A Los Angeles Times Bestseller
“Raises timely and important questions about what religious freedom in America truly means.”
“A must-read for anyone interested in the implacable quest for civil liberties, social and racial justice, religious freedom, and American belonging.”
On December 7, 1941, as the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, the first person detained was the leader of the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist sect in Hawai‘i. Nearly all Japanese Americans were subject to accusations of disloyalty, but Buddhists aroused particular suspicion. From the White House to the local town council, many believed that Buddhism was incompatible with American values. Intelligence agencies targeted the Buddhist community, and Buddhist priests were deemed a threat to national security.
In this pathbreaking account, based on personal accounts and extensive research in untapped archives, Duncan Ryūken Williams reveals how, even as they were stripped of their homes and imprisoned in camps, Japanese American Buddhists launched one of the most inspiring defenses of religious freedom in our nation’s history, insisting that they could be both Buddhist and American.
“A searingly instructive story…from which all Americans might learn.”
“Williams’ moving account shows how Japanese Americans transformed Buddhism into an American religion, and, through that struggle, changed the United States for the better.”
—Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer
“Reading this book, one cannot help but think of the current racial and religious tensions that have gripped this nation—and shudder.”
—Reza Aslan, author of Zealot
John S. Strong unravels the storm of influences shaping the received narratives of two iconic sacred objects.
Bodily relics such as hairs, teeth, fingernails, pieces of bone—supposedly from the Buddha himself—have long served as objects of veneration for many Buddhists. Unsurprisingly, when Western colonial powers subjugated populations in South Asia, they used, manipulated, redefined, and even destroyed these objects in an effort to exert control.
In The Buddha's Tooth, John S. Strong examines Western stories, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, surrounding two significant Sri Lankan sacred objects, in order to illuminate and concretize colonial attitude towards Asian religions. First, he analyzes a tale about the Portuguese capture of a tooth identified as a relic of the Buddha in the mid-sixteenth century and its subsequent public destruction in Goa. Second, he switches gears to look at the nineteenth century saga of British dealings with another tooth relic of the Buddha—the famous Daḷadā enshrined in a temple in Kandy—from 1815 when it was taken over by English forces to 1954 when it was visited by Queen Elizabeth II. As Strong reveals, the stories of both the Portuguese Tooth and the Kandyan Tooth reflect nascent and developing Western understandings of Buddhism, realizations of the cosmopolitan nature of the tooth, and tensions between secular and religious interests.
The 547 Buddhist jatakas, or verse parables, recount the Buddha’s lives in previous incarnations. In his penultimate and most famous incarnation, he appears as the Prince Vessantara, perfecting the virtue of generosity by giving away all his possessions, his wife, and his children to the beggar Jujaka. Taking an anthropological approach to this two-thousand-year-old morality tale, Katherine A. Bowie highlights significant local variations in its interpretations and public performances across three regions of Thailand over 150 years.
The Vessantara Jataka has served both monastic and royal interests, encouraging parents to give their sons to religious orders and intimating that kings are future Buddhas. But, as Bowie shows, characterizations of the beggar Jujaka in various regions and eras have also brought ribald humor and sly antiroyalist themes to the story. Historically, these subversive performances appealed to popular audiences even as they worried the conservative Bangkok court. The monarchy sporadically sought to suppress the comedic recitations. As Thailand has changed from a feudal to a capitalist society, this famous story about giving away possessions is paradoxically being employed to promote tourism and wealth.