The reason I did this research is because those were the two worlds I have personally experienced in my lifetime: East and West; Buddhism and America. But it is also because, since the end of World War II, there has been extant a notable amount of historical opinion suggesting that this encounter between East and West, between Asia and the U.S., is probably going to be the most significant event of the modern era. Here is a quote from Bertrand Russell at the end of World War II to illustrate: "If we are to feel at home in the world, we will have to admit Asia to equality in our thoughts, not only politically, but culturally. What changes this will bring, I do not know. But I am convinced they will be profound and of the greatest importance."
Recently a historian by the name of Arthur Versluis, who just came out with a new book entitled American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions, pieced together five or six major historical views on this subject and presented this quote, "However much people today realize it, the encounter of Oriental and Occidental religious and philosophical traditions, of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Islamic perspectives, must be regarded as one of the most extraordinary meetings of our age.
Arnold Toynbee once wrote that, "Of all the historical changes in the West, the most important and the one whose effects have been least understood, is the meeting of Buddhism and the Occident. And when and if our society is considered in light of larger societal patterns and movements, there can be no doubt that the meeting of East and West—the mingling of the most ancient traditions in the modern world—will form a much larger part of history than we today, with our political-economic emphasis may think."
This is not a singular opinion. Many, many people have this idea. And if you look throughout American history, you will see the influences going way back. When I first began my research, I thought I would be studying a phenomenon that basically happened in the 1950's and 1960's. Everyone knows there was a flowering of interest at that time, especially with the Beats—what we call "Beat Buddhism"—and then into the 1960's and 1970's with the change of immigration laws and the coming to America of genuine Asian teachers. However, if you look into this, you will find it goes way, way back; it goes back to Cotton Mather, to Benjamin Franklin, and to Thoreau and Emerson. There has been a long, long history of interest and influence between the U.S. and Asia. As an American—a Western historian—we always see the impact of the West on the East, in terms of colonialism, in terms of the Christian missionary movement, in terms of science and technology and the military. But it's a far more subtle and probably more influential movement that is taking place with the influence of ideas, specifically religious and philosophical, from East to West. Many of us in this room have already had encounters along those lines to various degrees, which is probably why some of you are here tonight.
And so the question I was asking then is, "What is the nature of that encounter?" This gets into the topic, because I feel that the nature of that encounter touches all three dimensions of human existence. By that I mean the social, the psychological, and the natural. These are social-science kinds of categories, though I am sure there are more dimensions. But to state these three, the social refers to the relationships of humans to humans; the psychological refers to the relationship of an individual human being with his or her self; the natural refers to the relationship of humanity with nature. These three dimensions of existence are profoundly and radically challenged and impacted by Buddhism.
Now, tonight, I am only going to deal with one of these three, and that is the natural, the scientific, although the other two are just as fascinating, but there is simply not enough time to discuss all three here.
I would like to quote to you some people who have commented on this phenomena, because when I started my research, I realized that Buddhism made its first major impact on this culture around the turn of the last century. This was a spin-off of the first world gathering of religions that took place in Chicago in 1893, the World Parliament of Religions. This was held in conjunction with the Chicago World's Fair. That was the first time that Asian representatives—monks and some nuns from Asia—actually came and participated in an open forum and discussion with Western theologians, scientists, and so forth, in Chicago.
To be continued