Saturday, December 3, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In the 'Afterword' to THE EMERGENCE OF BUDDHIST AMERICAN LITERATURE edited by John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff you use the term "imaginative reconstruction."  Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?  When does memory get in the way of erasure?"

I had to re-read the Afterword in The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature, edited by John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff (SUNY Press, 2009) to understand what Ethelbert meant by "imaginative reconstruction," because I didn't write those words. This Afterword was originally an address I delivered, the Solomon Katz Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities at the University of Washington on February 1, 2007. The original title was "Whole Sight: The Intersection of Culture, Faith, and the Imagination." This version appeared in Boston Review (July/August, 2007). When literary scholar John Whalen-Bridge (JWB) at the National University of Singapore read the original lecture, he decided to use it as the Afterword for the book he and the late Dr. Storhoff were preparing for SUNY Press. JWB did some editing, i.e., he added his own sentences and thoughts in order to tailor the Afterword specifically to the needs of The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature. I approved all his interpolations, which are sprinkled throughout the version Ethelbert is asking a question about.
Let me quote the passage that begins a paragraph on page 236 that gave rise to today's question. I've indicated in bold-face the interpolated sentences by JWB:
           "Against the common misunderstanding on which Buddhism is a nihilistic erasure of the social world, we might consider that Buddhism is a religion dedicated to creative reconstruction. In Michael Ondaatje's fine novel Amil's Ghost, the war-ravaged stone-worker Ananda restores a broken Buddha, and perhaps one day the broken Buddhas of Bamiyan will be reassembled correctly. The essays in The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature do not celebrate the rejection of a social world but rather its reconstruction, a reordering of its parts in line with the best potentialities. At this point, I must add that every young black artist in America and or the 1960s (or the 1860s or the 1760s) necessarily faced a world in need of imaginative reconstruction. African /American artists in the decades since have insistently pointed out just how much of the history and experience of their families and ancestors have been erased, elided, or rendered "invisible" by the dominant society; they also came to understand, on the deepest levels of their lives, that as artists they had an important, personal duty to fulfill. To make visible the invisible."
 As you can see JWB wrote a lot for that paragraph---12 lines---and the phrase "imaginative (or creative) reconstruction" is entirely his, the product of his intellect, not mine. To a degree, JWB is rejecting the erroneous notion that Buddhism is nihilistic, a charge sometimes made against Buddhism by people who fail to understand it, indeed, the Buddha himself addressed this himself through his advocacy of the Middle Way, which avoids nihilism. We can say, as JWB does, that Buddhism deconstructs the world of our naive experience, then puts that same world back together in a fashion that makes our experience intelligible. Nothing is lost on the path of Dharma. Everything that existed before awakening is there, but transformed by a light that penetrates into the being of all that is. 
I could attempt to further explain what Dr. Whalen-Bridge meant by "imaginative reconstruction." But in order to understand his meaning in its fullness, I recommend getting JWB himself to discuss this provocative phrase.

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