A leisurely survey of Buddhist encounters with the West, for better or worse.
Much of the literature on that matter has come from Buddhists such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Catholics such as Thomas Merton. Sutin (Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley, 2000, etc.) professes no religious attachment, and his emphasis is historical rather than doctrinal. He begins with the age of Alexander the Great, when Greeks were exposed to Buddhist teachings during the short-lived conquest of northwestern India; Aristotle even asked Alexander to send a “gymnosophist” back to Greece for a conversation, though a Buddhist met a trio of Greek thinkers with the impatient remark, “It is impossible to explain philosophical doctrines through the medium of three interpreters who understand nothing we say any more than the vulgar; it is like asking water to flow through pure mud.” Such incomprehension marked subsequent East-West encounters, though in time, Nestorian Christians would live alongside Buddhists in Asia, giving each a better idea of the other’s beliefs. Sutin examines the controversial view that Buddhist thought influenced the Gnostics (and thus, perhaps, early Christianity), for which there is scant evidence for or against, before moving on to the better-documented travels of Christian missionaries in Asia; his narrative is peopled by memorable characters such as the Japanese Buddhist monk who converted to Catholicism only to denounce it, “making him an apostate, perhaps the first in world history, of both Buddhism and Christianity.” Later, he provides a fine brief on the flim-flam artist who did much to introduce sort-of-Tibetan doctrine to the West, T. Lobsang Rampa. Sutin reaches familiar ground when he turns to the influence of Buddhism on the American transcendentalists and, later, the Beats and their followers, more fluently chronicled in Rick Fields’s How the Swans Came to the Lake (1992).
Readers familiar with Merton and Suzuki will know most of this story. For others, though, this is a solid overview.