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Discovering Asia in America’s Spiritual DNA

By Paul Chaffee


This month’s issue, with its theme of Dharma in the West, feels more personal to me than anything TIO has done in its first two years. My parents were Presbyterian missionaries in Asia. I was a toddler in China, spent grade-school in Bangkok, and went to a boarding high-school in north India. Raised Christian while surrounded by Buddhists and Hindus was enriching and utterly confusing.

As a high-school sophomore, I spent one Saturday at an interschool event there in the Himalayan foothills. I was paired with an Indian student in a white starched shirt and a big smile: “I am a Hindu and a Christian,” he said as we shook hands. “What are you?” I was flabbergasted at the question and a long, long way from being able to answer it. Putting together this issue half a century later has added substance and nuance to how I might answer my young Indian friend were we given the miracle of a conversation today! My short answer would be, “So am I. Let’s talk!”

Growing up in Asia is a far cry from understanding it, much less its influence in Europe and the Americas. My ‘guru’ in understanding Dharma in the West and putting together this issue is Philip Goldberg. You’ll find my review of his American Veda (2010) here; he’s also contributed two compelling articles – one about gurus and accountability, the other about Western ‘transmitters’ of the Dharma. Thank you, Phil, for writing your ground-breaking book and for giving so much time and energy to The Interfaith Observer!

An anomaly this month. Robert Jonas’ “Dharma in the Christian West” is twice as long as you’ll find other TIO stories and a good deal more theological. For good reason. Jonas explores “nonduality,” which may be the most important philosophic/theological topic to tackle in building peace between Abrahamic traditions and Dharmic traditions. If you are deeply committed to a global interfaith culture where the East and West inform and enrich each other for us all, this article is a powerful starting point.

Can’t help holding up Mark Juergensmeyer’s tribute to Robert Bellah, a wiseman known to so few (outside of academe), who deeply influenced our understanding of religion, ancient and modern.

And we must say “Welcome to the grassroots interfaith global universe!” to Victor Kazangian, new executive director of United Religions Initiative, profiled here this month.