In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism and Modern Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Poetry
  • Literary Fiction in English
  • Otherworldly Genres
  • Cross-Genre Fiction
  • International Literature
  • South Asian and Southeast Asian Literature
  • Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Literature

Buddhism Buddhism and Modern Literature
Kimberly Beek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0230


Buddhism intersects with modern literature at a multitude of junctions. In all its various forms, schools, and geolocations, the teachings of the Buddha continue to appear in literary cultural products of the 20th and 21st centuries. The products of this convergence bear the marks of modernity such as globalization and secularization. For modern literature this translates into the dissolution of metanarratives, the blurring of boundaries, including genre boundaries, and a self-reflexivity that highlights issues of identity. Where modern literature intersects with Buddhism there is a challenge to and negotiation with traditional cosmologies in juxtaposition with the valorization of the mundane. Due to the international character of modern literature, there is also an ever-present chance of unpacking ideological baggage in the form of colonialism, communism, imperialism, Marxism, and Orientalism. This article reflects the breadth of scholarship while providing sources for future research. “Modern literature” here refers to creative works of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction (real life stories told creatively) produced from 1900 to the present. The geographic scope is international and meant to affirm the powerful impact that Asian and Buddhist philosophies, sects, and practices have had on modern global cultures, especially in the West. This impact has guided the organization of the sections in this article that reflect current scholarship and appeals to the Western academy. The sources in the first two sections, General Overviews and Anthologies, are intended to provide the researcher with a scope of the literature attending to this intersection and a sampling of some of the primary sources. The remaining sections are organized, first, by traditional Western genres, then by subgenres and intersecting genres, followed by sections for area studies, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean literature.

General Overviews

Several books give an overview of Buddhism in various areas modern literature, predominantly categorized by nationally or ethnically oriented works. These texts deal with Buddhism in literature as it reflects the sociocultural accretions of their respective geographic areas. Except for a book chapter by Buddhist studies scholar David McMahan (McMahan 2008), general overviews of the intersection of Buddhism and modern literature have to date been the purview of literary scholars. McMahan’s contribution contextualizes Buddhist-influenced literature within the development of Buddhism in the modern world. Garton-Gundling 2013, Normand and Winch 2013, Whalen-Bridge and Storhoff 2009, and Whalen-Bridge and Storhoff 2011 all focus on modern literature in America and Britain, and much of the focus is on literature from the latter half of the 20th century. The writing of the Beats and a few well-known poets who also practice Buddhism tend to be drawn from the generic categories that are culled when curating editors and literature scholars look for Buddhist influences in modern literature. As an example, Scott Mitchell provides a thorough overview of the work of the Beats and their influence on Buddhism in the United States in Mitchell 2013. For offerings farther afield, Whalen-Bridge and Storhoff 2009 and Whalen-Bridge and Storhoff 2011 tap into two other developing subgenres—Asian American and African American fiction—in search of Buddhist influences. Linda Furgerson Selzer’s text Charles Johnson in Context (Selzer 2009) provides a broader and deeper examination of the contributions of Charles Johnson to the fields of literature, African American literature, and Buddhist literature. All of these texts are useful works for cultural studies, critical theory, and literature classrooms. Humphries 1999 marks a departure from the aforementioned studies because the author purports using the Mahayana Buddhist concept of emptiness as a hermeneutic for textual analysis. This suggestion is then applied in his analysis of the Buddhist influences in the work of a fin de siècle author. Humphries’s book would be useful for studies in religion and literature or religion and philosophy. As these sources reveal, no single book-length work is dedicated to a full chronological overview of Buddhism and modern literature.

  • Garton-Gundling, Kyle. “Rewriting Eastern Wisdom: Buddhism and Hinduism in American Literature from Jack Kerouac to Maxine Hong Kingston.” PhD diss., University of Maryland, 2013.

    The author explores strategies by which American writers inscribe Asian religions, especially Buddhism, in their fiction to significantly impact American literature’s engagement with American freedom. The dissertation covers the work of Buddhist writers Lan Cao, Maxine Hong Kingston, Charles Johnson, Jack Kerouac, Tom Robbins, Gary Snyder, and Alice Walker.

  • Humphries, Jefferson. Reading Emptiness: Buddhism and Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

    Humphries attempts to use the Buddhist concept of emptiness as a theory and method for textual interpretation. This hermeneutic is most successfully applied to the work of fin de siècle author Lafcadio Hearn. Humphries’s Buddhist approach to reading literature situates this work at the intersection of Buddhism and modern literature.

  • McMahan, David L. “Mindfulness, Literature and the Affirmation of Ordinary Life.” In The Making of Buddhist Modernism. By David L. McMahan, 215–240. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    McMahan’s penultimate chapter explores modern literature’s inward turn and valorization of ordinary life to argue that these ideas are reflected in and perpetuated by novels such as Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, which is analyzed and contextualized in pp. 228–233. The chapter works to locate Buddhism in modern literature and culture.

  • Mitchell, Scott A. “Buddhism and the Beats.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Buddhism. Edited by Richard Payne. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Mitchell shows the Beat generation’s influence on the development of Buddhism in the United States in the form of essays, fiction, poetry, and sutras. Key figures explored in the bibliography include Diane di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Philip Whalen.

  • Normand, Lawrence, and Alison Winch, eds. Encountering Buddhism in Twentieth-Century British and American Literature. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

    This landmark volume of essays explores the various ways that 20th-century British and American literature has influence and has been influenced by the spread of Buddhism in the West. Works by J. D. Salinger to Maxine Hong Kingston are examined in the contexts of their respective sociocultural developments.

  • Selzer, Linda Furgerson. Charles Johnson in Context. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.

    Presents a biographical and cultural history of Charles Johnson’s work that highlights how his developing Buddhist practice and thought influenced his voicing of African American ontology in America after the civil rights era.

  • Whalen-Bridge, John, and Gary Storhoff, eds. The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

    A collection of essays and interviews analyzing poetry and fiction by American writers who are Buddhist practitioners and/or sympathizers. Writers represented include Lan Cao, Ernest Fenollosa, Allen Ginsberg, John Giorno, Michael Heller, Maxine Hong Kingston, Charles Johnson, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen.

  • Whalen-Bridge, John, and Gary Storhoff, eds. Writing as Enlightenment: Buddhist American Literature in the Twenty-First Century. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

    This volume comprises essays and interviews on how Buddhist thought has enriched the writing and influenced the work of various American authors and poets from the mid-1970s to the early 21st century, such as Keith Abbott, Don DeLillo, Charles Johnson, Andrew Schelling, Elizabeth Robinson, and Gary Snyder.

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