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How the Swans Came to the Lake: a narrative history of Buddhism in America
by Rick Fields;
Shambhala, Boston & London; 1992 (1981)  380 pp plus Notes, Index, photographs and Bibliography
reviewed by Vladimir K. October, 2004


Originally published in 1981, this third edition of How the Swans Came to the Lake has an updated chapter on Vietnamese Buddhism and a new chapter up-dating information about some the personages mentioned throughout the book. To date, this book has been the definitive account of Buddhism in America.

book cover imageThe book is broken into two sections. Book One, in nine chapters, deals with the early history of Buddhism up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Book Two picks up the story in the twentieth century and introduces the more familiar characters of early Buddhism in the West: Sokei-An, Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki and Nyogen Senzaki. This part continues with well-known names such as Yasutani, Maezumi, Suzuki, Baker, the Dali Lama, Chogyam Trungpa, Hsuan Hua, the ‘Beat Zen’ movement 1 of people such as Allan Ginsberg, Kerouac and Gary Snyder and finishes off the narrative with the Vietnamese masters, including Thich Nhat Hanh. The last chapter, Chapter Sixteen, updates the story to the early 1990's in this edition.

This is certainly a “narrative history” of Buddhism. There is very little analysis of the various teachers' teachings, criticism of the teachers (what little there is of that is left to the final chapter) or interpretation of the significance of the various teachers that came to the West. As the subtitle suggests, this is almost exclusively about Buddhism in America rather than the West in general although the earlier chapters do cover the work of the Europeans in India, Tibet and Sri Lanka but not China. The influence of twentieth century academics in the field is almost entirely left out.

The early years of the transmission of Buddhism from the East to the West is marked by the work, often against great odds, by (usually) well-meaning scholars, civil servants and religious ideologues. What is notable in these nineteenth century translators and interpreters is the great misunderstanding of Buddhist philosophy and doctrine as much of their information came from the Brahmin class in India who really didn't have much sympathy for Buddhism. However, gradually Pali was learnt and texts were translated and the works became known in American and European societies, at least among the elites and the well-educated who debated the merits of the religion.

What is surprising (to me, anyway) in these early modern days was the role of the Theosophical Society in the late nineteenth century. The Theosophical Society, created in 1875 and guided by Madam Helena Petrova Blavatsky, a rather mysterious Russian woman about whom very little is said in Fields' book, and Colonel Henry Steel Alcott.2 Alcott wore round John Lennon-style glasses, had a broad white beard that reached half way down his chest and, as pictured together with Madam Blavatsky in Fields' book, looked quite mad. This was the era of spiritualism, when mysterious rapping, knockings, and levitations were visited upon séance groups meeting in parlours around the country, both in America and England, under the guidance of dubious mediums. The late nineteenth century was also the age of rapid technological progress and science. The Theosophical Society was set up to “collect and diffuse knowledge of the laws which govern the universe,” (p.89) but, as Blavatsky later claimed, “The society was founded at the direct suggestion of Indian and Tibetan adepts.” (p.90) These so-called adepts were referred to as The Masters, mysterious spiritual entities who were guiding mankind to a better and brighter future. Only Blavatsky spoke regularly to these Masters and Alcott had but one ‘visitation’ from a Master, who left his turban behind on Alcott's desk. One could call these people the first New Agers.

Their search for spiritual sustenance and knowledge drove the two of them to India in 1875 and thence to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where they took Buddhist vows in front of a huge crowd. The indefatigable Olcott set about reviving Buddhism among the Sinhalese, wrote a Buddhist Catechism and designed a Buddhist flag as well as raising money for Buddhist schools and petitioning the British government to ease the restrictions on Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Fields' book gives the impression that Olcott single-handedly revived Buddhism in that country. In 1888 he was invited to lecture on Buddhism in Japan and spoke to an estimated 187,000 people over three months. (p.108) Olcott went on to Burma and in 1890 called a meeting of Asian Buddhists in Adyar in an attempt to unite all the various Buddhist schools. History has shown that he largely failed in this noble attempt.

Alcott was undoubtedly sincere in his Buddhist beliefs and did much to proselytize Buddhism in both the East and the West but there were many others in the late nineteenth century who took it upon themselves to promote Buddhism. One of the most significant turning points was the World Parliament of Religions, held on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago in 1873 as part of the Columbian Exposition. Although the majority of delegates were Christian, it was here that for many Americans and Europeans the exotic East met with the Christian West for the first time. Swami Vivekananda was one of the most memorable Indians at the conference (which led to an interest in yoga among Westerners) and Chinese and Japanese delegates “arrayed in costly silk vestments of all the colors of the rainbow” (p. 121) impressed everyone. Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) gave the concluding speech at the opening ceremony, which for many was the first time they had heard the preaching of Buddhism. Dharmapala was instrumental in promoting not only Buddhism, but also reviving Bodh Gaya as a centre of Buddhist learning and a large bust of him was installed at the Maha Bodhi Rest House in 1991 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Maha Bodhi Society founded by Dharmapala. (Singh, 2003:90) On the third day of the conference Rinzai master Soyen Shaku, one of D. T. Suzuki's teachers, was introduced to the audience as the first Zen master to come to America. Twelve years after the conference, Soyen Shaku returned to America as a Buddhist missionary, intent on bringing Zen to America. A year later, in 1906, Sokatsu Shaku, one of Soyen Shaku's disciples arrived. Included in this group was the young artist and Zen student, Sokei-an, who went on to become the first Zen master to settle permanently in America, going on to found the Buddhist Society of America in New York (which later became the First Zen Institute of America) and marrying Alan Watts' mother-in-law, Ruth Fuller Everett, in 1944.3 Ruth Fuller Sasaki went to Japan after Sokei-an's death in 1945 and established a branch of the Institute on the grounds of Daitoku-ji where much translation work was done and many Westerners passed through, including Gary Snyder in 1956. And so the flow of Westerners to Japan turned from a trickle to flood and these Westerners, along with the Japanese teachers, brought the swans to the lake.

Rick Fields book will remain as the first attempt to document the Buddhist movement in America. By my very rough count, there are approximately eight hundred persons and places named in the book, from Shakyamuni, who started it all, through to the Tibetans, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Japanese, the Sinhalese, the Chinese and a plethora of Westerners. It's a fascinating story full of eccentric characters, good intentions and unstinting effort. Although Fields' book is well-written, with a light touch that makes it easy, entertaining reading, it is only a beginning and I hope that before too long we can get a more in-depth analysis and history of the movement of Buddhism to the West. Throughout Buddhist history (and here I refer specifically to Chan and Zen with which I am most familiar), documenting the historical development has taken place centuries after the event. We have now an opportunity to leave an accurate legacy for the future about Buddhism's migration to the new lands and it would be a shame if this too was left for decades or centuries after the event. Modern technology and a highly literate public means that much is already recorded and baring any cataclysmic event should be available to future generations of scholars to sift through. One danger, though, is an overabundance of materials and it would be useful to bring some of this extant material together in a coherent fashion (as Fields has attempted) for our grandchildren in the Dharma.

Fields has covered a huge amount of material in this single volume, beginning (for some unknown reason to me) with Shakyamuni two and a half millennia ago. I would have preferred a more focussed and detailed exposition of Western Buddhism in the twentieth century that included not only America, but Europe as well. Missing, except for a relatively brief mention in the final chapter, is a discussion of the scandals that have hit centres in the latter part of the century. These, too, are part of the history of Buddhism in the West and should be included, if only to prevent the history from slipping into myth and hagiography; there is enough of that already in Buddhist history. I don't think How the Swans Came to the Lake falls into hagiography, but it's lack of critical appraisal does weaken the work. This is not the last word on the early years of Buddhism in the West but it is the first comprehensive history and as such should find a place on the bookshelves of Buddhists throughout the English-speaking world.

1.See book review by Richard Hughes Seager of Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation
2.See book review by Matthew Mulligan Goldstein of The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott
another review by Gananath Obeyesekere
3.See book review Sokei-An's Zen Pivots

Singh, Rana P.B. (2003) Where the Buddha Walked: a companion to the Buddhist places of India; Indica;Varanasi

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