The Driftwood Shrine: Discovering Zen in American Poetry
The Driftwood Shrine: Discovering Zen in American Poetry

The Driftwood Shrine: Discovering Zen in American Poetry

Regular price $21.95

ISBN 978-1-896559-28-5
160 pages, paperback, 6 x 9 inches
Zen Buddhism in Literature, American Poetry – History + Criticism, American Literature – Buddhist Influences

THE DRIFTWOOD SHRINE: Discovering Zen in American Poetry

By John Gendo Wolff, Sensei

Foreword by Gerry Shishin Wick, Roshi

Representing a new approach to the West’s evolving understanding of Buddhism, The Driftwood Shrine is the first collection of Zen teachings to be based on the poems of great American writers. In reassuring, forthright, and often surprising language, Wolff explains how Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, H.D., Richard Wright, and many other poets enshrined the gentle light of the Buddha’s teaching in their work. Poetry lovers and Zen practitioners alike will find themselves moved toward a penetrating awareness of the realms of spiritual resolve, impermanence, desire, faith, and awakening. 


. . . if we yearn for a spiritual authenticity and originality in an age of reckless and irresponsible speech, we need only look at the poems that have been growing like weeds in our own backyard for over eight generations.  The works of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Whittier, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Wallace Stevens, W.S. Merwin, and scores of others gleams with the light of the Dharma in a history of American literary achievement that is now nearly two centuries old.  We long ago emerged from the mere “West meets East” form of 19th century multiculturalism.  The Buddha’s teaching is no longer an imported religion, but the realized product that Vachel Lindsay prophesied in his 1912 poem, “The Wedding of the Rose and the Lotus.”  That wedding, that more intimate relationship, is what I’ve tried to capture in the metaphor of the “driftwood shrine.”

This metaphor is based on Franklin Sanborn’s description of a bookcase that Henry David Thoreau had “fashioned . . . out of driftwood” and put to the devout purpose of sheltering his most cherished possession: a “royal” collection of exceedingly rare and precious books on eastern religious thought.  With the wisdom of Asia nestled among the boards he’d salvaged from the Concord River, Thoreau had given “Oriental wisdom an Occidental shrine.”

In some ways, then, this book is a walking tour of the “driftwood shrine,” that tradition of American poetry that subtly reveals a vision of Buddhist wisdom and compassion. . . .


“Through a two way mirror, American poetry and Zen mutually illuminate in this wise telling of the human story of awakening, rendered warm, intimate and authentic in its glimpses of the author’s own struggle and journey. Gendo Sensei holds nothing back in this compelling invitation to come face-to-face with ourselves through a fresh look at some of our most beloved master poets.”

— Susan Myoyu Andersen, Roshi, abbot, Great Plains Zen Center

“Rather than treating Zen as an exotic import from the East, this wonderful series of meditations discerns and extracts its essence from the heart of American poetry.”

 Stephen Batchelor, author of After Buddhism

“I was deeply moved by this book. This is something subtle and beautiful, brought to us by a wise and generous teacher. Here the heart of the Zen way is fully revealed as we read some of the great poetry of the West.”

 James Ishmael Ford, Roshi, author of If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break

“An eloquent, insightful and intriguingly personal account of the flourishing of the Zen mind in American writing, starting long before the word and the practice were known here, down through the glory days of the Beat Generation. The author finds in close readings of many poems some of the brilliance, humor and glad perplexity of the koan.”

 Robert Kelly, author of In Time

And an in-depth review from The Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies:


   John Gendo Wolff, Sensei, has been a Zen practitioner for over 30 years. He received Jukai (lay ordination) from Dennis Genpo Merzel, Roshi, on August 1, 1992. On July 15, 2006, he was ordained as a priest in the White Plum lineage by his teacher Susan Myoyu Andersen, Roshi, and in the summer of 2008 was Shusso (head priest) of the Great Plains Zen Center at Myoshinji–Subtle Mind Temple. In June 2012, he received Dharma Transmission (Shiho) from Myoyu Roshi and is now the resident teacher at Great Wave Zen Sangha in Ludington, Michigan.

Gendo Sensei is also a writer with numerous publications of poetry in a variety of magazines and in the anthology Beneath a Single Moon: The Legacy of Buddhism in American Poetry. He currently works as a college professor, is married, and is a father of three.

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