THIS YEAR MARKS the centennial of the Parliament of World Religions; for the first time in America, clergy from non-theistic religions were invited to represent their traditions. Zen abbot Soyen Shaku (see “Ancestors”) addressed the assembly in Chicago, having had his letter of acceptance written by his disciple, D. T. Suzuki. Also present was Dharmapala, the fiery leader of the Buddhist revival movement in what is now called Sri Lanka. The Archbishop of Canterbury was so offended by the placement of other religions on equal footing with Christianity that he denounced the Parliament and refused to come. Yet the task of extending religious pluralism in the United States beyond the confines of the prevailing Judeo-Christian traditions had begun in earnest. In terms of Buddhism, the Parliament was a major turning of the dharma wheel, setting in motion work which Tricycle continues today.
Yet the harmony idealized by the organizers of the Parliament in 1893 merely deflected the white supremacism that would prove—over and over again—to be the Achilles’ heel of the American dream. In “Mountain of Compassion” in this issue Susan Davis takes a look at what happened fifty years after the first Parliament when, in one of this country’s most shameful expressions of officially sanctioned racism, American citizens of Japanese origin were interned. Along with dozens of Jodo Shinshu priests, also interned were two of Soyen Shaku’s disciples, Nyogen Senzaki and Sokei-an, who left behind small groups of Western Zen students. And no one could see the Zen boom just on the horizon.
In 1955 Jack Kerouac wrote Wake Up, a biography of the Buddha, part of which is published here for the first time. (The book will be serialized in Tricycle). While, at the time, Wake Up discouraged publishers by its lack of commercial promise, Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, published in 1958, became the most celebrated text of the counterculture, radiating a glorious vision of “the rucksack revolution” in which Zen lunatics would sanctify the universe with prayer, dance, drugs, meditation, and free love in the floating zendos of the mountains.
Ten years later, with the publication of The Three Pillars of Zen in 1965, the spiritual technology of Zen practice entered the culture. Compiled by American Zen master Philip Kapleau (see interview), Three Pillars offered basic instructions on practice and posture as well as selections from classic Zen texts, including the writings of Master Dogen (see “Food“).
D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts—and Kerouac—had inspired a surge of Zen interest in America, but only with the arrival of The Three Pillars of Zen could American readers of Buddhist books begin to practice—without crossing the Pacific.
Since then, Three Pillars has sold close to a million copies; Buddhist practice centers exist in every state of the union; the immigrations from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam have swelled the numbers of Buddhists in America; Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie Little Buddha is scheduled for release in 1993 (see “Projecting the Buddha“); and finally Wake Up has its audience.
Wake Up is not the only hidden treasure of American dharma to come to light. Another entails the peculiar story of Abner Doubleday, who died one hundred years ago, some months before the Parliament convened. A member of the Theosophical Society, Doubleday was familiar with Buddhism through his close friendship with Madame Blavatsky. But he is best remembered for laying out baseball’s diamond field in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York, which today is home to The Baseball Hall of Fame. Sometimes referred to as “the father of baseball,” Doubleday has been claimed by some Buddhist enthusiasts as one of their own for infusing this quintessentially American game with mystical Buddhist numbers—nine (innings, players, yanas) three (strikes, jewels, vehicles) and four (balls, bases, noble truths). Even the field has been touted as an esoteric reference to the Diamond Sutra. According to modern historians of the sport, however, Doubleday’s association with baseball is more mythic than actual. Yet one great mystery remains: the 108 stitches (as in suture or “sutra” ) on the hardball. This is the total of 9 x 3 x 4: the same number of Buddhist prayer beads on a sacred mala as well as the number used ritually and repeatedly throughout Buddhist cultures. And even if history does disprove Doubleday’s influence on baseball, Buddhist sages tell us that there are no coincidences. Play ball!
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