American Buddhism in the First Half of the Twentieth Century: A Call to Writers

Tomorrow, I will be seventy-four years old.

According to the psalmist,

The days of our years are sixty years and ten; and if, because of their strength, they are eighty years old, yet their strength is pain and pain; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

More contemporary translations say seventy years and eighty. So. The sands flow from the glass for me…

A wise person once observed how someone with no regrets in their life did not live a life worth living. At the same time, I feel enormously lucky that I don’t have many serious regrets. These are wounds we carry to the grave.

Among the average regrets are some writing projects that I realize I probably won’t live for. They feel important, but to me I have more important things in that sweet moment when I have something to say, and I always have the ability to say it.

I guess that little note is to suggest to someone a project that might be worth undertaking.

Unfortunately, I feel like the opportunities for good research are quickly dwindling. So…

I noted this down a few years ago, but with no takers. I repeat and adjust slightly in light of this moment:

In 1969, I set my sights on English Zen priest Houn Jiyu Kennett, who had just arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area and after a brief stay at the Zen Center in San Francisco, he opened a small ” temple” in an apartment in Potrero Hill. .

It was then that I first became aware of an earlier generation of converted Buddhists and several attempts to create Western forms of Buddhism. The first to organize, as far as I know, were the Japanese communities of Shinshu. Then the Sotoshu just after the turn to the 20th century. There were also Chinese temples. Some within these immigrant communities wanted to reach out to society at large. And there were converts.

Rick Field’s speaks of “Boston Buddhists,” and there were others on the east coast. And Chicago too. But the vast majority seemed to be starting to congregate in California. And of those, the majority had something to do with San Francisco. Although I suspect further research will reveal individuals and possibly groups elsewhere.

In San Francisco, perhaps the most important of the connection points would be the Jodo Shinshu Mission and the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, which was founded in 1898. The Sokoji Soto Zen Temple founded in 1934 is another. Perhaps I should say, of course, that the Theosophical Society established in San Francisco in 1901 is another. The influence of Theosophy as a crossroads of Western and Eastern traditions is incalculable. I’m sure there are others.

Paul and George Fung and their Universal Church of Buddha were founded in 1947, so on the verge of this project seems another point of connection. Mostly as a gateway into the Chinese-American Buddhist experience in San Francisco in the years leading up to its founding.

It’s the people who started to see Buddhism as a project open to converts in the West that I find fascinating. And their stories that risk being lost. There is almost nothing written about these people, although Field’s How the swans came to the lake offers a very important entry point. Often he has little more than a name for them, and I think of those he missed. At this time, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, I find it a pity that they are rapidly fading from memory.

Who among the Japanese and Chinese clergy and teachers wanted to reach out? What about their stories? And what about the converts themselves? Their references were often confusing, some from short or longer stays in East and South Asia, some from encounters with visiting masters, and some, well, some seem to have made it all up.

I had the privilege of meeting some of them.

Reverend Iru Price represented Arya Maitreya Mandala of Austrian-born Tibetan Lama Anagarika Govinda. Although I have to admit, the main thing I remember about him was wearing a cheap toupee, which seemed so incongruous for a Buddhist priest who traditionally has a shaved head.

Another was the Reverend Eugene Wagner. He had been in the Navy or the Merchant Navy and had been ordained as both a Theravada and Mahayana monk at one time or another. He also said, and I believed him, that he received some sort of license as a teacher from a visiting Rinzai priest, Sogen Asahina. He was trying to set up a universal Buddhist order and was for a time a regular visitor to the temple in San Francisco.

Once, while Kennett Roshi was in England, a person came to the temple when he was in complete psychic breakdown. We had absolutely no idea how to deal with it and the person we thought to call was Reverend Wagner. He immediately came, spoke briefly with the person, called the police, who arrived, spoke to him as well, and then took him to a psychiatric ward. It’s not exactly rocket science, but at the time, as one of two young alien monks present, Reverend Wagner was a lifesaver. His practical actions to help everyone, but also with a hierarchy of responsibilities, were an important lesson. One that I hope to have incorporated into my life.

Arguably after Sufi and Zen master Samuel Lewis, of whom further on, the most colorful of a fairly colorful lot was Ajari Nevil Warwick. From my perspective today, I should call him a budding cult leader. Even back then, it seemed like he might be crazy, saying all sorts of things that just didn’t fit together. I remember he told me darkly that he had been with the CIA in Tibet and that he was the hereditary head of a Russian Vajrayana sect, and that he was a doctor, and, well, that keep on going. He mostly said that he was the leader of the Yamabushi order in North America, a Japanese tantric sect. He and his followers took long hikes in the woods, held fire ceremonies, and walked over hot coals.

On another occasion, we were informed that we were once again receiving a VIP visitor. His name was Samuel Lewis, and while he was best known as a Sufi master, he had also been recognized for his insight by spiritual masters in a number of traditions, one of which was Zen. Ours was a bit more traditional Zen Buddhist community, so most of us were expecting something a bit exotic, a kind of Zen zebra.

We were not disappointed. When he arrived I was on the welcome team and answered the door. Standing on the porch was an old man a few inches taller than five feet. He had shoulder-length gray hair, a full beard, and oversized black plastic-rimmed glasses. He wore the robe of a Korean Zen priest, I learned later that it had been put on especially for the occasion. Before I could say anything, in fact before I could take a deep breath, he brushed against me and looked around. His first words were: “Wali Ali, take a letter”.

A somewhat chubby young man followed him, trying to write in a stenographer’s notebook. As the Zen and Sufi master’s entourage of four or five followed, he proceeded to survey the large old building that had been converted into a Zen monastery, dictating his observations along the way, most of the time, but not one hundred percent positive.

After her inspection, the murshid, a Sufi title meaning “guide” or “teacher”, finally went to the roshi’s private chambers and spent about an hour with her. His students and we Zen monks went into the kitchen, drank tea, and talked about the spiritual scene in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late sixties. We had a lot to discuss. When Murshid Sam, as he was best known, and his students left and we returned to our usual silence, I was acutely aware of how he left a physical impression on the space that took days to dissipate completely.

The photo is from the wonderful archives of Shunryu Suzuki, Cuke.com. Well worth a visit! Of the figures, the most prominent would be Chinese master Hsuan Hua, the figure in white near the center of the photograph, and Japanese Zen master and missionary Shunryu Suzuki to Hsuan Hua’s right. On the far right of the image is Samuel Lewis. On the far left is Eugène Wagner. Immediately behind Shunryu Suzuki’s right shoulder is Nevil Warwick. I think the person to the right of Samuel Lewis is Iru Price, but I’m not sure…