A vital link in the westward transmission of the dharma, Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible is about to be republished this spring by Beacon Press. Originally printed more than sixty years ago, it was the first English-language anthology of Buddhist teachings and was crucial to the development of Buddhism in America. This is an excerpt from the foreword to the new edition.


Dwight Goddard practicing zazen. David E. Starry, Courtesy the First Zen Institute of America
Dwight Goddard practicing zazen. David E. Starry, Courtesy the First Zen Institute of America

Students of Zen Buddhism come to me with a variety of “first books” in their past and among them, with some frequency, is Dwight Goddard’s durable anthology of translations, A Buddhist Bible, originally published in 1932 and then republished in its present, enlarged form in 1938.

As the “first book” for Jack Kerouac, A Buddhist Bible had a direct influence upon the American Beat movement of the fifties—and thus upon the New Age movement that followed, with its efflorescence of Western Zen Buddhism, in the late sixties and early seventies. In Jack’s Book, Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee expanded upon the importance of A Buddhist Bible for Kerouac: “In its seven-hundred-odd pages he found concepts of historical cycles so gigantic that they dwarfed Spengler’s. He found, as well, the notion of dharma, the same self-regulating principle of the universe that he had proposed himself in the closing pages of Doctor Sax. . . . Using his sketching technique, Jack converted the texts in A Buddhist Bible into his own words.”

This “translation” began a creative process of Americanizing Buddhism that manifested first in Kerouac’s San Francisco Blues (1954) and flowered in The Dharma Bums (1958), which itself became a “first book” for people growing up in the sixties.

Jack Kerouac, cross-fertilizing with Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and others who are still engaged in Americanizing Buddhism in their own ways, helped to establish a culture in which Buddhism could grow and flourish in the mid-sixties.

A Buddhist Bible was an important seed in this acculturation process. The book was composed, as Goddard states in his preface to the 1932 edition, to recount the adaptation of the original teachings of the Buddha from the rise of the Mahayana to the development of Dhyana Buddhism to the Platform Sutra of Hui-neng, the Sixth Ancestor of Ch’an, or Zen Buddhism. He remarks that Buddhism “is the most promising of all the great religions to meet the problems of European civilization which to thinking people are increasingly foreboding.” A Buddhist Bible is a broadly inclusive anthology that serves Buddhist readers generally. It brings together a collection of sacred texts that may be available in more up-to-date translations elsewhere, but are scattered in various publications, some of them out of print. A Buddhist Bible includes a wide selection of Mahayana texts as well as selections from the Pali and Tibetan canons.

Goddard did not intend A Buddhist Bible to be a source book for critical and literary study. In a letter to Ruth Everett (later Ruth Fuller Sasaki) he said about another of his publications, “Whatever I do will inevitably be done in an amateurish way and will have to be redone later by abler minds, but I feel that because of the present situation I must do the best I can, and remain willing to be forgotten by the greater writers who are to follow.”

Goddard’s “best” remains a building block of Western Buddhist practice, while he himself, though a prolific writer and pamphleteer, is almost forgotten. His sister, the family genealogist of her time, began a chronology of his life, and this was extended with brief comments by a niece, Alice M. Brannon, who kept house for him. In addition, Goddard’s publications themselves provide some biographical information, and the First Zen Institute of New York has kept his letters to Ruth Everett and Shigetsu Sasaki. Still, the record is meager and there are many gaps.

Dwight Goddard was born on July 5, 1861, in Worcester, Massachusetts. After graduating with honors from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he began a career in industry. In 1889, when he was twenty-eight, he married Harriet Webber. It was a happy marriage, according to Alice Brannon, but Harriet died just the next year. This tragedy, one can assume, brought Goddard the following year to Hartford Theological Seminary, where he was graduated in 1894, at the age of thirty-three.

Ordained and posted to China as a Congregational missionary, Goddard married Dr. Frances Nieberg, a fellow missionary, and their first son was born in Foochow. On the basis of interviews conducted late in Goddard’s life, David Starry wrote of Goddard’s dissatisfaction during those early years in China: “During his initial years as a . . . missionary in southern China, he became increasingly frustrated at the failure of the Christian missions to accomplish their spiritual goals. He was convinccd that although the Christian propaganda had been successful in influencing educational and social conditions it had failed in its purely religious aspects.” He prowled around with an open mind, visiting Buddhist temples—alert for spiritual nourishment.

Returning with his wife and child to the United States in about 1899, Goddard accepted pastoral positions in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and in Chicago. A second son was born. Then abruptly he changed course again, returning to industry as a mechanical engineer. In the course of his engineering enterprise, Goddard sold an invention to the U.S. government that was later used during World War I. This brought him a fortune that supported his family and allowed him to retire from industry in 1913 and resume his religious quest. It was not a simple transition. He lived alone for a while and suffered a nervous breakdown. David Starry conjectures that he was burdened by the thought of his invention being used for purposes of war. In any case, after that he lived for periods of a few years each in Thetford, Vermont, and Ann Arbor, Michigan—more briefly in Lancaster and in Los Gatos, California. He became interested in Taoism during this time, while he was also reading and writing in the field of Christian mysticism.

He made several trips back to China. In 1921 he learned about Karl Ludwig Reichelt, a Lutheran pastor who had established a monastery in Nanking that was devoted to Christian-Buddhist understanding. Goddard spent some time in Reichelt’s monastery in 1923 and again in 1925. He and his wife were divorced in 1926. He married for a third time a year later, at age sixty-six, but this marriage ended fairly soon afterward in a separation.

In 1928, at the age of sixty-seven, Goddard encountered Japanese Zen Buddhism for the first time through Junsaburo Iwami of New York City. Iwami was at the time attending lectures by Shigetsu Sasaki (later Sokeian Osho) at the Orientalia Bookshop. Sasaki recalled that Iwami “got one of Goddard’s circulars he was always sending around and wrote to him about Zen Buddhism. Goddard was terribly moved that he never knew Zen Buddhism.” After he and Iwami met, Goddard went forthwith to Japan, where he consulted with D. T. Suzuki and studied eight months with Yamazaki Taiko Roshi of Shokoku Monastery in Kyoto, living apart from the monastery but visiting for zazen (meditation) and personal interviews. He dedicated the first edition of A Buddhist Bible to Suzuki and Yamazaki as his teachers.

In letters to Ruth Everett, Goddard reported on his difficulties with Zen practice. His mind wandered uncontrollably. His legs gave him trouble. He also had a hard time understanding the Roshi’s broken English.

In earlier letters to Everett, Goddard urged her to meet Shigetsu Sasaki. She later became a key figure in the First Zen Institute that developed around Sasaki, a center that continues to be important in Western Zen Buddhism. Ultimately, Everett married Sasaki Osho shortly before he died. Her books, particularly The Recorded Sayings of Lin-Chi Hui-chao of Chen Prefecture, edited from Sasaki’s notes, and Zen Dust: The History of the Koan and Koan Study in Lin-chi (Rinzai) Zen, which she compiled with Isshu Miura, are essential references for serious Zen students.

Though Goddard was one of five people to sign the letter first requesting that Shigetsu Sasaki be sent to the United States as a teacher, he was not convinced that Sasaki Osho’s method of teaching was correct. With his experience in Chinese and Japanese monasteries, Goddard felt that lay religious practice was vulnerable to worldly distraction and could not survive. He therefore endeavored to establish a monastic movement, the “Followers of Buddha.”

It was an ambitious project on forty acres in southern California adjacent to the Santa Barbara National Forest, and also on a large parcel of rural land in Thetford. The religious brothers (no sisters) participating in the fellowship were to commute back and forth between the centers in a van, spending winters in California, summers in Vermont. The enterprise folded for lack of members. In How the Swans Came to the Lake, Rick Fields surmises that Goddard’s strict monastic style went against the American grain and his inability to persuade Wong Mou-lam or Wai-tao to head the movement left it without enlightened leadership. It is ironic that, despite his conviction that monasticism was the only possible path, Goddard’s writings became an inspiration to Jack Kerouac at the other end of the spectrum of lay and clerical practice, and that his work fertilized the lay Zen Buddhist movement that flourishes today.

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