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 In the years to come, as Kerouac drifted back and forth across America, the pages of his unpublished novels heavy in his pack, his interest in Buddhism would continue to grow.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’sDharma 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 rightspiritual 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
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
from Ring of Bone, 1973
Reprinted by permission of Grey Fox Press.
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