Eastern Religion in the West - Part 1

By editor - 25.2 2019

OH! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Wordsworth's ode to the French Revolution seemed appropriate to those of the Baby-Boomers with a mystical bent for as they came of age in the 1960s it seemed that the Wisdom of the East was arriving on every other 707 from Asia to rescue them from the dismal promise of a job in the city and a home in the suburbs and church on Sundays.

Unfortunately this captivating fairy story of how Indian Holy Men and their devotees have established ideas like karma and enlightenment, puja and meditation into the New Age of Western popular culture has, as is traditional, a dark twist. The magical promises of realisation and enlightenment or magical powers and tantric sexuality have turned out to be damp squibs and the Holy Men often, if not nearly always, have been as sleazy and phony as a politician or snake-oil salesman and they have wasted the hopes and lives of thousands, if not millions, of those who trusted them while they secretly indulged in the very physical pleasures they claimed to be above.

This movement is based on a few separate strands:

the 19th century translation and publication of Hindu and Buddhist scriptures
the writers and hustlers who created the dream of a Mystic East where yogis and swamis had occult powers the recruitment of a few remarkable men who travelled to the West and their sympathisers and financers the removal of racist immigration barriers that allowed Asian gurus to try their luck in the USA the American Way which promotes and produces profit from religions that glorify asceticism and self-sacrifice

The Boston Transcendentalists

19th century American authors and intellectuals Emerson, Thoreau and Bronson Alcott read, discussed, and wrote about the Bhagavad Gita. Alcott's son-in-law Edwin Arnold wrote "The Light in Asia" a Victorian-flavored biography of Gautama Buddha, which sold half a million copies. It was all rather rarified but provided respectability at a time when Hinduism was considered an abomination by many.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831 - 1891) arrived in the West: 1873

[Madame Helene Blavatsky] Far more important than the high-falutin' brahmin Transcendentalists was Madame Helene Blavatsky, a free-wheeling, cigar smoking Russian emigré and occultist / spiritualist / plagiarist and her Theosophical Society. Blavatsky wrote two massive unreadable tomes of unmitigated bullshit that captivated thousands - Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. She claimed to reveal secret teachings from the East learnt from a secret cabal of deathless, immortal spirit adepts like Koot Hoomi. In a few decades the Society had gone international and had even set up branches in India. After her death the Society became enmeshed in infighting and splitting amongst it's top administrators and gradually sunk into obscurity but it provided bookstores and meeting place in many cities that kept alive the ideas of spiritual Masters with paranormal powers from the mystical East.

The TS never recovered from the controversies generated by the claim, begun by controversial occultist and homosexual paedophile, Charles William Leadbeater, that a young Indian boy Jiddu Krishnamurti was the manifestation of a new World Teacher. The Order of the Eastern Star was created to support him but Krishnamurti was wildly unsuitable for this role. His greatest achievements were his golf handicap of plus 2 and his dashing style in suits. In 1929 he withdrew from his Messianic role, dissolved the Order of the Eastern Star of which he was the raison d'être and disassociated himself from the Theosophical Society shortly before he was going to be denounced by Leadbeater as coming under the power of the Dark Side. He read a speech: "Truth is a pathless land …" Krishnamurti returned most of the money and property bestowed upon him and retired to California until he realised he needed more money.

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) arrived in the West: 1893

In September 1893 Swami Vivekananda made a speech at the World Parliament of Religions that created quite a stir in the largely American audience. He was kept busy for the next two years lecturing and teaching raja yoga and attracting support (mature single ladies of means are especially important for Indian missionaries). Vivekananda was pretty careful to tailor his message to his audience as his guru was the truly wild, flamboyant and crazy Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) of Dakshineswar (outside Calcutta). He was acknowledged throughout India as a saint of celestial proportions but not a comfortable guest for afternoon tea. Most books written by monks of the society do not discuss the truly awesome strangeness of Ramakrishna who was at one time the lion of Bengali society despite his peasant coarseness and earthiness and his overt passionate love for Vivekananda as a young man. He was accused of being transvestite for his living out of his role as a woman devotee and his immmersion in the role of Muslim, Christian, etc though sometimes perfunctory was at others times complete. Vivekananda's gospel also bore very little resemblance to that of his master and this caused much controversy amongst Ramakrishna's immediate group of disciples, now it is on longer commented on.

The Vedanta Society still has some ashrams and temples in the USA and has published many books about Vedanta over the last century. They achieved a certain amount of publicity through the association of Christopher Isherwood with the Vedanta Society.

D. T. Suzuki (1870 - 1966) arrived in West: 1897

[Zen Buddhism] Zen Buddhism was first introduced in the West by D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966) who arrived in the USA in 1897. He wrote many books and presented a version of Zen Buddhism now seen as an overly-intellectual idealisation that was philosophically more modern and Western than traditional and Asian.  [Watts & Suzuki] Suzuki studied at the University of Tokyo. Early in his youth he became a disciple of Soen, a noted Zen master of the day, and under his guidance attained the experience of satori (sudden enlightenment), which remained of fundamental importance throughout his life. He stayed 13 years (1897-1909) in the United States, collaborating with Paul Carus as a magazine editor and pursuing his Buddhist studies. He attracted interest by a translation, "The Discourse on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana" (1900), and the publication of "Outline of Mahayana Buddhism" (1907). The latter half of his life he spent in teaching, writing, and lecturing both in Japan and abroad, mostly in the United States, and contributed substantially to the respectability of Buddhism in Western countries. Suzuki died on July 12th, 1966, at Kamakura in Japan.

Most of the authorised Japanese Zen teachers who came to the West in the 1960s were drunks and sexual abusers.