Buddhism and Literature
Buddhism and Literature
Despite its origins in sixth century India, the religion of Buddhism took hold most strongly in China and Japan after it spread there during the Middle Ages. In general, Buddhism teaches that the phenomenal world is a realm of suffering that may only be transcended through meditation and contemplation. The influence of Buddhism and Buddhist ideas on literature has been enormous, especially in medieval east Asia, where Japanese Zen Buddhism—called Ch'an in China—originated.
Zen propounds the ideals of wholeness, harmony, antirationalism, and the dissolution of the self (called sunyata, "emptiness" or "egolessness") as a means of reaching a state of spiritual enlightenment, or satori. Among the earliest Ch'an inspired writers was the Chinese poet Wang Wei (701-761). In his landscape poetry scholars have observed a thorough detachment from temporal concerns and a gradual loss of the self into oneness with nature. The seventeenth century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho is largely responsible for the association of 17-syllable haiku verse with Zen Buddhism. In Basho's haiku, critics find brilliant and succinct statements on the nature of Zen enlightenment.
The modern era has witnessed the advent of Buddhist thought in the West, particularly in North America. In the nineteenth century, the American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau absorbed certain aspects of Buddhism into their philosophy—Emerson's Oversoul, for example, resembles somewhat the oneness that the Zen monk seeks to attain by eradicating the boundaries of the self and the other. The modernists also alighted upon certain aspects of Buddhism as part of their eclectic gathering of world myth and spiritualism. Analogies to the Buddhist quest for enlightenment have been observed by critics, for instance, in the poetry of W. B. Yeats and the writings of T. S. Eliot. A less intellectual concern with Buddhism at mid-century can be found in the work of the Beat poets, particularly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac's The Dharma Bums (1958) has done much to popularize the religion and its precepts in the west. In the contemporary era, poets and novelists such as Gary Snyder and Peter Matthiessen have furthered the modern conception of Buddhism in literary form. Meanwhile the American poet and translator Lucien Stryk has helped to strengthen the ties between Eastern and Western Buddhism by translating the Zen writings of the twentieth-century Japanese poet Takahashi Shinkichi for English-speaking audiences.
The Narrow Road to the Far North, and Selected Haiku (journal and poetry) 1980
Ten Foot Square Hut (autobiography) 1970
Di Prima, Diane
Selected Poems: 1956-1975 (poetry) 1975
Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (poetry) 1990
Forster, E. M.
A Passage to India (novel) 1924
Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness (lectures) 1974
Collected Poems 1947-1980 (poetry) 1985
Poetry of Han Shan: A Complete, Annotated Translation of Cold Mountain (poetry) 1990
Siddhartha (novel) 1922
Ikkyu and the Crazy Cloud Anthology: A Zen Poet of Medieval Japan (poetry) 1987
Crow with Noh Mouth: Ikkyu, 15th Century Zen Master (poetry) 1987
Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu (poetry) 1995
Dust Lingers (poetry) 1981
The Autumn Wind (poetry) 1984
Salvatores Dei: AskÂtikÂ [The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises] (nonfiction) 1927...
(The entire section is 332 words.)
SOURCE: "Poetry and Zen," in Encounter with Zen, Swallow Press Books, 1981, pp. 51-65.
[In the following essay, Stryk explores the nature, meanings, dominant moods, and other characteristics of Zen poetry.]
One spring day in 1912, the German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke had an extraordinary experience, which, based on the poet's account to her, the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe described in the following manner:
He wandered absent-minded, dreaming, through the undergrowth and maze of briars, and suddenly found himself next to a huge old olive tree which he had never noticed before.… The next thing he knew he was leaning back into the tree, standing on its gnarled roots, his head propped against the branches.… An odd sensation came over him so that he was fixed to the spot, breathless, his heart pounding. It was as though he were extended into another life, a long time before, and that everything that had ever been lived or loved or suffered here was coming to him, surrounding him, storming him, demanding to live again in him.… 'Time' ceased to exist; there was no distinction between what once was and now had come back, and the dark, formless present. The entire atmosphere seemed animated, seemed unearthly to him, thrusting in on him incessantly. And yet this unknown life was close...
(The entire section is 50514 words.)
R. H. Blyth
SOURCE: "What is Zen?" in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Hokuseido Press, 1942, pp. 1-24.
[In the following essay, Blyth endeavors to find a definition of Zen by providing examples of the philosophy from English literature.]
Consider the lives of birds and fishes. Fish never weary of the water; but you do not know the true mind of a fish, for you are not a fish. Birds never tire of the woods; but you do not know their real spirit, for you are not a bird. It is just the same with the religious, the poetical life: if you do not live it, you know nothing about it.…
[Zen] is the real religious, poetical life. But, as Mrs. Browning says in Aurora Leigh,
The cygnet finds the water, but the man Is born in ignorance of his element.
Dôgen, (1200-1253) founder of the Sôtô Sect of Zen in Japan, expresses this more poetically:
Wanders here and there
Leaving no trace,
Yet her path
She never forgets.
Zen, though far from indefinite, is by definition indefinable, because it is the active principle of life itself.
The sun passeth through pollutions and itself remains as pure as before,...
(The entire section is 48636 words.)
Kamens, Edward. The Buddhist Poetry of the Great Kamo Priestess: Daisaiin Senshi and 'Hosshin Wakashñ. ' Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, 1990, 170 p.
Offers Buddhist readings of the poetry of Daisaiin Senshi, a Japanese writer of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.
Master Sheng-yen. The Poetry of Enlightenment: Poems by Ancient Ch'an Masters. Elmhurst, N. Y.: Dharma Drum Publications, 1987, 103 p.
Translated collection of Chinese Buddhist poems designed "to describe the ineffable experience of Ch'an" (Chinese Zen).
Pollack, David, ed. Zen Poems of the Five Mountains. Decatur, GA: Scholars Press, 1985, 166 p.
Anthology of medieval Japanese Zen poetry.
Stryk, Lucien and Ikemoto Takashi, trans. Zen: Poems, Prayers, Sermons, Anecdotes, Interviews. Second Edition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981, 160 p.
Includes translations of Zen Buddhist poems of enlightenment and interviews with the Masters of Yamaguchi.
Tonkinson, Carole, ed. Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995, 387 p.
Anthology of writings by and about beat generation authors whose works in some way relate to Buddhism.
Ury, Marian. Poems of the Five Mountains:...
(The entire section is 912 words.)