The American Encounter with Buddhism 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent

Tweed, Thomas A. The American Encounter with Buddhism 1844-1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

The American Encounter with Buddhism 1844-1912, by Thomas Tweed, examines the emergence of Buddhism in mid- to late-Victorian America, exploring the significance of the debate between its sympathizers and detractors for interpreting the rise of new and transplanted religious movements and for understanding the cultural beliefs and values of the era. The author shows how Buddhism arose from relative obscurity in 1844 to attract the attention of tens of thousands of spiritually-disillusioned Americans by the turn of the 20th century. He contends that the discourse between its admirers and critics began by highlighting Buddhism’s similarities with other religions and developed later to show its doctrinal distinctiveness. Tweed’s typology of Buddhism’s Euro-American apologists—classified as esoterics, rationalists and romantics—refutes the claim that its adherents were only New England romantics and that they were limited to that region of the country. <p> The book focuses on nine major Euro-American Buddhist apologists: the esoterics Herman Carl Vetterling, Henry Steel Olcott, and Marie deSouza Canavarro; the rationalists Dyer Daniel Lum, Paul Carus, and Thomas B. Wilson; and the romantics Ernest Fenollosa, Lafcadio Hearn, and William Sturgis Bigelow. Tweed describes these individuals as both cultural dissenters and cultural consenters, arguing that they were drawn to Buddhism because of its greater compatibility with science and tolerance. Though these sympathizers often clashed with prevailing American perspectives, the author contends that they shared the traditional American values of theism, individualism, activism, and optimism, often interpreting their Buddhist faith in terms of these primary Western convictions. Tweed finds that, in the end, most Americans during the period ultimately rejected Buddhism as incompatible with their most cherished cultural beliefs. The book’s postscript briefly describes the decline and development of American Buddhism after 1912.

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Harvard Divinity School