Buddhism & the Beat Generation

“The empty blue sky of space says 'All this comes back to me, then goes again, and comes back again, then goes again, and I dont care, it still belongs to me’—The blue sky adds 'Dont call me eternity, call me God if you like, all of you talkers are in paradise: the leaf is paradise, the tree stump is paradise the paper bag is paradise, the man is paradise, the sand is paradise, the sea is paradise, the man is paradise, the fog is paradise'—Can you imagine a man with marvelous insights like these can go mad within a month?” - Jack Kerouac

Interview with Allen Ginsberg
Jack Kerouac
Reading Back by Joanne Kyger
Buddhism Beat and Square by Rick Fields
Tassajara, 1969

In 1953, President Eisenhower issued Directive 10450, mandating the immediate removal from government service of those who had been soft on communism, along with those who had any history of drug or alcohol abuse, sexual deviation, mental illness, or even membership in a nudist colony. Eisenhower’s injunction articulated the paranoia that had accumulated over a decade. Ever since the dropping of the first nuclear bombs, which brought World War II - America’s last “good war” - to a close, a fierce anxiety had seized the nation. With the development of the H-bomb, followed by the Korean War, and the Cold War in the fifties, this dread only intensified. In society at large, this anxiety manifested itself in a sharp surge in consumer spending - on everything from identical prefab suburban homes to matching patio furniture - and in an increasing withdrawal from all that was different or “other,” something embodied in the tremendous boom in corporate culture and the rising prominence of the uniform of the gray flannel suit. In such an atmosphere, it comes as no surprise that Jack Kerouac once said, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn burn burn.” To those coming of age in Cold War culture - a society that branded the different “dangerous” and encouraged the compulsive consumption of material goods in a vain attempt to stave off nuclear nightmares - the only “sane” response was to go slightly crazy.

In the teachings of Buddhism, however, members of the Beat generation began to find some sanity. The big view, or Big Mind, of Buddhism - which suggested a horizonless space, a state of cosmic, all-encompassing awareness - proved a powerful antidote to the restrictive views espoused by the government, the literary establishment, and organized religion. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said, “When everything exists within your big mind, all dualistic relationships drop away. There is no distinction between heaven and earth, man and woman, teacher and disciple. . . . In your big mind, everything has the same value.” Similarly, Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche described panoramic awareness as “a state without center or fringe” in which there is no watcher or perceiver, no division between subject and object. With a Big Mind, one does not view the sky, as eleventh-century Zen Master Dogen said most people do, by looking up at it “through a bamboo tube.” Instead, the distinction between self and other is abolished in the experience of the empty sky itself. The elimination of that distinction and the recognition that all such dualistic perceptions are illusions offered an irrefutable rebuke to the sense of hierarchy fundamental to the social and political structures of the fifties. In the Big Mind of Buddhist teaching, Cold War catchwords - us and them, ally and enemy - were rendered meaningless. The fundamental Buddhist teaching of the impermanence of all life provided a new context in which to examine the fear of death and suffering which was further intensified by the development of the war machine. And Buddhism’s advocation of a mendicant, homeless life also suggested the practical alternative to the rapidly accelerating cycle of work-produce-consume that was the engine driving fifties’ culture.

Forsaking bargain homes and gleaming machinery in favor of the freedom of the road, the Beats found their corollary for the open space of Buddhism in the vast empty space of the western sky. The East Coast Beats made frequent trips west, joining their Bay Area counterparts on journeys north to Big Sur, as well as spending extended periods in mountain solitude in the Northwest. There they experienced the limitless expanse of blue sky that had been inspiring pioneers and artists for centuries, and they began to forge an American brand of mountain mysticism based on Buddhist sources as well as on American models - Whitman’s sense of the open road, Thoreau’s hermetic immersion in nature at Walden Pond, and the journey of the freewheeling, train-hopping American hobo. While Thoreau had read the“Bhagavad Gita”at Walden Pond a century earlier, Gary Snyder read“Walden”and practiced“sumi”painting as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains.

Following in the footsteps of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and others, the Beats began to adapt the wisdom teachings of the East to a new peculiarly American terrain, incorporating American myths and ideals as well as the landscape. By writing about their discoveries in the jazzy vernacular rhythms of the street, the Beats radically increased the proportion of the populace exposed to Buddhism. With Jack Kerouac’s runaway bestseller“The Dharma Bums”and a paperback pocket-poet series published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the voices of American poets recounted the teachings of the Buddha to the mainstream American public for the first time. And while evidence of the Beats’ commitment to spiritual discovery and the teachings of Buddhism now seems abundant, recognition of the Beats’ role in proliferating the dharma has not been forthcoming. Denounced by the literary establishment and scholars of religion, the Beats were also rejected by members of the religious fringe. Alan Watts, one of the foremost popularizers of Buddhism, launched an unrelenting attack on Beat Zen. But despite early claims that the writings of these “holy goofs,” these “dilettantes,” were simply fashionable stabs at the profound, the Buddhist writings of the Beats have endured. And only now, with the emergence of some long unpublished works, such as Jack Kerouac’s biography of the Buddha and the revival of popular interest in the Beats, are we at last beginning to appreciate the pivotal role they played in the transmission of Buddhism to America.

Carole Tonkinson is senior editor of Tricycle Books, and a contributing editor to“Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.”


Following the success of“On the Road,”Jack Kerouac wrote“The Dharma Bums”in 1957. The novel, which predicted the “great rucksack revolution” of the 1960s, relates the wanderings of Ray Smith (Kerouac), often in the company of his friends Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) and Alvah Goldbook (Allen Ginsberg).

Japhy leaping up: “I’ve been reading Whitman, know what he says,“Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots,”he means that’s the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures, that’s what I like about you Goldbook and Smith, you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead.”

“We though the“West”Coast was dead!”

“You’ve really brought a fresh wind around here. Why, do you realize the Jurassic pure granite of Sierra Nevada with the straggling high conifers of the last ice age and lakes we just saw is one of the greatest expressions on this earth, just think how truly great and wise America will be, with all this energy and exuberance and space focused into the Dharma.”

“Oh” - Alvah - “balls on that old tired Dharma.”

“Ho! What we need is a floating zendo, where an old Bodhisattva can wander from place to place and always be sure to find a spot to sleep in among friends and cook up mush.”

“The boys was glad, and rested up for more, and Jack cooked mush in honor of the door,’” I recited.

“What’s that?”

“That’s a poem I wrote. �The boys was sittin in a grove of trees, listenin to Buddy explain the keys. Boys, sez he, the Dharma is a door . . . Let’s see . . . Boys, I say the keys, cause there’s lotsa keys, but only one door, one hive for the bees. So listen to me, and I’ll try to tell all, as I heard it long ago, in the Pure Land Hall. For you good boys, with wine-soaked teeth, that can’t understand these words on a heath, I’ll make it simpler, like a bottle of wine, and good woodfire, under stars divine. Now listen to me, and when you have learned the Dharma of the Buddhas of old and yearned, to sit down with the truth, under a lonesome tree, in Yuma Arizony, or anywhere you be, don’t thank me for tellin, what was told me, this is the wheel I’m a-turnin, this is the reason I be: Mind is the Maker, for no reason at all, for all this creation, created to fall.’”

“Ah but that’s too pessimistic and like dream gucky,” says Alvah, “though the rhyme is pure like Melville.”

“We’ll have a floatin zendo for Buddy’s winesoaked boys to come and lay up in and learn to drink tea like Ray did, learn to meditate like you should Alvah, and I’ll be a head monk of a zendo with a big jar full of crickets.”


“Yessir, that’s what, a series of monasteries for fellows to go and monastate and meditate in, we can have groups of shacks up in the Sierras or the High Cascades or even Ray says down in Mexico and have big wild gangs of pure holy men getting together to drink and talk and pray, think of the waves of salvation can flow out of nights like that, and finally have women, too, wives, small huts with religious families, like the old days of the Puritans. Who’s to say the cops of America and the Republicans and Democrats are gonna tell everybody what to do?”


Japhy left at about two a.m. saying he’d come back and get me in the morning for our big day oufitting me with full pack. Everything was fine with the Zen Lunatics, the nut wagon was too far away to hear us. But there was a wisdom in it all, as you’ll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels. You’ll see what I mean, when it begins to appear like everybody in the world is soon going to be thinking the same way and the Zen Lunatics have long joined dust, laughter on their dust lips. Only one thing I’ll say for the people watching television, the millions and millions of the One Eye: they’re not hurting anyone while they’re sitting in front of that Eye. But neither was Japhy. . . . I see him in future years stalking along with full rucksack, in suburban streets, passing the blue television windows of homes, alone, his thoughts the only thoughts not electrified to the Master Switch. As for me, maybe the answer was in my little Buddy poem that kept on: “�Who played this cruel joke, on bloke after bloke, packing like a rat, across the desert flat?’ asked Montana Slim, gesturing to him, the buddy of the men, in this lion’s den. �Was it God got mad, like the Indian cad, who was only a giver, crooked like the river? Gave you a garden, let it all harden, then comes the flood, and the loss of your blood? Pray tell us, good buddy, and don’t make it muddy, who played this trick, on Harry and Dick, and why is so mean, this Eternal Scene, just what’s the point, of this whole joint?’” I thought maybe I could find out at last from these Dharma Bums.

Excerpts from“The Dharma Bums”by Jack Kerouac. Copyright � Jack Kerouac, 1958. Reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

I kept a journal when I went to Japan in January of 1960 to join my husband-to-be, a Beat poet and student of Rinzai Zen living in Kyoto. I continued keeping a journal during the four years I spent there - an account of housewifely copings with an unfamiliar culture, social doings of the foreign community, experiences of practicing meditation, voices of the lineage of writing I wanted to become familiar with, and the exhausting question “Who is this self?” plus a few jokes. Reading back some thirty years later is to acquaint myself again with this somewhat brash but unsure person and to recall the beauty and severity of the practice of Rinzai Zen at Daitoku-ji, one of the greatest historical centers of Japanese Buddhism, in Kyoto.

Zen Buddhism was very much “in the air” during the Beat culture of the late 1950s. D. T. Suzuki’s excellent writing in English and R. H. Blyth’s four volumes of haiku, with its many references to Zen, were available. My own personal fascination with Buddhism came about as a student of philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Western philosophy seemed to have come to a dead end, fiddling with such questions as “If you have a headache and take an aspirin, is the pain still there, but just obscured by the aspirin?”

I learned to sit cross-legged Zen-style meditation in San Francisco at a nearby Soto Zen Buddhist Temple, Sokiji, in 1959. Shunryu Suzuki was the new priest there, direct from Japan, and a genuine teacher. Although his English was not very intelligible, his sweet and active pantomime showed us what to do - at 5:30 in the morning. At that hour it took sincere dedication. There was never any possibility of “beyond thinking,” more like “beyond legs falling asleep.” It was during this time that I made plans to go to Japan.

I had met Gary Snyder in 1958 in North Beach when he was visiting the United States, back from his first trip to Japan. I was a part of a group of young writers clustered around the poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. Gary came to our Sunday poetry group and read from“Myths and Texts”sitting cross-legged on a table with Jack Spicer sitting cross-legged under the table. “Do you like this Boy Scout poetry?” Spicer challenged me. I did indeed, very much.

Ruth Fuller Sasaki, who was Gary’s sponsor in Japan and ran the First Zen Institute in Kyoto, which hired him part-time, made it clear that I could not come and “live” with Gary. We would have to marry. She wrote to him, “If you and Joanne want to marry at any time, and then live in your little house in the mountains, fine. But living together in the little house before marriage won’t do. There are certain fixed social customs that the Institute expects its members to respect.” I bought a wool dress with a scooped neckline, basic black, so I could wear it a lot, starting with the wedding, which happened a few days after I arrived.

Mrs. Sasaki’s temple (Ryosen-an), which became the home of the First Zen Institute in Japan, was part of the complex of buildings making up the temples of Daitoku-ji. She had beautifully rebuilt and refurbished it. There was a small zendo in which foreigners could practice meditation, a library building where Zen translation projects went on, and her own comfortable Japanese-style home. This is where I practiced meditation for the next two years: two forty-minute sitting periods in the evening, run in strict monastery zendo style. An American student sitting next to me didn’t want to take his socks off because it was too cold. “Leave them on,” I whispered. When the“jikijitsu”(meditation monitor) came by, a monk trained in monastery tradition, he thundered, “Take off your socks!” “Fuck you!” said the American. Afterwards we had a meeting. “That monk had the perfect right to haul you off your mat and out the door,” said Mrs. Sasaki. “He’s the boss.”

Western students coming over to study Zen were always thrown off by the language problem. They got disappointed and depressed by realizing how much work it would take before they could do any real Zen with a teacher: learning Japanese, then learning to read Chinese in the Japanese manner so that koans could be translated. So there was a paradox between getting away from books and the intellect, and the necessity of learning enough to get the teachings in the orthodox way it was taught to the Japanese. No adjustments for foreigners.

Spontaneity was to occur between strict walls. I was told I must know my restraints before I could experience “real” freedom. I was encouraged not to read anything “about” Zen (not that there were more than a handful of books available in English), but just to practice sitting, counting breaths. The experience of meditation was an end in itself. Flower arranging was also a good focus. Loving bright flowers, I thought to satisfy some domestic urges for decoration. But taking lessons through the Ikenobo school, I ran into disciplined procedures. “Almost went out of my mind today with frustration [I wrote in my diary] - the branches kept slipping and falling over and all the cherry blossom petals fell off.”

So living and breathing in Japan, acquiring the practice of paying attention to the details of daily life became part of what I perceived as “Zen.” The independent, Western attitudes that I carried were not helpful, especially in Japan where women were expected to play a subservient and supportive role in relationship to men. Ego was something I had tried very hard to acquire and perfect. Loss of same seemed akin to insanity. Ego seemed necessary in order to find and practice my own “poetic voice.” There wasn’t a place for me in the brotherhood of Beat writers. Although no one discouraged me from writing, I was on my own.

A Protestant background led me to perceive some of the trappings of the Buddhist temples - the buddhas and bodhisattvas themselves - as dark, somber, serious. Clearly idols. The Bodhisattva Kannon-san’s compassionate beauty however, especially that of the Kudara Kannon at Horyuki, seven feet tall and standing like a New York model, gave me a sense at least of feminine kinship. But practicing meditation seemed to preclude any confrontation with whether I was a “Buddhist” or not, and the iconography gradually became identifiable as belonging to different states or “energies.” The fiercely horrific guardians outside many temples simply scared away the chicken-shit souls and spirits, and I became happy that they were doing just that.

It was in the grandiose setting of the Main Buddha Hall of Daitoku-ji during“rohatsu”week (the first week in December, when Buddha became enlightened) that perception shifted for me. “Oh, is this what it’s all about: the bell sounds different, space is different, am I �high’?” Thus a small crack in my mind opened while the monks of Daitoku-ji zendo next door sat with almost nonstop intensity for a week. In“sanzen”(private meeting with the roshi), if the roshi threw them out of the room, there was the head monk with his stick to sometimes drag them kicking and screaming back to the end of the line. This was serious and tough.

This traditional practice of Zen had its very human side too: monks got drunk on get-drunk occasions, cried, sang, danced, flirted, had mistresses, looked down the front of my dress, and went back to their practice. Many of them would return home to run an inherited temple, and were going through traditional monastery practice just to have a “schooling period,” while others were lifelong practicers on the path of “enlightenment” and would stay within the monastery system to become teachers and abbots.

“The mind that reads back will know more truth than I do now.” Reading back through these journals of more than thirty years ago, I try to remember what my expectations were in terms of the practice of Zen. I had no teacher to help make enlightenment - the much spoken-about outcome of Zen - accessible. I was somewhat disillusioned by the bickering and in-fighting that went on in Ryosen-an, and within other Zen factions. But the practice of sitting meditation brought a clarity and focus, a calmness I had never experienced before.

When I left Japan I took that practice with me. You don’t need much for that. The rigorous discipline of traditional monastic Zen of Japan sometimes seemed like what I had heard about U.S. Marine training. I certainly wasn’t up to that. I had a friend whose husband was going through monastery training at Myoshin-ji, a very harsh place for Westerners. He could never get enough to eat from the simple vegetarian food, he couldn’t eat his noodles fast enough. She would bring him homemade doughnuts and he would wolf them down squatting over the privacy of the toilet. “But,” she told me, “it’s worth it, he’s finding a better reality. This here now isn’t reality. Reality is better than this.” It was a depressing thought.

When I returned to California in 1964, I experienced the near-exhilaration of freedom. To me, a foreigner used to West Coast ease, the proscribed manners of living in Japanese culture seemed, for all its gracious attention to the details of living, inhibited and restrictive. However, within these boundaries I discovered how to sweep a floor with proper attention and gained a sturdier but more translucent sense of “self.” The “Square Zen” Alan Watts spoke of, the Zen of the established tradition, was not an accessible practice for me. But the sheer caprice of “Beat Zen” with its “digging of the universe” seemed out of hand too. Sitting with the sangha at Suzuki’s San Francisco Zen Center when I returned, I was struck with the simplicity of zazen, nothing to prove, nothing to gain. But I was also grateful for the established traditional rules of the zendo, unquestioned, that allowed one’s mind freedom within the form.

Joanne Kyger is the author of fourteen books of poetry, most recently“Just Space”(Black Sparrow Press, 1991). Currently she teaches writing at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. She lived in Japan from 1960-64, during which time she also spent six months in India.

One afternoon in 1953, a young poet named Allen Ginsberg visited the First Zen Institute which was then still housed in an elegant private uptown apartment in New York City. Ginsberg occupied himself by perusing the Zen paintings, records and books in the library. But he did not stay very long: the whole atmosphere of the place made him uncomfortable; it was, as he remembered years later, “intimidating - like a university club.” Ginsberg had only recently discovered Buddhism and Chinese philosophy in the New York Public Library. “I had only the faintest idea that there was so much of a kulcheral heritage, so easy to get at thru book upon book of reproduction,” he wrote Neal Cassady in California.

He had also begun to read, he wrote Cassady, “a little about their mystique and philosophy which I never did from a realistic viewpoint before. . . . I am working eastward from Japan and have begun to familiarize myself with Zen“Buddhism”thru a book (Philosophical Library Pub.) by one D. T. Suzuki (outstanding 89 yr. old authority now at Columbia who I will I suppose go see for interesting talk).”

Jack Kerouac also came to Buddhism in a library. He had just finished writing“The Subterraneans,”a novel about an unhappy, drastic love affair, in three benzedrine-powered days and nights. “I didn’t know what to do,” he told Al Aronowitz for his“New York Post”series on the beat generation in 1959. “I went home and just sat in my room, hurting. I was suffering, you know, from the grief of losing a love, even though I really wanted to lose it.

“Well, I went to the library to read Thoreau. I said, �I’m going to cut out from civilization, and go back and live in the woods like Thoreau,’ and I started to read Thoreau and he talked about Hindu philosophy. So I put Thoreau down and I took out, accidentally,“The Life of Buddha”by Ashvagosa.”

That was the beginning. In the years to come, as Kerouac drifted back and forth across America, the pages of his unpublished novels heavy in his pack, his interest in Buddhism would continue to grow. The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths especially (all existence is suffering) gave him a philosophical basis for understanding his life and the lives he observed all around him. While visiting the Cassadys in California he found and devoured Dwight Goddard’s“Buddhist Bible”in the San Jose library. He also read all the sutras he could lay his hands on, as well as Patanjali, the“Vedas,”Lao-Tzu and Confucius. He took extensive notes while reading the“Buddhist Bible,”and when he typed it all up he found that he had more than a hundred pages. He called it“Some of the Dharma,”and thought of it as kind of an ongoing study for both himself and Ginsberg, who was now in Yucatan.

Back East he moved into his mother’s house in Richmond, New York and read the“Diamond Sutra”every day. He began memorizing and reciting sutras, and he carried Goddard’s“Buddhist Bible”with him everywhere, even on the subway. He began to discipline himself in meditation, first brewing a cup of green tea, then locking the door to his bedroom (his mother disapproved) and finally sitting down on a cushion, painfully crossing his legs for twenty minutes or so - and then forcing himself to remain seated another minute. He now considered the football he had played in high school and Columbia as preparation for his new life.

Practicing meditation and realizing that existence is a dream [he wrote Ginsberg] is an athletic, physical accomplishment. Now I know why I was an athlete, to learn perfect physical relaxation, smooth strength of strong muscles hanging ready for Nirvana, the great power that runs from the brow to the slope of the shoulders down the arms to the delicately joined hands in Dhyana, the hidden power of gentle breathing in the silence. In the spring of 1955 he went south to North Carolina where his sister’s family lived. During the day he cut wood and cleared land. At night he sat up late at the kitchen table after everyone else had gone to bed and worked on the three Buddhist books he now had going:“Some of the Dharma”(which had become an elaborate scrapbook of musings,“pensees,”sutra extracts, aphorisms, haikus),“Wake Up,”a biography of the Buddha, and“Buddha Tells Us,”a collection of translations “of works done by great Rimbauvian Frenchmen in the Abbeys of Tibet.”

Then in July of 1955 his fortunes began to turn. Malcolm Cowley finally convinced Viking to bring out“On The Road.” * * *

Allen Ginsberg first read“Howl”at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in October of 1955. Kerouac sat on the side of the tiny platform, drinking wine, and “giving out little wows and yesses of approval and even whole sentences of comment with nobody’s invitation but in the general gaiety nobody’s disapproval either.”

The Six Gallery reading became, in retrospect, the beginning of what journalists would soon call the San Francisco Renaissance. To the poets who read along with Ginsberg - Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and Kenneth Rexroth as master of ceremonies - the response to the reading marked the recognition that they were part of a new and growing community of like-minded people.

Kenneth Rexroth, the elder statesman of the San Francisco literary scene and a self-taught translator of Chinese and Japanese poetry, had brought the poets together by suggesting that Allen Ginsberg look up Gary Snyder in Berkeley. Ginsberg and Snyder hit it off right away, discovering a common interest in the works of William Carlos Williams and Pound. As Ginsberg told Kerouac, he thought that Snyder was the only person on the West Coast “with any truly illuminated intelligence.”

To the Easterners Kerouac and Ginsberg, Snyder embodied the mythical genius of the Far West. He had spent most of his childhood on a small farm outside Seattle. By the age of thirteen he had started hiking around the high country of the Cascades. Around the same time, he wandered into a room filled with Chinese landscapes at the Seattle Art Museum. “They blew my mind,” he remembers. My shock of recognition was very simple: �It looks like the Cascades.’ The waterfalls, the pines, the clouds, the mist looked a lot like the northwest United States.”

On scholarship at Reed, Snyder studied anthropology, linguistics and literature, with special attention to American Indian studies. He had become aware of Buddhism - along with Hinduism, Taoism and Confucianism - around 1949, and first heard about Zen from a Reed student who had briefly been a student of [the Zen teacher] Senzaki’s. In the fall of 1951, on his way to graduate school at Indiana University, he came across a copy of D. T. Suzuki’s“Essays in Zen Buddhism”in a San Francisco bookstore. He bought a copy, put it in his rucksack and continued hitching on.

Snyder taught himself to sit by reading and looking at statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas. He corrected his posture as he went along, since he discovered that sitting became painful, and his breathing didn’t feel right, if he wasn’t sitting correctly. From the very beginning, he felt that sitting was “a completely natural act.” After all, he reasoned, both primitive people and animals were “capable of simply just being for long hours of time. . . . I wasn’t expecting instantaneous satori to hit me just because I got my legs right,” he says. “I found it a good way to be.”

In 1952 Snyder left Indiana and enrolled in the Oriental Languages department at the University of California at Berkeley. When Ginsberg and Kerouac met Snyder he was living in a small shack about a mile from the backyard cottage Ginsberg (briefly a graduate student in English) shared with Kerouac. In“Dharma Bums,”Kerouac described visiting Snyder (as “Japhy Ryder”) a few days after the Six Gallery reading. Of Snyder’s cottage, Kerouac wrote,

nothing in it but typical Japhy appurtenances that showed his belief in the simple monastic life - no chairs at all, not even one sentimental rocking chair, but just straw mats. In the corner was his famous rucksack with cleaned-up pots and pans all fitting into one another in a compact unit and all tied and put away inside a knotted-up blue bandana . . . . He had a slew of orange crates all filled with beautiful scholarly books, some of them in Oriental languages, all the great sutras, comments on sutras, the complete works of D. T. Suzuki and a fine quadruple-volume edition of Japanese haikus. . . . A few orange crates made his table, on which, one late sunny afternoon as I arrived, was steaming a peaceful cup of tea at his side as he bent his serious head to the Chinese signs of the poet Han Shan.

Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder and Philip Whalen, a poet who had been with Snyder at Reed, spent a lot of time back and forth between the two houses - “having dinner together, or just sort of hanging around together there in the yard and writing and talking and drinking wine and having a good time,” Whalen remembers. Everybody was reading R. H. Blyth’s four-volume collection of haikus, and trading back and forth modern American versions of their own. In Ginsberg’s phrase “We had �dharma confrontation’ with koan and spontaneous tongue.”

Except for Snyder, who sat regularly on his rolled-up sleeping bag for half an hour or so every morning, and Whalen who sat occasionally, the Buddhism was mostly literary. Kerouac’s sitting remained idiosyncratic. “He was incapable of sitting for more than a few minutes at a time,” remembers Whalen. “His knees were ruined by playing football. . . . They wouldn’t bend without great pain, I guess. He never learned to sit in that proper sort of meditation position. Even had he been able to, his head wouldn’t have stopped long enough for him to endure it. He was too nervous. But he thought it was a good idea.”

In 1956 Kerouac and Snyder shared a little cabin on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. It was here, while he was waiting to go up to Washington as a fire lookout, that Kerouac wrote“The Scripture of Golden Eternity,”the clearest and most direct expression of his Catholic Buddhism. Years later he remembered the circumstances of composition: “Gary Snyder said, �All right, Kerouac, it’s about time for you to write a scripture.’” He wrote it in pencil, for once violating his own rule against revision, “because it was a scripture. I had no right to be spontaneous.”

“The Scripture”is Kerouac at his best, and one of the most successful attempts yet to catch emptiness, nonattainment and egolessness in the net of American poetic language.“The Scripture of the Golden Eternity”is tinged, rather than colored, by occasional Catholic images of saints, heaven and roses, but for the most part its sixty-four verses, paragraphs teetering breathtakingly between prose and poetry, might have been written by a lyrical American Nagarjuna, the double and quadruple negations laying bare an empty, shining golden eternity, in which “nothing will be acquired, at last.”

Kerouac wrote in (22):

Stare deep into the world before you as if it were/the void: innumerable holy ghosts, bhuddies/and savior gods there hide, smiling. All the/atoms emitting light inside wavehood, there is/no personal separation of any of it. A Hummingbird/can come into a house and a hawk will not: so rest/and be assured. While looking for the light, you/may suddenly be devoured by the darkness/and find the true light. * * *

Gary Snyder sailed for Japan on May 15, 1956, then returned briefly to America in 1958. He had spent the last few years training with Oda-roshi at Daitokuji, and when he moved back into the shack above Locke McCorkle’s house in Mill Valley, a small informal“zazenkai,”a zazen group, took shape. Gary sat regularly in the evenings and he was joined by a few friends - Claude Dahlenberg, who had been the janitor at the Academy of Asian Studies, the poet Lew Welch, a roommate of Snyder’s and Whalen’s at Reed, and Albert Saijo, who had come up from Los Angeles where he had studied with Senzaki.

When Snyder went to Japan, Albert Saijo and Lew Welch maintained the little temple zendo. “I agree with you abut the importance of the zendo,” Welch wrote Snyder, “[I] will conduct the sesshins with absolute punctuality and strict form and dignity even if no one shows but me. All the rest of American Zen is talk.” [The zendo] lasted only a short time, and then Albert Saijo, Lew Welch, Bill McNeill and Phil Whalen - and later Joanne Kyger and Claude Dahlenberg - moved into East-West House, a large turn-of-the-century wooden building on the corner of Post and Buchanan in San Francisco, right around the corner from the Soto Zen Mission (where Tom Fields and Dahlenberg would later meet and study with its new priest, Shunryu Suzuki). Around Thanksgiving, 1959, Jack Kerouac showed up after appearing on the Steve Allen Show, and Lew and Albert drove him back East in Lew’s new Willys Jeepster. They traded haiku all across the country, collected years later in“Trip Trap.”

A special “Zen” edition of the“Chicago Review”had appeared in the summer of 1958. The issue included Snyder’s essay “Spring“Sesshin”at Sokoku-ji,” Alan Watts’s “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” “Meditation in the Woods” by Jack Kerouac, [and] D.T. Suzuki’s translation from the Chinese“Sayings of Rinzai.”Snyder’s essay gave a bird’s-eye view of what went on during a week of intensive zazen: “One’s legs may hurt during long sitting. . . . The mind must simply be placed elsewhere.” “Zen aims at freedom,” wrote Snyder in describing how the jikijitsu might knock anyone not seated properly right off his cushion, “but its practice is discipline.”

It was just this paradox which provided Alan Watts with the basis for his essay. “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” could only have been written by Watts. After all, as he would write in his autobiography, “it had often been said, perhaps with truth,” that his “easy and free-floating attitude to Zen was largely responsible for the notorious �Zen Boom’ which flourished among artists and pseudointellectuals in the late 1950’s, and led on to the frivolous �beat Zen’ of Kerouac’s“Dharma Bums,”of Franz Kline’s black and white abstractions, and John Cage’s silent concerts.”

Watts himself was in many ways more Taoist than Buddhist, and his essay located the roots of Zen in T’ang Dynasty China and “the old Chinese masters steeped in Taoism.” He quoted Lin-chi: “Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me but the wise will understand.”

Having established that Zen was the creation of China and not of Japan, Watts could take aim at both the extremes - beat and square. The spirit of Lin-chi’s words, he commented, is far from the strict boarding-school style of Japanese monasteries. As for the Western followers of official Japanese Zen - who were now studying in Japan and would soon return with “certificates to hang on the wall” - they could be considered “square” because they were seeking “the“right”spiritual experience, a“satori”which will receive the stamp ("inka") of approved and established authority.”

Watts admitted beat Zen to be “a complex phenomenon” - ranging from a use of Zen for justifying sheer caprice in art, literature and life to a very forceful social criticism and “digging of the universe” found “in the poetry of Ginsberg and Snyder, and rather unevenly in Kerouac.” (As an astute editor footnoted: “Mr. Snyder seems to have gone square. Witness his essay, page 41.”) “But,” as Watts said, “Beat Zen is always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.”

Not that Watts was overly concerned about either of the extremes, for he took “the experience of awakening which truly constitutes Zen” to be “too timeless and universal to be injured.” Hopefully, in any case, both square and beat Zen would “so complement and rub against each other that an amazingly pure and lively Zen will arise from the hassle.”

Gary Snyder returned again to Japan in the spring of 1958. For the next seven years he would attend sesshins and live periodically in the monastery with Oda-roshi, whom he later described as “an especially gentle and quiet man - an extremely subtle man, by far the subtlest mind I’ve ever been in contact with.”

While Snyder was working right in the heart of what Watts would have called square Zen, Kerouac was back in New York, finally having achieved the success and recognition he had dreamed of so many years before.“On the Road”had at last - ten years after it was written - been published to critical acclaim. Kerouac was celebrated, ridiculed, parodied and sought after. By all accounts the sudden fame did not serve him well. He drank increasingly and even with a best-seller to his credit, was not able to find a publisher for“Mexico City Blues,”“The Subterraneans,”“Dr. Sax”or“Visions of Neal.”What his publisher wanted was another“On the Road,”and the editors at Viking suggested that Kerouac write something especially for his generation, in simple prose sentences, telling “what it was all about.” Kerouac complied by writing“The Dharma Bums”in ten days and nights at his mother’s house in Florida, in a straightforward, fairly conventional style. Just as“On the Road”had been built around Neal Cassady, so“The Dharma Bums”was constructed around Gary Snyder. The novel portrayed Snyder and Kerouac’s friendship, and the poetry-and-buddhist milieu of the time. But it also contained a prophetic vision that Snyder had passed on to Kerouac, a vision of the next generation, waiting, like Maitreya, for the coming sixties:

I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution [Japhy says], thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh, and old men glad, making young girls happy, and old girls happier, all of �em Zen lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason, and also by being kind, and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures. We’ll have a floating zendo, a series of monasteries for people to go and monastate and meditate in . . . wild gangs of pure holy men getting together to drink and talk and pray, think of the waves of salvation can flow out of nights like that, and finally have women too, wives, small huts with religious families, like the old days of the Puritans. . . .

The day“The Dharma Bums”was published, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were on their way to an elegant penthouse party in honor of Kerouac’s new novel, when Kerouac stepped into a phone booth and called up D.T. Suzuki. Kerouac said he would like to stop by for a visit, and Suzuki asked when he wanted to come by. “RIGHT NOW!” Kerouac yelled into the receiver, and Suzuki said, “O.K.” Kerouac, Ginsberg and Orlovsky all trooped over to the brownstone on West Ninety-fourth that Suzuki shared with the Okamuras.

“I rang Mr. Suzuki’s door and he did not answer,” Kerouac wrote in a reminiscence published in the“Berkeley Bussei,”the magazine of the Berkeley Young Buddhist Association, in 1960.

- suddenly I decided to ring it three times, firmly and slowly, and then he came - he was a small man coming slowly through an old house with panelled wood walls and many books - he had long eyelashes, as everyone knows, which put me in the mind of the saying in the Sutras that the Dharma, like a bush, is slow to take root but once it has taken root it grows huge and firm and can’t be hauled up from the ground except by a golden giant whose name is not Tathagata - anyway, Doctor Suzuki made us some green tea, very thick and soupy - he had precisely what idea of what place I should sit, and where my two other friends should sit, the chairs already arranged - he himself sat behind a table and looked at us silently, nodding - I said in a loud voice (because he had told us he was a little deaf) “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” - He made no reply - He said, “You three young men sit here quietly & write haikus while I go make some green tea” - He brought us the green tea in cracked old soupbowls of some sort - He told us not to forget about the tea - when we left, he pushed us out the door but once we were out on the sidewalk he began giggling at us and pointing his finger and saying “Don’t forget the tea!” - I said “I would like to spend the rest of my life with you” - He held up his finger and said


Rick Fields’s books include“The Turquoise Bee,”(HarperCollins) and“Code of the Warrior”(Tarcher). He is currently the editor of“Yoga Journal.”“Buddhism Beat and Square” is adapted from“How the Swans Came to the Lake, A Narrative History of Buddhism in America,”reprinted with permission from Shambhala Publications.

Tassajara, 1969

Even Buddha is lost in this land

the immensity

takes us all with it, pulverizes, & takes us in

Bodhidharma came from the west.

Coyote met him

Diane di Prima

from“Pieces of a Song�

Difficulty Along the Way

Seeking Perfect Total Enlightenment

is looking for a flashlight

when all you need the flashlight for

is to find your flashlight

Lew Welch

from“Ring of Bone�

Sakyamuni Coming Out from the Mountain

“Liang Kai, Southern Sung�

He drags his bare feet

out of a cave

under a tree,


grown long with weeping

and hooknosed woe,

in ragged soft robes

wearing a fine beard,

unhappy hands

clasped to his naked breast -

humility is beatness

humility is beatness -


into the bushes by a stream

all things inanimate

but his intelligence -

stands upright there

tho trembling:


who sought Heaven

under a mountain of stone

sat thinking

till he realized

the land of blessedness exists

in the imagination -

the flash come:

empty mirror -

how painful to be born again

wearing a fine beard,

reentering the world

a bitter wreck of a sage:

earth before him his only path.

We can see his soul,

he knows nothing

like a god:


meek wretch -

humility is beatness

before the absolute World.

Allen Ginsberg

from“New York Public Library, 1953�

Memo Satori

There will be a policy meeting of key staff personnel in Mr. Trout’s office at 9 A.M.,
Monday. Please attend.

Well, here we go to bother out of all proportion:

1) The scarcely bargain and a somewhat gain.

2) The bought, unknown, incompetent.

3) The might be someday done

21/2 hours ago a bell rang

“I live a winter morning,

half-clothed in a dark room,

trying to plan the day�

Drove through 16 miles of snow, slick roads, 35,000 speeding cars

& didn’t kill a soul, or even


“The radiator lulls me now, my

shoes begin to steam and dry�

* * * * *

It happens, or can, almost anywhere, but here.

The sparrow at the Zoo:

blurry little bird in his bath of dust

just inside the camel’s cage

dances off the pines and waves of a small Wisconsin Lake,

flickers on attention we can’t quite hold still, till


perfect clarity in

stopped time, and I

almost drove the boat against the swimmer’s dock & drowned!

never use a motor, man,

you gotta row

to go!

Lew Welch

from“Ring of Bone�

A Vision of the Bodhisattvas

They pass before me one by one riding on animals

“What are you waiting for,” they want to know

Z - , young as he is (& mad into the bargain) tells me

“Some day you’ll drop everything & become a“rishi,”you know.”

I know

The forest is there, I’ve lived in it

more certainly than this town? Irrelevant -

What am I waiting for?

A change in customs that will take 1000 years to come about?

Who’s to make the change but me?

“Returning again and again,” Amida says

Why’s that dream so necessary? walking out of whatever house


Nothing but the clothes on my back, money or no

Down the road to the next place the highway leading to the


From which I absolutely must come back

What business have I to do that?

I know the world and I love it too much and it

Is not the one I’d find outside this door.

Philip Whalen

from“On Bear’s Head"

Harcourt, Brace, World & Coyote, 1969

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.