Buddhists and Dharma Bums

Sometime in the early 1950s, the Beat Generation helped bring Buddhism to the West, or at least they popularized it and expanded its influence. The world saw them as obscene hipsters (or dharma bums) who eschewed responsibility, but they viewed themselves as roamers of America and characters of a special spirituality.[1] At least for Kerouac and Ginsberg, Beat had a quasi-religious connotation.

Becoming Dharma Bums

The Beats were a restless breed of young Americans who matured in the wake of World War II. Their encumbered, restive souls clashed with the reactionary Eisenhower administration and the ever-looming fear of the bomb. They needed a respite and found it in Eastern Philosophy. They stumbled upon Buddhism and in it they found an exciting and sympathetic way to understand humanity. The Beats viewed mindful meditation as a wonderful coping mechanism for the fast-paced, capitalistic society of which they no longer wished to be a part.[2] Their congested thoughts found sanctuary in the Dharma, which nourished their need to be in the “here and now.” They often translated as being with “it” and searching for “it.”

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac is the most explicit exploration of this need. It serves as a kind of 20th century rift on Zen koans and was a primer to Buddhism in America. The Dharma Bums is often overshadowed by its behemoth predecessor, On the Road, Kerouac’s magnum opus, but it serves as a redolent exploration of Buddhism and its effect on the Beats.

In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac chronicles his experiences with Zen fanatic, Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder). Snyder enthralled Kerouac and his friends with his steady Buddhist attitude and his love of the sexual practice yab-yum. In the book, Snyder studied Oriental culture at Berkeley and existed as a ‘bhikkhu’ to the rest of them, teaching them how to lead lives devoid of materialism, a pillar of Buddhism.[3] Snyder even taught Jack how to meditate. Kerouac and Snyder explored the loneliness of the mountains and the joyful stillness that landscape brought. It was a transformative experience for Kerouac and it set him on the path of Buddhism for years to come. He even went as far as writing his own guide, Some of the Dharma, that would go unpublished until after his death. But in The Dharma Bums, Kerouac packages Buddhism in a way that is palatable to those in the west. He mixes destiny with Buddhism and turns it into an exotic experience that anyone could do. He even filled it with his own Western koans like: “it’s impossible to fall off mountains, you …. can fall off a mountain or not I don’t know, but I had learned that you can’t.”[4]

Buddhism helped make the Beats who they were and the Beats would in turn bring Buddhism to the West, turning it into something sexy and fun to consume. They pushed words and practices like zen, dharma, yab-yum, and karma into the public psyche. Now Western Buddhism is mainstream.


[1] Kerouac, Jack. “About the Beat Generation”, (1957), published as “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation” in Esquire, March 1958

[2] Michael Schumacher, Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

[3] Shunryu Suzuki et al., Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Books (Shambhala, 2011)

[4] Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2007).

Karen Dewar

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