Re-Enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West
by Jeffrey Paine
Norton £16.95, pp288
Arnold Toynbee declared that the arrival of Buddhism in the West 'may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century'. That sounds like hyperbole, but in the half-century since China invaded Tibet and inadvertently kick-started the migration of its formerly insular religious traditions, the impact has been phenomenal.
For years after the Chinese repression, France and the United States wouldn't even grant the Dalai Lama a tourist visa, and if their citizens knew anything at all about his country's indigenous brand of spirituality, they most likely dismissed it as a concoction of superstition and magical mumbo-jumbo.
And yet, by 2000, one in every 35 French citizens considered himself a Buddhist, and New York alone played host to 40 Tibetan centres. Buddhism is doubling its numbers faster than any other religion in the United States (the Tibetan version enjoying the most prolific expansion).
Such rapid germination seems even more remarkable given the vast cultural divide that existed between Tibet and the West. Before the Chinese occupation, Tibetans viewed Westerners as insane (though wizards at technology), and routinely repelled curious foreign visitors from its borders. They certainly considered them incapable of understanding the nuances of Buddhism.
Of the traumatised lamas who made it into exile in India, few had even heard of the United States. Given closeted upbringings in monasteries, they had never seen cars, buses or planes, had rarely handled money, knew nothing about politics, and had neither the inclination nor the linguistic means to promulgate their religion.
The founding creed of America enshrined every man's right to the pursuit of happiness, a pursuit which, according to Buddhism, is a guarantee of suffering. As a starting point for cross-pollination, the circumstances were inauspicious.
Jeffery Paine has fashioned a fascinating account of how those adverse conditions were overcome. A few intrepid Westerners paved the way, people such as the indomitable French explorer Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969), who spent 14 years in Asia battling to penetrate Tibet's isolationism and the rest of her long life writing books that deconstructed its mysteries.
But it was flight from the Chinese in 1959 that provided the catalyst. Realising that the survival of the teachings themselves were at stake, Tibetans in exile ditched their protectionism and began instructing young Westerners who, infused with the revolutionary spirit of the Sixties, were quick to badger these holy men for enlightenment.
The most engaging part of Paine's book focuses on the tireless efforts of two teachers, Lama Yeshe and Chögyam Trungpa. Bankrolled by his first American devotee, Leshe set up a base in Nepal which proved a magnet for travellers; soon, these youngsters were inviting him to their homes to spread the message. Able to distil the essence of Buddhist practice to bare basics (meditation and compassion), Yeshe connected with a generation of spiritual seekers who were queasy about rigid notions of God and restrictive belief systems. Despite a serious cardiac condition (he suffered more than 200 heart attacks), Yeshe's persistence has led to the formation of 130 Tibetan centres in 29 countries.
Chögyam Trungpa's energy is even more celebrated. After gaining a scholarship to Oxford and co-founding a monastery in Scotland, the irrepressible monk discarded his robes, married a 16-year-old English girl, and absconded across the Atlantic.
There, less than a decade later, he had set up nearly a hundred meditation centres, sold hundreds of thousands of books, and established the first and only accredited Buddhist university in the United States. Shattering the image of the remote ascetic guru, Trungpa inspired fierce loyalty and outrage in equal measures.
As well as wearing Western clothes, he smoked and drank heavily, and was quite open about his unrestrained sex life; Paine claims he would 'sometimes meet a woman by immediately placing his hand on her vulva and saying, "Hi!"'
Re-enchantment suffers from the absence of a clear narrative structure. It veers wildly between subjects as diverse as Buddhism in Hollywood (including the bizarre episode of Steven Seagal's recognition as a reincarnated lama), an Englishwoman's record-breaking 20-year solitary retreat on a Himalayan mountain and Jarvis Jay Masters, Tibetan Buddhism's only convert on Death Row.
But what it lacks in form is more than made up for in colour and vibrancy. Paine manages the unlikely feat of chronicling the more troubling and outlandish incidents in Tibetan Buddhism's short Western history without obscuring the positive effect its teachings appear to have had on so many adherents.