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The American Encounter With Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture & the Limits of Dissent

by Thomas A. Tweed, Stephen J. Stein, Catherine L. Albanese

Buy the book: Thomas A. Tweed. The American Encounter With Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture & the Limits of Dissent

Release Date: November, 2000

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Thomas A. Tweed. The American Encounter With Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian Culture & the Limits of Dissent


An insightful study of Victorian American Buddhism

This historical and sociological study of Buddhism in the U.S. from 1844 to 1912 provides insight not only into American Buddhism but also into American culture in the Victorian period and the interactions between new religious movements and the values and beliefs of the dominant culture. The book is academic but not obtuse, and it's relatively engaging.

Tweed explores in detail the ways in which European-American converts to and sympathizers with Buddhism in the Victorian period both dissented from the dominant culture and also consented to it, and he observes that to be successful, a new or transplanted religious movement needs to be different but not too different from the dominant culture. Tweed argues that Buddhist adherents and sympathizers shared a number of basic Victorian American values and beliefs that Buddhism, as it was then understood, seemed to contradict: theism; individualism (a label that Tweed actually uses for two distinct things: the belief in a substantial and immortal self and an emphasis on self-reliance); optimism (a belief in the basic goodness and inevitable progress of individuals and history); and activism (an emphasis on moral action to uplift individuals and reform societies). In contrast, Buddhism was seen as atheistic, nihilistic, pessimistic, and passive. Although some Americans attracted to Buddhism were able to reject theism and the belief in a substantial self, very few were able to relinquish their commitments to optimism and activism, and they rejected interpretations of Buddhism as pessimistic and passive. Tweed finds that two major sources of Buddhism's appeal during the Victorian period were the perception that Buddhism was more compatible than Christianity with science and the perception that Buddhism was more tolerant than Christianity and Victorian culture toward religious and cultural outsiders.

Tweed also provides an interesting typology of Euro-American Buddhist adherents and sympathizers in Victorian America: the "esoteric," "rationalist," and "romantic" types.

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