How Buddhist is most modern Buddhist poetry? Ginsberg are Snyder are surely Buddhists, but is their poetry truly Buddhist in the way they thought it was?
As far as I can tell, the Beats believed that their poetic record of physical reality and of the way the mind observes it, was authentically Buddhist. Their idea seems to have been that such dispassionate observation of world and “self” in it revealed a “not-self” perspective.
There seems also to have been some notion that sharp-eyed and dispassionate description revealed the Emptiness of things, and that showing the unedited twists and turns of thought could reveal the Buddha-Nature of the individual
They came to this by way of Pound’s Imagism, which arose from his misunderstanding of Chinese poetry. Pound didn’t know Chinese, read it dictionary in hand, didn’t understand how much Chinese poetry leaves unstated, and assumed that the cryptic quality he found in the texts, the spareness of the dots he didn’t know how to connect, was mysterious Oriental wisdom. Pound’s precedent seemed to authorize a Buddhist poetics , which is perhaps better understood as European Orientalism than as an authentically Buddhist style.
One could make the case that the connection the Beats made with Asian poetry via Pound was indeed valid. One could argue that a haiku-like mindful observation of natural landscape with flash of insight seems to go back quite far: Consider this poem from the Pali Theragatha.
But as modern as these lines may seem, the few verses like this didn’t lead into a a sustained tradition of Pali Buddhist nature poetry (so far as I know).
The Chinese Buddhist Poetry of Han Shan, &c, and for that matter the Haiku tradition, seems to have more to do with Chinese aesthetics than with Buddhism per se.
So the question I am asking is, is Beat Generation Buddhist poetry really Buddhist in its very form and formulation? If you can say yes to that, then there would be a Buddhist aesthetic or sensibility: and I would be very interested to see anyone define that.
On the other hand, just because something is “inauthentic” doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. Perhaps Ginsberg and Snyder’s work is valid as a Buddhist innovation even if it doesn’t have true precedents.
I am suggesting several answers to this question because I don’t really know where the truth lies here.