Emanuel Swedenborg: Buddha of the North

suzukibook2.jpgThis week Glencairn Museum will be opening a temporary exhibit, “Buddhism in Pennsylvania,” and hosting a group of Tibetan monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in Nepal, who will be creating a mandala (sand painting). One of the events offered in connection with the exhibit and visit by the monks is a lecture by the Rev. Barry Halterman. His illustrated presentation will explore the origins and unique aspects of the Tibetan style of Buddhism, the purpose, symbolism, and ritualistic elements of mandalas, and some possible connections between Buddhist and New Church teachings (Wednesday, September 26th, at 4pm). 

Dr. Stuart Chandler of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania is the guest curator of “Buddhism in Pennsylvania.” In addition to studying Buddhism, Dr. Chandler conducts research on the evolving religious landscape of Pennsylvania, and has served as the director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Pennsylvania since its founding in 2002. After learning more about Swedenborg, Dr. Chandler has written the following: 

“The Buddhist and Swedenborgian traditions share certain basic insights about how we humans can realize complete fulfillment. The Buddha would certainly have agreed with Swedenborg that people of all religions can go to heaven so long as they acknowledge a Divine Being and practice their religion faithfully. The two men also shared an emphasis on both cultivating a wisdom that cuts through egoism and enacting love through service to others and engagement with this world. It was with good reason that the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki referred to Emanuel Swedenborg as ‘your Buddha of the North’” (personal communication from Stuart Chandler to Ed Gyllenhaal). 

A book titled Swedenborg: Buddha of the North was published in 1996 by the Swedenborg Foundation. In addition to containing two essays about Swedenborg by D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), this volume includes a foreword by Tatsuya Nagashima, the first translator and publisher of Swedenborg’s Latin texts into modern Japanese, an introduction by Andrew Bernstein, and an afterword by David Loy, a professor at Bunkyo University, Japan. In the afterword, “The Dharma of Emanuel Swedenborg: A Buddhist Perspective,” Loy points out that although Buddhist-Christian dialogue has been an active topic in religious studies in recent years, Swedenborg has incorrectly been left out of that discussion. In addition to examining a number of parallels between New Church and Buddhist teachings, Loy suggests a possible connection between certain statements made by Swedenborg about the religion of “Great Tartary” and the Tibetan practice of making mandalas: 

“One of the most intriguing references in [Swedenborg’s] voluminous works is an allusion to ‘Great Tartary’ where the teachings of the Ancient Church have been preserved: 

‘I have spoken with spirits and angels who came from there, and they said that they possess a Word, and have from ancient times; and that their divine worship is performed according to this Word, which consists of pure correspondences…. They said that they worship Jehovah, some as an invisible, and some as a visible God. Moreover they said that they do not permit foreigners to come among them, except the Chinese, with whom they cultivate peace, because the emperor of China is from their country…. Seek for it in China, and perhaps you will find it there among the Tartars.’ (AR 11; my emphasis) 

What does this refer to? And where? Anders Hallengren discusses this matter in his article ‘The Secret of Great Tartary.’ After reviewing the historical evidence, he concludes that the most probable reference is the Buddhism of Mongolia and Tibet (since Kublai Khan, founder of the Chinese Yuan dynasty, was converted by a Tibetan rinpoche in the thirteenth century, Mongolian Buddhism has been a version of Tibetan Buddhism). To this I can add only one point, concerning the curious fact that their worship ‘consists of pure correspondences.’ What can this mean? The Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet and Mongolia is a Mahayana form of tantra that employs meditative practices such as mandalas (complex visual images, usually paintings), mantras (the repetition of sacred sounds), mudras (hand movements), and so forth. In the case of a mandala, for example, a practitioner typically meditates on its visual form until he or she is able to reproduce it completely—indeed it is said to be clearer—in the mind’s eye; finally one unites with the deities depicted, who represent aspects of one’s own Buddha-nature. The complex symbolism of most mandalas is not very relevant to the theoretical concerns of most Buddhist philosophers, while the opposite is true for meditators. Tantra is by nature esoteric because it is a nonconceptual symbolic system: ‘the mandala is a microcosmic image of the universe;’ it ‘is, above all, a map of the cosmos. It is the whole universe in its essential plan, in its process of emanation and reabsorption.’ This suggests that meditations employing these images might be the pure correspondence that Swedenborg mentions. I do not know how to evaluate this supposition, but in the future I will be less inclined to dismiss such images as ‘mere iconography’” (David Loy, “The Dharma of Emanuel Swedenborg: A Buddhist Perspective”, in Swedenborg: Buddha of the North, 1996, 119-120 ). 

There will be many opportunities to see the exhibit and the monks. Below is a short list of events. For more information visit us online at www.glencairnmuseum.org, email us at info@glencairnmuseum.org, or call us at 267-502-2600.

manjushrismall.jpgBuddhism in Pennsylvania Exhibit
September 22nd through November 24th, Weekdays by appointment, Saturdays from 11:00am to 2:30pm 
Admission: Donations Welcome 
Adapted from Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s “Eastern Religions Come to Western Pennsylvania,” this exhibit focuses on Buddhist practices. 

Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandala 
Wednesday, September 26th through Sunday, September 30th 
Wednesday through Friday 9:00am to 5:00pm, Saturday 10:00am to 5:00pm, Sunday 1:00 to 5:00pm 
Admission: Donations Welcome 
Witness the step-by-step creation and dismantling of a traditional sand mandala by monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in southern India. 

The Universe in a Grain of Sand: A Talk by Rev. Barry C. Halterman 
Wednesday, September 26th, 4:00pm (refreshments at 3:45) 
Free Admission 
A New Church perspective on Tibetan Buddhism and the sacred art of the sand mandala. 

Tibetan Cultural Pageant 
Saturday, September 29th, 7:00pm (Doors open at 6:30) 
Admission: $10 suggested donation 
This event features harmonic overtone chanting of traditional prayers, accompanied by temple instruments and including dances and typical debate sessions. 

Good Karma: Buddhism in Pennsylvania 
Sunday, September 30, 1:00 to 5:00pm 
Admission: $5 Adults, $3 Seniors/Students with I.D., Free for members, ANC students and children 4 and under. First floor (including exhibit and Great Hall) free; café, shop, and some activities extra. 
Join us for our fall Special Sunday which will include the completion and then dismantling of the sand mandala by the monks, exhibit talks by the guest curator, tours, and the opportunity to color your own paper mandala, create a prayer flag, and help with a mandala puzzle. 

Photo: A statue of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, from the Tibetan Buddhist altar in Glencairn Museum’s “Buddhism in Pennsylvania” exhibit. This statue was made recently by Newari metal workers in Kathmandu, who continue their age-old craft of making brass and bronze statues for use by practitioners of Buddhism.

Questions and comments may be addressed to the editors at info@newchurchhistory.org.

September 25, 2007 | Posted by: Ed and Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact