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Book Review: The Buddha And The Dream of America by James Hilgendorf

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For most Americans, Buddhism conjures exotic images of faraway lands, mysterious statues and monks in colorful robes. But with his excellent new book, James Hilgendorf proves Buddhism also reflects the American experience.

Tracing the emergence of Buddhism in America to the 1844 publication of a Henry David Thoreau essay, The Buddha And The Dream of America is a great read for all Americans, Buddhist or not. Although clearly rooted in Buddhist philosophy, Hilgendorf’s small-press paperback is at least as much a cultural commentary as it is a religious tract. Written from an often deeply personal perspective, Hilgendorf’s prose frequently reads more like poetry.

Take, for instance, the chapter, “The Problem With Death,” which begins with the declaration: “At the heart of the American Dream is the problem of death.” Hilgendorf profiles a typical young American woman: “nice-looking, quick to smile.” And, yet, as Hilgendorf writes, her life has been dominated by a fear of death.

Here in America, we are the people who have most avoided confronting the problem of death. We have covered up death with television and football games and running after money and cars and love and and an inconceivable list of things to distract us from this most basic issue.

Do you see your life in this passage?

At some point, nearly every American will find him or herself within Hilgendorf’s 145 pages. He has a knack in finding universal truths within everyday details.

He also offers hope:

When we awaken, here in America, then we will truly know who we are. Our heart is the universe, and it beats in everyone.

The good news is that one need not be a Buddhist, or even know more about Buddhism than what’s in Hilgendorf’s book, to benefit from his inspiration. More than that, though, one need not even be looking for any spiritual inspiration to gain from reading The Buddha And The Dream of America. You can just be someone who wants to better appreciate your life as an American.

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