Eastern Religion and Philosophy in Literature Analysis


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

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The Romantics

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

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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...

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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...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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.