Before Americans turned to Buddhism for life hacks, they treated it like a dangerous cult

People meditate as the sun rises on the Stonehenge monument on the summer solstice near Amesbury, Britain June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Neil Hall – RC1D58C72890
People meditate as the sun rises on the Stonehenge monument on the summer solstice near Amesbury, Britain June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Neil Hall – RC1D58C72890
Image: REUTERS/Neil Hall
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In January 1902, Reverend Clarence Edgar Rice warned Americans of a religion that “both in theory and practice…degrades women,” practices “crass brutality” towards animals, and “goes hand-in-hand with vice…that blushes not at unspeakable practices.” Even more terrifying, this “cruel” and “pessimistic” tradition was making inroads in the United States through both immigration and the conversion of American citizens. Similarly, American newspapers during the Progressive Era warned of “the religion of gloom and melancholy,” being spread by debaucherous “priests of unutterable cruelty [who] traffick in human flesh.”

What was this terrible creed, with its awful priests? It was Buddhism—a tradition today often heralded in popular culture as the path to everything from a better professional career to world peace.

Within a century, Buddhism in America has gone from being frequently portrayed as a “dangerous cult” to becoming the prime spiritual practice of the business elite. Americans now generally view Buddhism favorably, according to Pew Research Center, while Canadians view Buddhism in equal favorability with Christianity, according to an Angus Reid poll. Mindfulness is taught in schools, and Buddhism is presented as a sort-of spiritual science. How can our views of Buddhism have changed so much in so little time?

The racist roots of portraying Buddhism as “cruel” and “pessimistic”

The historical period in which Reverend Rice was warning Americans about the evils of Buddhism is sometimes described as the “Yellow Peril.”

American books and newspaper articles at the time warned of the “clash of civilizations” developing between “uncivilized” Asian and “civilized” White culture, suggesting Asians would eventually rise up to overthrow The West. Politicians enacted exclusionary laws: In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring all Chinese immigrants; decades later the Johnson-Reed Act, Asian Exclusion Act, and National Origins Act cut off Asian immigration, and limited all non-Northern European immigrants to almost nil.

The “proof” that helped justify racist rhetoric and pass eugenics-based domestic policy often involved race sciences like phrenology. In the United States, many “top” scientists, like G. Stanley Hall, argued that races could be scientifically hierarchized, with “greater” and “lesser” races. This pseudo-science gave scientific credence to the fear of outsiders that Americans felt, and suggested that Asians were biologically barbarous and animalistic, while their religion lacked morality and created a sort-of brainwashed horde.

All of this contributed to American characterizations of Buddhism—which was associated with a disparaged and “scientifically” inferior racial group—as a violent, scary religion.

How Buddhists used the language of race sciences to adapt their pitch for Americans

When religious people, and therefore their religion, move to a new area through immigration and missionary expansion, religions must adapt and change for their new surroundings; this fact has been repeated for millennia.

In the late 1800s, Buddhism was the subject of a cultural fad in the United States, with magazine coverage, social groups, and travel journals all discussing Buddhist religion, culture, and art. But the doctrines of the religion failed to mesh with American religious culture, being portrayed as a pessimistic tradition of annihilation. Buddhist leaders looked for ways to adapt their presentation and create ways of explaining the religion that were more amenable to American sensibilities. Part of this task was divesting the notion of pessimism that had troubled the tradition in the past.

Beginning around the turn of the 20th Century, Buddhism underwent a publishing revolution, creating hundreds of English-language magazines, journals, and pamphlets to help spread Buddhism in the United States and Canada.

In previous encounters between The West and the Buddhist world, Western authors often criticized Buddhism as a religious tradition without a god, or an agnostic worldview. In early-20th Century America, a religion without a creator god was not socially acceptable. Therefore, Buddhist publications beginning in the 1900s argued that Buddhism had a god, but that God was simply understood differently than the Christian monotheistic God. In fact, they argued that the Buddhist notion of god was beyond a singular being, including both existence and non-existence, suggesting that the Buddhist “god” was superior to Christian monotheism.

When Buddhism entered the United States, the most modern and agreed upon “sciences” were race sciences, and Buddhist religious thinkers and missionaries were quick to pick up on this point. They borrowed its language to promote their religion. Similarly to how The West had presented a (quack) scientific explanation for their superiority, Buddhist publications used the language of race science to explain their spirituality. They even used the writings of C.G. Jung, who famously wrote of the “Eastern Mind” versus the “Western Mind” to argue for their own religious superiority; Jung said that Asians were more inherently spiritual, while Westerners were logical, and Buddhists wrote extensively about how they needed to teach spirituality to Americans, who had lost it to crass materialism.

Buddhism was not presented as a religion of science, but as science itself; even mindfulness meditation, once the purview of only the most advanced monastic meditators, is presented in America as “beyond the Buddha,” harkening to a pre-historic mental spirituality. The idea of Buddhist spirituality resulting in “this-worldly” benefit is certainly nothing new, but the mystification of Buddhist doctrines, combined with the promotion of mindfulness meditation as being beyond the Buddhist religion and connected to science, all combined in 20th Century America to help fuel the current proliferation of mindfulness. 

Even today, comparisons of Buddhism and science are commonplace, with neuroscientists, psychologists, and physicists paying attention to Buddhist doctrines and practices, such as mindfulness. Historically, Western academics wrote about comparisons of Buddhism and science as far back as the 19th Century, while Buddhists themselves promoted their religion as scientific even at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), the Buddha was viewed as an ethical reformer, comparable to Jesus, despite Western views on Asians and Buddhism more broadly. In other words, just like today, for a religion to be “scientific” was a major benefit in American religious culture, but between 1900 and 1940, science in America was heavily racialized and colored by a false hierarchy of superiority and inferiority. Within the global network of colonialism, Asians used their religion to promote their own superiority in the face of being labelled inferior; they promoted Buddhism as superior to Western culture and religion, and as the very basis for scientific development.

The rise of mindfulness

Throughout the 20th Century, especially following World War II, religious ideas became more diffuse in American culture, creating what is often called the “marketplace of religions.” Ironically, as American religious leaders increasingly feared secularization, they became increasingly involved in extra-church activities, successfully liberalizing American religious culture but diminishing their own necessity.

Meanwhile, Buddhists promoted meditation practice across the West. Perhaps the most famous singular voices in this discussion begin with the Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) and layman S.N.Goenka (1924-2013). Ledi Sayadaw saw the incoming colonialism of the British as a way to promote meditation techniques to the laity, even though the practice was normally only undertaken by advanced monastics. Sayadaw claimed that a nation of mindfulness could overcome colonial powers. Following Sayadaw’s example, Burmese layman S.N. Goenka has helped to fund over 310 meditation centres across 94 countries, promoting a form of mindfulness for lay people that makes little to no mention of the Buddhist religion.

Modern meditation teachers commonly present mindfulness as being beyond even the Buddha himself, a spiritual-scientific technique beyond any one historical period or religion. The mystification of Buddhism in many ways becomes complete in modern mindfulness. Placing Buddhism within the marketplace of American religion, de-coupled from its own doctrines and practices, this process completes many of the foundational writings of Buddhists published in the early 20th Century. This is not to suggest that there are not benefits within modern mindfulness, but merely that it includes a much longer and fraught history than many of today’s modern mindfulness teachers recognize. Buddhism underwent a process of mysticization so it could become all things to all people and was justified by scientific comparisons, which is a process that continues in modern mindfulness today.

Buddhism did not find success in America due to a singular figure or institution; in fact, with the success of mindfulness in American culture, practice is sometimes removed from the religion itself and placed directly into the marketplace. Buddhists themselves once promoted their religion this way to counter the nationalism and xenophobia of America. They used the language of race sciences to promote Buddhism as superior, and mysticized the doctrines of the tradition to be applicable to American views, resulting in the de-coupling of meditation practice and the religion itself.

Is mindfulness appropriation?

Mindfulness, as dispersed in American culture today, is sometimes regarded as a form of cultural appropriation, taking Buddhism outside of its cultural and religious context.

In a certain way, this is very true; mindfulness for better sex is an obvious example of the removal of context from a meditation tradition associated with celibate religious monastics. At the same time, Asian Buddhists actively promoted this presentation of mindfulness dating back nearly a century, in order to prove that their own religious tradition was not the inferior corruption, as suggested by academics, popular culture, and even pseudo-science. Skillful means (upaya) is an important concept in Buddhism, which means adjusting the teachings of Buddhism to suit the audience in a given situation, but by doing so, the student would be lead to the ultimate Truth of the religion. The idea of mysticizing doctrines and the reinterpretation of practices is written directly into the religious tradition.

In other words, although Buddhists of the early 20th Century, and even today, may not recognize, or even necessarily agree with, all of the manifestations of modern mindfulness, and other Buddhist ideas, it is certainly true that Asian Buddhists played an active role in this promotion. However, it should be recognized that these developments took place in an area and time that was heavily racialized, and actively antagonistic to Asians and Buddhism.

I believe that this type of historical study can help us to find answers, or at least new perspectives, to issues that face us today. Rather than facing the next perceived “incoming threat” with suspicion, and even isolationism, and eventual internment, we can look to the history of Buddhism in America to see how to include outside groups. Today, the suggestion that Buddhism is a “dangerous cult” is largely laughable in the United States, but a century ago, this was “common knowledge.” We can use our past experiences to help us with today’s problems because we have been through this before. Tracing Buddhism’s history from “cruel joke,” as a newspaper once called it, to modern mindfulness can help us to see exactly that.

Dr. Ryan Anningson is the SSHRC-PDG Postdoctoral Researcher for the “Upper Indus Petroglyphs and Rock Art of Northern Pakistan” project at Wilfrid Laurier University. This article is based on his Ph.D. thesis, “Theories of the Self, Race, and Essentialization in Buddhism in the United States during the ‘Yellow Peril.”