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
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.”
Contributing editor Dan Zigmond is a writer and Soto Zen priest living in northern California. He teaches at Jikoji Zen Center, in Los Gatos.