Buddhism and Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.