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The American Encounter with Buddhism 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent

By Thomas A. TweedRick Fields

The American Encounter with Buddhism 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent 
Thomas A. Tweed 
Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1992. 
242 pp. $29.95 (hardcover).  

As Thomas Tweed amply documents, the history of Buddhism in the United States of America began in the nineteenth­-century coal-and-steam-fired era, characterized "by an emphasis on industry, sobriety, domesticity, nativism, competitiveness, and order.” It was also strongly colored by four related stances—or "attitudes" as we might call them these days—namely, "theism, indivi­dualism, activism, and optimism."

Tweed's study attempts to analyze the ways in which nineteenth-century Buddhists simultaneously swam against and were swept along by the cultural currents of Victorian America. His analysis makes it clear that any participant in a "new" spiritual movement is necessarily both dissenter and consenter to his or her culture. A certain amount of contradiction and tension comes with the territory. If some Victorian Buddhists, for example, were the most comfortable in their opposition to the prevailing theism, Tweed notes that it was at least partly because such agnostic or atheistic opposition fit neatly into the emerging evolutionary science of the day. In the same way, dissent from the prevailing industrialism was supported by the emerging process psychology of William James and others. Ancient key Buddhist concepts, in other words, were more palatable because they seemed to support various "new" ideas.

Activism and optimism, however, presented a more serious stum­bling block as Victorian Buddhists, scholars, and apologists were hard­-pressed to refute the prevailing scholarly notion that Buddhism was pessimistic and passive. "Despite the efforts of a number of public advocates," Tweed concludes, "most information that American readers and audiences received portrayed Buddhism as incompati­ble with the most cherished of Victorian beliefs and values. Finally then, although a few thousand identified with the religion and thousands more felt some attraction, most disillusioned Victorians felt that they had to look elsewhere for aid in resolving their religious crisis."

The Victorian Buddhists portrayed by Tweed were a varied and colorful lot. In trying to make sense of them, Tweed makes use of Max Weber's "ideal types." He posits three: the first, with the most numbers and influences, is the Esoteric or Occult Type, which includes Theosophists Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Henry S. Olcott, Swedenborgian Philangi Dasa (editor of the first Buddhist journal in America, The Buddhist Ray), as well as Marie de Souza Canavarro (or Sister Sanghamitta), and "most members of the Dharma Sangha," a Caucasian outreach formed by the Japanese Pure Land Mission in San Francisco. The second ideal, the Rationalistic Type, includes Paul Carus (editor of Open Court) and anarchist Dyer Daniel Lum. The third, the Romantic Type, or Exotic-Culture Type, includes Ernest Fenellosa and William Sturgis Bigelow, who both took Buddhist teachers in Japan, in addition to expatriate Lafcadio Hearn.

Such typologizing has its value in organizing the unruly data that is the raw material of the academic discipline of "religious studies," but it can sometimes be more misleading than useful. Perhaps this is merely the Romantic Type in me protesting, but Tweed himself points out the limitations of this approach, admitting, "It is important to recognize the ways in which ... almost all Buddhist advocates fail to fit perfectly any single ideal-typical constellation of traits. Almost every individual expressed tendencies of more than one type." For example, nearly all the Victorians looked to evolu­tionary science, not only the Rationalist Paul Carus, but also the Romantic William Sturgis Bigelow and the Esoteric Philangi Dasa. In the end, Tweed sensibly argues that "the appeal of a Buddhist framework of meaning seems to have been decisive for most."

The American Encounter with Buddhism is a serious work of scholarship and a valuable addition to the continuing "community of discourse" about American Buddhism. Tweed has provided fresh material and original analysis of major figures. In addition, he has uncovered a number of al­together lost characters, including the labor leader Dyer Daniel Lum, who "seems to have been the first American to advocate Buddhism publicly" (in a lecture to the Channing Club in Northhampton, on April 8, 1875) and journalist Laura Carter Holloway Langford, who authored the Buddhist Diet Book in 1886.

Victorian Buddhism, for all the publicity and attention it attracted, did not last. "At one time there was some kind of activity in certain parts of the U.S. where some people took interest in Buddhism," the Angarika Dharmapala, a leading figure in the Victorian Buddhist movement, wrote to Mary Carus in 1921, "but I see none of that now." Certainly Tweed is right to show how the Victorian "limits of dissent" contributed to the failure. But behind that lay an even more crucial limitation. Victorian Buddhists were, to a large extent, on their own. Reflecting on the differences between then and now, Tweed writes, "nineteenth-century sympathizers had less access to Buddhist teachers and institutions, and far fewer had the opportunity to engage in sustained practice. The psychological and physical benefits derived from regular meditation and other practices, then, seem to have been impor­tant only to the most dedicated and privileged of Victorians. A century later, Caucasian followers would be drawn by experiences unavailable to most of their Victorian counterparts."

Rick FieldsTricycle's Editor-at-Large, is the author of The Code of the Warrior (HarperCollins) and author of How the Swans Came to the Lake (Shambhala Publications) which has just been updated and reissued. 

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