East Coast Buddhists

Meanwhile on the East Coast, Buddhist ideas sparked an intellectual conversation among a number of Euro-Americans. In the mid-nineteenth century, Henry DavidDavid was the King of Israel (c. 1000 BCE) credited with uniting the many tribes of Israel into a centralized kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. David is said to have planned for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was subsequently built by his son Solomon... Thoreau is said to have translated part of the Lotus SutraOne of the earliest Mahayana sutras, the Lotus Sutra has played a significant role in shaping the Buddhist tradition in East Asia. Especially influential has been its teaching of the one Great Vehicle (Mahayana) under which is subsumed all other lesser ve... from French into English. His regard for the BuddhaBuddha means “awakened one” and specifically refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama (traditional date, sixth c. BCE), the historical founder of the tradition that became known as Buddhism. All Buddhist traditions agree that ther... is evident in his essay “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac” where Thoreau writes: “I know that some will have hard thoughts of me, when they hear their Christ named beside my Buddha, yet I am sure that I am willing they should love their Christ more than my Buddha, for the love is the main thing…” In the 1870s, Edwin Arnold’s famous rendition of the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, crossed the Atlantic and became the first Buddhist bestseller in America.

Quite a number of intellectuals and spiritually-minded people took a keen interest in BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther... in the late nineteenth century. Colonel Henry Steel OlcottColonel Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky were the founders of the Theosophical Society, a group with interests ranging from the mysteries of ancient Egypt and Greece to Eastern religions. In 1878 Olcott and Blavatsky went to India and Sri ..., along with the eccentric Helena Petrovna BlavatskyColonel Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky were the founders of the Theosophical Society, a group with interests ranging from the mysteries of ancient Egypt and Greece to Eastern religions. In 1878 Olcott and Blavatsky went to India and Sri ..., founded what they called the Theosophical SocietyColonel Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky were the founders of the Theosophical Society, a group with interests ranging from the mysteries of ancient Egypt and Greece to Eastern religions. In 1878 Olcott and Blavatsky went to India and Sri ... in 1875, “to study ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and to investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the psychical powers latent in man.” It was an eclecticEclectic Pagans bring aspects of many spiritual paths together. Some Pagans pride themselves on the high degree of authority granted to each person to develop his or her own spiritual path. Hence, many practitioners adapt practices from a variety of Pagan... band of New Yorkers, with interests in everything from the mysteries of ancient Egypt and Greece to the religions of the East.

In 1878, Olcott and Blavatsky went to India and then to Sri Lanka, where both of them took the five lay precepts of Buddhism—perhaps the first Americans to do so. While Blavatsky had a wider taste for the “occult” in general, Olcott persevered as a student of Buddhism, speaking widely in Asia and the West. Seeing how little Buddhists knew of one another in Asia, he became especially concerned about pan-Buddhist unity, eventually drafting a Buddhist CatechismA catechism is a manual or lesson book of Christian instruction, containing essential Christian teachings for young people or those seeking to join the Christian community. in an attempt to articulate what he thought to be the clear, basic principles of Buddhism, and designing a six-colored Buddhist flag.

Paul CarusPaul Carus (1852-1919), a German immigrant, was attracted to Buddhism and made the argument that it could be understood rationally as compatible with science. He edited The Open Court, a journal which investigated religion and science. His book The Gospel..., a German immigrant and freethinker, was also attracted to Buddhism, primarily because to his mind it could be understood rationally and in terms compatible with science. He edited The Open Court, a journal which pioneered in investigating religion and science. His book The GospelGospel means “Good News” and refers to the central message of the Christian tradition: the good news of Christ’s life and message of redemption. Gospel refers more specifically to the four books that tell the story of the Christ event and became par... of Buddhism, published in 1894, compiled passages from various Buddhist scriptures in a single accessible volume. By 1910, this sympathetic and compelling portrait of the tradition was in its thirteenth edition. A young Japanese student, D.T. SuzukiD.T. Suzuki (1870-1966) first introduced Zen Buddhism to the general American public. Although he was never ordained as a full monk, for several years as a young man he lived in one of Japan’s main Rinzai temples, where he mastered koan study. After arr..., translated the book into Japanese and subsequently came to work with Carus in Illinois. Suzuki worked in the late 1890s translating the DaodejingThe Daodejing, literally “The Scripture of the Way and its Power,” has been influential in the philosophical and religious traditions of Daoism. It is traditionally dated to the sixth century BCE, although most scholars believe it was written several ... and stayed in the United States until 1908—an invaluable period of education for the man who was to become the premier translator of the Zen tradition into the language of Western thought.

Finally, there were those attracted initially to the aesthetic dimensions of what seemed to be “exotic” Buddhist culture and art, especially that of Japan and Tibet. In the 1880s, the Bostonians William Sturgis Bigelow and Ernest Fenollosa spent years in Japan, cultivating a deep appreciation of both Buddhism and Japanese art. Fenollosa was the tireless art collector, Bigelow the cultured financier. Bigelow had been a doctor at Harvard Medical School, but his soulThe soul is the inner spirit, the life-essence of a person, regarded in many religious traditions as Divine. In the Hindu tradition, the atman or pure consciousness within is understood to be one with Brahman, the ultimate reality that pervades the entire... was seized by Japan and its arts, and especially by Buddhism. In 1885, both Fenollosa and Bigelow received the precepts and were formally initiated into Buddhist life, ethics, and practice, at Homyoin TempleA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... on Lake Biwa in Japan.

In the late 1880s quite a number of Bostonians—including Isabella Stuart Gardner, whose home later became a museum, the writer Henry Adams, the artist John LaFarge, and BishopA bishop is an ordained minister who supervises life in a diocese, synod, or other broad region and possesses, among other things, the authority to ordain clergy to the ministry of the church. The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and Protest... Phillips Brooks of TrinityThe Trinity is the Christian doctrine of the three natures of the One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The language of the Trinity bespeaks the complexity of God, who can be spoken of as the transcendent creator, the one who accompanies humanity as the ... Church—came to know Japan and gain some insight into Buddhism through the hospitality of Fenollosa and Bigelow. In 1890, when both Bigelow and Fenollosa returned to Boston, much of the Japanese art they had collected became the core of the Museum of Fine Arts Far Eastern collection, and Fenollosa became its first curator. In 1904, Okakura Kakuzo, who had worked with Fenollosa in Japan, became assistant curator of the collection. Okakura wrote The Book of Tea, a widely celebrated appreciation and interpretation of the Japanese tea ceremonyChado, meaning “the way of tea,” refers to the tea ceremony, a ritualized method of preparing and drinking tea so that the act assumes profound aesthetic and spiritual import. Although the practice originated in China, it attained its most refined for... and its aesthetic.


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