By John S. Haller, professor of history and medical humanities, emeritus, Southern Illinois University
According to the Pew Research Center, Buddhism is practiced by approximately five hundred million people, or roughly 7 percent of the world’s population. Current estimates place the number in the United States at three to four million, with an additional undefined secularized population who identify with numerous nonreligious aesthetic and presumably healthy “Zen” products and practices ranging from lotions, foods, and lay meditation to minimalist architecture and music. In its diversity—both at home and abroad—Buddhism has managed to remain conspicuously free from the associations with violence or religious fanaticism that come hand-in-hand with current media reports on terrorism.
One element often overlooked in the history of Buddhism’s rise in the United States is its connection with Swedenborgianism, particularly in the aftermath of the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893. This connection came by way of Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki (1870–1966), a Zen Buddhist who spent eleven years with Paul Carus of the Open Court Publishing Company in LaSalle, Illinois, as Carus’s assistant editor and translator of Buddhist and Hindu texts. Carus published thirty-eight books on Buddhism, including the widely popular The Gospel of Buddha (1894), a compilation of tracts favored by reform-minded Buddhists in the United States and abroad. In assessing the relationship between Carus and Suzuki, historian Carl T. Jackson wrote, “If Suzuki’s work had been one of the important bridges to the West’s modern understanding of Buddhism, Carus must be accounted one of the chief engineers.”
When asked about the similarities between Buddhism and Swedenborgianism during a meeting with religious scholars Henry Corbin and Mircea Eliade, Suzuki reportedly responded, “For you Westerners, it is Swedenborg who is your Buddha; it is he who should be read and followed! He is ‘your Buddha of the North.’” With the perceptual lens of someone trained as a Zen Buddhist who had studied America’s literary and intellectual history, including the transcendentalism of Emerson and the pragmatic theories of William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, Suzuki found the ideas and concepts in the canon of Swedenborg’s writings similar to those already integral to American thought and culture, and appealing as well to his own belief system.
In 1913, Suzuki wrote Suedenborugu, a biographical overview of Swedenborg’s spiritual vision; his character and lifestyle; his views of heaven, love, and correspondence; and numerous parallels with Buddhist philosophy. (This work was translated in the volume Swedenborg: Buddha of the North published by the Swedenborg Foundation.) He focused on the Swede’s concept of proprium, or life’s loves, which he compared to the Buddhist teaching of expedient means and the freedom to do evil through “the attachment to self”; the term salvation, meaning the “harmonious unification of belief and action”; the Divine that manifested itself in the form of wisdom and love; and the actions of life considered ontologically or providentially based (i.e., there is no such thing as a chance universe). Though Suedenborugu resembled at times a travelogue of Swedenborg’s life and writings, Suzuki dispersed poignant observations that revealed his innermost fascination with the Seer. Whether quoting the adage “Will, namely love, makes the man” from Heaven and Hell or recounting elements of Swedenborg’s philosophy such as the law of correspondences, the analysis of degrees, or the explanation of the relationship between love and wisdom to the heart and lungs, respectively; Suzuki made clear the manifest nature of divine providence in these writings. The same was true for the presence of evil and falsehood in the world, the rationality and freedom of the human mind, the laws of divine providence, or the purpose of creation and the realization of its “uses.” He interpreted Swedenborg’s accounts as the narratives of a wizened old man attempting to disentangle the mysteries of life and beyond—a mind’s eye response to life’s paradoxes—using stories that would delight both the child and the adult. Swedenborg’s narratives had “an air of sincerity and honesty about them” that, without embellishment, struck a chord with individuals the world over who were seeking answers to questions that came from the heart. “One does not have to believe in all of Swedenborg’s claims,” cautioned Suzuki, “but one also cannot say that there are not diamonds in the rough.”
In 1924, Suzuki published Suedenborugu: Sono Tenkai to Tarikikan (Swedenborg’s View of Heaven and ‘Other Power’). In it, he remarked that while Swedenborg’s religious philosophy was “unfathomably deep,” it nevertheless contained elements “difficult to dismiss.” In particular, Heaven and Hell contained profound comments regarding the state after death that helped to explain the self and its relationship to the Divine, specifically the concept that “nothing results from self-power; everything is achieved through the addition of divine power to oneself.” This, Suzuki explained, indicated how remarkably similar Swedenborg’s philosophy was to Buddhism; indeed, they were complementary.
Suzuki not only appreciated Western-style spirituality through his reading of Swedenborg (he later turned to the German medieval mystic Meister Eckhart) but built a bridge between Western and Eastern traditions without distancing himself from his native roots. In effect, there was sufficient kinship with the West’s own sojourn into spirituality that Suzuki’s philosophy was able to resonate as a positive contribution of Orientalism in the West. For those beginning to think in this manner, it was not too difficult to reflect on Gautama’s constant admonishment to his disciples to be their own lamps and to work out their own salvation—a message relevant to both East and West.
Adele S. Algeo, “Beatrice Lane Suzuki: An American Theosophist in Japan,” in Quest 95, no. 1 (January-February 2007): 13–17.
Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha (Chicago: Open Court, 1894).
Paul Carus, Religion of Science (Chicago: Open Court, 1893).
John Haller, The History of New Thought (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2012).
Wakoh Shannon Hickey, “Swedenborg: A Modern Buddha?” Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies (Fall 2008), also in https://www.shs.psr.edu/wsh%20swedenborg%20a%20modern%20buddha.pdf (accessed December 9, 2015).
Carl T. Jackson, “D.T. Suzuki, ‘Suzuki Zen,’ and the American Reception of Zen Buddhism,” in Gary Storhoff and John Whalen-Bridge, eds., American Buddhism as a Way of Life (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010).
David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Stephen Morris, “Buddhism and Christianity: The Meeting Place,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 19 (1999), 19–34.
D. T. Suzuki, Swedenborg: Buddha of the North (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 1996).
Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell (Boston: Swedenborg Printing Bureau, 1907 ).
Eugene Taylor, “Swedenborgian Roots of American Pragmatism: The Case of D.T. Suzuki,” Studia Swedenborgiana 9 (May 1995). See https://www.shs.psr.edu/studia/index.asp?article_id=129 (accessed December 9, 2015).