November 09, 2007

Books: How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America

As a recent arrival at Tricycle as well as a relative newcomer to Buddhism, I’ve got a fair amount of reading to catch up on. Editor-in-chief James Shaheen recommended that I check out Rick Fields’ How the Swans Came to the Lake, which offers an in-depth history of Buddhism’s role in American life. Originally published in 1981 and last updated in 1992, Swans is a (mostly) current and always relevant look at Buddhism’s roots.

In a culture saturated with pop-Eastern philosophy—toy Buddha car accessories, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Tao of Pooh, the now-discontinued “Om” fragrance by Gap—it’s clear that Buddhism has secured a place in the imagination of the American public. In warm, witty prose, Fields takes on the question of why and how this came to be. He begins by tracing the development of America’s understanding of Buddhism, illuminating the way that misconceptions and poor translations caused even great Western thinkers to misunderstand basic tenants of practice. From the eighteenth-century scholar and linguist William Jones, who understood Asian culture’s potential to offer the West an “Oriental renaissance” but “either did not know or did not accept the Buddhist’s version of the origin of their own religion,” to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote alarmingly of “This remorseless Buddhism…threatening with death and night,” Westerners often misunderstood Buddhism as a primitive form of nihilism.

Nonetheless, Fields points out that many artistic and intellectual movers-and-shakers of early America had more in common with Buddhists than they themselves may have known. Henry David Thoreau’s experiment on Walden Pond was focused on mindful sitting in nature that sounds much like Buddhist meditation; he himself wrote, “I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.” And what else is Walt Whitman’s expansive embrace than a celebration of the interconnectedness of all beings, one of the central Buddhist understandings? First, America became ripe for Buddhism; then came the ambassadors.

The Western interpreters of Eastern Buddhism rose to prominence in the form of Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, spiritualists who eventually forsook their preoccupation with the afterlife to, as Blavatsky said, “point the way eastward.” Olcott sought to bring Buddhism to the public and “unite Buddhists under a common banner,” writing a book of Buddhist catchetisms that was translated into nearly every European language and working to improve the situation of Sinhalese Buddhists. Meanwhile, Blavatsky, or HPB, was said to produce apparitions of Oriental masters. Fields writes of her ventures into divination neutrally, a move that makes objective sense but left this reader wondering exactly what my erudite narrator thought about a woman who claimed to have prophetic dreams and act as a medium for spiritual masters. One group of scientists called HPB “one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters in history.” In any case, she’s a fascinating subject, and Fields brings the historical figures who played a role in Buddhism’s transplantation to colorful life.

I’m still cracking away at Swans, which clocks in at almost 400 pages, but I’m delighted to have Fields as my guide to Buddhism in America. Like a popular professor, he’s not afraid to get entertainingly sidetracked or offer a contemporary perspective on the action at hand, but he never loses sight of the big picture. Writing of an eighteenth-century encounter between British diplomats and a child reincarnate lama, Fields notes “The scene…could have easily take on the sublime yet ridiculous tones of a comic opera. The Englishmen, after all, had journeyed thousands of miles to confront a child with whom they could not speak…” Yet, Fields notes, the party was unexpectedly impressed by the young lama. This marriage of humor and respect is characteristic of Fields’ approach to his subject: detailed, wry, and eminently readable, with an occasional note of wonder.

- Sarah Todd, Editorial Assistant

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