Buddhism and the Beats

Wills, D., ‘Buddhism and the Beats’ in Wills, D., (ed.) Beatdom Vol. 1 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2007)

Buddhism and the Beats

Jack Kerouac… “He was the first one I heard chanting the ‘Three Refuges’ in Sanskrit, with a voice like Frank Sinatra.”

So said Allen Ginsberg in an interview with Peter Barry Chowka way back in April 1976, as printed in the New Age Journal. The interview revealed far more than this little quote… Ginsberg in his element, descending into Buddhist discussions on a great manner of topics, from his own experiences and life, to the very nature of Buddhism, to whether or not Bob Dylan could be considered Zen-like.

But we shall come to all of this later. Of course, as Ginsberg suggests, Kerouac inspired his religious understandings, at least to an extent. So perhaps it would be wiser to began with the man largely, thought not necessarily accurately, credited with the influence of Eastern and Buddhist teachings in the Western World in the latter half of the twentieth century.

After that, we shall look at the Beats most frequently associated with Buddhism, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, before continuing on to Roxroth et al.

– – – –

Jack Kerouac

The Dharma Bums is probably the most obvious starting place in any study of Kerouac and Buddhism. A Buddhist parable, it is also testament to Snyder’s influence on Kerouac, on Western interpretations of Buddhism, and on the Beat Generation. It also shoots your dear author in the foot for his selection of Jack Kerouac as the starting point of his feature…

But hell, Kerouac it is. We’ll get to Snyder in due time and give him the credit and study he deserves simply for leading the life he did.

To return to Ginsberg, albeit briefly, he described Kerouac as, “a French Canadian Hinayana Buddhist Catholic savant.” Kerouac described himself as a “dharma bum,” although he would probably tell you, at least in his later days, that he was a Catholic, heavily influenced by Eastern philosophy, rather than a practising Buddhist.

As we all know, most of Kerouac’s life was clouded by fiction. He wrote versions of himself and his friends and things that happened to him, and therefore what he said must be verified by way of other sources to provide an accurate view of any situation, if that is what you want… And so it may never really be known how exactly Kerouac came to be influenced by Buddhism… But let’s pretend what we all want to pretend, that every word he spoke, and every word spoken by his friends, was the absolute truth.

This would have us believe that Kerouac first encountered the Buddhist religion in 1954, through Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible, which he discovered in the San Jose Library. His initial explorations of the religion are described in The Dharma Bums, where he explores the relationship between Snyder and himself, and between the solitude of the mountains they explored together and the city lights that were the ecstatic backdrop to so much of the Beat Generation and its literature.

Paul Mayer Jr.’s book, Kerouac: His Life and Work, which is my favourite study of all things Kerouac, goes into seemingly endless details about his life, trying to draw on letters, quotes, books, journals, that provide some insight into the his philosophical and spiritual motivations. Mayer tries to explain the balance between Catholicism and Buddhism that constituted Kerouac’s mind, and eventually settles on the idea of Kerouac as complex and uncertain… A conclusion that Kerouac himself seemed to constantly come upon.

The biographical studies of Kerouac: His Life and Work draw on Kerouac’s journal entries that ponder Buddhist concepts, written well before his first encounters with the religion. Kerouac’s infamous womanising and intoxicant consumption, far from the glamorous portrayals in his novels, are a source of shame and sent Kerouac into deep musings about the nature of life and self and suffering, and he become obsessed with the idea of removing craving and lust to free his mind into a state of creativity.

In December 1953, Kerouac fell out with the Cassidy’s over his greed and selfishness, as well as through their diverging spiritual notions. Yet it was during this time that Neal Cassidy encouraged Kerouac to read Hindu and Buddhist texts, and although their interpretations differed greatly, both men were highly influenced by their reading sessions in the San Jose Library.

Unwelcome in the Cassidy household, Kerouac stole a copy of Dwight Goddard’s The Buddhist Bible from the library and got a bus home. He read fervently and added his own Catholic ideas, developing many new thoughts, which he wrote down and sent to Ginsberg. Ginsberg dismissed both Cassidy and Kerouac’s beliefs as a waste of time, but felt that any knew ideas were worth reading, and read Kerouac’s suggested texts.

Basically, Mayer presents the story of a young man who thinks so much that it troubles him; a man divided in his own mind and caught in a cycle of vices, from which he constantly sought some form of escape.

So, we know where Kerouac got some of his Buddhist understandings from, and that her struggled to reconcile his life with these beliefs, as we come to The Dharma Bums. The novel details the influence of Snyder (Japhy Ryder) on Kerouac (Ray Smith) and the contrasts between their respective differences in opinion. Smith ‘wrestles’ with Buddhism, struggling to subdue his sexual desires, which he sees as an obstacle, while Ryder is comfortable in his beliefs and does not view pleasure as being in conflict with his Zen ways.

Ginsberg appears in the novel as Alvah Goldbrook, who respects the Buddhist traditions, but views them as in conflict with the life he wishes to lead.

Allen Ginsberg

However, Kerouac’s depiction of Ginsberg occurred early in the poet’s Buddhist life, and was during his early experiences with the religion, which he viewed then as more of a trend, than of the wise life choice he later came to embrace.

Tony Triligio, in Jennie Skerl’s Reconstructing the Beats, reveals the turning point in Ginsberg’s beliefs, from dismissive, albeit curious, poetic usage, to understanding and appreciation. The event was the protest before the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago… Ginsberg up on stage, chanting to calm and unite the crowd… The police charging about violently… “Om! Om! Om!”… A note is passed to him by an Indian observer, informing Ginsberg he is pronouncing “Om!” wrong.

Ginsberg realised then that Buddhism was to him a song, and not a matter of concentration. He was focusing on the sound of a mantra, rather than the meaning, and he spent thirty years trying to reconcile the two values. The conflict between sound and meaning serves as a vehicle for the differences between Eastern and Western values, philosophies, influences, and audiences. Ginsberg was using mantras to convey messages written during car journeys across America, as well as using Western poetic form to impress upon his listeners and readers the Eastern values he had come to accept, or at least to consider.

Ginsberg was introduced to Buddhism mostly through Kerouac and Snyder, as well as through some limited reading of his own. Cleary his original discoveries and understandings were more considerations than beliefs, but something changed. Formal Buddhist practise became the focus of his life by the seventies, when he would spend weeks on end in silent meditation, learned from the Buddhist guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and started the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado, where Ginsberg would teach over the summer months.

But it was a chance meeting with Trungpa on the streets of New York, when they both hailed the same cab, that threw Ginsberg into his formal studies, which would become the focus of his life and a major influence on his poetry. According to the Chowka interview, Ginsberg introduced himself to Trungpa with the Padma Sambhava mantra and said Namaste. This was in 1971, when Ginsberg’s father fell on the street and he wished to get the old man off his feet. Trungpa and Ginsberg clicked, with Ginsberg later stating that it was because they were both poets.

The rest is history, as they say, and Trungpa came to be Ginsberg’s mentor, teaching him about inner peace, and encouraging the poet to improvise, trusting himself more. It becomes obvious through reading Ginsberg’s work and letters and interviews, that after meeting Trungpa he became heavily influenced by his guru’s teachings.

But Trungpa was neither Ginsberg’s first Buddhist influence, nor his first spiritual guide. In the early sixties, he visited India, and although he maintains the trip was not a spiritual one in any great sense, he sought out and learned from all the holy men he could find, like Gylawa Karmapa and Dudjom Rinpoche. These proved of some use, but not of as major significance as those of Trungpa or Swamis Muktananda and Bhaktivedanta, who were more ‘spiritual friends’ than teachers. They each gave Ginsberg mantras to chant. With Muktananda’s mantra, Ginsberg sat chanting for a year and a half of contemplation, and with Bhaktivedanta’s Hare Krishna he practised it in public readings, helping publicise the Krishna movement.

Gary Snyder

The subject of The Dharma Bums, such was his influence on Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder impressed his Beat contemporaries with his calm Zen demeanour. Kerouac’s portrayal of Snyder as Japhy Ryder explores the poet’s view of himself as part of a bridging of Eastern and Western cultures. He was the rough and rugged outdoorsman in the style of Thoreau, brought into the urban backdrop of the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance by his association with Kenneth Rexroth, then Ginsberg and Kerouac.

Snyder lived with Philip Whalen and Lew Welch at Reed College, two students who may well have been influences on his Buddhist and poetic ideas later in life. After graduating in 1951, he worked on the Warm Springs Indian Reserve and as a fire-lookout at Desolation Peak. Such experiences seem to have taught Snyder much about nature and solitary contemplation that make up Buddhism.

So here we have another seemingly natural Buddhist, as it were. What I mean is that Snyder was never forcibly pushed into his beliefs, nor did he lift them straight from a book. Like Kerouac and Ginsberg, Snyder felt and thought much of what learned and trained Buddhists feel and think, and therefore his transition into the life of practising Buddhist appears organic.

But of course traditional influences come into the picture, otherwise his adoption of Buddhism as a ‘religion’ would have been beyond coincidence… In fact, down right freaky and on as supernatural a plane as to justify irrational thinking and spontaneous conversion to Zen schools of thinking…

But I digress.

Snyder returned to living with Whalen and the two explored Buddhism together as Snyder began studying Oriental culture and languages at the University of California, Berkeley, and took to reading the works of DT Suzuki, who wrote and translated texts on Eastern philosophy and religion. Later, he worked on his own translations of ancient Chinese poems, including the ‘Cold Mountain’ poems by the reclusive Han Shan.

In 1956, Snyder lived with Jack Kerouac in a cabin Mill Valley. Their co-habitation of peaceful living and Buddhist values were recounted in The Dharma Bums, as was Snyder’s three day leaving party. When he left Mill Valley, Snyder headed off to a monastery in Japan.

Between 1956 and 1968, Snyder spent much of his time practising and translating in Japan, first at Shokuku-ji and then at Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. During the early sixties, he also visited India with his wife, the poet Joanne Kyger, Allen Ginsberg, and his lover Peter Orlovsky. He also lived on an island with Japanese drop-outs, gathering their food and living off the land.

In the late sixties Snyder moved back to California, first to San Francisco, and then to a home he and friends built in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Kenneth Rexroth

The man responsible for introducing Ginsberg to Snyder, and therefore Kerouac to Snyder, and who acted as M.C. for the famous Six Gallery reading, was Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth was, however, never a fully fledged member of the Beat Generation, or at least so he claimed. But his connection was undeniable. He was a part of the Beat movement, whether he lived it or not. He thought of himself as more the documenter than the subject.

But a Buddhist? He may have not been a self-confessed Beat, but in the eyes of history he was one. And while he may not have been a fully-fledged Buddhist, his association with it was certainly undeniable.

Certainly, his poetry was influenced by Eastern culture. He translated ancient Chinese poetry and pretended to translate ancient Japanese poetry, but it later emerged that he was the author. Rexroth’s poem, Aix-en-Provence, exemplifies Buddhist notions of nature through his depiction of its interdependent components.

Hell, maybe his lack of connection to Buddhism was part of his perennial status as an outsider. He was neither Beat nor San Fran Renaissance man, neither Catholic nor Buddhist.

Bob Kaufman

Kaufman also had a variety of religious influences in his life, including Catholicism, Judaism, Voodoo and Buddhism. But ultimately, his religion of choice would be Buddhism.

In 1963, upon witnessing the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Kaufman took a Buddhist vow of silence that lasted until the end of the Vietnam War.

– – – –

And so there you have it in a nutshell… It could be said that the Beat Generation was one lost in a mad world, desperately trying to carve out their own space, and more importantly, trying to make sense of the world around them. Catholics and Jews fought between their ingrained notions and right and wrong, while seduced by the peaceful and free ways of Buddhism. The influence of these religions and the conflict between them in the lives and heads of the Beat Generation is evidenced in many of their poems and novels and interviews.

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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