Dharmic Ecologies Down Under: An Ecocritical Perspective on Buddhist Symbolism in Australian Poetry by Dr. John Charles Ryan

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Dharmic Ecologies Down Under: An Ecocritical Perspective on Buddhist Symbolism in Australian Poetry
Dr. John Charles Ryan
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Edith Cowan University


How has Buddhist symbolism been used by Australian poets to represent the antipodean landscape? Indeed, a small but robust segment of contemporary Australian poetry alludes to Buddhist motifs, as will be shown through examples from the writings of Randolph Stow (1935–2010), Robert Gray (b. 1945) and John Mateer (b. 1971). Some of the symbols are ancient and canonical, some are the results of immersion in the Australian context, and others are hybrids borne of the poets’ imaginations. On the whole, their works reflect an obvious and somewhat sustained interest in Eastern symbolisms but in explicitly Australian settings: the bush, the ocean, the desert. More specifically, the portion of their poetry that has been inspired and shaped by Buddhist doctrines invites an encounter between Western and Eastern poetic forms, philosophical precepts and physical locations. Focusing on the latter (that is, the environmental and place-based dimensions of Australian Buddhist poetic symbolism), I will consider the convergence between antipodean landscapes and Buddhist symbolism in their poetry.

Furthermore, adopting an ecocritical framework, I will foreground the role of Buddhist symbols in environmental consciousness Down Under, as well as in expressing, in poetic form, the particular features, qualities and experiences of Australian landscapes. This constitutes a phenomenological approach to interpreting Buddhism symbolism in Australian poetry. In particular I will apply Peter Jaeger’s concept of a “Buddhist ecopoetics” through an analysis of references to eco-dharmic concepts in select Australian poems. In the works highlighted for this discussion, consciousness of and multisensory attentiveness to Down Under environments—including oceans, forests, deserts, waterfalls, animals and plants—underpin a nexus of ecologies, places, moments, ideas and symbols. In other words, for these poets, the local environment becomes the material terrain for poetry, place and spirit or, in the words of literary critic Kevin Hart, the “field of dharma.” As a result, Buddhist symbols are translated to new forms involving Australian nature as their reference points.

Introduction: Buddhism in North American and Australian Poetry

Even a cursory survey of contemporary poetry in English will reveal the influence of Buddhist ideas and practices. This is evident in verse—either tacitly (through close reading and interpretation) or ostensibly (readily apparent from the most superficial glance at the work)—and is time and again invoked in a considerable body of poetry. Most conspicuously in North America since the mid-twentieth century and in particular for the Beat Generation and post-Beat American writers, Buddhism has had a distinct bearing on the form and subject matter of contemporary poetry. In North America, Buddhist-inflected poetry has a lively tradition emerging from distinctly American permutations of Buddhist thinking and doing. Indeed, the influence of Buddhism is most apparent in the work of the Beats, the post-World War II writers who emerged during the 1950s and included influential literary figures such as Diane di Prima (b. 1934), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), Gary Snyder (b. 1930), Philip Whalen (1923–2002), Lew Welch (1926-1971) and others. The wax and wane of the Beats followed their popularity in the 1950s and their eventually being subsumed within the countercultural movements of the 1960s. After this era, in May 1987 near San Francisco, a gathering called “The Poetics of Emptiness” at Green Gulch Farms Zen Center brought poets together for a weekend to contemplate the relationship between writing, meditation and daily life (Schelling, 2005, p. xiii). The poets represented different generations—from those born in the 1920s to younger writers born in the 1950s. The Green Gulch gathering was a defining moment in American Buddhist poetry and invigorated more concerted scholarship into Buddhism and poetry.

Shortly after Green Gulch, seminal studies and anthologies began to appear, notably Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (1991). As the first significant collection describing of the impacts of Buddhism on North American poetry, the collection includes over 250 poems and 30 essays from 45 poets, including Beat fixtures Ginsberg and Snyder, as well as younger poets like Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953) who were influenced by Buddhism but not as Beat Generation writers per se. Parallel to the anthologising of Buddhist American poetry, scholarly research into the transmission of Buddhist ideas and practices to North America began with studies such as How the Swans Came To the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (Fields, 1992). In 1998, an anthology titled What Book!? Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop featured poetry again from Kerouac, Snyder and Whalen, as well as Maxine Hong Kingston (b. 1940) and other writers not necessarily featured in previous collections. Still, a few years on, America Zen: A Gathering of Poets (McNiece & Smith, 2004) and The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry (Schelling, 2005) were published, the former including the work of Di Prima, Hirshfield, Snyder, Whalen and other familiar names. More recently, The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature (2009) examines the influence of Buddhism on North American literature and the role of literary works in the reception and retention of Buddhist ideas in the continent. During the last ten years, studies of particular schools of Buddhism and individual poets have been completed, such as the monographs Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics (Trigilio, 2007) and Han Shan, Chan Buddhism and Gary Snyder’s Ecopoetic Way (Tan, 2009).

In comparison, unlike its North American counterpart, the writing of Buddhist poetry and its scholarship in Australia is largely a more recent phenomenon with fewer poets, poetic works, studies and anthologies. Of early note is Australian poet Harold Stewart (1916-1955), who followed Shin Buddhism, lived periodically in Japan and became a scholar of Oriental culture and thought. Stewart is arguably the first Buddhist Australian poet, but many of his works take place in Asian, rather than Australian, settings. The anthology Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry is the nearest equivalent to the collections of North American Buddhist poetry enumerated above, but focuses on the more general relationship between Asian culture and Australian poetry. The anthology includes the work of about fifty Australian poets, such as Judith Beveridge, Robert Gray and Jan Owen. To date, scholarly studies of the influence of Buddhism on Australian poetry have been either journal articles or book chapters focused on the aesthetic and stylistic facets of Buddhist symbols, for example, as mentioned briefly in Paul Kane’s chapter “East-West Turnings” (2010). Also of importance is Kevin Hart’s article “Fields of Dharma” (2013) which considers the Buddhist dimensions of Robert Gray’s long poem “Dharma Vehicle.” Hart’s trenchant and well-informed analysis draws parallels between “Dharma Vehicle” (1978) and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, both poems devoted to the principle of dharma, in the Hindu and Buddhist senses, respectively. Of further note in Hart’s article is his brief ecocritical analysis of the interconnections between the coastal setting of Gray’s poem and the poet’s invocation of dharma. He states, on the sense of temporal passage—the transience of things— characterising the poem, “there is a consolation: the immediate presence of things, especially nature. And, for poets and their readers, there is a further consolation, one for which the poem is also a vehicle: the sensuous description of nature” (Gray, 2013, p. 282). I will return to these points—the field of dharma and the sensuous perception of nature—when looking more closely at Gray’s poem later in this paper. However, I now turn to the nature of the Buddhist symbol itself in relation to dharmic principles and the potential for it to translate to new settings, such as the antipodean landscape. I will also introduce the framework of ecocriticism for interpreting Buddhism symbolism in relation to the natural world of Australia.

Buddhist Symbols and Dharmic Ecologies in Australia

A religious symbol is a representation of the beliefs of a religion as a whole, or of a precept within a religion. While often a single object, a symbol can constitute a system of interrelated signs. Indeed, Buddhism on the whole proliferates in symbols of different forms and modes—from golden icons to fragrant incense to the sounds of drums and bells. Moreover, while we tend to think only in terms of visual icons, symbols can be verbal or aural (chanting mantras), tactile (writing on prayer fabric), olfactory (incense) or gustatory (ceremonial food or drink). John Powers (2007, p. 241) observes that, in Tibetan Buddhism, a wide range of symbols is presented in order to accommodate (and indeed encourage) the different understandings and interpretations of individual practitioners. Some of the predominant and even well-known Buddhist symbols include the Eight Spoked Wheel, the Bodhi Tree, Buddha’s Footprints, an Empty Throne, a Begging Bowl and a Lion, all often used to represent Buddha. In particular, the Eight-Spoked Wheel or Dharmachakra (dharma as law or truth, and chakra as wheel) is a symbol for the Wheel of Truth turned by the Buddha. The Dharmachakra consists of eight spokes symbolising the Eight-fold Noble Path. Additionally, the Bodhi Tree is another highly visible Buddhist symbol, representing the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment, with the tree leaf as a potent symbol of religious faith and devotion (Powers, 2007, p. 258). For Buddhist practitioners, there are three primary categories of symbolisms and symbolic actions: mudras (hand gestures), mantras (words) and mandalas (icons) (Blau & Blau, 2003, p. 6).

It is, however, critical to bear in mind that symbols take various sensory forms and, hence, that there is a phenomenological aspect to understanding symbolic meanings. This consideration becomes important as we look at the work of Stow, Gray and Mateer and their use of the non-visual senses in relation to the Buddhist symbols with which they engage and, in fact, devise, construct and transform through their poetry. For in Buddhist Australian poetry, as Hart comments, “we pass from otherworldly religious thought to direct perception of nature” from “being oriented to another world to embracing this world in all its sensuous particularity” (2013, p. 278). I suggest that the nature of this passage (from the other world to this world, or from the sublime to the material, from abstract thought to embodied presence) is an ecocritical concern (or, a concern that can be illuminated through ecocritical analysis). One catalyst for landscape symbolism in Buddhist Australian poetry is direct sensory contact with nature. It has a relationship to dharma and, also, a register within ecological consciousness, awareness of one’s place and concern for the wellbeing of non-human life there. Despite the potency of canonical symbols such as Dharmachakra, I am interested in new symbolic permutations, as Buddhist ideas and practices circulate in Australian settings and gestate in the material terrain. As such, typically Australian habitats and biota—such as gum trees and paperbarks—take on dharmic meaning and become vehicles in themselves for Buddhist understanding, learning and teaching.

The Sanskrit term dharma (or dhamma) is described by different writers and philosophers in a myriad of ways: as the state of nature perceived through the senses, as a phenomenon of nature and its qualities, as the laws of nature, or as the teachings of Buddha on the laws of nature and their implications for the human condition. The late Venerable Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu (1906–1993) outlines a four-fold definition of the Sanskrit term dharma (or dhamma). He critiques the commonplace definition of the term as referring to the Scriptures, what he calls “the dhamma in the bookcase,” or the verbal explanation of the Scriptures by a teacher. He asserts that this everyday understanding is that “of a deluded person who has not yet seen the dhamma” (Buddhadasa, 1989, p. 128). Therefore, dharma as such does not simply refer to manuscripts or teachings, but to something that is at once profoundly material and stable yet highly immaterial and transient. This is nature as dhammajāti, or the intricacy of all things perceived by one’s senses while remaining, simultaneously, outside the faculties of our perception. For Buddhadasa, dharma encompasses “nature itself; the laws of nature; a person’s duty to act in accordance with the laws of nature; and the benefits to be derived from acting in accordance with the laws of nature” (1989, p. 128).

Buddhadāsa’s concept of dharma offers a stimulus for environmental consciousness. Especially if Buddha entreats humanity to behave in accordance with natural laws and if there are discernible benefits in doing so, then dharma is inherently connected to ecology and environmental thinking. Sensing the intrinsic connection between ecology and dharma, the Beats and other Western poets and philosophers praised (and still praise) the natural virtues of Buddhism for environmental balance, or what we would today call “ecological sustainability.” The eco-dharmic aspects of Buddhadāsa’s teachings are more clearly evident in his political concept of “dhammic socialism.” He explains that nature (or dhamma) involves a dynamic equilibrium between humanity, animals, plants and other forms of life, such that there are resources available to all living beings. Non-human organisms tend to produce and consume what they need—without stockpiling, hoarding and other forms of blatant excess—achieving a natural state of balance. The birds, insects and trees enact, without the intentionality and ideology that come to characterise human thought, a form of ecological socialism. The scenario that Buddhadāsa outlines is an embodied, corporeal and sensory one, reminiscent of the nature writing of nineteenth-century Americans Henry David Thoreau or John Muir, for example. He implores us to:

Look at birds: they consume as much as their stomachs can hold. They cannot take in more than that. They have no granaries for hoarding. Look at the ants and insects: that is all they can do. Look at the trees: they can take in only as much as their trunks will allow. Thus, this system, in which no being was able to trespass upon another’s rights or hoard what belonged to others, is natural and automatic, and that is how it has been a society and continued to be one, until trees became abundant, animals became abundant, and human beings became abundant in the world. The freedom to hoard was controlled by nature in the form of natural socialism. (quoted in Puntarigvivat, 2003, p. 191)

Hence, for Buddhadāsa the laws of nature (or dhamma) concern interspecies balance, communities of beings, equitable distribution of materials, the avoidance of excess for the benefit of all forms of life and the value of abundance over scarcity. Dharma is, therefore, not only a spiritual concept but an ecological one; it is this manifold of meaning that Australian poets convey in their landscape writing.

In order to develop an ecocritical perspective on Buddhist symbolism in Australian poetry, I will first distinguish between three interrelated terms: ecocriticism, ecopoetry and ecopoetics. To begin with, American scholar Cheryl Glotfelty formulated the first definition of ecocriticism nearly twenty years ago as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment [which takes] an earth-centred approach to literary studies” (quoted in Garrard, 2004, p. 3). However, Glotfelty’s definition strikes us now as somewhat outdated on a few counts. Most notably, recent modes of ecocriticism not only limit their analysis to literature (poetry and prose) but to works of cinema, performance, music, gaming and popular culture, not excluding online materials (e.g. blogs) and other non-literary forms. Moreover, recent trends in material ecocriticism, zoocriticism and botanical criticism have begun to critically reconsider the role of the living environment (including soils), animals and plants, respectively, rather than the “physical environment” only. As ecocriticism finds it origins in the work of Marxist scholar and key early figure in cultural studies Raymond Williams, accordingly the field enacts a “political mode of analysis” (Garrard, 2004, p. 3) in keeping with other forms of cultural criticism (that is, other “isms”). In sum, there are two primary focal points of ecocritical analysis: the representation of nature in texts and other media; and the degree to which cultural materials (including “texts” defined broadly) reflect notions of ecological justice, ethics, sustainability and the voices of Indigenous peoples.

Ecopoetry is an object of ecocriticism; in fact, a poem or a poet can be identified as having an environmental imperative following some form of ecocritical analysis of a writer’s work, or of the writer him- or herself. Scott Bryson outlines three features of ecopoetry, beginning with “an ecocentric perspective that recognizes the interdependent nature of the world” (Bryson, 2002, p. 5-6) or, in Timothy Morton’s terms, reflects ecology as “thinking how all beings are interconnected, in as deep a way as possible” (2010, p. 255). Secondly, as Bryson (2002, p. 5-6) argues, ecopoetry expresses “an imperative toward humility in relationships with both human and nonhuman nature.” And thirdly, ecopoetry reveals an abiding suspicion of “hyperrationality and its resultant overreliance on technology.” In Bryson’s view, ecopoetry is at the same time ecological, literary and political. Whereas ecopoetry refers to ecological poetry, the term “ecopoetics” comprises the making (the techniques and the overriding philosophies informing the poetry) and study (the scholarship and interpretation) of poetry about landscape, wilderness, animals, plants and environmental injustices (Skinner, 2015). It is possible, then, to speak of a Buddhist ecopoetics in the work of contemporary writers such as Stow, Gray and Mateer, although, as we will see, Stow’s spiritual values are located in Taoism. Through the example of John Cage’s Zen poetics and in light of contemporary ecopoetic theory, Peter Jaeger develops a Buddhist ecopoetics. Jaeger argues that a relationship between Zen Buddhism and ecological awareness informed Cage’s work as a composer, writer and visual artist (Jaeger, 2013, p. 1). An understanding of Zen and a concern for environmental issues affected his writing. A Buddhist ecopoetics underlies the making of ecopoetry through principles such as dharma and ideas of ecologically engaged Buddhism, as evident in the teachings of Buddhadāsa and others. Buddhist ecopoetics draws from the inherent awareness of nature found in some teachings as a foundation for the poiesis (the making) of poetry. A dharmic ecology—an understanding of the natural world through Buddhist symbolic structures—translates to other places, such as Australia, through the practice of poetry. New symbols are formulated in response to the unique ecologies of the places. Having discussed the symbol, dharma and ecopoetics in this section, I now turn to the Australian poets themselves and key examples from their works in the following section.

Randolph Stow’s Taoist Antecedents

Born in Geraldton, Western Australia, Julian Randolph Stow (1935–2010) was an Australian writer who later in life emigrated to England. Some of his more acclaimed novels include To the Islands (1958), Tourmaline (1963), The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (1965) and Visitants (1979). However, early in his career, Stow also wrote poetry. Influenced by a Buddhist grandfather, Stow’s work, especially poems in the collection A Counterfeit Silence (1969), brings Eastern themes to bear on the perceived austerity of the Western Australian landscape, notions of human individualism, and possibilities of spiritual transcendence in and through nature. Rather than Buddhism per se, Stow’s interests are Taoist, as evident in his Western Australian landscape poem “From The Testament of Tourmaline: Variations on Themes of the Tao Teh Ching” (Stow, 1969, pp. 71–75). Before providing a brief reading of Stow’s poem from an ecocritical perspective, as outlined in the previous section, I must first establish the historical and philosophical tensions between Taoism and Buddhist that make such a reading plausible in the first place. The interactions between the two major Eastern religions during the last two thousand years are complex, with Taoism usually regarded as an “indigenous tradition” that began to develop more fully in China during the second century, BCE in part through the influence of Buddhist doctrines (Mollier, 2008, p. 1). In China, the introduction of Mahāyāna Buddhism from India profoundly altered traditional Chinese religious beliefs, but also stimulated the further formation of already established Taoist principles. As an outcome of this tension, the first Taoist canon was formulated by the fifth century BCE, marking the emergence of Taoism as an institutionalised and widely practiced religion in China. Indeed, the Buddhist sūtras preached by Buddha and the Taoist scriptures revealed by Laozi both condemned the moral decadence of humanity and shared an eschatological focus (Mollier, 2008, p. 3). Particular schools of Buddhism, such as Ch’an (known as Zen in Japan), hold many beliefs in common with the principles of Taoism. Christine Mollier’s study Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face (2008) provides further detail about the intricate connections between Taoism and Buddhism in medieval China. However, it is sufficient to remark, without going into greater depth here, that the long-standing relationship between Taoism and Buddhism underlies my selection of Stow’s Taoist landscape verse as the first in this series of Australian poems.

Of immediate note in Stow’s poem are the gaps in the numbering of its stanzas. We find stanza I, followed by stanzas IV through VIII, then X, XII, XVI and XXV and finally the concluding stanza XL. This temporal structure, with its lacunae, symbolises the extended silences of the desert landscape about which Stow writes. The lacunae also represent the difference between Eastern and Western temporal orders, the latter seeking the strict linear progression of time and the logical culmination of events without gaps or absences. Stanza I opens with the tension between naming, language, landscape, silence and emptiness. A Western epistemology would name and vocalise the land that “breaks into beauties” (l. 1) (consider the profuse flowering of indigenous plants during September and October in Western Australia and the scientific names that demarcate the species there). However, “Tao is a sound in time for a timeless silence” (ll. 4-5). Analogous to the mirror between dharma and nature discussed previously, “the land and Tao are one. | In the love of the land, I worship the manifest Tao” (ll. 8-9). Stow here invokes the historical issue of the perceived emptiness of the Australian landscape, which his forebears knew erroneously as terra nullius, a space thought to be devoid of life and owned by no one. In fact, some of the most biodiverse habitats on earth exist in Western Australia (consider the South-West Botanical Province from Shark Bay to Esperance) and some of the oldest human cultures. But the sense of space—the general lack of large trees, the flatness of the topography for the most part, and the far reach of the eye across the terrain and into the cerulean sky—is profound for most human observers. Hence, rather than a Western metaphysics of space and time, Stow adopts an Eastern one in order to express that “the land’s roots lie in emptiness” (l. 10-11). The notions of spatiality, temporality and ephemerality reflect Robert Gray’s, as discussed in the following section.

The poem pivots against these kinds of contrasts: that love of land is attributed to joy while Tao is “passionless, unspoken” (l. 7), that emptiness can exist alongside and within fullness. Stow expresses these complementarities through a Taoist symbologic system, including repetition of the wordTao” itself. For Stow, the animating force of the landscape is the Tao, comparable perhaps to the omnipresent Creation Beings of Aboriginal people, including the Waugle of South-West Australia, a giant serpent responsible for the watercourses and geomorphic patterns of the land. Stow begins to develop his Taoist metaphysics of the land in stanza IV:

The spaces between the stars
are filled with Tao.
Tao wells up
Like warm artesian waters. (ll. 12-15)

Tao is at once emptiness (the spaces) and fullness (artesian waters). This instigates a reckoning with Australian space and place—historically misinterpreted by colonists and visitors as only emptiness, as terra nullius—made possible through the Tao. It is chthonic, encompasses polarities and precedes Christian notions of God as well as the colonial miscues towards the land: “Where is the source of it? | Before God is, was Tao” (ll. 20-21). As the poem progresses, the concrete symbols of the smith, forge and bellows signify the creation of the patterns of the place; there is a movement between tangible symbols and metaphysical concepts with the land serving as the medium for the poet’s contemplation. And all throughout is the unyielding principle of change as “world has no life but transformation” (stanza vi, l. 43). A reflection on the limits of the Western temporal order carries over to the nature of the senses and, hence, the Tao is phenomenological in character, as expressed lyrically in stanza XII:

The colours of time blind the eye to timeless colours.
The music of time dulls the ear to timeless music.
The flavours of time spoil the palate for timeless flavours.
The diversions of time dull, blind and spoil the mind

From abstraction, the poem returns to ecological particularities, as we will also see in Gray’s poem, in stanza XVI as “the long roots of myall | mine the red country | for water, for silence.” Myall most likely refers to an acacia, a plant genus known for tolerance to droughts and its ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil. The “blossoming myall” symbolises the seeking of silence and the rhythm of the land, while the color red represents the essence, the Tao in stanza XL:

The red land risen from the ocean
erodes, returns; the river runs earth-red,
staining the open sea

In sum, Stow’s poem presents an interpretation of the Western Australian environment through Eastern symbolisms (Taoist, rather than Buddhist, in this instance) that intersect with Aboriginal ideas of country. Running through the poem are themes of timelessness, silence and emptiness. These themes are constructed in positive, rather than pejorative terms, through the Taoist lens Stow develops. A postcolonial ecopoetics is achieved through Eastern symbolisms, enabling Stow to observe the character of the land itself while rejecting, albeit more tacitly, its historical misconstruction as a terra nullius, a dead space lacking life and energy.

Robert Gray’s Critical Buddhism

Born in 1945 in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Robert Gray is a well-regarded Australian writer and critic. He was influenced by East Asian Buddhism early in his career, especially as a means to respond to the Australian landscape and to conceptualise humanity as an agent within nature, rather than an entity apart from it (Langford, 2012). Hart describes Gray as “not the first Australian poet to look to Asia with religion in mind, or even with a didactic impulse in mind; but he was the first to engage analytically as well as lyrically with Buddhism” (Hart, 2013, p. 279). Yet, Gray’s relationship to Buddhist thought has never been straightforward and has been marked by points of philosophical divergence. In his memoir, The Land I Came Through Last (2008), he alludes to his initially conflicted reaction to Buddhist doctrine, particularly what he understood as the separation of mind and body, which I will quote at length here:

I found that, despite trying, I could not accept orthodox Buddhism, because it was built around the belief that we are reborn, even though we have no unchanging soul, and must continue to be, always suffering, while motivated by desire. Buddhism required the separateness of mind and body, since something was passed from life to life, but the evidence of research showed that any mental phenomena—volitions, memory—coexist exactly with activities of the brain. (p. 298)

Gray’s account of his early interest in Zen also indicates his alignment with a “critical” Buddhism, which he considered to embrace the natural world as a positive, sympathetic phenomenon. As such, Gray’s work deploys Buddhist symbolism in developing an aesthetics of Australian landscape, but also an ethics of nature that carefully considers the place of humanity and human experience. As further indicated by his recollections, a transformative moment for Gray was finding copies of Alan Wattsbooks The Way of Zen and Psychotherapy East and West and their orientation to critical Buddhism, the aim of which is to attain a degree of absorption in the world or “self-forgetfulness through intense involvement” (Gray, 2008, p. 219). Gray’s philosophical association with Zen Buddhism anticipates, in a way, the later formalisation of the Critical Buddhism movement within Japanese scholarship, evolving in particular from the writings of Matsumoto Shirō and Hakamaya Noriaki who argue that Buddhism is inherently based on the principle and practice of criticism. Accordingly, for these scholars, Critical Buddhism differs to Topical Buddhism, the former interested in rhetoric and ontology and the latter in logic and epistemology (Lin, 1997). However, it should be held in mind that Gray’s critical Buddhism (“c” in the lower case to distinguish Gray’s thinking from Shirō and Noriaki’s) is slightly different and more specific to his maturation as an Australian poet writing in Australian settings. Moreover, Gray’s Buddhist ecopoetics attends to the interpenetration of matter and spirit, of nature and humanity, through protracted, sense-rich engagement with the local environment—coastal New South Wales and other places Down Under, including the Western Australian landscape of Stow’s work.

Gray’s dialogue with Buddhist ideas is prominent throughout most of his collections, including Certain Things (1993) and Cumulus (2012), in both existential and ecological terms. However, the poem I will focus on briefly is titled “Dharma Vehicle” from his earlier collection Grass Script (1979). This long, seven-part poem employs the principle of dharma throughout as a means to address environmental and place-based themes. Given the range of interpretations of dharma by different Buddhist scholars, as indicated earlier in this paper, it is instructive to consider how Gray himself conceptualises the term. In a different poem, “To the Master, Dogen Zenjii” (Gray, 2012, pp. 24-27) defines dharma as the transience of the world in the following quote from Dogen Zenjii (1200–1253), the Zen Buddhist teacher of Kyoto, Japan: “It is this world | of the dharmas (the momentary events) | that is the Diamond” (p. 24, ll. 16-18). Indeed, following Dogen’s idea, Gray’s “Dharma Vehicle” begins with the momentary events of perception in a characteristically Australian setting:

Camping at a fibro shack
fishermen use—
swept with ti-tree branches, and washed down
with kerosene tins of
tank water

Like banners raised,
all these eucalyptus saplings—
the straight trees

The scene, allusions and diction are quintessentially of Australia. A “fibro shack” is a colloquialism for a small asbestos structure, consisting of fibrous cement sheets. These dwellings, of various sizes and styles, are common throughout the built environment of Australia, including in coastal areas. “Ti-tree” refers to a species of Melaleuca, plants in the myrtle family and widely distributed in the country. In addition to ti-trees, eucalyptus trees populate the landscape in profusion and also are referenced in the poem. Moreover, “tank water” refers to the rain water from collection tanks found attached to many Australian homes, as a means to capture a precious resource in a drought-prone landscape. We find in part 1 of the poem a strong sense of movement, transience and poiesis as “leaves here | are shaken all the time” (ll. 14-15) and “my bed | a pile of cut fern” (ll. 18-19). Hart (2013, p. 277) observes how the landscape depicted in the poem’s opening is “palpably Australian” until the paperbarks, another plant species typical of many habitats, are likened to “incense-smoke,” thereby marking a transition to Asian symbolism. The poem encapsulates Buddhadasa’s four-fold definition of dharma as “nature itself; the laws of nature; a person’s duty to act [...] and the benefits to be derived” (1989, p. 128), as well as Dogen’s idea of momentary events. However, this expression of dharma is achieved in Gray’s poem through “palpably Australian” icons: paperbarks, ti-trees, fibro shacks, water tanks. Thus a dialogue between Eastern and Western symbolisms is struck.

An emphasis on movement and temporality, through the stories of Gautama and Heraclitus, continues in the poem’s third part with an assertion that the human soul is the same as nature’s (Gray, 1978, p. 39). But Gray’s Buddhist ecopoetics is not merely about distantly observing the transience of the natural world through moments of perception and insight. The oscillation between the minutiae of the Australian landscape and the contemplation of Buddhist tenets and stories imbricates human agency, as well as the failures of human actions in nature. In terms of human agency, consider the following compelling excerpt:

So that these transient things, themselves, are what is Absolute;
these things
beneath the hand, and before the eye
the wattle
lying on the wooden trestle,
pencils, some crockery,
books and papers, a river stone,
the dead flies and cobwebs
in the rusty gauze. (part 3, p. 40)

For Gray, the transient things are dharma, presented to perception via sight (a sense long associated with distance, space, intellection and rational inquiry) and touch (a sense of intimacy, proximity and subjective knowledge). The wattle (the common name for Australian acacias) along with the implements of the writer’s life and practice constititute, in Hart’s (2013) words, the “field of dharma.” Here we clearly find the transmission of Buddhist ideas to a new medium: the Australian environment and, more importantly, the intersection of human agency and place ecologies. Furthermore, in part 4 of the poem, Gray’s critical Buddhism is insinuated in observations of “the paddocks below | amongst innumerable dead trees” (p. 41). Banana plantations have resulted in the cutting back of the bush as “the early sky, so light | has a feeling of | the first day up again after illness” (p. 41). Hence, the natural world observed by the poet is neither the object of visual beauty solely (but rather also of the tactile senses too) nor an Edenic field unmarked by human action (but rather one bearing negative impacts). Although the tension is palpable, this anti-pastoral hint in Gray’s poem sits comfortably alongside his Buddhist ecopoetics, especially in relation to his acknowledged critical Buddhism.

John Mateer’s Serpentine Symbolism

The final poet I will discuss in this abbreviated overview of Buddhist Australian poetry and its ecocritical dimensions is John Mateer. Born in 1971 in South Africa, Mateer is an Australian poet and author with a long-stranding interest in the Western Australian landscape, but who has also travelled and lived in Southeast Asia. The subject matter of his short poem “The Serpentine Monastery” in his collection The West (2010) is Bodhinyana, a Theravadin Buddhist monastery in the town of Serpentine, located south of Perth, Western Australia. Bodhinyana is in the Thai Forest tradition of Buddhist monasticism in which practitioners form a close relationship to the forest and wilderness settings of the community. The dominant symbol in the poem is the snake, both in Buddhist and Aboriginal Australian contexts. For instance, nāga is a Sanskrit word for a class of beings that take the shape of a king cobra. The tradition of a great snake is found in all Asian Buddhist countries. In Tibetan Buddhism the nāga is related to the klu, dwelling in surface and underground water bodies and often protecting treasure. Another notable nāga in Buddhism is Mucalinda, a serpentine being who protected Buddha as he meditated under the Bodhi Tree and was exposed to darkness and rain. Representations of Mucalinda are common in the Buddhist art of Lao. Similarly, for the Nyoongar people of the South-West of Western Australia, the Wagyl (or Waugl, Waugal or Waagal) is a snakelike creature governing the surface and underground water of the region, including the major river courses of the Swan and Canning Rivers. The Darling Scarp, the hill features surrounding Perth, are known as the body of the Wagyl and the abundant rock outcrops in the Wheatbelt area east of Perth are regarded as his droppings. In a periodically arid landscape, respecting the Wagyl has helped to ensure the continuity of water resources, in the form of lakes, rivers, springs, wells and water holes.

Mateer’s poem addresses the complexities of this intersection, between the serpentine symbologies of the East and West. The poem opens with an observation of almsgiving: a spoonful of rice and the act of bowing to the resident monks. As with Gray’s oscillation between the abstract and the concrete in “Dharma Vehicle,” Mateer’s work also shifts from contemplating the principle of “non-proliferation” (p. 134, l. 4) to experiencing the palpable reality of the Australian bush. He notes the “ball-bearing gravel,” “the parrotbush” (a local plant species) and the “contorted banksias” (ll. 5-6), all “impersonal” to him as the monastery itself, the doctrine with which he grapples and the landscape to which he returns. The characterisation of the Western Australian bush as impersonal or unwelcoming (i.e. as prickly as its plants) is nothing new. The Australian historical record abounds with these sorts of references. Although the local environment becomes a canvas for the poet’s unease, there is still an attentiveness to nature, to dharma, evident here. Western Australia is, by all accounts, an isolated state: its capital city of Perth is several thousand kilometres from the nearest metropolitan area of Adelaide, South Australia. Yet, in this sequestered island on the western edge of the country, this “refuge from the new economies” (l. 7), the encounter between Eastern ideas and Western ecologies goes on. The snake (indeed, the final words of the poem), therefore, symbolises the Indigenous ecologies of the place (including its Dreaming stories and the ancient flora surrounding the monastery) yet the resistance of the place (and its people) to the deeper penetration of traditional Buddhist doctrines into a field of dharma. Simply put, the formulation of a quintessentially Australian dharma, for Mateer, is not seamless or harmonious, but involves critical concern for the contradictions he sees as inherent to some Buddhist principles, especially when enacted in other contexts.

Conclusion: Buddhist Ecopoetics in Australia

Through the works of Stow, Gray and Mateer, this paper has argued that Buddhist Australian poetry characteristically involves local ecologies and Australian forms of life, such as paperbarks, banksias, ti-trees and others. Endemic flora, fauna and ecologies become symbols for Buddhist principles as well as subjects of dharmic enquiry. An ecocritical perspective on Buddhist Australian poetry necessitates the consideration of the ecologies of Australian places in relation to the enactment or investigation of Buddhist principles. Thus, living plants and animals are not only ecological beings, but are imbued with dharmic meaning, as the poets attempt to know nature, its principles and the benefits of acting in accordance with natural laws. More importantly, nature in these poems is not a distant object of contemplation or observation, but rather a living conversant in everyday life, with which the poet is immersed in the world. Notably, we find multisensorial expressions of engagement with nature (as dharma) as part of an Australian Buddhist ecopoetics. I suggest that further research into this subject should consider additional poems by these writers and others, such as Judith Beveridge, whose exposure to Buddhist symbols has influenced their poetic practices of landscape.

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