Buddhist Modernism and the American Buddhist Lineage
By Laurence O. McKinney
Director, American Institute for Mindfulness
On March 31, performance artist Laurie Anderson was at CyberSmith, Marshall Smith's net-wired virtual cafe in Cambridge. She was doing a major show in Boston and previewing her new CD-ROM Puppet Motel (Voyager). She also nearly died two summers ago from altitude sickness during a Himalayan pilgrimage in Tibet. We share a name, twenty years of electric music, and a Kalachakra with the Dalai Lama. Today it was interactive data, that night it was sizzling violin. "Got a quote for CyberSangha?" I asked, knowing that vajra-sisters tell the truth. "Well," she said, as mindful as ever, "Buddhism is sort of digital isn't it?"
Zero or one? Or in the middle considering both? There is no reason for zero without a one, no one without a zero to come from, it's sort of digital for sure. No Nirvana without Samsara, no signal without noise, no mu without ma. Buddhism at its basics has always sounded like science to Americans, and as we log on and take our part in creating the interactive Dharma network, we take part in a very distinctive Buddhist lineage. It is a Buddhism that is active, individual, egalitarian and engaged, media friendly, synthetic, and universalistic. What few have noticed, and some are beginning to recognize, is that these characteristics identify a distinctly American Buddhist lineage, one well over a century old, which has already influenced world Dharma traditions so extensively that modern Asian Buddhist now depends on it for both relevance and survival.
Christopher Queen lectures in comparative religion at Harvard University. A Buddhist in action as well as practice, both he and his teaching assistant, 25 year old Soto Zen priest Duncan Williams, have recently published articles in Tricycle concerned with the American Buddhist experience. One of Queen's major interests is the cross-pollenization which occurred between American and Asian Buddhist thinkers during the second half of the nineteenth century. An American delegate to the recent world conference of "engaged Buddhists" he noticed the pervasive mood of political, and even ecological activism that characterized the event and the participants.
As Sri Lankan monks continue to politic, as Thai monks ordain trees to save
them from multinational forest reapers, and young Tibetans post press releases
and march from Dharamsala to Delhi, we might ask where this very modern spirit
of activism came from. If Tibetan Buddhists had acted like this fifty years
ago, China would never have been able to take over. The answer is that a great
deal of what is now being referred to as Buddhist Modernism got its start not
in any Asian culture or Buddhist shastra, but developed out of the blending
of American Buddhist action with Asian Buddhist Wisdom, a tradition that got
its start in 1880.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who coined the phrase "engaged Buddhism," was influenced in his activism by the works and activities of Sri Lankan Buddhist reformer Walpola Rahula. Rahula's very un-Asian activism and individualism, his use of the media and emphasis on human rights was not from Nikaya or Theravadin Buddhism. This Sri Lankan tradition, nearly a hundred years old, was propelled by the reverse missionary activities of the American theosophists Helena Blavatsky and her companion Col. Henry Steel Olcott. Olcott was a lawyer, a Civil War hero, and a journalist as well. He was a typical Victorian, full of optimism, individualism, and activism which characterized his times. When he and Blavatsky came to the aid of some Buddhist students, and then publicly took refuge, or pansil, in 1880, they became the toast of the island. America was where the telegraph had been operating for years and the telephone was about to arrive, where railroads were stretching across the land and mass dailies were common, filled with international events. In Asia, Buddhism was where it was and had been for fifteen hundred years, wherever it was. By 1880, there were very Japanese Buddhists, very Tibetan Buddhists, very Sri Lankan Buddhists and so on. The lineages were entirely local, and entirely woven into local culture.
Olcott, whose Buddhism was measured in years rather than centuries, was thinking pan-Buddhist thoughts from the beginning. His American notions of Buddhism were infused with all his Victorian values from Jeffersonian democracy to love of technology. Many Sri Lankans were straining to be Western. Between the Colonel's Yankee salesmanship and his foreign appeal, many Sri Lankans found the new combination of values finger-licking good and bought in. The American-inspired Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka virtually pre-empted state Sri Lankan Buddhism into the populist, socially active Dharma referred to now as "Protestant Buddhism."
One young Sri Lankan who was completely taken with their work was the young Anagarika Dharmapala, who went on to found the Mahabodhi Society, the first world Buddhist organization. The American teachings were already taking hold.
Buddhism was not unknown in nineteenth century America. Few proclaimed themselves to be Buddhists, but the extraordinary popularity of Edwin Arnold's heroic life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, published in 1878, made Buddhism a subject of debate and investigation in Victorian philosophical and religious circles. In 1893, the Olcott-ized Protestant Buddhist Dharmapala became one of the great hits of the World Congress of Religions at the Chicago World's Fair. Another big winner was D.T. Suzuki, who came as the translator for Japanese Zen teacher Soen Shaku. Scholar Thomas Tweed, in his recent work The American Encounter with Buddhism, put the Victorian American Buddhists in perspective by assigning them to three categories.
"Esoteric" Buddhists, which included Col. Olcott, tended to synthesize their Dharma and blend it thoroughly with theosophy, spiritualism, or the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. These Buddhists were concerned with seeking inner knowledge and spiritual power through practice and study, and were not overly concerned with the purity of any specific lineage. They were the first to mix up the American curry and serve it abroad through writings and other activities.
In the 1890's, Ernest Fennellosa and William Sturgis Bigelow, two Boston Brahmins, were among the most prominent of the "romantic Buddhists", attracted to many aspects of Japanese culture. These American Buddhists rejected many of the Victorian impulses found in Protestant Buddhism, and attempted to adopt stricter Japanese practices. They often felt out of place in America. Fennellosa and writer Lafcadio Herne both lived for extended periods of time in Japan and felt most comfortable, like Ruth Fuller Sasaki, practicing in Japanese monasteries. They never really caught on as they had no local teachers to popularize their schools.
The third Victorian category was "rationalists". Many of these Buddhists and Buddhist sympathizers were converts from the popular schools of social Darwinism promoted by works of Herbert Spencer. Even Fennellosa said to the end that it was Spencerian aspects of the Buddha Dharma which formed the mainstays of his own belief, if not his Japanese practice. Other rationalists include the first American to proclaim himself to be a Buddhist, Dyer Daniel Lum, writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and others who congregated at Harvard Divinity School at the turn of the last century. The ascendance of scientific method had infused and invigorated the entire Victorian religious scene, and Buddhism offered what seemed a much more logical way of looking at things.
Rationalist Paul Carus discovered his Dharma at the 1893 World Council of Religions. Founding the Open Court Press, the first consistent American Buddhist media, he imported D.T. Suzuki, thus establishing a teacher in the United States who provided his consistent, if Westernized, Zen teachings to two generations of American thinkers. Suzuki's Zen was considerably influenced by Kyoto school philosophers such as Nishima Kitaro, heavily influenced themselves by concepts of transcendent mind states borrowed from Heidegger, some nihilism from Nietzsche, and even the mindful American William James. Carus, an activist, media-creating, networking egalitarian who tended to be synthetic in his own thinking, was clearly of the pure American lineage. D.T. Suzuki's Westernized Kyotized Zen was actually more a mixture than his patron's simple but straightforward American Buddhist traditional values.
If Suzuki was influenced by Nietzsche and James, if Thich Nhat Hanh borrows much from the political and engaged "Protestant Buddhist" model, if the Tibetan freedom movement has little to do with classic Tibetan Buddhist/Chinese relations and more to do with media and social activism borrowed from American Buddhist traditions, what are we really seeing? As popular American figures such as Tina Turner, Cindy Crawford, Richard Gere, and others profess their Buddhist inclinations, it could be said that the aspects of Buddhism attractive to them are actually familiar Western traditions emerging through Asian teachers influenced by our own ancestors. In another, and perhaps more honest appraisal, the American Buddhist lineage is not only unique and consistent, it has become the method behind Buddhist Modernism and its engaged stance on a worldwide basis.
Carus hailed the Buddha as "the first prophet of the religion of science." Many other Victorians echoed Bostonian John Ogden Gorden, who in 1875 wrote to a friend "We have heard so much about the beauty of this system." As Buddha Dharma is basically a systematic philosophy, it fits computers, communications, technology, ecology, and now world networking like source code to a chip. Dharma parallel processes, while top-down hierarchical theologies are like the earlier computers.
The entire idea of everything turning into ones and zeroes and being instantly music or video or information or anything else, anywhere else is hard for most people to understand who are not familiar with deep Abhidharma. Otherwise, they would have to be scientists or American Buddhists of the late twentieth century, projecting that same active, individualistic, media-friendly and ever-networking value system of our ancestral lineage, our 125 years of high tech, activist American Style Buddha Dharma.
In the fall 1994 issue of Tricycle, Japanese-Canadian religion professor Victor Sogen Hori charged that American Buddhists have overturned beliefs basic to most Asian Buddhist sects with their ideas of autonomy, Western morality, and psychotherapy. In Christopher Queen's class, Japanese American Duncan Williams lectures on the various aspects of American Buddhism. At Harvard, he has no problem combining his Soto Zen work with scholarship and eco-activism in the Pacific Northwest. Hori is correct that American Buddhists aren't Asian Buddhists, but that doesn't mean they aren't Buddhists. Most Americans are, at the heart, classic American Buddhists. We synthesize everything from nylon to neptunium and we see all the schools as basically created equal in a way no Asian could imagine.
We came clean to the Dharma, we didn't have our minds wrapped in the robes of any particular cultural religious hierarchy and we don't like hierarchies very much. American Buddhism has always been a synthesis, something that could never have happened in Asia where each country had its culture stamped all over the teachings. Americans are idea people, pioneers, experimenters by nature. The idea of anybody freeing Tibet by meditating in a cave for a few years may be fine for an Asian contemplative, but American Buddhists do it with media, just as we have since the days of Olcott Roshi, Lama Lum, Wisdom Woman Blavatsky and Khenpo Carus.
American Buddhists have always blended current science with the Dharma teachings of different Asian schools to create our unique and individualistic Dharma. We certainly have a string of teachers. Olcott may have been the first, but the American lineage right now includes roshis like poet and activist Gary Snyder, Geshe Joanna Macy and her systematic cybernetic shastras, EcoDharma Sister Joan Halifax, Tantra Teacher Miranda Shaw and the entire neurotheology movement at the Harvard Divinity School.
Each of these teachers and works are individualistic, synthetic, universalistic, and media friendly. Each has taken from many teachers, each is basically Buddhist, and each is completely sincere. We even have a lineage of American Buddhist yogis, anarchists like Lum, our poets and wanderers like Jack Kerouac, and our fiery virtual vajra sister Laurie Anderson. There are many more.
We needn't feel so new, either. Starting with our first Sri Lankan missionary activity, American Buddhism predates the Sokka Gakkai, the Kyoto School, and is older than some of the Tibetan Dzog-Chen lineages. It's a fact that the 5th Dzog-Chen Rinpoche was alive and well in 1935, which means his particular monastery, featured in Sogyal Rinpoche's recent works, couldn't be older than some large American corporations.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, as multiple Asian lineages expanded their teachings to the West, the Westernized East has been taking to heart the American style of mindfulness. In the broadly based, activist, ecological Buddhist trends that are now forcing the Asian Buddhist establishment to change in every country, we are witnessing the result of the seeds we planted with the synthesis we started 115 years ago. As Asian monks and leaders move into the mainstream and encounter the new world of Buddhism, the occasional scandal, and more than occasional debates are bound to occur. Still, this is a movement that will change the face of Asian Dharma, and we had a part in it. Thomas Tweed's classification still holds at the end of the twentieth century. Neo-esoterics are with us, reminding us that all the great masters attained their powers in prescribed ways, and that we must practice, sit, and chant for serenity, fortitude and insight. Some neo-Romantics build beautiful Zen temples or stupas, preserving and maintaining a rich cultural archive. Others organize to free Tibet, filled with visions of meditating monks, wise lamas, and Himalayan peaks. Some chant only in Tibetan, Japanese, or Pali, or wear the robes of Eastern priests, comfortable in oriental traditions and preserve the past of another people in another time. They remind us in their individuality how many roots a tree can have, all supporting the same trunk. Each was, after all, the only style of Buddhism that a people had ever known. In their consistency, they provide a refuge for anyone disenchanted or disheartened with the American cultural style.
Perhaps the fastest growing community of American Buddhists would be the Neo-rationalists. The reason they are growing is that this group alone can lay claim to the American Buddhist lineage and be proud of a type of Buddhism only a bunch of Americans would have come up with. As those who left their practice or became disillusioned by the Dharma because they could not be Asian realize there is a real American Dharma, there will be many more. In the neo-rationalist digital Buddhist world, as we connect up in closer and closer contact with data Dharma brothers and sisters on the Internet, we begin to see something independent arising. While those seeking peace or power turn inwards and others immerse in foreign cultures, American CyberBuddhists are going online and checking it out world-wide. What do we find in Thailand? What sort of Buddhists Are the leading thinkers in Malaysia? They are all preaching the active, involved, universal, engaged, autonomous Dharma of the fine old American lineage. They are all political, active, networking, and media friendly.
"They seemed very set on the idea that small was beautiful," recounts Queen, "I often found myself the only Westerner in the group trying to convince them that big wasn't always bad." It's clear that American Buddhists have a job of convincing to do. The Dharma was and always will be systematic, but it was the U.S. Army that brought water to the Rwandans, not any Asian charity. These are the sorts of powerful systems that are now more than ever open to direction towards humanitarian causes. As the threat of global conflict recedes, the threat of global cooperation rears its head, which tends to frighten those wedded to a culture. Hopefully, good minded women and men will be able to use their minds and their hearts to use these powerful systems, to engage them, network them, and direct them for the benefit of all sentient beings.
There is one traditional lineage these days that is prepared to take wisdom to the max, effort to the extreme, and compassion to the world. American Buddhism is young, but it is strong, and as Thais squabble as to how to save their forests, as disenchanted Japanese are lured into strange cults and Koreans become swooning Pentacostals by the millions, we American Buddhists have something for the world that just might help. Heck, we've been doing this sort of thing since our revolution back in 1776. We communicate, we disseminate, and we activate.
This is our Dana, the gift we started exporting over a century ago. It's internetworking, it's universalistic, it's synthetic and it's engaged. It never was Asian, it's our own Victorian- Protestant-Mystic-Spencerian-Yankee-Doodle-Dharma and it has lit a light in Asia we can all be proud of. Yo, Asian Dharma dudes! We be with you!
Copyright © 1996 CyberSangha: The Buddhist Alternative Journal