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  • "We Drank Many Gin and Tonics":Desire and Enchantment in Merton's Buddhist Pilgrimage
  • Jack Downey

This is the darkest hour of the dark ages. Disease, famine, and warfare are raging like the fierce north wind. The Buddha's teaching has waned in strength. … The jewel-like teaching of insight is fading day by day.1

I am a credulous and helpless animalWho has been fooled by the mirage of dualitySo now you, my father are my only refuge;You alone can grasp the buddha state.The glorious copper-colored mountain is within my heart.Is not this pure and all-pervading naked mind your dwelling place?Although I live in the slime and muck of the dark age,I still aspire to see it.Although I stumble in the thick, black fog of materialism,I still aspire to see it.2

It is most common nowadays in public political discourse to speak of the United States as a global object of desire. "Everyone" wants to come to the United States, to become American, or to wield the military influence that has been the sole purview of the United States in the post–Cold War era, we are told. During the peak surge of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in 2014, more than sixty thousand migrants crossed the southern border to escape domestic violence and poverty. It has become routine in US foreign policy to speak of China, Iran, Russia, and a host of other ascendant powers as threats, precisely because they are supposed to aspire to become "us." In August 2012, Barack Obama doubled-down on American exceptionalism, which critics had persistently accused him of betraying:

Now, understand, there are no quick fixes or easy solutions to some of these challenges. But here's the thing that I constantly am reminded of wherever I travel across the country: We have the capacity to meet any challenge, because we've still got the best workers in the world. We've got the best entrepreneurs [End Page 73] in the world. We've got the best scientists and researchers in the world, and the best colleges and best universities in the world. We're still a young nation, and we've got the greatest diversity of talent and ingenuity and people who want to come here from every corner of the globe.

And so no matter what the naysayers tell us, no matter how dark the other side tries to make things look, the fact is there is not another country on Earth that would not gladly trade places with the United States of America.3

It is axiomatic in American religious history that the metanarrative of the this still-young nation is a cyclical pattern of immigration and assimilation—perhaps most famously articulated by Will Herberg's 1955 Protestant-Catholic-Jew, which advanced a "melting pot" thesis that depicted "Americanism" as exerting a pruning force upon the more "premodern" elements of popular religious practice, marked by—among other things—a certain amount of "disenchantment" (to borrow a term from Max Weber) or the withdrawal of supernatural "presence" (to borrow one from Robert Orsi). However, and as a counterpoint to this secularizing progression has been augmented by the persistence of both traditional devotionalism and countercultural syncretic spiritual searching—the latter being a process, so Jeffrey Paine contends, of "re-enchantment."4 The encounter between Buddhist and Euro-American cultures might be depicted as one of mutual, self-reinforcing desire, which witnessed an up-swell of creative borrowings—some congenial, others less so.

In the summer of 1968, a twenty-nine-year-old Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche—the eleventh Trungpa Tulku and titular head of Surmang Monastery in the Kham region of eastern Tibet (he had fled Tibet nine years prior)—traveled to Taktsang, a remote cliffside monastery in Bhutan, famously once inhabited by Guru Padmasambhava in the eighth century (prior to his introduction of tantric Buddhism into Tibet, through the fabled subdual of indigenous Bön spirits).5 Trungpa had migrated to Europe from Tibet—via India—and had established residency in Scotland, following a period at Oxford University. While in retreat at Taktsang, he would...


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