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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 299-303

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Book Review

Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History

Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History. Edited by Thomas A. Tweed and Stephen Prothero. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 416 pp.

Although this book is not about interreligious dialogue per se, it makes several important contributions to it. Two of the necessities for successful interreligious dialogue are a knowledge of the religions of other cultures and an awareness of one's own culture's past misinterpretations of these religions in order to guard against repeating them. This book helps accomplish both of these aims very well. First it helps to understand Asian religions as they are practiced in the United States. This book discusses Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and Chinese religions in America, and it includes selections on Jainism and Sikhism; (it excludes Islam as a monotheistic religion with Middle Eastern roots). Second, the book adroitly catalogues the ways that Americans have misinterpreted Asian religions in the past. Its selections demonstrate that two of the worst errors that Americans commit in dealing with Asian religions is either romanticizing them as being all "spiritual," and thus categorically different from the "worldly" West, or of ignoring their diversity. Anyone reading these selections will be less likely to repeat these errors.

The book is an anthology of primary documents with well-written, brief introductions to the selections. Its aim is not just to describe Asian religions in America, but also to document American encounters with Asian religions since the American Revolution. The book is organized historically in four major sections: 1784-1840, 1840-1924, 1924-1964, and 1965 to the present. Within each historical section, the authors have chosen selections that illustrate how Americans during that time viewed Asian religions, how Asian religions were practiced in the U.S., and how Asian religions influenced American culture during that time period.

The first section (1784-1840) is, not surprisingly, the shortest. It has one chapter on how Americans abroad viewed Asian religions and another chapter on how those at home viewed Asian religions. This period is dominated by a belief that Christianity is the one, true religion; Asian religions by contrast, are full of "debasing superstitions and cruel abominations" (p. 58). Even those who try to get beyond such crude views demonstrate a gross ignorance of Asian religions. For example, Hannah Adams (the first woman in America to support herself through writing) claimed that the Dalai Lama was the spiritual leader or "pope" of China as well as Tibet (p. 55). Better informed and more balanced are the comments from two of the period's most important intellectuals, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Franklin, like other Deists, admired Confucian naturalism and humanism, and he reprinted excerpts of Confucius in the Pennsylvania Gazette. John Adams defended the sublimeness of Indian religion, claiming that it had heavily influenced Greek philosophy because Pythagoras had learnt his most important doctrines there.

The second section (1840-1924) has six chapters covering missionaries and their [End Page 299] critics, literary encounters with Asian religions, the World Parliament of Religions, the immigrant experience in America, academic discussions, and American sympathizers and converts to Asian religions. Several selections from nineteenth-century dictionaries and books show how Asian religions were commonly perceived at the time. While there was growing sophistication about Asian religions, the period's most popular book on the subject (James Freeman Clarke, Ten Great Religions) still maintained that only Christianity had the fullness of truth and Asian religions were static and stunted. On the other hand, this section balances out Christian triumphalism with some excerpts from Henry Steel Olcott and other Americans who converted to Asian religions. Substantial selections from Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, and T. S. Eliot reveal how Asian religions deeply influenced the most important writers of the time.

The third section (1924-1964) has four chapters dealing with the closing of America to Asian immigrants, Hindu gurus and their disciples in America, Buddhist masters and their students, and one on artists and missionaries. It reprints sections of the Asian exclusion act of 1924...