"Beat Buddha" by Wes Nisker
6 April 2010
My first encounter with the word “Dharma,” a term which refers to the teachings of the Buddha, came in the title of a novel by Jack Kerouac, “The Dharma Bums.” The story is an account of a summer spent by Kerouac and poet Gary Snyder as forest fire lookouts in the Sierra mountains, a time during which they muse about Zen and haiku poetry, and discuss Buddhist concepts such as “emptiness,” and “Samadhi ecstasy,” which Kerouac describes as “the state you reach when you stop your mind.” Like many in the Western world, and especially in America, I was first introduced to Buddhism by this book and others, written by the poets and artists known as “the Beat generation.”
A literary movement of the 1950’s, the Beat writers were often portrayed in the media as degenerates, but they saw themselves as spiritual seekers, forging a new kind of consciousness. As the poet Allen Ginsberg said, “We were beatifically beat.”
Many of the Beats found a refuge for their restless spirits in the philosophy and practices of Buddhism. The ancient teachings offered these curious Westerners a new way to understand the human condition, along with methods to free the mind from habitual and obsessive thinking. Also appealing to the Beats was the Buddhist emphasis on developing inner wisdom and universal compassion, antidotes to the values of the competitive consumer society that the Beats had rejected. The Dharma also fed the Beat appetite for exotic experience, promising them the immediacy of now, the feeling of being “with it,” present for every note in the great jazz riff of life.
Among the Beat writers, one of the more serious students of Buddhism was Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gary Snyder, who studied Zen in Japan for many years during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Influenced by the Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki and author Alan Watts, Snyder began translating Chinese Buddhist poetry and became a disciple of a celebrated Japanese Zen master. In the 1970’s Snyder established his own Zen community in the Sierra foothills of California.
Renowned Beat poet Allen Ginsberg eventually became a follower of Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1974, Trungpa established a Buddhist-based university in Boulder, Colorado called Naropa Institute. Ginsberg and his friend Ann Waldman started a poetry department at Naropa, which they named “The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.” Many of the Beat writers appeared at the school to teach and give lectures and readings.
Other Beat writers such as poets Phillip Whalen, Michael McClure and Diane Di Prima became followers of Zen in San Francisco.
Jack Kerouac himself did not engage in any formal Buddhist study, but his friends taught him how to meditate and he read many volumes of books about Buddhist philosophy and methods of mind-training.
The Beat writers popularized Buddhism in the West, talking about it in their novels and poetry, making it contemporary and relevant. They exposed Buddhist ideas to the college-educated middle class youth who were exploring alternative ways of thinking and living. I remember nodding in agreement as I read Gary Snyder’s influential 1969 book “Earth, House Hold,” in which he argues that any real social or political change in the world would require a new kind of consciousness. He pointed to Buddhism as the way to awaken this new consciousness, requiring “the insight into the basic self/void.”
The Beat writers helped turn Buddhism into a topic of interest in circles of artists and intellectuals, introducing words and concepts such as “mantra” and “karma” into the hipster’s lexicon. The poet Allen Ginsberg began to title some of his longer poems “sutra,” a sanscrit word meaning “discourse” which was the form of the Buddha’s teaching. Ginsberg also pointed to the East when he appeared in public, often at anti-war rallies, playing an Indian harmonium and leading the crowds in chanting “om shanti,” the Sanskrit words for peace.
Buddhism is now well established in the West, with all of the various Asian schools and flavors represented, and with Buddhist temples, universities and meditation classes thriving in most major Western cities. The seeds of this modern flowering of the Dharma were first planted by the writers of the Beat generation, and now blossom as their finest and most important legacy.
Wes `Scoop’ Nisker is a teacher of Buddhist meditation and philosophy, an author, radio commentator, and performer. He is an affiliate teacher at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, and does regular workshops at Esalen Institute and other venues. His books include Essential Crazy Wisdom; The Big Bang, The Buddha, and the Baby Boom; Buddha’s Nature; and his latest, Crazy Wisdom Saves the World Again! Mr. Nisker is also the founder and co-editor of the international Buddhist journal “Inquiring Mind.” A DVD of his comic monologue, Crazy Wisdom Saves the World Again! is now available through his website wesnisker.com or scoopnisker.com. His famous tag line is: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”