Crowley’s Biographer and Buddhism’s Westward Wanderings

The Minnesota Star Tribune has published an interview with respected biographer of Aleister Crowley, Lawrence Sutin, who has written a book tracking “Buddhism’s westward wanderings”…

Then there are the subjects of his other biographies: the brilliant, possibly mentally ill science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who died in 1982, and English writer-occultist-hedonist Aleister Crowley, who was dubbed “the wickedest man in the world” in the early 1900s for his sexual adventurism and for creating his own religion. Or Sutin’s latest book, “All Is Change,” which tracks Buddhism’s influence on Western thought from ancient Greece to modern America, and which may be the most intriguing of all.

“Philip Dick and Aleister Crowley devoted themselves to seeking heterodox answers to the puzzles of the universe.”

http://www.startribune.com/614/story/635647-p2.html

Follower of faiths

Minnesota writer Lawrence Sutin’s new book tracks Buddhism’s westward wanderings.

Pamela Miller, Star Tribune

Lawrence Sutin has written about so many intriguing topics that it’s hard to decide what to ask him about first.

How are his parents, the romantic heroes of 1995’s “Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance”?

Alive and well in St. Paul, he says.

Then there are the subjects of his other biographies: the brilliant, possibly mentally ill science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who died in 1982, and English writer-occultist-hedonist Aleister Crowley, who was dubbed “the wickedest man in the world” in the early 1900s for his sexual adventurism and for creating his own religion. Or Sutin’s latest book, “All Is Change,” which tracks Buddhism’s influence on Western thought from ancient Greece to modern America, and which may be the most intriguing of all.

If none of those subjects grabs you, how about those Minnesota Twins?

Sutin, 54, of St. Louis Park, is a Hamline University professor and scholar both of ancient history and modern culture who can converse eloquently about any number of things, but he saves his happiest rhapsodies for the Twins. To hear him tell it, baseball is body poetry and Johan Santana an epic hero. “Baseball is a truly soulful game,” he said. “I write during the games.”

Do his subjects have anything in common other than having been composed to a baseball soundtrack?

Sure, he said: “Philip Dick and Aleister Crowley devoted themselves to seeking heterodox answers to the puzzles of the universe. The book about my parents was personal history, but there was a spiritual dimension to their survival. Buddhism, clearly, is a spiritual subject.

“I’m interested in how spiritual ideas develop, grow and are challenged,” he said. “I’m interested in how people find ways to live on this Earth in a meaningful way. All my books are about that, in some way.”

At first heft, “All Is Change” is daunting: a meticulously researched and footnoted tome about Buddhism’s footprints in the West with chapter names such as “Syncretism Along the Silk Road” and “From Hegel to Heidegger: The Embedding of Buddhism in Western Philosophy.” But Sutin, a gifted writer, presents history as a sweeping journey embedded with arresting side stories and memorable characters. The book is reasonably accessible to the workaday reader, especially when it enters the modern era and discusses Beat-Generation Buddhists, American Zen centers and the Dalai Lama’s celebrity status in the West.

What led Sutin, the secular Jewish son of Holocaust survivors, to write about Buddhism?

“I wanted to explore the nature of cultural exchange in a new way,” he said. Most previous examinations of Buddhism and the West focused on the 19th and 20th centuries, he said, but “there were two millennia of exchanges before that. … The Buddha knew of Greece, and Aristotle knew of the Buddha.”

In “this time of such unrest and violence among world religions,” he was intrigued, he said, by the “relatively peaceful history of Buddhism and its dialogue with the West.”

For two years, he did research, blissfully holing up in the “superb South Asian collection at the Ames Library at the University of Minnesota.

“I’m an avid reader of old, obscure texts,” he said. “I see the murky areas of the past as a thrilling invitation rather than as a chore.”

Buddhism first grabbed his imagination “in my teenage years, when I read Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha,’ ” he said. “That led to me poking into the original texts, which I’ve been doing for 40 years.”

He was struck by how powerful Buddhism’s influence is on American religion, art, literature and architecture, as well as by its pervasiveness in popular culture. “I’d hear the Twins’ third-base coach talk about karma and think, ‘How did this come to be so pervasive?’ ” he said.

“All Is Change” illuminates much more than Buddhism’s trek into the West, also exploring the eras and cultures it encountered, the people who embraced, ignored or fought it, and the philosophies and psychologies it mated with. “Any good subject is larger than the subject itself,” Sutin said.

He enriches his text with mini-biographies and anecdotes of Westerners whose fascination with Buddhism infused their work, which went on to influence still others. They include Hesse, Nikos Kazantzakis, Arnold Toynbee, Paul Tillich, Elaine Pagels, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Merton and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sutin’s interdisciplinary approach also guides his teaching. For example, he teaches a class called “Journeys, Trials, Triumphs: Western Paradigms of the Meaning of Life,” whose required reading includes Homer’s “Odyssey,” the book of Job, Dante’s “Inferno” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”As a teacher, I like to ask big questions and encourage multiple perspectives,” he said.

He loves teaching, but his “truest passion” is writing, he said.

Sutin is “a model for how to juggle the writing life,” said Mary Rockcastle, dean of Hamline’s graduate school of liberal studies.

“He’s a working writer and full-time professor who never compromises his commitment to his students or his family. His research gets woven right back into the course work.”

Sutin describes himself as “addicted” to writing, adding that his idea of a glorious Saturday night is to be at home with his wife, Mab, and daughter, Sarah, 15, tapping away as the Twins play in the background.

Sutin’s knowledge of and interest in world religions is profound but dispassionate. He describes himself as “unaffiliated with any religion, but respectful of them all.”I don’t think it’s necessary to be connected to a religion to lead a compassionate, spiritual life,” he said.

As the son of Holocaust survivors, he grew up with “a strong sense that there can be a great deal of hatred involving religious beliefs,” he said.

Buddhism fascinates many Americans, Sutin said, “because it’s a spiritual path that is open to one’s own thoughts and experiences.”It’s less dogmatic than other faiths,” he said. “It does not demand faith in a particular revealed text or creator. It does, however, demand a lot from believers — compassion and patience are not simple things.”

What would he most like people to take away from “All Is Change”?

“I’d like them first to say that it was a good read and that they learned a lot from it,” he said. “Beyond that, I’d like them to realize that the spiritual history of humankind is very complex and that we find our way to spiritual meaning in different forms. That’s something to cherish rather than to rue.”

Pamela Miller

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