March 19, 2010

Yay Theravada!

In a most intriguing presentation today at the Buddhism without Borders conference, Todd Pereira discards the notion that Anagarika Dharmapala initiated American contact with Theravada in 1893. Instead he looks back even further to August 16, 1829, on which date the famous conjoined brothers Chang and Eng stepped foot on American soil. It may very well be is certainly the case that these brothers later converted to Christianity—they are buried in the graveyard of a Baptist church they had helped build—but their arrival no less stirred up many questions on religion, if not merely the religious imagination.

The connection here to a robust Theravada Buddhist philosophy and practice is, admittedly, exceedingly tenuous. More than anything, the notion that these brothers might not be Christian (even if they already were) opened the door a little more to the possibilities of religion beyond the Abrahamic context of nineteenth century America. Was it an introduction of Buddhism at all? I’m leaning towards doubt.*

In the broader civil rights context, the brothers were true pioneers in Asian American history. They were probably the first Asians to marry white Americans, to be American citizens and to vote in American elections. In less contemporarily popular American firsts, they also grew tobacco, owned slaves and their sons fought for the Confederacy in the American Civil War! At this point in his speech, Todd Perreira smiled at the audience, stuck his tongue in his cheek, and yelled, “Yay Theravada!”

I look forward to his published research, which includes much more than the (again, admittedly tenuous) story of Chang and Eng Bunker. Although most Theravada temples were established by Asian immigrants who came after 1965, Buddhist Americans seem all too quick to forget those who came before. Some of my favorite stories include the Buddhist monarch who offered Lincoln assistance in the Civil War, or even the Buddhist monarch born on American soil.

*Update: Many thanks to a certain scholar who kindly pointed out off-the-blog that as the Bunkers self-identified as Baptists, they and their descendants deserve to have this remembered. The post has been changed accordingly.


  1. I think that Dharmapala stepped on american soil about the same time as Japanese Buddhists did (in Hawai'i). The Japanese however were not identified as Buddhists although the practically first thing they did was building small temples.

  2. To continue the conversation, The Soto Mission on Maui started building their temple in 1906, the Hawai'i Kahului Jodo Mission erected its temple in 1909, likewise the Jodo Californian temmple in Guadalupe. It took all these communities some 10-15 years before they had accumulated sufficient funds.
    We must remember that Srilankans make a distinction between Buddhists (i.e. theravadin), and Mahayana (i.e. something else).

  3. @white-jade-river: Thanks for you comments and input. For the sake of other readers who might stumble here, I feel obliged to note that your comments are irrelevant to the theme I was trying to convey in this post. Todd’s speech and this post here are about Theravada Buddhism in America. I must apologize for not being more clear.