Friday, August 13, 2010

Review: The Buddha and the Dream of America

As promised in my August 1st post, here is my review of James Hilgendorf’s book, The Buddha and the Dream of America. I finished the book about a week ago but have needed some time to process it and figure out what to write.

As I said previously, the book is organized into 60+ short essays (very much like The Beat Handbook – lots of white space in which to write). The central theme of the book surrounds the author’s contention that a new spiritual civilization is emerging as foretold by Buddha in the Lotus Sutra, and that America is the wellspring of that renaissance. Hilgendorf calls it an American Renaissance, and says its foundation was laid by Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman, among others.

“The real America encompasses the universe itself” (p. 127).

The general tone of the book is uplifting. I especially enjoyed “What Is True Accomplishment” on p. 33.

Two points of criticism. First, the essays are not all focused around the theme of the book, resulting in a lack of coherence. Second, the author proselytizes frequently about a particular type of Buddhism, Soka Gakkai International, which espouses the chanting of the phrase, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Hilgendorf believes that “the Buddhism of the Soka Gakkai is a religion that will enrich the lives of billions of people and the civilization to come, unlocking innumerable souls, awakening everyone to the eternity of their own life” (p. 97).

I have spent a bit of time studying about Buddhism, and I have to say that the Buddha would probably not be a fan of the highly ritualized, systematic, organized approaches that have sprung up in his name. I’m not a Buddhist scholar, and I’m not looking to get into an argument about it. It’s just my opinion.

Indeed, the Buddha is credited with saying:

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

And the author’s own Whitman said:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men—go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families—re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul . . . .

My own soul and common sense tell me to stay clear of specific paths to enlightenment like Soka Gakkai. I think Jiddu Krishnamurti had this about right.

Nevertheless, I have to say that the book kept me interested enough to finish it, and there are some worthwhile messages within its 145 pages. Ultimately, I was a little confused by the book’s overall message (what exactly is America’s role?), but I enjoyed myself along the way.

“Our deepest soul strains to find that which is beyond ourselves” (p. 141). Some of Hilgendorf’s essays do point us on that journey, like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon.

The Buddha and the Dream of America is available at The Tribute Series.


Anonymous said...

I love that Whitman quote and have saved your blog link in my "blogs I like to like" folder.

Great stuff, all around great.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Thanks, lumbertruck! Always glad to make a new acquaintance!