Dharma Poetics:
Andrew Schelling’s Wisdom Anthology of
North American Buddhist Poetry

Reviewed by Jonathan Stalling

Andrew Schelling’s edited volume The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry is the third volume to feature collections of American Buddhist poetry in the last one and a half decades. In more ways than one, Schelling’s collection is a response to these previous anthologies. In 1991 Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich (with a preface by Gary Snyder) turned out an anthology entitled Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry [from now on Single Moon] which includes submissions from poets who are also practicing Buddhists. The resulting volume includes a truly interesting, if unequally varied collection, of prose and poetry speaking to the intersection of Buddhist practice and poetic production. While the volume helped presence the generally under-acknowledged importance of Buddhism in post WW2 American poetry and poetics by including a heterogeneous group of poets, and a truly engaging introductory essay by the editors, the volume soon became the center of public debate due to the total absence of Asian Americans. In his edited anthology of Asian American poetry, Walter K. Lew, writes:

    The 45 American poets whose essays and poetry on Buddhist practice comprise the anthology are all Caucasian, and the book only mentions Asians as distal teachers (ranging from Zen patriarchs to D.T. Suzuki), not as fellow members or poets of the sangha... When one considers the relative obscurity of some of the poets included in the book, one wonders how it was possible not to have known the Buddhistic poetry of such writers as [Lawson Fusao] Inada, Al Robles, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Alan Chong Lau, Patricia Ikeda, and Russell Leong.... [Gary] Snyder’s introduction deliberates the question—‘Poetry is democratic, Zen is elite. No! Zen is democratic, poetry is elite. Which is it?’ ... perhaps he should have also asked whether Zen and poetry, as reconfigured in American Orientalism, are racist.1

Given the fact that nearly 80 – 90% of American Buddhists are Asian Americans (although this statistic is in the general population not poetry communities), Lew’s charge appears to stand on particularly firm ground, yet the polemical tone of Lew’s critique helped engender a controversy in different poetry circles both through online discussions and in print. In chorus, Juliana Chang, Walter K. Lew, Tan Lin, Eileen Tabios, and John Yau reiterated Walter Lew’s critique of the anthology in an essay published in the Boston Review2 stating that the anthology “displaces Asian Americans from the practice of Buddhism.” These spilled over into online poetry communities when a scathing critique of the anthology written by Dean Brink, a doctoral candidate at the time in East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago (originally published on the Contemporary American Poetry List) was forwarded by Kent Johnson, one of the editors of Single Moon, to the Buffalo Poetics List. The heated exchanges over whether the editorial choices were “racist” and / or “orientalist” bled into discussions of the legitimacy of American Buddhist poetry and poetics. Brink wrote, “We need to turn the anthropological eye back on the non-Asian Americans who have convinced themselves that they are the superior, true Buddhist poets of the day. What is exposed by the anthology and the defense by its contributors, editors, and others is the extreme to which Orientalism is indeed a [sic] unacknowledged part of American poetry and poetics. It goes hand in hand with a rhetoric of sincerity and is always riddled with ‘bad consciousness’ born out of its blindness to the historical.” Brink continues, “when are we going to take to task this offensive mumbo jumbo of orientalists? Just because they defend themselves on religious terms doesn’t mean they aren’t contributing to a discourse that can be considered pernicious—elitist, racist, orientalist, simply narrow and self-serving.”3 To these charges, a chorus of American poets and critics came to the defense of the Single Moon editors and contributors, and launched a “counter offensive” on Lew, Brink, et al. Poetry great Armand Schwerner took pains to point out the need for closely examining individual cases as a way to avoid over-generalized arguments, and Eliot Weinberger saliently pointed out that Buddhism is an evangelistic religion and its incorporation into American poetry and poetics cannot be understood through the lens of cultural appropriations but as a testimony to the success of Japanese missionary activity in the US and Japan.

Lastly, the Asian American poet Hoa Nguyen added her voice to the Single Moon “camp,” and herein lies one of the clear indications of the Wisdom anthology’s close connection to its predecessors: both Eliot Weinberger and Hoa Nguyen’s work feature prominently in both Schelling’s introduction and the volume itself. In the editor’s introduction to Hoa’s work, she writes, “My mother was raised Buddhist but was a non practicing adult… I think of myself as Buddhist at least in thought / life approach but don’t feel I can claim myself as a Buddhist since I have no formal sitting practice” (183). This is an interesting admission because it speaks to specific religious and sociological differences between Buddhism as it is experienced in Asian American and convert practice communities. For many Asian American Buddhist communities, Buddhism is a cultural, social, and religious system that lays stress on traditions, connections to the past (and to family), and the maintenance of a church community. This is a different way of living Buddhism than that experienced by many Buddhist converts in America who stress not liturgy and community as much as individual growth through meditation (whether zazen or “insight meditation,” etc.) and is usually a conscious break with their cultural / religious traditions. Hoa’s equation of authentic “Buddhism” with “formal sitting” reveals a heavily convert-oriented view of Buddhist practice authenticated by non-traditional criteria. And to be certain, this is partly what Walter Lew and Brink et al. were trying to get at by way of their critique of Johnson’s anthology’s assumptions about the nature of Buddhist practice when deciding who qualifies as a Buddhist poet and who doesn’t.

The debate surrounding Asian American vs. convert Buddhist practice is already well developed in American Religious studies where sociologists and anthropologists are exploring and debating the differences between these often very different religious expressions. And while it is important to challenge the idea that “Buddhism” exists separate from culture (example: “Buddhism can be boiled down to “sitting” and / or a given sūtra), I am not sure the debate is terribly important to American poetry and poetics more generally. Schelling’s anthology does a fine job in presenting a multi-ethnic sampling of American Buddhist poetry from first generation immigrants like Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, and Hoa, to third-generation (sansei) Japanese poet Lawson Fusao Inada, to American born Chinese poet Shin Yu Pai. The questions that I think are more pressing for the study of American letters is not this tricky art of anthologizing, but the nearly nascent critical discourses circulating within discussions of Buddhism in American poetics. Outside of a few scholarly chapters here and there (see Michael Davidson’s San Francisco Renaissance and Charles Altieri’s Enlarging the Temple), Kent Johnson, Craig Palulenich, and later Schelling’s introductions offer a rare opportunity for American readers to explore these issues. While Schelling’s anthology is in many ways superior to Single Moon in terms of its ethnic inclusivity, it does not substantially further the introduction of the Single Moon. Schelling’s analysis, like Johnson and Paulenich’s before, largely takes form as an organizational framework within which he situates the varied Buddhist influences and expressions within the volume. The editors of the Single Moon organize the works largely through concepts of poetic voice and formal difficulty:  “In various instances, poems herein are centered in a speaking voice, exploring matters of emotion or recollection within ‘realist,’ narrative frames.” The editors point to the Buddhist emphasis on the “givenness and primacy of samsara” as a precedent for subjective lyric poets like Sam Hamill and Jane Hirshfield, while the more formally “difficult” poetry is tied to “Nagarjunian deconstruction of referential thought.” John Cage and Jackson Mac Low are placed in their own category under the sign of “chance operations” (xviii – xix). While short, the introduction of the Single Moon offers a strong, if cursory, means of thinking about the aesthetic, epistemological, and ontological transformations in American letters vis-à-vis Buddhism. Schelling’s own organizational scheme is a little more elaborate, but may not offer a more helpful entryway into the poetic concerns central to transpacific poetics. Schelling’s first category is for poetry that “following sutra language” foregrounds “flowers, gemstones, fur, leather, fragrances, clouds, and mountains shimmering with fruit-bearing trees, galaxies of crystal rainbows. And to conjure vast interrelated and inter-folded universes of nearly inconceivable dimensions.” Schelling cites Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsburg as well as Eliot Weinberger as poets in this tradition (although he pays homage to Kerouac’s Scripture of the Golden Eternity as perhaps its fullest realization of this mode in American letters). While helpful, this rubric may be more applicable to specific poems than the primary axis of the poetic praxis of these poets.

The next category is formed around the use of “sound-magic,” and Schelling offers an interesting if unusual reading of Leslie Scalapino’s poem “it’s go in quiet illumined grass land.” Connecting Scalapino’s work to Pureland’s mantra Om mani Padme Hum, Schelling attempts to show how her poem serves as a “focusing of the mind” (the etymology of the Sanskrit term mantra), but does so by way of a long anecdote about climbing a mountain and reciting the line to keep his footing. While his reading of the poem is not “wrong” in any totalizable sense, as a critical rubric, I think the editors of Single Moon’s decision to think of her work under the umbrella of Nāgārjuna’s subversion of referentiality is much closer to the spirit of her work in general (and coincides with her deep and sustained study of Nāgārjuna) than Pureland metaphysics (even if I think Schelling is right to focus on the way Scalapino’s may serve to “focus on the mind” or on the materiality of the mind more generally).

The next poet Schelling discusses under the sound-magic category is Harriet Mullen, another experimental poet. This time Schelling reads the repetition of “bitter labor” in Mullen’s “Xenophobic Nightmare in a Foreign Language,” as a tantric phrase like “PHAT” in Tibetan Buddhist discourses “meant to dislodge tightly held delusions from the practitioners mind.” Yet Schelling’s reading does not provide his readers with the source of the reference to “bitter labor” in Mullen’s poem, which is essentially a “found text” poem in which she translates the term “coolie” in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act into the Chinese “kuli 苦力” or “bitter labor.” The poem may initiate a second reading of “bitter labor” in a way similar to Schelling’s reading (PHAT), but the poem does this against / beyond its concrete historical significance. By replacing the racial epithet “coolie” which reduced Asian American immigrants to so-called “servile labor,” Mullen has re-written the text to be an exclusion of “bitter labor,” not a group of racialized laborers, which opens very different potential significations for the term kuli throughout its reiterations in the poem. Schelling’s abstraction of “bitter labor” to the second noble truth that life is suffering displaces the historical context of Mullen’s poem which would only strengthen Schelling’s reading of the poem’s potential Buddhist meanings. On a practical level, it is not entirely obvious where Mullen’s poem is taken from, so readers not already familiar with 19th century anti-Asian discourses will not make the connections, and, therefore, miss out on the radical inter-linguistic play and its significance with regard to Buddhist philosophy. While sound-magic is definitely a part of Anne Waldman’s work, who is mysteriously absent from the anthology, and say, Diane Di Prima’s, as well as Schelling’s own work, this rubric, in this instance anyhow, seems less helpful for engaging the formal energies at play in Scalapino’s and Mullen’s work.

Next Schelling situates a series of poems “Yes Yoko Ono” by Shin Yu Pai under the category of “mind-cracking paradoxes or illogical formulations of Zen koan literature.” Schelling then uses Pai’s poems as a bridge, by way of similitude, to Classical Chinese influences on American poetics. He gives us this poem of Pai’s:

      Sheep Piece

      Borrow a herd of sheep,
      one hundred in number or more
      spray paint their fleece
      with your favorite words.
      Watch from a distance as the sheep
      arrange themselves into a poem.

Shelling writes, “I find ‘Sheep Piece,’ and all of Pai’s work curiously close to T’ang Dynasty Chinese poet Han Shan.”  He gives us a short poem by Han Shan as a example of their similarities:

      raise a single cow
      she will bear five calves
      the calves will bear calves too
      your heard will never end
      tell Lord Chu of T’ao
      you’re just as rich as him

Both poems include livestock; both poems are composed in the imperative, but somehow the comparison falls a little short, especially as it leads into what should be the introduction’s strongest category. The editors of the Single Moon present a Chan / Zen reading of Classical Chinese poetics that emphasizes Zen’s long tradition of seeing Chinese poetry in epistemological and soteriological terms, “they [Classical Chinese shi] are profoundly architectonic, measured to unsettle the dependent and linear categories of normative thought.” While I think this reading cannot be applied as widely as the Single Moon editors have here (which would reduce all Classical Chinese poetry and poetics to a single doctrinal reading), this is the way Classical Chinese poetry comes into American poetics via Buddhist hermeneutics (American poets like Snyder have placed a high value on Dōgen’s keisei Sanshoku, “Valley Sounds, Mountain Form” and the “Zenrin-kushu” “Zen Forrest” as examples of this Zennist reading habit. But Schelling interestingly turns in an unexpected direction by asserting, by way of Pound’s Cathay, that Chinese poetry’s legacy in American letters is the movement toward “ordinary speech” (as opposed to the paratactic “live words” that take the reader beyond words themselves). After several pages, we see that Schelling wants to emphasize the Chinese inheritance in Buddhist American poetics as distilled down into “ordinary experience recounted in plain speech” which he turns to a poem by Jane Hirshfield as an example:

      Sleepless again,
      I get up.
      A cold rain
      beats at the window
      I ponder Tu Fu’s
      overturned wine glass…

While some poets like Williams may have found inspiration in Classical Chinese poetry for “plain speech” (although this is not to my knowledge the inspiration even for Williams’s call for “plain speech”), the fact remains that it is the American poets themselves who, like Rexroth, brought “plain speech” to Classical Chinese poetry by transforming the highly ornate, cosmological, and formal qualities of shi into contemporary colloquial American English. The idea that this “plain speech” is the legacy of Buddhism and Classical Chinese may not be as useful as the Single Moon editors focus on the epistemological function of disjunction in the ideogrammic stream (the modernists, objectivists, and later poets in the “New American Poetry” and even Language scenes). Yet I think it is important to note that Schelling’s focus on plain speech helps presence a different legacy than the one offered by the Single Moon volume, and is, therefore, helpful.

The next category offered by Schelling explores the influences of Tibetan literature on American letters. In what is perhaps the most helpful point of comparison in the introduction, Schelling shows how the poetry of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa bears the heaviest Tibetan textures, but that one can also find similarities between Diane di Prima’s “Death Sunyata Chant” and the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol):

      If you will be judged by a bureaucratic god
      or wear golden shoes in the golden fields of the Lord
      or carry to death yr guilt about kinky sex
      If the faces you hallucinate are a last judgment
      Everything is illusion

Schelling deftly guides his readers through this moment of transpacific transmission.

Finally, Schelling discusses the influence of Zen, and particularly Japanese verse forms on American poets, from haiku (which he had already brought up in relation to Pai’s work) and renga, to haibun. The last and perhaps most inspired moment in the intro and perhaps the book is the inclusion of Cecilia Vicuña. While most of her work rarely makes explicit references to Buddhism and does not regularly draw upon Buddhist aesthetics per se, Schelling’s weaving of the etymology of tra (thread) and tantra (weave) together with Vicuña’s poetics grounded in the quipa (Andean cord-writing) and weaving, stringing, and tying makes for a provocative reading of Vicuña’s work (her string instillations bring to mind visions of Indra’s Net). Yet given this inclusion, I was surprised to not find the work of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, who draws upon her study of Buddhist philosophy even though her work is usually read in relation to its relationship with the “hard” sciences. Both the Single Moon and Wisdom Anthology include only living poets, but the last entry of the Wisdom Anthology is reserved for Phillip Whalen, which reminds the reader of the great difference between this volume and Single Moon: the noticeable absence of Allen Ginsburg, Jackson Mac Low, and John Cage, who were all still alive in 1991. (The editors of Single Moon also included a section on Lucien Stark, who had passed away three years before the volume was published.)

As someone who teaches American poetry and its Buddhist influences, I am waiting for a comprehensive (and critically annotated) anthology of Buddhist American poetry from the Transcendentalists, Boston Brahmins, “High” Modernists, Objectivists, Beats, New American poetry, Language Poets, as well as those who do not fit into such affiliated bodies. Such a book (or volumes) could be used in classrooms as well as living rooms to help flesh out the centrality of the Buddhism in American letters throughout the last century (not just post WW2). While this volume will not fill all of these needs, Schelling’s anthology is another important contribution in the right direction and will find a place in my classrooms (and living room).

This historical sweep is the direction taken in the 1998 anthology of Gary Gach’s What Book!?, which is less an anthology than as Jane Hirshfield’s blurb on the back cover euphemistically refers to as a “block party, complete with street bands, strolling jugglers.” In other words, what the volume gains in its heterogeneous breadth in content (it includes long dead poets), it loses in its focus (it includes a good number of poets with little to no connection to Buddhism). Gach’s anthology’s incredible breadth is, no doubt, also in response to Walter Lew’s criticism regarding the Single Moon anthology, and we see Lew’s blurb on the back cover reads, “Sprawling, yet luminously packed, THIS book convenes a vast sangha of poets that reveals on every ‘cloud page’ the radiant ways of poetry and Dharma.” While the all caps “THIS” may appear to be a response to the title’s rhetorical question What Book!?, it may also be a continuation of his criticism of the Single Moon’s lack of ethnic diversity. While What Book!? may have many of the poems I teach in the classroom, the volume’s lack of focus, organization, and near total absence of a critical introduction gives readers (and or students) the feeling of “anything goes,” which in the wider cultural context of “The Zen of … marketing” strategies, we loose the critical elements of Buddhism conditioning and transforming American poetics over the last century. Schelling’s book’s not only responds to the ethnic exclusivity of the Single Moon anthology, but its tight focus and lengthy introduction is also a response to a perceived need left in the wake of What Book!?.

1. Walter Lew, ed., Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry (Kaya Publications, 1995).

 2. Boston Review: Summer 1997.

 3. Brink, Dean. “‘Buddhistic Poetry’ and racism” Fri, 20 Jun 1997. <http://listserv.buffalo.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A1=ind9706&L=poetics>