The Emergence Of Buddhist American Literature
John Whalen-Bridge and Gary
Albany, N.Y: SUNY Press, 2009
255 pp.; $80.00 cloth
The 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.
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