Writing as Enlightenment:
Buddhist American Literature Into the Twenty-First Century
Edited by John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff
SUNY Press, 2011
$29.95; 207 pages (paperback)
Reviewed by Ruth Ozeki
The title attracted me: Writing as Enlightenment. An interesting proposition, which begs the question: Is it?
Is writing a form of enlightenment? A means to it? An expression of it? A path? A practice, a realization, or both? As a novelist and a novice Zen priest, these questions concern me. They are both pressing and practical, and I was eager to read this book to find out the answers.
Writing as Enlightenment: Buddhist American Literature into the Twentyfirst Century, edited by John Whalen- Bridge and Gary Storhoff, is the third of a three-volume series on Buddhism and American culture published by SUNY Press. (Whalen-Bridge is an associate professor of English at the National University of Singapore and a Norman Mailer scholar. Storhoff is an associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut and author of Understanding Charles Johnson.) Along with the first two volumes, Emergence of Buddhist American Literature, and American Buddhism as a Way of Life, the series is, in the words of the editors, “an important interdisciplinary milestone” and “the first edited collection on the comprehensive topic of Buddhism in the expressive arts and living styles in the United States.”
Writing as Enlightenment is divided into three parts. The first, “Widening the Stream: Literature as Transmission,” consists of two essays about the introduction and positioning of Buddhism within the North American cultural context. “The Transmission of Zen as Dual Discourse” by Jane Falk posits that the decision made by Rinzai priest Shaku Soen and Okakura Kakuzo, author of The Book of Tea, to emphasize the aesthetic over the religious aspects of Zen in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, set a precedent which has persisted in Zen-as-lifestyle books and advertising copy today, and which might also explain how Buddhist principles have come to infuse and inspire so much contemporary writing and thought. “Black American Buddhism: History and Representation” by Linda Furgerson Selzer focuses more on the history of African American dharma than its representation through its literature, but it is nevertheless a fascinating portrait of engaged Buddhism, the civil rights movement, and the writers who advocated for social and political reform through their work.
The second part of the book, “The New Lamp: Buddhism and Contemporary Writers,” contains three papers which examine Buddhism’s aesthetic principles in the work of Gary Snyder, Jackson Mac Low, and Don DeLillo, who serve as contemporary lamp-bearers representing Buddhism in American literature.
I need to reiterate here that I am a writer, not a scholar, so I found the essays in this section challenging and somewhat perplexing. Writers often have a querulous relationship with literary criticism and theory (note the cranky tone that occasionally surfaces in the writer interviews in the third part of the book). But I’ve always enjoyed a good exegesis, the practice of which makes sense to me coming out of structuralist, post-structuralist, Marxist, Freudian, feminist, or eco-critical contexts. Here, however, the granular explication of meter and syntax in a line of poetry pressed into service to support the critic’s hypothesis about a poet’s dharmic intent seems out of place. Reading it, I found myself suffering from a kind of cognitive dissonance.
Clearly, this is my problem, and some might say that cognitive dissonance is exactly the point. What is koan study if not a practice of radical cognitive dissonance? In spite of my jangled brain, I did enjoy Allan Johnston’s discussion of Synder’s conception of “real work” as a comprehensive and all-inclusive praxis. And Jonathan Stalling’s discussion of ego and chance in Mac Low’s poetry juxtaposed nicely with Storhoff’s discussion of the characters in DeLillo’s Libra and their relation to Buddhist notions of selfhood. In the latter, I particularly appreciated this use of a Buddhist literary lens to examine the work of an author who does not self-identify as Buddhist. This seems very important in terms of developing Buddhist literary scholarship as a field of study.
To be fair, the editors make it clear in the introduction that Writing as Enlightenment is a collection meant to “re-engage literary scholars” and pick up where the first volume of the series left off. It is not really intended for the general reader, for perplexed novelists, or even for soteriologically inclined Buddhist practitioners, which is not to say that it won’t be of interest to some of us. It will. But primarily this is an academic publication that will be most useful to fellow scholars—college and university students and teachers who are working to define and shape the emerging field of Buddhist literary criticism.
The final part of the book, “Speaking as Enlightenment: Interviews With Buddhist Writers,” consists of three chapters. The first is a conversation with Snyder; the second is a transcript of a staged interview from the 2004 American Literature Association Conference with Johnson and Maxine Hong Kingston; and the third is a series of five short, sometimes interesting but oddly superficial interviews with poets affiliated with the Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The Naropa interviews were conducted by Whalen-Bridge, who kept his focus squarely on Naropa. His questions concentrated on the poets’ connection with the institution, and he frequently referred to the so-called “Poetry Wars” scandal there in 1975, which in his introduction he described as “colorful” but to me, by now, seems sordid and old. Each of the poets was asked to give a brief spiritual autobiography, but I was disappointed that they weren’t encouraged to talk in more depth about the interpenetration of their dharma practices and writing. Maybe that’s unreasonable of me. Perhaps Whalen- Bridge tried, and the poets, knowing that these are things that cannot be talked about and can only be practiced, wisely remained silent.
Writing as Enlightenment promises to take the field of Buddhist American literature into the twenty-first century, but does it?
In the first volume in the series, The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature, I expected to see multiple chapters focusing on works by Snyder, Kingston, and Johnson, along with Ernest Fenollosa, Philip Whalen, Kerouac, Anne Waldman, Allen Ginsberg, and John Giorno. The theme of that volume was emergence, and these are the venerable pioneers of Buddhist American literature. I was especially pleased to see a paper on the wonderful and lesserknown novel Monkey Bridge by Vietnamese law professor Lan Cao. The first volume featured a foreword by Kingston in addition to an interview with her, and an afterword by Johnson.
There’s quite a bit of overlap between the first and third volumes, and the writers and works discussed seem to fall within a fairly narrow range. Writing as Enlightenment again features Snyder, Kingston, and Johnson, and all but two of the writers discussed or interviewed were born in the early half of the 1900s. The great majority of the work was written in the midcentury, long before the turn of the millennium. In the context of Buddhist literature, which stretches back 2,500 years, this should not be a problem, and of course Buddhist American literature is still very young. It will take time for scholars to catch up, so perhaps I am just being impatient. Still, though I’m a fan of these writers, I would have liked to see a more inclusive representation of contemporary Buddhist writing, and even more important, a greater amount of critical analysis of non-Buddhist writers’ work as seen through a Buddhist lens.
Though the bandwidth is still narrow, the emerging field itself is wide, and this is a good thing. What comes to mind is the Buddhist adage: If you want to control a cow, give her a wide pasture. Buddhist American literary scholarship requires a wide cross-disciplinary field that can encompass history, race, gender, politics, philosophy, and cultural and religious studies, as well as literary criticism and theory. The essays in this book represent small patches of clover, a rock or a stone, bunches of sweet grass, and a flower or two, scattered widely about this broad and fertile field. And if Writing as Enlightenment did not provide the practical or spiritual answers I was hoping for, it certainly provoked many more questions, and in the end, isn’t that what any reader, or scholar, or writer, or dharma practitioner would hope for?
Back in 1240, Dogen Zenji bemoaned the pitiful fellows “who are unaware that discriminative thought is words and phrases and that words and phrases liberate discriminative thought!” Of course Dogen was talking about monastic koan study, and the faithful, dogged practice of thoroughly penetrating the words and phrases of the buddha-ancestors to achieve liberation. True. Though they are not monastics, perhaps the scholars and contributors to Writing as Enlightenment are engaged in a similar practice.
Ruth Ozeki is a Soto Zen priest, lecturer, and the author of All Over Creation and My Year of Meats. She divides her time between New York and British Columbia.