Is Buddhism Surviving America?
An interview with
editor of Tricycle magazine
by Amy Edelstein
It was one of the first warm days of spring, and the crab apple trees were in bloom all
along Riverside Drive. As I entered Manhattan and crossed the crowded and alive streets
of the West Village, I found myself wondering: Who
We met in the stairwell on the second floor outside of the
offices, the "smoking
annex," where she was perched on a step, finishing a business meeting with her publisher.
She shook my hand warmly, looking me straight in the eye. Twenty years my senior,
having begun her spiritual quest when I was just learning to walk, Helen Tworkov has
lived through many of the critical chapters of American Buddhist history. She was part of
the movement that cut the first trails to the East, the movement that made "karma,"
"nirvana" and "enlightenment" household words.
We first thought of interviewing Helen Tworkov for this issue of
because she, like
almost no one else, has had a bird's eye view of the evolution of the American Buddhist
world. The founder and editor of America's most widely circulated Buddhist review, she
has met, written about or practiced with many of the most influential Buddhist teachers of
our time, both Eastern and Western. But it was not only Tworkov's unique experience
that had piqued our interest. Four years ago
had published the bold Afterword to
the second edition of her book
, in which she had voiced vociferous
criticisms of the watering down of the goal of the Buddha's teachings in America. Her
astute insights regarding the assimilation of Buddhism in the West were provocative and
illuminating, and she obviously cared passionately about the enlightenment tradition and
When asked how she got involved with Buddhism, Helen Tworkov's eyes brightened; she
was still moved by the recollection of what it was that had compelled her to take such
unusual risks at such a young age. Agonized by the war in Vietnam and the failure of
American culture to provide meaningful answers, she, like others of her generation, had
turned toward Asia and Buddhism. In her view, this was a collective movement, a
movement for change, a movement to transform what was unacceptable in the society
and in the government and, as a logical corollary, a movement to eradicate the roots of
that which was unacceptable in themselves.
During this period, Tworkov came across D.T. Suzuki's writings on impermanence and
death. "It was so radically different from what my own culture provided," she explains.
"It didn't seem mystical or alien; it just seemed
. And you didn't have to be a rocket
scientist to get it!" So when she was twenty-two, just after John F. Kennedy was
assassinated, she headed for Japan, one of the first Westerners, and one of the first