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Zen and the Art of American Literature
/ COMP 238
/ REL 228
/ ENGL 239
In 1844, the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, published an excerpt from the Lotus Sutra, translated into English by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. It was the first English-language version of any Buddhist text to be published in the United States. At the time, very few Americans knew the first thing about what Buddhism was, but now, a little over a century and a half later, Buddhist ideas and practices seem ubiquitous (available even in the form of apps like Headspace and Calm). In this class, we’ll explore how Buddhism came to be the profoundly important cultural force in American life that it is today, looking particularly at the influence of Zen on American literature. We’ll read an array of Buddhist-influenced literary texts, from the Beat poetry of the 1950s to novels like Middle Passage, A Tale for the Time Being, and Lincoln in the Bardo. But we’ll also range far beyond the world of literature into a variety of other cultural domains in which Buddhism has had a deep impact, like environmentalism and deep ecology, Western psychotherapy, and Western attitudes towards death and dying. We’ll also explore the role that Buddhism is playing in the fight against racism and racial injustice (from bell hooks to Black Lives Matter). And we’ll engage in an experiential investigation of the benefits of incorporating contemplative practices like meditation into the classroom: students in the course will learn a variety of meditation techniques, and we’ll spend some time each class practicing and reflecting upon those practices. Students will be expected to meditate outside of class as well (2-3 times per week) and keep a meditation journal. No prior experience with meditation is necessary. Just an open mind.
Grading: yes pass/fail option,
yes fifth course option
regular attendance, a weekly meditation journal, various informal in-class and take-home writing assignments, and a final 7- to 10-page essay
any literature course at Williams or permission of the instructor
students will be asked to submit emails explaining why they want to take this course, which will be used to determine final enrollment; no first-years
This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
ENGL Literary Histories C
EXPE Experiential Education Courses