Despite Buddhism's growing presence in the West, most Americans still badly misunderstand this ancient world religion. The leaders of Philadelphia's Thai community were rudely reminded of this unpleasant fact during the 1980s when they set out to buy land for a Buddhist temple and monastery not far from the City of Brotherly Love. After searching nearly a year, the Thais were delighted to find a lovely 10-acre site overlooking a lake in southeastern Pennsylvania's Chester County. All that was needed was the local zoning board's permission to use the site for religious purposes.
Arriving on the appointed day for their hearing before the board, the group's leaders were surprised to find an angry, standing-room-only crowd packing the room. One after another during the long evening, impassioned residents rose to vent their fears about the Buddhists' plans. A Buddhist presence would destroy the community's Christian and American values, some speakers said. Others worried that proselytizing Buddhists would brainwash their sons and daughters and lure them into esoteric religious practices. Buddhism to these Americans was barely distinguishable from the Hare Krishnas and other cults, an exotic threat to their world. The dismayed Thais immediately withdrew their application. No one had asked them about their intentions or aspirations. Nor did it seem likely that anyone would.
Unfortunately, the opponents of the Buddhist temple in Chester County were no worse informed about the nature of Buddhism than most other Americans. To be sure, the view of Buddhism as a mystical religion far removed from the realities of the workaday world has been a major part of the faith's appeal in the West. Yet whether this picture of Buddhism-as-esoteric-religion is seen in a negative or positive light, it is still a flawed and one-dimensional portrait. It is a portrait, however, with a long history. Some of the earliest Western explicators of Buddhism, such as W. Y. Evans-Wentz in Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrine (1935) and Alexandra David-Neel in Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), painted Tibetan Buddhism in shades of the exotic and esoteric. During the 1950s, D. T. Suzuki's depiction of Zen Buddhism as antirational and iconoclastic had great appeal to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac (author of The Dharma Bums ), and other members of the Beat Generation. The appeal spilled over into the counterculture movement, which made books such as Alan Watt's Way of Zen (1957) and Herman Hesse's Siddhartha (1922; translation 1951) part of the young's standard equipment. Today, Buddhism is probably personified for most people by the Dalai Lama and celebrity followers such as actor Richard Gere. (That is only the beginning: the Dalai Lama is featured in two upcoming Hollywood movies.)
The view of Buddhism held by many Westerners is one-sided, but not totally without foundation. From its very beginning some 2,500 years ago, there has been within Buddhism a tension between the this-worldly and the other-worldly. This tension was at the heart of many early doctrinal controversies about such matters as the nature of Nirvana, the purpose of monastic life, and the character of the relationship between monks and the laity. Its origins go back to the life of the founder, Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, or the Enlightened One.
Buddhism emerged in what is now southern Nepal during the sixth century B.C.E. The traditional dates of the Buddha's life are 563-483 B.C.E., although some modern scholars place his lifetime more than 100 years later. It was a time of unusual upheaval and change throughout the world, as the widespread adoption of iron tools and weapons revolutionized farming and warfare. During the Buddha's lifetime, the vast plains of northern India nourished by the Ganges River and its tributaries were being remade. The region's thick forests were disappearing as an expanding population claimed more and more land for paddy rice and other cultivated crops. New towns and cities sprang up, and with them came a radically new political order as powerful rulers absorbed the region's many small, autonomous states into larger kingdoms and empires. The Buddha himself lived to see the land of his clan, the Sakyas, overrun by another kingdom, which itself later fell to an even larger empire.
Elsewhere in the ancient world, similar changes were bringing forth other thinkers and prophets, from Confucius and Lao-tse in China to Thales, Heraclitus, and other pre-Socratics in Greece. In India, the Buddha and other …