“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
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 theBhagavad 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.
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