Filed in Arts & Culture

Negative Capability: Kerouac's Buddhist Ethic

Allen Ginsberg

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Jack Kerouac's interest in Buddhism began after he spent some time with Neal Cassady, who had taken on an interest in the local California variety of New Age spiritualism, particularly the work of Edgar Cayce. Kerouac mocked Cassady as a sort of homemade American "Billy Sunday with a suit" for praising Cayce, who went into trance states of sleep and then read what were called the Akashic records, and gave medical advice to the petitioners who came to ask him questions with answers which involve reincarnation. So, Kerouac was interested in going back to the original historic sources. He went to the library in San Jose, California and read a book called A Buddhist Bible, edited by Dwight Goddard—a very good anthology of classic Buddhist texts. Kerouac read them very deeply, memorized many of them, and then went on to do other reading and other research and actually became a brilliant intuitive Buddhist scholar. Gary Snyder noted that Kerouac did have an intelligent grasp of Eastern thought, also a learned grasp, and that's something most people don't realize.

He introduced me to it in the form of letters reminding me that suffering was the basis of existence, which is the first Noble Truth in Buddhism. I was at the time a more or less left-wing liberal progressive intellectual, and I was insulted that Kerouac was telling me that the real basis of existence was suffering. I thought this was a personal insult and didn't realize he was simply telling me what he had realized was the basic nature of life.

There is this doctrine in Buddhism of the Three Marks of Existence: first, that existence contains suffering; in Yiddish, existence contains tsuris, serious difficulty. Born, as the poet Gregory Corso says, "a hairy bag of water," there's going to be some difficulty before you leave your body, some irritability or discomfort. If you don't like the word "suffering" then you have to accept that existence contains some "discomfort." The traditional definition is that, being born, the inevitable ultimate consequence is old age, sickness, and death, well described by Kerouac. This is inevitable.

The second characteristic of existence as described in Buddhadharma is Impermanence—the transitoriness of our condition; the fact that what we have here is like a dream, in the sense that it is real while it is here. And so Kerouac would say to me, "Come back in a million years and tell me if this is real." He had the sense of the reality of existence and at the same time the unreality of existence. To Western minds this is a contradiction and an impossibility. But actually, it is not impossible because it is true; this universe is real, and is at the same time unreal. This is known in Buddhism as a co-immergent wisdom, the fact that form and emptiness are identical. These are just basic Buddhist ideas. You'll find the terminology of sunyata, emptiness within form, running through all of Kerouac's middle-period writing, especially in Mexico City Blues. The idea of transitoriness, of impermanence, is not a Himalayan idea, and not an Oriental idea, it's a classic Western idea. For, as Gregory Corso paraphrases Heraclitus—"You can't step in the same river once." You remember Heraclitus: "You can't step in the same river twice"? So Corso put it one poetic move ahead.

What Kerouac was discovering was not some strange Oriental notion alien to the Western mind. He was exploring the basis of mind itself as it's known in the West as in the East, except that he saw the Buddhist formulations as being perhaps more sophisticated than the monotheistic formulation of the West. Nevertheless there were non-theistic formulations of the same thing in writers that he read like Lucretius and Montaigne.

So, the third aspect of existence or third mark of existence is anatmaatman means self; anatma is no permanent self. That comes from the second mark, no permanence of any kind. "All the foundations of existence are transitory," or as Kerouac paraphrased traditional Buddhist terminology, "All the constituents of being are transitory." That being so, there is no permanent selfhood, no permanent me me me me me, and no permanent Great Me in Heaven. There is no reference point at all. There is nothing but open space or, as it is known to existentialists, the Void. Sunyata, as it is known in the Orient; open and accommodating space. The existentialist sense of "the void" as a claustrophobic bummer is a very Western and theistic notion. In the East, the notion of "open space" or "accommodating space" is considered a liberation from the limitation of horizon or boundary wherein a theistic God image is the ultimate reference point. Or to put it very simply, when Chogyam Trungpa, who appreciated Kerouac's writings a great deal, was asked by his son: "Daddy, is there a God?" Trungpa said: "No." And his son said: "Whew!" That sigh of relief might have solved many of Kerouac's problems.

So, he introduced me to Buddhism in the form of song. As you may know, Kerouac admired Frank Sinatra for his crooning enunciation, for his oratory, for his clarity of speech, for the precision with which he pronounced the affective emotional content of his vowels. And so, like Frank Sinatra, the first direct Buddhist word I heard from Kerouac's mouth after letters, was his singing of the Three Refuges. So, that would be the next step.

This is basic to Kerouac's understanding of Buddhism. It goes: "In Buddha I take my refuge, in dharma I take my refuge, in sangha I take my refuge." Buddha may be defined here as wakened mind; clear, not sleeping, not daydreaming but clear, aware of this space. Dharma is the intellectual explanation and exposition of the state of awakeness—historically, through sutra discourses and through understanding of the theory. Sangha is the assembled fellow awakened meditators. So he sang to me in Sanskrit: "Buddham Saranam Gochamee, Dhammam Saranam Gochamee, Sangham Saranam Gochamee"; he sang it like Frank Sinatra in 1952. And that first introduced me to the delicacy and softness of his Buddhism aside from the tough truth of suffering, transitoriness, and no permanent Allen Ginsberg, no permanent Kerouac.

Following that are the Four Noble Truths which readers read in his writing without inquiring further about what they are, although in various essays Kerouac expounds them. Have any of his critics read Kerouac closely enough to remember what he said about the Four Noble Truths? We should pay sufficient respect to Kerouac to ask: "What did he mean by the Four Noble Truths? What are these Four Noble Truths that he speaks of continually?" Perhaps they should be presented here as part of an exposition of Kerouac's ethics, because this refers directly to the central ethics we find in Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, Some of the Dharma, Wake Up, his unpublished biography of Buddha, Desolation Angels, and even in later works more charged with monotheistic Catholic notions of Sacred Heart in relation to suffering.

The Four Noble Truths (based on the Three Marks of Existence) are as follows. First, existence contains suffering. Second, suffering is caused by ignorance of the conditions in which we exist—ignorance of the transitoriness and ignorance of anatma, the empty nature of the situation, so that everybody is afraid of a permanent condition of suffering and doesn't realize that suffering itself is transitory, impermanent. There is no permanent Hell, there is no permanent Heaven. Therefore, the suffering that we sense during this transition of life is not a permanent condition that we need to be afraid of. It's not where we're going to end up. We end liberated from the suffering either by death, or in life, by waking up to the nature of our situation and not clinging and grasping, screaming and being angry, resentful, irritable or insulted by our existence.

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melcher's picture

A couple of years ago, on my 60th birthday an exhibition of the complete scroll of Kerouac's On The Road typed continually on a roll of butcher paper and edited by hand in pen and ink came to the Governor's Palace in the center of Santa Fe. I remember going in and looking at the long scroll, unwound under glass and feeling tears welling up, I wasn't even conscious of why at the time. Reflecting on this I came to realize that in a sense, this is an American sutra. As a writer and a reader Kerouac's method and approach to the flow of the mind evoked in words opened up the forms of 20th century literature. His sense of adventure, his commitment to the search, his humor and scepticism and compassion toward the whole human race opened the door for the light to enter and transformed a generation ready for the teachings. He and Ginsburgh and all the rest were the leading edge of a culture preparing to break free from the restrictive moorings of its past and its prejudices. I bow to them all.

dr_porath's picture

The Compassionate Buddha, Mentor Edition purchased in the PX in Yokosuka after bringing the Korean War to an end, my first exposure. The great Buddha at Kamakura was within visiting distance, and I recited Namyo Horenge gyo with no idea of what it meant! Yes, I was "On the Road" like Jack Kerouac and the other Beatnics, and attended a lecture by D.T. Suzuki at MCC, Km. 16 across from the Flytrap on the highway to Toluca. Suzuki and Eric Fromm were writing Budismo Zen y Psicoanalists amidst Fromm's zillion orchids in Cuernavaca, while Burroughs was playing William Tell using his wife to support the apple. They had just dressed the Diana on Reforma in that bold movie, and the little man with the bald head had to weather a lot of hoots and catcalls from the not so Buddhist audience until he began to speak, and then you could hear a pin drop. Bridey Murphy was the rage in reincarnation, and that big quake was coming soon, the Angel would fly from her perch atop the Independence Monument. Yes, Kerouac and is Beat spawn were very influential if you were slightly out of step, drinking taros of good, dark Mexican beer at Seps wearing urine-cured leather jackets, and spouting Haiku.

astonished's picture

I was a college student in upstate New York during the early 1970s. I was introduced to the idea of buddhism for the first tme when I read Ken Kesey's Electric Koolaid Acid Test and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. These best-sellers were read by many others at the time. Those books gave me a version of buddhism that offered an alternative to religion that seemed to be connected to consciousness, art, and nature.'s picture

I attended Naropa Institute in the summer of perhaps 1975 or 1976. Cannot remember. Took a writing class with Ginsberg. It was very interesting. He had Burroughs come in and Corso was around. I somehow ended up at a party where Corso came through. My impressions of him were that he was attention-seeking and boorish. Ginsberg at that time seemed pretty benign. However, my overall impressions from that summer were not favorable, and I was very relieved to leave Boulder and return home. A very bad introduction for me to Buddhism.

jshanson's picture

Screw Allen Ginsberg - after the Shambhala goons forcibly stripped W.S. Merwin and his girlfriend because Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wanted to see her naked - google the Naropa Poetry Wars - and there was outrage by a handful of people who cared less about being "spiritual" in Boulder, CO. Allan Ginsberg accused them of "not understanding the wisdom of the East." Yeh right, Allan. I honestly believe that in late 1930s Berlin Allen Ginsberg would have been a Jew who collaborated, all his posturing and posing to the contrary. The first picture I saw of him was him in meditation, beads, etc - posed for the camera - capitalizing on the sacred to draw even more attention to his ego.

I like the beats but I've never liked Allen Ginsburg - commercial "radical" trash in America. A false God, a predatory.

m.goulash's picture

jshanson, anybody could have been a collaborator with Nazi Germany. That is an easy thing to say, entirely hypothetical and no way to prove or disprove. Good grief! I cannot understand how you can "like" the beats but dislike Ginsberg. It was through Ginsberg's tireless promotion of his friends, his efforts to get them published, putting them before himself that created the Beat Generation. I agree that his apology (not the right word, defense maybe?) for Chogyam Trungpa was a big mistake, but he, Ginsberg, was operating under the false assumption that he must surrender everything to his teacher, that his teacher was infallible. Honestly, I cannot even take Chogyam Trungpa seriously after hearing about this incident, and it is a black mark against Ginsberg, but seriously? --posturing and posing? I don't know where to begin with that one. The man whom Norman Mailer called the bravest man in America? Defused tensions with the Hell's Angels, continuously chanting OM to comfort the crowd at the Democratic Convention in Chicago (might there not have been alot more blood spilt that day?), this guy laid it all on the line. I cannot imagine a more generous, big-hearted individual. But, okay, I will stop ranting and admit you are entitled to like or dislike whomever you want, taste is individual, but we all make mistakes, Ginsberg included. Don't take it personally. Later.

patw's picture

In the sixties I was influenced by Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cayce and Ken Kesey, who lived just up the road. I didn't read Siddhartha until the 90's. Funny how we each think our reality is THE reality. What fun to read this and see how our translations of things like the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path have changed over time. Made me stop and consider them anew.

rewatlingjr's picture

I was exposed to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder, et al in the late sixties while in highschool and have been influenced by them ever since. I have a post card from Ginsberg, dated February 21, 1978, in which he encourages me to look into Buddhism and meditation. I did not follow that advice until many years later, but yes, they influenced me. One of my favorite experiences is listening to AG read Dharma Bums. Hearing his voice pronouncing Kerouac's words is transcendent. Today I treasure the personal note from Ginsberg: "Poems should put you out energetic in your own solitude maybe, rather than be a divisive 'involvement.' Maybe meditation would wipe out the clinging if it is such."

Will.Rowe's picture

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and like most people arround me knew nothing of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Edgar Cayce, Dwight Goddard, Allen Ginsburg, Gary Snyder. I know they must have influenced many in north east cities or isolated pockets across US, but I think this influence is somewhat overplayed now in the media. (Personally, I have never met anyone who was influenced--or at least will admit it--by these "icons").

The novel Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, which was very popular in the 1960s, was what drew my interest into Buddhism, as it was for several in the community where I reside also freely admit. Just curious if anyone here on this site was actually introduced to Buddhism by any of these beatnicks or hippies of the last century.

larrys's picture

It’s been such an interesting revelatory reading, I hope I’ll get the chance to read that book myself; it’s certainly an eye opener on our existence. No wonder Buddha Maitreya is seen as the wisest figure by Buddhists all over the world.

rinchen_wangmo's picture

PS It works :)

rinchen_wangmo's picture

Thanks guys, I'm looking at Readability right now.
Sophie Rinchen

jjohanning's picture


Use Readability (, which I think can be installed in any browser. It should do what you want.

Monty McKeever's picture

Hi Rinchen,

I'm sorry to say, there isn't any print function for pieces in our archives. In my experience, printing from the archives often takes a bit of reformatting in a program like microsoft word.

There is a good page printing function in the digital editions of the magazine, but these editions only exist for recent issues (the last 10 or so) so won't be of much help regarding pieces as old as this one.


rinchen_wangmo's picture

Is it just me, or was there a Print function at a time, which seems to be gone (gone, all gone) now? In fact, it would be great to be able to read all articles, not just this one, on paper or an e-reader. In both cases, much easier on the eyes, since most e-readers have no backlit screen.

lschaden's picture

I just tried the print function in my browser and it created a document for the printer. I didn't actually print it but I don't see why you couldn't.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Edgar Cayce, Dwight Goddard, Allen Ginsburg, Gary Snyder: five-hundred...a thousand years from now these names may have become part of a pantheon invoked by American Buddhists as the early, ground-breaking pioneers of the Law in this country.

astringfellow's picture

Great observation, Dominic. Agreed.

jigdral's picture

Very interesting to see the connection between Kerouac and the Dharma, especially vis-a-vis Ginsberg and Cassady. On a related note, I have been involved with a comic project that features cameos in 1964 when Cassady introduced them to Ken Kesey. See Chronicles of Akasha, Issue Three (