Eastern Religion and Philosophy in Literature

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American writers, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were strongly influenced by Asian and Indian texts. The influence of Asian and Indian thought on American literature was perhaps first manifested in the eighteenth century, when the rational philosophy of Confucius helped shape the thinking of the Framers of the...

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American writers, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were strongly influenced by Asian and Indian texts. The influence of Asian and Indian thought on American literature was perhaps first manifested in the eighteenth century, when the rational philosophy of Confucius helped shape the thinking of the Framers of the Constitution. As would often be the case, Eastern thought came by way of European thinkers, particularly the French philosophers of the Enlightenment, who were influential in the era’s neo-Confucianism. As was the case in later revivals of interest in Confucius, Western thinkers saw ideas in Confucius that paralleled their own prevalent Deistic emphasis on reason and benevolence. Thomas Jefferson’s writings, for example, demonstrate his wide reading of such philosophers, notably Voltaire, and fellow Deist Benjamin Franklin advocated reading Chinese literature in his essays for the American Philosophic Society.

Eastern influence is more direct in the works of authors who participated in four major literary movements or groups in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The first group is the New England Transcendentalists of the 1830’s and 1840’s and writers influenced by them in the American Romantic period that occurred in the three decades before the Civil War (1861-1865). The most notable Transcendentalists who read such Hindu works as the widely circulated Bhagavad Gita (first transcribed first or second centuries c.e.) and the works of Confucius (c. 551-c. 479 b.c.e.) in translation were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Allcott. Margaret Fuller, editor of the Transcendental journal The Dial, published Elizabeth Peabody’s translation of The Lotus Sutra as “The Teaching of Buddha” in 1844, the first known translation of a Buddhist text in America. These writers and thinkers integrated their reading of Eastern works with that of English, German, and Swedish philosophers, creating a synthesis of ideas that was not systematic but eclectic in its approaches. The entire intellectual and religious community of New England was influenced by Transcendentalist ideas, which fostered a popular vogue for Hindu and Chinese books. Poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, while not members of the Transcendentalist circle, became influenced both by their own occasional readings in Eastern writings and by Emerson’s widely influential use of Eastern thought in his philosophical essays. Far afield from this trend was novelist Herman Melville, who, nevertheless, writing from personal experiences, describes Hindu-influenced religious ceremonies in Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851).

In the twentieth century, two related poetry movements looked eastward for form, content, and freshness of thought. The first movement was the Imagist school of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and other poets. These poets were primarily interested in haiku and related Chinese and Japanese forms; these writers sought a new emphasis on images in poetic form. While these writers were less interested in the philosophy of Asian texts than the poetic structures that conveyed them, their work still retains much of the philosophy of Chinese and Japanese poets whose beliefs were inherent in the poetic forms they created.

After World War II, the Beat generation looked to Oriental forms and philosophy as a means to express ideas outside the then mainstream forms of poetry advocated by colleges and literary critics. Writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, in particular, called themselves Buddhists and actively used literature to convert Westerners to Buddhism. During the 1960’s and throughout later decades of the twentieth century, Eastern thought remained an important focus in American letters. The Beats remained an important link between cultures, and widespread interest in multiculturalism led to increased awareness among Asian American writers who were exploring the duality of East-West approaches to life and literature. After the interest of the Imagists such as Pound in Eastern letters, and after the popularity and cultural phenomena of Beat literature, a worldwide synthesis of poetic interests became a constant, with a circle of influence that involved writers on both sides of the Pacific. This synthesis resulted in an important school of writers exploring Old World-New World cultural conflicts. Chinese American writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, for example, wrote Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (1989), which became noted as a novel linking the Beat tradition with Chinese American identity.

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century into the first decade of the twentieth century, many American writers professed an interest in Chinese, Japanese, and Indian culture but were primarily exploiting racist stereotypes of Eastern cultures. These stereotypes were based on imaginative ideas of exotic foreigners and paralleled popular concepts of Native Americans. One example would be Bret Harte and Mark Twain’s play Ah Sin (1877), which represented popular, comic concepts of Chinese Americans rather than making an attempt to explore the culture of the Asian immigrant population. Later, in his 1897 Following the Equator, Twain described his tour of India and his reactions to Hindu religious practices. He claimed, with his typically acerbic skepticism, that Christianity could take no hold in India because Hindu miracles outweighed those in the Bible.

In 1893, the Chicago World’s Fair featured a pavilion on Eastern cultures, and speeches made during that event led to the first widespread interest in college programs addressing comparative literature. During this period, more Eastern religious texts became available, including James Legge’s widely read 1899 translation of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text listed as part of the Confucian canon. This work inspired a host of other translations of Eastern texts, which influenced several ensuing generations of American writers.

Writers not connected with the schools of Imagism or Beat literature in the twentieth century also found Eastern religious texts a spiritual and creative muse for their philosophical approaches to literature. In 1934, expatriate American novelist Henry Miller claimed an awakening through Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, a Westernized system based on Buddhist and Hindu principles. Miller later claimed Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (1888) was one of the ten greatest books ever written.

Poet Wallace Stevens, who kept a picture of Buddha in his study, was also profoundly influenced by the Eastern-infused essays of Emerson, and his letters reveal a special interest in the art of India and Sri Lanka. Poems such as “Owl’s Clover” (1935) incorporate the interconnected, natural Buddhist worldview into Stevens’ own perceptions.

The Romantics

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American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and his more pragmatic colleague, Henry David Thoreau, were keenly interested in Eastern philosophies, although they tended to see Hindu philosophy as interchangeable with Buddhism, a religion little known or understood in the nineteenth century. Emerson integrated his reading of Hindu epics into his influential essays, notably Nature (1836), which discusses Emerson’s mystical belief in an “Over-soul” that binds God and nature into one spiritual entity, a concept paralleling Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. Emerson was also taken with David Collie’s translation of Confucius, whose stoic recommendations for pursuing an honorable life merged with Emerson’s interest in self-reliance and personal discipline.

While Emerson’s interest in the East came slowly and was lifelong, Thoreau was quickly infatuated with the Hindu epics he borrowed from Emerson’s library but lost interest after the publication of his own significant works. In 1842, Thoreau contemplated writing an epic poem modeled on Hindu scriptures. His journal entries written in 1846 later developed into A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), which includes long contemplative extracts from Hindu scriptures. An 1849 journal entry praises Hindu seers who counseled vision beyond death. In 1850, Thoreau read an English translation of “Transmigrations of the Seven Brahmans,” an Indian parable of loss and restitution that influenced his notions of nature’s cycles. In a May 6, 1851, journal entry, Thoreau notes his continuing interest in both Hindu and Chinese texts. He refers to them repeatedly in his Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), particularly Confucius and the Indian epic poems the Bhagavad Gita, the fifth century c.e. “Harivansa,” and the Vedas, the Hindu texts detailing the myths surrounding the god Krishna. Thoreau used these Eastern scriptures as a counterpoint to Christian teachings he found lacking in spirituality, and throughout Walden he expresses values closely paralleling Daoist notions of living in the present moment, having an appreciation for simplicity, enjoying physical labor, and seeking spiritual immersion in natural settings and cycles.

While there is little direct evidence that Whitman read specific works by Eastern writers, there is clearly evidence in his work that he was interested in Eastern thinking. There are many parallels between his inclusive philosophy and the principles expressed in Hindu literature. Twentieth century Indian scholars became convinced that Whitman studied the Bhagavad Gita, because Leaves of Grass (1855), the title of his collected verse, reflects the teachings of Vedanta, and they note that “Song of Myself” is a virtual echo of the sayings of Krishna and Persian writers. For example, his “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” catalogs Eastern figures including Mandarins, Chinese fishermen, emperors, Confucius, and warriors from Tibet and China, along with representatives from European, Middle Eastern, Native American, and African backgrounds. He believed them all equally important in the human procession of history, and this belief is taught in Hindu and Buddhist religious texts.

Whitman also disavowed the body-soul hierarchy or duality of Western philosophy. For example, the Whitmanian idea of sharing atoms expressed in “Song of Myself” restates the Buddhist idea that distinctions between the self and the external world are illusions, that there is no separation between person and nature or between subject and object. Buddhist concepts also appear in “Twilight,” in which Whitman refers to death as “haze-nirvana . . . oblivion” and in “Old Ireland,” which addresses reincarnation. Hindu texts are evoked in “Passage to India,” in which Whitman asks, “Soundest below the Sanskrit and the Vedas?” This line indicates his interest in merging Eastern and Western cultures.

The Imagists

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In 1915, poet F. S. Flint said the Imagist school of poetry, which flourished between 1909 and 1918, came together out of a dissatisfaction with traditional English poetry that paralleled the group’s interests in the sharp, simple images of Japanese haiku. These interests were crucial in the work of the group’s leading figure, Ezra Pound, who was strongly influenced by the Japanese No play and haiku as well as Chinese ideograms. His Cathay (1915) is frequently cited as establishing the proper manner of rendering Chinese classic poetry into modern English using new cadences and diction, and his Cantos (1970) are filled with allusions to Eastern religions and mythology. Pound’s study of Chinese and Japanese literature clearly helped develop his early haiku-influenced verse into important innovations in poetic style, notably his extended line structure, which changed the face of English poetry.

Pound’s study also influenced fellow Imagists William Carlos Williams, John Gould Fletcher, H. D., and non-Imagists Carl Sandburg and T. S. Eliot. Editor and poet Amy Lowell listed the major tenets of Imagism in 1917, including the idea that poetry should not state a complete thought but should rather suggest one, an idea taken directly from Japanese philosophy. The Imagists also advocated that all subjects are of equal value, including the small, mundane matters of life, again, an ancient concept practiced by Chinese and Japanese poets. Imagists claimed that, like haiku, poetry should concentrate much meaning into few words in clear, vivid, and thought-provoking, memorable images, an idea reflected in numerous American poems, such as Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

This credo, merging aspects of Eastern and Western craftsmanship, influenced all subsequent notable American poets, particularly the work of post-World War II writers who looked to the Romantics, the Imagists, and Eastern thought as sources for both style and content.

The Beats

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In the first decade after World War II, American poets, influenced by Whitman, Thoreau, and the Imagists, looked to Eastern thought as more than a source of techniques and structures. A number looked to Buddhism as a religion; this influenced the form and message of their verse and fiction. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti believed this interest grew out of the West Coast’s proximity to Eastern countries, the Asian communities of San Francisco, the presence of Eastern-influenced figures such Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley on the West Coast, and the experiences of veterans in World War II. It is also true that many Buddhist texts became more available during this period, particularly the teachings of Zen master D. T. Suzuki, and that many members of the West Coast intellectual community knew at least one Asian language. One such important figure was poet Kenneth Rexroth, who had preceded the Beats in translating Chinese and Japanese texts. He introduced the New York Beat writers to West Coast authors Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, who shared an affinity for Buddhist texts. Rexroth is considered the father of the ensuing San Francisco Renaissance.

In turn, Beat writers became widely credited with bringing Eastern thought into popular culture, taking Asian literature beyond the domain of academics and translators. While key members of the group dived deeply into Buddhism, the movement also included writers such as William Everson and William Burroughs, who believed that Westerners could not fully understand a culture outside their own Christian tradition, and often urged their peers to reject dabbling in Buddhism. Burroughs specifically warned against reading Confucius. Still, on many levels, the Beat movement is often identified by its numerous Buddhist members, the major figures being Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Snyder. Others who became part of the expanding circle of influence, creating the San Francisco Renaissance, were Diane di Prima, Lew Welch, Anne Waldman, Michael McClure, Harold Norse, Joanne Kyger, Albert Sajo, Lemore Kandel, Will Peterson, and Bob Kaufman. Cumulatively, this group has been credited not only with opening up new avenues in literature but also with fostering a religious and spiritual dimension in American culture.

For 1940’s Columbia students Ginsberg and Kerouac, Buddhism was one aspect of their rebellion against mainstream white culture as they looked to African American, Native American, and Asian cultures for inspiration in an America that they felt was too materialistic and removed from spiritual values. Although he later renounced Buddhism, for most of his writing career Kerouac’s interest in Mahayana Buddhism—disavowing the intellectual wordsmanship of Zen— was profound and integral to his work. He first connected Buddhism to the Beat generation in his ecological Dharma Bums (1958), in which he expressed the expansionist Asian-Western fusion he believed would revolutionize Western thought.

Kerouac was steeped enough in Buddhism to work throughout 1955 on his Wake Up, a Buddhist “handbook for Western understanding of the ancient Law.” The work, first published in 1994, retells the first Buddhist myths designed explicitly to convert Westerners. In 1956, Kerouac wrote his most Buddhist-influenced works, Mexico City Blues (1959), Tristessa (1960), and Visions of Girrard (1963). The closing pages of his 1959 Dr. Sax paraphrase concepts Kerouac read in Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible (1932), a seminal influence on all Buddhist-oriented writers. Kerouac’s Desolation Angels (1965) also focuses on Buddhist themes.

In his verse, Kerouac addresses poems to Chinese leader and poet Mao Zedong in which Kerouac urges modern China to go back to classical poets such as Li Bo and Tao Yuan Ming for creative inspiration. He developed his Buddhist-influenced philosophy in Book of Dreams (1961) and The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1960), which shows how Kerouac’s interpretation of Buddhism supported his creative notion of spontaneity.

Poet Allen Ginsberg, who came to consider himself a “Buddhist Jew” after the prominence of his seminal work Howl (1956), also helped popularize the Beat generation. He became a major spokesman for Buddhism as an important aspect of his poetry and activist social philosophy. Ginsberg’s devotion to Eastern thought deepened during various tours of India and the Far East in the 1960’s, where he became interested in literary and musical religious forms, which he incorporated into his printed work and recordings of verse and songs. With poetic colleague Snyder, Ginsberg met the Dalai Lama, and it was Ginsberg who introduced the Hindu Hare Krishna chant to American popular culture in the mid-1960’s. He became an important icon in the counterculture movement, which eagerly embraced Eastern philosophies and religions, primarily from 1967 to 1969, when texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and I Ching reached their height of popularity in America and Britain.

California poet Gary Snyder, the author of Turtle Island (1974), which won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1975, became highly regarded as an American poet. He synthesized Asian and Native American philosophies. Snyder’s first experiences with Buddhism occurred in the late 1940’s and 1950’s at Reed College, where, with poet roommate Philip Whalen, the two became enamored of the Imagists, Zen Buddhism, Chinese culture, and haiku verse.

On many levels, Snyder and Whalen’s base in Buddhism ran deeper than that of Kerouac and other Beat devotees. After becoming a Buddhist monk in 1972, Whalen changed his name to the Buddhist Zenshin Ryufi, continuing to write poetry and teach Buddhism into the 1990’s.

Snyder, the more prolific of the two Reed alumni, spent years in Buddhist monasteries and walked miles of Japanese and Indian country roads visiting Buddhist shrines. Snyder’s literary synthesis began with his reading of Chinese and Indian vernacular texts as well as classic Sanskrit sources, which Snyder described in his Myths and Texts (1960) as part of the planetary heritage. He translated Japanese and Chinese poetry, lived in Buddhist communes in Japan, and married a Japanese woman. It was in Japan that Snyder became a mature poet, bringing to America Buddhist practices he attempted to implement in his daily life and social teachings.

Snyder’s work, as in the prose collection Earth House Hole (1969), is often clearly an attempt to make Buddhism accessible to ordinary Westerners, using simple imagery and eschewing academic allusions. This is demonstrated in his 1986 collection, Left Out in the Rain. Like no other poet, Snyder’s Buddhism is integral to his life and work, influenced by the psychology and philosophy of Zen (a fusion of Daoism and Buddhism), using Zen as source, inspiration, and subject matter of his verse and essays.

Post-Beat Eastern Influences

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In 1974, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics was established at the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist center in Boulder, Colorado. The institute, specifically founded to merge religion with modern poetry, became an influential center for post-Beat writers interested in East-West fusions of thought and art. Ginsberg has served as Director Emeritus, and instructors for courses and workshops have included Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, and other alumni of the San Francisco Renaissance. Other Beat writers continued the Buddhist tradition, including poet and publisher Ferlinghetti, whose 1994 “A Buddha in the Woodpile” is a poem addressing the Waco, Texas, tragedy surrounding the cult of David Koresh.

Other non-Beat writers also continued to look to Eastern themes, including Robert Pirsig, whose 1974 novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance uses Buddhist philosophy to give meaning to the author’s experiences on the road. Popular novelist Tom Robbins demonstrated his interest in Eastern thought throughout his fiction, notably his Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976) and Skinny Legs and All (1990) as well as his nonfiction studies, including Cults, Converts, and Charisma: The Sociology of New Religious Movements (1988) and, with Dick Anthony, In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America (1989). Also noted for his readings of Eastern text was poet and fiction writer Richard Brautigan. His most influential work, Trout Fishing in America (1969), included the gentle themes and tone he later developed in such works as Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel (1976) and Tokyo Montana Express (1980).

Asian American Literature

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Beginning in the 1970’s, Asian American literature, primarily the works of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean writers living in the United States, became accepted as a new tradition in mainstream American literature. Works such as Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976) and the writings of Shawn Wong, Hisaye Yamamoto, Wakako Yamauchi, and Mei Berssenbrugge explore Old World culture and values, immigrant history, race suffering, communal traditions, and what writer Frank Chin has called “neo-Confucianist ideology.” Traditional ideas of the East became transplanted to a new setting, the United States, especially the West Coast area. Women writers such as Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, Kim Ronyoung, Anzia Yezierska, and Jade Snow Wong examined the conflicts between Asian values and European American concepts, particularly on generational and gender lines. For these women writers, the stoicism and misogyny of Confucius led to male dominance in patriarchal, class-structured communities based on ancestor worship. Conflicts arose between ethnic and personal identity as feminist approaches to literature became a major issue in American thought, paralleling similar intellectual discussions in China.

In subsequent decades, American literary interests became dominated by writers from diverse backgrounds. Synthesis of various cultural heritages went from being something new and unusual to being something widespread and, in a sense, mandatory, as many Americans of diverse cultural backgrounds began to write of their experience and identity. Probably as a result of the revolutionary advances in communications and transportation of the twentieth century, synthesis became important in literature around the world, particularly among writers interested in fusions of East and West. For example, at a 1984 conference in Bejing, attended by Ginsberg and Kingston, Ginsberg observed that Chinese writers were enamored with Americans, hoping to interest American readers in new Chinese poetry. At the conference, Chinese poet Yuam Kejia claimed his primary influences were Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Ginsberg. This circle of synthesis inspired Ginsberg, who wrote a series of poems including “One Morning I Took a Walk in China” and “China Bronchins,” both poems echoing Snyder’s earlier Riprap (1959) and Earth House Hole poems set in Japan.

This productive event epitomized the 1980’s and 1990’s circle connecting cultures and traditions with such interesting results as college instructors teaching students of Chinese American literature the works of the Chinese poet Han Shan by way of Snyder’s translations. This synthesis of cultures has resulted in numerous anthologies of Eastern influenced writing, particularly poetry, and periodicals such as the Buddhist journal Tri-cycle, which publishes religious instruction and literature. Eastern philosophy’s importance in American writing has not diminished since its first appearance in the nineteenth century.


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Suggested Readings

Ames, Van Meter. Zen and American Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1982. Explores Eastern thought in American literature from the Colonial period through the nineteenth century.

Chari, V. K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964. Examines Whitman’s readings in Eastern religious texts and how they influenced his verse.

Ellwood, Robert S. Eastern Spirituality in America: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1987. A historical overview of Eastern religions’ growth in American intellectual and spiritual life. Contains writings of Eastern teachers who wrote in America.

Tonkinson, Carole. Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995. Overview and anthology of Buddhist-influenced writers, including the major Beat figures.

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