HOW THE SWANS CAME TO THE LAKE: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America by Rick Fields

HOW THE SWANS CAME TO THE LAKE: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America

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The story behind Fields' title illustrates the critical flaw in this otherwise agreeable survey. In early December 1976, ""the Karmapa"" announced that he had come to the US because the teachings of Buddha had preceded him. ""If there is a lake,"" he said, ""the swans would go there."" The author of this appealing remark turns out to be a Tibetan holy man, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, numero uno in the ""Karma Kagyu order,"" who is such a spiritual heavyweight that his arrival sends Trungpa Rinpoche, the most fashionable guru in Boulder, Colo., and king of the Naropa Institute, into a positive dither of preparation. The Karmapa's triumphal tour of America proves to be a series of splendid Meaningful Moments: the time he recited the mantra ""om mani padme hum"" 180 times, his performance of a ""long Mahakala puja,"" etc., etc. If all this sounds more like esoteric Orientalist chitchat than a chapter in the history of religion, then blame must go to Fields. He's so dazzled by the colorful stream of Asian missionaries (Dharmapala, Nyogen Senzaki, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, et. al.) bringing enlightenment to these shores, and so taken up with the doings of their famous American disciples (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder), that his account often resembles the annals of an exclusive, sophisticated club. And any curious newcomer to Buddhism reading Fields might mistakenly conclude that only monastic types with a good Sanskrit-Japanese vocabulary need apply. On the other hand, Fields' narrative is pleasant reading, ambling its way from Shaloyamuni to William Jones to Madame Blavatsloy to Philip Kapleau--not to mention interesting minor figures much as Charles T. Strauss, a young Jewish businessman who became the first official American convert to Buddhism in 1893. Readable and informative, but too loosely structured and too busy with personalities.

Pub Date: Nov. 20th, 1981
Publisher: Shambhala--dist. by Random House