Buddhist Dreams and Spiritualist Schemes | An Interview with Dr. John B.
Buescher | Carl E. Olson | April 1, 2008 | IgnatiusInsight.com
Buddhist Dreams and Spiritualist Schemes | An Ignatius Insight Interview with Dr. John B. Buescher | Carl E. Olson | April 1, 2008
John B. Buescher received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of
Virginia, concentrating on the history of religions, especially Buddhism and
Christianity, and studying Asian languages. He was an Assistant Professor
in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of North
Carolina at Wilmington, and later a Program Officer in the Division of
Education Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities. From 1991
until 2007 he was the head of the Voice of America's Tibetan Broadcast Service,
directing the programming of four hours of daily shortwave radio news and
feature broadcasts to Tibet and South Asia.
In addition to Echoes from an Empty Sky: the Origins of the Buddhist Doctrine
of the Two Truths (Snow Lion Publications, 2005), Buescher has written a number of important books and
articles on the nineteenth-century American Transcendentalists and
Spiritualists, notably The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism in the Nineteenth-Century
Religious Experience (Skinner House Books, 2004) and
The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the
Spirit Land (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006). His most recent work is a monograph,
The Age of Aquarius as It Dawned in the Mind of Levi Dowling (Theosophical History, 2008). He is a parishioner of
Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale, Virginia.
E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Buescher about his
journey from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to the Catholic Church, and what
cautionary lessons can be learned from studying nineteenth-century
Ignatius Insight: In a recent Books and Culture article titled "Everything Is On Fire"
(January/February 2008) you wrote of your years spent studying Buddhism after
having been raised Catholic. What attracted you to Buddhism? Did you practice
Buddhism? What brought you back to the Catholic Church?
Buescher: I went to a Catholic grade
school and graduated from a Catholic high school in 1968. When I went to a
state university, I majored in religious studies, and then went on to do my
graduate work in it. The Catholic Church, like the rest of society, was in
upheaval during those years, very much like my youthful hormones.
of my professors conducted their classes as if we were merely classifying
various species of believers and their beliefs—the Young Positivists
Club, sorting fossils, living and dead—rather than searching for the
Truth. The few professors I had who did not do this happened to be Buddhist
scholars. Buddhism, it seemed to me, was unflinchingly serious in facing
emptiness and impermanence, recognizing the deep extent of suffering, but still
somehow finding meaning in life. By contrast—or, so it seemed to me at
the time—the Catholic Church appeared to be remaking itself into a sort
of Society for Arbitrarily Earnest Happy Talk. Catholics may say that I did
not look hard enough, and I will not disagree. But for many reasons the
Christian Faith seemed less and less plausible to me. During that chaotic
time, I had been brought to the worry bench and the only one I could see
sitting next to me was the Buddha. Everyone else seemed to have decided that
either we had all already been saved and were in Heaven—if only we could
see it—or that we were just now still lingering in Hell, but would be in Heaven
as soon as we could make a few changes in society—and some of them
perhaps would have to be quite uncomfortable. Although I was by then a lapsed
Catholic, I still retained enough of my Catholic upbringing to be deeply
skeptical of that. So I wound up studying Buddhism—at first mostly Zen
and then later Tibetan Buddhism—and I became a practitioner, too.
practice was sporadic and somewhat desultory. Part of that I attribute to my
own laziness, but there was another obstacle. I had backed into Buddhism, as
being the best choice that I could see among many possible choices. But that
was not really enough of a commitment to stoke the fire of Faith. I could
force myself to do meditation, study and memorize Buddhist scriptures, debate
doctrine in Tibetan, do prostrations, and recite prayers, but in the end I
undertook all of this as a very elaborate game, sometimes fascinating and
helpful, oftentimes terribly difficult, but still finally a game. But the
stakes in this game are as high as anyone can imagine—life and death,
truth, beauty, the ultimate meaning of things. I reached down inside me and
could not find what I needed to continue with it. Buddhists may here point to
my laziness, and I will not disagree, but anyway, I became twice lapsed, both
as Catholic and as a Buddhist.
for why I came back to the Catholic Church several years ago, that is harder to
fully explain. I had a number of seemingly small experiences that may have had
much to do with why I returned. There was seeing the look on my father's face
when I found his rosary in his bedside drawer and took it and a holy card of
St. Joseph to him at the nursing home shortly before he died. And there was
seeing the honest joy of a friend and former colleague who had gone back to the
Church. And there was a series of moments of exasperation over the spectacle
of the Episcopal Church—I sometimes attended services there with my
family—absurdly deciding by vote that what had been a grievous sin for
thousands of years was now suddenly a wonderful channel of grace.
my return was also helped along by my academic research. About twenty years
ago, I began studying the history of Americans' interest in Buddhism. You
might suspect that my research was taking a somewhat self-referential turn,
but, overtly anyway, I was studying what early- and mid-nineteenth-century
religious seekers found compelling about Buddhism. I became convinced that one
of the most important reasons for their interest was that they had a very long
pole of theological grievance that they wanted to leverage against the Catholic
Church and they were looking at Buddhism as a place they could plant their feet
while they tried to dislodge her. I became quite intimate in a way with these
folks, most of whom had become atheists and freethinkers or were quickly moving
in that direction. And I very clearly recognized in them the same convictions
that lie underneath, unspoken and assumed, the cultural and religious turmoil
of our own time. But I also came to see their arguments, not as unassailable
and as unquestionable components of rational belief, as they thought and as
their ideological descendents today think, but as historically conditioned and
peculiarly cramped and constrained. Their views came to seem to me as eccentric
and passˇ as a whalebone corset or a periwig. I realized that they had no
claim to universality or to truth. And, as far as my own beliefs were
concerned, I could consign them to the dustbin of history.
that, it was as if I was at last allowed to face the question of "Who do you
say that I am?" for the first time and I could understand how I might answer,
"You are Christ, the Son of the living God." I felt like I had been pursued,
like in Francis Thompson's "Hound of Heaven." For my entire adult life, I had
implicitly supposed that it was entirely up to me to judge the Faith, that I
had to operate at every moment as if I had to bring it all under my scrutiny,
and submit it to my private judgment. That now seemed entirely wrong. It was I who was under judgment. I realized that the initial
religious impulse—or maybe an aspect or a moment of that initial
impulse—whether of the will, the mind, or the heart, had to be one of
repentance and submission. The only alternative now looked like a kind of
idolatry, in which I painted my own face on the mute figures I placed on my
throne. I recognized then that I had to return to the Church.
I showed up at my parish rectory one afternoon and told the priest that I wished
to come back to the Church. "How do I do that?" I asked. I felt like I had
been out in orbit to the far side of the universe for three decades, and
perhaps I imagined some complicated process. But he said, "There's no ceremony
for returning Catholics. Go to confession." "Is that all?" I said, with some
disappointment. "Yes, that's it," he said. I suppose I felt like the Prodigal
Son and hoped the Church would kill a fatted calf. But the Church is wiser
than I am, and I later realized that I was pleased with the fact that, no matter
how far I had gone, she still recognized me as her own. As for sacrificing a
fatted calf, that happened in the dark, in the confessional booth, and I was
the calf whose heart was pierced.
Ignatius Insight: As your article noted, the past few decades have witnessed a flurry of
dialogue between certain Buddhists and some Christians (mostly Catholic). And
it seems that many people, including not a few Catholics, think the two
religions are fully compatible and complimentary. Are they? Why or why not?
Buescher: Christians and Buddhists have benefited from
exchanging information about how they organize the practical necessities of the
religious life—how monks and nuns are trained, how they conduct their
daily activities, how they support themselves, how they relate to their lay
communities, and so on. Catholics in general, I think, can also learn from
Buddhists to recognize aspects of their own Faith that they have neglected for
a while, but whose value our Buddhist brothers and sisters can bring back to our
attention—the real value of memorizing scriptures, prayers, and the
catechism, as one example. And Catholics should be humbled by the sheer amount
of devotional and ascetic practices that Buddhist monks and nuns and lay people
undertake. Given that many Catholics appear to have lost a vivid sense of
their own sin, they could receive a salutary lesson from Buddhist reflections
on suffering and the ways in which we implicate ourselves in it.
said that, once you get to a level of exchange about doctrine and practice,
which is to say, describing the most basic source of our human problems and
their solution, it is easy to get confused. Even when it seems as though there
might be a level of agreement or shared insight, it often turns out that the agreement
is quite thin—a mile wide and a word deep. Some of the holiest, wisest,
and most compassionate people I have known have been Buddhists, but at the most
profound level Buddhists and Christians are oriented toward different goals.
And when you ask them "What is Truth?" they must give very different answers.
It does no one any good to ignore that fact. The life, death, and resurrection
of Jesus Christ always remain at the very center of what Christians believe.
We cannot dress him up as a kind of cosmic principle or mythopoeic character in
order to make the discussion easier.
few months ago, Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, while speaking in the United
States, wanted to score a point against intolerance. He offered his audience
the observation, which seemed to him to reveal an obvious absurdity, that some
people might actually be so occluded as to think that it would be a good thing
if his very holy friend the Dalai Lama were baptized. To him, it seemed,
nothing could be more patently absurd. Unlike Bishop Tutu, I do not wear a
bishop's miter. But I happen to know the Dalai Lama too, and he does seem to
me to be one of the truly good people on the planet. Nevertheless, while I am
in no position to judge either the Dalai Lama's or Bishop Tutu's state of
grace, it does not seem absurd to me to think it would be a good thing if the
Dalai Lama himself were to request and receive the sacrament of Baptism. How
could it be other than a good thing? But do I have any expectation that this
might happen? No. Would I wish to somehow force it on him? Not in the least.
Insight: I first heard of you due to your excellent research and writings about
nineteenth-century spiritualism in America. How did you become interested in
that topic? What sort of work have you been doing in that field?
Buescher: When I began the historical research I already
mentioned, I noticed that among those people in the mid-nineteenth century who
were enthusiastically studying Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita, sitting right alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson and
Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, were plenty of people who identified
themselves as spiritualists. By day they worked with their fellow radical
political and social reformers and by night they sat around tables and tried to
contact the spirits of the dead through entranced spirit-mediums. Up to then I
knew very little about spiritualists. But when I looked at them more closely,
I found them to be the most interesting characters among all their fellow
radicals. They were the ones in whom the fires of religious and social reform
were burning the hottest. And they were the ones who were most willing to
embrace the logic of radical reform and to follow that logic wherever it was
going to take them. Their spirit guides were quite active, it turned out, in
giving them revelations about how this imperfect and fallen world might be
turned into a utopia through spiritual, social, political, and scientific
I have published out of my research into nineteenth-century spiritualism has
mostly been in the form of biography. That is because I have wanted to show
these people as fully embodied characters. They very deliberately shaped their
lives to their visions, turning them into utopian experiments, deliberately
unconventional, strange, and dream-like. Some were led to fashion their lives
into what reads today as a kind of science fiction novel. This was certainly
the case with the followers of the man whose biography I published not long
ago, John Murray Spear, the era's most flamboyant spiritualist, whose life and
adventures were uniquely eccentric and spectacularly odd. There is no
question, however, that, for the most part, their enthusiastic experiments in
social reform and reorganization, including the practice of free love, had
disastrous practical consequences in their lives and in the lives of those
around them. I think that is extremely important to demonstrate, and biography
seems like the way to do it.
Insight: There exists in some Christian circles the notion that prior to the
1960s, the United States was a thoroughly Christian country with minimal to
non-existent interest in the occult, spiritualism, free love, and esoteric
religious practices. Is it fair to say that your book, The Other Side of
Salvation, presents a rather
different view of U.S. religious history? What are some aspects of
nineteenth-century spiritualism that might surprise readers? Why can be learned
from that era of American history?
Buescher: The Other Side of Salvation, although it turned out to be published before the
Spear biography, was actually the result of my research on Spear, who was a
Universalist minister before he turned to what he regarded as the new
dispensation of spirit revelations. That book is a study of the very strong
and extensive involvement of Universalists—and, to only a slightly lesser
degree, of Unitarians—in the emergence and leadership of the spiritualist
movement beginning from the middle of the nineteenth century in America. I was
very surprised to discover this, and I believe that many
Unitarian-Universalists were surprised by it as well when the book came out.
My own surprise came from the previous picture I had of Unitarian-Universalism.
The UUs I had known had always been rationalists, secularists, humanists,
agnostics, and even atheists. I could not see how that could be connected to
this deep involvement with conjuring spirits. I think you could say that most
of my research and writing on spiritualism over the past decade or more has
been a meditation, in one form or another, on that seeming disparity.
materialism, and atheism, as I have found them articulated in the nineteenth
century, had a very specific and narrow historical form that was rooted in
disputes over religious doctrine. To use a sort of Hegelian shorthand, they
did not, and do not, escape from being embedded in a religious view, however
much their adherents might have thought they did. Many of those disputes were
conducted in their most pristine and intense form around the beginning of the
Protestant Reformation, and had to do with the relationship between nature and
grace, with the sacramental view of the world, and with the relationship
between God and man, and between heaven and earth. The answers that were
settled on then have cascaded through the centuries since.
Both the materialists and the spiritualists of the nineteenth century, for
example, seem to me to have been seeking to heal an acutely intolerable breach
between nature and the supernatural, and between science and religion, and
matter and spirit, which had been decisively opened up at the beginning of the
Reformation. It is no longer surprising to me that national conventions of
spiritualists in the nineteenth century were sometimes held conjointly with
conventions of freethinkers, rationalists, and atheists. Many people found no
contradiction in considering themselves both rationalists and spiritualists.
It was only shortly before the twentieth century dawned that the two camps became
clearly separate and, on the surface anyway, found themselves at odds with each
thread can be traced back from the public advocates of what most Americans
regarded as the godless notion of free love in the nineteenth century to
radical Anabaptist ideas of the liberty of the spirit, as well as to the
Reformation allergy to "works," which came to include, for daring
experimenters, the institution of marriage. Another thread can be traced back
to Pietist interest in inner alchemy, following the writings of Jacob Boehme
and of the Hermetic revival in the Renaissance, carried forward by German
Protestants in the centuries immediately after the Reformation. This
manifested as the conviction that the individual's sanctified spirit could
manipulate matter itself—through a kind of magical technique for
transforming the material world for one's benefit, or even for engineering the
was this notion, in one form or another, that you can see at work all through
American religious history. It is as American as apple pie. It was certainly
present in a quite undiluted form in our socialist and communitarian utopian
experiments, and in the hugely popular spiritualist movement, but also in the
slightly later New Thought or Mind Cure movement, which included Christian
Science, as well as in the New Age movement today. It is also a foundational
principle of all the varieties of gospels of self-improvement, wealth, and
abundance in which one's positive thoughts are supposed to reach out and literally
transform the material world.
You can hear this kind of thing preached at quite a few megachurches every
Sunday. Or, for that matter, you can turn on public television during pledge
week and hear it from the mouths of life coaches and health and personal
Insight: Your recent monograph, Aquarian Evangelist, is a fascinating study of Levi Dowling, the
author of The Aquarian Gospel.
What was unique about Dowling's writings and teachings? In what ways has he and
his work influenced New Age understandings of spirituality, Christianity, and
the person of Jesus Christ?
Buescher: Dowling was a Church of Christ minister from the
Midwest whose beliefs, around the turn of the twentieth century, wandered out
of the mainstream. He turned his attentions to homeopathy and then to
Esotericism, especially Theosophy. He moved to Los Angeles and, in 1908,
channeled a new gospel, which he represented as the story of the "missing
years" of Jesus before he began his public ministry. In it we learn that Jesus
went to Egypt and then on to India and Tibet where he hobnobbed with various
esoteric masters. Dowling had spent some time studying astrology and he
explained that Jesus was the messiah of the "Piscean Age," and that this new
gospel was meant to announce and initiate the world's entrance into another
age, that of the "Aquarian Age." The book did not exactly create a splash at
first, and he died shortly after it was published, but it always did have a
following among Esoteric religious groups all through the first half of the
twentieth century and both his book and his notion of the Age of Aquarius were
popularized by writers for the underground newspapers in San Francisco in the
for the truth of its account of the life of Jesus—the thing is just pure
fiction, pulled entirely out of the flotsam that Dowling found floating in his
mind as he sat in his upstairs room in suburban Los Angeles. But for a certain
kind of religious seeker who is already convinced that the imagination and the external
world mirror each other—or even that the imagination or feeling or will
directly creates the material world—it is not so easy to see why mere
factual counterevidence should weigh against its account. For such a person,
the text and the author and the reader all get tangled up together, implicating
one another, so that the text works as both fact and fiction at the same time.
The tale it tells is like an ideological virus that confuses the rational
fact-checking defenses by declaring itself as fiction, but then once inside the
mind, operating as fact. People read it as if they were being craftily let in
on the grand secret behind what has always passed as fact. This is precisely
how many people read something like The Da Vinci Code—Of course, it's fiction, they'll say one
moment, but then in the next, they'll say something that shows that its clumsy
and entirely bogus story has deeply modified or even replaced their earlier
understanding of Christianity.
susceptibility to the "secret conspiracy of priests" view of Christian history
and the assumption of a suppressed, original truth about Jesus, was enhanced by
the Protestant Reformation, which partly justified itself on the reformers'
almost entirely false assumptions—as, I believe, historical research has
largely shown since then—that much of the essential core of Catholic
Christianity was not derived from Jesus and his immediate disciples. The
reformers believed that it was instead deliberately created long after the time
of Jesus by priestcraft and that it was necessary to jettison "all that" in
order to find out what Jesus really taught and who he really was.
But, not surprisingly, when you jettison "all that," you find yourself open to
the possibility of believing that Jesus may actually have not existed at all,
or may have been an interplanetary alien from the Dog Star, or may have been
just another guy with a haircut and an attitude just like you—whoever you
are—or may have been a spiritual wanderer who thumbed a ride to India and
Tibet. Or whatever. People have been projecting this conspiracy theory onto
the Catholic Church, in one form or another, all the way back to the ancient
Gnostics. It is no surprise that the members of the Jesus Seminar, so intent
on "demythologizing" Jesus, are enamored of the Gnostics. I tend to view the
New Age movement, too, in its most essential points, as a resurgent Gnosticism.
Ignatius Insight: What
books or projects are you currently working on?
Buescher: The one that I am struggling with right now is a
book on bioethical issues, especially reproductive rights, but including a
range of related issues, such as birth control, abortion, and eugenics. I am
no theologian, so I have no illusions about helping to craft a comprehensive
Catholic view on these issues. This book would be more like background reading
Aside from the prophetic
passages in Humanae Vitae and
Pope John Paul II's writings on the Theology of the Body, apologists for the
Church have seemed to me to address these issues as if they had just sprung
into existence piecemeal and had to be beaten back with whatever big stick was
closest at hand. But the issues are all related and that is why they are all
Virtually all of them were
first broached in public by the mid-nineteenth-century social radicals that I
have been studying. This book considers how these radicals arrived at their
ideas, and how they argued for them. The historical continuity between their
ideas and the practical proposals at issue today—even including cloning,
IVF, genetic screening, designer babies, and euthanasia—is very strong.
I think it would be useful to Catholic theologians and apologists to have the
foundations of these arguments exposed to view, because they are not always obvious.
For example, much of what is advocated today that is evidently at odds with
the Faith is argued on the grounds of expanding the rights of the individual.
And that also did play a large role in the arguments of the nineteenth-century
reformers. But the underlying, comprehensive rationale often turns out not to
be to enhance the rights of the individual, but to bring the individual under
control. This is clearer in the arguments of the earlier reformers, back
before the eugenics horrors of the twentieth century made reformers reticent
about exposing the full logic of their arguments.
It is my impression that
some Catholic apologists assume that these issues arise from purely secular
principles and can be effectively addressed as such. But I believe that that
will be ultimately insufficient. The thinking of the nineteenth-century Free
Love radicals, who made their arguments against marriage and for "reproductive
freedom," birth control and eugenics, was almost always immersed in older
theological debates, especially centering on the doctrine of Regeneration.
Catholics tend to just glaze over when they see this word, because, for them,
it refers pretty much to Baptism, so I do not think that they often realize how
important it is to these issues. Orestes Brownson was originally a
full-blooded radical, who was acquainted with many of the people whose ideas I
have studied. He knew their arguments very well and fully understood what they
were aiming at. Some of the essays that he wrote after he converted to Catholicism
cut very close to the bone on these issues, and I am finding him an acute and
The word "regeneration"
carries tremendous weight in Protestant theology, reaching out into vast swaths
of the Protestant project, and applying both to the individual and to society
as a whole. At some point, the notion of spiritual regeneration was linked
more and more decisively to the process of biological generation, and much of
the thought of the nineteenth century "reproductive" reformers comes from their
conviction that they could bring about the Kingdom of God on earth by jiggering
the social structure and re-engineering human biological reproduction. They
thought they could reorder the sequence of generation and regeneration, and in
this way bypass Original Sin, as it were, and breed it out of the Race,
redeeming biological generation, and creating the New Man, a sort of
transhuman, angelic spirit. By doing this they could, in Eric Voegelin's
phrase about the Gnostic goal, "immanentize the eschaton." To some, this has
seemed like a promise of ultimate freedom, but it looks to me like a Faustian
bargain. For it also means, quite clearly, that humans, by being brought under
the control of mechanical reproduction, would be manufactured, as John Spear
liked to put it, "just as one would a hoe or a spade." And it means that
reproduction would be allowed only
in that way.
The achievement of ultimate
freedom will require the ultimate annihilation of human dignity, and no one
will be able to opt out of such an impending Cultural Revolution, I am afraid,
for its advocates regard it as the Parousia. It is important for Catholics to
see what is at stake here.
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