Saturday, January 17, 2009

Introducing Buddhism by Kenneth Scott Latourette

Of the courses I teach, the biggest challenge is "Introduction to World Religions." I don't know too many Buddhists; never been to a Hindu temple; and find myself confused by the many facets of historic and modern Judaism.

So, one of my commitments for 2009 is to do much more reading in the primary and secondary sources for these and other religious traditions that I hardly know. And, I'm trying to record what I learn. Here's a quick review of something I read this week:

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. Introducing Buddhism. New York: Friendship Press, 1956.

This is a booklet (64 pages) that briefly describes the origins, history and worldview of Buddhism. Latourette, one of the best-known American historians of Christianity, earned the Ph.D. from Yale in 1909 and taught at Yale College of China (yes, there was one) from 1910-1912. Beginning in 1921 and for many more years, he taught at Yale (in the US). By the time he wrote "Introducing Buddhism," Latourette was retired.

The first ten pages, "Beginnings of a Faith," provide a very good introduction to the origins and teachings of Buddhism. The second section, "Influences in the Changing Pattern," describe the early history and expansion of Buddhism in the centuries just after the death of its founder, Siddhartha Gautama.

As he continues, Latourette, a Baptist and longtime Sunday-school teacher, emphasizes (1) that Buddhism tends to flourish in undeveloped, unsophisticated societies, (2) that Buddhism has experienced decline in many areas where it was once much stronger (3) that there are irreconcilable differences between Buddhism and Christianity, and that (4) Christianity is superior in its effects and measurable contributions to a society.

Because the world has changed so much in the last 50-plus years, Latourette's descriptions of history are out-of-date. And, it's safe to say that he would be surprised and dismayed at the growth of Buddhism in the United States over the last few decades. I have no good way of evaluating his negative view of why Buddhism grows.


Baron said...

You should read "The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was brought up Christian, converted to Buddhism, and sort of re-converted to Chistianity after he wrote The Dharma Bums.

Many Buddhist scholars trashed the book shortly after its publication, in large part because his description of living a Buddhist life and Buddhism in general isn't doctrinally sound (yes, they have that in Buddhism, as well).

Regardless, it is a great read and helps explain, I think, the rise in Buddhism in America after the late 1940s. His book was written as a partially autobiographical account of one year of his life in the early 1950s. He is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the "Beat Generation" and this mindset lends itself quite well to Buddhism in an industrialized, capitalistic economy.

If you are serious about learning more, this is a good, quick read.

Frank Bellizzi said...


Thanks for the recommendation. I'm always looking for good reads.

Adam Gonnerman said...

It was rudimentary Buddhist discipline that held me together as I spoke at my father's funeral a few years ago. I remain committed to Christ and haven't really looked at any Buddhist literature since those days. What I had been studying was Buddhism without dogma, which does exist. The popular Buddhism of many Asian countries would not do very well among mainstream Americans, but this stripped-down variety offers something people are looking for.

Sadly, although in Christianity we have spiritual disciplines, too often I've seen them de-emphasized in conservative Protestant churches out of fear of "works salvation"or simply being "too Catholic." All I ever hear people talk about in Churches of Christ is prayer, Bible reading and -- of course -- church attendance.