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Zen Buddhism and Contemporary North American Poetry

本文作者: 11年前 (2008-03-30)

51Zen Buddhism and ContemporaryNorth American Poet…

Zen Buddhism and Contemporary
North American Poetry
Perry D. Guevara
Hank Lazer, Ph.D.
Professor of English and Associate Provost
The re-emergence of Zen Buddhist poetry in contemporary
North American literature has been widespread and
prominent in the last two decades. This interest in and
adherence to Zen thought and practice has not been
seen since the Beat Generation, when poets brought
Buddhism to the forefront of their writings. However, today,
communities of poets, especially the postlanguage poets,
have combined the spirituality of Zen with the aesthetic
of poetry, resulting in innovative and experimental modes
of creative production. This study seeks to unravel this
recent overlap of the spiritual and the aesthetic in order
to identify current trends and possible future directions of
American poetry.
Poetry Today
Poetry has, has had, and always will have its critics, but critics today
have a specifi c and disturbing complaint: that poetry no longer has a place
in our pop culture, digital world. It is reserved for the academy and its overcaffeinated
scholars hunched over cluttered desks littered with dusty books.
The critics claim poetry has become too erudite and overly complicated for
the general population and, therefore, is obsolete. However, what these critics
have failed to realize is that poetry has merged and fused with contemporary
America. As long as the American people have interest in the genuine,
then poetry will persist. In an article published in the Boston Review, Hank
Lazer writes, “The critics have a point. Contemporary American poetry is
atomized, decentralized, and multi-faceted, and the range of poetries and
audiences is too varied to capture” (3).1 While the traditional notion of poetry
1 Lazer, Hank. “The Peopleʼs Poetry.” The Boston Review. 12 July 2006
The University of Alabama McNair Journal
exists in the hands of the academy, current American poetry has taken new
and exciting turns. Lazer contends, “Perhaps, contrary to the laments, we
are now living through a particularly rich time in American poetry – an era
of radically democratized poetry” (3). Expression through poetry today is
divided across the continent among several subgroups of poets who are
manipulating language in a variety of unique ways. It is democratized into
communities of artists who are not only using the written and spoken word
in traditional forms and structures but are also pushing language to new
limits in ways that have never been seen or heard before.
Today, poetry is re-invented through hybridity, the act of combining
and fusing poetic language with other media of expression. For example,
poetry is no longer restricted to the page but is now born out of new
media such as fi lm, html, fl ash, performance, and sound. Different groups
everywhere are experimenting with and enjoying language in new and
varied ways by blending artistic and even some non-artistic techniques,
styles, and methods, resulting in new modes of hybrid composition. This
interest in hybridity has opened the door to unbridled experimentalism.
In a recent article, Mark Wallace suggests that hybridity characterizes the
work of current postlanguage poets including Lazer, Leslie Scalapino,
Lyn Hejinian, and even Charles Bernstein, one of the major fi gures of the
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement. He suggests that hybridity is “the great
emphasis in postlanguage work on mixing traditions, crossing boundaries,
and critiquing notions of form as pure or singular” (10).2 The hybrid
forms and styles of the postlanguage poets are constantly evolving as they
combine varied forms, styles, media, and modes of thought. Moreover, a
hybrid overlap of the spiritual and the aesthetic has been especially notable
in the writings produced by the postlanguage poets, many of them having
a particular and passionate interest in Zen Buddhism. This adherence to
Zen thought represented in poetry has not been prominent since the Beat
Generation when writers like Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac brought
Buddhist perspectives to the forefront of their writings.
American Poets and Zen
It is a surprising phenomenon, really, the transpacifi c journey of Zen
Buddhism and its transplantation into American culture. During its stay in
America, Zen has had many faces; it has been serious, academic, spiritual,
2 Wallace, Mark. “Defi nitions in Process, Defi nitions as Process/Uneasy
Collaborations: Language and the Postlanguage Poetries.” Flashpoint Magazine.
15 June 2005 <http://www.fl ashpointmag.com/postlang.htm>
artistic, and even trendy. However, the true mystery lies in why American
artists and poets have been so receptive to Zen, a mode of spirituality,
thought, and practice from the other side of the world. It seems unusual that
Zen thought and practice would be so widely accepted in an increasingly
xenophobic American culture preoccupied with war in the Middle East and
ceaseless debates over immigration laws. Nevertheless, in such a critical
time for American art and poetry in the twenty-fi rst century, Zen has found
an unlikely home.
In 2005, Andrew Schelling published a concise yet complete anthology
called The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry. This
anthology includes an array of Buddhist poems written by living poets.3
Schelling writes that his anthology is “a gathering of contemporary, living
poets, and contains recent work, much of which appears in book format
here for the fi rst time” (xv)4. Some of the writers included are Scalapino,
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane DiPrima, Gary Snyder, Shin Yu Pai, Norman
Fischer, and Eliot Weinberger. Schelling comments on the anthologized
selections: “Some of it is the mature work of long-seasoned practitioners,
some of it the opening work of young writers just now publishing their
fi rst books” (xv).
Lazer, a practicing zennist, responded with “Refl ections on The Wisdom
Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry,” published in Talisman: A
Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. In this article, Lazer discusses
the nature of contemporary Buddhist poetry within the context of modernday
America. He argues that the essence of Buddhist poetry is nontotalizable,
meaning that it is unable to be bound by defi nition (9).5 Modern Buddhist
poetry resists the constraints of exactitude and defi nitiveness; it refuses
conclusiveness. The idea that Zen poetry resists defi nition coincides with
Wallaceʼs characterization of postlanguage poets. He believes that “many
postlanguage writers refuse to fi t singular and identifi able categories, in
some cases even switching forms and infl uences radically … a tendency
which makes them hard to anthologize, generalize, or even critique in more
than individual cases or small groups” (10).
3 With the exception of Philip Whalen whose works are published here
4 The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry. Ed. Andrew
Schelling. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005.
5 Lazer, Hank. “Refl ections on The Wisdom Anthology of North American
Buddhist Poetry.” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.
Vol. 32-33. Summer/Fall 2006.
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The University of Alabama McNair Journal
Zen Buddhism, as a mode of spirituality, is highly reliant on the
individual as it is primarily non-dogmatic. Enlightening states of mind
can be experienced in a multitude of ways; each journey is unique and
irreproducible. One person may experience an enlightening or intensifi ed
moment of awareness while meditating in a Buddhist cultural center while
another person may experience it while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffi c
looking at the big blue sky. While these experiences are different from one
another, one is not more valuable or legitimate than the other, since they
both lead to some higher level of consciousness, a particularized moment
of being. Such is the nontotalizable nature of Buddhist poetry; as a total
body of poetry, it cannot be captured by a single defi nition. It is vast and
variegated, and the beauty of Schellingʼs work lies in the variety of texts
which he provides. The reader is exposed to writing styled after traditional
Buddhist forms in addition to unconventional and experimental modes of
The Zen Aesthetic
Schelling articulates that “poetry actually carries you or transports
you” (3). “To where?” is the essential question. Lazer suggests that the
poetic process is a path. Poetry is a pathway which can lead to a deeper and
richer understanding. He says that “it is a realization of the oblique present
tense grace of the experience of poetic practice itself” (15). However, the
exact destination of this path is impossible to determine. It will be different
for each poet and each audience upon each reading. Even re-reading the
same poem will lead to a different place, a new thought, a new experience.
Each breath taken and every passing moment are new and irreproducible.
Buddhism and poetry share a homeomorphous relationship in that each of
them separately is amorphous, existing outside the borders of materiality
and regulation. Since there are no absolute rules, the door is open for almost
While Zen lends itself to experimentalism and a wide variety of
possibilities, it does not necessarily mean that “anything goes.” In a
collection of essays entitled This is it, Alan Watts criticizes those artists
who use Zen as an excuse “to justify the indiscriminate framing of simply
anything – blank canvases, totally silent music, torn up bits of paper … or
dense masses of mangled wire” (94).6 While he recognizes the value in “the
profound willingness to listen to or gaze upon anything at all that frees the
6 Watts, Alan. “Beat Zen, Square Zen.” This is it. New York: Vintage,
mind from fi xed perceptions of beauty,” he does not consider this type of
production to be art. Art requires skill and thought. Watts does, however,
point out that there are Zen artists who have learned to control accidents such
as in Japanese calligraphy and ceramics. He says, “According to Zen feeling
there is no precise rule … which can be formulated in words and taught
systemically. On the other hand, there is in all things a principle of order
… termed li” (96). In Chinese philosophy, li refers to the organic patterns
which occur in nature, and te, in Taoist philosophy, refers to the ability to
recognize and capture the unrestrained beauty of li. Watts describes it as
“the element of the miraculous which we feel both at the stars in heaven and
at our own ability to be conscious” (97). He argues that it is the possession
of te which distinguishes art from everything else.
The nontotalizable nature of Buddhism lends itself to open-mindedness
and open-endedness and, therefore, allows poets to experience te and
graceful acts of the mind resulting in creative outlets for and creative outputs
of poetic expression. In an interview with Jeffrey Side, Lazer points out,
“I think that at a fundamental level we are talking about ways of thinking
and living that remain open, that are not so much fi xated on answers as on
process. In the case of Buddhism, I suspect that it is its non-dogmatic (or
non-totalizable) nature that many American poets (particularly those of an
innovative or experimental affi nity) have found so appealing.”7 Postlanguage
poets, characterized by their refusal of fi nality, have embraced Eastern
notions such as those of Zen Buddhism (and some of Taoism) because these
forms of spirituality are open to process (wu-wei) and avoid absolutes.
An Off-Rhyme Relationship
However, while nontotalizability is important in discussing Zen
poetry, it does not explain the entire correlative nature between Zen and
contemporary North American poetics. A historical perspective is also
necessary. In April of 1987, about thirty poets and zennists met at Green
Gulch Zen Center north of San Francisco for a weekend of Zen and poetry.
The gathering was called “The Poetics of Emptiness: A Collaborative
Gathering of Poets who Meditate.” Among those in attendance were Gary
Snyder, Norman Fischer, Philip Whalen, Anne Waldman, Charles Bernstein,
Gail Sher, and Jane Hirshfi eld. Schelling writes about this event in the
preface to his anthology, “Over that weekend a collection of nine writers
– some of them urban based experimental writers, some representative of
7 Lazer, Hank. Interviewed by Jeffrey Side. The Argotist Online. 1 July
2006 <http://www.argotistonline.co.uk/Lazer%20interview.htm>
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rural or backwoods poetry styles, others with no particular affi liation to a
school or scene – meditated together, ate together, and spent the days and
evenings thinking and talking about Buddhist practice and the discipline of
writing Buddhist poems” (xiv). Many of the conversations and speeches that
occurred at Green Gulch were documented in an edition of Jimmy and Lucyʼs
House of “K” called “The Poetics of Emptiness.” These talks illustrate the
off-rhyme relationship of Zen and poetry, drawing on discipline, practice,
and mindfulness as congruous connections.
Writing poetry demands awareness, an intensifi ed level of consciousness
more transcendent than the average mode of the mind. It occurs in a moment,
the poetʼs mind conversing with the world through the pen and onto the
page. In her new book The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence, Leslie
Scalapino attempts to unravel the metaphysical and metatemporal aspects
of poetry in order to illustrate the connectedness of Zen and writing. She
writes, “the syntax and the structure duplicates the process of the readerʼs
own mind-phenomena … the nature of the present is only disjunctive,
the times occurring separately are at the same time” (4).8 She refers to “a
moment” as the conjunction and disjunction of past, present, and future
merging together but occurring separately simultaneously. Despite the
circuitous and convoluted wording, her argument is sensible in that she is
discussing metatemporality in terms of the Western linear approach to time.
One of Scalapinoʼs contemporaries, Norman Fischer, Zen priest and poet,
seems to arrive at the same conclusion but in a less tortuous manner in the
preface to his new volume of poetry I Was Blown Back. He writes, “I never
date my poems, imagining them I suppose to exist in some extra-temporal
zone, which is how it feels when I am writing them, as if the words were
coming from elsewhere, or at least nowhere.”9 Scalapino also argues a sort
of binary relationship between mindfulness and mindlessness which occurs
in writing, “The poetry is ventriloquism that … is actual conversation. … It
occurs by simply giving up oneʼs mind; yet one canʼt do that in order to write
it” (5-11). As she delves into the philosophy of experimental poetics, she
dances around Zen themes but rather complicates them beyond themselves.
The relationship between Zen and poetry is probably much simpler.
Scalapino asserts that writing requires one to give up oneʼs mind; Zen
would teach that it requires one not to give up his or her mind but to give
up his or her ego. According to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, one
must sacrifi ce the ego in order to reach nirvana. Buddhists would never
8 Scalapino, Leslie. The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence.
Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999.
9 Fischer, Norman. I Was Blown Back. San Diego: Singing Horse, 2005.
teach mindlessness. In fact, mindfulness and awareness are their primary
goals, and a method of practice to move towards this consciousness
is meditation. As any Buddhist would tell you, pure mindfulness and
awareness are diffi cult to achieve. People cycle in and out of intensifi ed
levels of consciousness, but the objective is to remain in a heightened state
of awareness as long as possible. Similar to this level of mindfulness is John
Keatsʼ theory of negative capability, “when a man is capable of being in
uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and
reason – … the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or
rather obliterates all consideration.”10 This amplifi ed state of mind requires
practice, very focused and concentrated practice. Letting go of oneʼs ego,
human intentions, and complications can allow the poem simply to occur,
to come into its own as an art form manifesting the bizarre yet ordinary
mindful phenomena. Fischer observes, “Like characters in a novel, or
intimate friends, my poems seem to have minds of their own, and to draw
me toward insights and intentions I would never have had if left to my
own devices.”
Good, high quality writing, like meditation, requires practice. An
aspiring writer cannot simply pump out a Pulitzer-worthy book without fi rst
refi ning his or her skill and studying the works of those who came before.
Gail Sher, a poet in attendance at Green Gulch, says, “The crucial word is
practice. For me writing was a practice with the same spirit of attending
periods of zazen. … the context in which my writing takes place is derived
from Zen practice” (5)11. In a sense (whether it be the Buddhist sense or not)
all poets meditate. Jane Hirshfi eld contends, “Poetry is zazen in language.
… Zazen and poetry are each deeply intimate paths, self becoming self,
true natureʼs expression” (5-6).12 Thus, practice serves as an essential link
between Zen and writing. However, it is not only practice to perfect a skill
or talent but practice to reach a purer and truer state of mind. Paul Reps and
Nyogen Senzaki write in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones that practice is “[t]he Zen
habit of self-searching through meditation to realize oneʼs true nature, with
disregard to formalism, with insistence on self-discipline” (18).13
Scalapino pays special attention to the conjunctive/disjunctive nature
of the “moment” in writing, when the poet transcribes the intangibles of the
10 Keats, John. Keatsʼ Negative Capability. 15 July 2006 < http://www.
11 Sher, Gail. Jimmy and Lucyʼs House of “K.” vol. 9. 1989.
12 Hirshfi eld, Jane. Jimmy and Lucyʼs House of “K.” vol. 9. 1989.
13 Reps, Paul and Nyogen Senzaki. Zen Flesh Zen Bones. Boston: Tuttle,
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mind into something material with ink on paper. Reps and Senzaki say, “Zen
is … an experience” (18). The writing experience occurs in the moment; a
sense of spontaneity prevails in that each thought, each phrase, each poem
that is written is new. It comes and then it goes as it leaves the mind and is
penned into language. Hirshfi eld suggests, “When we enter zazen everything
is new – no breath repeats. Each poem is new. Without judging, breath and
language arise and pass. … The true poems are effortless efforts, … but
how many hours of painful knees must live in them” (6).
Elegant twists of the mind unfold naturally during meditation and
the writing process, as if they simply happen spontaneously with the
natural order of the universe. Spontaneity becomes an essential element
in Zen poetry. That which is spontaneous arises from a natural inclination
or impulse independent of external constraints. Spontaneity all at once
intensifi es and relieves the tension between that which is unknown and
that which will transpire. It is the moment of happening. So much of the
Buddhist (and the writing) experience is dependent upon the moment and
that which occurs within the moment. In Chinese Taoist philosophy, this
would be called wu-wei. Yi-Ping Ong writes in her introduction to Lao Tzuʼs
Tao Te Ching that wu-wei is an “intuitive cooperation with the natural order,
which is perfect and harmonious when left to work without the interference
of ignorant human action” (xviii).14 In The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoffʼs
views of wu-wei are in concordance with Hirshfi eldʼs beliefs about zazen
and writing. Hoff suggests that wu-wei “evolves from the inner sensitivity
to the natural rhythm of things. … When we learn to work with our own
Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around us, we reach the
level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate
on the principle of minimal effort” (68-69).15 This is likely what Hirshfi eld
means by “effortless efforts.” In another speech at the Green Gulch event,
Gary Snyder stated, “Meditation is the art of deliberately staying open
so that myriad things can experience themselves. One of the ways that
phenomena ʻexperience themselvesʼ is in poetry” (12).16 Poetry becomes
the outlet for the unutterable, exquisite acts of the mind; it is the bridge
between language and abstraction.
14 Ong, Yi Ping. Introduction. Tao Te Ching. By Lao Tzu. Trans. Charles
Muller New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005.
15 Hoff, Benjamin. The Tao of Pooh. New York: Penguin, 1982.
16 Snyder, Gary. Jimmy and Lucyʼs House of “K.” vol. 9. 1989.
The Psychedelic Controversy
While focused practice of zazen is the traditional route to enlightenment,
some Zen practitioners believe that the use of certain psychedelic substances
can create mental states and mystical experiences similar to the effects that
meditation produces. In an essay titled “The New Alchemy,” Watts chronicles
his experiences with mescaline and lysergic acid diethylamide (also known
as LSD). He contends that “they induce states of mind remarkably similar
to cosmic consciousness” (128).17 While clearly a proponent of drug use
as a spiritual aid, he brings up several interesting counter-arguments which
challenge his stance. Watts points out that “mystical experience seems
altogether too easy when it simply comes out of a bottle” and that if drugs
produce enlightening states of mind, then “spiritual insight is after all only
a matter of body chemistry involving a total reduction of the spiritual to the
material” (128).17 However, in response, he asserts, “States akin to mystical
experience arise only in certain individuals and then often depend upon
considerable concentration and effort to use the change in consciousness
in certain ways” (129).
While Watts may be correct that only experienced practitioners can
harness the affected state of mind into a usable spiritual experience, there
seems to be a level of artifi ciality connected to altering the brainʼs natural
chemical state in order to approach the divine. This is not to say that drugs,
especially psychedelics, are not effective for other purposes whether
recreational, scientifi c, or artistic. Watts indicates that an important use
of hallucinogenic substances is “as an instrumental aid to the creative
artist, thinker, or scientist” (130). According to his accounts, these types
of drugs can give the sense of transcending time and materiality, very
much coinciding with the goals and the philosophy of Zen. However, more
conservative Zen practitioners may frown upon the lawless nature of using
drugs, even to achieve a spiritual end. The rejection of drug use in religious
practice is probably more political and moral than anything else.
Perhaps the spiritual revelation itself is not derived from the substance
but rather from its cultural significance. For example, Southwestern
American Indian tribes have used peyote in their traditional religious
practices for generations. Similarly, although classical Buddhists did not use
LSD, they did have their fair share of practices involving the use of natural
substances. In an essay/poem titled “Amrta: The Neuropharmacology of
Nirvana,” Dale Pendell discusses the use of consciousness-altering drugs
such as Psilocybe cubensis (also known as mushrooms) and Cannabis sativa
17 Watts, Alan. “The New Alchemy.” This is it. New York: Vintage, 1973.
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(also known as marijuana) in traditional Indian yogic practices. Substance
use has had a long and illustrious lineage in the Zen writing tradition. Li Po,
one of the most preeminent poets of the High Tʼang (along with Wang Wei
and Tu Fu), wrote some of his most famous pieces while intoxicated. David
Hinton states in his preface to The Selected Poems of Li Po that many of
the classical Chinese poets would drink “just enough so that the ego fades
and perception is clarifi ed” (xv).18 This habit continued all the way into the
heavy drug use and alcohol consumption of the Beat Generation and is still
showing its face in contemporary Zen practice and writing. Nevertheless, the
question remains whether or not psychedelics or other substances undermine
the validity of the spiritual experience. One thing is certain, and Pendell
says it best, “the salient feature of entheogens in American Buddhism at
present is memorial: that many Americans were attracted to Buddhism in
the fi rst place because of psychedelic revelations” (231).19
Trendy Zen
Pendellʼs analysis makes Zen seem more like a fad than a serious
spiritual path; however, and perhaps unfortunately, it is undeniable that
Buddhism has become a trendy hallmark of American society. Asian culture
is assimilating into American culture on a grand scale. Asian diets have
become especially trendy and yoga is taught at virtually every gym across
America. Most decent-sized cities have meditation centers, and Barnes and
Noble bookstores even have a section dedicated to Eastern spirituality. Asian
infl uence is permeating the West.
Even though popular America is in the process of Asianization, Zen has
been a cornerstone in the American counterculture for half a century. This
can be largely attributed to the writers and artists of the Beat Generation.
When the Beats haphazardly stumbled upon Buddhism and brought its
ideals to the forefront of their writings, little did they know that they were
profoundly impacting the American literary tradition. Schelling writes in
the preface to his anthology, “One canʼt overstate the impact Ginsberg
and Cage had on bringing Buddhist practice and thought into authentic
discussions of modern poetry. Their infl uence compelled not only poets but
academic critics and book reviewers to recognize Buddhist ideas as central
18 Hinton, David. Preface. The Selected Poems of Li Po. Trans. Hinton.
New York: New Directions, 1996.
19 Pendell, Dale. “The Neuropharmacology of Nirvana.” The Wisdom
Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry. Ed. Andrew Schelling. Boston:
Wisdom Publications, 2005.
to American poetry” (xiv). Nor can one forget Ginsbergʼs good friend Jack
Kerouac and his revolutionary impact on American Zen writing.
Ginsberg and Kerouac accidentally found themselves on the Zen path
after fortuitous mistakes in public libraries. Rick Fields describes their
experiences in How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of
Buddhism in America. According to Fields, Ginsberg happened upon a
book about Buddhism in the New York Public Library and felt a strong
connection with its teachings. From then onward, he pursued studies of
Eastern spirituality. Similarly, Kerouac fell in love with Zen in a public
library. He went to the library with the intention to read Thoreau, planning
to “cut out from civilization, and go back and live in the woods” after
writing his semi-autobiographical novel The Subterraneans, chronicling a
desperate love affair (Fields 210).20 As he read, he noticed that Thoreau was
constantly referencing Hindu philosophy. So he put down Thoreau to fi nd a
book on Hinduism but instead unexpectedly happened upon a book called
The Life of Buddha. With a newfound, shared interest in Buddhist thought,
Ginsberg and Kerouac corresponded by mail, writing back and forth about
what they were thinking and what they had learned. These writings can be
found in the collection Some of the Dharma.
In March of 1955, Ginsberg read his most famous poem, “Howl,” at the
Six Gallery in San Francisco. Here, he met Kenneth Rexroth, a self-taught
translator of Chinese and Japanese poetry, who introduced him to Gary
Snyder, a student at Berkeley and a forerunner in the backwoods, naturalistic
style of Zen poetry. In turn, Ginsberg introduced Kerouac to Snyder, and
a community of Zen poets and friends was born on the West Coast of
America. In the spring of 1956, Kerouac lived with Snyder in San Francisco
and documented their experiences together in the semi-fi ctional novel The
Dharma Bums, which popularized Zen, particularly with the American
bohemian counterculture. After the San Francisco Renaissance, Zen became
associated with underground artistic and intellectual communities.
Watts draws the distinction between this trendy form of Zen, which he
calls “Beat Zen,” and true Zen. The American counterculture associated
Zen with the rebellion against American conformity as demonstrated by the
Beats. Therefore, Zen became a license for them to exercise their disdain for
the political and social milieu of America, a confusion of spirituality with
politics, art, and society in which the true identity of Zen became distorted.
Watts says that “the Bohemian way of life … is … a symptom of creative
changes in manners and morals which at fi rst seem as reprehensible to
20 Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of
Buddhism in America. 3rd ed. Boston: Shambala Publications, 1992.
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conservatives as new forms in art” (99). He contends that this resulted in a
type of person like “the cool, fake-intellectual hipster searching for kicks,
name dropping bits of Zen and jazz jargon to justify a disaffi liation from
society which is in fact just ordinary, callous exploitation of other people”
(101). While many writers of this period were zennists, Zen necessitated
neither their separation from society nor their abandonment of convention.
Their rebellion was a genuine reaction to the stifl ing conformity of the
American 1950ʼs. Zen was a way in which they could turn inward and
spiritually deal with their beliefs and their distaste for American politics,
society, etc. “Beat Zen,” on the other hand, uses Zen to justify rebellion.
Watts also points out the problem of drug use among those who have
adhered to Zen as something that is trendy and fashionable. He says, “In these
circles the smoking of marijuana is … defi ance of square authority. … [I]t is
a matter of symbolic principle, as distinct from the enforcement of rational
law” (102). Once again, Zen becomes an excuse for the counterculture to
challenge authority, to demonstrate their separation from the rest of society.
When practiced in this manner, Zen is reduced from a mode of serious
spirituality to a selfi sh justifi cation for acting against the established moral,
social, political, and even religious conventions of the time. From “Beat
Zen” to the Punk/Rock movement to Hollywood, Americans have used
Buddhism to proclaim and emphasize their individuality. This is not to say
that Americans do not have a genuine interest in Zen, but their perception
of it may be obfuscated or slightly confused.
Poetry Tomorrow
Eastern tradition has had a profound influence in many areas of
American culture and has served as a spiritual and artistic outlet for zennists
and writers across the country. The philosophy of Zen theoretically and
aesthetically fi ts with contemporary poetics and its current tendency towards
hybridity and experimentalism. Zen poetry, a hybrid overlap of language and
spirituality, has proven to be a particularly rich and inspiring subgenre of
contemporary American poetry and will probably lead to new and exciting
creative outputs in the future. While the divided and democratized nature
of present day poetry may be troublesome to describe and categorize, the
beauty of the situation lies in the colorful variety of how poets today are
using language in creative ways which challenge tradition and expand
the possibilities for artistic production. The critics complain that poetry is
inaccessible, but Americaʼs poets are busy reinventing it through hybrid
innovation and making it available to the people. Poetry today is rich,
and poetry tomorrow will continue to be so as long as humanity is still in
search of the genuine heart of nature, the intangible, ever-elusive truth. For
American Buddhist poets and their readers, the journey is irreproducible.
The twists are unexpected. Each moment is an opportunity.
Other Works Consulted
Johnston, Alan. “Consumption, Addiction, Vision, Energy: Political
Economies and Utopian Visions in the Writing of the Beat
Generation.” College Literature. 2005. 103-126.
Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin, 1986.
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