COLUMN THIRTY-SIX, AUGUST 1, 1998
(Copyright © 1998 Al Aronowitz)
PART 13: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
(From the cover of the Delta edition of Studies in Zen by D.T. Suzuki)
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: THE YEN FOR ZEN
[Forty years later, I enjoyed rereading The Yen for Zen. Today, of course, the world knows Le Roi Jones as Amiri Baraka, one of America's greatest living poets.
Some 40 years ago, I was one of the first print journalists to tape record my interviews. I used to carry around a heavy Webcor tape recorder. Cassette recorders hadn't been invented yet. Today, those tapes are turning to dust in my dead storage vault. I never had the time or money to do anything about preserving the tapes. Although these interviews remain priceless in print, and, as I already said, I enjoy rereading them, the corny, 40-year-old prose with which I strung the interviews together sometimes makes me wince.
Meanwhile, David Amram remembers fondly that the last of Jack Kerouac's words quoted in this chapter was turned into two words by the editors of the New York Post when my original version was published. Actually, the last word Jack said in this chapter was "fucking." David remembers that word in the Postversion as "sexual ecstasy."]
Once upon a time, and with the zeal that was his family inheritance, a young man named Le Roi Jones started out to be a seminarian. He went to Howard University, took two years of the required courses and then found himself assigned to a class which compared oriental religion to his own.
"That's where they made their mistake," he says. "One less Baptist minister!"
Today Le Roi Jones is instead a poet. He is, in fact, a Beat Generation poet. And what he didn't find in the Christian fervor of the Howard divinity school he has found instead in the mystical discipline, the common sense irrationality and the contradictory semantics of Zen Buddhism.
"Zen Buddhism and the Oriental religions offer a freer approach to mystic experience," he says. "They take in more of the human aspect in religion than do the Protestant or Catholic faiths, which have become sort of dehumanized and which don't make any allowances for the individual, for eccentricities or differences of mind. Also Zen Buddhism is a more rational and individual religion," and then he adds, with characteristic Zen Buddhist logic: "I've never been a practicing Zen Buddhist but I believe in it to the extent that I know I don't have to be a Zen Buddhist to find truth. Zen Buddhism says itself it's a just a finger pointing at the moon. But I don't want a finger. I want the moon."
The attraction of the Beats to Zen Buddhism is probably as difficult to explain as Zen itself. From the first glance, the two appear to be correlatives in what has been attacked as an anti-intellectual reaction that is sweeping the country or that has already swept it, placing many intellectuals either on the carpet or under it, until, at least, the Russians started pointing their finger at the moon. Whereas, in short, the Beat Generation might seem to offer, by academic standards, a know-nothing literature and a know-nothing philosophy, Zen Buddhism might seem to complement it with a know-nothing theology.
"I don't know, I don't care and it doesn't make any difference," says the Buddhist Kerouac in a quotation that probably has been more often repeated than understood. And one critic, mixing metaphor with metaphysics, describes the union as "a perfect marriage, even though there was no preacher."
It appears true that Zen was founded by a 16th Century Indian sage who preached against words and letters and that Zen was developed by a Seventh Century Chinese patriarch who was believed to be illiterate himself. To most Westerners, in fact, Zen Buddhism seems to be the practice of ask-a-silly-question-and-you-get-a-silly-answer. The questions are called koans. (Example: Why did Bodhidharma come to China?) The answers are called nothing, because there are no answers. (Example: An oak tree in the garden.) Often, a Zen master, or Roshi, will provide his own answer with the whack of a stick on a disciple's head or a "Get out of here you blithering idiot!" or some other evidence of the traditional irascibility without which a Zen master is no master at all. The results of all this are called satori, which is the Japanese word for something like enlightenment. Satori may come after 50 years or after five seconds.
In a North Beach coffee shop, for instance, a poet whose fascination with Zen seems to've been greater than his knowledge of it approached a painter who had no interest in Zen at all.
"If this is the sound of two hands clapping," said the poet, clapping his hands together in illustration as he asked a classic Zen koan which he apparently had just learned, "then what is the sound of one hand clapping?"
The painter, Robert LaVigne, immediately opened his palm and slapped the poet in the face. The poet left, presumably enlightened.
This is, obviously, a somewhat rude and rudimentary description of Zen, which is, after all,
Zen seeks literally
to break the mind
and thereby cleanse it
often rude and rudimentary itself. What is less explainable is the extreme mystical experience to be gained from Zen and also the extreme peace. Starting with something so improbable as a koan, Zen seeks literally to break the mind and thereby cleanse it, but certainly not to erase it. And anyway, if Zen were anti-intellectual, there would be no one left in the West, at least, to understand it.
"Just as the highest and lowest notes of the musical scale are inaudible, there is a realm above the intellect as well as below it," explains Alan Watts, one of the leading interpreters of Zen in the U.S. today. "The anti-intellectual is really below the realm of the intellect. But Zen pursues the intellect to its very limits---although, even then, it is too simple to say that the intellect does have limits. The automatic telephone, for example, has a useful function, but if you start dialing out questions about the ultimate destiny of man, it won't give you that answer. Zen doesn't say, 'Don't read and don t write.' It says, 'You are perfectly free to do all you like.' But just as a menu isn't a dinner, so philosophical thinking doesn't lead you to reality. . ."
Watts adds, however, that his defense of the intellectual integrity of Zen Buddhism is not to be construed as a defense of the intellectual integrity of what the mass media have come to describe as the Beat Generation. He doesn't even believe there is a Beat Generation.
"It's a very unsafe generalization," he insists. "People getting drunk, taking marijuana, running around, aren't practicing real Zen---nothing like it! They're just following what seems to be the fashion. They have caught on to one aspect of Zen, misinterpreted it and are using it to justify what they're doing. I don't think Snyder, Whalen, Lamantia or any of the good poets here in San Francisco represent this. There is a certain side of Zen, of course, which emphasizes freedom---man's freedom to be anything or do anything. There is a standpoint in Zen from which anything goes, but this standpoint is, after all, a foundation of morality in the sense that no moral action is significant unless done freely. If we act morally but under compulsion we're just machines. The point of view of Buddhism always has been to allow man total freedom. On the basis of this, you have a set morality just as if you have to have an empty paper to write anything. You can do anything on an empty paper, but you can't write well unless you have the empty paper. The idea of Buddhism is to give man emptiness in which he can act freely. After all, it's the same as the basic Christian idea that God gave human beings freedom of choice. Only Buddhists don't feel it's a real freedom of choice if God says, 'If you don't use freedom the way I want it, you can go to hell.' That's like a referendum in a totalitarian government.
"Traditional representatives of Zen would say that if people use that freedom to goof off, that's their own funeral. And it suggests they really have not found freedom because if they goof off in this way, it's really because they can't help it, that's what they've got to do, and they really haven't found freedom. There probably is a minority of people in the art world of San Francisco who are making irresponsible use of Zen. On the other hand, there are people making a very responsible use of it. But because their ideals of religion and morals are unconventional, they are represented as being destructive people.
"Gary Snyder, for example, is a very moral man, but his moral code may not be the same as other people. The trouble is that the Beats are a journalistic creation. The people grouped together this way are actually of many different kinds. Snyder, for instance, is different from Kerouac. I go along with Snyder, but I certainly don't go along with Kerouac. He seems to me to be a fundamentally undisciplined person although he is also a peculiarly gifted writer, even though he comes in fits and starts. He has no control, but he has talent. The Dharma Bums shows Kerouac's talent as well as his immaturity. One gains a lot from reading it to the extent that it is good reporting, gives a nice characterization of Gary, and the nature writing is quite lovely at times. But its insight into Zen is quite limited. It's kind of unfortunate that the name or Zen has been associated with the so-called Beat movement."
In a Chicago Review article entitled Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen, Watts points out, with less impromptu analysis, that the aspect of Zen which is most misinterpreted by the Beat movement or misinterpreted in its name, is probably best expressed in the words of Lin-chi, a great Zen master of T'ang Dynasty China:
"In Buddhism there is no place for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water and when you're tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me but the wise will understand."
This, of course, sounds like the essence of the Beat philosophy as it has been popularized by the press, and, in fact, Watts adds:
"Yet the spirit of these words is. . . remote from a kind of Western Zen which would employ this philosophy to justify a very self-defensive Bohemianism. . . Beat Zen is a complex phenomenon. It ranges from a use of Zen for justifying sheer caprice in art, literature and life to a very forceful social criticism and 'digging of the universe' such as one may find in the poetry of Ginsberg and Snyder, and, rather unevenly, in Kerouac. But, as I know it, it is always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen. . ."
To whatever reasons Watts may ascribe the growing interest in Zen, the individuals generalized into the Beat Generation have their own. Le Roi Jones, for example, dialed out a question about the ultimate destiny of man and received an answer: Union with God. Allen Ginsberg, who is not a Zen Buddhist but who admits he sometimes thinks like one, says that the popularity of Zen is a manifestation of the coming predominance of the non-white races. And the aforementioned Gary Snyder, although held in some esteem by Watts, holds Watts in somewhat less, saying, finally:
"Watts is a phony because he actually knows nothing of Zen and puts forth mostly his own notions. Some of his ideas are useful and interesting, especially his psychological observations on anxiety and so forth, but it all falls so far short of what the Dharma really embraces---the insights possible to the mind and the network of the universe."
Snyder, of course, has a complex of reasons behind his own conversion to Zen, not the least of them being both his and its intense naturalism and preoccupation with the universe. And then, too, there is the strong anarchist and atheist tradition of the Pacific Northwest in which he was reared.
"Zen is atheistic," Snyder says. "It's what you want to make it. It teaches against itself."
For many of its American fanciers, Zen has long since become what they want to make it, and it is the complaint of Zen Buddhists other than Watts that Beat Zen sometimes is no longer recognizable as Zen.
"Sure, Zen has been adapted," says Snyder, who, incidentally, was Watts' neighbor in California, where Watts' suburban ranchhouse is at the foot of the Mill Valley Mountainside on which Snyder had his backwoods hut.
"I practice Zen the way it is practiced in Japan," Snyder adds. "I don't adapt it and I haven't tried to. As far as my role goes, I tried to conduct meditation sessions out in my place in Mill Valley in the form that they are conducted in Japan so that people can see for themselves exactly what formal Zen practice is. And I'm not saying that this is what they
Snyder is regarded
almost as a bodhisattva,
or future Buddha
should do or not. I'm just trying to make it available for people so they could get a clearer idea of it."
Among many of the persons who have attended his meditation sessions, and some of them are Japanese, Snyder is regarded almost as a bodhisattva, or future Buddha, a distinction he denies with the same anger that might characterize a parish priest nominated to sainthood by friends. The honor is one that Snyder, like the parish priest, cannot accept as lightly as it is given. Both Snyder and his deep convictions, in fact, probably are best described in The Dharma Bums, which, incidentally, is also a tribute to Kerouac's own deep convictions. Because, no matter what Watts may think of it, Kerouac is sincere in his belief that the book is at least a quasi-religious document.
"I'm a great Buddhist scholar," Kerouac says, with an innocent intensity. "I have a tremendous interest in all religions. But I became a Mahayana Buddhist, see, not a Zen Buddhist," and he displays a large, loose-leaf folder containing several hundred pages of typewritten sheets entitled: Some of the Dharma. The sheets are covered with religious aphorisms, thoughts, poetry and haikus, which are small poems full of the same irrationality, simplicity and pith as the koans. Each page in the loose-leaf folder has been arranged to present almost a Mondrian effect, with pencil lines drawn in rectangles about each body of type.
"This is all Mahayana Buddhism," he says. "I wrote all this myself. Just little haikus, little poems, little children's poems. I type them up like that in that design.
"How did I become a Buddhist? Well, after that love affair I describe in The Subterraneans, I didn't know what to do. I went home and I 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.
"You know what Buddha did? He was married, he was the son of a maharaja. He had a harem, a son, a wife. . . But when he was 3O years old, he became very melancholy. He didn't even look at the dancing girls any more. They said, 'What's the matter with you? The dancing girls are so beautiful.'
"He said, 'If these girls are so beautiful now, they'd stay beautiful. They wouldn't grow old. . . die. . .become corrupt. . . decay. . . fall apart.' He said, 'I gotta get out of here and find some way to stop all this.' He was deeply unhappy. He had to sneak out at night on a white horse. He cut all his golden hair off---he had long, blond hair---he was an Aryan, you know, an Aryan Indian. And he cut off his long, blond hair and he sat in the woods amid peace and he found out that the cause of suffering was birth! If we hadn't been born, none of all this would have happened. Oh, yes, that the cause of suffering, of grief, of decay and of death is simply birth. So, he also discovered that the world didn't really exist, and it doesn't exist, except in some relationship to the form of being, which fits me perfectly. I have some 18-year-old writings which are pure Buddhism!
"You know, D. T. Suzuki sent out a message that he wanted to see me. He had just read, you know, The Dharma Bums, so I got on the phone and the secretary was there and I said, 'OK, I'd like to see him.' And she said, 'Well, when do you want to make the appointment?' I said, 'RIGHT NOW!' You know, like Buddhism. 'Sure enough,' he said, 'come over right now,' so we went over. I don't know what he thinks of us. Well, like I told him a koan: 'When the Buddha was about to speak, a horse spoke instead.' You see, that was a koan I invented. He said, 'Oh, the Western mind is too complicated.' So I wrote to Phil Whalen and I told him that. And he wrote back and said, 'Tell Mr. Suzuki that I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Western mind. He said, "In Buddhism, there's only a universal mind."' So Whalen cut Suzuki there.
"We talked about millions of things. He made us some green tea---thick green tea that's like thick pea soup, in little bowls. And you drink it and you get high. He said, 'That's the weak ones, you want some strong ones?' He said"---and Kerouac speaks in a high-pitched voice, imitating Suzuki---"He said, 'You boys sit here, write haiku, I go in kitchen, make more green tea.' You boys, that's me, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky. He comes back and Peter said: 'You have an interesting crack in your wall. That looks like The Void.' He says, 'Oh, yes, I never noticed it before.' Then he starts showing us pictures of Han Shan and another Chinese poet.
"But as we left---it was a delightful thing, the whole thing. As we left, I said, 'Dr. Suzuki, I'd like to spend the rest of my life with you.' He said, 'Sometime!' and then he started pushing us out the door. Very funny. And then we went out the door and he wouldn't let us go from the sidewalk. He kept waving his finger at us, saying, 'Remember the green tea! Remember, green tea!'
"He's a little short man, with big hairs growing out of his eye brows, enormous, two-inch-long eye brows. Which I told him reminded me of the Bush of the Dharma. You know, the young and tender bush in the spring. One that when it really gets growing five or six years later, you can't uproot such a bush? That's why I think he let his eyebrows grow.
"You know, the first thing I said to him when we first walked in? He said, 'You sit in this chair, you sit in this chair, and you sit in this chair.' He had all the chairs. And we all sat down and in the silence of the opening statement, I suddenly yelled out: 'Why did Bodhidharma come to the West?' Then I went on talking and he didn't answer me. So I don't think he liked that. But I think he likes us. . ."
Although Kerouac is not exactly a Zen Buddhist, he has had his share of satori, enough, in fact, to share with others. His spontaneous prose, for example, is a form of enlightenment, or at least he intends it as such.
"Buddha," he says, "told his young cousin, Ananda, 'I'm going to ask you a question, Al, and I want you to answer me spontaneously, without presuppositions in your mind. Because,' he said, 'all the Buddhas of the past, present and future have arrived at enlightenment by this very same method. The spontaneity of their radiance,' and all that stuff. There is that in Buddhism. Sudden enlightenment. And Zen. Bang! And spontaneously enlightened. Like I enlightened a whole bunch of Puerto Ricans in New York one night. I had to go to a masquerade party, and I had a straw hat like W. C. Fields, and a blue suit and white shoes and a carnation. I came dancing into the bar and bought a five-dollar case of beer. The moment they saw me they all laughed. I threw the five dollars on the bar, heaved the case of beer over my shoulder, it fell over the back of my shoulder and smashed on the floor. Ten quarts. Big river of beer on the floor. And I walked out. They were all silent. This crazy clown coming in and doing all that! I didn't mean to do it, but they were all stunned. That's the way these old Chinese enlightenment stories go. Spontaneity!"
It is with the same spontaneity, apparently, that Kerouac has left Buddhism. Born a Roman Catholic, Kerouac says he always has remained a Roman Catholic after all. And if Buddhism has enlightened him, it has been to offer truths. For him, Kerouac says, it was a choice between love as Buddha preached it or love as Kerouac himself practiced it.
"Buddhism is just words," he explains. "Also, wisdom is heartless. I quit Buddhism because Buddhism---or Mahayana Buddhism---preaches against entanglement with women. To me, the most important thing in life is fucking." ##
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMN THIRTY-SIX
CLICK HERE TO GET TO INDEX OF COLUMNS
Blacklisted Journalist can be contacted at P.O.Box 964, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-0964
The Blacklisted Journalist's E-Mail Address:
THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST IS A SERVICE MARK OF AL ARONOWITZ