Friday, November 27, 2009

Flashpoints of Mexican Buddhism

I continue to be fascinated by Buddhism in Latin America. Partly, this is spurred on by a longstanding interest in the history of the Americas as a whole, and how that history has shaped the present.

Here is an article from the New York Office of Tibet, the Dalai Lama's official organization, detailing the fragmented, somewhat cloudy history of the arrival of Buddhism in primarily Mexico. It's definitely not an exhaustive piece of writing, nor even a very good piece of writing, but there are a few nuggets hanging around in it. The opening paragraphs suggest that connections between Buddhists and indigenous Americans occurred long before the Asian missionaries and immigrants that came in 19th and early 20th centuries.

Chinese artifacts found in ancient Mayan, Toltec and Aztec ruins in Mexico over the first half of the twentieth century, as well as the legends of the historic god king Quetzalcoatl of eastern origin, whose arrival in the kingdom of Tula in central Mexico during the first millennium of our common era, brought about the knowledge of agriculture, architecture and astronomy to the Toltec people, suggest a first link between Mesoamerica and the cultures of the east.

Other Indian narratives speak about shaved headed robed priests who came from the east in order to spread the knowledge of truth and "the way things are". It has thus been said that the ancient peoples of America are culturally closer to Asia than to Europe.

In another article I read, a strong connection is drawn between pre-contact period indigenous Mexicans and Hinduism. How much of this is true, and how much just interesting speculation, I don't know. However, the many similarities are difficult to simply dismiss as mere coincidence.

Fast-forwarding now to the early 20th century, two major figures in the development of modern Mexico, Jose Vasconcelos and Francisco Madero, had more than a passing interest in Buddhism. The former, in 1908, commissioned a large carving of Buddha for the government of Mexico's Ministry of Education palace in Mexico City.

And then there's this, which continues the narrative of Asian teachers who came to the U.S. and then either left an imprint in Latin America through repeated visits, or who moved their work completely into Latin America: "In the 1970's Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche visited Mexico and thus became the first real Tibetan to set foot in Latin America. At a small house in the picturesque city of Patscuaro in the state of Michoacan, he is said to have discovered the mind "terma" which later inspired his Shambhala teachings."

I'm guessing that few people, when contemplating the myriad of Buddhist practices occurring in the world today, would make a link between Tibetan Buddhism and Mexico. And yet, one of the six "Tibet Houses," or official organizations dedicated to preserving Tibetan history, culture, and spiritual traditions is located in Mexico City. In addition, there are at least 12 zen centers or zen affiliated organizations in Mexico, including centers in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi, Norman Fischer, and Maezumi Roshi.

As the stories of Buddhism spreading to the Americas continue to be developed and spread, it's essential that we work toward a more whole picture. It is my hope that posts like this add a little bit to that conversation. It isn't just about history: learning how others in the various countries of the two continents are implementing and practicing the dharma can only enhance the development of our own practices here in the U.S. Even though we fail to see it so often, the Americas are deeply linked and constantly influencing each other in subtle and not so subtle ways. The flourishing of the Buddhadharma is yet another place of connection for us "Americans."


spldbch said...

Wow -- I definitely never made the connection between Buddhism and Latin America. Great post!

Algernon said...

I remember reading about this -- was it in Tricycle? Some time ago. It is a fascinating connection.

Anonymous said...

Good post, thanks Nathan! Back when I was associate editor of Turning Wheel, we devoted a whole issue to "Buddhism in Las Americas," in Spring of 2001. I'm not sure the archives are still available, but there were some great articles by many Latino/a practitioners in there... it was guest edited by Lourdes Arguelles.