I focus on the eras of the Northern Song (960-1127) and Southern Song (1127-1279), which were watersheds in the history of Chinese Buddhism and literature. Still very little is known of the roughly 30,000 extant verse written by Song dynasty monks. Scholarship has often focused on gong’an (Jap. kōan), often called Zen riddles, and we have either overlooked or misunderstood the remainder of this corpora of poetic literature produced by monks.
I recently published an article examining the metaphors used by historical readers to discuss Chinese monks’ poetry, “The Flavors of Monks’ Poetry: On a Witty Denigration and its Influences” (Journal of the American Oriental Society 141.1 ). These literati critics reiterated a humorous metaphor. Monks’ poems were renowned for restraint and a “pellucid” (清) quality (which I associate with monks’ ascetic attitude toward emotions). Those critics, alluding to monastic vegetarian diet, leveled that monks’ poetry had “a whiff of vegetables” (菜氣), “the flavor of cabbage and bamboo shoots” (蔬筍氣), or “the taste of pickled stuffing” (酸餡氣). The double meaning of qi 氣 is, literally, flavor or smell and, by extension, also an individual’s literary style and character. Members of the literati largely agreed that such flavors described what was distinctive about typical monks’ poetry, and debated whether monks ought to rid their poems of vegetal qualities such as plainness and narrowly repetitive themes. Other critics argued that monks’ poetry is an acquired taste, rich with delicate poetics well worth savoring. I conclude by observing how some modern scholars have reiterated the logic of this witty disparagement, and I suggest alternative directions for further study of monks’ poetry.
My monograph The Poetry Demon: Song-dynasty Monks on Verse and the Way (University of Hawai’i Press, 2021) weaves together methods from Buddhist studies and the literary studies, and arguments rest on my original annotated translations of roughly 80 poems as well as 80 pieces of prose about poetry. The book covers topics including Song dynasty monks’ knowledge of conventional literary genres as well as scriptural prohibitions against idle poetry-writing, their manuscript and book-making practices, and the wider sociology of literature in monasteries.
One of my overarching goals in this book is to examine the historical discourse surrounding monks’ poetry and to illustrate its manifestations in individual poems and social practices. I use “monastic literary culture” to refer to this coherence between the rhetoric in normative texts and the actual practices of poetry. An illustrative set of examples are poems about “the poetry demon,” a minion of the Buddhist demon Māra found only in China. These poems self-referentially depict the pleasures of composing poetry as Māra’s temptation and as a distraction from the Buddhist path. In addition, my book dedicates a chapter to overturning widespread modern and scholarly assumptions associated with the historical phrase “lettered Chan” or “literary Zen” (wenzi chan 文字禪), which erroneously has been understood as a movement of monks who wrote poetry to achieve awakening. To the contrary, I show that “Chan of literary writing” was originally a term of self-effacement to describe the inability to give up a desire to write more poetry. Here and elsewhere throughout the book, I argue that a tension between ideals of worldly aesthetics and ascetic monasticism animated literary strategies devised to resolve it. Two final chapters develop an understanding of the controversial role of emotions in monks’ poetry, with analyses of parting poetry and mourning verse. I hope this work illustrates new and creative ways to study Chinese Buddhist monks’ poetry, and contributes to the broader study of religion and literature.
Some other speculative literary theoretical assertions appeared in my doctoral dissertation, “Buddhist monks and Chinese poems: song dynasty monastic literary culture” (Stanford 2016).