by Charlie Canning

Photos by John La Farge and David S. Wills


Since the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1853, the United States and Japan have had a long and varied history. Initially, the United States wanted trade with Japan to extend American influence in Asia as well as to compete with Britain, Russia, and France. These were mercantile and political concerns that had little to do with Japan as an extant civilization with something to offer the West. But three times in the last one hundred and fifty years, American interest in Japan has been decidedly cultural.

The first wave of American interest in Japanese culture was brought about by a group of writers and art collectors from Boston in the 1880s that included Edward S. Morse, Ernest Fenollosa, and William Sturgis Bigelow. Henry Adams, John La Farge, and Percival Lowell would follow. Small as it was, this group of Bostonians had enormous influence on the reception of Japanese culture and art in the United States.

The second wave of American interest in Japanese culture took place in the 1950s. This time around, it was a West Coast phenomenon based not on Japanese art but on Zen. The works of D. T. Suzuki were widely read and later popularized by Alan Watts. Jack Kerouac, who had became an overnight sensation with the publication of On the Road, popularized Zen (and Japanese culture) further, in his novel The Dharma Bums. Finally, the poet and writer Gary Snyder, himself mythologized in Kerouac’s writings, led the way by traveling to Japan and entering a Zen monastery.Amida Buddha at Kamakura, by John la Farge

According to Roland Kelts in his book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Has Invaded the U.S., we are currently experiencing a third wave of interest in things Japanese. This time around, it is an interest in Japanese pop culture that is the driving force. Behind this trend are the game platforms manufactured by Nintendo and Sony as well as Japanese manga and anime.

Although the second wave of interest in Japan has much in common with both the first and third waves, it is singular in many respects. One thing that sets it apart from all other periods is that it followed close upon a war. Considering the antipathy, fear, and hatred that had been whipped up by World War II, this is surprising. But after the war, there was a reappraisal of Japanese culture that began to go significantly beyond the “know your enemy” brand of research typified by Ruth Benedict’s groundbreaking study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946).

Another thing that differentiates the second wave from the first and third waves was that it was primarily religious in nature. Although it might be argued that Fenollosa and Bigelow were also interested in religion (both ultimately “converted” to Buddhism), they were principally art collectors who developed an interest in religion. The group in the second wave, however, traveled light. They were in it for the Zen. (Some of the Buddhas that Fenollosa brought to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are over two meters tall. The Beats carried theirs in their backpacks.)

A third major difference between the waves was that the second, unlike the first and the third, was countercultural. The interest in Zen Buddhism was driven by a deep dissatisfaction with the prevailing culture in America. Although one could argue that both Fenollosa and Bigelow were dissatisfied with Boston culture, their aim was more to share the artistic wonders of Japan with their countrymen than to challenge the prevailing mythos of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. Henry Adams was dissatisfied, to be sure, but he looked more to the medieval cathedrals of France rather than to the temples of Japan for his unifying vision of cultural force.

Finally, the second wave is quite singular in that its influences were readily absorbed into an American subculture. In this respect, the Beats may have borrowed a page from the Japanese: Watts, Kerouac, Snyder, and others took something foreign and made it their own. Now that Zen Buddhism has become popular on both coasts of the United States, it may be surprising to learn that it was relatively unknown in America before the 1950s. There are several reasons for this. One was that Christianity as the predominant faith of America was largely unquestioned. Another was that Buddhism was an Oriental rather than an Occidental religion. A third was the war. And finally, there was the language barrier. Many of the Buddhist texts were written in Asian languages and had never been translated into comprehensible English.

As Ann Douglas has pointed out, “Interest in the East had been building since the late 1940s, part of what historian Robert Ellwood calls ‘the spiritual underground’ of Cold War America.” (xvii) Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain (1948) and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) were widely read and discussed in academic circles.

The central figure in the introduction of Zen Buddhism to America was D. T. Suzuki. Suzuki was a fine translator, but since there was not a lot written about Zen to begin with, his greatest contribution was in explaining things that were seemingly beyond words. In his books Essays in Zen Buddhism (3 vols. 1927-1934), Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (1930), The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk (1934), An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934), Manual of Zen Buddhism (1935), and Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (1938), Suzuki sought to make Zen intelligible to a Western audience.

Suzuki began lecturing at Columbia in 1951. At first, the turnout was often quite small. But the few who heard his lectures were singularly impressed by his scholarship, wit, and saint-like bearing. He was a favorite of both Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts. Later, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (both one-time Columbia students), and Gary Snyder would read him voraciously. Although Professor Suzuki had a sublime way of explaining Zen, his books were primarily for an academic audience. It was up to Watts, Kerouac, and Snyder to popularize Zen still further.

Englishman Alan W. Watts (1915-1973) was a prodigy of sorts who developed a lifelong passion for Buddhism and Oriental philosophy when still a child. He published his first booklet on Zen in 1932 when just twenty-one years old. Though Watts’ The Spirit of Zen was largely derivative of Suzuki’s three-volume Essays in Zen Buddhism, Watts’ contribution was in making what was both foreign and sublime that much more accessible to the general reader. Watts combined a lucid prose style with an engaging wit and an uncanny feel for the right metaphor. Allied to this was an abhorrence of any form of philosophical cant or academic posturing. He had no patience with those who sought to use language to obscure meaning or truth. Like Suzuki, who was in many ways his spiritual mentor, Watts wanted to be understood.

After marrying the daughter of Ruth Fuller Everett (later Sasaki) in 1938, Watts moved to New York City where he studied Zen with Sokei-an Sasaki. Later, he left New York to enter the seminary in the hopes of one day bridging the gap between Christianity and Eastern religions. This was to be a recurrent theme throughout the remainder of his life.

In 1951, Watts relocated to San Francisco where he soon became one of the most recognizable figures in the Bay Area. He continued to write and publish on all sorts of religious, spiritual, and political subjects and had his own weekly radio show, (some of these broadcasts are now available for download on iTunes). Watts’ enthusiasm was contagious and he soon developed a large following both in California and on college campuses around America. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, young people across the nation were reading books by Watts with titles like The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), The Way of Zen (1957), Nature, Man and Woman (1958), This Is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (1960) and Psychotherapy East and West (1961).

Another cult figure of the 1950s and 1960s that did much to promote Japanese culture in America was writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). Kerouac’s breakout novel was On the Road, published to wide acclaim in 1957. Here we have Kerouac’s frenetic “spontaneous prose,” a breakneck monologue of highways, truck stops, freight trains, jazz, cigarettes, and booze.

Kerouac’s next novel The Dharma Bums was published in 1958. Although similar in some respects to On the Road in its depiction of the “devil-may-care” life of the modern American hobo, The Dharma Bums sought to portray the more spiritually driven quest of the Buddhist bihhiku or wanderer. Buddha himself was a wanderer, we are told, and he reached nirvana through travel and meditation. Might young people in America reach enlightenment in a similar way?

The hero of The Dharma Bums is Japhy Ryder (a “semi-fictional” character based on Gary Snyder), “a kid from eastern Oregon” who “learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen lunatics of China and Japan.” (6) Japhy introduces Ray Smith, the narrator of The Dharma Bums and Kerouac’s alter ego, to the Chinese and Japanese forms of Buddhism. There are frequent references to Japan and Japanese culture throughout the novel including allusions to D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen, Okakura Tenshin’s The Book of Tea, R. H. Blyth’s four-volume work on haiku, and the stone gardens of Roanji.

Kerouac’s portrayal of the spiritual quest had tremendous appeal – especially among young people. In his “Introduction” to Kerouac’s biography of Buddha, entitled Wake Up, Professor Robert A. F. Thurman recalls his own reading of The Dharma Bums when the novel first came out in 1958:


 But now I realize that when I read The Dharma Bums as a teen in the late fifties, I was exposed to perhaps the most accurate, poetic, and expansive evocation of the heart of Buddhism that was available at that time. Not to say that it was perfect, or to pretend that I would be able to tell if it was or wasn’t – it’s just that it is so incredibly inspiring, and must have deeply affected my seventeen-year-old self in 1958, the year it was first published and the year I ran away from Phillips Exeter Academy and went looking for a revolution. (vii-viii)


Some critics, however, including Alan Watts, did not think that Kerouac’s understanding of Buddhism was all that accurate. Thurman again notes, “The thing about Kerouac that might have made him less accepted among early California Buddhists – Gary Snyder and Alan Watts and others – was that he was not taken by the Ch’an/Zen line of things, though he loved the writings of Han Shan, the ‘cold mountain’ poetic meditations transmitted by Snyder. Kerouac was more moved by the Indian Mahayana line ….” (ix)

In his book Buddhism in America, Joseph M. Kitagawa wrote of the popularity of Zen Buddhism among the Beats and “the temptation to consider Buddhism as a sort of escape from workaday reality.” “Young nonconformists in America” have tended “to use Buddhism for non-religious ends.” (327) But for Kerouac, it didn’t really matter whether he understood Zen perfectly or not. He was a Catholic who viewed Buddhism and Catholicism as one and the same. And as Ann Douglas has pointed out, “At a time when Americans were routinely told they had only two choices – Soviet-style communism or American capitalist democracy and all that went with it – Buddhism offered a third way.” (xxii) Kerouac’s novels were popular among the youth of the 1950s and 1960s because they offered a spiritual rationale for leading an alternative lifestyle.

Unmunsa, by David S WillsThe final person responsible for the second wave of interest in Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture is poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder (1930-). Snyder came to Japan on a scholarship from the First Zen Institute of America in 1956. Initially, he practiced Zen at Shokoku-ji in Kyoto, the same temple where the great landscape painter Sesshu had studied with Shuban. Although Snyder had not come to Japan to study painting per se, Chinese landscape painting (later referred to as Bunjin-ga in Japan) was to have a profound effect on both his poetry and his environmental activism. As Dana Goodyear has noted in her 2008 article on Snyder in The New Yorker, “Snyder’s most complex and difficult work is ‘Mountains and Rivers Without End,’ a poem cycle that absorbed him from 1956 until 1996, and whose title is taken from a category of Chinese landscape painting.”

The connection between Chinese landscape painting, Snyder’s poetry, and his environmental activism is to be found in the spiritual dimension of the paintings. They combine philosophical ideas and meditation with key natural elements (mountains, rivers, and trees), in an attempt to express “the beauty of the natural world.” (Munsterberg 128) For anyone who can appreciate this, conservation is axiomatic.

Snyder continued his studies of Zen Buddhism in Japan throughout the 1960s. After returning to the United States, he settled in the California foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1971. Since then he has published widely on all manner of themes, trying to integrate his poetic vision with the Buddhist precept of the “right means of livelihood.” This has resulted in a unified, spiritual form of grounded environmentalism that seeks to connect people with their immediate surroundings.

The final thing that should be said about Snyder is that while others may have “talked the talk” about Zen, Snyder has “walked the walk.” Not content with just reading about Zen and Japanese culture in a library, Snyder traveled to Japan, entered a Zen monastery, and learned the language. Both in his writings and in his life, he has served as an exemplary model for others about how best to live and learn about all cultures whether they be foreign or our own.

In a letter to Snyder just before The Dharma Bums was published, Kerouac wrote that he “hoped to ‘crash open whole scene to sudden Buddhism boom … everybody reading Suzuki on Madison Avenue,’ paving the way for Snyder’s poetry. ‘Gary, this is your year,’ he promised.” (Douglas xviii) Although this didn’t happen, the influences of the second wave on both American and Japanese culture are still with us today. The present interest in New Age spiritualism is a direct outgrowth of the Buddhism of the Beats and the “Age of Aquarius” of the Hippies. Gary Snyder and the environmental movement are still going strong.



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