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Izumi, Katsuya: "Indicating Kinship Between Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and Buddhism"

Indicating Kinship Between Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and Buddhism

Katsuya Izumi, University at Albany, SUNY

This paper attempts to indicate that there is kinship between Emily Dickinson’s poetry and Zen Buddhism. Some scholars have made similar attempts by using as influences on Dickinson’s mind the Transcendentalist writings and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s articles that introduced Asian religious thoughts. Whereas those connections are useful to support the argument that her poems are influenced by Buddhism, we are able to do more justice both to Dickinson and to Buddhism if we can start with finding actual kinship between them in terms of temperaments that emerge from their writings. As D. T. Suzuki asserts in “The Sense of Zen,” “Zen never explains but indicates,” however, the connection I am making between the two is consequently never conclusive but indicative.

I will suggest that through writing her poems Dickinson dives into the realm of thinking before the separation of the subject and the object. According to the western tradition, this realm cannot be reached, but in Buddhism there is an essential knowledge that Suzuki calls “Konpon-chi,” which is only attainable before the separation of the subject and the object. Buddhism spread from west to east, or from India to China, Korea, Japan, and the U.S. In this process of adapting itself to the different environment, Zen Buddhism was born in China and it became matured in Japan. Indicating that Dickinson’s diving into the realm before the separation of the subject and the object is similar to the one emphasized in Zen Buddhism (rather than Buddhism), I will argue that there is an Asian presence in this nineteenth-century American poet.