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This Introduction explains the characteristics of Western Buddhist travel narratives as a genre and their value as a source of religious insight. These stories are autobiographical accounts of a journey to a Buddhist culture. They often describe a transformative religious experience, “unselfing,” when a person’s sense of self is radically altered. The Buddhist concept of no-self helps authors interpret this kind of experience, and it also provokes and enables such events. No-self is a challenging idea for Westerners trying to understand and reconcile it with their culture’s understanding of the self. Autobiographical accounts, in particular travel narratives, disclose crucial features of self-transformation and interpret the meaning of no-self in diverse ways and in contrast to theoretical and philosophical forms of discourse. The structure and topics of the book’s chapters are outlined.
A long walking tour is an arduous form of pilgrimage with the potential to transform the walker. The Japanese island of Shikoku, with its eighty-eight-temple circuit, is the most famous Buddhist walking pilgrimage. Two Western writers, Oliver Statler and Robert Sibley, depict how this demanding walk affected them, although they are modest about claiming to have been transformed. The legend of Kobo Daishi shapes their encounters and experiences on the Shikoku circuit. Another traditional form of Buddhist pilgrimage is visiting sites important in the Buddha’s life. Two Englishmen, Ajahn Sucitto and Nick Scott, wrote two volumes about their 700-mile journey through India and Nepal. The contrasting perspectives of the Theravada monk and his devoted friend and student reveal their different temperaments and religious insights, which are evident in the ways each of them experiences unselfing and understands Buddhist ideas of no-self. Walking provides many opportunities for these pilgrims to discern the self’s ceaseless arising and dissipation and to practice patient returning to the present moment.
This chapter considers Zen monastic memoirs that describe experiences in a Japanese monastery. Janwillem van de Wetering’s The Empty Mirror (1973) was one of the first extended autobiographical accounts of the quest for enlightenment. Van de Wetering wrote about experiences off as well as on the meditation cushion and emphasized failure, not the attainment of satori. Three later travel memoirs by Maura O’Halloran, David Chadwick, and Gesshin Claire Greenwood also depict a lengthy sojourn in a Zen monastery and a frustrating search for self-transformation. Yet all these authors experience a form of unselfing and an altered understanding of the Dharma and Buddhist practice. In each of these four narratives, the ambiguous failure of the quest for enlightenment reveals how the author’s life was nonetheless transformed by Zen monastic practice. Departure from the monastery means that selfless practice may take place anywhere and is not a matter of achievement or accomplishment.
Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (1978) is the best-known Western Buddhist travel narrative and the classic text that for most readers defines the genre. This chapter explores Matthiessen’s account of his two-month trip to Nepal to search for Himalayan blue sheep and the rare snow leopard, mourn his wife’s death, search for a spiritual guide, and practice Buddhist mindfulness and compassion. He describes several incidents of unselfing as well as his frustration in persisting in this longed-for state of being. Matthiessen’s later Nine-Headed Dragon River describes his shift from Rinzai to Soto Zen and culminates in a pilgrimage to Zen monasteries in Japan. He examines how the student–teacher relationship calls for submission of the ego. He presents transformation as an aspect of individual experience as well as the process by which Zen changed as it moved from China to Japan to America. In Nine-Headed Dragon River, the meaning of no-self is no longer a state to be achieved in a dramatic moment but rather offers a crucial perspective from which to understand his relationship to his Zen master and Zen’s journey through various cultures.
Since the 1950 Chinese invasion, many encounters with Tibetan Buddhism have taken place in the Tibetan diaspora. Andrew Harvey’s A Journey in Ladakh explains how his life and career as a writer were changed by a sojourn in this region of India. Jamie Zeppa describes three years she spent as a teacher in Bhutan, where Buddhist teachings, encounters with local people, and marriage to a Bhutanese man led to life-altering changes. She brings ideas about no-self into tension and dialogue with Western values related to selfhood, including moral integrity, romantic love, and the educational goal of individual expression. In Dreaming Me, Jan Willis raises important questions about how no-self is understood by people who have been denied selfhood, such as African Americans. Stephen Schettini’s The Novice culminates in a deconversion when he decides that belonging to a Buddhist community threatens his independence and integrity. These four writers are more assertive than most other Western Buddhists about the need to define and claim autonomous selfhood. Yet, even as they question the idea of no-self, encounters in the Tibetan diaspora led to significant self-transformations.
In the aftermath of China’s traumatic Cultural Revolution, Western travelers have searched for the remnants of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Gretel Ehrlich’s Questions of Heaven documents her unhappy tour of sacred mountains and other religious sites and practices in Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces and her search for traditional arts and music. George Crane’s Bones of the Master depicts a pilgrimage with an exiled Chan monk to find the bones of his spiritual mentor and build a stupa to honor him. Bill Porter’s Road to Heaven recounts his search for Chinese hermits who seem to have abandoned every attachment to a social self. Porter’s Zen Baggage documents a pilgrimage to sites connected to the first six patriarchs of Chan Buddhism and his attempts to discard “baggage,” that is, attachments. Because of Chan’s suspicion of talk about oneself and because these authors focus more on documenting conditions in China than on self-disclosure, they are guarded or discreet about how their journeys affected them. Yet each shows how a Chinese journey initiated a transformed sense of self.
Many travel narratives set in Tibet record a trek, a long and difficult journey by foot in mountainous areas. Two early tales by Alexandra David-Neel and Heinrich Harrer show the typical Western fascination with heroic adventure and exotic Oriental culture. Four more recent travel narratives – by Jim Reynolds (now Ajahn Chandako), Robert Thurman and Tad Wise, Ian Baker, and Matteo Pistono – show in contrasting ways how a trek triggered experiences of unselfing that they interpret through the lens of Tibetan Buddhist ideas. Circling the Sacred Mountain presents the differing perspectives of Thurman, a renowned scholar and confident practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, and his wayward and struggling student, Tad Wise. Ian Baker’s The Heart of the World records several journeys to remote Himalayan valleys in search of beyul, Tibetan “hidden lands,” where ancient scriptures are preserved and the landscape reveals the nature of the mind. Matteo Pistono’s transformation in Tibet involves learning to overcome the anger that had crippled his political efforts; he finds a capacity to unite political action and religious devotion, guided by Tibetan teachers and the ideal of the bodhisattva.
In five sections, this Conclusion correlates the features of Western Buddhist travel narratives with understandings of no-self. It reflects on what stories can show that is obscured by theories and explains the distinctive value of autobiographical narratives for interpreting no-self and experiences of unselfing. The theory developed builds on the ideas of Steven Collins, Ann Taves, John Hick, and others. Western narratives are compared to an eighteenth-century Tibetan autobiography as interpreted by Janet Gyatso. A fourth section reflects on why travel narratives often portray experiences of unselfing. Finally, a theory is proposed that links experiences of unselfing with autobiographical writing as related aspects of religious transformation. Self-transformation is the central theme of contemporary spiritual autobiography and the deepest religious concern at work in Buddhist thinking about no-self. Western Buddhist travel narratives offer crucial insights and wisdom about these matters.
Theravada Buddhism is the dominant tradition in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Thai monasteries in the “forest tradition” are the setting for Tim Ward’s What the Buddha Never Taught and Phra Peter Pannapadipo’s Phra Farang: An English Monk in Thailand. These authors describe how the rules and regulations of the monastic code challenged them and prompted insights into the self’s relentless craving. Ward and Pannapadipo (now Peter Robinson) finally affirm an enduring self with abiding values and commitments, even as they appreciate Buddhist ideas about no-self. Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Hard Travel to Sacred Places and Stephen Asma’s The Gods Drink Whiskey recount travels in the dense urban centers of Cambodia and Thailand. Wurlitzer’s weary and disillusioned memoir rejects the possibility of enlightenment and says he was unchanged by travel. Yet, by taking this stance, he renounces the desire to exploit Asia or engineer his spiritual destiny. Stephen Asma’s account of a year teaching in Cambodia explores ideas about no-self, karma, and other ideas that conflict with Western assumptions and elicit a new orientation to life that he calls “transcendental everydayness.”
This chapter examines Thomas Merton’s encounters with Buddhism during his 1968 journey in Asia, as recorded in his Asian Journal. He hoped learning from Asian traditions would increase his commitment as a Christian monk. Merton was deeply moved by encounters with Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama, a stark confrontation with the mountain Kanchenjunga in Nepal, and an ecstatic aesthetic experience at the massive sculptures at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. He recorded several moments of unselfing and used the concepts of anicca (impermanence) and anatman (no-self) to understand them. Merton’s example of integrating Buddhist ideas with theistic faith is paralleled by two other Christians and a Jew: William Johnston, Bardwell Smith, and Rodger Kamenetz. Profoundly influenced by Asian journeys, these writers use Buddhist metaphors and stories to explore problems of selfhood. They discern ways in which their own theistic religious tradition is analogous in crucial ways to Buddhist no-self in challenging egotism.
Western Buddhist travel narratives are autobiographical accounts of a journey to a Buddhist culture. Dozens of such narratives have since the 1970s describe treks in Tibet, periods of residence in a Zen monastery, pilgrimages to Buddhist sites and teachers, and other Asian odysseys. The best known of these works is Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard; further reflections emerge from thirty writers including John Blofeld, Jan Van de Wetering, Thomas Merton, Oliver Statler, Robert Thurman, Gretel Ehrlich, and Bill Porter. The Buddhist concept of 'no-self' helps these authors interpret certain pivotal experiences of 'unselfing' and is also a catalyst that provokes and enables such events. The writers' spiritual memoirs describe how their journeys brought about a new understanding of Buddhist enlightenment and so transformed their lives. Showing how travel can elicit self-transformation, this book is a compelling exploration of the journeys and religious changes of both individuals and Buddhism itself.
In the paper we present a phenomenon occurring in population processes that start near 0 and have large carrying capacity. By the classical result of Kurtz (1970), such processes, normalized by the carrying capacity, converge on finite intervals to the solutions of ordinary differential equations, also known as the fluid limit. When the initial population is small relative to the carrying capacity, this limit is trivial. Here we show that, viewed at suitably chosen times increasing to ∞, the process converges to the fluid limit, governed by the same dynamics, but with a random initial condition. This random initial condition is related to the martingale limit of an associated linear birth-and-death process.
Density dependent Markov population processes in large populations of size N were shown by Kurtz (1970), (1971) to be well approximated over finite time intervals by the solution of the differential equations that describe their average drift, and to exhibit stochastic fluctuations about this deterministic solution on the scale √N that can be approximated by a diffusion process. Here, motivated by an example from evolutionary biology, we are concerned with describing how such a process leaves an absorbing boundary. Initially, one or more of the populations is of size much smaller than N, and the length of time taken until all populations have sizes comparable to N then becomes infinite as N → ∞. Under suitable assumptions, we show that in the early stages of development, up to the time when all populations have sizes at least N1-α for 1/3 < α < 1, the process can be accurately approximated in total variation by a Markov branching process. Thereafter, it is well approximated by the deterministic solution starting from the original initial point, but with a random time delay. Analogous behaviour is also established for a Markov process approaching an equilibrium on a boundary, where one or more of the populations become extinct.