Buddhism, the ancient and highly philosophical Asian tradition, was the religion of the Beats. It began to influence the lives of the major New York Beat writers in the mid-1950s, when Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg each began delving into it, unaware at first that the other was doing so as well. Kerouac and Ginsberg began their studies by reading books in libraries, but when they migrated to California they began integrating the religion into their lives, inspired by Gary Snyder (the Beat writer most consistently identified with Buddhism) and Kenneth Rexroth.
Buddhism will change the life of anyone who begins to understand it, and all the works Kerouac wrote after the mid-fifties, particularly ‘The Dharma Bums‘ and ‘Big Sur,’ can be interpreted as Buddhist parables. Ginsberg’s works are no less influenced by Buddhist thought, and the poet has devoted an enormous amount of his time and energy to Buddhist causes in the last three decades.
I am a Buddhist myself, or I try hard to be one, anyway. I was turned on to it in ninth-grade by an excellent Social Studies teacher who spent several weeks explaining it in class, and who later got in trouble for diverging from the curriculum. I sat there riveted every day — the things Buddha said were simply the smartest things I’d ever heard in my life. For the rest of this page, I’d like to explain what Buddhism is basically about, and I hope to do so as well as Mr. Arnold of Hauppauge High School did back when I was in ninth grade.
The Life Of Siddhartha Gautama
Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 B.C. to a royal family in Lumbini, Nepal near the foothills of the Himalayas. The young Prince was raised in a very unusual way. Before his birth, his parents received a premonition that their son would either grow to be a great King or renounce all worldly goods and become an Enlightened One, or Buddha. Obviously preferring the former, they decided to keep their child so pampered that he would never have a reason to renounce all worldly goods.
For twenty-nine years the Prince lived an extraordinarily sheltered life, until he finally wandered outside the palace grounds and was stunned to see, for the first time, an old man, a sick man, and a dead man. Inquiring as to the meaning of what he saw, the naive prince was told that all men grow old, grow sick and die. Devastated by this realization, the Prince immediately renounced all worldly goods and left home to join a band of penitents and self-flagellants who roamed the countryside begging and inflicting suffering upon themselves in an effort to gain spiritual enlightenment.
The Prince took his regime of self-imposed suffering and denial very seriously, only to find that suffering in itself brings no more enlightenment than pleasure. He wandered and meditated in confusion, finally placing himself on the ground under a Bodhi tree where he decided he would remain until he figured everything out. During a long night he was tormented by desires as he contemplated what to do with his life: should he return to the vain pleasures of his earlier years, which he now understood to be ultimately pointless, or should he continue to suffer and deny himself pleasures, even though he now realized that this also brought no meaning into his life?
Suddenly enlightenment came to the Prince, and at that moment he became the Buddha. Realizing both the self-destructiveness of those who deny their desires and the misery of those who follow their desires, the Prince realized that there is a Middle Path, which is to simply lose one’s desires. That is, an enlightened person should simply exist without desire. His needs and urges cease to control him, and he thereby avoids the cycle of indulgence and denial that tortures, confuses and distracts every living soul.
How does one lose one’s desires? Through concentration and devoted practice (you knew I was going to say something like that, didn’t you?). The Buddha, by the way, never said that losing one’s desires is easy. He did, however, say that it is the only path to enlightenment.
Buddha began teaching this doctrine, which he coded as the Four
Noble Truths, briefly:
- All life is suffering
- Suffering is caused by desire
- Suffering can only cease if desire ceases
- Follow the Eight-Fold Path
- Right view
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right attentiveness
- Right concentration
His teachings gained immense popularity, and the rest of Buddha’s life was spent practicing and explaining his philosophy. He died at the age of 80.
An important thing to note is the calmness and peacefulness of Buddha’s life story. Unlike Jesus, he had no significant enemies and lived to a grand old age. Unlike Moses or Mohammed, he never fought a war or tried to conquer land.
The Buddhist religion spread throughout Asia, transforming into many separate branches. A few important branches are listed below.
Theraveda, or ‘original’ Buddhism
Some Buddhist cultures have not deviated from the original focus and methods of the Buddha’s teaching, with their emphasis on personal salvation and enlightenment. This tradition is known as Theraveda Buddhism. The later branches are often referred to collectively as Mahayana Buddhism, although is is more interesting to look at them individually. Theraveda Buddhism is currently dominant in Sri Lanka and Burma.
The Chinese word Ch’an is derived from a Sanskrit term meaning ‘meditation’. An intensely meditative form of Buddhism called Ch’an began to develop in China in the 5th century A.D. It spread to Japan, where it became known by the Japanese term Zen. Zen Buddhism applies Buddhist concepts specifically to the mind; the goal is to defeat the stranglehold that reason exerts on our minds. Just as Buddhism teaches us to avoid the cycle of pleasure and suffering by not participating in it, Zen teaches us to avoid the cycle of knowledge and ignorance in the same way. A Zen Buddhist lets go of traditional, logical modes of thinking, because just as pleasure ultimately leads to frustration, logic ultimately leads to confusion. A Zen Buddhist is beyond either logic or confusion; he exists without trying to grasp mentally, in a state of simple uninterpreted experience.
The Asian masters who developed the concepts of Zen Buddhism were about 1300 years ahead of European thinkers. Existentialists and modern philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein finally developed their own equivalents of Zen philosophy within the last century and a half.
Tibet is a small, snow-covered Himalayan country between Nepal and China. Their colorful, physical and joyful flavor of Buddhism, less philosophical than other branches, neatly merges ancient native practices with the ascetic Buddhist tradition. The chief figure in Tibetan Buddhism is the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, Tibet was overrun in 1950 by Communist China, which has been attempting ever since to destroy all traces of this amazing religion.
Buddhism in Literature
I can think of a few notable Buddhist-inspired works of Western literature, and I’d like to know about more if anybody knows of anything I’ve overlooked. Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ was a wonderful story of a young man who lived in the s
ame time and place as Buddha. Zen thought was explored in Robert Pirsig’s philosophical novel ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’ J. D. Salinger was vastly influenced by Zen Buddhism, and this is evident in many of his works, although it is not obvious upon superficial reading.
The four writers of the 1950s, Salinger, Kerouac, Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, provide four fascinating windows into this way of thought. Kerouac may have worked hardest of all to write as a Buddhist: he even wrote a reverential biographical treatment of Buddha’s life, ‘Wake Up,’ which reads like a traditional religious text. A collection of his notebook scribblings, published posthumously as ‘Some of the Dharma’, shows an intense sustained practice of Buddhist self-questioning that is often so dense as to be unreadable. Between Salinger’s urging towards innocence, Kerouac’s hair-shirt self-tormenting, Ginsberg’s visions of political harmony and Snyder’s emphasis on practice, ritual and concrete manifestations, an entire Buddhist super-text seems to emerge from this literary age.