During the month of February, within the heart of Eastern Asia, Buddhists will celebrate the death of the great Buddha and his ushering mankind into final enlightenment. Yet in American, many Zen temples have that celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment during the December holiday season. This is just an example of America’s view of Buddhism.
Early Influences of Buddha
Buddhism made its way into the American culture during the late 19th century. This was a time when Americans were intrigued by Oriental mysticism. In fact, it fueled the imaginations of many famous American philosophers, artists, poets, and even world religion scholars.
Many great poets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were said to have read Buddhist philosophy quite often. And Henry Steel Olcott even visited Sri Lanka in the year 1880 and actually made a conversion to Buddhism, he then went on to found a very popular brand of mystical philosophy that is now called Theosophy.
Additionally, many connoisseurs that admired Buddhist art exposed America to its beauty. Ernest Fenellosa, who was a well know art historian and also a Professor of philosophy , and his fellow Bostonian William Sturgis Bigelow, were some of the very first Americans at that time to travel to Japan. There they converted to Buddhism and collected many pieces of Buddhist art. After returning home, their art collections were the beginning of the famous Arts of Asia collection located at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
And then there were the early scholars that studied world religions like Paul Carus who made Buddhist material available to Americans. He was responsible for the publication of The Gospel of Buddha, which is a best-selling group of Buddhist parables, one year after he attended the World Parliament of Religions that took place in Chicago during the year 1893. This was actually the very first time in modern history where members of the world’s largest religions met to find out more about each other’s religious traditions.
More Modern Views
The Buddhist delegation that took place in Chicago which included the Sri Lankan Buddhist reformer Anagārika Dharmapāla as well as the Japanese Zen master Shaku Sōen, the former of which has studied science and philosophy from the west in order to modernize his own traditions. Many of these Buddhists who have been influence by the west are presenting their existing traditions to their current Western audiences as a “rational” and “non-theistic” tradition which has no competing gods, meaningless rituals, or irrational beliefs.
The fact is that traditional Buddhism does have many deities, rituals, and doctrines, as well as ordained priests, sacred texts, sectarian developments, ethics, and other such elements that people would usually associate with an organized faith or religion. The view of Buddhism shifted at the 1893 World Parliament, when Buddhist masters presented their religion’s meditative traditions and rituals to modern America as merely a practical philosophy, and not a religion. This is the same perception that many Americans have of Buddhism to this day.
However, it is believed that these Buddhists didn’t intend to deliberately misrepresent their rituals and traditions; perhaps they only told Americans the things they wanted to hear.
But the end result was that Buddhist merely transplanted a few little branches of Buddhism’s very large tree and planted them into America’s soil. As it turns out, just a few little cuttings of real Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and art actually came to America. There are still many traditional elements from the great Buddha that remain in Asia.