The Buddha of the North: Swedenborg and Transpacific Zen

in Religion and the Arts
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Abstract

The Scandinavian scientist-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) has had a curious relationship to the history of how Western literature has responded to Buddhism. Since Honoré de Balzac’s claim in the 1830s that Swedenborg was “a Buddha of the north,” Swedenborg’s mystical teachings have been consistently aligned with Buddhism by authors on both sides of the pacific, from D. T. Suzuki to Philangi Dasa, the publisher of the first Buddhist journal in North America. This essay explores the different historical frames that allowed for this steady correlation, and argues that the rhetorical and aesthetic trope of “Swedenborg as Buddha” became a point of cultural translation, especially between Japanese Zen and twentieth-century Modernism. Swedenborg’s figuration in the earlier work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Blake, moreover, might begin to account for the peculiar ways those two Romantics have particularly affected modern Japanese literature. The transpacific flow of these ideas ultimately complicates the Orientalist critique that has read Western aesthetic contact with Buddhism as one of hegemonic misappropriation.

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