The following is excerpted from Nothing and Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the Avant-Garde
1942-1962, published by Evolver Editions, an imprint of North
I think American Buddhism is in great
debt to the Beat generation. –Gary Snyder1
Gelek Rinpoche told me, "You people:
Burroughs, you, Kerouac, will all go to heaven for introducing the dharma to
this country." –Allen Ginsberg2
Jack Kerouac first met D. T. Suzuki on his way to a book party that Viking
Press was throwing to celebrate the release of his novel On
the Road. He
felt vindicated, that late summer day in 1957, because after years of delay and
exasperation, his 120-foot-long, single-spaced, spontaneously typewritten
manuscript was finally being published.
He called the Buddhist scholar from inside a
glass-and-wood phone booth while his two close friends, the poets Allen
Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, anxiously paced outside wearing "big serious faces
"Hello, I'd like to meet with Dr. Suzuki. This is
Jack Kerouac, the writer," he said.
"How long will you be in town? When can we arrange
the appointment?" Mihoko Okamura, Suzuki's Japanese-American secretary asked.
NOW!" Kerouac bellowed into the receiver.
Okamura retired into the "big back secret whispering
chambers," came back, and told him to be there in a half hour. Elated, the
three friends literally skipped down First Avenue to hail a cab.
They located Suzuki's apartment building on the
Upper West Side at 172 West Ninety-Fourth Street, wedged between "Puerto Rican
slums," found his nameplate on the door, and rang the buzzer. There was no
answer. Kerouac rang again, very firmly, three times. Finally Suzuki appeared,
slowly descending the staircase, his signature bushy eyebrows flying out on
either side of his head like a "bush of the dharma that takes so long to grow
but once grown stays rooted."
On the way up to his apartment they passed by entire
walls packed with books written in many languages and entered a simple room.
Suzuki pulled out three chairs and motioned to them, saying, "You sit in this
chair, you sit in this chair, and you sit in this chair." They did, and fell
silent. Suzuki pulled out a chair for himself from behind a table piled high
Kerouac couldn't contain himself any longer and
blurted out, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" Suzuki said nothing. Kerouac
then composed a koan: "When the Buddha was about to speak, a horse spoke
instead." Suzuki looked at him quizzically, waited a moment, and replied, "The
Western mind is too complicated." He then said, "You young men sit here quietly
and write haikus while I go and make some powdered green tea."
He returned with a tray of old cracked soup bowls filled
with steaming hot tea that he "brushed." Kerouac mentioned that his two friends
from the West Coast, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder, also drank green tea, but
only out of sleek, curved, black lacquered bowls. He said the tea tasted like
thick pea soup and made him high.
"That's the weak one, you want some strong ones?"
Suzuki asked, mentioning that he drank it daily. Ginsberg shouted, "It tastes
like shrimps." He had to yell "shrimps" because the scholar's hearing was so
bad, even though Okamura had instructed them not to shout. Suzuki decided the
tea tasted like beef and added, "Don't forget that it's tea."
Ginsberg and Suzuki talked about "a famous old print
with the crack in the universe," and Orlovsky added, "You have an interesting crack
in your wall that looks like the void." The crack was situated behind a statue
of the Buddha on the mantelpiece. Suzuki duly replied, "Oh yes, I never noticed
it before." He then showed them pictures of different Chinese poets, including
Han Shan. Orlovsky laughed his "funny moaning laugh," and Kerouac felt inspired
enough to write a new haiku.
Three little sparrows
on the roof
talking quietly, sadly
This spurred all of them into a spontaneous writing session, with Kerouac
and Ginsberg choosing the same topic,
Big books packaged
because right in front of them was a big red box of Ritz crackers, sitting
underneath a shelf of books from Japan.
Feeling more relaxed, Kerouac mentioned that he had
experienced "some samadhi — a half hour or maybe three seconds." Ginsberg asked
Suzuki who the "Bodhisattva" was who constructed the first Buddhist temple in
San Francisco's Chinatown, and Suzuki adroitly replied, "I think they were all
Finally it was time for them to leave to go to Kerouac's
book party. By now Kerouac felt like Suzuki was his "old fabled father from
China" and said, "Dr. Suzuki! I'd like to spend the rest of my life with you."
Suzuki responded, "Sometime," and pushed them out the door, but once they were
out on the sidewalk, he wouldn't let them leave. He shook his finger back and
forth and shouted, "Remember the green tea!" Kerouac yelled, "The key?" and
Suzuki shouted back, "The tea!"3
That moment did hold a "key." Suzuki, an authentic
representative of Japanese Zen Buddhism, had met Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Orlovsky,
who advanced the Beat craze with its concurrent literary cult through their
works. Suzuki, to his credit, understood the importance of these young men. He
wrote, "The 'Beat generation' is not a mere passing phenomenon to be lightly
put aside as insignificant. I am inclined to think it is somehow prognostic of
something coming, at least, to American life."4
Suzuki was interested in Kerouac because the
American writer had dedicated his previous book, The Dharma Bums, to
the Tang Dynasty Zen (Ch'an) poet Han Shan, a great figure in Chinese cultural literature.
But Suzuki also believed the young men had "not yet quite passed through their
experiences of humiliation and affliction and . . . revelation."5
The "key" was part of Ginsberg and Kerouac's search
for a "new vision," through which they birthed a spontaneous literary form inspired
by ecstatic and mind-numbing trips across America, jazz music, sordid swindles,
drugs, homosexuality, adultery, suicide, and even murder. They burned for
something unique that had never been realized in the West before, seeking to transform the very fabric of their
Suzuki shared his feelings with Okamura about these
young men. He thought Kerouac's biggest flaw was that he "misunderstood the essence
of freedom . . . Freedom is from Dr. Suzuki's point of view [working] in the
harness . . . and [Kerouac was unable] to overcome all of that and to
understand it."6 According to Okamura, the point where the Beats
fell short was in misunderstanding the essential Zen point that we are already
free, and "it is the human mind that thinks we are not free . . . To look for
freedom outside of our own original freedom is already an aberration of the
mind . . . We are not apart in the original state." She felt the Beat
generation thought they had to "liberate themselves from what was totally
Suzuki noted, "They are struggling, still rather superficially
against democracy, bourgeois conformity, economic respectability, conventional middle-class
consciousness, and other cognate virtues and vices of mediocrity. Because they
are still 'rootless' . . . they find themselves floundering in the mud in their
search for 'the only way through into truth [which] is by way of one's own
annihilation: through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total
humiliation.' They have not yet passed through their experiences of humiliation
and affliction, and, I may add, revelation."7
The poet Gary Snyder
said, "Though it's a charming thought, DTS had almost no influence on the 'spontaneity' element in the writing of Kerouac, Ginsberg, & me. For Jack
it came through his understanding of jazz musicianship. Ginsberg picked it up
from Jack. I got it from Jack plus R. H. Blyth's view of haiku. Suzuki's writings
reaffirmed some of that, but Sokei-an's writings (which I read almost as early as
Suzuki) also always stressed traditional hard training — which is what Zen means
to most Americans today."8
Suzuki was also part of a long process to find a "new vision." Kerouac
expressed this sentiment in a September 1945 letter to Ginsberg: "I was telling
Mimi West last summer how I was searching for a new method in order to release
what I had in me, and Carr said from across the room, ‘What 'bout the new vision?'
The fact was I had the vision . . . I think everyone has . . . What we lack is
the method."9 The method he was grappling with was how to drill down
deep into the nature of raw consciousness and transform it into a unique
later Ginsberg addressed this search specifically in an interview with the Shambhala Sun. "So we began talking
about what, in 1945, we called 'New Consciousness,' or ‘New Vision.' As most
young people probably do at the age of 15 to 19, whether it's punk or bohemia
or grunge or whatever new vision adolescents have, there is always some kind of
striving for understanding and transformation of the universe, according to
one's own subjective, poetic generational inspiration."10
time he met Suzuki, Kerouac had begun studying the dharma on his own. He had
experienced the innate nature of his own mind numerous times but had no one to
guide him, only a few books to read and a smattering of friends to talk to
about it. But once Kerouac's literary reputation was assured and fame overwhelmed
him, his interest and devotion to Buddhism faded. Through a combination of
alcoholism and long bouts of living with his overprotective mother, he returned
to the Roman Catholicism of his youth. But before he was through, his inquiry
into the dharma changed the lives of Ginsberg, their circle of mutual friends,
and generations all over the world.
The Blake Vision, and the "New Vision"
summer of 1948, Allen Ginsberg sublet a small sixth-floor apartment from fellow
student Russell Durgin on East 121st Street in Harlem and led a retreat-like
existence. Most of his friends had departed on their summer vacations or moved
abroad. His greatest sustained contact with the outside world came from a
menial job two hours a day as a file clerk at the American Academy of Political
series of poems, The Book of Doldrums, Ginsberg chronicled his overweening
existential angst. One early summer evening, having just masturbated, he lay
contentedly spent and stared out his open window, surveying the intricate
shapes of the rooftops of Harlem. A book by the poet William Blake lay on his
lap. Out of nowhere a "deep earthen grave voice"11 began reciting
Blake's poem "The Sunflower," and it became an "auditory hallucination":12
Ah Sunflower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime,
Where the traveler's journey is done;
Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded with snow
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my sunflower wishes to go.
"tender and beautiful voice"13 he heard "was Blake's voice."14
He understood he was experiencing the exact same perception Blake had
experienced a century before, of an unfurling of raw consciousness. Poetry, the
language of vision, linked him back though time with other visionary poets. He
had been born just for that moment and no other reason. The fact that he
existed was proof for his being on earth. He was experiencing the "spirit of
the universe."15 The whole world was contained within the sunflower,
expanding outward to contain the poem and all of consciousness itself.
minutes later the voice intoned another Blake poem,
O rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Doom was as
necessary as glory; both were valid, and both had their place.
yearned for the infinite. Gazing over the Harlem rooftops and seeing the "intelligent
labor" that went into making the buildings, he realized the world was not made
of "dead matter" but living intelligence. This intelligence was ancient and connected
him back to the beginning of time. But he had no formal or informal vocabulary
for what he saw, thinking it was "God" or "Light." He crawled out his fire escape
and tapped on his next-door neighbor's window, declaring that he had just seen
God. The two girls inside reacted in typical New York fashion by slamming their
windows shut, despite the steamy summer heat. None of his friends were in town,
so there was no one to turn to. He read the books strewn about him — Plato's
Phaedrus, St. John, and Plotinus — and saw divine messages in all their texts. Trying
to control this buoyant feeling, he stood in his kitchen and called upon the
"spirit" to make him "dance" like "Faust calling up the devil," but his elation
rapidly deteriorated into terror.
In an early book of poems, The Gates of
Wrath: Rhymed Poems, 1948-1952, he tried recapturing these ecstatic feelings in
a larger work he titled "Vision 1948." Ginsberg kept trying to recreate his
experience from 1948 until 1963, when he met the Tibetan Ningyma Lama Dudjom Rinpoche
in India. When he told Rinpoche about both his spontaneous visions and his
subsequent psychedelic drug experiences, Rinpoche advised him, "If you see
anything horrible, don't cling to it. If you see anything beautiful, don't
cling to it." Hearing that, Ginsberg gave up grasping after the original
experience, though he never renounced its mind-boggling effect.
after Ginsberg's visions, heaven flipped straight into hell. While browsing
through Blake's The Human Abstract in the Columbia University Bookstore, the
shift of consciousness came again but with a different slant. Everyone in the
bookstore appeared "wounded" and like a "neurotic pained animal." He felt he
was walking around in Blake's London and seeing "marks of weakness and marks of
woe." The bookstore clerk's face resembled a tormented giraffe, and everyone
appeared to hide a secret awareness of cosmic consciousness and knowledge of
their looming death. Habitual conduct and stratified social protocol blocked
these revelations from permeating their everyday sensibilities.
week later, as he walked to the Columbia library, it happened again. "I started
invoking the spirit, consciously trying to get another perception of cosmos."16
And he did, but this time was more frightening than the last: it was a "serpent
fear"17 comparable to the "hand of death." It was only years later
Ginsberg acquired the vocabulary to describe his experience. "And I had a sense
of the black sky coming down to eat me. It was like meeting Yamantaka without
preparation, meeting one of the horrific or wrathful deities without any
realization that it was a projection of myself or my nature. I tried to shut
off the experience because it was too frightening."18 Yamantaka, the
lord of death, is a Mahakala or wrathful deity in the Tibetan Buddhist
pantheon. Yamantaka is a Sanskrit word consisting of Yama, "the lord of death,"
and Antaka, or "one who ends." Yamantaka is one of the eight protectors of the
teachings of the Buddha and an aspect of Manjushri, the Buddha of intelligence
1940s there was no understanding of the pantheon of wrathful deities of Tibetan
Buddhism. An overweening dread or horror as an archetype could only be
described in pathological terms. Ginsberg intuited that his vision was not
insanity, but a new perception of reality. However, Ginsberg wept, and Kerouac wrote
in his diaries that it was because he believed "nobody wanted to hear his new "silence and transcendence' visions." Kerouac pointed out that since they were
silent, they could not be spoken about, and how could you understand that which
was not spoken? However, he admitted "the Big Truth hovered near, touching us
almost with its unknown wings."19
intuitions and insights were prescient. In 1959 he told the journalist Alfred
Aronowitz that the Beat generation were "prophets howling in the wind" against
the insanity and conformity they saw around them. But nobody thought Ginsberg
was a prophet that summer of 1948, and many (most notably his father Louis) doubted
his sanity. Ten years later Aronowitz gutted the whole meaning of "Beat" when
he published his twelve-part series titled "The Beat Generation" in the March 9, 1959, issue of the New
York Post. He called them "lost, furtive, not in touch." This became the de
facto media definition, but Kerouac clearly stated "Beat" meant "religiousness,
a kind of second religiousness." Ginsberg called Beat "a certain nakedness,
where you see the world in a visionary way, what happens in the ‘dark night of
the soul.'" But how could a first, almost-crazed glimpse of the "new vision"
lead to the creation of a literary, social, and artistic movement?
I Take Refuge
Kerouac crooned the Buddhist refuge vows to Ginsberg in Pali, the ancient
language that predated Sanskrit. He recited the words in the manner of a
Sinatra love song:20
Buddham Saranam Gochamee
Dhamman Saranam Gochamee
Sangham Saranam Gochamee
I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha
his life Ginsberg defined the "three jewels," explaining that Buddha was the
awakened clear mind, dharma was the intellectual explanation of that awakened
mind though sutra discourses, and sangha was the group of "fellow awakened
Pali crooning session inspired Ginsberg to browse through the New York Public
Library collections of Chinese paintings of the Song period. He let himself
drift into the spaciousness of the calligraphic brushstroked landscapes and
wrote a poem, "Sakyamuni Coming Out from the Mountain,"
based on a twelfth century painting by Liang Kai, imagining what it must be like
to emerge fresh
from the moment of enlightenment.
he knows nothing
like a god: shaken
like a god:
humility is beatness
before the absolute
checked out Suzuki's book Zen Buddhism and wrote to his friend Neal Cassady
that Suzuki was an "outstanding 89 yr old authority now at Columbia who I will
I suppose go see for interesting talk."21 He came to the conclusion
that satori, or Zen enlightenment, was similar to his initial Blake vision,
later saying that it "seemed to be the right fitting word for what I had
actually experienced so that I got interested in Buddhism."
One year after
Ginsberg's Harlem vision, Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady, a former car
thief and small-time huckster, drove across America in a frenzied jaunt as "two
broken-down heroes of the Western night," searching for, among other things,
their version of a "new vision." These trips were later immortalized in
Kerouac's books On the Road and The Dharma Bums as a spontaneous stream
of consciousness, an energetic, unedited ramble. Ginsberg employed that same
approach in his writing, calling it "first thought, best thought."22 He realized that
his poetry and Kerouac's prose were rooted in an "examination of the texture of
consciousness." He tracked his mind through spontaneous prose and the "actual
sequence of thought forms." In 1994, when dedicating the Ginsberg Library at
Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, Ginsberg amended his view on "first
thought, best thought." He said "there is a silence which exists through the
words. Instead of 'first thought, best thought,' do ‘first thought, no thought'
and see what comes from that."23
to the musician and composer David Amram, who worked with Kerouac and Ginsberg
on the movie Pull My Daisy,24
"Jack was . . . always looking and searching, and he felt that life was a
journey . . . a kind of endless trip on that road to enlightenment and
salvation. When he spoke about the holy path I think that he was thinking
almost in terms of the life of Buddha . . . an experiential way for anyone to
live first for themselves, and then in terms of their own journey how to relate
to others on the way; with humbleness and love and sincerity and
self-effacement and consideration and compassion."25
The 120-Foot Long Scroll
asked Kerouac to teach him how to write fiction. As part of his tutorial
Cassady whipped out a stream-of-consciousness missive referred to as the "Joan
Anderson letter," named for his girlfriend at the time. The letter was a
revelation dropped into both Kerouac's and Ginsberg's laps, containing
techniques to capture their nonstop, spontaneous ramblings. The effect on
Kerouac was mind-boggling, giving him the internal permission to shed the more
formal style he had used in his first novel, The Town and the City, and
compelling him to write the book that had been percolating inside him for over four
mentioned this pivotal letter in a discussion with Al Aronowitz, saying, "I
changed my style from The Town and the City because of Neal — Neal Cassady.
Because of a forty-thousand-word letter that Neal wrote me. He wrote me a
forty-thousand-word letter! But Allen lost the letter, or Gerd Stern did,
actually. Gerd Stern, he lived on a barge in Sausalito. He lost that great
letter, which was a work of literary genius. Neal, he was just telling me what
happened one time in Denver and he had every detail. It was just like Dostoyevsky.
And I realized that's the way to tell a story — just tell it! I really got it
Ginsberg Kerouac met twenty-year-old Joan Haverty and in a whirlwind courtship
married her. Then on April 2, 1951, he began a nonstop, twenty-one-day typing
binge on an elongated scroll of tracing paper helped by prodigious amounts of
caffeine and, some argue, speed.27 He wrote "without consciousness"
in a semitrance, using phrases that sounded like ambulating jazz riffs. He
typed on one continuous 120-foot roll that he had pasted and taped together
from separate twelve-foot-long strips. He typed without paragraphs,
occasionally crossing out words, phrases, and even whole lines with a pencil.
later he showed Aronowitz the scroll and told him, "It's a hundred feet long. I
wrote On the Road on another roll . . . a roll of . . . drawing paper that you
draw through. For Dharma Bums I could afford the teletype roll. Three dollars .
. . On the Road, I gave that roll to
Viking. It was all no paragraphs, single-spaced-all one big paragraph. I had to
retype it so they could publish it. Do people realize what an anguish it is to
write an original story three hundred pages long?"28
after completing his creative maelstrom, he left Joan and moved into his friend
Lucien Carr's loft to keep revising On
the Road. He then joined William
Burroughs in Mexico to work on expanding his writing technique. In a letter to
Cassady dated May 1952, he mentioned that his friend Ed White had suggested he
"sketch in the streets like a painter but with words . . . Now here is what
sketching is . . . everything activates in front of you in myriad profusion,
you just have to purify your mind and let it pour the words . . . and write
with 100% personal honesty both psychic and social . . . and slap it all down
shameless, willy-nilly, rapidly until sometimes I got so inspired I lost
consciousness I was writing. Traditional source: Yeats' trance writing, of
course. It's the only way
Kerouac had finished typing his novel The
Subterraneans in three twenty-four-hour stints of nonstop "bennie"
(Benzedrine) popping. Not sure what
to do next, he played with the idea of living in nature and went to the library to find out how to do it. At first he read Thoreau's discussions of
Hindu philosophy and then accidentally
checked out The Life of the Buddha by
Ashvagosa. It was through this
accident that Kerouac discovered his profound and serious interest in his "second new religion." Although he never renounced Roman Catholicism,
which was the religion of his birth,
all those cross-country journeys depicted in On The Road, all that
playful Sinatraesque crooning to Ginsberg, blossomed into his "road of dharma," or Buddhist path. His detailed studies of Buddhism were completed before On the Road was ever published. He tentatively called his studies "Book
of Dharmas," a collection of handwritten
and typed pages begun as notes he prepared for Ginsberg to use as a Buddhist primer. Viking Press published these notes posthumously in 1997 as Some of the Dharma.
Some of the Dharma
I still remember the first real dharma
instruction I got from
Kerouac . . . "All conceptions as to the
existence of the self, as
well as all conceptions as to the
nonexistence of the self, as well
as all conceptions as to the existence of
a Supreme Self, as well
as all conceptions as to the nonexistence
of a Supreme Self, are
equally arbitrary, being only
(NAROPA INSTITUTE WEBSITE )
Kerouac went to the library in San Jose, California, and checked out Dwight
Goddard's A Buddhist Bible. He began a serious reading of that text, as well as
readings in the Bhagavad Gita, yoga precepts, Vedic hymns, Buddhist sutras, and
the writings of both Lao Tzu and Confucius. He poured over the Theravadin
(original teachings) and Mahayana (later teachings) texts and briefly touched
on Vajrayana (secret teachings), including those of the great yogi hermit
Milarepa. He took notes, quickly amassing a hundred or so pages.
of the yanas or "vehicles" work with conflicting emotions, referred to as
kleshas, or "heaps" of obscurations. The Theravadin approach recognizes the
kleshas and fights against them by applying different mental antidotes. In the
Mahayana the kleshas are taken along the path and worked with by deep
examination and using different skillful methods to loosen attachments. But the
Vajrayana transforms the kleshas into wisdom by working with them as part of
one's nature, a very tricky thing to do without the guidance of an experienced
coming from an ex-Communist, Jewish, intellectual background, felt conflicted
when he heard about the First Noble Truth. He believed in a vague universal
improvement of the human condition and felt insulted when Kerouac told him over
and over again the truth of suffering, though a scant two years later he
admitted Kerouac's wisdom. Viewed through the lens of his terrifying experiences
at the Columbia University bookstore, when everyone's faces transformed into
masks of suffering, it shows tremendous denial. Kerouac was the first one to
place Ginsberg's visions squarely into a context other than pure insanity.
wrote Ginsberg on May 1954, "I have crossed the ocean of suffering and found
the path at last. And am quite surprised that you, innocent, novice-like, did
enter the first inner chamber of Buddha's temple in a dream."30 He
began teaching him as if he were the innocent novitiate and told him that he
had been compiling notes on Buddhism for Ginsberg's personal edification: "Now
Allen, as Neal or Carolyn can tell you, last February I typed up a 100-page account
of Buddhism for you, gleaned from my notes, and you will see proof of that in
several allusions and appeals to 'Allen,' and I have that here, if you really
want to see it, I will send it importantly stamped, it's the only copy, we must
take special care with it, right? 'Some of the Dharma' I called it, and it was
intended for you to read in the selva."
also advised that Ginsberg should listen to his words as if it were "Einstein
teaching you relativity," a terribly overblown statement. He assigned him nine
books to read, including those of Paul Carus, who started Open Court Press and
was the first employer of D. T. Suzuki in the West. He also told him to read
the Harvard Asian Classics, Buddhist legends, the life of the Buddha, and even
the original Vissudhi Magga by Buddhaghoshna, the earliest scriptures of the
Buddha translated from Pali. He commented on certain books in the list, making
sure to let him know which points he considered essential.31
in California after a silly quarrel with Cassady, Kerouac packed his belongings
and moved into a fleabag hotel in San Francisco. Drinking heavily, he completed
the poem "San Francisco Blues" but quickly turned his focus back to New York.
moved in with his mother, Gabrielle Ange Levesque Kerouac, who was living in
Richmond Hill in Queens, New York. Memère, as she was known, worked in a shoe
factory. Kerouac handed over his unemployment checks to her and led a quiet
life studying Buddhism and attempting to follow a real spiritual path by
reading the early sutras oriented toward monastic practice. Burroughs did not
agree with what Kerouac was doing and cautioned if he went too far he would
resemble the Tibetan Buddhist monks who walled themselves into a small cell
with a slot where their food was pushed in and they remained until they died.
highly attuned but flawed sensibility conflicted with his battle with
alcoholism, which eventually caused his death. In another era when teachers
were more available, he might have integrated his flaws into his spiritual
path. Buddhism's scope is broad enough to encompass the wisdom of the drunk Zen
master or the overindulgences of the sixth Dalai Lama, who drank and consorted with
women. The tantric tradition allowed for all types of people because it worked
with Bodhicitta, the basic nature of mind.
But was Kerouac really a Buddhist?
According to Aronowitz, Kerouac wistfully mused, "Was I a Buddhist then? Well,
I couldn't be — a Buddhist has got to be alone." He laughed at the thought. "A
night club Buddhist!" Then he reflected for a moment. "Ahhh, I was a Buddhist,
yeah . . ." He added, "I'm not interested in politics. I'm interested in Li Po.
He was a Dharma Bum type, a poor poet roaming China. You know, I have some
eighteen-year-old writings that are pure Buddhism. I'm thirty-seven now. My
birthday's March 12. So I've always been a Buddhist."32
1961 Book of Dreams, published by
City Lights Books, Kerouac mentions waking up to see the ghosts of his dreams
fading from consciousness and scurrying to write them down as quickly as possible.
He noted that his subconscious mind, which he referred to by its Sanskrit name
manas, worked through the alaya vijnana, or original storehouse of mental
cognition. That he could actually discriminate these subtle points was
astounding, as his was a perception usually experienced only by long-term meditators.
then moved down south with his sister to Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He
studied the Diamond Sutra, which said all things, even his asceticism, were a
dream not to be grasped. He wrote a list of the stages he would go through to
reach Nirvana by the year 2000, starting with a "Modified Ascetic Life." He
would stop chasing women, relinquish alcohol, and simplify his diet. The following
year he would stop shaving, quit writing for ego gratification, and renounce
his name. By 1970 he would have no possessions and go begging in the villages.
By 2000 he would be in "Nirvana and willed earth beyond death." But his resolve
did not last long. With a scathingly critical eye turned foremost on himself,
he said in a letter to Ginsberg he was a "Junior Arhat" master. He still
possessed ignorance and was only in the "early stages of vow-making," and still
capable of using Buddhism for his own devices, instead of purely disseminating
and realistically, this was true. His ex-wife Joan Haverty sued him for child
support, and the police issued a warrant for his arrest. Ginsberg's brother
Eugene served as his lawyer. Haverty eventually had pity on Kerouac's severe
and disabling phlebitis and excused him from paying child support for their
daughter Janet if he agreed never to contact either of them ever again. Kerouac
wrote Ginsberg, "So instead of going to jail I come home, memorize the heart of
the Great Dharani of the Lord Buddha's Crown Samadhi,
on knees recite it, drink wine and take benny and read your letter and tape up
admonished Ginsberg to sit erect, fold his feet, breathe in deeply, close his
eyes, listen to any sound around him and
refrain from even scratching an itch. He would know
he was having a successful meditation session when he experienced a feeling of
bliss accompanied by slower breathing. Intuition would dawn with an "eeriness,
dream-ness like Harlem Vision again." With each outbreath he should realize
thinking had stopped and life was only a dream.
Despite being frequently
intoxicated, Kerouac was coherent enough to relate meditation practice back to
Ginsberg's Harlem vision and their search for the "new vision." But visions
aside, getting published, or the lack of it, was wearing him down. By early 1955,
he was so fed up he asked his agent Sterling Lord to return all his
manuscripts. Kerouac announced that he was going to write only "Buddhist
Teaching[s]" that had no worldly or literary motives, and that any of his Beat
generation writings were only a precursor to his own exalted "state of
enlightenment." Or so he believed.
Despite his disgust with the literary world,
and all his vehement protestations about its materialism, he kept making the
rounds, visiting publishers and carrying Subterraneans
and Doctor Sax manuscripts with him.
He persisted, and his losing streak finally came to an end in July 1955. Viking
Press accepted Beat Generation, later changed to On the Road, and he even sold a story to the Paris Review. The Academy
of Arts and Letters then awarded him a grant of $200.
now free to write. He left for Mexico City, staying at a fleabag hotel with no
electricity, filling it with candles, a railroad lantern, clothes, toiletries,
a Christian Bible, his Buddhist Bible, and his manuscripts. With a jazz
sensibility Kerouac composed "Mexico City Blues," a gigantic opus of a poem
with hundreds of choruses and interspersed Sanskrit words for different states
of consciousness taken from the sutras. Ginsberg said it was the work of a "Zen
lunatic but with a secret message implied for anyone with Gnostic knowledge to
pick up."34 He had a squalid love affair with an "Aztec" prostitute,
Esperanza, believing she epitomized the First Nobel Truth that "all life is
suffering." But Mexico's charms soon faded, and Kerouac moved on.
Francisco's North Beach scene, full of musicians, actors, playwrights, and
alternative-lifestyle adepts, was burgeoning just as Walt Disney's The Mickey Mouse Club was starting its
run on national TV. City Lights Books, founded by the poet Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, became San Francisco's social and cultural hub just as Bill
Haley's "Rock around the Clock" topped the charts. Ginsberg moved to the West
Coast carrying a letter of introduction from his mentor William Carlos Williams
addressed to Kenneth Rexroth, a writer and poet who hosted an influential
salon. Ginsberg met many poets and writers, including Michael McClure, who
wanted to organize a poetry reading at the Six Gallery but was too busy;
Ginsberg jumped at the chance. Since it was his first time planning such a big
event, he asked Rexroth to help him choose readers, and the older man suggested
Gary Snyder, a graduate student of Japanese and Chinese at Berkeley.
September 8, 1955, the same day Kerouac returned from Mexico, Ginsberg met
Snyder, whom he described as a bearded "cat" studying "Oriental," a real Zen
monk "hung up" on Indians, but a good writer, and a scholar who rode his bike
around Berkeley. Snyder remembered Ginsberg "sneaking" up while he was fixing his
bicycle, telling Snyder that Rexroth had sent him. Snyder invited him in for
tea. In The Dharma Bums Kerouac
described Snyder as living in a small room filled with straw mats, a rucksack,
pots and pans neatly tied up, and a blue bandana containing his "inside pata socks"
worn while padding around the straw matting. His chief possessions were orange
crates filled with books of "Oriental" languages, sutras, and commentaries, the
complete works of D. T. Suzuki, Japanese haiku, and assorted poetry books. He
also had a small table made from orange crates.
told him he was organizing a poetry reading, looked at his poems, and said,
"Well, this is all right."35 He mentioned that Kerouac, on his way
back from Mexico, would be showing up any day. In fact, Kerouac was at that
exact moment on his way to Ginsberg's house, high on Benzedrine.
student at Reed College in 1949, Snyder dove into a four-volume haiku
translation by R. H. Blyth and discovered writings of D. T. Suzuki. He said,
"The two first powerful influences on me were D. T. Suzuki, and Sasaki
(Sokei-an). Sokei-an's talks were published in a book called Cat's Yawn, which
I was lucky enough to get a copy of around 1952. Suzuki was the intellectual,
Sokei-an the wanderer, laborer, artist, and authentic Zen master."36
In 1952 he and the future Zen master and poet Philip Whalen shared an apartment
in Berkeley with the poet Lew Welch, deeply engaged in their own studies of
reading on October 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery brought out all of the "boho"
and arty types. The crowd quickly swelled to standing room only. Rexroth,
master of ceremonies, compared the feeling in the air to that which the Spanish
anarchists must have felt. Philip Lamantia read work by a poet who had recently
died. Michael McClure recited poems anticipating the world environmental movement,
including "For the Death of 100 Whales," followed by Philip Whalen. Then there
was a break.
second half opened with Ginsberg reading Howl
to about 150 people, ranting like an old-world Moses. Years later, during a cab
ride, Ginsberg told one of his secretaries, Jacqueline Gens, that Howl was
actually about Bodhicitta. First there was identification and compassion for
suffering. Then there was identification with the causes (i.e., Moloch,
conceptual mind and judgmental mind, this and that which categorizes and
creates the will to power). Next is Holy, Holy, Holy, the brilliance and
goodness in the world, the fruition. It was not, as he initially thought, an
shouted "Go" to punctuate the end of each line of the poem. Ginsberg recounted,
"It was Jack Kerouac, you know, who gave the poem its name. I mailed him a copy
just after I wrote it-it was still untitled-and he wrote back, ‘I got your
howl.'"38 Many were moved to tears, and there was a sense that
literary history had been made. Snyder ended the evening with a gentle poem
about the need for man to return to nature.
was a resounding success. The voices of the poets had been overwhelmingly heard
and, better yet, understood. If any moment could be said to have launched the
San Francisco poetry renaissance, this was it. And Ginsberg, who had been
unsuccessful in finding a publisher, finally found one — Ferlinghetti's City
wrote in the Evergreen Review that "Howl is the confession of faith of the
generation that is going to be running the world in 1965 and 1975 — if it's still
there to run." He did not know part of it had been written when Ginsberg was
under the influence of peyote and looked at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel roof as
a "robot Moloch face." He ingested peyote a second time, took a cable car to
the heart of the city, and started rhyming verses using the word "Moloch,"
picked up from Fritz Lang's 1927 movie Metropolis. Rexroth correctly prophesied
that Ginsberg would become the first authentically popular poet in a
followed other poetry readings, wild parties, and drinking binges. Kerouac
usually sat alone in a corner. This caught Snyder's eye, and he invited him to
his house to talk. Kerouac, though deeply respectful of Snyder's knowledge,
took issue with his austere, intellectual style of Zen. He felt it had a touch
of cruelty with "all those Zen Masters throwing young kids in the mud because
they can't answer their silly word questions."40 But they both
appreciated the Buddhist saint Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit, Chenrezig in
Tibetan, or Kannon in Japanese. Kerouac was impressed by Snyder's prodigious knowledge
of "Tibetan, Chinese, Mahayana, Hinayana, Japanese, and even
Burmese Buddhism,"41 but kept coming back to the essential point:
the first of the four noble truths, that all life is suffering. Kerouac didn't
really believe that the cessation of suffering was possible, but he was open
enough to consider that it could be and discussed his translations of Buddhist
texts from the French, saying he had been studying all by himself in public
libraries throughout America. Snyder was duly impressed.
all the scholarly and intellectual interest in Zen, no one except Snyder and
occasionally Whalen actually practiced formal meditation. Whalen felt Kerouac
just didn't have it in him to endure any lengthy sessions, first because his
knees were ruined by football and second, and more importantly, because he had
a monkey mind that could not remain still. But Ginsberg felt differently, that
if only they had been exposed to a teacher or at least to someone who could
have taught them proper posture and breathing techniques, "it would've been a
later Snyder remarked. "Jack doesn't know anything about Zen. He admits it
himself on page 13 of The Dharma Bums: 'I'm an old-fashioned dreamy Himalayan
coward of later Mahayanism.' He's interested in Indian Buddhism, not Chan and
Zen. He came onto it by reading the Sacred Books of the East series. I deeply respect
Jack's insights in Buddhism, and I think they are very valid, but this is
simply some of the American Buddhism as it's practiced. It's not the same as
told Kerouac the Zen story of Nansen the Zen master. Nansen said to his monks,
"If you can tell me one word of Zen, I won't kill this cat; but if you can't
talk, the cat is going to get killed." No one said anything, and the cat was
killed. The next day Nansen's top disciple Joshu arrived, and Nansen relayed
the story to him, asking him what he would have done to save the cat. Joshu put
his shoes on his head and walked out the door. Nansen told the rest of the
students that if that had happened the day before, the cat would still be
alive. Kerouac was horrified. He believed anyone who would kill a cat to make
a point about the dharma was wrong. He told Snyder, "This Zen business is bad."
Even though it was a metaphorical example, it was too gruesome and full of
suffering for Kerouac's "big old Mahayana heart."
invited Kerouac to go camping in the High Sierras, insisting they bring along
all their food and no alcohol, an inconvenience Kerouac meekly protested but
then accepted. Kerouac described their outing in great detail in The Dharma
Bums, saying he made a "magic mandala" before they embarked to help aid them in
their climb. He did this to represent the void within all things, part of life's
illusions. The climb became a parable between a Zen "just do it" type of
ideology and a mystical vision quest. They wrote haiku full of vigor while
ascending the mountain, but Kerouac quickly tired. Snyder emphasized the
excursion was its own haiku and easily made it to the top of the mountain, but
Kerouac did not. But the descent was easy, with both men happily bounding back
down the mountain at breakneck speed.
moment of happy abandonment and freedom did not last long. Neal Cassady showed
up in San Francisco with Natalie Jackson, his speed-addicted girlfriend, who
was in the middle of a bout of acute amphetamine psychosis. She climbed up to
the roof of their building, broke the skylight, and used the shattered glass to
cut her wrists. A neighbor who saw her bleeding on the roof called the police.
In her flipped-out haze Natalie thought the police wanted to kill her, and in
fleeing them she jumped six floors to her death. The newspapers reported
"Unidentified Blond Leaps to Death."43 The suicide was traumatic for
everyone. Kerouac thought if this was the result of their inquiry into dharma,
what was the point? How had they changed the world? Whom had they helped? They couldn't
even control themselves. He briefly moved in with Cassady, who in the aftermath
of Natalie's gruesome death had returned home to his wife Carolyn. But Kerouac
couldn't stand being around their domestic tension and left to grieve at his sister's
house in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
Buddha and Blake Are One
arrived at his sister's house, Kerouac was so overwrought from the death and
chaos in Berkeley that he ran outside, convinced he was about to die. Sitting
underneath a tree, he mimicked the Heart Sutra chant, "form is emptiness,
emptiness is no other than form" reciting,
Raindrops are ecstasy,
raindrops are not different from ecstasy,
neither is ecstasy different from
yea, ecstasy is raindrops,
yea, ecstasy is raindrops,
rain on, O cloud.
with his sister and brother-in-law quickly became intolerable. His family
laughed when he tried to explain that holding an orange in his hand was the
essence of emptiness, and that "all things made have to be unmade . . . simply
because they were made." His brother-in-law, trying to find some common ground,
asked him how, if things were empty, was he able to taste and swallow an
orange? Kerouac answered using the Heart Sutra as the basis for his argument: that
one could see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and even think about the orange, but
without mind it couldn't exist, since mind had created it in
the first place. His brother-in-law, stymied by such a philosophical exegesis,
gave up and said he didn't really care.
focused on his Buddhist studies and tried to embody the religious life of a
mountain hermit, Kerouac continued to drink heavily and pop bennies. In the
tantric tradition, alcohol can intensify mind and sense perceptions if one is
properly trained, but he wasn't and he couldn't. Though his legs swelled up
with dangerous bouts of phlebitis, he maintained his discipline and wrote
Ginsberg that he read the Diamond Sutra every day and practiced the ten paramitas. On Sunday he read Dana (generosity), Monday Sila (discipline), Tuesday Ksanti (patience), Wednesday Virya (exertion), Thursday Dhyana (meditation), and Friday Prajana (knowledge). On Saturday he read
the conclusion of the sutras. He practiced meditation without any formal
instruction and strove, despite his excesses, to see the sacred in everything.
Drinking cups of green tea, he sat in a cross-legged lotus position,
excruciating for a man with phlebitis, and wrote Ginsberg a poem about it.
When a thought
comes a-springing from afar with its held
forth figure of image, you spoof it out,
you spuff it off, you fake it, and
it fades, and thought never comes-and
with joy you realize for the first time
"Thinking's just like not thinking-
So I don't have to think
back with the revelation that "your Buddha experience and my Blake ones are on
the same level."
simply as possibly, he continued to write his biography of the Buddha as loose
pages of typewritten sheets lay strewn about, full of scribbled thoughts and
haiku. He drew lines around most of his poems and embellished everything as if
it were some kind of eternal tomb while he waited and worried if his other
books sold. Translating texts from French into English, he focused on the Mahayana Samgraha of Asanga, about a
great scholar of the first century. Perhaps, he thought, he might even survive
on the meager wages of a translator, but no such job materialized.
Ginsberg that Some of the Dharma had
grown to over two hundred pages and that he would become a great writer and convert
"thousands, maybe millions." He added in a letter a month later that even after
reading D. T. Suzuki's book in the New York Public Library, his own writing
would become as important and as influential, a heady statement that shows both
his insight and arrogance. Different publishers did read his writing on
Buddhism. Sadly, all rejected it. He wrote to Ginsberg that "Buddha Tells Us,"
one of his names for it, was given the cold shoulder by Cowley, Giroux, and
even his agent, Sterling Lord. He strongly felt it would "convert" many people
once it was published, but he had to wrestle the "money changers" so its
"magical powers of enlightenment" could be heard. Half a century later, after
he was dead and his prophetic words faded, he got his wish. Viking Penguin finally
published it, since Kerouac was now a brand name that sold a hundred thousand copies
annually, and they could make a handsome profit.
He had finally
understood the nature of true "Mind Essence" and the purity of spontaneity and
intuition. He felt he had "reached the point beyond Enlightenment" and could
even abandon Buddhism because it was "an arbitrary conception." Insightful
enough to know that the "seed-energy" of his mind could never stop, he thought
he could do nothing the rest of his life, and it wouldn't matter. His sister,
however, would have none of it and accused him of freeloading, thinking his
interest in Buddhism was ridiculous. There were squabbles, and he finally left
After the Road
beginning of 1958 Kerouac was living in Orlando, Florida. In a letter to Philip
Whalen he correctly prophesied that year would be known as the year of
Buddhism. Acutely aware of Alan Watts, the "big hero of Madison Avenue," he was
surprisingly complimentary of Nancy Wilson Ross's breakthrough article about
Buddhism in the women's magazine Mademoiselle. He also accurately predicted that
everyone would soon be reading Suzuki. In an October letter to poet Gregory
Corso he admitted he was unable to meditate any more and had begun writing
Catholic poems, sending them to Jubilee magazine.
the Zen issue of the Chicago Review was published with Kerouac's "Meditation in
the Woods," a description of a sesshin by Gary Snyder, translations by D. T.
Suzuki and Ruth Fuller Sasaki, a poem by Philip Whalen, a painting by Franz
Kline, and Alan Watts's wildly controversial article "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and
Zen." Kerouac had also become famous enough to appear on Steve Allen's popular
TV talk show.
beginning of 1959, Kerouac wrote Whalen he was no longer a Buddhist, wasn't
anything and didn't care, a far cry from his predictions of the previous year.
He wrote, "Fuck Suzuki, fuck Sasaki, fuck 'em all. They think Buddhism is
something apart from Transcendentalism, well they're not Buddhists, they're
Alan Watts Social philosophers and glad-to-meet-yas. They want 'group meetings'
to 'discuss Zen.' That's what they want, not the sign."44
rallied in April and wrote to Ginsberg that a Chinese scholar from Staten
Island (who might even have been the same Chen Chi Chang who filled in for
Suzuki's classes at Columbia) had sent him never-before-translated selections
from The 100,000 Songs of Milarepa, a
tantric Tibetan text. Though he admitted not understanding much of it, he
enthusiastically stated, "It's all about Milarepa dispelling hallucinations of
demons and coming down from Lashi Snow Mountain to explain it to the people!"45
But two months later he wrote Whalen he had nothing left to say about the
dharma, and anything he read seemed like a dream. All he could feel were
Kerouac went out to the West Coast to stay in Raton Canyon in a cabin offered
to him by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. There he had a full-blown, paranoid, alcoholic
breakdown. He believed his friends wanted to kill him, that his water was
poisoned, and that the sound of flowing water was seeping into his brain. He
stopped sleeping, had a panic attack, and saw a vision of the cross. Abandoning
Buddhism for good, he headed back home to be with his mother on the East Coast.
he wrote a letter to Carolyn Cassady from Orlando, Florida, describing himself
as a drunk. To Stella Sampas, a childhood friend whom he married at the end of
his life, he described himself as a literary monk who didn't get drunk. In an
act of caustic self-mockery he wrote the publisher Robert Giroux that there could
be a whole new series of work left in him yet: "The Dharma Bums Grow Up," "The
Dharma Bums on Wall Street," and "The Dharma Bums in the White House." By 1963,
he fell into a deep depression and by 1964 turned against Ginsberg and Corso,
deeming them political fanatics. He wrote, "I am sick of life and that is why I
to Ginsberg, "Kerouac's satori was clinging both to despair of suffering, fear
of suffering, and permanent Hell, fear of a permanent Heaven,"47 intensified
by his advanced alcoholism. It left him susceptible to "the phantasm of the
monotheistic imposition" of Western culture. His original understanding of the
concept of mind, space, and awareness of Buddhism gave way to his boyhood fixations
and faith of the Catholic cross, and the suffering caused by the crucifixion.
He started painting Christ crucified, the cross, Mary, cardinals, popes, and finally
himself on the cross, a metaphor he aptly accomplished by drinking himself to
death on October 21, 1969.
also felt washed up. On a July 18, 1963, train ride from Kyoto to Tokyo, en
route to the airport to fly to the Vancouver Poetry Festival, he renounced his
Blake vision, and renounced Blake as well. He realized he had to rid himself of
everything, or he would just be hanging onto a memory of his experience. He
wrote the poem "The Change" to confront his fears and serve as an exorcism. He
was no longer Blake's disciple; nor had he become a full-blown student of
Tibetan Buddhism. He was in transition. But a new counterculture was brewing in
America, one that would anoint him as one of its most prominent spokespersons.
Along with poems about political activism, pacifism, and gay rights, he was to
become one of his generation's strongest adherents for Buddhist practice. Allen
Ginsberg died on April 5, 1997.
The Tibetan Buddhists Finally Arrive: Tolstoy
and the Kalmyks
when the San Francisco poetry renaissance had just begun and Natalie Jackson
leapt to her death, Geshe Wangyal, a Kalmyk Mongolian Buddhist from the Volga
region of Russia, settled into a sizable community of displaced Kalmyks in
Freewood Acres, New Jersey. They had been brought to the United States after
World War II by the Tolstoy Foundation, which had been set up by Alexandra Tolstoy,
the youngest daughter of the renowned writer Count Leo Tolstoy. The Kalmyks
established four or five Buddhist temples more akin to local community centers.
of Tolstoy's grandsons and Alexandra's nephew, felt a special affinity with the
Tibetans. As OSS (the military precursor to the CIA) foreign-intelligence
agents for the United States during World War II, Lieutenant Colonel Ilia
Tolstoy and Captain Brooke Dolan were sent on an expedition to find a shortcut
to China in order to bring supplies to Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist government,
which was defending itself against the invasion of the Japanese army. A second
objective of the mission was for Tolstoy to personally deliver a gold
chronometer watch, one of only two such Swiss watches in existence, and a
letter from President Roosevelt to the then-ten-year-old Dalai Lama.48
Traditional silk greeting scarves (katas) were exchanged, and the young Dalai
Lama inquired about Roosevelt's health. The Dalai Lama asked Tolstoy to stay on
a few extra months
while work was completed on an elaborate hand embroidered silk-appliqué
thangka to be presented to the White House. Tolstoy witnessed the Monlam New
Year's festival and visited various monasteries.
and Dolan gave their report to both the OSS and the Pentagon, including 1,200
photographs and a short film "edited by John Ford, who was then in charge of
the field photographic unit of OSS. It was in 16-mm color and narrated."49
They also brought back presents from the Dalai Lama for President Roosevelt,
including four thangkas and a collection of Tibetan stamps, later sold at
auction after Roosevelt's death. Though Tolstoy and Dolan's mission to find a
shortcut had succeeded, the U.S. government ultimately scrapped the plan to
deliver supplies to China because it was too politically sensitive. Tolstoy was
awarded the Legion of Merit for his service.
middle of the winter of 1943, Stalin deported all ethnic Kalmyks to Siberia,
and most perished. In 1957 Nikita Khrushchev allowed them to reenter their
homeland, which they did, only to find it occupied by Russians and Ukrainians.
Geshe Wangyal (1901-1983), an ethnic Kalmyk Mongolian, was a Gelupa teacher,
part of the same Tibetan lineage as the Dalai Lama. Ordained at the age of six,
he was somehow able to travel and studied at one of the three main Gelupa
monasteries, Drepung in Lhasa, where he received his title of Geshe, the
equivalent of a doctorate in logic, debate, and philosophy. While preparing to
go back to Kalmykia after his studies in Lhasa, he heard about the Bolshevik
repression of Buddhism and changed his plans. Instead, he journeyed to Beijing,
where among other jobs he served as translator for the British political
appointee to the Himalayan area (including Tibet), Sir Charles Bell,
accompanying him throughout his extensive travels in China and Manchuria. Believing
correctly that America would become fertile ground for the dharma, he prepared
by learning English in Lhasa and continued his studies in Beijing. In 1951,
when the Chinese first entered Kham or Eastern Tibet, he fled before most
Tibetans were even aware of the danger and settled in Kalimpong, Sikkim.
Jack and Allen Never Knew
Geshe Wangyal over four years to secure a visa to the United States. In 1955 he
moved into a simple house his Kalmyk friends found for him in Freewood Acres,
New Jersey. There he obtained a charter from the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to
establish the first Tibetan monastery in the United States, called the Lamaist
Buddhist Monastery of America. Neither Kerouac nor Ginsberg were even aware the
Geshe existed. Just a few years later Geshe Wangyal attracted many prominent
Western students, including Columbia professor Robert Thurman, the first
ordained Western Tibetan Buddhist monk, and the Harvard-educated translator and
scholar Jeffrey Hopkins.
startling to realize that while Jack Kerouac delved into his own brand of
Buddhist studies, an authentic Tibetan Buddhist lama lived only an hour and a
half away. Had either Kerouac or Ginsberg known of Geshe Wangyal, there is a
good chance they would have at least visited him. As Geshe was fastidious about
making his students learn Tibetan and study complex scriptures, it is hard to
say if that type of scholarly path would have attracted Kerouac or Ginsberg for
long. But fate decided that encounter would never happen, and Kerouac never
found an authentic meditation teacher.
The Next Generation
next generation of Beats was interested, including the young poet Anne Waldman.
A child of bohemian New Yorkers who had met each other at a party given by the
sculptor Isamu Noguchi at his studio on MacDougal Street in the late 1930s,
Waldman was just seventeen years old and a college freshman when, in the summer
of 1963, a friend brought her to Freewood Acres to the "pink suburban house" to
meet Geshe Wangyal. She remembers the house as "very monastic," and met Geshe
Wangyal in the early afternoon while monks were sitting around a table eating
lunch. Walking into the shrine room, she was mesmerized by the wild colors and scrolls,
the burning incense, and the butter lamps.
She felt there was a "stopping the
mind"50 quality as she gazed at the moonlike face of Geshe, who was
sitting in a comfortable chair. She visited him only twice and was the only
woman present at both meetings. She had no thoughts of becoming his student,
but in 1965, when she took her first acid trip, she saw the "mind track the
grammar of mind," an experience akin to insight meditation. At age twenty she
took a vow to poetry, and by 1966 she was working at the St. Marks Poetry Project.
In 1968 she became its director. In 1970 Waldman visited Tail of the Tiger
(later Karme Choling), set up by the Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa, and by 1974
she and Allen Ginsberg founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics
at Trungpa's school Naropa Institute
(now University) in Boulder, Colorado.
1. Gary Snyder in A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki, a fi lm by Michael
Goldberg, executive producer and director, the D. T. Suzuki Documentary Project
Japan Inter-Culture Foundation, 2005-2008. Used with permission of Gary Snyder.
2. Barry Miles, Ginsberg: A Biography, 2nd rev. ed. (New York:
Virgin Books, 2001), 566-68.
3. The last living witness to this meeting, Edward H. Dougal,
conveyed the following in private correspondence on June 27, 2011: In at least
two talks I have had with M-san [Mihoko Okamura], she mentioned how she had
wished you had referred to her story she told you (not in your chapter) about
Kerouac coming to her mother's house in NYC with two guys to meet DTS [Suzuki]
in about 1956. I was fuzzy in memory about her telling of the story, so for
contrast/comparison, I read her the attached story I got from the Buddhist Society's
short biography (50 pages or so) of DTS, which had been included as reference
at the end of Carl Jackson's chapter in the SUNY book. (M-san said she did not
have a copy of the bio, even though Louise Marchant is sure it had been sent to
her long ago.) After I had read out this story, she said that part of it was
true and part not true. We figured that Kerouac had lost some valuable details by
the time he wrote it in 1960 at Berkeley, and M-san reminded me that she had
told me parts of the story before. Now she gave me the whole thing, from start
to end, and said she had given it to you this way also-not recorded perhaps.
M-san: "I was sick with a cold that day when K [Kerouac] called around tea time
in the afternoon. Dr. S [Suzuki] usually had ceremonial tea then and had been
hoping to get in touch with K about his Zen views and their limitations. K had
graduated from Columbia, before Dr. S's time there, and S. was biding his time
until they crossed paths around Columbia or in NY anywhere, during one of K's
visits. When he did call to ask to meet that day, S set up the chairs, without my
help. Later he led the three men in. One of them was the poet fellow . . . (I
asked, ‘Snyder?' She said, ‘No, the other poet.' I asked, ‘Oh, Ginsberg?' She:
‘Yes, I think so. He was not really interested in Zen, you know.') "I listened
as Dr. S made thick ceremonial tea, turning the whisk, and serving them in
traditional tea bowls/chawan. I heard K's loud question about Bodhidharma
through the sliding doors. Dr. S told them that freedom has to be accompanied
by responsibility, otherwise it made no sense-that freedom has responsibility
on the other side of the one coin, inseparable in essence. This was his main
message to them, which he had been saving for them so long. "When they went
outside and the young men stepped down the stairway or stoop, K said these very
words: ‘I could live with you forever!' Dr. S immediately replied, ‘Come
along!'" So, Ellen, it is the freedom-responsibility part that M-san wished you
had included in your chapter. Everything rests on that one teaching to the
three visitors. It was their only meeting-K's and S's, she says. (Although I
know Gary Snyder tells of meetings with S and his enjoying M-san's beauty . .
4. D. T. Suzuki, "Zen in the Modern World," Japan Quarterly 5, no.
4 (October-December, 1958): 453.
6. Mihoko Okamura in discussion with the author, June 15, 2005,
7. Suzuki, "Zen in the Modern World," 373. Suzuki is quoting La
personne et le Sacre (in Ecrits de Londres, Gallimard, 1957), as quoted in
Richard Rees, Brave Men: A Study of D. H. Lawrence and Simone Weil (London: 1958),
8. Michael Goldberg in correspondence with the author, Tokyo,
Japan. Used with permission of Gary Snyder.
9. Ann Charters, Selected Jack Kerouac Letters, 1957-1969 (New
York: Penguin Books, 2000), 98.
10. Ellen Pearlman, "Biography, Mythology, and Interpretation:
Interview with Allen Ginsberg," Vajradhatu Sun 12, no. 4 (April/May 1990).
11. George Plimpton, "Beat Writers at Work," Paris Review (1999):
16. Ibid., 59.
18. Pearlman, "Biography, Mythology, and Interpretation."
19. Entry for Sunday, July 25, 1948, in Jack Kerouac, Windblown
World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954, ed. Douglas Brinkley (New York:
Viking Penguin, 2004).
20. Allen Ginsberg and Bill Morgan, Deliberate Prose: Selected
Essays 1952-1995. (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 364.
21. Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake (Boston:
Shambhala, 1981), 213.
22. There are two points of view on the origin of "first thought,
best thought." According to Peter Hale of the Allen Ginsberg Estate, "In Allen's
mind writing slogans, he credits Trungpa. It's the very first slogan in fact.
Whether that's Allen reattributing it, we'll never know. At the very top
however, he quotes Blake's slightly alternate: ‘First thought is best in Art,
second in other matters.'" Peter Hale in discussion with the author, September
23. Ellen Pearlman, notes from weeklong seminars, lectures, and
press conferences at the dedication of The Ginsberg Library at Naropa
University, July 1994, Boulder, Colorado.
24. Pull My Daisy was a fi lm by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie.
Cast members were Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Peter Orlovsky, David
Amram, Richard Bellamy, Alice Neel, Sally Gross, Pablo Frank, Jack Kerouac, and
25. David Amram in discussion with the author.
26. Al Aronowitz website,
27. According to Joyce Johnston at a panel at the Brooklyn Literary Festival for the fiftieth
anniversary of On the Road on
September 16, 2007, Kerouac wrote On the
Road "by drinking prodigious
amounts of coffee, but typed it up high on Benzedrine."
29. Charters, Selected Jack Kerouac Letters, 356.
30. Ibid., 410. Following quote: ibid., 416.
31. Texts on Buddhism Kerouac told Ginsberg to read (ibid.,
415-16): Texts from the Buddhist Canon Known as Dharmapada (Samuel Beal, London and Boston 1878). Life
of Buddha, or Buddha Charita by Asvaghosh the Patriarch, translated by
Samuel Beal (Sacred Books of the East, vol. 19) The Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus (Open Court, Chicago
1894). Buddhism in Translations by
Henry Clarke Warren (Harvard Oriental Series Vol. 3, Harvard U.P. 1896) Also in
Harvard Classics. The Buddhist Bible,
Dwight Goddard (Goddard, Thetford, Vt.) Buddhist Legends, E. W. Burlingame (Harvard Oriental
Series Vol. 28, 30). The Dialogs of the Buddha, Digha-nikaya (Rhys Davids,
Oxford 3 vols.). Visuddhi Magga by
Buddhaghosha, trans. by P. M. Tin (The Path of Purity, Pali Text Society,
Translation Series 11, 17, 21). The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the
East . Volume 18 India and Buddhism. (Parke, Austin and Lipscomb New
33. Charters, Selected Jack Kerouac Letters, 459.
34. Ann Charters, Kerouac: A Biography (New York: St. Martin's Griffi n,
36. Gary Snyder in discussion with the author, November 22, 2005.
37. Jacqueline Gens in discussion with the author.
39. Evergreen Review
1, no. 2.
40. Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums (New York: Penguin, 1976).
44. Charters, Selected Jack Kerouac Letters, 199.
46. Ibid., 432.
47. Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling, Disembodied Poetics: Annals
of the Jack Kerouac School (Albuquerque:
University of New Mexico Press, 1994), 372.
48. The letter from the president, dated July 3, 1942, reads,
"Your Holiness: Two of my fellow countrymen, Ilia Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan,
hope to visit your Pontificate in the historic and widely famed city of Lhasa.
There are in the United States of America many persons, among them myself, who,
long and greatly interested in your land and people, would highly value such an
opportunity. As you know, the people of the United States, in association with
those of twenty-seven other countries, are now engaged in a war which has been
thrust upon the world by nations bent on conquest who are intent upon
destroying freedom of thought, of religion, and of action everywhere. The
United Nations are fighting today in defense of and for preservations of
freedom, confident that we shall be victorious because our cause is just, our
capacity is adequate, and our determination is unshakable. I am asking Ilia
Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan to convey to you a little gift in token of my friendly
sentiment towards you. With cordial greetings, I am very sincerely yours,
Franklin D. Roosevelt." It is addressed to His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Supreme
Pontiff of the Lama Church, Lhasa. From the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde
49. Ilia Tolstyo, Letter to Jerome V. Deyo, September 21, 1970,
50. Anne Waldman in discussion with the author, May 21, 2006.
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