Filed in Arts & Culture

Negative Capability: Kerouac's Buddhist Ethic

Allen Ginsberg

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It is possible to take our existence as a "sacred world," to take this place as open space rather than claustrophobic dark void. It is possible to take a friendly relationship to our ego natures, it is possible to appreciate the aesthetic play of forms in emptiness, and to exist in this place like majestic kings of our own consciousness. But to do that, we would have to give up grasping to make everything come out the way we daydream it should. So, suffering is caused by ignorance, or suffering exaggerated by ignorance or ignorant grasping and clinging to our notion of what we think should be, is what causes the "suffering of suffering." The suffering itself is not so bad, it's the resentment against suffering that is the real pain. This is where I think Kerouac got caught as a Catholic, ultimately, because I don't think he overcame that fear of the First Noble Truth.

The Third Noble Truth says there is an end to suffering, there is a way out of it. And the Fourth Noble Truth is called the Eightfold Path out of our suffering. The Eightfold Path is as follows: first, Right Understanding, Right View as it is called, Right Perspective on the whole scene of consciousness and space, which is the realization of suffering and the realization of transitoriness and the realization that there is no permanent ego. Right View, then, leads to the Right Aspiration or Right Ambition, or the ambition to overcome the obstacle of ignorance and greed and passion and clinging, and to get out of the fix.

Third after Right Aspiration comes Right Speech, speech that is in line or coordinated with an understanding of the basic situation. This is distinct from, let us say, the problem that Kerouac came to later, within the suffering of grasping for a permanent reference point in a Catholic God, who will save you and take you to Heaven, or who might condemn you to Hell: a sense of permanent doom or a permanent bliss that you are going to come to. So, Right Speech, not creating more mental garbage, not creating more mental fog for others or yourself.

© Allen Ginsberg

From Right Speech, the fourth step is Right Activity, not messing up the universe with an insistence that other people follow you towards your obsessive wars, either wars against God or for God, or for Hitler or against Hitler, or for your mother or against your mother.

From Right Action comes Right Labor, a right kind of work so you don't get the wrong job in the atom bomb industry and help blow up the world. From Right Labor comes Right Mindfulness, the awareness of what is around you unobstructed by guilt over what are you doing, saying, thinking, and working at.

From Right Mindfulness comes Right Energy, waking up in the morning, happy with what you are going to do, not obstructed by your own garbage. From Right Energy comes Right Samadhi or Right Meditation, basically being here where you are, unchanged, without guilt. Being able to exist without credentials, existing simultaneously with the earth without apology any more than the sun has to apologize.

Here we come to Walt Whitman's original American proclamation of this condition: "not till the sun rejects you do I reject you." This was also in line with Kerouac's understanding. So, from this comes a term which Kerouac pronounces over and over again in his poetry, the "bodhisattva." How many know what a bodhisattva is, and how he's using it? Here's the formula: the bodhisattva makes a very clear set of four simple vows.

First: sentient beings are numberless. I vow to liberate them all (dogs, worms, kitty cats, mommys, myself, Ginsberg). I vow to illuminate all, is the purpose of Kerouac's writing and the ultimate ethic of his writing. Second: obstacles are countless, I vow to cut through them. My own neuroses are countless, my own graspings are countless, one's own aggression is inexhaustible. Yet, one vows to relate to it, to acknowledge it, to work on it, to cut through it and open up and admit the existence of other sentient beings into one's universe and relate to them in an honest way.

Third of the four vows of the bodhisattva: dharma gates are uncountable, I vow to enter every gate. Dharma gates are situations in which to practice wakeful mind, situations to enter into without being afraid, including the situation of birth and death, the situation of writing dharmic works for America as Kerouac did, and the situation of not being afraid to be corny & display Sacred Heart in expounding Kerouac's prose. It's the disposition to allow our own emotion and tears and sense of suffering, to allow mutual confidence in each other with our most sensitive feelings, as Kerouac confided to us his most sensitive feelings: "Gates of dharma are endless, I vow not to boycott anyone." No boycott of any situation, but total openness toward all situations.

And last of all, Buddha path, or path of awakened mind, is infinite, endless, you never can finish with it, it's too long. I vow to follow through anyway. These are the Four Bodhisattva Vows.

Now, when you take the Bodhisattva Vows it doesn't mean you can do it. It only means that this is the direction in which you would like to go. This is your ideal. This is your compass or this is your heart's desire even if you can't accomplish it. You need not be prevented from being a bodhisattva for fear that you'll not be able to accomplish these four vows, because if that's a heart's desire, that's sufficient for you to take that vow. It's a compass point or a direction or an indication of desire, and a vow to go in that direction. No permanent Heaven, no punishment of permanent Hell for that. So, this then leads to the next: Highest Perfect Wisdom, or Prajnaparamita, the ultimate philosophical and ethical statement of Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, found in a text which Kerouac knew very well, the Heart Sutra.

To summarize the gist, Prajnaparamita, the Heart Sutra, says: "Avalokitesvara (down-glancing-Lord-of-mercy) Bodhisattva dwelled in meditation on Highest Perfect Wisdom when he realized that all the five heaps (skandas) of consciousness we have were empty, this relieved every suffering." Then this discourse continues:

Shariputra (student), form is emptiness, form is no different from emptiness, emptiness no different from form, form is the emptiness, emptiness is the form. Sensation, recognition, conceptualization, consciousness are also like this. Shariputra, this is the original character of everything. Not born, not annihilated, not tainted, not pure, does not increase, does not decrease.... No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object; no eye, no world of eyes until we come to no world of consciousness. No ignorance, also no combat against ignorance ... no suffering, no cause of suffering, no nirvana, no path, no wisdom, also no attainment because no non-attainment. Therefore every bodhisattva depends on Highest Perfect Wisdom because mind is no obstacle, because of no obstacle fear does not exist. Go beyond screwy views, attain nirvana. Past, present and future, every Buddha depends on this Highest Perfect Wisdom.... Therefore, I know Prajnaparamita is the great holy mantra, the untainted mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, is capable of assuaging all suffering. True because not false. Therefore he proclaimed Prajnaparamita mantra, and said mantra goes: Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha! Gone, gone, gone over the top, gone all the way over the top to the other shore, wakened mind. Salutations.  

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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 (