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The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture

by Stephen Batchelor, Dalai Lama

Buy the book: Stephen Batchelor. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture

Release Date: June, 1994

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Stephen Batchelor. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture


Little Known Corners of History

Batchelor, a convert from Tibetan to Zen Buddhism (assuming he hasn't converted again since), is one of the more interesting Western authors on Buddhism. This work surveys the history of contacts between Buddhist persons and schools as they were both visited by Westerners and came themselves to visit the West. It comes in five sections. Most people seem to like the final two, as they deal with contacts made in modern times, but a lot of this is covered better in Clarke's Oriental Enlightenment. The first three segments, however, are a fascinating overview of some surprising encounters that are not widely known. Did you know there's evidence of a Greek ruler discussing philosophy with a Buddhist monk a couple hundred years before Christ? How about Buddhist traders plying their trade across the Middle East into Egypt before and during the time of the Early Church? Or Catholics and Buddhists squaring off in the court of the Khans in Medieval Central Asia? Who knew? Most of the book, however, is a tradition by tradition account of how Buddhism came largely to Europe. Another book, How The Swans Came To The Lake, compliments it by telling the story in North America. I have two main reservations. First, some modern figures are given short shift because, even though they were popular, they didn't represent the best Buddhist teachings. As a history, however, they should reflect their social importance. Second, given that this is an encounter with the West, and Christianity is the major Western religion, Batchelor could be better informed on the history and theology of that religion. A fair number of his statements in connection to it are not well considered. Either way, this work is, over-all, great arm-chair travel for the reader interested in Buddhist history.

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A Diverse Historical Perspective

Batchelor does a great job documenting the history of Buddhism, and how it came to the West. More specifically, Western Europe (UK, Germany, Poland) although he does give some attention to the United States, and Eastern Europe (the former USSR). It is a bit too detailed at times on the early history 100-1300AD, and less focused on more recent events. This early history does detail the fascinating ways that Greek and Christian explorers described Eastern religions (idolatry), and tried to convert them to Christianity. He includes the biographies of a diverse set of Buddhism's early advocates (Shantideva, Padmasambhava, Karmapa, Dogen, Nichiren, Tsongkhapa), and the lineages that they founded. He also describes the impact that some notable figures had on Buddhism's westward spread, including Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Marco Polo. As in his other books, Batchelor is very pragmatic, and willing to point out Buddhism's weaknesses, and describe the politics that were intertwined with the advocacy of the Dharma. A very interesting read that contains a lot of information not found in other books and publications.

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