The American encounter with Buddhism began in 1844 with Henry David Thoreau's translation of a passage from a French edition of the Lotus Sutra and Edward Elbridge Salisbury's lecture on the history of Buddhism at the first annual meeting of the American Oriental Society. The debate that ensued in nineteenth-century America about the nature and value of Buddhism is the subject of Thomas A. Tweed's book. Tweed examines the impact of Buddhism and shows what happened when a new and transplanted religious movement came into contact with an established and significantly different tradition. For Tweed, the debate about Buddhism highlights the fundamental beliefs and values of Victorian American culture and delineates the cultural constraints on religious dissent.
At first, Tweed shows, Western interpreters had difficulty placing Buddhism within familiar traditions. Some emphasized the parallels between Buddhism and Catholicism, others the similarities between Buddhism and "heathenism." Later commentators began to stress Buddhism's doctrinal distinctiveness, while apologists presented Buddhism as compatible with familiar Christian beliefs and values and drew parallels between the Buddha and Jesus. After 1879, the conversation grew more lively and widespread as tens of thousands of Americans sought to learn more about Buddhism and a few thousand considered themselves Buddhists. While many of these sympathizers and adherents thought of themselves as dissenters from Victorian America, Tweed shows that, in important ways, they were cultural "consenters." Though dissenters were willing, in their embrace of Buddhism, to abandon the ideas of a personal creator and a substantial, immortal self, they shared certain values with their critics which they did not abandon--individualism, optimism, and activism. They tried to reconcile Buddhism with these values and to attempt in some measure to make Buddhism consonant with traditional Victorian American culture. Despite Buddhist apologists' success in stimulating interest and harmonizing Buddhism to Victorian values, the cultural strain remained too great for many. Although Buddhism attracted much attention, finally it failed to build enduring institutions or inspire more seekers to embrace the religion. It was not until the next century that Buddhism would find a cultural environment more conducive to its growth.
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"This paperback reprint of the highly acclaimed 1992 hardback is welcome, enabling it to become even more widely accessible to scholars and students. . . . Details and examples are combined with discussion of broader trends in a masterful synthesis."-- Journal of American Studies
Originally published in 1992, this landmark study on "convert Buddism" in Victorian America is a fascinating cultural history that explores the ways Buddism was adopted and understood by a variety of Americans including intellectuals, travellers, and critics. This new edition has a preface that places the book in the context of Buddism's growing influence in American culture today.
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