Friday, February 27, 2015

Buddhism in the American Civil War

Buddhism in the American Civil War
Bobby Derie

The American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, marked one of the periodic uprisings in religious fervor in the United States. North and South, soldiers and politicians asserted their actions were in accordance with their beliefs; churches and congregations of many faiths supported the war on both sides. The bulk of Americans on both sides of the war were Christian, whether Baptist or Protestant, Methodist or Dunkard, Episcopalian or Catholic. Less well known, poorly recorded and unstudied, are the other faiths that contributed their rhetoric and divine fire to the conflict, Judaism and Islam, Voudoun and Spiritualism, the Church of Latter-Day Saints and the New Thought Movement, various Native American beliefs, and in a decided minority, Buddhism.

By 1860, the Asian population in the United States was approximately 35,000, the vast majority Chinese immigrants in California, with smaller colonies and individuals spread as far apart as the Manilamen of Lousiana and the Fijian colony in Massachusetts. These diverse immigrants brought with them their native religions, including various flavors of Buddhism - including forms of Esoteric Buddhism such as Mìzōng (密宗) 
or Vajrayāna among the Chinese immigrants, and Mahāyāna (particularly in the case of Chandraputra, who followed the Pratyekabuddhayāna), but Theravāda was the largest and most prevailing branch of Buddhism that took root in the United States. It was a faith without masters or major centers in the west, kept alive by lay practitioners and ethnic communities, cultural festivals and a few texts and sutras that had been brought over or memorized.

In the north, where Asian immigration was particularly sparse, the primary influence of Buddhism was felt through Western academia, the translation of Chinese and Sanskrit Buddhist texts into English and filtered through journals and university libraries. In 1844, the poet Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson published excerpts from the Lotus Sutra in their journal The Dial as "The Preaching of Buddha", the first experience many Americans had ever had to Buddhist thought:

This said, the respectable Kaçyapa spoke thus to Bhagavat: "If beings, arising from this union of three worlds, have different inclinations, is there for them a single annihilation, or two, or three?" Bhagavat said, "Annihilation, O Kaçyapa, results ftom the comprehension of the equality of all laws; there is only one, and not two or three. Therefore, O Kaçyapa, I will propose to thee a parable; for penetrating men know through parables the sense of what is said."

Among those westerners most influenced by Buddhism in the North, it may be surprising to find several luminaries who professed, at times, elements of Buddhist thought. Both generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumsah Sherman, although Christian, are known to have discussed the Four Noble Truths, at least as filtered through the published writings of the German philosopher Arthur Schoepenhauer, with both men finding solace or inspiration in the knowledge that their actions, while they resulted in many deaths, were still the path to the least injury to others - as Sherman himself famously noted in his letter to Atlanta (1864):

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace.
Buddhism in the Confederacy took a different form, finding little hold among the more celebrated officers, soldiers, and civilians, but finding occasional and surprising flower among the less-celebrated confederates. Crew members of the CSS Shenandoah, stationed in the Pacific to prey on the Union's whaling fleet, are famously said to have included three Buddhist members among the crew, who had converted while serving at Canton in China prior to the Second Opium War. According to an article in the The Union-Recorder, at least one of these men - William Stewart Caver - had looted certain Buddhist texts during the aftermath of the Battle of the Pearl River Forts and smuggled them back to the United States, but remained unverified until 1997, when strips of wood in the Macon Public Library were identified as part of a 200-year-old copy of the Bardo Thodol, popularly (if erroneously) known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Among the civilians of the South, Buddhist influence was close to nil - except in one aspect. The concept of dharma was extolled by Manfield Peaks, the editor of a small Alabama anti-abolitionist newspaper, The Challenge, who cited the Indian caste system as a model, and felt that slaves should accept their role in life, and that the bulk of their suffering was caused by their bucking of the cosmic yoke. Peaks' writings on the "native state" of the slaves resonated among Southern writers even long after the war, as evidence by an inscription to Peaks on a copy of The Color Line: A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn (1905) by William Benjamin Smith, who argued against racial equality.

North and South, the exotic and foreign nature of the Asian religion gave way to certain cycles of local myth and folklore. Isaah Smith Washington claimed in later life to have seen a prayer-scroll fluttering in the breeze after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain; Confederate commerce raiders found certain "queer Asian books" describing tantric practices in the wardroom of a Yankee merchant ship, whose pornographic illustrations were reportedly reproduced and sold quietly for decades in South Carolina; Ying Wung, the first Chinese student to graduate from Yale College, reportedly attempted to secure a commission in the Union forces but was denied because he refused to swear on a Bible; these and other fragmentary legends are almost all certainly distortions or fabrications; for example, there is no record of Ying Wung ever attempting to join the military in his memoir My Life in China and America (1909) or surviving Army records. But they show some of the influence that Buddhist culture had, and continues to have, on American imagination.

The most popular and enduring of these myth-cycles is the "Golden Buddha of San Francisco" - a local legend perpetuated by white Americans had it that the Chinese immigrants working on the Central Pacific Railroad had secretly transported from China, piece by piece, an enormous golden statue of the Buddha, purportedly worth over $2 million dollars. The story was given enough credence that when the secessionist volunteer militias arose in California, some groups apparently tried to locate the statue, raiding the homes of immigrants by night, and even local caves and played-out mines from the California Gold Rush. Union efforts quashed the California secessionists, but the rumors of the statue persisted such that many believed it had been moved to New Mexico - where it became the target of a fruitless two-month search by a band of the Knights of the Golden Circle. Eventually, legend had it that the wily Chinese had managed to smuggle the sacred statue up north, safely out of Confederate hands, and the search - and the harassment of the Chinese laborers by the rebel sympathizers - largely ceased. Still, even today some treasure-hunters believe that the Golden Buddha of San Francisco does exist.

Unfortunately, an effort has been made by some scholars to "read in" new interpretations of history - in particular, the vain efforts of some historians to associate the Church of Latter Day Saints and Joseph Smith in particular with the terma tradition of Tibet, or that John Wilkes Booth's assassination freed Abraham Lincoln from the cycle of rebirth - have no supporting evidence.


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