Zen and the Art of American Literature
Cross-listed as ENGL312 / REL361 / AMST361 / COMP361
In 1844, the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, published an excerpt from the Lotus Sutra, translated into English by a young writer named Henry David Thoreau. 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 20-30 minutes each week practicing and reflecting upon those practices during class hours. 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.
The Class: Type: seminar
Requirements/Evaluation: a weekly meditation journal, various informal in-class and take-home writing assignments, a final 12- to 15-page essay
Extra Info: may not be taken on a pass/fail basis; not available for the fifth course option
Prerequisites: any literature course at Williams or permission of the instructor
Enrollment Preference: if the course is over-enrolled, students will be asked to send the instructor an email explaining their reasons for wanting to take this course; these expressions of interest will be used to determine the final course roster; no first year students
Distributions: Division II;
Distribution Notes: meets Division 1 requirement if registration is under ENGL or COMP; meets Division 2 requirement if registration is under REL or AMST
Attributes: ENGL Literary Histories C; EXPE Experiential Education Courses
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- REL 361 - 01 (F) SEM Zen & the Art of American Lit.