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Dharma transmission through poetry and prose
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.
“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.’”