The American Yen for Zen Began with Swedenborg . . . Sort of

By Paul Tutwiler, PhD

Herman C. Vetterling was born in Sweden in August, 1849. He entered the United States on August 26, 1871; was living in Douglas County, Minnesota in 1872; and was naturalized as an American citizen in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania on April 15, 1880.[1] Growing up, his religious development was of primary importance to him: “I was brought up in the Swedish (Lutheran) State Church. My mother was a pious woman, and she sought to inculcate what she supposed to be the truths of eternal life, especially by example.”[2] While still in his teens Herman read German, French, and American authors who had little, if anything, good to say about traditional Lutheranism. His spiritual journey began around 1872, when, in his early twenties, he was seized by a fascination with the topic of immortality and began a fifty-year study of it and of psychic research.

By 1873, Vetterling had begun studies for the ministry at Urbana College in Urbana, Ohio on a scholarship from the Swedenborgian-inspired New Church. Herman studied at Urbana from 1873 to 1875, continued his studies for the New Church ministry in the Pittsburgh area, and was ordained in 1877. From 1877 to 1881, Rev. Vetterling served as New Church pastor pro tem in Pittsburgh and pastor in Detroit. He also served the church congregations in Greenford and Salem, Ohio.

Vetterling’s Theosophy Phase

Vetterling left Detroit and sought New Church support for entering Hahnemann Homeopathic Medical College in Philadelphia. He graduated, however, from Hahnemann Homeopathic Medical College in Chicago in 1883.[3] The last the New Church organization heard of him was in 1885, and he was dropped from the New Church rolls in 1888. He is reported to have been a “resident of Chicago, 1882–1886,”[4] and there is evidence that he joined the Theosophical Society in 1884 while living in St. Paul.

Vetterling’s intellectual production between 1883 and 1887 consisted of an 1884–85 series of seven articles (the first installment was entitled “Studies in Swedenborg’s Philosophy,” and the rest were “Studies in Swedenborg”) presenting Swedenborg’s teaching in Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott’s periodical The Theosophist. Vetterling’s relationship with the Theosophical Society, which was founded in 1875 in New York by Blavatsky and Olcott, was a bridge between his Swedenborgianism and his Buddhism. In 1881, Olcott produced The Buddhist Catechism, which was acceptably accurate to many Buddhists. In 1884, the publication of Esoteric Buddhism by the English Theosophist Alfred P. Sinnett claimed that the ancient body of religious knowledge that had been lost to the world in general had been preserved in Buddhism:

This secret knowledge, in reality, long antedated the passage through earth-life of Gautama Buddha. Brahminical philosophy, in ages before Buddha, embodied the identical doctrine which may now be described as Esoteric Buddhism.[5]

Los Angeles: The Buddhistic Swedenborgian Brotherhood, 1887

Having interpreted Swedenborg for Blavatsky and Olcott’s followers, Vetterling went on to proclaim that the Swedish mystic also agreed with Sinnett’s primitive Buddhism. Vetterling’s book on this topic, Swedenborg the Buddhist, or the Higher Swedenborgianism, Its Secrets, and Thibetan Origin, was published in 1887 by The Buddhistic Swedenborgian Brotherhood in Los Angeles.[6] His study bore the name, not of Herman Vetterling, but of a pseudonym, Philangi Dàsa.[7]

Swedenborg the Buddhist incorporated a great deal from Alfred Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism. In particular it followed Sinnett’s outline. Vetterling also accepted the thesis that the ancient wisdom had been transmitted through Hinduism to Buddhism. He added what seems to be an original analysis, that the ancient wisdom maintained by the Buddhist monks was the same as that which Swedenborg, in his dreams and visions, had learned to be a pre-Hebrew-Bible book that had been lost in all the world except in “Greater Tartary.” Swedenborg’s Greater Tartary consisted of Tibet, Mongolia, and the area between them.[8]

In Swedenborg the Buddhist, one sees for the first time Vetterling’s extensive background knowledge. Philangi Dàsa and the people who, as the book tells it, engage in religious dialog with him, cite no fewer than 152 distinct sources other than Swedenborg himself. Only twenty-eight of these are from esoteric works or works of mysticism. Another forty-two are from the sacred scriptures of many religions and their commentators. The rest are descriptive material from history, travel, philosophy, and science.

The Buddhist of Santa Cruz

By the time Swedenborg the Buddhist was published, its author was living on Mt. Roberta in the mountains ten miles from Santa Cruz, California. The face Herman Vetterling presented to Santa Cruz is recorded in the Santa Cruz Daily Surf of October 18, 1887:

Dr. H. C. Vetterling of Glenwood has connected himself with Dr. W. S. Hall of this city. . . . Dr. Vetterling is a specialist on diseases of the eye and ear and Dr. Hall gives special attention to refractive difficulties of the eye.

Available city guides enable one to trace Vetterling’s medical practice in Santa Cruz only through 1889, and in 1893 he himself characterized his activities as “woodchopping, digging, hoeing, planting, printing, etc., etc.”[9]

The other face of Herman Vetterling, however, the face of Philangi Dàsa, was recognized by the Surf on January 8, 1889: “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.”

The Salinas Index pays this tribute to a Santa Cruz journal of which we have never heard:

The Buddhist Ray has completed the first year of its existence. It is an 8-page octavo, beautifully printed on thick, tinted book-paper, and ably edited. We wish the Ray another successful year.[10]

The primary activity of the woodchopper on Mt. Roberta was certainly the writing, editing, printing, and distributing of The Buddhist Ray. In the first issue, January, 1888, the as yet unnamed editor claimed, “we believe ours to be the first Buddhist baby born in Christendom.”[11] Whatever the correct understanding of this attribution may be, the importance of the launching of such a publication at that time has not escaped the attention of scholars of the history of Buddhism in the United States. Paul Carter, Rick Fields, Thomas Tweed, and Andre Vashestov summarize the highlights of The Buddhist Ray in their works cited in the bibliography. Here a few basic remarks seem in order. The message of The Buddhist Ray is grounded in the Esoteric Buddhism of Sinnett, it incorporates the revelations of Swedenborg, and it looks like the Buddhism of Olcott. In its early issues the Ray showed sympathy for Theosophy, and until the end it persevered in showing respect for Henry Steel Olcott. By 1894, however, the editor had nothing but harsh criticism for Helena Blavatsky, and, as far as the doctrines of Theosophy are concerned, the editor proclaimed, “We have read all the publications of that society, including those of the Miracle Section, but have not found any ‘hidden knowledge’ in them: rather, extracts from gentile and mediæval books, plagiarisms, forgeries, hypnotic delusions, spiritualistic phenomena, and irish cock-and-bull stories.”[12]

The young Ray devoted much space to Vetterling’s contention that Swedenborg was basically a Buddhist, but gradually it said less and less about that. From the beginning to the end of its course, it never tired of extolling the ancient roots of Buddhism and of jabbing at what the editor construed to be Christianity’s doctrinal and moral inferiority to Buddhism. Here and there it would make some vitriolic comment about the Church of the New Jersusalem.

Volume 1, issue 1 of The Buddhist Ray journal, January, 1888

Articles from the Ray were disseminated in translation in Japan.[13] Some other Buddhist communities, especially in Ceylon, subscribed in appreciable numbers. The journal also attracted financial support from Henry Steel Olcott, himself, who contributed three pounds sterling. Philangi Dàsa was “made a member of the Advisory Committee of the Religious Congress to be held in Chicago in connection with the [1893] World’s Fair.”[14] His views on Swedenborg even appeared as an article in a French review, Le Lotus Bleu: Revue theosophique.

The Buddhist Ray reveals clearly the sensitive and often bitter feelings of its editor, but it contains little reference to his own person and life. At one point he announced the formation—evidently under his guidance—of the “Purana Silence Society” for women who were to take vows of chastity (including conjugal) and humility and were to stand up in public. The Ray, however, made no further mention of the group. In the sixth year of its publication it advertised 5 × 8 photos of its “home.” Toward the end of its run the Ray took an interest in anti-vivisection, devoting one of the final issues to this topic. Here and there an article in the Ray would bear the name of Philangi Dàsa, but it was not until the very last issue, November–December, 1894, that, in announcing the demise of the Ray he identified himself as Dàsa. Only a year earlier the Santa Cruz Surf newspaper had reviewed the Ray favorably, acknowledging that the editor lived in the mountains, but declining to name him.

Lacking letters, diaries, or other personal records, one can only guess why Vetterling left the Santa Cruz area to move to San Jose. Presumably the opportunities for him as a homeopathic doctor were greater in the larger city. However that may be, I will hazard the opinion that Herman felt the need to move away from his Buddhism as physically as he was moving away from it spiritually. During the seven years of The Buddhist Ray he had come to realize that what he had taken for Buddhism was the Olcott characterization of it. Always a scholar, he had learned that the origins of Buddhism lay not in the primitive revelation of the Himalayas, but in an evolution of Hinduism, and that Swedenborg’s notion of ancient books maintained in Greater Tartary had no basis in fact. As Herman moved away from his Buddhism, so he moved away from the place that he felt to be identified with it.

Vetterling’s Role in History

In spite of some scholarly interest in him, perhaps Herman Vetterling would have remained hidden to the broader public if it had not been for the growing American interest in Buddhism. In the guise of Philangi Dàsa he made such a contribution to American Buddhism that he could not remain in the shadows. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the first appearance of Dàsa in this connection was in Paul Allen Carter’s 1971 book, The Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age. Carter observed that in the 1890s some Americans writing about the religions and philosophies of Asia were saying—contrary to the conviction of Americans in general—that these were superior to Christianity. Among these writers, according to Carter, was Philangi Dàsa, publisher of The Buddhist Ray, who “expressed satisfaction that the ‘heathens’ at the World’s Parliament of Religions had behaved better than Joseph Cook [a notoriously narrow minded Christian].”[15]

In 1981, Rick Fields published his popular book, How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Fields pointed out that Dàsa’s book on Swedenborg and the publication of the Ray were part of the movement to make Americans familiar with Buddhism. Whereas Carter had been silent about Dàsa’s background, Fields identified him as Vetterling, although he did not include biographical facts.

It remained for a contemporary scholar of religion in America, Thomas Tweed, to develop Field’s contention that Vetterling/Dàsa had a significant role in the history of Buddhism in America and to provide some biographical detail about him in his 1992 work, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912.[16]

Vetterling tends to be somewhat controversial; the opinion of scholars is not entirely favorable. The late Swedenborgian psychologist and theological writer Wilson Van Dusen took the trouble to peruse Swedenborg the Buddhist, and exclaimed, “I am afraid after examining it, I threw it away.”[17] However, a strong positive light is thrown on Vetterling by New Church minister and scholar of Swedenborgianism, Andrei Vashestov, who, in the introduction to the new edition of Swedenborg the Buddhist, points out that:

Vetterling, in the final analysis, was not a champion simply of Buddhism, or of Swedenborg, or theosophy, . . . but of spiritual inquiry, freedom, self-determination, and the human quest for the Divine. Vetterling deserves recognition and remembrance for his contributions. He should be praised as a pioneer in the study of comparative religion.[18]

If comparative religion is taken to mean a dispassionate observation of the characteristics of many religions, it scarcely seems that Herman Vetterling qualifies. He had a strong personal idea of what religion ought to be, and he sought to show how this is found in the various forms religion has taken. In the final analysis, the painstaking labor he took to gather sources and to point out in great detail innumerable similarities between the major religions of the world was at least the work of a dedicated scholar. One can appreciate Vetterling as a lifelong observer of religious and mystical phenomena who did not claim that he was a mystic. Instead, he went through a series of true believer stages and in the end had his own opinions, his personal spiritual synthesis.

——-

A former Catholic priest and philosophy instructor, Paul Tutwiler (1929–2014) became interested in Santa Cruz area history upon retiring to Bonny Doon in 1996. One of his first local history projects was a history of the Williams Brothers and Rancho Arroyo de la Laguna, which he wrote with his wife, Miriam. At Researchers Anonymous meetings he often shared amusing and curious stories from his investigations into the history of spirituality in Santa Cruz County. Paul wrote extensively on this subject, based on years of detailed research. He contributed an article to Santa Cruz County History Journal No. 6,contributed several to the Santa Cruz Public Library website, and established santacruzspirituality.net.

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Notes 

[1] These facts, other than the month and year of his birth, are in the Western Pennsylvania Genealogy Society Quarterly, Vol. 5, 107: “A list of immigrants who applied for naturalization papers in the District Courts of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.” According to the 1900 U.S. Census, he was born in August, 1849. The 1900 Census states that he entered the United States in 1860, the 1920 Census has him entering the country in 1873 and being naturalized in 1876, and the 1930 census records merely that he entered in 1873. More in line with the court naturalization record is his 1884 letter to Edward Maitland, where he states that he had been “in America about twelve years,” in Vashestov, Swedenborg the Buddhist, Introduction, xiii.

[2] Vetterling, letter to Edward Maitland, in Vashestov, Swedenborg the Buddhist,Introduction, xiii.

[3] Vashestov, Introduction, xvii–xix, in addition to describing the incident in Detroit, prints the letter in which Vetterling states that he intends to go to Philadelphia to study. The name Herman C. Vetterling, however, is on the February 19, 1883 list of the graduates of the Hahnemann Medical College of Chicago class of 1882–83 (courtesy of Northwestern Memorial Hospital Archives). The affinity, which was real, although not institutional, between homeopathy and American Swedenborgianism is treated by Block, New Church in the New World, 160–65.

[4] Blackmer, Note.

[5] Sinnett, Esoteric Buddhism, 3.

[6] I have seen no other reference to this organization. Herman Vetterling, however, was obsessed by the notion of an ancient and mysterious brotherhood of true believers. He alluded to this in Swedenborg the Buddhist, pages 25 and 26, and in the dialog that begins on page 34.

[7] I have encountered nothing that would explain the source of the name Philangi Dàsa. The earliest testimony that Dàsa and Vetterling were the same person seems to be a 1925 statement made by John A. Whitehead, pastor of the Pittsburgh New Church just after Vetterling’s ministry there. This is recorded in Blackmer’s 1950 note.

[8] In Swedenborg’s voluminous writings there are many references to the Lost Word’sbeing present in Greater Tartary. In Swedenborg the Buddhist, Vetterling, on pages 46, 51, 142, 277, 290, and in the discourse of pages 300 to 307 cites the Swedish mystic’s writings to this effect.

[9] Buddhist Ray Vol. VI, Nos. 5–6 (May–June 1893): 8.

[10] Buddhist Ray Vol. II, No. 1 (Jan. 1889): 4.

[11] Buddhist Ray Vol. I, No. 1 (Jan. 1888): 4.

[12] Buddhist Ray Vol. VII, No. 5 (May 1894): 4.

[13] Tweed, “American Occultism and Japanese Buddhism,” 255, 256. In Vashestov, Swedenborg the Buddhist, Introduction, xxix, he asserts from his personal correspondence with a Japanese academic that Philangi Dàsa was known in Japan among Buddhists there and had some influence on them.

[14] Buddhist Ray Vol. VI, Nos. 3–4 (March–April 1893): 10.

[15] Carter, Spiritual Crisis, 206–7, 263, 265 (quotation from page 265).

[16] Tweed, American Encounter with Buddhism, 58–60, 187, 220. Tweed’s article, “American Occultism and Japanese Buddhism,” contains additional information on pages 255–56. There is also his very brief article, “The Original Ray.”

[17] Van Dusen, “Same Supreme Doctrine in Swedenborg, Hinduism, and Buddhism,” 29.

[18] Vashestov, Swedenborg the Buddhist, Introduction, xxiv.

Bibliography

Blackmer, Horace B. Manager of the Swedenborg School of Religion Reference Library, note written in 1950 reporting information inscribed “in the front of our Reference Library copy of Swedenborg, [sic] the Buddhist.” Courtesy of the Swedenborgian House of Studies in Berkeley, California.

Block, Marguerite. The New Church in the New World: A Study of Swedenborgianism in America. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1932.

Carter, Paul Allen. The Spiritual Crisis of the Gilded Age. DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971.

Dàsa, Philangi. The Buddhist Ray. Santa Cruz, California, 1888–94.

Dàsa, Philangi. Swedenborg the Buddhist, or the Higher Swedenborgianism, Its Secrets, and Thibetan Origin. Los Angeles: The Buddhistic Swedenborgian Brotherhood (Bacon and Company, Printers, San Francisco), 1887. Arcana Books of Charleston, South Carolina republished it in 2003 with an introduction by Andrei Vashestov (see below), and Kessinger Publishing of Whitefish, Montana reprinted it in 2006 from the original plates.

1889 Directory of San Jose City, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, San Benito, Monterey Counties.

Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. 3rd ed. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.

New Jerusalem Messenger.

Olcott, Henry S. The Buddhist Catechism. Colombo, Ceylon: Theosophical Society, 1881.

Santa Cruz Daily Surf.

Sinnett, Alfred P. Esoteric Buddhism. London: Trübner & Co., 1883.

The Theosophist.

Tweed, Thomas A. The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

_______ “American Occultism and Japanese Buddhism—Albert J. Edmunds, D. T. Suzuki, and Translocative History.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32/2 (2005): 249–81.

_______ “The Original Ray.” Tricycle 1/1 (Fall 1991): 7.

Van Dusen, Wilson. “The Same Supreme Doctrine in Swedenborg, Hinduism, and Buddhism.” Studia Swedenborgiana 13/2 (December 2003); cited from reprint at https://sfswedenborgian.org/ (2007).

Vashestov, Andrei. Swedenborg the Buddhist. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcana Books (Swedenborg Association), 2003.

Western Pennsylvania Genealogy Society Quarterly.

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