I FOUND this engaging book literally crammed with the sort of lively and accurate information in its special field which I had for years been longing to find assembled in an orderly manner in a single volume. I am sure any number of people have been consciously or unconsciously waiting for just such a book regardless of the degree of information they possess on those remarkable movers and shakers who contributed in one way or another to the rise of Buddhism in the modern West. The clue to the title is given in the front of the book. It refers to a remark made by the Gyalwa Karmapa, an eminent Tibetan religious personage, who when questioned as to why he had come to America replied because the teachings of the Lord Buddha had preceded him and "If there is a lake, the swans would go there."
This is a book about those swans and they are a fascinating and varied lot as a mere glance at the book's jacket will immediately confirm. Some 20 of these early pioneers of Western Buddhism appear there in a collage of faces and poses ranging from the startlingly dramatic to the frankly hilarious. There is Madame Blavatsky in her fusty hood and shawl, the elegant Ernest Fenellosa (to whom Americans owe the incomparable Asian treasures in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) in his sable-bordered greatcoat, Thomas Merton posing casually in his Trappist monk's attire, Ruth Fuller Sasaki with a pilgrim's staff, D. T. Suzuki in a cotton house kimono laughing gaily, the brilliant controversial Tibetan rinpoche, Chogyam Trungpa, wearing a conventional dark three-piece business suit and looking like nothing so much as a rolypoly Christmas pudding mold, a youthful beardless Gary Snyder correctly holding a ceremonial Japanese tea bowl with the expression of a very young and innocent altar boy. This collage represents by no means the entire cast of characters among Fields' swans. There are many more and the author has handled the entire assemblage with a rare finesse. Not only has he thoroughly researched the rich lode of material at his disposal (in itself a prodigious task), but he also possesses first-hand knowledge of how Buddhist practice "works," and, further, he is blessed with a flair for characterization and the perceptive turn of phrase which give his unusual material all the elements of a "good read." This is a quality which can hardly be overestimated when one recalls the many ponderous and unreadable books on various world religions.
The threads of this remarkable narrative weave themselves into fantastic patterns. The leading characters emerge with a quality of independence and individuation that certainly dispels any stereotype of the Buddhist practitioner, teacher or layman. This independence of viewpoint goes straight back to the New England Transcendentalists. Fields finds Thoreau "pre- Buddhist in much the same way the Chinese Taoists were. He forecast an American Buddhism" in his faithful practice of contemplation, that "private business of tracking his own nature" by which Thoreau set such great store. When asked on his deathbed whether he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied "more like a Zen master than a Transcendentalist" that he was not aware they had quarreled.
Some of the best material in Fields' book is the relatively brief but rich account of such mid-19th-century eminences as Thoreau, Emerson, Bronson Alcott (Louisa May's father), Walt Whitman, William James, and others, all of whom had been influenced to some degree by the arrival of the first translations into English from the hitherto unknown Asian religious world. These priceless treasures had come to light in large measure thanks to the accomplishments of a brilliant young English lawyer and linguist, William Jones (later Sir William) who among other linguistic feats had discovered through his pioneer study of Sanscrit, "an Indo-European family of languages with an ancestor shared by both Europe and India." The importance of such a discovery can hardly be over-estimated in the subsequent history of East-West cultural exchange.
The Victorian poet, Sir Edwin Arnold, was another powerful influence in the 19th-century discovery of Buddhism by the West. Sir Edwin wrote a long epic poem about the life and teaching of the Buddha which was read far and wide in Europe and America. It sowed some of the first seeds of interest in the pre-Christian religious genius whom Arnold's poem celebrated as The Light of Asia. In Field's view Sir Edwin also played a significant role in finding the "key" which was to draw together the then disparate parts of world Buddhism. This "key" was the campaign to recover Bodh Gaya in northern India, the site of the Buddha's Enlightenment, from the grasp of Hinduism and restore it to Buddhist hands. (It was not until 1949 that this ultimately came to pass. It is now a noted Buddhist pilgrimage spot.)
One of the most rewarding chapters in Fields' book concerns the role played by a group of "White Buddhists," the Theosophists. Nowadays writers on general religious subjects usually ignore or mildly denigrate the Theosophists with their somewhat outmoded occultism, their Himalayan Masters, their Higher Initiations and other mystical beliefs. Fields avoids this facile trap. He gives them their just due as pioneers to Madame Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and other members of the Theosophical Society's ruling hierarchy who helped break down the unexamined prejudices against Asian philosophy. (One cannot resist citing here an example of how, without irrelevance, Fields can humorously highlight a whole segment of period sociology. He tells us that when Colonel Olcott and H.P. Blavatsky set out together on their first great adventure to the mysterious Far East, in particular to India, the "source," they left the New York Theosophical Society in the capable hands of General Abner Doubleday, the inventor of baseball!)
Fields seems to have covered all pertinent material related to his subject including the World Council of Religions held in 1893 in Chicago which, in a sense, set the ball rolling in America. He has a chapter on the somewhat piecemeal arrival of Japanese Buddhists and the more recent wave of Tibetan rinpoches, lamas, and tulkus. If in the Japanese section--in particular in the stories of the first Zen masters to come to the West--the reader has an occasional slight feeling of confusion, this seems to me inherent in the very nature of the narrative itself, or rather, in the personalities of the men who are being described. Japanese carriers of the Buddha message to the West were by no means cut to any fixed pattern. Fields has been at some pains to convey detailed accounts of these already legendary though comparatively recent teachers: Sokei-an, Nyogen Sensaki, Soen- roshi, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, D. T. Suzuki, Yasutani- roshi, Joshu Sasaki-roshi. . . . Perhaps it is the predominance of all those S's which makes it a little difficult for the ordinary reader to differentiate between them. Probably it really doesn't matter! The record is all here for those who want to know it. There may be small inaccuracies, but they are not significant; the main facts have been carefully preserved.
Fields' many-faceted chronicle brings us up straight to the present moment and thus is able to include some little-known incidents around our sad and murky involvement in Vietnam. It seems there came a time when the American government, having begun by fatally backing the corrupt and repressive Catholic regime of the Diems, felt it necessary to take notice of the Vietnamese Buddhists. Our then secretary of state, Henry Cabot Lodge, asked for a "briefing" on Buddhism. The Buddhist scholar, Richard Gard, was assigned to this "ten minute interview." On st,Gard's arrival at the secretary's office Lodge admitted immediately that Buddhism was not unfamiliar to him; his proper Bostonian cousin, William Sturgis Bigelow had been a Japanese- trained practicing Buddhist. "There is nothing at all wrong (with Buddhism)" Lodge stated firmly. The interview ran well over 10 minutes. Later Lodge met, to their great surprise, with Buddhist leaders from Japan and Vietnam, "something no one in the State Department had ever done before." It was of course all "too little and too late."
The self-immolation of Buddhist monks in protest over imprisonment sent a ghastly chill through newspaper readers and television viewers of the world. The sight of monks seated in meditation quietly going up in flames equally shocked many Buddhists raised on strict precepts against all killing--oneself as well as others. But as one of the Vietnamese leaders said of the martyrs at the time, "in such an emergency there was no other way. They were using their bodies like a lamp for help."
There is a great variety of material in this engrossing book; its range though carefully controlled is unusually wide. This might be said to be a part of the book's message. In Buddhism there can be unity of belief in all the basic principles without the necessity of uniformity in customs, behavior, and practices.