The Plurality of Beat Spirituality

by Lee McRae

‘The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole are holy! – Allen Ginsberg

In the twenty-first century many do not find much need to cling so readily to a spiritually all-omnipotent, all-divine, transcendental figure. Nor do people need to. Our lives are spent conceptually designing our self-entertainment, our lifestyles and our loves. In the wake of modernity and the highly empirical nature of the twenty-first century, one is left with very little time to examine the nature of reality, the construct of life and the divine. It is here where we can learn from the Beat Generation. The Beats, with their opposition to the materialism of 1950s America, found time to awaken to the spiritual and the transcendental whilst moving away from the clinical. For me the spiritual side of the Beats is an important aspect and one which has not had the full recognition it so rightly deserves. I am going to look at several key spiritual movements and people who have inspired the Beats. Literature around this subject tends to be biased towards the area of Buddhism and in particular Zen Buddhism; I hope to show that this is not merely the case and there are in fact a plethora of spiritual influences which affected the Beats, most of which pre-date Buddhist urges and awakenings.

It was Jack Kerouac who, in 1953, whet his appetite with the spiritual teachings of the Buddhist faith. By accident he picked up a copy of Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible, when in fact he was searching for information on the Hindu faith. He was inspired to do so after reading Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden. Thoreau, a nineteenth century philosopher and transcendentalist, explains how ‘Simple Living’ is the key to the spiritual enlightenment. When it came to the Buddhist faith the Beats tended to factor several of the major teachings from different areas, including Mahayana, Tantric practices and Zen. Tantric practises gave the Beats sexual independence where Zen offered the Beats a sense of freedom in their spontaneous expression, a freedom of free-thinking. So why Buddhism, why the reaction against the religious institutions of the West? In answering this we may as well start at the start and look towards the German philosopher Oswald Spengler.

Spengler compiled a two volume doctrine entitled The Decline of the West. This doctrine discusses the rise and fall of civilisations that, for the Beats, captured the spirit of their times. A copy of this text was first handed down to Jack Kerouac in 1945 as a present from William Burroughs and was to become important in several respects. Firstly, Spengler suggests that it is within the cultures of the East where a person may find their spiritual path and rescue them from the failing West, a notion that would have no doubt inspired Kerouac to see beyond the mono-cultural boundaries of 1950s America and to explore deep, both culturally and spiritually, into unknown territory. Secondly, Spengler suggests that it is those who are downtrodden and downbeat who will prevail when social structures collapse. Spengler denotes these as the ‘fellaheen’, a term originally ascribed to an Arabian peasant or labourer.

Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs found that the ‘fellaheen’ were all around them in America; the underclass, the racially marginalised and the generally inferior were all considered to be part of this much darker but all the more real existence. Kerouac came to call these ‘the subterraneans’, where Ginsberg preferred the term ‘desolation angels’. Kerouac would spend a great amount of time exploring African-American culture, detailing the music and finding his home amongst the late-night saxophonists in Harlem. For Burroughs his work is filled with dystopian passion, a deep and sordid look at the life of the underclass, a life he himself could profess to living, an existence formed around drug habits and proletariat misgivings, un-publishable literature and homosexual desires.

In an article by Stephen Prothero entitled On the Holy Road he links the Spenglerian notion of the ‘fellaheen’ to two inspirational Beat figures, Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke. Huncke was the embodiment of the ‘fellaheen’, the ‘holy Creephood’, who become the personification of Beat idealism. However, as Prothero tells us, by following the wayward instability of Huncke the Beats could have possibly turned their spiritual venture into an ‘amoral, nihilistic apocalypticism’. It was only in the hedonism and voyeuristic stability of Neal Cassady where the Beats would begin a new route and move forward in their establishment of a ‘New Vision’. What distinguished Cassady from Huncke was a criminality that was awash with pleasure, a larceny of delight regardless of economic reward. This led to Cassady being idolised as a free-thinking Beat contemporary, or as Ginsberg coins in his poem ‘Howl’, ‘secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver – Joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls’. So, was Spengler an important influence upon the Beats on their journey into the ‘New Vision’? Possibly so, but as you probably have gathered, the Beats had a multitude of influence and inspiration from a range of movements, intellectuals and spiritual figures. Let us move forward to the movement known as transcendentalism.

So what is transcendentalism? Put simply it is the prioritising of the spiritual or intuitive over the material or empirical. American transcendentalism was a movement which began in the nineteenth century with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The catalyst for the movement was an essay written in 1836 by Emerson, entitled Nature. Inspired by German idealism and English Romanticism, the transcendentalists compiled a series of thought based on the nature of how we exist and view the world around us. Transcendental idealism, the term from which transcendentalism is derived, comes from the term applied to the philosophies of Immanuel Kant who proclaimed ‘all knowledge transcendental which is concerned not with objects but with our mode of knowing objects’. John Tytell in his Beat book Naked Angels, tells us how, in many ways, the Beats paralleled the American transcendentalist movement of the nineteenth century.

The Beats’ ideas of reformation, revolt and revolution hold roots among the great thinkers of this period. Thoreau, as Tytell notes, had an ‘essentially conservative distrust of machines and industry’, a ‘desire to return to the origins of man’s relations to the land’. The poet and transcendentalist Walt Whitman, whom I have not yet mentioned, was also of great importance in the construction of Beat idealism. Whitman influenced much of Ginsberg’s poetical work with the use of the long-line, as well as influencing the Beats spiritually with his connection to the American transcendentalist movement. Whitman was a true Beat ancestor: he had strong political views that sort to reform America, he refused to accept gender roles and he held an interest in the religions of the East. Like some of the Beats, Whitman’s work was deemed obscene with overt sexual references and homosexual nuances.

Emerson, perhaps the most important practitioner in this movement, was a spiritual tactician who explored the inner spirituality of the self. During his lifetime Emerson investigated the Hindu scriptures in his attempt to make contact with the sacred on the nonverbal level, to be inspired on intuition alone and to find the divine within nature. Emerson taught that ‘Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members’. In 1963, Timothy Leary, a writer, avid friend to Burroughs and advocate of psychedelic drugs, was fired from a teaching post at Harvard, yet for Leary this was something of an honour as Emerson, too, had once been fired from Harvard in 1838, after evangelically urging his students to renounce organised Christianity and to find God within.

So far I feel I have not spoken very much about the Beat writer William Burroughs and I think this is understandable, for Burroughs lacked the spiritual urges of his counterparts and had very little faith or interest in the Buddhist religion either. In Lawrence Coupe’s book Beat Sound, Beat Vision, Burroughs is in fact dismissed entirely and focus is placed mainly on Kerouac and Ginsberg for the reason that Burroughs did not particularly have this spiritual side to him as did the others. Ted Morgan, in his biography of the writer entitled Literary Outlaw, speaks of an interesting meeting Burroughs had in 1975 at his time spent at the Naropa Institute, Colorado. The institute brought like-minded individuals together as well as cultivating the spiritual side using Buddhist philosophy. During his time spent there Burroughs watched carefully the Tibetan monk known as Trungpa. Burroughs became more and more cynical about the holiness of this man and, as Morgan notes, ‘Trungpa did not appear to be a model of ascetic behaviour, with his drinking, his chain-smoking, and his habit of asking his female devotees to become his concubines’. Perhaps rightly so Burroughs was weary about how devoted his Buddhist associates were to the religion and the lifestyle that was expected of them. After dinner one night Burroughs noted that ‘in 3,000 years the Buddhists have not come up with the answer to the question: What is the real nature of the word?’

Burroughs was not the only person to doubt the Buddhist awakenings of the Beats either. Alan Watts, writer of The Way of Zen, who had a part in popularising Buddhism throughout the counterculture, famously said that Kerouac had ‘Zen flesh but no Zen bones’. Even Gary Snyder, ‘Zen lunatic’ and prodigy in the Kerouac novel The Dharma Bums, believed that Kerouac had not taken much at all from the religion. He believed Kerouac had only taken the Buddhist idea of ‘emphasis on compassion’ and the extension of time and space. As for Ginsberg, Buddhism, with the help of Kerouac as a spiritual guide, became his life-love and his joy and would write and study a great deal around the subject, venturing into many different areas of practice. Where Ginsberg would continue his practice of the religion, Kerouac, in the years before his death, became dissatisfied with the teachings and returned his faith to Catholicism. In the last year of his life, in an interview for the Paris Review, Kerouac was questioned as to why he had written and placed his faith in Buddha and not Jesus; Kerouac retorted angrily at the question, saying ‘All I write about is Jesus!’

Kerouac, in a scene from The Dharma Bums, asks the character Japhy – the real Gary Snyder – ‘What’s wrong with Jesus? Didn’t Jesus speak of Heaven? Isn’t Heaven Buddha’s Nirvana?’ To which Japhy replies ‘According to your own interpretation’. In this same conversation Kerouac tells us how he feels ‘suppressed’ by this need to separate ‘Buddhism from Christianity, East from West, what the hell difference does it make?’ Later in the book Japhy makes a comparison between Kerouac and the Buddhist author Dwight Goddard. Goddard, like Kerouac, spent much of his life in celebration of the Buddhist faith but then, approaching the end of his life, devoted himself to the Bible and Christian teachings. What I see in Kerouac is a conflict, this need to retain a sense of his childhood leanings toward Catholicism, his later love for Buddha, the transcendental divine, and the appreciation of nature, all of which is well documented in his novel The Dharma Bums.

So what can we assess from this conflicting, plurality of spirituality, other than that it cannot be reduced to a simple sentence declaring the Beats as Zen? For one thing we can appreciate that the area of spirituality, in particular, caused a great conflict of views between the principal Beat writers. What started off as an avid interest in spirituality, the divine and transcendentalism, soon filed off into several conflicting routes. Kerouac in particular was greatly influenced by nature and transcendentalist writings but found a conflict between the religions of East and West and found it difficult to so readily disregard Catholicism all together. Ginsberg’s formal understanding and study of Buddhism came later on in the 1970s and was to become the basis for much of his influence both musically and lyrically. For anyone who has read Jane Kramer’s Allen Ginsberg in America will note, the book seems structured mainly around the chanting of ‘Om’ at every appropriate occasion or Ginsberg opening a case to reveal a harmonium to which he begins to play. For Burroughs, there is much less emphasis in his life on religion. Most notably were his interest, appreciation, as well as criticism of Scientology, which he believed would be very useful but held a certain scepticism regarding the organisation itself.

This account can only act as an introduction to the Beats and issues of spirituality and there are many more ideas and areas that could have been discussed: Ginsberg’s ‘mystical visions and cosmic vibrations’ which unveiled in the form of a hallucination of the English romantic poet William Blake and Gary Snyder’s enthusiastic and influential study of Buddhism, are to name only two. I hope though this piece forms, at least, an invitation to the reader or scholar to discover more about a complex and intriguing web of relations and attitudes to the religious which underlie the Beat odyssey.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

View Comments

  • Really enjoyed this - on a Kerouac jag at the moment, so much of it went straight into a vein! Spenglerian apocalyptic dimension of Kerouac > Dylan > 'empire's evening'/ 'evening's empire' ... but I just love his writing - 'It was Christmas Eve, it was snowing in the North' - those wonderful opening pages of Maggie Cassidy ...



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