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Denison Journal of Religion

Abstract

This essay explores the undeniable influence Zen Buddhism has had on American poets and poetry of recent years. The poets who are often recognized for the influence of Buddhism in their work are, however, frequently only white men. Despite this, a new emphasis on social issues and human rights is coming to the forefront in Buddhism. This influence is becoming so strong in some circles that many are claiming it is a new form of Buddhism, socially engaged Buddhism. Will this incarnation of Buddhism begin to influence American poetry to create an engaged poetry that is inherently about social change? This form of Buddhism mirrors the art of writing in fundamental ways. First, the engaged Buddhist must enact change in the wider world by first enacting it within their self. So too the poet writes about the wider world by first understanding the self as taking part in constructing that world. Both demand a rippling self-consciousness. Witnessing is also particularly important for socially engaged Buddhists who understand it as a way to draw attention to a moment while also uniting all people in all moments. This process also resonates with poets who, in the act of writing, must confront themselves, and their own act of witnessing. Buddhism proposes the notion that everything is connected at its deepest level. Mindfulness of this reality is necessary to engage socially in the world, but it is also of the utmost importance to unite people and grow in the realization of our reliance on each other. Despite these many similarities, American Buddhist poetry has remained uninvolved in the political and social situations of the day. Davis argues that bringing an awareness of connection to American poetry would create a vital voice for social and human rights.

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