Stories That Surprise Us

James Shaheen

Historical study should have the effect of making what is very familiar look different or even in some ways strange.

–Elaine Pagels (“Saved by History,” Tricycle, Summer 2005)

We’ve grown so used to hearing stories about how Buddhism came West that we imagine we’ve got a pretty good idea how it all came about. That is, until we learn otherwise. David Urubshurow’s “From Russia with Love” tells a story that perhaps few have heard—one that surprises us and forces us to reconsider, in this case, Tibetan Buddhism’s arrival on American shores.

For Urubshurow, the story is personal. At the age of 7, with a small band of Kalmyk Mongols, he left a Bavarian refugee camp of postwar Europe for a small town in New Jersey, where the group set up the first Tibetan Buddhist dharma center in the Western hemisphere in 1958. Eventually, the center would shape a generation of US–born scholars and practitioners; it would pave the way for the arrival of young Tibetan lamas; and its founder would play an indispensable role in both the Dalai Lama’s dramatic escape from Tibet and his eventual visit to America, which propelled Tibetan Buddhism onto the world stage two decades later.

One of the great pleasures in reading Urubshurow’s account is its sheer unlikeliness—from the role the CIA played in the center’s origins to the Cold War politics that came into play to the machinations at the highest levels of the United States government. For many Western Buddhists, this history has remained largely invisible, as invisible as it has been influential. (Read “From Russia with Love: The Untold Story of How Tibetan Buddhism First Came to America.”)

In a very different piece, but one that also alters our perspective, Linda Heuman’s interview with scholar David McMahan draws into question many of the unexamined assumptions that have helped shaped Buddhist practice in the West. As Heuman writes in her introduction,

When Western Buddhists sit down to meditate, many of us may imagine that we are doing the same thing Buddhists across the globe have done for centuries. We may think we are using the same practices Buddhists have always used to overcome suffering (and probably, we hope to attain the same result).

But this is a problematic assumption, not least because it is based on the view that the meaning of Buddhist practice is independent of culture and time.

At the heart of the interview is McMahan’s contention that culture is not the mere container of Buddhism but something with which it is deeply entwined. Buddhism itself is a product of culture.

Like much of the best journalism, Heuman’s interview evokes a sense of surprise, something that so often is an earmark of insight. It’s not really a matter of being convinced of every point down the line, however. The value lies in the challenge such articles pose to our accustomed ways of thinking. For us at Tricycle, this is where good writing and practice meet.

It is with great sadness that we mourn the passing of the preeminent sociologist of religion and Tricycle contributor Robert Bellah. He served as the Elliot Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at the University of California at Berkeley. Bob was not only a contributor to Tricycle but also a friend, mentor, and inspiration to the editors. His ideas about Buddhism, spirituality, and religion continue to inform the magazine’s mission. He will be deeply missed. 

–James Shaheen, Editor and Publisher

View the Winter 2013 table of contents

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