Arnold Toynbee once wrote that, "Of all the historical changes in the West, the most important and the one whose effects have been least understood, is the meeting of Buddhism and the Occident. And when and if our society is considered in light of larger societal patterns and movements, there can be no doubt that the meeting of East and West—the mingling of the most ancient traditions in the modern world—will form a much larger part of history than we today, with our political-economic emphasis may think."
This is not a singular opinion. Many, many people have this idea. And if you look throughout American history, you will see the influences going way back. When I first began my research, I thought I would be studying a phenomenon that basically happened in the 1950's and 1960's. Everyone knows there was a flowering of interest at that time, especially with the Beats—what we call "Beat Buddhism"—and then into the 1960's and 1970's with the change of immigration laws and the coming to America of genuine Asian teachers. However, if you look into this, you will find it goes way, way back; it goes back to Cotton Mather, to Benjamin Franklin, and to Thoreau and Emerson. There has been a long, long history of interest and influence between the U.S. and Asia. As an American—a Western historian—we always see the impact of the West on the East, in terms of colonialism, in terms of the Christian missionary movement, in terms of science and technology and the military. But it's a far more subtle and probably more influential movement that is taking place with the influence of ideas, specifically religious and philosophical, from East to West. Many of us in this room have already had encounters along those lines to various degrees, which is probably why some of you are here tonight.
And so the question I was asking then is, "What is the nature of that encounter?" This gets into the topic, because I feel that the nature of that encounter touches all three dimensions of human existence. By that I mean the social, the psychological, and the natural. These are social-science kinds of categories, though I am sure there are more dimensions. But to state these three, the social refers to the relationships of humans to humans; the psychological refers to the relationship of an individual human being with his or her self; the natural refers to the relationship of humanity with nature. These three dimensions of existence are profoundly and radically challenged and impacted by Buddhism.
Now, tonight, I am only going to deal with one of these three, and that is the natural, the scientific, although the other two are just as fascinating, but there is simply not enough time to discuss all three here.
I would like to quote to you some people who have commented on this phenomena, because when I started my research, I realized that Buddhism made its first major impact on this culture around the turn of the last century. This was a spin-off of the first world gathering of religions that took place in Chicago in 1893, the World Parliament of Religions. This was held in conjunction with the Chicago World's Fair. That was the first time that Asian representatives—monks and some nuns from Asia—actually came and participated in an open forum and discussion with Western theologians, scientists, and so forth, in Chicago.
What's important about this for the topic tonight is to understand what was going on in the U.S. at that time. Essentially what was happening in the U.S. in the 1890's? We had reached a peak of what's called the "spiritual crisis of America." This spiritual crisis was the result of the changes and transformations that were brought about by what was then called "modern science". The impact of the Darwinian theory of evolution had a major effect on religious orthodoxy, as everyone knows. In short, it wasn't for sure that God was in his heaven, and that all was right with the world, which led to Nietzsche's expression that perhaps "God is dead."
Many thinking people who were well read and educated went through a deep personal spiritual crisis, my grandparents being two of them. After having been brought up in an orthodox, traditional religious framework, they suddenly met principles of geology, biology, and astronomy.
Sigmund Freud captured it really well when he said, "the self-love of mankind has been three times wounded by science." That is, our view of ourselves, or the ego, was three times wounded by modern science. He was referring to the Copernican Revolution, followed by Galileo, who said, "Hey, this isn't the center of the universe." And a lot of people had trouble with that. The Earth had been the center of the universe for them, and everything revolved around it; suddenly it was just a tiny speck. We are still finding out that this world is getting less and less significant, as we probe further and further into what people think is the end of space, which they never seem to find. So it goes on and on.
Freud didn't include himself in one of the wounds, but I will. Freud wounded our ego in the sense of saying that we are not in control. We are not the masters of our own fate; impulses and desires drive us beyond the reach of our rational minds: the unconscious. And it's quite nasty in there. He called it the Id. That realization really took Man out of his exalted state of measurable things and the rational animal.
Following that came Darwin, who stated that the gulf between animal and man isn't as wide as we had thought, either. In fact, it may be that we descended from animals—that is, according to the Darwinian view—which was less than flattering. Thus whole fields of study began to develop along those lines, and the idea that we were an especially created species divinely touched by God alone underwent a shock. The Darwinian shock was the one that really hit many people.
The third wound was Marx and Marxism. That was on what I would consider the social dimension. In the Marxian world we were suddenly animals driven by economic desires. It is the Freudian equivalent at the social and economic level. That means we are not driven by humanistic, altruistic impulses—not even religious ones. And of course if Darwin wasn't enough to do in religion, Marx would come in and say, well you can have it, but it is a kind of opium.
Thus the combination of Freud, Darwin, and Marx three times wounded the human psyche. Now historians talked about this unfortunate split between matter and spirit and there is a number of ways we can categorize it. We can say it's a split between matter and spirit, a split between faith and reason, a split between science and religion, a dichotomy between fact and values/ethics. At a more personal level, it is the mind-body dualism. However you want to characterize this split, this is what's really significant about the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and I would argue it's still with us today. This is something that still haunts our psyches.
Much of today's therapies, religions, and even the "New Age" phenomena are attempts in one way or another to reconcile and bridge this unfortunate split to which we are heirs. This becomes, in a sense, the problem of the Modern Age, so much so that John Dewey, the pragmatic philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th century said, "The pathological segregation of facts and value, matter and spirit, or the bifurcation of nature, this integration [the problem of integrating this] poses the deepest problem of modern life." He defined this split as the beginning of where all philosophy and religion takes off. If we don't heal this split, we will never be whole; we will never get it back together again.
Even more significantly, Alfred North Whitehead looked at this thing and made a paraphrase, "The future course of history would center on this generation's [meaning our generation's] resolving the issue of the proper relationship between science and religion; so fundamental are the religious symbols through which people give meaning to their lives [being religion] and so powerful the scientific knowledge through which we shape and control our lives." So you see, these two things are going to be the most important.
It was in this climate, this atmosphere, that Buddhism came to America in the 1890's. Face-to-face encounters took place, unlike the previous literary encounters, or the missionaries' discussions of Asian religions. Suddenly, people were speaking out from their own traditions, with their own words, through their own experiences, creating a major impact. In fact, if you look at some of the major journals from this time period that I was researching, there was more interest—just in terms of publications—in the Eastern religions in the 1890's than there is today. Some of the writing is actually a little more brilliant, I must say—credit to my grandparents and the Victorians. They seriously looked into this issue.
I have heard that Boston in those days was the equivalent of Berkeley today. I've been told you could walk down the streets of Boston and run into gurus and sages and monks and mystics from all climates of the world; shops that were selling all kinds of paraphernalia; and, William James himself sniffing nitrous oxide to achieve altered states of consciousness that would lead him into meditative trances—not too far away from Timothy Leary, a later-to-come Harvard Professor. I am not suggesting that William James was reborn as Tim Leary; I am not making that claim. But certainly at that time in Boston, you had an incredible interest in these phenomena. And the journals and magazines from this Victorian Age show that many people were experimenting, searching in quest, and being drawn to and converting to Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism.