Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History

Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History

Ed. Thomas A. Tweed and Stephen Prothero
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Paperback, hardback, xvi + 416 pages.

The relationship of Americans with the great religions of Asia has been a long and complex one. From the earliest days of the Republic, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and other Eastern faiths have been understood, or misunderstood, in a variety of ways. They have served as the bizarre and exotic subjects of tales told by adventurous clipper ship sailors and as the heathen objects of high-minded if sometimes narrow-minded missionary endeavor by the nation's numerous churches.

At the same time, the faiths of the East have often been idealized by intellectuals who were looking for alternatives to down-home religions but usually knew little about them except what was to be garnered from translations of the sacred texts. Understandably, sons of the Enlightenment such as Franklin and Jefferson most admired Confucianism, which fit their image of a deistic religion of reason and common sense, whereas Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, touched by Romanticism, preferred the warm pantheistic glow they felt in the Brahman Oversoul of Hinduism. Something of all these inconsistent: perceptions still linger in America's collective picture of the religions of the East.

Tweed and Prothero's anthology contains texts, some of them previously little known, illustrating such perspectives and much more. It carries us from those first encounters through the experience of Asian immigrants to America beginning with the Chinese of Gold Rush days in California, through the counter-experience of American converts to the foreign faiths, and down to the pluralistic present. This documentary history is remarkably comprehensive of the range of relationships illustrated; there are texts from the great 1893 and 1993 Parliaments of the World's Religions, texts from the internment of largely Buddhist Japanese Americans during World War II, texts relating to the zoning difficulties Asian temples have recently encountered in some communities. There is transplanted Asian philosophy; there arc fascinating accounts of the rituals as well as the doctrine taught in Hindu and Buddhist temples; there are texts from those who have bitterly opposed the Asian "invasion" of America. It's all there, and fascinating reading it is for anyone with any interest in the extraordinary American subculture here unveiled more fully than ever before in all its dimensions.

Many Theosophists will certainly be interested in the book. Both of the editors have impressive credentials in Theosophical history. Stephen Prothero is author of The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott, and Thomas Tweed's The American Encounter with Buddhism1844-1912 presents important insights on Theosophy's role in this encounter. One is somewhat disappointed, then, that the present work offers little more by or about Theosophists than a passage from Olcott's Old Diary Leaves reporting his and Helena Blavatsky's taking pansil, or formally becoming Buddhists (but in a nonexclusive Theosophical sense, of course), in Ceylon in 1880, together with a short selection from his Buddhist Catechism. Something from William Q. Judge or Katherine Tingley, to mention only American Theosophists, showing how this literature helped popularize such Eastern spiritual concepts as karma and reincarnation in the West, might also have been appropriate.

However, one can always quibble about what might have been added or left out in any anthology. It is Prothero and Tweed who have actually done the work, and their book is as good as it gets (or now, and probably for a long while to come. Asian Religions in America is highly recommended to all lovers of Asian religion, of cross-cultural spiritual adventure, and of America's wonderful diversity of faith.


July/August 2000