Saturday, May 14, 2011

American Buddhism--Part One....

Western Buddhism is not Eastern Buddhism.

So explains Shunryu Suzuki in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

He's not being critical so much as realistic. Culture and history influence things too much.

That said, I for one, appreciate the fusion of East meets West. It began in the 1800s with Asian immigration, and the literary efforts of the transcendentalist and theosophical movements (see naturalists Emerson, Thoreau, et al). Over many decades, the exploration of Eastern philosophy perhaps peaked during 1960s hippie culture and later New Age-ism. Along with increased immigration from Asia, and post WWII relations with Japan, today, Buddhism is one of the largest faiths in the U.S., comparable in numbers to Islam.

But, in my opinion, an influence largely overlooked in the emergence of Western Buddhism is the work of the post WWII Beat writers. These include the likes of Allen Ginsburg, Gary Snyder, and the lovable Jack Kerouac. The latter not only discussed Buddhism regularly in his pseudo-fiction tales of travel across America, but also created a form of hybrid Zen/American poetry. The Diamond Sutra was a major influence in the author's life.

Here's some ol' Jack, composed during a month-long, isolated stint as a mountaintop fire ranger:

"On foggy days the view from my toilet seat is like a Chinese Zen drawing.... I half expect to see two giggling old dharma bums, or one in rags, by the goat-horned stump, one with a broom, the other with a pen quill, writing poems about the Giggling Lings in the Fog--saying, 'Hanshan, what is the meaning of the void?' " -- Desolation Angels

And here he explains the need for poetic differences between the two continents:

"A 'Western Haiku' need not concern itself with the seventeen syllables since western languages cannot adapt themselves to the fluid syllabic Japanese." -- Book of Haikus

Later in life, Kerouac reverted back to his Roman Catholic roots, but his mark on American culture, in terms of East meets West, is undeniable.

"The second teaching from the golden eternity is that there never was a first teaching from the golden eternity. So be sure." --Kerouac


  1. Just three lines with meaning, where the notion of Self is dissolved and/or diffused.

  2. Hmmm... this is a deep post JC. This will take some time to digest.

    Interesting fact about Kerouac - I didn't know he reverted back to Christianity.