Why the Buddha Touched the Earth by Tom Swiss, is a book trying to do a lot of things at once. It is a 101 class on Buddhism, with sections on the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and a quick lesson on meditation. There is a section on Buddhist ethics — Swiss is all in on vegetarianism (I am an omnivore, thank you very much) and a little more leery of the advice of celibate Buddhist monks on sexual matters. There is less on the Paganism 101 side, although he does tackle magic and ritual, which he sees as mainly psychological. He stays well within the humanistic point of view. The non-deists and outright atheists out there will find little to disagree with. Swiss gives us a wonderful critique of religions that look away from our world, and a sly dig at the strand of scientism that does the same.
All these parts of the books I’ve talked about so far take up about a third to a half of the book. The rest of the book is history. It is a history of the people, ideas and times of the coming of Buddhism to the West and the history of modern Paganism. I’ve read books on both these topics before. But seeing them side by side was a true revelation. They are intertwined in a way I had never seen before. The roots of both movements go back to many of the same people. Those roots are sunk in the same soil of the times and what people were looking for. Both are a critique, if you will, of the mainstream. Given the limited amount of space devoted to it (the book itself is not long) and the material he was covering, Swiss did a brilliant job covering both sides of this family tree.
Somewhere around the middle of the book, Swiss answers the question posed by the title, and more explicitly at the beginning of the book, “Is it possible to build a sort of religion that’s appropriate for an age of science and technology?” My only disappointment with the book was one of expectations. I thought it was going to be about how the author built that sort of religion for himself, a Frankenstein’s monster of Buddhism and Neo-Paganism stitched together in one man’s laboratory. Swiss suggests we have to go further to integrate the two than “a Kwan Yin mask for the Virgin Mary, the generic Goddess of the Romantics for Jehovah, the Shakyamuni Buddha instead of Jesus … and most especially, the Summerlands of the Pure Land instead of Heaven.” “[I]f that’s as far as it goes,” he write, “then I think something important is missing.”
At the end of the book, I still did not know what that Buddhist/Pagan mash up would look like any more than I did at the beginning. But this isn’t a book about Buddho-Paganism, as I thought it would be. This book makes the case that such a thing can and should be done. It gathers up all the strands you would need to begin such a project for yourself. But Swiss does not do the work for you. He doesn’t package it up neatly and hand it over. To build this 21st century religion, he says, will take “all the disciplines we’ve talked about: meditation, and ritual, and mindfulness, and critical thinking, and ethical behavior – and a robust sense of humor.” Why the Buddha Touched the Earth is a book that left me with questions, rather than pat answers. In the end, I appreciated that quite a bit.
The Reviewer: Ken Apple
My name is Ken Apple. I am fifty years old, I live in Puyallup Washington with my wife and youngest son. I attend the Tahoma UU congregation in Tacoma, WA. I have worked in book sales for almost twenty years, because I can’t imagine trying to sell anyone something else.
The Author: Tom Swiss
Tom Swiss describes his spiritual path as “Zen Pagan Taoist Atheist Discordian”, which usually baffles questioners enough to leave him alone. Over the past decade he has built a reputation as a lecturer on subjects spanning the gamut from acupressure to Zen and from self-defense to sexuality. He is an NCCAOM Diplomate in Asian Bodywork Therapy, a godan (fifth-degree black belt) in karate, a poet, a singer/songwriter, an amateur philosopher, and a professional computer geek. Tom has previously served as President of the Free Spirit Alliance. He is the author of “Why Buddha Touched the Earth” (Megalithica Books, 2013). Find out more about his wacky adventures at www.infamous.net.
I really loved this book. Besides all the fascinating history, I found Swiss’ explanations of both ritual and meditation to be cogent, concise, and helpful.