The Emergence Of Buddhist American Literature
John Whalen-Bridge and Gary
Storhoff, Eds.

Albany, N.Y: SUNY Press, 2009
255 pp.; $80.00 cloth


98rev_zigmondThe dharma sailed to our shores on many ships. It arrived in the hearts of our earliest immigrants from China, Japan, and the rest of Asia, and in the minds of the vagabond scholars of the vast British Empire. Yet from Transcendentalist writers like Emerson and Thoreau in the 1800s to the poets and novelists of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, literature has played a special role in transmitting Buddhism to America. It was largely poetry and fiction that opened the dharma to that first big wave of American converts in the 1960s and 1970s, a wave that in many respects we are still riding today.

Now that Buddhist practitioners in the West have such easy access to qualified teachers and countless volumes of their lectures and writings, it is easy to forget that in earlier generations many students were first exposed to Buddhism through novels like Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” and Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” rather than through dharma books like Suzuki Roshi’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” Popular literature was essential. As editors John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff note in “The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature”:

Without this literary amplification, it is doubtful that Buddhism would exist as it does in the United States today, a country of three hundred or so metropolitan areas, each of which has practicing Buddhist groups.

“The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature” is a collection of academic papers exploring the complex interplay of Buddhism and writing in this country. Each addresses a narrow theme, often focused on a single influential writer—John Giorno, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder among them. But many of the pieces manage to transcend their seemingly limited scope to make broader observations on the relationship of literature and Buddhist practice. In his fascinating account of Gary Snyder’s translations of Han Shan’s “Cold Mountain” poems, for example, Yuemin He explores the differences between Gary Snyder’s Han Shan and the Han Shan experienced by Chinese readers. Snyder portrayed Han Shan as the “quintessence of Chinese Zen Buddhism,” according to He, and his choices as a translator changed the original poems. Yuemin He argues that American literary Buddhism “is not an unconditioned transmission; it is also to some degree a construction.”

A recurring theme in the book is the connection between the practice of writing and Buddhist practice, particularly sitting meditation. The poet and Zen teacher Norman Fischer is quoted as saying that both “meditation and poetry are ways of being honest with ourselves”—a particularly inspired approach to connecting the two practices. In discussing the work of Philip Whalen, Jane Falk, another poet and teacher from the Zen tradition, suggests that “poetry does not get written during meditation practice, but from a state of mind which develops from meditation.” In an extended interview, the author Maxine Hong Kingston takes these ideas one step further, asserting, “I have thought of writing itself as meditation because one is sitting alone in a posture of receptivity with instruments of reception right there in front of you.”

Other writers address how literature can actually embody and transmit Buddhist practice, rather than result from it. In a beautiful and insightful essay on the poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman and the Vajrayana teachings of Chögyam Trungpa—provocatively titled “The American Poetic Diamond Vehicle”—the poet and scholar Jane Augustine concludes that “the crazy wisdom of the poetry of Ginsberg and Waldman is a music that keeps people sane on the dancing ground of experience.” This very sanity, she argues, “is the ultimate ‘diamond vehicle.’”

The Emergence Of Buddhist American Literature
John Whalen-Bridge and Gary
Storhoff, Eds.

Albany, N.Y: SUNY Press, 2009
255 pp.; $80.00 cloth


Inevitably, the question of what qualifies as “Buddhist writing” or a “Buddhist writer” also emerges frequently. “Is this a biographical question, one having to do with conversion experience or self-description?” Or should we “look at the literature in a behavioral way” and ask whether the works in question “produce greater mindfulness”? The most thorough response is given by the poet Michael Heller, who concludes:

Art influenced by Buddhist practice— perhaps better to say by a practitioner— would be a mindful art, an art probing reality, most importantly, an art in honest relation to its maker and perhaps even to its audience. I don’t think we can find a formula for this, but rather we can imagine that [any] state of mind achieved in practice is entwined around or shines forth in one’s work.

As a collection of very distinct papers by different authors, “The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature” is a little uneven. The focus on the Beats seems disproportionate— two of eleven entries are on Gary Snyder alone—leaving less room for previous eras and more contemporary writers. Also, poetry dominates the discussion, with novelists often getting short shrift. (J. D. Salinger is cited in the introduction as one of “the most famous Buddhist popularizers of the 1950s” but is never mentioned again.) In a few places, academic jargon clouds otherwise interesting observations. One of the papers on Gary Snyder will lose some readers early on with its talk of “dialogic engagement” (i.e., conversation) and “textual performances” (poems). Thankfully, most of the papers are written in more accessible prose.

Those looking for a historical account of the trends discussed in these works would do well to explore Rick Fields’s inestimable “How the Swans Came to the Lake” (Shambhala, 1992), which covers the Beats (and the Transcendentalists) quite thoroughly. Readers who want to sample Western Buddhist literature for themselves would do well to delve into either of the two Buddhist fiction anthologies from Wisdom Publications (“Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree” and “You Are Not Here”) or Wisdom’s 2005 collection of North American Buddhist poetry.

In the end, “The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature” is a thought-provoking analysis of the myriad ways American literature has contributed to our Buddhist practice and vice versa. While clearly aimed at academics, there is much here to nourish a lay reader as well. Many may even agree with Maxine Hong Kingston’s pronouncement: “I am certain that writers can transmit the dharma, and that by reading, one can become an enlightened being.”

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