Monday, December 7, 2009

The Beats: Buddha Monks With The Ale or Deluded Drunks Bound to Fail?

Jack Kerouac, the reluctant founder of the Beat Generation, explains that the repressive values of the previous generation have caused his generation to be "beaten down." The Beatnik interpretation of Buddhist teachings highlights the difficulties of interpreting religions from other cultures without the context of one's own culture creating conflict. The Beats use arguments within Buddhism to rationalize their place within American society. Though they recognize the reality of Siddhartha Gautama's Four Noble Truths, they fail to follow the Eightfold Path by breaking the fifth precept of Buddhism, which forbids drinking intoxicating liquors.

Bob Marley may think that alcohol does not make you meditate but does he have any right to say anything about deluding oneself when he smokes a pound of pot a week?

Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg discovered Buddhism in the libraries of Columbia University. Kerouac wrote as the character, Ray Smith in The Dharma Bums that he “didn't give a goddamn about the mythology and all the names and national flavors of Buddhism, but [he] was just interested in the first of Sakyamuni's four noble truths, 'All life is suffering.'”

The Four Noble Truths

Life means suffering.
The origin of suffering is attachment.
The cessation of suffering is attainable.
The path to the cessation of suffering.

Kerouac, through Smith, admits that he was unsure whether the cessation of suffering was possible in an American society that is so attached to such “meaningless, arbitrary, and unreal” ideals. A visit to Columbia University from Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki, who wrote an essay entitled “Buddhism and Drugs.” 

In the essay, Suzuki acknowledges that “Zen people cannot simply ignore” individuals “with the intention of forming an intentional society of those who seek 'internal freedom.'” On The Road, Kerouac's most popular novel, represents the Beats' attempt to emulate the spontaneity of the “masters of Zen who seemed to make their everyday lives into an improvised performance.” The story follows Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the pseudonyms of Kerouac and Neal Cassady respectively, as they chase their pleasures on the American road at jazz clubs, poetry readings, and drunken parties.

After the success of On The Road, Kerouac still find himself disillusioned with the American Dream as his new found fame brings him more annoyances than enlightenment. Dean Moriarty's real life counterpart, Neal Cassady, is set up and arrested for selling marijuana (a violation of the Buddhist 'right livelihood' as one of the few forbidden professions). Kerouac finds himself getting ambushed and beaten up by people disagreed with him. His publishers had edited large portions of his novel for the sake of avoiding lawsuits and general moral outrage. Kerouac feels the need to escape the traditional morality of America. He escapes to the mountains outside San Francisco and by the demands of his publishers, wrote a sequel called The Dharma Bums.

Were the Beats trying to live with just the "bare necessities?" Did going out into the woods actually connect them to nature or was it just a delusion their desire to escape the pitfalls of modern society?

While writing The Dharma Bums, Kerouac finds a new energy in Gary Snyder, who Kerouac gives the pseudonym of Japhy Ryder in the book. Kerouac's character Ray Smith says that during this time he realized that there is “nothing in the world but the mind itself, and therefore all's possible including the suppression of suffering.” Kerouac believes that the cycle of suffering could be escape by pursuing his freedom within his mind. However, Kerouac's approach to the suppression of suffering is a hot topic of debate in the Buddhist community.

The Eightfold Path
Right View
Right Intentions
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

The fifth precept of Buddhism holds that one must “abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.” In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha says that breaking the fifth precept leads to six dangers, including the "present waste of money, increased quarrelling, liability to sickness, loss of good name, indecent exposure of one's person, and weakening of one's wisdom." In An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Peter Harvey writes that the fifth precept is not an issue of “right action” or “right speech” but rather an issue of “right mindfulness.” Intoxicating oneself creates “no mental clarity or calm.” Harvey explains a story in Thailand about “an exemplary man” who was challenged to break just one precept. The man can only bring himself to break the fifth precept. However, upon breaking the fifth precept he proceeds to break the other four.

While the breaking the fifth precept may lead to wrongful action, some do not agree that breaking the fifth precept is “naturally reprehensible.” The Mahayana commentator Jinaputra held that drinking alcohol is wrong “when done with a defiled thought” but when it can be done with clear thought “it is what the Lord has prescribed.” Therefore if one can drink without “desire-attachment,” it is not reprehensible by nature. Harvey says that some Buddhists treat precepts like vows and they do not promise promise to adhere to them if they think they will fail to uphold it (Harvey 84). Many Buddhists would disagree with this interpretation, arguing that it is a manipulation of the doctrine which is intended to protect against the breaking the others. Others would see it as wrong for a Buddhist who does not drink to look down on others for drinking, one should simply enjoy a drunkard's merriment with him without having to resort to drinking.

Suzuki suggests that “enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind.” He claims one can meditate through actions rather than through the traditional idea of non-action. In Suzuki's view to mediate “is to be ourselves.” The Beats took this idea to mean that each person should be free to live their life the way they wanted. They decided not to judge each other for their chosen delusions. At one of the parties in the mountains, Ray Smith asks a Buddhist wearing a necktie and suit, “what is Buddhism?” The man replies “Buddhism is getting to know as many people as possible.” (Kerouac 77).

Kerouac saw others' perspectives as valuable in alleviating the samsara illusion of life. In The Dharma Bums, Japhy and Ray have an argument about a “big fat woman” preacher who Ray thinks speaks to him but Japhy complains he does not like “all that Jesus stuff she's talking about.” Smith argues, “What's wrong with Jesus? Isn't Heaven Buddha's nirvana?”
"According to your own interpretation, Smith."
"Japhy, there were things I wanted to tell Rosie and I felt suppressed by this schism we have about separating Buddhism from Christianity, East from West, what the hell difference does it make? We're all in Heaven now, ain't we?"
"Who said so?"
"Is this nirvana we're in now or ain't it?"
         "It's both nirvana and samsara we're in now” (Kerouac 45).
Kerouac recognizes that his desires can create delusion. Smith tells himself not to “run after liquor and excitement of women and talk, stay in your shack and enjoy natural relationship of things as they are." He describes that when he “was really drunk and high and sitting cross legged in the midst of the mad parties” he saw “visions of holy empty snow in my eyelids” and none of his friends would think it was strange. He listened to others for wisdom while not worrying what others thought of him.

At the same time, Smith's character recognizes that performing duties properly is a necessary process in life. Japhy would exclaim, "You've got to learn!" he'd say. "Dammit, if there's anything I can't stand is when things ain't done right."
Japhy said "Why do you sit on your ass all day?"
"I practice do-nothing."
"What's the difference? Burn it, my Buddhism is activity." (Kerouac 69).
Ray Smith is constantly concerned with the semantics of right and wrong while Japhy tells him to stop worrying about “words you made up all winter, man I want to be enlightened by actions” (67). Smith and Ryder's discussions about Buddhism brought the Buddhist values of freedom and asceticism into conflict. The discuss the boundaries of what their obligations to themselves and others. They are mindful of their towards others. Japhy says "when a mule weeps, I feel like praying for all sentient beings"(66). When critics of the Beat Generation said they were immoral, Kerouac retorted “who wouldn't help a dying man?”

The question the Beats posed to American society using Buddhism was what the reality of death means for a person's obligation to the rest of the world. While people should eliminate their desires that lead them to death and delusion, does this mean they are obligated to stop others? Does someone own their body and soul or are we obligated to live for the sake of others? How do we judge what is acceptable or unacceptable for an individual to consume when anything in excess leads to either spiritual or physical death? Should we celebrate life by preserving its very delusion or should we drink to our death's knowing that we enjoyed it to the very last drop?

Kerouac's writing is fascinated with whether or not we can disassociate our desire-attachment from our real lives. As Japhy begins to get naked with girls at their party, Ray compares his situation to a past life where he and his friend Bud are “old monks who weren't interested in sex any more” watching “young monks...full of the fire of evil” and having girls dance for them while resisting the need to lust (70). 

Ray does not always succeed to disassociate himself from his desire-attachment. His desire to drink causes a fight between him and Japhy. Ray decides to skip a lecture at a Buddhist center to drink in the alleys. Ray argues that he drinks for joy. He argues that “there's wisdom in wine” and that Japhy would not have written some of his poems without it (75). Japhy replies that he would have written the poems either way but that he did think Ray would “gain enlightenment” through drinking when he will “always be coming down the hill spending your bean money on wine” and he will “end up lying in the street in the rain, dead drunk, and then they'll take you away and you'll have to be reborn a tee-totalin bartender to atone for your karma” (77). However, Japhy returns to the cottage “drunk as a hoot owl” yelling to Smith about how he drank raw saki at the Buddhist lecture. After the the experience at the lecture he and Japhy “never had an argument again” (78).

Later that night, Japhy Ryder describes an ideal existence where everyone is free to practice Buddhism their own way.
I see a vision of thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy, and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason, and also by being kind, and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody... We'll have a floating zendo, a series of monasteries for people to go and monastate and meditate in... wild gangs of pure holy men getting together to drink and talk and pray.
Japhy argues that everyone should find their own through the world, that instead of judging each other we should accept that everyone has their own version of Buddhism. During a climb up a mountain Ray says that a Hershey bar is the one thing he wants most and Japhy replies, “there's your Buddhism, a Hershey bar” (84).

While Kerouac could qualify an ideal world in his literary work, he found that attempting to achieve his ideals in real life lead to delusion. As the Beats try to create a harmonious existence in the real world, the conflict between reality and their dream created suffering in their lives. On October 21, 1969, Jack Kerouac dies at the age of 47 in hospital after “vomiting much of his vitality” into the toilet of his mother's home. In a 1974 interview, Gary Snyder comments that “along with other casualties that most people have never heard of...Kerouac was a casualty” (Barnett). The late Kerouac distanced himself from his former ideals, saying “I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic” (Lelyveld).

Kerouac may have become a victim of his own desires and delusions but he paid no mind to critics who thought that “the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality.” He knew that they were just as deluded as he was and that they “don't understand history and the yearning of human souls.” He learned not to hold on to his anger against those who did not understand him and learned to live with them. In the end, he knew that the karmic cycle of the world tends to bring justice, saying “woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind'll blow it back” (Coupe 143).

"The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way--a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word 'beat' spoken on streetcorners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America--beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction--We'd even heard old 1910 Daddy Hipsters of the streets speak the word that way, with a melancholy sneer--It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn't gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization--the subterraneans heroes who'd finally turned from the 'freedom' machine of the West and were taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the 'derangement of the senses,' talking strange, being poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture, a new style (we thought), a new incantation--The same thing was almost going on in the postwar France of Sartre and Genet and what's more we knew about it--But as to the actual existence of a Beat Generation, chances are it was really just an idea in our minds.”
-Jack Kerouac, On The Road

Works Cited
Barnett, David. “Misremembering Kerouac.” <> October 23, 2009. December 7, 2009.

Berrigan, Ted. "The Art of Fiction No. 43: Jack Kerouac." The Paris Review. 1968. December 7, 2009. <>
Coupe, Laurence. Beat Sound, Beat Vision. Manchester University Press, 2007. 143. Print.
Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 77-84. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. Penguin Classics, 2008. 4, 45, 60-65, 70-79. Digital.
Kerouac, Jack. On The Road. Penguin Classics, 2008. Print.
Lelyveld, Joseph. "Jack Kerouac, Novelist, Dead; Father of the Beat Generation." The New York Times. 22 Oct 1969. Print.