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Imaginations of Emptiness: Twentieth-Century Zen Buddhist Literature as Utopian Narrative and Spiritual Autobiography (3E002417)

“Encounter dialogue” is perhaps the most recognizable of all (Zen) Buddhist genres. Better known under their abbreviated form as kōan, these texts portray mysterious verbal sparring bouts between Zen masters and students, with the former often besting the latter by answering complicated doctrinal questions in an illogical manner. This project looks at how encounter dialogues have been incorporated in modern memoirs about time spent in Zen Buddhist monasteries. It does so through the lens of utopian narrative. Because, as much research in Zen studies has shown, encounter dialogues do not portray historical events. Rather, they portray an ideal of Zen, what Zen Buddhists at various moments in history imagined their school should be like. It is all the more remarkable, then, that during the twentieth century encounter dialogues were represented as the reality of Zen life. This influenced many European and American seekers to travel to Japan to live this life for themselves. In the books they wrote about their adventures, books which this project calls “Zen monastic memoirs,” there is a continuous tension between the authors own experience of Zen and that which they find described in encounter dialogues. Considering encounter dialogues as utopian narrative can help us understand the reasons for this dissonance, and is a step towards deeper understanding how Zen became one of the preeminent representatives of East-Asian spirituality in the West

Date:1 Oct 2017  →  30 Jun 2019
Keywords:Zen Buddhism, Utopia
Disciplines:Study of Buddhism, Literatures in Chinese , Literatures in English, Literatures in Japanese