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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.
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.
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.
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