As someone who spent far too much time hiding in my college’s library, devouring the stories, plays, and letters of Henry Miller, I am flabbergasted now to learn of the depth of Miller’s appreciation of and preoccupation with Buddhism. (Perhaps, given my age, I was focused more then with the more prurient aspects of his work. As Erica Jong once put it, using somewhat faint praise, Miller was “more mystic than pornographer.”) It somehow passed right by me.
But now, thanks to David Stephen Calonne’s excellent biography, Henry Miller (part of Reaktion Books’ Critical Lives series), one really can’t miss it. Miller, an iconoclast for sure, wasn’t much of a joiner — so it doesn’t appear that he ever joined a sangha. But that didn’t stop him from integrating Buddhist thought into his life and work. That is, in his typically individualistic, proto-Beat way:
- Miller was reading about Buddhism as early as age 18, and often posited that he might have had Mongolian or Tibetan ancestors.
- Among his many pen pals, which included (for instance) lover Anais Nin and Lawrence Durrell, was Vietnamese monk Phong Cong Thien.
- Miller was fond of custom stationery emblazoned with quotations. Among them, as attributed to the historical Buddha, “I obtained not the least thing from complete unexcelled awakening, and for that reason it is called complete, unexcelled awakening.”
- The title of his famous book of essays, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, was a reference to Zen-styled silent absorption.
- Of Zen, he once wrote in a letter to an author friend: “As the Zen masters say: ‘Think only and entirely and completely of what you are doing at the moment and you are free as a bird. No Westerner wants to accept such a statement, naturally — it seems so simple to be true. We prefer to complicate things, with our prejudices, or principles, our beliefs, our judgments. And so we continue to feed the machine which grinds us to nothingness.”
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead and D.T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism were among a 1938 list of twelve books that Miller believed should not be missed.
- It was Miller’s excitement upon reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in the original German that led to its English publication.
- By 1969 he had developed “a habit of banging on a large, laquered drum and chanting the mantra central to Nichiren Buddhism, Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo,” crediting the practice for a “string of unrelenting luck.”
- Writing to Lawrence Durrell, Miller once praised the Tibetan saint Milarepa and added, “I am a Zen addict through and through… No intelligent person, no sensitive person, can help but be a Buddhist. It’s clear as a bell to me.”
For more on the book, visit its page on the University of Chicago Press website.