail in his Description du Royaume de Siam (S 24). Likewise, in 1727 Englebert Kampfer, with his History of Japan Together with a Description of the Kingdom of Siam published the first English book on Zen Buddhism and introduced zazen, satori and Koans (S 24,25) ( 3 ) .

Contact between Buddhism and the West remained quite limited until the late nineteenth century however. It took some twenty-four hundred years for true dialogue between Buddhism and the West to resume.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) were, in effect, two of the leading exponents of western Buddhism and Hinduism, although neither ever met a Buddhist or a Hindu as far as we know. Their knowledge came from books and contemplation on the ideals propounded in them (PN 522). For Thoreau, any comparison between Indian and western philosophy revealed that, "...our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial..." (S 55). Although the nineteenth century was not yet enlightened enough to recognize Thoreau as the great thinker he was, the nature schools that began to develop at the end of the century hailed and published his works. His writings have made a deep and lasting impression on the western psyche. His appreciation for Hinduism and Buddhism set the stage for their later emergence in the West (W vii-ix).

The California Gold Rush (1849), the Silver Rush (1859), and the building of the Transcontinental American Railroad (completed 1869), attracted many Chinese men to Gold Mountain (SF 74,75; S 70). With them came the Buddha dharma ( 4 ). By 1860, one-tenth of all Californians were Chinese and their immigration has not yet stopped. It is not surprising therefore, that Northern California remains a major center for Buddhism in the West (S 72). Chinatown San Francisco is in fact the largest Chinese settlement in the western world ( 5 ). Japan town San Francisco is another large hub for Buddhism. Yet not only the Chinese and Japanese, for from across Asia millions of people, primarily Buddhists (along with immigrants from virtually every other country), came seeking their fortunes in the New World (SF 137).

What these new Americans transplanted in the West however, was, often as not, something other than Buddhism properly speaking. They brought with them the confusing, at least to westerners, popular admixtures of rural Asian traditions including Confucianism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism (S 74). This is the nature of the Sanatana Dharma: "Truth is one, the sages call it by different names."

These traditions were so mingled together that few could point out their divisions or where one began the other ended. These eclectic belief systems must have been as confusing to their Anglo-American neighbors as they had to the missionaries of past ages. Partly for this reason, despite the rapidly growing Buddhist communities in the West, the Buddhadharma remained largely a mystery religion to non-Asians. Not only did the Buddhists not proselytize outside their communities, they generally discouraged non-Asian conversions to Buddhism (S 75). In this they were quite similar to the Jews who had been in America since the beginning. This attitude continues to be the case in the majority of Chinatown temples and monasteries today.

To their neighbors, the San Francisco Chinese were generally viewed as quiet, industrious people. This however did not prevent persecution. Mark Twain noted that, "No California gentleman or lady ever abuses or oppresses a Chinaman... only the scum of the population do it... and habitually and consistently the policemen and the politicians likewise, for these are the dust-licking pimps and slaves of the scum, there as elsewhere in America" (SF 82). When these 'scum and their dust-licking pimps and slaves' sought to prevent the practice of Buddhism however the Chinese became quite active in defending their First Amendment rights. This resulted in many court battles, such as John Eldridge vs. the See Yup Company (1859). Chinese legal victories were often contested in vicious street violence (SF 82; S 70-75) but they helped to maintain the freedoms of all Americans.

A major turning point in Buddhist-western dialogue began in the 1870's with the blossoming of American Spiritualism. Madame Helena Petrova Blavatsky, an expert occult Spiritualist, maintained that only in the East, the cradle of Occultism, were the mysteries preserved intact. She implied that she had been initiated into certain Occult lodges and had come to America to point the way Eastward. Reminiscent of Thoreau ( 6 ) Madam Blavatsky stated, "You want to write esoteric facts and you give instead English race prejudice. The Indians are immensely higher spiritually than Europeans, who may not reach their level for some millenniums yet..." (S 95). As a result of this conviction, Madam Blavatsky and her associates (including Colonel Olcott) founded the Theosophical Society on November 17, 1875 (S 87-90; 369,370). While one may disagree with her presentation and interpretation of Buddhism (for instance her understanding of the doctrine of annihilation - IU, 1.290), as well as the details of her vision of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, and personally I do, Madame Blavatsky did much to spread knowledge of the Buddha dharma and her contributions must be acknowledged.

In 1893 "White City" was built in Chicago along the banks of Lake Michigan to "house a larger conception of human history, a new and more religious idea of divine providence through all ages and all lands - the World Parliament of Religions. From around the world people came to this convocation to share their spiritual insights. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Parses, Sikhs, Jains and others gathered in a unitive spirit never before seen. This assembly was called "the noblest and proudest achievement in human history, and the crowning work of the nineteenth century by Anagarika Dharmapala. Through this conference, the western world was introduced to some of the most influential religious thinkers of the day. Swami Vivekananda, who received the mantle of Sri Ramakrishna, B.B. Nagarkar of the Brahma-Samaj and Buddhist Master Anagarika Dharmapala were among the main speakers however, a host of other religious leaders spoke as well. Japanese Buddhists, such as translator Zenshiro Noguchi, Rinzai Zen master Soyen Shaku (the first Zen master in America and teacher of D.T. Suzuki), Kinzai R.M. Hirai, Prince Chandradat Chudhadharn of Siam, Z. Noguchi (who spoke for Banryu Yatsubuchi, who introduced Esoteric Buddhism to America), and representatives of the Jodo Shinshu, Nichirin, Tendai and various esoteric schools spoke (S 119-129).

Anagarika Dharmapala likened the Parliament to the re-emergence of the ancient Council of Asoka that had occurred twenty-four centuries prior. He proclaimed that it was his destiny to, "share the Buddha's noblest lessons of tolerance and gentleness, and that in this great city, the youngest of all cities, this program will be carried out, and the name of Dr. Barrows [the organizer of the Parliament] will shine forth as the American Asoka" ( 7 ). Thanks to the World Parliament of Religions eastern spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, gained real entry into America and the West (S 122).

As the years went by various Buddhist groups rose and fell. A Buddhist presence in the West continued, however its influence was limited because, as Darmapala explained, "They [the Americans] have been taught in their mother's lap the self doctrine of theological Christianity; and the teachings of Buddha are in direct conflict with the dogmatic thesis of the Bible... In broad principles we disagree" (S 133). Still, September 23, 1899, at 807 Polk Street in San Francisco, the Young Men's Buddhist Association, through the auspices of Doctor Shuei Sonada, opened the Hompa Hongwanji Branch Temple. At that time missionary Buddhism in the West began with the publication of D.T. Suzuki's first book, Ashvagosha's discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (S 144, 145).

With the ensuing years most of the major schools of Buddhism have established missions in the West. Zen was first presented through the work of Nyogen Senzaki (who died in 1945), Eido Tai Shimano of Dai Bosatsu and the New York Zendo. The oldest Zen Institute in the U.S. was founded by Sokei-an Sasaki (founded 1930) and continues under the direction of Mary Farkas, in New York City.

The efforts of Jack Kerouac (born in 1922, died in Florida in 1969) did much to further the Buddha dharma, especially his book Wake Up!. Also Alan Watts (who died in 1973), whose Buddhist name was Dai Yu Jo Mon (a title meaning Great Founder, Opener of the Great Zen Samadhi Gate), Yu Zen Myo Ko (Profound Mountain, Subtle Light) was a great western exponent of the faith. His influence on Zen and western Buddhism is very significant (S 360). Another of the "Bohemian Buddhists" was Allen Ginsberg. Like Jack Kerouac, he first encountered Buddhism at a Public Library. This led him, in 1953, to visit the first Zen Institute in America (which was still in the home of Mrs. Sasaki). His experiences there, which he described as intimidating, prompted Ginsberg to visit D.T. Suzuki. With that meeting his devotion to the Buddha dharma and satori, were established (S 210). In later years, he practiced ngondro (foundation practices) under Chogyam Trungpa, and was cofounder (along with poet Anne Waldman) of the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute at Boulder (S 362).

Taizan Maezumi-roshi operates the Los Angeles Zen Center and was trained in both the Soto and Rinzai lines of Zen. Philip Kapleau-roshi of the New York Zen Center has published several wonderful books on Zen, including, Three Pillars of Zen and Zen Dawn in the West. Joshu Sasaki-roshi, the "elder statesman of American Zen," formed three major centers, Cimmaron-ji in Los Angeles, Mount Baldy in the San Bernardino Mountains, and Bodhi-Mandala in Jemez Springs, New Mexico.

It is said however that Zen was brought to the West single-handedly by Daisetz (Great Simplicity) Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966). He was born two hundred miles north of Tokyo and first arrived in America (at San Francisco) in February 1897. His teacher, Soyen Shaku, was the first Zen master to visit the West. At the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, in 1893, Shaku offered a very down-to-earth presentation of the Buddha dharma (as is appropriate for a Zen master). Due to language difficulties, an English translation of that speech (by D.T. Suzuki) was read by the Rev. J.H. Barrows, chairperson of the Parliament (S 126). The impact of D.T. Suzuki on Buddhism in the West is often likened to the significance of Aristotle and Plato (ZM 9; S 34).

D.T. Suzuki's coming to the West was partly to assist Paul Carus in his translation of the Tao Te Ching (S 138). Through his association with Carus and the Open Court Publishing Company (including the journal The Monist), which Carus ran along with Edward Hageler, Suzuki was introduced to such authors and thinkers as John Dewey, Charles Pierce, W.T. Harris, Bertrand Russell and Max Muller (S 138). It was during this period that he began work on his first English book, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism. It was his opinion that the Buddha dharma is not an "object of historical curiosity." Its vitality and activity concern us in our daily life. It is a great spiritual organism; its moral and religious forces are still exercising an enormous power over millions of souls; and its further development is sure to be a very valuable contribution to the world-progress of religious consciousness (S 140).

The San Francisco Zen Center (on Page Street), founded by Suzuki-roshi, continues to prosper, as does its various related operations such as the Tassajara Zen Center in Carmel Valley, a couple of hours to the south. There is also the Tassajara Bakery and coffee shop in the Haight Ashbury district of the City. They also manage a large "Barn-do" for a thriving community at Green Gulch Farm in Marin County California ( 8 ). Then there is Alaya Stitchery, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant in Fort Mason (named Green's) and the Whole Earth Bookstore in San Francisco. Suzuki-roshi's legacy also includes his students Katagiri-roshi (founder of the Zen Meditation Center in Minnesota), Kobun Chino-sensei and Jakusho Kwong-sensei, also in California. We must also mention Jiyu Kennett-roshi, chief abbess of Shasta Abbey, the Headquarters of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives of the Soto Zen School.

It seems clear that Zen forms the major Buddhist presence in the West. They are by no means the only school however. Theravada, the oldest form of the Buddha dharma, is also firmly established here. For this school Colonel Olcott, mentioned above as a co-worker of Madame Blavatsky, is a 'patron saint' of western Buddhism. In their Buddhist Vihara Society bookstore in Washington D.C., there is a larger than life photograph of him. He is considered a true bodhisattva by the Sinhalese Theravadins (9 ). One of the major teachers of this school is the Thai meditation master Dhiravamsa who lives and teaches in London. In 1977, he also began teaching in northern California, where he focuses on vipassana (observation and understanding in the Tiantai school) and abhidharma (Buddhist psychology). His book Release and Cure has been widely received.

Theravadin masters such as Dhiravamsa, Munindra, Dipa Ma, Mahasi Sayadaw, Goenka and others occasionally come to America to teach. Theravada generally requires its adherents to live as forest bhikkus, away from society. This is difficult to do in the West. Bhikkhu masters Tang Pu Lu and Achan Chaa are seeking to establish the wherewithal for this aspect of Theravada to flower here, although such may yet be well in the future. Dharmanet provides many resources for American Theravadins.

Perhaps the most exciting form of the Buddha dharma in the West is the Vajrayana (the "tantric diamond vehicle") system of Tibet ( 10 ). Vajrayana is divided into four major orders, the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Geluk (WC 13). Tarthang Tulku and Trungpa Rinpoche were the first to bring this aspect of the Buddha dharma to the West. They were, as Trungpa himself says, "hot-blooded Tibetans" (S 376). After them came the older, more established teachers. Today all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism are established in the West.

Tarthang Tulku, in his book Time, Space, and Knowledge, seeks to harmonize the Buddha dharma with western science and philosophy (TSK). His is an eclectic presentation of Buddhism wherein he emphasizes its universalist aspects. His Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center in Berkeley was the first Vajrayana congregation in America (S 305). Perhaps the most well known of the Vajrayana teachers in the West is Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who introduced Shambala Training in Boulder in 1977 and founded the Dharmadhatu meditation centers. I was a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. His Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom have introduced thousands, including this author, to Buddhism in general and the Vajrayana in particular.

The head of the Nyingmas, His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, has established centers in Berkeley, Upstate New York and France. Then of course, there is the (Geluk) Dalai Lama. Contrary to what many believe, he is not viewed as the Buddhist equivalent of the Roman Catholic Pope, although he is deeply respected by most Buddhists, Vajrayana or not. He recently visited San Francisco for the opening of the Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet show at the Asian Art Museum. He also spoke at Grace Cathedral before returning to Dharamsala in Uttar Pradesh, India. Later, the art show toured other U.S. These were amazing programs.

Today the influence of the Buddha dharma is stronger in the West than ever before. As the religion of Buddhism is accepted by more and more people, its philosophical implications are also being felt. Beyond the religious field however, the rapid pace of technological advancement and philosophic sophistication in the West is also aiding the growth of the Buddha dharma. With the dawning of the new paradigm ( 11 ), many of our basic assumptions are being called into question. The West is reconsidering many of the fundamental principles upon which our societies are based and Buddhism, directly and indirectly, is taking up much of the slack.

Many people in the West no longer consider the western religious traditions sufficient. They are looking at the West's traditional religious and value systems and finding them wanting. Credulous faith in the Bible is no being longer considered viable by many Westerners (LM 47-78). Belief in God, as historically exercised in the West, is becoming untenable to millions(PN 95). Buddhism is filling many of the spiritual holes left in our societies.

Having lost faith in traditional religion, many find themselves spiritually and emotionally bankrupt. Without a spiritual context for their lives, they find life to be meaningless, without any direction. As Nietzsche explained in his The Gay Science, this loss of faith by the monstrous logic of terror comes as a prophet of gloom, as a solar eclipse whose like has never before been seen (PN 447). As he predicted, a long and all-encompassing period of ruin, destruction and cataclysm may well await that civilization which, having been established upon religious convictions, finds itself devoid of that rubric.

What can replace traditional faith in God? Upon what paragon can our increasingly secular society restructure itself? Since the old paradigms have become obsolete and unacceptable, with what shall we replace them? According to Joseph Campbell, we cannot maintain ourselves in the universe without some mythological belief context. Indeed, he says the very fullness of our lives stands in a direct ratio to the depth and range not of [our] rational thought but of [our] local mythology (MoG 4). Buddhism may well provide this required mythology. Nonetheless, as we seek alternative understandings, let us not forget that, "In every age people believe that their universe contains whatever is real and significant. In their temples, academies, monasteries, and universities they reject the rest as opinion and illusion. Forget the superstitions of the uneducated and the myths your parents taught you. For behold! Here is the true universe, awesome, vast and wondrous... The scene is timeless, yesterday a false universe; today the true universe (SW 40).

Here Ends Part One

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