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.

Allen Ginsberg in India, 1962.


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.”

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.