Origins of Western Buddhism: Early Beginnings to 1960 – & mini-gallery |

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March 24 by The Running Son

Origins of Western Buddhism:
Early Beginnings to 1960

Intro from

Buddhism is commonly thought of as an eastern religion, but neither it nor the country it rose from can be so easily characterized. India for instance is west of China, and as the poet Henry Thoreau once remarked, “the farthest west is but the farthest east.” Buddhism is also sometimes depicted as a modern phenomenon of an eastern religion becoming trendy in the west. However, the roots of its influence on the west go way back into history, particularly the time of Alexander the Great and the Greeks in India.

The west owes a huge cultural debt to the Greeks, but it is often not fully realized or appreciated just how much of a claim India has to put forward as the home of civilization as we know it, and how much of an influence it had on Egypt, Greece, and even China and the rest of the world. After the death of Alexander, the Indian King Ashoka converted to Buddhism after seeing the aftermath of a particularly bloody battle. He spread Buddhism throughout his empire and Buddhist missionaries were dispatched even to Greece and Egypt. Many of the Greeks left behind after Alexander’s retreat from India became Buddhists, especially in the border areas of Bactria and Gandhara – later to become famous for their Buddhist art. One Greek King from Bactria, Menander, became famous as the subject of the Pali text now known as the Questions of King Milinda. This consists of a philosophical dialogue with an Indian Buddhist monk in which the king asks questions about the Dharma. It is said that the King attained the liberation of an arhat. If so, then Menander may be considered the first “westerner” to become enlightened.

There are many claims of Buddhism’s influence on early Christianity, particularly the doctrines of the Gnostics, Essenes, and even the tradition of monasticism – but these are hard to prove. Curiously enough one of the most unlikely cases of Buddhist influence is the extraordinary legend of Barlaam and Josaphat, which unwittingly resulted in the canonization of the Buddha as a Christian saint in 1585. The name Josaphat was bodhisattva, which the Arabs rendered Bodasaph, and the story was that of the Buddha, or Barlaam, as narrated by St John of Damascus.

St. Francis Xavier (1506- 1552) is revered by Catholics in the Far East, and hundreds of schools in India are named after him. In the United States, Xavier University (in Cincinnati) and several high schools bear his name.

From these ancient times onwards up to the eighteenth century the only westerners who seemed to have much contact with Buddhism were Jesuit missionaries such as Francis Xavier in Japan, Matteo Ricci in China and Ippolito Desideri in Lhasa, and explorers like Marco Polo with the Mongols. The presence of the British in India and Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, during the time of the British Empire had far reaching ramifications however and represent the first sustained exposure over the course of many decades of westerners to Buddhism .

The linguist Sir William Jones and other pioneer translators of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, and the discovery of the richness of the Sanskrit language had a massive impact on western consciousness and heralded the beginnings of Oriental studies. In the nineteenth century the American poets and writers Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman greatly admired these Oriental and Asian classics that were starting to appear in the west. Their work and many others like them would have a profound effect on western culture though not in an overt way.

The Theosophical Society headed by the charismatic Madame Blavatsky, Russian émigré, and Colonel Olcott, a veteran of the American Civil War, was very sympathetic towards Buddhism and directly or indirectly influenced its growth in western minds and hearts, as well as helping to revive the religion in Sri Lanka, which had come under attack from Christian missionaries. Theosophy was an attempt to found a scientific religion, one which accepted the new discoveries in geology and archeology while also proclaiming an ancient and esoteric system of spiritual evolution more sophisticated than the physical evolution theories of such nineteenth century writers as Charles Darwin. It was also referred to by its founders as “Esoteric Buddhism” in which Blavatsky was instructed by a secret order of enlightened masters called the Brotherhood of the White Lodge. Although ultimately the Theosophists were pseudo-Buddhist and their ideas nowadays would be seen more as part of the New Age or occult, there was no doubt the part they played in the transmission of the Dharma to the West. Olcott in fact became known as the White Buddhist in Sri Lanka when he arrived in 1880 and his little booklet, Buddhist Catechism, published in 1881 helped re-educate young Sri Lankans, among them David Hewivitarne – later to become better known as the Buddhist monk Anagarika Dharmapala – who immediately translated Olcott’s work into Sinhalese.

Photo of Thomas William Rhys Davids

Thomas William Rhys Davids (12 May 1843 – 27 December 1922) was a British scholar of the Pāli language and founder of the Pali Text Society.

In 1881 Thomas Rhys-Davids and his wife Caroline had returned to England from Sri Lanka and formed the Pali Text Society to translate the whole Pali Tripitaka – or three baskets of the Buddha’s teaching – into English. Meanwhile, the work of the pioneer Sanskrit scholars and translators like Max Muller and the Sacred Books of the East Series was continuing apace. In 1879 the Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold was published, a poetic rendering of the life of the Buddha it has since gone through a hundred editions in English and has been translated into many languages.

Anagarika Dharmapala remained a lay person until late in life although he wore the robes of a monk. In 1891, inspired by Edwin Arnold’s account of the sad state of the site of Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya he founded the Maha Bodhi Society whose aim was to wrest Bodh Gaya from Hindu control and make it a place for pilgrimage for Buddhists from around the world. The site had fallen into serious neglect, as had the other holy sites of Buddhist pilgrimage. Since there were scarcely any Indian Buddhists left the struggle to revive these ruins was to unite Buddhists everywhere, spearheaded by Edwin Arnold, Olcott, Dharmapala, and the Japanese monk Kozen Gunaratna. In the decades that followed Bodh Gaya became again a meeting place for Buddhists from across Asia, and was restored to Buddhist control in 1947 after Indian independence.

At the Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1893), Anagarika Dharmapala is seated in white on the left

In Chicago, the Rev.J.H.Burrows read the Maha Bodhi Society’s journal and invited Dharmapala to the World Parliament of Religions, along with the Japanese master Soen Shaku – the first Zen master in America, and several others. Dharamapala was to achieve international fame for his performance at this meeting. A few days after the parliament, a New York Businessman, Charles Strauss, was granted refuge by Dharmapala – the first American to do so on US soil.

One of the acquaintances Soen and Dharmapala met there was the author and editor Dr Paul Carus who in 1894 published the Gospel of the Buddha, an anthology of passages from Buddhist texts drawn from contemporary translations in English, French and German and especially the Pali translation from Thomas W. Rhys Davids. The Gospel of the Buddha would rank second only to Arnold’s Light of Asia in its influence and would be translated into many different languages, including Japanese by D.T. Suzuki, a disciple of Soen Shaku, who stayed with Carus in the United States.

It was during this period that Suzuki formulated his representation of Zen (he published his first book in English, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, in 1907) which was later to have important implications for the dissemination of Buddhism in the west. This is because over the course of his long life Suzuki was to write many books on Zen Buddhism; books which were to play a profound role in it’s propagation, especially in artistic and intellectual circles. For example the writers of the Beat generation, key figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac in the 1950’s and 1960’s, both read and visited Suzuki many times. Suzuki’s most influential works in English were the three volume Essays in Zen Buddhism published between 1927 and 1934).

The pioneers of Tibetan studies in the West were scholars like the Hungarian Csoma de Koros – who had set out on foot for Asia in 1819. The typically English protestant L.A.Waddell, who was part of the British invasion of Lhasa in 1903 had published the Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism – a derogatory term which has been hard to shake off ever since. Waddell and other scholars who followed suit were used to the “purity” of the Theravadin tradition and regarded Tibetan Buddhism with its rich symbolism, rituals – and worse of all – shocking portrayals of deities in sexual union – as degenerate.

There were other works of note in this period, each of which were to influence future generations. Firstly in 1927 W.Y. Evans-Wentz published The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a translation by Kazi Dawa Samdup of a Tibetan text entitled The Profound Doctrine of Self-Liberation of the Mind (through Encountering) the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities discovered in the fourteenth century by Karma Lingpa. Since it’s publication it has sold over ½ million copies despite the fact it is largely inaccurate due to Wentz’s rather theosophical interpretation of the text and more crucially his lack of knowledge of Tibetan. It certainly didn’t harm sales however, and this book and others like the Tibetan Book of Great Liberation profoundly influenced Carl Jung. Evans-Wentz had liberally imposed his own theosophical and Hindu views on these translations, and Jung then took these mistranslations to help form his ideas of a One Mind and collective unconscious – controversial ideas that are still prevalent today.

In 1932 Dwight Goddard published the Buddhist Bible, an anthology of Buddhist scriptures, full translations of Mahayana texts, including the Awakening of Faith and the Surangama Sutra, mainly from the Chinese, and which is still widely read decades after it’s original release. R.H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, published in 1943, was a work which was to have a great influence on the Beat writers of the following decades, being as it was, along with Suzuki’s writings, one of the few works available on Zen in the post World War II years.

Mention also has to be made of the works of the French mystic, traveler and author, Alexandra David-Neel who published a number of best selling books based on her travels in Tibet and her study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Her most popular work from this period is still in print today, namely Magic and Mystery in Tibet which was published in 1932.

Buddhist Mission Society is founded in Germany. In 1907, Buddhist Society of Great Britain was also founded.

Attempts to found a Theravada Buddhist monastic sangha in England go back as far as 1908, when the first Buddhist Mission to Britain was welcomed by the newly founded Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland. The mission was headed by Allan Bennett, who was known since his ordination in Burma in 1901 as Ananda Metteya. He had become the second Briton to become a monk, after Gordon Douglas (who ordained in Thailand around 1900 and died not long after). Bennett had been a friend of the notorious Aleister Crowley, the self-declared “wickedest man in the world”, who had described Bennett as “the noblest and gentlest soul I have ever known.” Elsewhere in Europe the German Anthon Gueth ordained as the Theravadin monk Nyanatiloka in 1904 whose main disciple, Nyanaponika, another German, went on to become the leading light of the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka. Anagarika Dharmapala was to found the British Mahabodhi Society in 1926 and more or less since that time a Sri Lankan vihara has existed in London where ordained bhikkhus might reside. The Sri Lankan bhikkhu Ven. Narada Maha Thera played an especially important role in this until he was replaced by the distinguished scholar Hammalawa Saddhatissa in 1955.

D. T. Suzuki

After the horrors of the First World War the climate in Britain was favourable to Buddhism and one of it’s new leaders to emerge was the London barrister Christmas Humphreys, who founded the Buddhist Lodge in 1924 until it changed it’s name in 1943 to simply the Buddhist Society. By the early 1930’s D.T. Suzuki had already published his Essays in Zen Buddhism series in England, where his humble personality had captured the attention of a young Alan Watts. The teenage Watts had been influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and the Japanese adventures of Lafcadio Hearn. He began a lively correspondence with Christmas Humphreys, and took over the editorship of the lodge’s journal, Buddhism in England – which later became the Middle Way.

Watts moved to America – he had married the daughter of Ruth Fuller Sasaki ( the Zen master Sokei-an’s wife). This was the beginning of his influence in the United States which was to reach its height during the beat movement of the fifties and the flower power hippy times of the sixties. His first book the Meaning of Happiness was published in 1939 followed by the bestselling Way of Zen in1957; an example of his erudition is his famous 1959 essay Beat Zen Square Zen and Zen.

sumedhoTowards the end of 1954 there was also the founding of the English Sangha Trust which was intended to establish an English branch of the Bhikkhu Sangha, and along with this came the founding of a supporting body of lay followers under the name English Sangha Association. All this came as a result of the work of a remarkable Englishman, William Purfust. After founding the Manchester Buddhist Society in the 1940’s, at the time the largest and strongest group of Buddhists in Britain outside London, he became a novice monk under the name Samanera Dhammananda under the Burmese master Ven. U. Thittila.

The practical difficulties of being in robes in Britain at this time were considerable however and in order to finance a journey to the East to take the higher ordination of a Bhikkhu and undertake training in a monastery he had to briefly revert to lay life.By 1954 he was fully ordained as Bhikkhu Kapilavaddho in Thailand where he subsequently undertook intense training as a vipassana bhikkhu, gaining the requisite degree of insight in under a year. When he was ready to return to England as a fully ordained monk he had been given full authority to give instruction in meditation as well as the theory of Buddhism.

Sangharakshita received his bhikshu ordination at Sarnath on a full moon day

Sangharakshita (Dennis Lingwood) received his bhikshu ordination at Sarnath on a full moon day 25 November 1950

In 1949 a young English soldier, Dennis Lingwood, went AWOL in India. As Sangharakshita he would go on to found the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. At around the same time the English officer Osbert Moore became the monk Nanamoli, later renowned for his excellent Pali translations.of the life of the Buddha and the Mijjhima Nikaya or middle length sayings of the Buddha.

Yoga Image GalleryThe Beatles give an audience to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in September 1967. From left to right: Paul McCartney, Jane Asher, Pattie Boyd, Ringo Starr, his wife Maureen, John Lennon, George Harrison and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From the fifties onwards Buddhism and Zen in particular spread its influence right across western art and culture, especially the United States inspiring musicians, poets and artists – as well as having an impact on western studies of psychology, psychotherapy. The Beat Generation Poets and writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder all studied under D.T. Suzuki and they all produced works which were directly influenced by Buddhism. Ginsberg would later become a close disciple of the Tibetan lamas Chogyma Trungpa Rinpoche and Gelek Rinpoche. Kerouac wrote the bestselling Dharma Bums, a thinly finctionalized account of the experiments in Buddhism by Kerouac and a group of friends in California in 1956.

The founding of mainstream American Zen was also to occur in the post war years with teachers such as Yasutani Hakuun whose American disciples, Robert Aitken and Philip Kapleau were to become the first American Zen masters. Two of Yasutani’s Japanese disciples would also become important figures in the development of Zen in America, namely Taizan Maezumi Roshi and Eido Roshi.

It would not be until the 1960’s after the Chinese invasion of Tibetan and the Lhasa uprising of 1959 that more Tibetan Lamas and Tibetan Buddhist teachings reached the West. The early misinterpretations of Waddell and Evans-Wentz were gradually understood in a more wider profound context and a whole range of scholars, translators and writers emerged, such as Edward Conze, Etienne Lamotte, David Snellgrove, Giuseppe Tucci, Nicholas and George Roerich, and Lama Anagarika Govinda.




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RunningSon aka Jim Aldrich, Joshua Tree CA 2013 | This site is dedicated with the deepest gratitude to Dr. Cláudio Naranjo, whose writings gave me life.

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