Early Adopters of Eastern Wisdom
Word of the sacred teachings of the East first trickled Westward via the trade routes between Europe and Asia; then through translations of religious and philosophical texts; then in the persons of swamis, gurus, roshis, lamas, yoga masters, and other teachers, beginning with Swami Vivekananda’s triumph at the 1893 World Parliament of Religion. It continued through the guru parade of the 1960s and 70s, and into the present.
Along the way, prominent Westerners absorbed Eastern ideas, mingled them with their own insights and expertise, integrated them into their disciplines, and disseminated them in various forms to a receptive public. It is largely through their influence that the Dharma seeped into the fabric of American culture. Here are 18 particularly influential Western transmitters. You can add more in the comments below.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882). The Sage of Concord was exposed to Eastern thought as a child; his father, Reverend William Emerson, was an early adopter. What we think of as Emersonian philosophy was a compound mix of Hinduism and Buddhism, Romanticism and Idealism, and Emerson’s own transcendent insights. Everyone influenced by Emerson (most educated Americans) has to some degree been affected by ideas birthed in India. The first and most important beneficiary was Henry David Thoreau, who borrowed his mentor’s Bhagavad Gita and sang its praises in Walden.
WALT WHITMAN (1819-1892). America’s Bard was inspired by Hindu literature and the spirit of what was then called the Orient. A tantric and a bhakta, even if he never heard those Sanskrit words, Whitman exalted India for its “far-darting beams of the spirit,” “unloose’d dreams,” and “deep diving bibles.” He was not the only poet to evoke Eastern wisdom in verse (T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and others did so), but no one turned the imagination toward Asia like Whitman. Check out “Passage to India.”
MADAME BLAVATSKY (1831-1891). Few thinkers of her era could match the Russian-born founder of Theosophy for originality and impact. Her blend of Eastern spirituality and Western metaphysics attracted legions of followers in both India and the West. She also directly influenced other New Thought pioneers whose organizations serve up East-West blends to this day; they include Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), Charles and Myrtle Fillmore (Unity Church), and Ernest Holmes (Religious Science).
ALDOUS HUXLEY (1894-1964). Along with his fellow British ex-pats, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood, Huxley was a mainstay at the Hollywood Vedanta Society, where he studied with Swami Prabhavananda and helped propel Vedantic precepts into the intellectual mainstream. The influence is evident in Huxley’s evolution from the dystopic Brave New World to the classic anthology of mysticism, The Perennial Philosophy, to the utopian novel Island.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL (1904-1987). Before becoming the best-known public intellectual of his time, Campbell studied and worked with Swami Nikhilananda in New York. That relationship, and his friendships with Jiddu Krishnamurti and Heinrich Zimmer, exposed the young scholar to an Upanishadic world-view that would ground his life’s work. His books, lectures, and media appearances (notably, a six-hour PBS series with Bill Moyers), extended Campbell’s reach to millions.
HUSTON SMITH (1919-present). The MVP in the league of religious scholars, Smith absorbed the essentials of Hinduism as a young professor in St. Louis, where Swami Satprakashananda presided at the Vedanta Center. When I asked him how big an impact that had on his celebrated career, Smith said, “Immense.” You can see that in his classic textbook of comparative religion, The World’s Religions, and on Bill Moyers’ PBS interviews with him, circa 1996.
DAYA MATA (1914-2010). Born Rachel Faye Wright, Daya Mata met her guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, in her home town of Salt Lake City in 1931. Soon, she took monastic vows and settled into the Self-Realization Fellowship’s Mother Center in Los Angeles. From 1955 until her death in 2010, she ran and grew the international organization her master founded — a remarkable accomplishment in an arena that has fewer women at the top than the Fortune 500.
ALAN WATTS (1915-1973). Erudite, witty, and incorrigible, Watts was the leading interpreter of Asia’s spiritual traditions from the 1950s and well past his death. His books were devoured by beatniks and baby boomers, and his radio and TV discourses were heard in hipster households from the East Village to Berkeley — and now are digitized for the ages.
J.D. SALINGER (1919-2010). Like Joseph Campbell, the celebrated and reclusive author was a member of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York. He was also a student of Zen and an initiate in Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship. His personal quest for enlightenment was mirrored by characters in his post-Catcher in the Rye stories, especially the immortal Glass siblings, Franny, Zooey, Seymour (the family guru), and the rest.
MICHAEL MURPHY (1930-present). As a Stanford undergrad in the early 1950s, Murphy’s life was changed by religious scholar Frederic Spiegelberg. After spending 14 months in India at the Sri Aurobindo ashram, he determined to create an institution that would draw upon the best of both East and West to study higher consciousness and human potential. His Esalen Institute has served that purpose for over half a century now.
ALLEN GINSBERG (1926-1997). In the 1950s he was the scraggly face of the Beats and, with Gary Snyder, a Buddhist voice in the gray flannel wilderness. In the late 60s, he could be seen cavorting with the Hare Krishnas and chanting Sanskrit mantras at hippie happenings and antiwar rallies. In the 70s, he hung out with Tibetan Buddhist master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche at Naropa University. The poet provocateur’s blend of East Asia and East Village was unique and loud.
GEORGE HARRISON (1943-2001). “The quiet Beatle” was hardly quiet about his devotion to the Hindu path. Directly and indirectly, he may have turned more seekers toward the East than anyone else. From the time he studied sitar with the great Ravi Shankar, in 1966, he promoted the dharma through song (I think of “Within You Without You” as the first rock ‘n roll Upanishad), personal example, and public advocacy. It was because of George that the four Beatles took up Transcendental Meditation (TM) and went to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in India for the retreat that changed the world. Later, he added devotional chanting to his repertoire. His very last recording featured Vedic mantras and lines from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
RICHARD ALPERT/RAM DASS (1931-present). As the Sundance Kid to Timothy Leary’s Butch Cassidy, Dr. Richard Alpert helped move LSD from Harvard labs to Harvard Square and beyond. When he met his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, he became Ram Dass, a gentle blend of holy man and standup comic who delivered Eastern wisdom in a palatable package without wishing to be revered like a guru. He set the template for all the Westerners who have distributed dharmic teachings over the past four decades.
LILIAS FOLAN (1936-present). “The First Lady of Yoga” was not the first to teach yoga on television. That distinction goes to Richard Hittleman. But it was “Lilias, Yoga and You” that brought the now-familiar stretches, bends and postures into millions of living rooms, with a dash of yogic philosophy tossed into the mix by the charismatic host. Introduced in Cincinnati in 1972, the show was carried nationally by PBS from 1975 to 1999, helping to turn physical yoga into a major industry.
ROBERT THURMAN (1941-present). A professor at Columbia University, Thurman is one of those rare academics whose influence extends well beyond the ivory tower. He was the first American to be ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist monastic tradition (he later returned to householder life), and has probably done more than anyone to make his mentor, the Dalai Lama, a beloved global figure and Tibetan Buddhism a focal point of interest among both spiritual seekers and scholars.
JACK KORNFIELD (1945-present). Trained as a Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition, Kornfield has been a leading teacher of Vipassana meditation since his return from Asia in the early 1970s. He co-founded (with fellow American Buddhists, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein) the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, and later opened Spirit Rock Center north of San Francisco. A clinical psychologist, he has also played a major role in the integration of Buddhism and psychology.
KEN WILBER (1949-present). It is rare for a non-credentialed intellectual to be taken seriously by academics and to influence scholars in several disciplines. Throughout his prolific career, Wilber has pulled off that trick with an East-West, spiritual-scientific fusion that has come to be known as Integral Theory. Among other achievements, he has helped add Hindu and Buddhist models of higher consciousness to psychology’s understanding of human development.
DEEPAK CHOPRA (1947-present). Yes, he is technically not Western, having been born and raised in New Delhi, but he has lived in America for two-thirds of his life and didn’t take his spiritual heritage seriously until he was an overworked Massachusetts physician. He met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1985 and soon became the spokesperson for the TM organization and the leading advocate of Ayurvedic medicine. A parade of bestsellers made him a global celebrity and his Chopra Center a prime destination for seekers. It is doubtful that anyone has introduced more people to Dharmic ideas over the last two decades.