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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 5.2 (2022): 131–176;

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Buddhist Worldmaking in the American Midcentury

Virginia Commonwealth University

Abstract: In the American midcentury, European American cultural producers saw the cultural materials of Zen Buddhism as useful for innovations in poetics and counterculture. Japanese Americans also ‘used’ Buddhism toward specific ends: to argue for their communities’ Americanness and to stake a future for themselves and their children in American society. Because Euro Americans valued Buddhism for its aesthetic and countercultural kineticism, they mistook the seemingly more conservative, hybridised religious expressions of Japanese American Buddhists as reflective of a ‘Protestantized’ and ‘inauthentic’ Buddhism. This article examines this idea that the cultural materials of ‘Buddhism’ are useful to differing communities, who variously use ‘Buddhism’ to ‘make worlds’—operationalising religious cultural materials toward the changes they wanted to see in American society. The article contends that understanding the religious hybridisations of Japanese American Buddhists as worldmaking actions is a key to contextualising and challenging the erasure of Asian American Buddhists: by underscoring these hybridisations, we can expand our understanding of this pivotal moment of Buddhist worldmaking beyond the work of Euro American cultural producers.

Keywords: Buddhism, Asian American, Beat literature, worldmaking, twentieth century

About the Author:Sara Laws specializes in twentieth century American literature and poetry and transpacific poetry and poetics, with interests in texts that arise from the interactions, translations, appropriations, and collaborations between ‘East’ and ‘West’, American and Pacific cultures. In addition to teaching college writing seminars, she teaches courses on contemporary Asian American poetry and poetics, twentieth-century American poetry and poetics, and ‘mindfulness’ as transpacific phenomena. She has taught at Mongolia International University, Beijing Normal University, and the University of Oklahoma, and currently teaches at American University and Northern Virginia Community College.


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