Following high school in New York City, Noah Buschel went to Los Angeles where he began writing “Neal Cassady,” which later won Square Magazine’s Screenplay of the Year Award 2000. He now lives in Greenwich Village with two friends and a dog named Cassady, and is working on another bio-screenplay, “Soshin,” on the life of the American Zen student Maura O’Halloran. The following narrative was compiled from a conversation with Tricycle last February.
Included is an excerpt from Noah Buschel’s screenplay “Cassady.”
My first experience of Buddhism was when my aunt took me and my brother to Plum Village [Thich Nhat Hanh’s community] in 1994 when we were sixteen, two disgruntled youths. I hated Plum Village. I skipped meditations and read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing the whole time—my way of saying, Fuck all this. I hated people being nice, and I hated feeling just how brooding I was. I couldn’t even just smile at someone. I was a New York teenager, and that had nothing to do with me, being kind. I think that I still have that problem, which is why I practice Zen. I go to Tibetan places and still I feel very brooding, very New York. With Zen, you can be any way, and it’s all appropriate—smiling, not smiling.
I saw Thich Nhat Hanh as some kind of freak. I believed he was enlightened, but I didn’t know what that meant yet. It was like going to the movies—watching him, the way he moved. It was just a big show.
And also they just took away my intelligence the second I got there. Being smart didn’t count. I remember talking to a nun—she had just become a nun—and I said, “So you can’t read anything here, like, besides Buddhist texts?” And she said, “No.” And I said, “So you did a lot of reading before you came here, right, like you’ve read everything you want to read?” and she said, “Yeah, I guess,” and I said, “Did you readCatcher in the Rye?” and she said, “No, I haven’t read that.” I couldn’t believe that she wouldn’t be able to read for twenty years. So there was nothing to talk about there. Nothing.
After Plum Village I went back to high school. I had Thich Nhat Hanh’s books around, and a pocket Shambhala Buddha book, the essential poetry. Tricycle was always around the house. Somehow, from then on I considered myself a Buddhist, even though at that point I really just used Buddhism as a way to further my suffering: It was a way to judge people even more harshly. I would remember those monks and nuns at Plum Village, and I would take the idea of them and compare them to my Dad when my Dad was watching TV and say: This guy, look at this guy, he just doesn’t know. He just does not know. It was a way to deny all the wisdom around me.
The year after high school I was in Los Angeles writing, pretty much alone, reading Frost and Ginsberg, and I had all these audio tapes. I would go to Dodger Stadium when they weren’t playing, ’cause it was the winter, and I’d sit there in the stands and listen to Frost. It was great; that was the only thing I enjoyed. The isolation, and writing poetry, getting into that nonintellectual space—meditation was right around the corner. And then, of course, there was L.A., which is like hell right before your eyes.
For me at that point, writing was about suffering, about selfishness, about self-indulgence. It was about holding onto suffering and trying to make it into something beautiful. It’s a distortion—you can’t overcome your problems so you just dwell in them, turning them into beautiful sadness. But then somewhere I got the idea that no, I don’t have to do that. It was a big relief.
The idea then was to get out of America and not come back, to disown everything, to renounce everything: what a relief. And then I got to Nepal, and it wasn’t a relief. It was pretty much impossible, because my family was on my mind. But while I was there I kept reading about Zen. And I remembered Plum Village, and wanted to go back.
By the time Christmas came I was in Plum Village at a winter retreat, following the schedule. I was nineteen or twenty and a novice and I was thinking about ordaining, so I was doing all these monk classes. It was all very heavy. I was looking around thinking, “Am I going to be here for the next thirty years?” I wasn’t ready to do that. I didn’t want to do that. Because when I was there I became an avid haiku writer, reading Basho. But of course you’re not supposed to be writing on retreat; you’re supposed to be sweeping and not thinking. But I couldn’t get rid of poetry.
So I came back from Plum Village to Greenwich Village and Enkyo’s sangha [Pat Enkyo O’Hara Sensei]. It was the end of the winter of ’99. And it was great, sitting hard. At Plum Village you sit just twenty minutes in the morning, so this was really getting down to it. It was the first time I had been with Buddhism when it wasn’t an escape. I was working on a short film at the time, based on a William Saroyan story, “The Living and the Dead.” It was about how if you feed the homeless it doesn’t matter—you can’t just give them bread, you have to give them more. A very self-righteous movie, but it had some good stuff. I’d go into thedokusan room, thinking we were going to work on a koan, and Enkyo Sensei would ask, “How’s the screenplay going?” It was really helpful—to not feel bad that I have to write. And to know that it’s okay: a decent expression.
My father introduced me to Kerouac. He was always putting books on my bed, and on my brother’s, too.
I was probably about fifteen when I read On the Road. Immediately I started reading about Kerouac; I was trying to find out about his life. I was looking for any role models I could find who combined spirituality and writing. I think Kerouac did just that. When I see him referred to as the king of the Beats, I think it’s totally justified. I mean, it seems that he was pretty fully himself—a man of consciousness. Everything he wrote was so ripe, and so perfectly placed. Revolutionary.
The idea struck to write a screenplay about Neal Cassady. But it was really about those two guys, Cassady and Kerouac—they were like me and my brother Marin. It was about two guys who are young, and just like in On The Road, you know they’re going to have to separate. They keep saying, “We’re going to be old together; we’re going to be a couple of bums looking in trash cans in the alley together.” But you know they’re not. And they probably know they’re not. Their thing is to be young men together. And I related to that, to being a young man along with Marin. And not knowing how we could ever be old together.
Cassady’s relationship to writing fascinates me. He couldn’t write, but he wanted to write. I relate to what happens if you don’t have any work to show. Kerouac and Ginsberg and all those guys, they wrote these novels, and they wrote these poems, and then they could just be like, All right, I’m going to take it easy tonight. But Cassady couldn’t do that because Cassady was to himself his own work. I think a lot of people feel that way: if only I had something; if only I had a name or a job, but since I don’t, I guess I’ll have to come in here and prove myself.
So I think Cassady was constantly looking for that—The Book—so he could just stop. But he could never find it. He could never do it.
Cassady brought true America to the Beats. He brought poverty, he brought what they were all trying to do. He brought cowboyness. I heard it said that Kerouac and Ginsberg and all those guys would be just a bunch of Horace Mann—Columbia students if it weren’t for Cassady. They were all reading Poe until the real thing came along. He brought jailhouses and pool halls; he brought the Beat. The Beatness. He brought an openness they didn’t have. He brought the West, its open nature. Friendliness, charm, something other than dark intelligence. He was definitely in a way nonintellectual. He had an understanding of joy and energy and sex.
In the screenplay I set out to demystify Cassady and Kerouac. Like most guys, I got addicted to them. I know the part of me that’s addicted is the same part that gets addicted to the movies. And to pop culture. That’s the great and sad part about Kerouac: he’s pop culture, and he’s also deeper. He’s got all that candy. That’s why people call him a bodhisattva—he can bring everybody in. He can say anything because he has the mystique, he has that thing. So in writing about him, demystifying him, I was reminding myself not to buy it. I wanted to show all the ugliness, and what happens if you live a certain way, if you’re a movie star to yourself.
I was writing the screenplay in L.A.—making a movie, seeing lots of movies. I was very confused about how to be real, and how to be genuine. It struck me that Cassady got stuck playing the role of himself in a movie filled with clic
hés, all of them reinforcing his own image. And it scared the hell out of me, to see him in pictures. To see him at twenty-five was one thing, but then to see pictures of him when he was forty-four, and I could see that he was still relating to the world as just a sexual being. As just a young cowboy-stud. What must have happened when he realized that not every woman wanted to fuck him? It was really scary. Incredibly sad.
In America the art is necessary—that’s what I see now. When I read Taigen Daniel Leighton’s Bodhisattva Archetypes I finally got Bob Dylan as a bodhisattva, which for a long time I just couldn’t understand. Someone who does drugs, someone who doesn’t sit zazen, someone who isn’t officially a master, someone who’s probably never been in a monastery—but he’s a bodhisattva. It’s a lot looser, and it’s a lot nicer than the black and white: Are you a monk or are you not? And it seems to me that every young person I know is fascinated with art. That’s the one thing that everybody knows and everybody wants. I can’t have a friend go to a dharma talk. I say, “Do you want to come to a dharma talk?” And they’re like, “What is that?” and I say, “It’s a Zen master talking.” And they say, “What’s a Zen master?” and I say, “It’s somebody who has just sat and faced the wall a lot and they’re just kinda high.” And all that is imposing to most people. They’re like, “Oh, they’re high, then what am I? Are you saying that they know something I don’t know?”—all that stuff. But I can give anybody Jack Kerouac. I can give anybody On The Road. I can’t give anybodyZen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, I just can’t. But I can give them a Bob
Dylan CD and just have faith that it’s profound, which is what it’s all about anyway. So that’s what I mean about art; that’s the only thing I know. It’s like a dharma talk dressed up a little, great art.
Maybe Bob Dylan is an immature Zen master, and Kerouac and Cassady, too. They’re mystics, not necessarily Buddhists, and they’re not exactly playing all the ethical rules straight. But Cassady had something to say. My opinion of Cassady has changed over the years. It used to be the cold hard facts: that he died of speed, he died of Benzedrine, he died a drug addict. Still, in the end what he had to say was worth listening to. You can’t deny that.
Excerpt from Noah Buschel’s screenplay “Cassady”
Cassady lights a cigarette rapidly. The Cowboy stares over.
It’s strange to summarize what’s happened and what’s gonna happen to
Only thing to do with a world so full of people is to count the people you meet. And not to count ’em out, but to count ’em all in. Not enough time to write about them all in the detail that each one deserves. So you count ’em in. You say, ah, there’s number 15 million and three and I acknowledge her and feel like she’s as great as the rest. And then you go on.
But there is something to do besides counting.
That everything is all right forever and forever.
You think they don’t know it?
Kerouac peeks at the Cowboy.
They don’t act like it.
Acts are nothing, Jack. You know that. It’s what they ARE. What we all are. Every-Goddamn-body knows.
The fat, toothless woman stops cursing for a moment. She smiles softly at the floor.
CUT BACK TO:
But can we make them FEEL it?
Smoke gets in Cassady’s eyes. He rubs them.
Thems just feelins.
Let’s try to make them feel it!
Hey, by all means.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.