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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
79 WINTER 2 01 1 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 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 prin- ciples 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 litera- ture, 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 Contem- porary 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-bear- ers 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 queru- lous relationship with literary criticism and theory (note the cranky tone that occasionally surfaces in the writer inter- views 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-struc- turalist, 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 nonscriptural transmission. Still, some of our Zen ancestors, like Dogen Zenji, had a more inclusive take on the mat- ter of language. Dogen, an incorrigible writer himself and founder of the Soto lineage, agreed that language was indeed a prison of delusion, but he maintained that we could only escape the thrall of language through language itself. So, as a student in Dogen’s lineage who is hopelessly enthralled, I approached this collection with a certain expectation, if not for enlightenment, at least for an endorsement of my writing habit. Writing as Enlightenment: Buddhist American Literature into the Twenty- first 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 Understand- ing Charles Johnson.) Along with the first two volumes, Emergence of Bud- dhist American Literature, and Ameri- can 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 intro- duction and positioning of Buddhism within the North American cultural con- text. “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 Reviews not a practice of radical cognitive dis- sonance? 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 discus- sion 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 par- ticularly appreciated this use of a Bud- dhist 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 Bud- dhist 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, “Speak- ing 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 Con- ference with Johnson and Maxine Hong Kingston; and the third is a series of five short, sometimes interesting but oddly superficial interviews with poets affili- ated with the Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The Naropa interviews were conducted by Whalen-Bridge, who kept his focus