When author Peter Matthiessen passed away earlier this month at the age of 86, the literary community took the opportunity to look back at his varied and accomplished career. Major points of interest included his co-founding of The Paris Review, his work for the CIA, and his tireless efforts on behalf of environmentalism and conservation.
Less often discussed was his practice of Zen Buddhism and the extent to which the religion influenced his work. Yet Matthiessen’s final novel, In Paradise, is overtly concerned with Buddhist practice, telling the story of a meditation retreat being held on the grounds of a former concentration camp. The author himself has said that the practice has influenced his writing practice.
Here, we take a closer look at authors who subscribe to, or take a formative interest in, the practice of Buddhism. From darkly funny satirists to legendary poets, the names may come as a surprise to you.
As Matthiessen told Terry Gross in an interview on NPR, his involvement with Zen Buddhism was only the second phase in a quest to gain access to a deeper reality. The first was drugs. “We did a lot of LSD during the ’60s, not as a recreation but as a way of seeing something else, seeing things another way,” he said. But he “found [Zen] was far more effective and far closer to what we originally had in mind than the drug use was.” And though he admitted that writing about Zen was in some sense paradoxical—”to speak about it is already kind of missing the point… the whole teaching depends on the immediacy and the spontaneity of this present moment”—he eventually did find ways to incorporate it into his work.
Buddhism’s emphasis on the particular as a point of entry to the universal influenced Matthiessen’s approach to writing: “Really good writing is attention to detail,” he told Gross. “The reader gradually builds up a whole character around that one physical detail.”
One of the dimmer stereotypes applied to Buddhism is that it allows only for tranquil, cheery thinking. One writer who dramatically disproves this is George Saunders, a short story writer famous for his dark and absurdist takes on American life and culture. Saunders, whose most recent collection is the critically-acclaimed Tenth of December, is a student of Nyingma Buddhism—a practice he believes complements, instead of contradicts, his writing. He told The Guardian, “I was writing a long time before I was a Buddhist and they’re not that much different, in the way that any authentic spiritual thing is about seeing what it is, what’s going on, and being willing to look at it honestly.”
Anyone who’s read Saunders knows that his taste for the morbid is matched only by his optimistism and generosity. His stories have a way of winding through treacherous mazes before culminating in ecstatic denouements. Whether a cause or symptom of his interest in Buddhism, this charitable streak seems to be of a piece with the religion’s basic teachings. In a speech on kindness—which began as a graduation address and then became a book—he said: “In your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good… establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition—recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.”
Another writer proving that Buddhist-inspired thought doesn’t have to be limited to wise and gentle koans is Bruce Wagner. The author of several profane, twisted Hollywood satires, Wagner doesn’t shy away from dark material: His novel Dead Stars centers on a fame-hungry 13-year-old struggling to keep her spot as the youngest cancer survivor in the world.
He isn’t precious about Buddhism, either: His novels often focus on people practicing the religion, but mostly in an unserious, if-it’s-trendy-I’ll-do-it manner. Yet Wagner himself is committed to the practice, and sees it as a path to understanding both the good and bad in life. Of a famous Buddhist text, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, he wrote, “Some of the most extraordinary chapters are brutal but ultimately poetic summaries on arrogance, impermanence, and the inevitability of death.”
His most recent book, a collection of two novellas called The Empty Chair, may be his sincerest treatment of the Buddhist practice—and spirituality in general—yet. In the preface, he writes, “If it were possible to hold all of the people’s stories all of the time in one’s head, heart and hands, there is no doubt that in the end each would be unvanquishably linked by a single, religious detail…” (For more on The Empty Chair, check out Wagner’s interview with Zola Books!)
T.S. Eliot never formally joined the Buddhist religion, but he was keenly interested in its teachings and philosophies. Some view his poetic masterpiece The Waste Land as a quasi-Buddhist text: The final line of the poem, “Shantih shantih shantih,” alludes to a chant used in Buddhist meditation.
In his history of modernism, Constellation of Genius, Kevin Jacksoncalls Eliot’s knowledge of the religion “considerable” and says that he was “tempted to adopt” it. Scholar Thomas Michael LeCarner suggests that the influence of the religion can be detected in Eliot’s work, arguing that The Waste Land, far from an attempt “to deal with the physical destruction and human atrocities of the First World War,” instead creates a Buddhist-inspired “vast emptiness, a world of pain, suffering, desolation and despair, as if to suggest that even in the presence of all the greatest artistic and cultural achievements of mankind, we must understand that life is transitory and material things ephemeral.”
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was a committed student of Buddhism and wrote extensively on his interest the practice. Just read his “spiritual autobiography,” “The Vomit of a Mad Tyger.”
As Tricycle Books editor Carole Tonkinson has pointed out, the peculiar logic of Buddhism appealed to the Beat sensibility, which sought to articulate the paradox of self and transcendence: “In the teachings of Buddhism… members of the Beat generation began to find some sanity,” she writes. “The big view, or Big Mind, of Buddhism—which suggested a horizonless space, a state of cosmic, all-encompassing awareness—proved a powerful antidote to the restrictive views espoused by the government, the literary establishment, and organized religion.”
Musician, Evelyn Evelyn author, and the wife of novelist Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer draws inspiration from the Buddhist practice of meditation. She has written on the challenges of being a good artist—someone perpetually open to ideas and inspiration—and a good meditator: someone who can temporarily arrest all planning and ideating. “I watch this mental boxing match take place with interest,” she writes. “In one corner sits a meditator, who calmly suggests that good ideas will linger if they are worthwhile. And so what if they don’t? The songs are not happening; only sitting is happening. In the other corner paces the crazed composer with the mind specifically cultivated to jump from image to word to melody in an effort to create a work of art that will move her fellow humans.”
This piece originally ran on April 20, 2014.