Santa Cruz County History - Religion & Spirituality

Santa Cruz Spirituality: South and East Asian Spiritualities
by Paul Tutwiler


Origins and General Development

"Hinduism" is a term used to express traits common to the billion or so people whose heritage goes back linearly about 2,500 years to the then extant civilizations of what is now called India. The more specific term, "Hindu spirituality," refers to the complex of cosmology, philosophy, and religion which was, unevenly of course, distributed across that area in the beginning or has developed from it since then. It is possible to distinguish philosophy and religion in Hindu spirituality, but they are at most only two facets of the same worldview, and the life of the mind in Hinduism is not separate from the life of the spirit.

Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism are the major spiritual movements deriving from the matrix of Hinduism and more or less different from it. Of these, Jainism has remained completely Hindu in inspiration, whereas Sikhism has roots in both Hinduism and Islam, and Buddhism is an amalgam of the genius of India with that of other South and East Asian societies, China, Japan, and so on. All these spiritualities, however, differ from West Asian and European ones in that they are not churches and they do not have hierarchical structures. Their basic unit is the spiritual master, the guru, shri, or swami, and a coterie of disciples. Running down the list of Hindu associations, one realizes that all of them can be traced back to individuals whose following has multiplied beyond an immediate band of disciples.

The practice of Hindu spirituality ranges from highly intellectual to highly sensual. At the one end of the spectrum is Advaita Vedanta, which, in its philosophic aspect, insists that all — absolutely everything — is One, and which emphasizes meditation over the use of symbols and rituals. At the far end of the spectrum is the folk religion which emphasizes devotion to an array of colorful gods and goddesses who are, to be sure, understood to be in reality mere symbols of divine powers. Similar to this dimension of Hindu spiritual experience, but not the same, is the polarity of transcendental-immanent. In the first we find our unity with the divine by losing ourselves in it; in the second we find that we ourselves are divine. The first allies itself naturally with the more intellectual approach to the divine, but it leaves room for a practical form of spiritual action which reaches out to others. The second can be experienced in yogic practices of self-enrichment, but also exists in the extreme of Tantrism, in which enjoying the pleasures of the body is an act of worship.

Hinduism in the United States

In the United States Hinduism has almost entirely been of the intellectual, transcendent form with little external symbolism and ritual, and this is the kind of Hinduism which Indians themselves have brought here and continue to foster. Although the wide popularity of Yoga in this country is of Indian inspiration, it has been taken up and advanced by American teacher-practitioners, and the more limited popularity of Tantrism is even farther removed from its Indian roots.

A certain line of chronology has to be borne in mind in order to grasp the development of Hinduism in the United States:

1825-1893. Elements of Hindu thought entered American intellectual and religious life through the efforts of the (non-Indian) Transcendentalists and Theosophists.

1893. The World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago, brought several Hindu gurus to the United States, and this led to the permanent establishment of a Hindu presence in this country. Prominent among these pioneers was Swami Vivekananda, who founded the Vedanta Society and two Advaita Vedanta groups, one in New York and the other in San Francisco.

1923. Immigrants from India were declared by the U. S. Supreme Court not to be eligible for citizenship.

1924. The Immigration Act of this year limited the number of persons entering the country from India to 100 a year.

1946. The United States eased its restrictions on immigration from South Asia.

1965. The exclusion of immigrants from India was repealed and broad admission quotas were established for them.

The chronology helps explain that although only 15,000 immigrants had come to the United States from the whole Indian subcontinent before 1965, (Mann, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America, p. 64), there were 387,000 "Asian Indians" in the country according to the 1980 census. The number of Hindus in the country in 1990 was estimated to be 227,000, and in 2001 estimates of their number varied from 766,00 to 1,100,000. ( 2004)

From the 1890s to the 1960s the Vedanta Society maintained a continuous, limited existence, and a few gurus gathered followings in the United States. The Theosophical Society at one point proposed a young Indian, Jeddu Krishnamurti, as the Savior of the world. Krishnamurti himself renounced this view of himself in 1927, but, his renown being assured, continued as a well known author on spirituality.

Bibliography on Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism in general and in the United States in general

Basham, A. L. The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Jackson, Carl T. Vedanta for the West. Indiana University Press, 1994.

Mann, Gurinder Singh. Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. (advance, uncorrected reading copy used)

Tuganait, Rajmani. Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the U.S.A., 1983.

Zimmer, Heinrich. Philosophies of India. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company, 1956.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America Inc. Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America Inc. 2004.


Origins and General Development

Siddartha Gautama lived in the sixth century BC in Northeast India. After years of personal religious experience he became recognized as a teacher of a simple spirituality which did not claim to be revealed by a divine being, which eschewed philosophical speculation about the world, and which was devoid of symbols and rituals. He spoke of the Four Noble Truths: Suffering exists; There is a cause of suffering; There is a cessation of suffering; There is a means to cease suffering. In other words, suffering pervades the world, but we create it for ourselves by desiring and craving things, and it will follow us into successive reincarnations until we put to rest our desiring and craving. This we do by the Eightfold Path: Right views; Right resolve; Right speech; Right conduct; Right livelihood; Right effort; Right mindfulness; Right meditation.

Because of its perception of the ubiquity of suffering, the characteristic attitude of Buddhism toward human and other life in the world is compassion, and all the followers of Siddartha Gautama agree on this and on the goal of seeking eventual peace for everyone. The hundreds of millions of Buddhists in the world, however, do not espouse one, and only one, method for everyone to pursue this goal. The most general division of Buddhism is into Theravada (or Hinayana), the ascetic-tending form of Southeast Asia, that is, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, etc., and Mahayana, the populist form, found in Northeast Asia, that is, China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. Nevertheless, each mainstream of Buddhism provides for both asceticism and popular religion.

Siddartha Gautama's own spirituality did not use symbols and rituals, and he explicitly refused to speculate about such matters as the eternity and finiteness of the world, the identity of soul and body, and the existence of humans after their suffering ceases. Still, in the roughly 2,300 years since Buddhism emerged from India into other countries, many forms of it have become speculative, fostering intellectual thought about the structure of the world and our place in it, and many of its forms have incorporated elements of folk religion, not only symbols and rituals, but also beliefs about gods and goddesses, etc. The conceptual structure of Buddhism is broad enough to include a great range of interpretations, especially if it is dissociated from its original assumption that reincarnation is literally the case.

Historically Buddhism was one spiritual practice among many in the Indian subcontinent until King Asoka unified India in the third century BC and elevated Buddhism to an official status. It then started to expand beyond India, and by the time it was a thousand years old it was found everywhere in Southeast and Northeast Asia. In India itself Buddhism disappeared as a distinct form of spirituality by about 1,000 AD, but it is clear that this is due to its being reincorporated into Hindu spirituality rather than its ceasing to exist.

As the great wave of Buddhism moved into China it tended to merge with the preexisting Taoism in combination with the Confucian view of society to create one general form of Chinese spirituality, which is treated in the next part of this essay. In Japan Buddhism incorporated the indigenous folk religion, but it also took the form of the Zen meditative movement.

Buddhism in the United States

Interest in Buddhism in this country began while Americans were viewing it from afar, as a phenomenon in Asia which to some intellectuals offered a fresh and tolerant insight into religion. The Transcendentalists were fascinated by Buddhism along with Hinduism, and the Theosophists asserted that both Eastern spiritualities had preserved the wisdom of antiquity better than the Western spiritualities had done. Although the Transcendentalists and later the Theosophists knew better, other Americans who acquired a smattering of knowledge about Buddhism from then on often confused it with Hinduism. As with Hinduism, the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago both attracted a new and wider range of attention to Buddhism and gave the impetus to the founding of centers in the United States. The number, however, of Euro-Americans who thought of themselves primarily as Buddhists at "the peak of American interest (1892 to 1907)" was probably only two or three thousand. (Tweed, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912, p. 46)

The limiting of Asian immigration into the U. S. (see its chronology above, under Hinduism) has an important bearing on the development of Buddhism in the country, but another factor has to be taken into account: many Chinese and Japanese had arrived on the west coast before the flow of immigration was stanched. California counted 55 Chinese-born residents at the start of the gold rush; five years later there were 40,000. More came for the building of the railroads, and although these were almost exclusively men, they brought their spirituality with them. Immigrants from Japan arrived especially after the change in the Japanese regime in 1868, and they, like the Chinese, established settlements up and down California, although with one significant general difference, that Japanese women came with the men and they established families. Some of both the Chinese and Japanese who came to California were Christian, and indeed it is clear that it was the Christian missionaries who told them about the opportunities across the ocean. Thus Japanese Christian churches were founded, but there were also Japanese Buddhist temples. Then too, there were Chinese temples, and Americans, not knowing whether they were Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian, tended to call them all Buddhist.

In 1914 Japanese Buddhists founded the "Buddhist Mission in North America." From its headquarters in San Francisco this organization branched out to include by 1930 over 30 temples, many called "churches" — mostly in California. (Mann, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, pp. 18-28 for the preceding three paragraphs)

In 1944 the BMNA was reorganized as the "Buddhist Churches of America," still with headquarters in San Francisco. (Mann, op. cit., p. 38; Melton, Encyclopedia *1262)

There still are primarily ethnic Chinese and Japanese temples in centers like San Francisco and Los Angeles, and other South and East Asian groups have brought the Buddhism of their native lands with them. Furthermore, the widening of Americans' knowledge of Buddhism through the new immigrants has brought ethnic non-Asians into the Buddhist community. The greatest single spiritual influence of Buddhism on American society has been through the spread of Zen, which came to prominence in this country in the 1950s and 60s. Not only was Zen recognized for its own sake, but it was also incorporated into the New Age, Beat Generation, and Aquarian movements, both intellectually and socially. (Mann, op. cit., p. 40-45)

Bibliography on Buddhism in general and Buddhism in the United States in general

Burtt, E. A., ed. The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha. New York: New American Library, 1982.

Buddha Cruz. 1994.
Monthly newsletter published in Santa Cruz beginning (and apparently ending also) in 1994.

Mann, Gurinder Singh. Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. (advance, uncorrected reading copy used)

Yun, Hsing. Describing the Indescribable. A Commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001.

Morreale, Don. The Complete Guide to Buddhist America. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1998.

Tweed, Thomas A. The American Encounter with Buddhism: 1844-1912. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Zimmer, Heinrich. Philosophies of India. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company, 1956.


Origins and general development

In the traditional Chinese understanding of the universe, "The Tao is seen as the everlasting principle at the origin of the universe. It permeates and transcends all beings; it is at the origin of all transformations." (Little, p. 33) The interplay of yin and yang brought forth from the primordial unity the structure of the world as we know it, that is, as hierarchically arranged in a heavenly realm and and earthly realm, the latter of which is a direct analog of the former and is connected with it by the flow of universal energy, qi (or ch'i, in another system of transliteration). This is not an otherworldly view, and it does not claim to stem from revelations to privileged individuals, and so it would, by Western standards, lend itself less to religious beliefs than to philosophical speculation. The Chinese mind, however, has traditionally not been inclined to speculate on such matters as the properties of being and about ultimate human destiny.

Questions of philosophy which Chinese intellectuals have dealt with over the millennia can mainly be categorized for Westerners under epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy, but for the most part the Chinese have not distinguished these from religion, and they categorize them under the headings of Taoism and Confucianism. The first of these deals with the alignment of our attitude with the Tao in a conscious apperception of the great harmony of the universe; the second, with the alignment of our actions in human society so that we take our place in this harmony. To put it another way, the Taoist element of Chinese spirituality speaks of the principles of the cosmic order and of what we should know about them, and the Confucian element speaks of the order of human society which best embodies the cosmic order. Taoism lends itself to retreat from the practical world and to contemplation, and in this sense certainly is a religion in the Western sense; Confucianism lends itself to a belief in solidarity with one's ancestors, and in this way is otherworldly and religious. Furthermore, historically both forms of Chinese spirituality have in practice been greatly affected by the ancient folk religion of China. This has populated Taoist practice with gods, goddesses, and other supernatural beings that are taken to be more or less literally real, and provide much ritual and symbolism, and it has, in a parallel way, divinized Confucius himself.

A further complication in understanding Chinese spirituality stems from the interrelations between Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist elements in it. The first two, which are indigenous, are complementary: that is to say, in the course of more than 2,000 years there have been times in China when the one or the other element predominated and even seemed to overwhelm the other, but the basic balance between the two has been, and still seems to be, too strong to allow either to be eliminated.

The other element, Buddhism, although from the outside, arrived in China during the formative era of Chinese history, over 2,000 years ago, and has played an integral part in the development of Chinese spirituality. Some aspects of the worldview of Buddhism, especially its awareness of human inability to see into the ultimate secrets of the universe and its non-institutional quality, were congenial to China. These accorded precisely with the Taoist views, and for at least 1,500 years there has been in China another seesaw, that of Buddhist and Taoist practices. It seems that factors of the politics of successive dynasties have propelled this seesaw, but in order to reach the Taoist heart of China a form of Buddhism which did not insist on reincarnation as the solution to the problem of human evil had to evolve. This was accomplished not by directly refuting belief in reincarnation, but by bypassing it as a useless question, and the form of Buddhism which best did this was Chan, which went on to become the Zen of Japan.

In the United States

In 1849 there were almost no Chinese in the United States, but the gold rush in California changed that quickly and dramatically. It is estimated that the early high tide of Chinese immigration was in 1852, when no fewer than 25,000 arrived in California. (Malcolm J. Rohrbough, Days of Gold, The California Gold Rush and the American Nation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, p. 228) Chinese continued to come, especially for building the railroads in the American West in the 1870s. Americans had little understanding of these people, almost all of whom were men who sought to send money back to their families in China and who kept to themselves. At that time few Americans of European descent had any notion whatsoever of South and East Asian spirituality, but the few who did knew that the Chinese were not Hindus, and so they had to be Buddhists. The fact is, however, that they were mainly Taoists.

Chinese fishermen's village
Chinese fishermen's village, Santa Cruz County, ca. 1880
From Santa Cruz Public Libraries' Photograph Collection.

Taoism was the religion of most of the early Chinese immigrants... The Taoist temple was a source of strength for early Chinese American pioneers. Worship was usually done individually, rather than in congregations. Respect for deities and departed relatives was shown by offerings of incense, accompanied by food and drink on special occasions. Paper offerings (in the form of money, clothing, etc.) were burned, since burning was viewed as a means of transmitting objects from the visible to the invisible world... Prayers were offered silently in the heart before the altar... Evidence suggests that most frontier Taoist temples were supervised by deacons rather than ordained priests. The Taoist temple was also a social center and a focal point for early Chinese American communities. The first and fifteenth days of the lunar month were days of worship, when people often met at the temple... The temple also provided some social services, such as lodging for travelers. ("Library of American Memory," subhead "The Chinese in California 1850-1925." in 2004)

Inspection of three postcards showing the interiors of early California Chinese temples (two of them explicitly called "Joss Houses") and one household shrine shows clearly a style that is not Buddhist. ( 2004) The postcard views are not of the Santa Cruz Chee Kong Tong Temple, but a photo of interior of this local temple manifests the same non-Buddhist appearance. (Lydon, Chinese Gold, p. 259)

It is also true that Chinese Buddhism was exported to the United States, but it takes careful examination to distinguish it from Taoism. There are, for instance, two well-established Chinese Buddhist temples and communities in San Francisco, the Buddha's Universal Church, (Melton, Encyclopedia *1288) and the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association. (Melton, Encyclopedia *1293) Neither of these, however, predates the 1920s. To confuse the issue, even now the Tin Hou Temple at 125 Waverly Pl., San Francisco is called Taoist on one list and Buddhist on another, and several San Francisco Chinese organizations are of both traditions, for example, Chi Sin Buddhist & Taoist Association and the Jeng Sen Buddhism & Taoism Association. ( 2004)

The Chinese immigrants to California were subjected to a massive movement of hatred and violence in the 1880s and even after that. The first federal Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, and it was renewed every 10 years until finally made permanent. Limits on the numbers of immigrants allowed from China were eased during World War II, in 1943, and after the war many non-communist Chinese were welcomed into the country. Some of these, particularly Taiwanese, brought Buddhism with them. (Mann, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, pp. 20-24 and 51. This work, however, seems uncritically to call all Chinese temples in the United States from the 1850s on Buddhist.)

Bibliography on Taoism and Confucianism

Center for Daoist Studies. Center for Daoist Studies. 2004.
This site contains abundant information on Taoism in general. 2004.
Academic research on Taoism.

Little, Stephen. Taoism and the Arts of China. Chicago: The Art Institute in association with the University of California Press, 2000.

Lydon, Sandy. Chinese Gold, The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region. Capitola, California: Capitola Book Company, 1985.
This is rich in details of Chinese culture and locations in Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

Mann, Gurinder Singh. Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. (advance, uncorrected reading copy used) / 2004.
A personal website that contains solid information on the philosophical aspects of Taoist thought.

Yu-lan, Fung. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. New York: The Free Press, 1948.

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