You are here

Sharing Buddhist Poetry

December 15, 2016

Asian languages and literatures Professor Paul Rouzer fell in love with the Chinese language in college, but it wasn’t his first love. His original plan was to study French literature, but his desire for a language that his classmates had never encountered before led him to discover a passion for classical Chinese, especially poetry. "Classical Chinese is more or less the 'Latin' of East Asia," he explained. "It is a good bit different from the spoken dialects of China, and it was also used as a written language of communication in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam until the twentieth century."

Rouzer grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Western Maryland and attended college at Harvard University. "I applied to Harvard on a whim and was accepted," he said modestly. "I think my regional background was a bit peculiar for most Harvard candidates at the time. After graduating from Harvard in 1982, he decided to continue his study of Chinese. He credits this decision to the opportunity he had to work on a doctorate degree with Stephen Owen, a Harvard professor and sinologist who is generally considered one of the most prominent scholars of Chinese poetry outside of the Chinese-speaking world. "It was quite exciting working with him," Rouzer explained. "His critical writings on poetry are very dynamic and exciting. It's a shame more people outside of the field don’t read him." After receiving his doctorate, Rouzer served as a teacher of Chinese language and culture at several institutions before landing at the University of Minnesota in 2004.

Rouzer esteems both his colleagues and students in ALL. He has found that the people who come to teach in the department have been collaborative and open-minded, and his students have been enthusiastic and fun. "These students aren't just interested in gaining a job skill or cashing in on the economic boom in Asia," he said. "They genuinely love what I teach and are very thoughtful of the increasing impact of East Asian culture on their own lives in an increasingly globalized society."

Rouzer's new book, On Cold Mountain, is a study of of Hanshan, a legendary Chinese poet whose collection of poems became a rather strange phenomenon in Chinese literature. The poems were quite popular in Buddhist communities throughout East Asia, especially among Zen Buddhists, and the poems started receiving attention in America as a result of the counterculture movement that began in the 1950s. Chinese scholars, however, have never considered the poems as a part of genuine Chinese literature, and American scholars of Chinese literature have found the poems to be nothing more than unsophisticated examples of popular poetry. Rouzer wanted to bridge all of these differences of opinion. "Whether you like Hanshan (and see him as a sort of dissident Beat poet) or dislike him (and see him as the producer of uninteresting folk poems), you’re probably misreading him a little bit," he explained. The poems have helped him think through what it might mean to read literature in a way that can be pleasurable for a reader but also reinforce Buddhist principles, similarly to how a good sermon can in other religious practices.

His book also takes an in-depth look at the works of American poets Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Jane Hirshfield by using some of the same techniques that he used to study Hanshan’s poems. This has been one of the more "amusing and disconcerting" aspects of the whole process for him, as both Gary Snyder and Jane Hirshfield are living authors. "Both have responded quite positively, or at least have been polite enough not to mention their disagreements," he laughed. Jane Hirshfield actually wrote back to Rouzer telling him that he had misread one particular line. "It was amusing at the time because my copy-editor at Washington University Press, a huge Jane Hirshfield fan, had just queried my reading of the very same line. She was delighted to learn that she and Jane had spotted the same error. I think it made her day."

Rouzer has spoken about his book at numerous Zen centers throughout Minnesota. The groups he talks to tend to be literary-minded believers who love to read, are often highly careful critics, and have a special fondness for poetry. "It’s been exciting to share poems with them and talk about what makes for ‘Buddhist literature’ specifically," he said. "I've even discussed Buddhist poems with them from all sorts of global traditions. This has been quite exciting and fulfilling, and I hope I can keep doing it in the future."

Check out Rouzer's recent translation of Hanshan’s poems into English for free through the library.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.