SECTION THREE

The Blacklisted Journalist Picture The Blacklisted Journalistsm

COLUMN THIRTY-FIVE, JULY 1, 1998
(Copyright 1998 Al Aronowitz)

PART 12: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ


GARY SNYDER
(Photo Courtesy Chris Felver from his book, Angels, Anarchists and Gods)

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: THE DHARMA BUM

[Since the following chapter was written some 40 years ago, Gary Snyder has produced 16 books of poetry and prose. In 1975, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Turtle Island. When I sent Gary a copy of the following chapter to ask him for his retrospective thoughts about it, he sadly replied that he had no time even to read it because he was so preoccupied dealing with his wife's illness. He explained she had been stricken with cancer.]

On the stone-edged dirt streets that lead through Kyoto, a motorcycle guns through the Japanese night carrying a young man, who, although not stereotyped in a black, leather jacket, holds more valid credentials as a member of the Beat Generation. He is, in fact, a character right out of one of Jack Kerouac's books, and, if that's not enough, he is the hero of it. He is Gary Snyder, the bearded but otherwise thinly disguised protagonist who climbs mountains, who translates ancient Oriental poetry into modern American idiom and does the same with ancient Oriental sex customs, who shaves his head and hitch-hikes through the West and dispenses---in return for rides---the Truth according to Buddha, who topples trees with the expertise of the lumberjack he once was, who sometimes strips to nakedness at genteel parties, who shares drugs and visions with America's Indians and then sets those visions to verse as free as his spirit, who is a poet and who dominates Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bum with the name, as improbable as the character who bears it, Japhy Ryder.

"The crack of the dying logs was like Japhy making little comments on my happiness," wrote Kerouac in one passage of the book, describing their camp during a climb up a mountain in search of exhilaration and other benefits, "I looked at him, his head was buried way under inside his duck-down bag. His little huddled form was the only thing I could see for miles of darkness that was so packed and concentrated with eager desire to be good. I thought, 'What a strange thing is man. . .like in the Bible it says, Who knoweth the spirit of man that looketh upward? This poor kid 10 years younger than I am is making me look like a fool forgetting all the ideals and joys I knew before, in my recent years of drinking and disappointment, what does he care if he hasn't got any money; he doesn't need any money, all he needs is his rucksack with those little plastic bags of dried food and a good pair of shoes and off he goes and enjoys the privileges of a millionaire in surroundings like this. . ."

Snyder's present surroundings, of course, are no more surprising than he is. Kyoto, aside from its contributions to the post card, is also the site of Daitoku Temple, that labyrinthine compound of crumbling mud-and-tile walls, incredible gardens, wooden gates, impassable bamboo groves, high-gabled structures and painted dragons, which serves as the home office for one of the several great temple-systems of the Rinzai sect of Zen and in which, with his close-cropped hair and with his beard flashing the red-oranges and yellows of the Van Gogh self-portraits he resembles, Snyder participates in the meditations and rigors of a Zen student. As for the 244 pages of adulation directed at him by friend Kerouac, Snyder seems to be a young man with a tendency toward hard- rather than swell-headedness. And anyway, Zen Buddhism has its own way of seeing that his heroics remain back home in the minds of Kerouac's readers and not in Snyder's own.

"They really get at the ego," explains Snyder, describing the temple routine of zazen, those three or four-hour periods of cross-legged silence when the student monks meditate on their koans, little puzzles, semantic and irrational, to which there are no answers but to which they must find one, reciting it, finally, in the sanzen, a momentary but momentous interview with their Zen master, held often four times daily, with the first at four in the morning, a confrontation which Snyder described as "the fierce face-to-face moment where you spit forth truth or perish."

"I feel," said Snyder, telling about three such weeks of Intensive meditation, "like I'd been through a dozen lives."

A recount of his adventures, many of which are not included in The Dharma Bums, makes it seem as if Snyder has been through a dozen lives. But the inevitable question of what so highly ranked a member of the Beat Generation was doing in a Zen Buddhist monastery is probably best answered by the question of what is Zen Buddhism doing in the Beat Generation?

"The decline of the West!" proclaimed Snyder with mock drama, but, he added, in all seriousness: "Zen is the most important thing in my life. The trouble is that nine-tenths of


Snyder doesn't claim
to represent
or misrepresent Zen


these other cats are hung up on these Christian notions and Judaic notions of right and wrong. They can't stand contradictions. And the idea that a religious and spiritual life is contradictory with a life of senses and yakking and enjoyment and so forth, this isn't so. Zen sees the world as one thing. American Zen, or the type practiced in San Francisco, at least, is not accurate Zen. The thing about Zen is that there's a hell of a lot of talk about it but it's generally misunderstood and misrepresented."

Snyder, for his part, claimed neither to misrepresent Zen nor to represent it, but it is quite obvious that he, for one, was no longer hung up on the Judeo-Christian notions with which he was endowed. He had, in fact, so liberated his own mind that he no longer associated it with the tradition of thought that nurtured it. "You Westerners!" he often said in a voice full of patent condescension, placing himself emphatically on the side of the Pacific where he happened to be. Or else, with some derision: The Western mind!" Or else, in equally disparaging tones: "It's all these Westerners that think you can understand your world by reducing it to a manipulated simplicity!" And yet, in Snyder's case, his conversion to Zen Buddhism and the Oriental mind has been, strangely enough,, an almost purely American phenomenon, evolving literally from his preoccupation with the nature of his country.

"Japhy Ryder," says poet Allen Ginsberg, looming in the background of The Dharma Bums behind the somewhat symbolic mask of Alvah Goldbook, "is a great new hero of American culture."

And the fact of the matter is that he is also the hero of The Dharma Bums not essentially because of his and Kerouac's devotion to Buddha but because he represents, perhaps as perfectly as anyone can, a unity of the hipsterism, the Paul Bunyan travelogue and all the other spontaneous and classic American forces that have helped create the Beat Generation.

"I was amazed at the way he meditated with his eyes open," wrote Kerouac. "And I was mostly humanly amazed that this tremendous little guy who eagerly studied Oriental poetry and anthropology and ornithology and everything else in the books and was a tough little adventurer of trails and mountains should also suddenly whip out his pitiful beautiful wooden prayerbeads and solemnly pray there, like an oldfashioned saint of the deserts certainly, but so amazing to see it in America with its steel mills and airfields. . ."

Undismayed by contradiction, Snyder finds no need to reconcile the place he has established for himself within American culture and his place without it.

"When I say I reject Western civilization," he explained, "I certainly don't mean I reject the use of the intellect and logic. I mean I don t have any use for the alienating and contradictory culture of the last 300 years, which is destructive and anti-human, in spite of the admirable---abstractly---development of science. A steam engine is, by itself, a beautiful and admirable thing, a real tribute to the human mind. It's the way it gets used and the way people let it use them that goes wrong. The achievement of Western philosophy in logical, clear thinking is one of the most precious things in the world. And Buddhism has much to learn from Western philosophy in this regard. I am a Buddhist because I think Buddhism has the means to lead to personal insight and the capacity for intuitively making moral choices. But for putting moral choices into effective action in the world, one must be capable of clear and analytical thought, of accurate exposition, of using and organizing facts. So, the West isn't so much bad as it is sick, and the lacking in faith in the intuitive mind."

And yet Snyder's own intuition, although he doesn't credit it to the West, is certainly a product of the Far West. It is, there, from strange seeds blown by fresh winds, that America's new intuition is growing.

"This is largely a big rural movement," he says, sounding rural himself, with an affected country twang, Far Western, hayseed and cracker-barrel, but speaking also with an interlacing of hip colloquialisms and evident erudition that at the same time dispelled any corn from what he had to say. "Like the kids coming into San Francisco and going down to North Beach these days, they're not from the cities mostly, but from the farms or back wood, where they've been working in isolation, hatching, sort of, writing their poetry or reading or just thinking, picking up on all sorts of ideas, and now they're bringing this great rural culture to the urban centers. See, you city fellers don't have any monopoly on culture."

Actually, Snyder himself was born in San Francisco. "My parents were extremely poor---the Depression," he said. "So they went back to Seattle, my father's home town, and got a tarpaper shack and an acre of stumpland out north of town. Over the years, my father built the place up, fenced it, got another acre, fixed the house, built a barn and got cows and chickens. I was brought up a farmboy with chickens to feed and a milk route to our neighbors. My mother was, and is, a very high-strung, neurotic person with literary ambitions, and farm life and poverty wore her down. She was, and is, impossible, but she got me onto books and poetry at the age of five. When I was seven, I burned my feet badly while burning brush, and for four months couldn't walk. So my folks brought me piles of books from the Seattle public library and it was then I really learned to read and from that time on was voracious---I figure that accident changed my life. At the end of four months, I had read more than most kids do by the time they're 18. And I didn't stop. I was hung up on American Indians and nature all through childhood and hated civilization for having, fucked up the Indians, as described in Ernest Thompson Seton's Book of the Woodcraft Indians, my bible still, and for ruining the woods and soil---which I could see going on all about me.

"So when I say I am anarchist today and don't have much use for Western culture, I guess it goes pretty far back. I spent most of my spare time as a kid in the woods around our place and, feeling at home there, always felt uncomfortable when we went into Seattle. In high school---we had moved to Portland on account of the war---I took to spending my summers in the Cascade Mountains and did a lot of real mountaineering---glaciers and all that---Mount Hood, Baker, Rainier, Shasta, Adams, St. Helens, et cetera, and skied in the winters. Ran around with a gang of ex-ski-troopers; we called ourselves the Wolken-schiebers. My parents---and grandparents---were radicals and atheists, so when I got a chance to go to Reed College on a scholarship, I took it. With scholarships and odd jobs and greatly enjoyed tricks of living on nothing, I made it through college, making it summertimes by trail-crew and logging and labor jobs. And in the summer of 1948, I hitched to New York and worked on a ship to South America. I had to wait until I got the ship and I was broke in New York. For a couple of days, I panhandled for food and slept on park benches, roaming through Greenwich Village.

"I was very Marxist in college, but couldn't make it with the regular Commie bunch because of my individualistic-bohemian-anarchist tendencies, all much looked down upon. Of course, being the only real member of the proletariat in the bunch of them, the others being upper middle class New York kids as a rule, they really couldn't say much. I took anthropology---Indians---and literature at Reed and got much involved with primitive religion, mythology and primitive literature---song, ritual, dance---and at about the same time was beginning to read Far Eastern history and Chinese poetry. I was married for about six months then and my left-wing wife didn't dig this sudden interest in Oriental philosophy and Shoshone folk tales. Out of college, I spent the summer of 1951 as a log-scaler on an Indian reservation, where I dug the Berry Feast and later made up the poem about it, and then went on a long hike in the Olympic Mountains. Up in the mountains, all the notions that had been swarming in my head crystallized and sort or hung there until the Fall of that year I picked up a copy of D. T. Suzuki, writing about Zen, and read it while hitchhiking to a graduate fellowship at Indiana in anthropology. It finished the job, and although I stayed one semester at Indiana, I was through with the academic world and headed back West in '52 for what proved to be five years of mountain jobs, scenes in San Francisco, Chinese language study, writing poetry, and so on, until I first came to Japan. Then I was at sea on a tanker for eight months, in San Francisco and back In Japan again. I love to roam around and I like tough self-discipline, I don't mind hard work, and being poor never bothered me. I guess that's what makes it possible to carry on like I do. Being free don't mean evading necessity, it means outsmarting it."

Snyder's emergence from the soil of America shows, of course, to what extent the roots of the Beat Generation are buried there. Whether by the romanticism which is another root or the realism which is still another, he has become a symbol of the fellaheen man that Kerouac keeps referring to---the farmers who give hitchhikers lifts in the rattletrap trucks that are the latter-day prairie schooners of the West, the blacks who share their Saturday night wine in the bottle gangs of small-town alleys, the cowboys who spend the week telling about their weekend love rites that are sometimes grossly overstated if not overrated, the Mexicans who always offer a part of the nothing they have, sometimes no more than vermin hospitality, and sometimes marijuana by candlelight. To Kerouac, as to other Beats, the


Snyder insist that Western culture is being overthrown by a Cultural Revolution either of the non-white races or influenced by them


fellaheen man, the man of the soil, the man of the great serf class, is creating his own culture.

"Jack got that from Spengler," Snyder explained. "But Spengler applies it to mean a vast body of men without tradition, like they were dropped into history by a trick wave. The fellaheen man bas no tradition behind him and no values. He just picks up on comic books and there he is!"

Snyder doesn't necessarily agree with the concept of the fellaheen man in its entirety and especially not with his own involvement as a symbol, but he does insist that Western culture is being overthrown by a Cultural Revolution either of the non-white races or influenced by them.

"Of course, it's more realized out on the West Coast, where the people are closer to the Oriental and the American Indian aspect," he said. And yet, Snyder's own poetry, although reflecting this Oriental and American Indian aspect (as if the American Indian were a foreigner, anyway), also reflects, too, his attachment to the soil. Sometimes, in fact, he sounds as if he is to the Northwest what Robert Frost was to the Northeast. In the title poem of Snyder's book, Riprap, which he defines as "a cobble of stone laid on steep slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains," Snyder wrote, for example:

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
                   placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
                    in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
                    riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
                    straying planets,
These poems, people,
                    lost Ponies with
Dragging saddles---
                    and rocky sure-foot trails.
The world's like an endless
                    four-dimensional
Game of Go.
                    ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
                    a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
                    with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
                    all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.

Probably, it was inevitable that Snyder, the farmboy bringing his culture to the city, should meet with Kerouac and Ginsberg, the city boys in search of, among other things, rural America.

"I could tell right away that his poetry was good," recalled Ginsberg, describing their meeting in 1955 at Berkeley, California, where Snyder lived in a shack, one of the many in his life. I'd expected to find him writing poetry that rhymed, but as soon as he took it out show it to me I could see from the way the lines were spaced out on the paper that he knew what he was doing."

Until then, Snyder's almost sole companion in matters of poetry had been Philip Whalen, whom Snyder had met at Reed College and who, like Snyder, was also a poet of the back woods. The Warren Coughlin of The Dharma Bums, in which Kerouac described him as "a hundred and eighty pounds of poet meat," Whalen had come from Portland but had made his home in the entire Northwest, not going to the lumberjack extremes of Snyder but working as a forest lookout in the solitude of the Cascade mountain peaks and, more recently, as a bailiff for a country judge, traveling the circuit of an endless Oregon county.

"The Sierras are more spectacular than the Cascades, but the tourists have ruined them," complains Whalen, who has shared both views and viewpoints with Snyder. "Everywhere you go in the Sierras, you find tin cans."

Inducted willingly or not, into the Beat Generation, Whalen, too, has become one of its major posts, living often in San Francisco.

"I wrote poetry in total isolation for 10 years with only Whalen to talk to," Snyder recalled, but the advent of Kerouac and Ginsberg has lessened his isolation. There is a question, nevertheless, of whether they have proved as strong an influence on him as he has on them. Kerouac, for his part, has written:

"But I can't recreate the exact (will try) brilliance of all Japhy's answers and comebacks and come-ons with which he had me on pins and needles all the time and did eventually stick something in my crystal head that made me change my plans in life."

As for Ginsberg, it was Snyder who persuaded him to abandon any last hope of gaining wisdom from the academic world and to give up the graduate courses he had been taking at the University of California. A short time later, Ginsberg completed Howl, the poem which has been both hailed and damned as the manifesto of the Beat Generation.

"Actually, Allen and I were very close, too," said Snyder, commenting on how his friendship with Kerouac was portrayed in The Dharma Bums. "Well, Jack has a funny ambivalence toward Ginsberg. He says that Allen is really the devil. You know, Kerouac's mother won't let Ginsberg into the house. That's really so. She says that he's a bad influence. And Kerouac, when he's home, won't let Ginsberg come either because he says, 'It makes my mother mad.' But Allen and I had a very exciting relationship actually and when we hitch-hiked up to the Northwest, we fought all the way, we argued constantly because his urban---what seems to me sort of sentimental thing---was very different from my stony mountain outlook at that time.

"I'd say, 'All right, Ginsberg, read your Howl to them mountains and trees and see if you can make them cry and take their clothes off. You've got to face up to them, too.' That was in February of '56, and he read Howl at the University of Washington and I read my poems and then we also read them at Reed College during that little hitchhiking tour. And we managed to stir up both of the schools into quite a storm, which got them going on what was going on in San Francisco, and the interest still hasn't died down there.

"There were several times that Allen took his clothes off. Once he did it at some poetry gathering in Venice West and he walked around and put his arm around a little old lady. Another time, at a party, Kenneth Rexroth was lying beneath a table talking to somebody and stark naked Allen Ginsberg flung himself down on Rexroth and kissed him and said, 'I love you, Rexroth!' Allen was kidding, of course, and Rexroth kidded him back. Rexroth said, 'Get off of me, you naked fairy!'

"But there was a while there when we did go around taking our clothes off at parties. It was simply to shake up the scene, but we had to quit doing that because everybody began to expect it of us. One night, Ginsberg and I went uninvited to a students' party in Berkeley---it was just a bunch of students in the English department and a couple of faculty members---we went totally uninvited, stripped off all our clothing and marched around in there. They were just too damn well bred to throw us out, but they hated it. Ginsberg would go up and put his arm around these people and say, 'Don't you want to be naked and face us all the way you were born? Don't you love yourself?'"

The informality of both the parties and the party dress was well documented in The Dharma Bums, which also introduced another experience in nakedness to the reading public, Yabyum. And if the Greeks didn't have a word for it, the Romans did. ". . .Don' t you know about Yabyum, Smith?" Japhy asks in the book, arriving at the author's house with a girl named Princess. Whereupon the author, Kerouac, adds: ". . .I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw Japhy and Alvah taking their clothes off and throwing them every whichaway and I looked and Princess was stark naked, her skin white as snow when the red sun hits it at dusk. . . 'Here's what Yabyum is, Smith,' said Japhy, and he sat crosslegged on the pillow on the floor and motioned to Princess, who came over and sat down on him facing him with her arms about his neck and they sat like that saying nothing for a while. . . 'This is what they do in the temples of Tibet. It's a holy ceremony, it's done just like this in front of chanting priests. People pray and recite Om Mani Pahdme Hum, which means Amen the Thunderbolt in the Dark Void. I'm the thunderbolt and Princess is the dark void, you see.'. . . Finally Japhy's legs began to hurt and they just tumbled over on the mattress where both Alvah and Japhy began to explore the territory. I still couldn't believe it. Take your clothes off and join in, Smith!'"

"Jack made me out to be quite a lover in the book, which is not so," Snyder insists with


Snyder thinks
the less said about
Yabyum, the better


some excess of modesty, even if The Dharma Bums IS supposed to be a novel. In any event, Snyder seems to be as much at home amid the Princesses and other eager females of San Francisco's North Beach as he is in the lonely barrenness of his coal stove shack halfway up a California mountain across the Golden Gate Bridge or, for that matter, as he is in Japan.

"Personally, the less said about Yabyum, the better I'd feel. People can hurt themselves, their nervous systems, experimenting with it. The point is, in part, when you do this type of yoga, you withhold the orgasm for hours and hours on end---both partners. This is tricky stuff and can backfire on me. What I was doing at the time was an attempt at the practice of one variety of kundalini yoga, the literature of which is known as the Tantras, constituting a practice found both in Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Shaktism. I didn't know what I was doing and I've since given up playing with this sort of thing. It is too dangerous to do without a teacher. Sex is all right as it is, without attempting to transcendentalize it by screwing up the autonomic nervous system. You know, it's a sort of strange feeling to be a hero of a book. People expect all sorts of things from you. . ."

In any event, Snyder seems to be as much at home amid the Princess and other eager femininity of San Francisco's North Beach as he was in the lonely barrenness of his wood stove shack halfway up a California mountain across the Golden Gate Bridge, or, for that matter, as he was in Japan.

"The trouble with those North Beach girls," he said, "is they want---really---the security and family scene of middle class types but aren't willing to give in and make the compromises necessary for such a scene, playing a real female role and so on."

And yet, Snyder plans to marry one of them, Joanne Kyger, an admiral's daughter, who is also a poetess of some merit, at least in Snyder's opinion, and who belonged, it turned out, to an ephemeral group of San Francisco poets organized into the so-called "Dharma Committee," the by-laws of which contained a proviso limiting membership to persons who have not been able to get past Page 46 of The Dharma Bums.

"Well, I'm not the marrying kind, in the legal sense," Snyder commented. "I believe in the ritual and the witness of one's friends, but I wouldn't bother to register such a union with the state, in the U. S.---it ain't their business. In Japan I imagine it would be convenient---passport and visa problems---to make it legal as well."

Snyder's new wife will have to put up with more than Shoshone folk tales. The obvious delight of a Japanese house in the country, where Snyder now lives, with a garden, strawberries and a well, somehow loses a bit of its obviousness with the Zen fate that has situated him there.

"It isn't all fun," he says. "I have to get up at four every morning to go see my Zen master and tell him what I think about my koan and must spend three or more hours every day meditating on it if I'm going to have any answer at all."

During the weeks of Sesshin, or "concentrating the mind," the routine at Daitoku Temple is even more demanding, and certainly even more demanding than a wife. With time marked by the dings and clangs of assorted bells and by the carbine-sounding whacks of one hardwood block upon another, the student Zen monks make their way through hours as austere as the cold temple mats on which they sleep. But those hours are also rich in thought, however enforced. In a continuum of ceremonies, the students file from one task to another, chant sutras, meditate in unison, or rush to kneel before the sanzen room, in which the Zen master occasionally commemorates the answers they give to their koans with a menacing growl or a blow with a stick.

"Zazen is a very difficult thing." Snyder has written, describing life in Shokoku Temple in an article published in the Chicago Review. "The whole room feels it. The Jikijitsu gets up, grasps a long flat stick and begins to slowly prowl the hall, stick on shoulder, walking before the row of sitting men, each motionless with eyes half-closed and looking straight ahead downward. An inexperienced man sitting out of balance will be lightly tapped and prodded into an easier posture. An Unsui sitting poorly will be without warning roughly kicked off his cushion. He gets up and sits down again. Nothing is said. Anyone showing signs of drowsiness will feel a slight tap of the stick on the shoulder. He and the Jikijitsu then bow to each other and the man leans forward to receive four blows on each side of his back. These are not particularly painful---though the loud whack of them can be terrifying to a newcomer---and serve to wake one well."

Rooted an he is in America's soil, Snyder has flowered into Zen Buddhism through his own personal synthesis, but the process, mysterious as might be, is being duplicated elsewhere more and more, even if not in so perfect a form. "My parents---they're divorced now, my mother works for a newspaper---well, they were atheists and their parents were atheists before them," Snyder said. "I guess somewhere way back in the family, a hundred years or so ago, we must have been Lutherans. But my sister and I grew up in a tradition of no religion at all."

Snyder's sister is Thea Snyder Bama, a small, young and beautiful woman with long, red-golden hair, who once was a fashion model in New York but who gave up her career, her husband and his fortune to return to San Francisco, where, the girl friend of a scholarly longshoreman, she lived in a suburban Bohemia in Mill Valley. There, she participates often in little theater productions and, walking some nights through the streets of North Beach, arm-in-arm with her man, she sings Hebrew liturgies in a flawless, mournful soprano.

"I became a Zen Buddhist," Snyder explained, "and my sister converted to Judaism."

Perhaps the search for spiritual experience which characterizes the Beat Generation, propelling some toward Buddhism, some toward Zen Buddhism and others toward other religions, is no more than the quintessence of one of the new cultural eruptions which characterizes our entire age and which, in its more popular forms, has provided Billy Graham with audiences as astronomical as the sponsor whose word he claims to spout. It certainly has inflated church memberships and masonry and has prompted boards of education to institute classroom bible readings in defiance of the cultural eruptions of generations ago, which demanded separation of church and state. It also has encouraged state legislatures to enact new Sunday closing laws, creating consternation among other renascent religions that observe the Sabbath on other days. Cultural eruptions, however, are never really quite as simple as that, and Snyder, who believes, along with other Beat personages, that another cultural eruption of our age has come about in the assaying of culture itself, places the responsibility for the advent of Zen in America in all directions.

"Sociologically, the popularity of Zen in America is a manifestation of the growing influence of the non-white races, but so is the interest in any other non-Occidental tradition," Snyder insisted, adding, incidentally, that he thinks cultural anthropology has become to this generation what Freud was to the '20s. "We're being besieged on all sides by non-Occidental things in art and philosophy and cultural objects, like even the eating of rice with chopsticks. The history of Zen in the West is very complicated and goes clear back to the 1890s. If you put it all in its perspective, it would be a big, complicated thing, but the essential part of it is that Suzuki, in the '20s, published these books which were read around and had some small influence, and then, in the '40s, they were reprinted in England and they were read widely. Now the reason that they were read and the reason that they were picked up on is something else. That was part of the individualist and anarchistic and personalistic and also religious interest that intellectuals picked up on after the war and a reaction against the idea that society and human beings can be changed by political means. Also, there are a lot of things in Zen that seem to tie in with the theories of the automatic psychologists, which are widely read. Karen Horney was influenced by Suzuki and practically all the others, like Erich Fromm, and so that's the literary thing behind it. Now, why people pick up on Zen is a deeply personal thing for me. And the Zen that is moving to America is going to undercut Suzuki entirely because he's not an accurate representative of Zen. There are really no good books on Zen in European languages and /Suzuki, from whom the others derive, actually knows very little traditional Zen practice and is a sloppy thinker to boot. Suzuki had very little training, and, in his books, over-stresses satori or enlightenment, and gives no picture of the actual practice and time involved for a real Zen Buddhist. Kerouac? Jack doesn't know anything about Zen. He admits it himself on Page 13 of The Dharma Bums>. 'I'm an old-fashioned dreamy Himalayan coward of later Mahayanism'---He's interested in Indian Buddhism, not Chan and Zen. He came onto it by reading the Sacred Books of the East series. I deeply respect Jack's insights in Buddhism, and I think they are very valid, but this is simply some of the American Buddhism as it's practiced. It's not the same as mine."

When he talks about Zen like this, his face loses its slow mountain grin, the friendliness evaporates from his eyes, leaving only their intensity, and he quits the countrified intonations that otherwise exaggerate his speech. He sits erect in his chair, often folding his legs beneath him in the half-lotus position and sometimes leaning forward only slightly with sparse, open-handed gestures to emphasize his arguments. Sometimes, he picks on his beard, which grows like wisdom itself, framing him in the picture of the Oriental mystic that a number of his companions consider him to be, never saying a wrong thing or making an insignificant move.

"I enjoy my beard," he said, gravely, but with mischievous whimsy, too. "Beards come out on your face, and it's just another thing that you can experiment with and enjoy having, cutting it in different ways, letting it grow. Just to amuse you. I can't understand why people don't grow beards, really. A beard is an emblem of your rank and role like a mandarin's long fingernails. It shows that you don't do respectable work; it's a class thing---a mandarin had long, long fingernails because he didn't do manual labor, he was a scholar and that was a sign of his caste. I mean, with a beard, it shows that you don't have to go to an office."

He told of his "small satoris"---"I've had several at various times in my life," he said, "but 'Great Satoris,' the real enlightenment, I aint had that yet."---And of enlightenment below decks, in the engine room of a tanker, eight months without sunlight. "I needed a ship to get back the States from Japan and I guess they needed someone pretty bad, too," he said. "I should have been suspicious when I signed up and I asked the exec how much time the ship had left at sea. 'Not much, not much,' he said, but it wasn't until we were under way that I found out it was eight months. Anyway, I made enough on that job to buy a little car, just a heap to get me between Mill Valley and San Francisco and to live off for a year." He was sinewy and of a height somewhere between medium and doughty and he wore the clothes of his ruggedness---a young man who didn't remember owning a suit or any other garment that he didn't buy good and cheap and good and used, at the Good Will store.

"Beat to me," he said, "means the state of mind people get into when they have gone down and been as far down and out and depressed and miserable as they possibly could get and discover that it isn't so bad as they think, so nothing worries them any more.

"And so they can be gay about things because they've seen how bad it is and it isn't nearly as bad as the fear of it. As for the Beat Generation, well that applies to a few people only. As far as I'm concerned, it only exists in this period among a certain type of intellectual, creative person that has rejected attitudes of striving after success and prestige and is no longer trying to make it in the academies but still has a great concern with creative activity. It involves voluntary poverty and a decision to stay out of the mess and mix-up of advertising agencies and universities and all that bit and trying to make it being poor, if necessary, but trying to create and be yourself as best you can. No, we can't afford leather jackets.

"When Jack first started using the word beat, I said, 'Well, sure, that must mean me,' because I was thinking about the life I had led being poor and I mean really being poor, and I have been as poor as anybody can be in this country and continue to exist and then dug it. Hitchhiking, working on all kinds of jobs, riding on railroads and being around all kinds of hobos and bums and not making a romantic thing out of it because it was of necessity, but at the same time not feeling that I was bugged and not feeling that I was wasting my life and that my creative, intellectual talents were being thrown away because I was digging it. And that's what beat means to me."

And then he adds:

"Aww, I'm too young to be in a book, and besides, I'm just getting warmed up. Wait about 25 years." ##

CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMN THIRTY-FIVE


CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMNS

The Blacklisted Journalist can be contacted at P.O.Box 964, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-0964
The Blacklisted Journalist's E-Mail Address:
info@blacklistedjournalist.com
 
 

THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST IS A SERVICE MARK OF AL ARONOWITZ