Features & Columns

Herman Vetterling and
the San Jose Trailer Park

On the trail—and trailer park—of one of America's great Swedenborgians,
San Jose's own Herman Vetterling
TRAILING THE MYSTIC: The trailer park on McLaughlin seems alive with the spirit of Herman Vetterling Photograph by Jessica Shirley-Donnelly

If one contemplates the San Jose condition through a polarity of native and exotic, then interesting street-level phenomena will occasionally manifest themselves on a higher plane. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but a recent coincidence proved that things are seldom as they seem. Stories exist beneath every rock and pebble of our landscape.

Five years ago, when I conjured up a travel guide to ignored interstices of San Jose, aptly titled Tour the Obscure, I did not know that behind the shattered topography of San Jose Trailer Park at 527 McLaughlin, there lurked a secret esoteric history of the most exotic sort.

For that story, I arbitrarily began the narrative at that street address. Since most people throughout San Jose seem unfamiliar with the rest of the city outside their own neighborhood, San Jose Trailer Park just seemed like an obscure domestic place to launch the tour.

But now, five years later, thanks to the phenomenal research of Paul Tutwiler, Ph.D., a retired Catholic priest in Santa Cruz who specializes in oddball spiritual histories of our local region, I have learned that this exact same address was the home of one Mr. Herman Vetterling from 1901 to 1927. And who was he? I hear you ask.

Vetterling was known in oddball esoteric circles by his pseudonym, Philangi Dasa, as he was the guy who published the first Buddhist periodical anywhere in the United States, The Buddhist Ray, during the 1880s, from his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

He also wrote the controversial 1887 book Swedenborg the Buddhist; or The Higher Swedenborgianism; Its Secrets; and Thibetan Origin. In that eclectic work, Vetterling put forth a dream dialog tracing the ideas of the influential 18th-century Swedish philosopher and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg all the way back to ancient Buddhist monks.

Right or wrong, that book, along with The Buddhist Ray, was Philangi Dasa's definitive output before he moved to 527 McLaughlin Ave. in San Jose, which was then just outside the city limits.

Tutwiler connected all the dots in an article he wrote a few years ago for the Swedenborgian House of Studies at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. With a drop-dead-gorgeous title—"Herman Vetterling, the Philosopher of San Jose; Philangi Dasa, the Buddhist of Santa Cruz"—the article elaborates on all phases of Vetterling's life and career, especially the time he spent as a physician and a farmer in San Jose.

Turns out Vetterling was also one of the folks who helped launch what evolved into the Humane Society Silicon Valley. The facts are not entirely clear, but according to his obituary, he tried to open an animal shelter in Willow Glen in 1928, but the natives put a stop to it. He then opened the shelter on Stevens Creek Road before resigning "because of differences over the terms of a gift of a $50,000." After he passed away in 1931, his caretaker remained at the same address, which was later listed as "San Jose Tourist Camp." I guess that was before trailer parks became common. Maybe that's how Team San Jose should market our city: build more tourist camps.

But while in San Jose, Vetterling eventually left his esoteric version of Buddhism and put the final decades-long touches on his magnum opus, a 1,500-page exploration of the Protestant mystic Jakob Boehme, aptly titled The Iluminate of Goerlitz or Jakob Boehme's (1575-1624) Life and Philosophy: A Comparative Study. Yes, he wrote most of this in San Jose, at 527 McLaughlin.

After ingesting Tutwiler's suburbia-shattering research on the life of Philangi Dasa, a.k.a. Herman Vetterling, I have a new appreciation for San Jose Trailer Park. When I chose that place to begin my tour of the obscure five years ago, I never knew there was a secret esoteric Swedenborgian Buddhist history beneath those environs.

Sometimes one feels a natural calling to investigate anything that is hidden, and this discovery was a revelation. Beneath the native lies the exotic.

According to natural law, one principle characterizing the San Jose condition is the law of polarity. Everything is a pair of opposites. All paradoxes of native San Jose and exotic San Jose shall be reconciled. From the darkest confines of suburbia at 527 McLaughlin, from the deepest mud, a lotus blooms.