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Negative Capability: Kerouac's Buddhist Ethic

Allen Ginsberg

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That's a summary of the text of Prajnaparamita: "Highest Perfect Wisdom" Heart Sutra. Most of Kerouac's mid-late poetry depends on some glimpse or some understanding of that statement, as both an ethic and a philosophical take on reality and appearance. Once you get that terminology down, you'll be able to read his Mexico City Blues very easily and see how funny they are, what a good representation of the mind they are and how trenchant philosophically. Few readers have had the inquisitiveness to go into his Buddhism and learn its basis which can be summarized in one sentence which Kerouac often quoted from the Vajraheddika, or Diamond Sutra:

All conceptions as to the existence of the self, as well as conceptions as to the existence of a supreme self, as well as all conceptions as to the non-existence of the supreme self, are equally arbitrary, being only conceptions.

It's not very far from the notion that William Burroughs laid on Kerouac in 1945 when he gave him a copy of Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity, the basic foundation work in general semantics. The theme was: don't confuse words (and ideas) with events. The table is not a table. This is not a finger, it's called a finger but it is what it is. This leaves the universe open. The slogan is: "Avoid the is of identity."

Unfortunately, Kerouac had no teacher in the lineage of Zen or classical Buddhism. And so the one thing lacking was the tool, the instrument to realize the sort of substratum of all this exposition, namely the sitting practice of meditation—actually to take in his body the notion of emptiness or examine it as a process of mind, through the practice of classical meditation as handed down in immemorial "ear-whispered" tradition.

However, Kerouac was very intelligent and knew that substratum almost intuitively. You can tell that from his writing, from his poetry with its metaphors of emptiness and the description of vast spaciousness, which is the same thing as emptiness. You can see it at the end of The Town and the City, the vision of a football field, the sun going down behind the clouds and the vaster spaces beyon© Allen Ginsbergd in the sky. The sense of "panoramic awareness" runs through all of Kerouac's descriptions of landscape. You always find him focusing on Neal Cassady at the pool table or the snooker table with the camera receding as it does at the end of the movie Les Enfants du Paradis when the camera recedes above the buildings, above the Ferris wheel, until we see the vast crowd receding in a much vaster space.

Kerouac, however, lacked specific instruction in the actual method of meditation practice in Zen. This, basically, is to follow the breath and take a friendly attitude toward one's thoughts, but bring the mind back to attention to the breath. Kerouac had worked out his own form of sitting practice which involved squeezing his anus, closing his eyes, and trying to see a golden light.

He had some kind of satori from that. But the instruction one gets in ancient sitting practice is: as soon as you see your thoughts, renounce them, let go. Don't cling to thought, don't try and make it a reference point, keep the space of mind open. As Blake says, "He who binds to himself a joy/does the winged life destroy/He who kisses the joy as it flies/lives in eternity's sunrise."

That's the basis, simply paying attention to the ongoing process of breath while it's proceeding, and taking a friendly attitude towards your thought forms. Not inviting them in, not pushing them away, allowing them to take care of themselves, but keeping your attention on the actual physical space around you, the flow of the out breath. That's Tibetan style meditation. Gary Snyder never did teach him Zen Buddhist sitting practice style because of some odd miscommunication.

Kerouac's satori was clinging both to despair of suffering, fear of suffering, and permanent Hell, fear of a permanent Heaven: "I am only an Apache/smoking hashi, in old Cabashy/by the lamp," humorously frozen in a kind of horrible hashish Hell. He constantly refers to that image: "Pieces of the Buddha material frozen and sliced microscopically in morgues of the North ... skeletons of heroes ... fingers and joints ... elephants of kindness torn apart by vultures." So obsessed was he with the suffering he encountered that he wasn't able to let go. I think the alcohol amplified that suffering, left him prey to the phantasm of the monotheistic imposition which Blake had denounced as being "six thousand years of sleep" for Western civilization.

So, we have a contrast here, ethically and philosophically, between non-theistic Buddhist space-awareness or awareness practice, and theistic Catholicism's contemplation of or fixation on the Cross of suffering.

As Jack grew older, in despair and lacking the means to calm his mind and let go of the suffering, he tended more and more to grasp at the Cross. And so, in his later years, he made many paintings of the Cross, of cardinals, popes, of Christ crucified, of Mary; seeing himself on the Cross, and finally conceiving of himself as being crucified. He was undergoing crucifixion in the mortification of his body as he drank. Nonetheless, he did have this quality of negative capability, the ability to hold opposite ideas in his mind without "an irritable reaching out after fact and reason," which John Keats proposed as the true mind of the Shakespearian poet.

"I am Canuck, I am from Lowell, I am Jewish, I am Palestianian, I Am, I am the finger, I am the name." Kerouac was not heavily entangled in such fixed identity.

We owe it to Burroughs somewhat for having cut Kerouac loose from that "is of identity" in the mid-1940s so that Kerouac had the ability to empathize with the old transvestite queen and become "one of the world's/great bullshitters/girls," as he says in his Mexico City Blues: "Darling! Red hot/That kind of camping/I don't object to/unless it's kept within reason." He could empathize with the all-American boy, football hero. He could be a sophisticated littérateur or an old drunk alternatively. He could be country bumpkin, he could be as Thomas Wolfe, or he could empathize with William Burroughs as a "non-Wolfian" European sophisticate. So, in the end, his poetry and his prose becomes a perfect manifestation of his mind. That was the whole point of the spontaneous prosody. And the great Tibetan Lama Chogyam Trungpa, examining Kerouac's poetry, said: "It's a perfect manifestation of mind." His work is accepted in the Buddhist community as a great manifestation of poetic mind; true to the nature of mind as understood traditionally by Buddhist theories of spontaneous mind, how to achieve and how to use it.

Kerouac wrote an essay, "Last Words," in January 1967 (published in Escapade) quoting the Surangama Sutra:

If you are now desirous of more perfectly understanding Supreme Enlightenment, you must learn to answer spontaneously and with no recourse to discriminate thinking. For the Tathagatas (the passers-through) in the ten quarters of the universes, because of the straight-forwardness of their minds and the spontaneity of their mentations, have ever remained, from beginningless time to endless time, of one pure Suchness with the enlightening nature of pure Mind Essence.

Then Kerouac continues:

... which is pretty strange old news. You can also find pretty much the same thing in Mark 13:11. "Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do you premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given to you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak but the Holy Ghost!" Mozart and Blake often felt they weren't pushing their own pens it was the "Muse" singing and pushing.

In another sense spontaneous, or ad lib, artistic writing imitates as best it can the flow of the mind as it moves in its space-time continuum, in this sense, it may really be called Space Age Prose someday because when astronauts are flowing through space and time they too have no chance to stop and reconsider and go back. It may be they won't be reading anything else but spontaneous writing when they do get out there, the science of the language to fit their science of movement ...

To break through the barrier of language with WORDS, you have to be in orbit around your mind, and I may go up again if I regain my strength. It may sound vain but I've been wrestling with this angelic problem with at least as much discipline as Jacob.

Adapted for Tricycle by Allen Ginsberg from an essay in Un Homme Grand: Jack Kerouac á la Confluence des Cultures (Carleton University Press, 1990), edited by Pierre Anctil. Interpretations of Buddhadharma are modelled after expositions by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Shambhala Publications, 1972) and other discourses. The translation of Prajnaparamita Sutra is adapted by the author and Gelek Rinpoche from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi's.

Images 1, 2, 3: © Allen Ginsberg.

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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 (