This is an epic that reads like a novel, tracing the family tree of Buddhism from its beginnings in Asia to its latest incarnation in the West. In telling the story, Batchelor discusses both the political and philosophical influences that have shaped the dharma, and how—through fits and starts, a little like evolution itself—it journeyed around the planet, coming alive in whatever civilization was ripe for the teachings, taking on many wondrous shapes and costumes in the process. In The Awakening of the West, Batchelor’s lively, anecdotal style and keen insights make both the history and teachings of Buddhism come alive.
In this book we learn fascinating things about the Buddhist images and teachings that have been passed down to us here in the late twentieth century. For example, the serene and dignified image of the Buddha, so familiar to our eyes from statues and paintings, may actually have first been rendered by Greeks, who gave the Buddha a strong resemblance to the god Apollo.
The Awakening of the West also contains intriguing bits of history, such as the story of the Great Khan, head of the Mongol empire, who in 1255 held a debate between the second Karmapa and some Taoist priests to decide whether Taoism or Buddhism was the best religion. The Karmapa won, hands down.
As Batchelor follows the journey of the Theravada, Tibetan, Zen, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism, he explores both the diversity and interconnection of these traditions. This is an honest book, and Batchelor does not attempt to excuse the self-righteousness, romanticism and contention that have plagued the different schools of Buddhism through their history. Yet the story, with all its blemishes, is told here with compassion, and therefore becomes a call for tolerance, especially as the many Buddhist traditions settle together in the West.
The Awakening of the West will give Western Buddhists a new understanding of their sangha and lineage and, by examining who we have been, allow us to better understand who we are now. As the Dalai Lama writes in the foreward,
As the teachings of the Buddha become better known and practiced in Western countries, it is vital to understand their place in Western history and culture. Stephen Batchelor’s illuminating and timely account of the transmission of Buddhism to the West is essential reading for all who are concerned with the significance of religious experience in the modern world.
The Awakening of the West is destined to become a classic.