Beat Buddhism and American freedom.
Previous accounts of Buddhism and the Beat Generation do not answer this question fully, engaging with limited facets of relevant texts. This body of criticism tends to split into unfavorable and favorable camps, each side focusing on a different aspect of Beat texts. The first camp views the Beats as appropriative distorters of Buddhism. In 1958, Zen popularizer Alan Watts famously derides "Beat Zen" as too adversarial and agenda-driven to convey the equanimity of mere "Zen" (7-8). Watts contends that practitioners of Beat Zen are still unconsciously governed by the very Western culture they think Buddhism helps them to resist, and thus are not successful at cross-cultural adaptation (6-7). While Zen is only one of many forms of Buddhism that draws the interest of Beat writers, scholars often agree with Watts that Beat writers are too invested in their anti-conformist agenda to engage with Buddhism on its own terms. For example, Carl Jackson ambivalently writes that "The way in which the Beats utilized and distorted Asian conceptions reveal both the rewards and dangers of turning to non-European sources" (1988, 53). Similar, or harsher, criticisms issue from Jonathan Eburne (1997), Jerry Griswold (2002), and Yuemin He (2009), who agree that the Beats distorted Asian religions and exoticized Asia in the process. They argue, with significant justification, that Beat Buddhism is guilty of Orientalism, the Western practice of objectifying Asia (Said 1979). This criticism fits easily within the larger judgment that the Beats fail in their treatments of racial, sexual, and cultural difference, far more often celebrating stereotypes than questioning them (Martinez 2003; Panish 1994). However, members of this unfavorable camp often ignore the seriousness with which many Beat writers engaged with Buddhist philosophy.
Conversely, critics who judge Beat Buddhism more favorably admire how Beat writers incorporate Buddhism's abstract philosophical doctrines, but they do not give sustained attention to the question of cultural appropriation. They view the Beats as faithful transmitters of Buddhism. Deshae Lott, for instance, writes approvingly of how Kerouac, "like a Buddhist, uses concepts or language to transcend concepts" (2004, 179). For Lott, Buddhism is a static system against which to measure Kerouac, one which Kerouac strove but failed "to understand completely or apply fully" (182, emphasis added). Similar analyses admiring Beat writers' philosophical complexity have occurred in the work of Stephen Prothero (1991), Benedict Giamo (2003), Nancy Grace (2007), and Tony Trigilio (2012). These scholars praise the Beats for applying authentic Buddhist ideas, but mostly do not wrestle with the often stereotyped cultural images at work in the Beats' texts.
Both of these views rest on problematic assumptions about authenticity that treat Buddhism as a fixed object. Furthermore, both camps talk past one another because they focus on different aspects of the texts in question. In light of this situation, I want to promote a view of the Beats as neither merely inauthentic nor strictly authentic, but as creative agents of cross-cultural adaptation. This perspective is influenced by scholars of religion such as Jeff Wilson who argue that American adaptations of Buddhism, while they involve novel engagements with Western individualism, are also continuous with Buddhism's long history of cross-cultural adaptation as it spread throughout Asia (Wilson 2014, 4-6).
I argue that Beat Buddhism makes a significant and innovative cross-cultural adaptation by attempting to harmonize Buddhist and American views of freedom, a process that relies both on abstract Buddhist philosophy and culturally specific images of Asia. These two types of freedom seem to be incompatible at first. The American freedom of "the pursuit of happiness" has largely come to mean the freedom to obtain what one desires (Foner 2013, 28), whereas the Buddhist freedom of moksa (Sanskrit, "liberation") is a freedom from the constraining pull of desires themselves (McMahan 2008, 17). Beat Buddhism attempts to stretch the meaning of American freedom to include liberation from consumerism and celebration of the downtrodden, while also shifting Buddhist freedom to be more open to individual pleasure. Furthermore, this effort to harmonize Buddhist and American freedom has allowed Beat Buddhism to remain influential well beyond the Beat period even to the point of transcending, at least to a degree, the countercultural associations of the Beat Generation. Beat Buddhism is a historically significant strain of cross-cultural adaptation which has influenced subsequent generations of American writers, readers, and spiritual seekers, offering novel ideas about how Buddhism can inhabit--and change--the United States. This argument accounts for the Beats' combination of troubling stereotyping and thematic depth better than existing readings.
To make this case, I discuss three key figures who offer a revealing window into the long life of Beat Buddhism: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Tom Robbins, the latter of whom postdates the Beat period but influentially carries on Beat values, aesthetics, and motifs. My examples are not comprehensive, and should not lead to overgeneralizations about all Beat and Beat-influenced writers, but they point toward a fuller understanding of Beat adaptations of Buddhism in America. While there are too many contributors to Beat Buddhism to discuss at length here--Diane di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Lew Welch, Anne Waldman, and Philip Whalen are also important--the three writers I discuss provide especially revealing syntheses between Buddhist and American notions of freedom. Within a shared commitment to shaping American Buddhism, there is diversity. Snyder optimistically envisions a harmonious merging of Eastern and Western cultures. Kerouac, by contrast, hopes for such a synthesis but struggles with unresolved conflicts. Robbins ambivalently hovers between Snyder's synthesis and Kerouac's conflict, combining cross-cultural openness with ethnically sensitive caution.
The popularity of these writers across many decades, as well as their collective breadth of genres including poetry, fiction, and the essay, indicate a resonance with larger cultural trends. The issues Snyder, Kerouac, and Robbins wrestle with--Asian religions' relevance to a politics of dissent, the ethics of borrowing across cultures, and the compatibility of Buddhist and American freedom--have shaped American engagements with Asian religions and given Beat Buddhism cultural relevance well beyond the Beat period. Beat Buddhism thus makes a significant contribution to American receptivity to Asian religions that is not reducible to appropriation. It has influenced American institutions (Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the San Francisco Zen Center), American lexica (many American Buddhists now call themselves "dharma bums," after Kerouac's coinage), and--a point I will revisit in my conclusion--post-Beat Asian American literature.
Gary Snyder is noteworthy for his pioneering Beat approach to Buddhism that changes along with the advancing century. Snyder (b. 1930) became involved with Buddhism in his early twenties, attending services at a Japanese Buddhist center in San Francisco in the early 1950s (Snyder 1996, 154). His interest in Asian religion and culture deepened, and he spent most of 1956 to 1968 in Japan, receiving traditional Zen training in Kyoto (Murphy 2000, 7-9). Since his return to the United States, Snyder's Buddhist faith has continued to animate his poetry and prose. His work consistently bears Zen emphases of concentration on the present moment, spontaneous realization, and reverence for nature. No American writer of his generation has matched Snyder's combination of dedicated Buddhist practice, international experience, and prolific creative output.
Previous critics have examined the role of Buddhist philosophy in Snyder's writing (Gray 2000; Huang 1989; Johnston 2011; Kern 2000), but they focus on how Snyder uses Buddhist ideals to critique US violence and pollution. This critical pattern has prevented literary scholars from seeing important affinities between Buddhist and American concerns in Snyder's work. The only exception, as far as I know, comes from American Studies scholar James Brown, who writes that "the very freedom in Zen that Suzuki had promised... was connected, in Snyder's thought, to American republican traditions of individualism and self-reliance" (2009, 224). I take Brown's idea a step further: Snyder does not stop at seeing connections; he actually combines features of Buddhist and American freedom. Snyder's career is an evolving effort to harmonize Beat wildness with Buddhist calm. He defends Beat Buddhism by praising its subversion, and later in his career, by redefining its rebelliousness as responsibility. Every level of Snyder's writing reflects this complexity. In his work, East meets West by weaving American content into Buddhist forms, and vice versa.
Snyder's early work is strongly influenced by the ninth-century Chinese poet Han Shan, a figure known in Chinese lore, along with his friend Shih-te, as "poor but happy recluses, bordering on the crazy, who constantly do and say nonsensical things" (Henricks 1990, 7). Snyder's first published work, Cold Mountain Poems (originally published in 1958), is a translation of twenty-four of some three hundred of Han Shan's poems. Snyder's translations of Han Shan have a more complex relationship to the Beat Generation than scholars have recognized. It is certainly true that Snyder represents Han Shan as a "countercultural role model" for the Beat Generation (Tan 2009, 228), and that this portrayal involves "appropriating [Han Shan's] Chinese texts for purposes other than those of the texts themselves" (Kern 1996, 234). By portraying Han Shan as a "mountain madman in an old Chinese line of ragged hermits" (Snyder 2009, 35), Snyder invokes the stereotype of the Oriental Monk who is inscrutable, otherworldly, and Asian (Iwamura 2011, 6).
But Snyder does not simply force Han Shan into a Beat mold. While he emphasizes parallels between Han Shan's social commentary and Beat critiques of American consumerism, Snyder's Han Shan models a different mode of living than a prototypical Beat adventure. In poem sixteen, Snyder translates, "I've got no use for the kulak / With his big barn and pasture / He just sets up a prison for himself" (2009, 54). This ridicule of the superficial status of land ownership strongly evokes Beat criticisms of stultifying American middle-class conformism. But Snyder's Han Shan does not exemplify a positive American freedom to go on adventures, a freedom the Beats thought of themselves as reclaiming. Instead, he embodies a more negative Buddhist freedom from the hassles of worldly life. In poem seventeen, the speaker muses, "Go ahead and let the world change--/I'm happy to sit among these cliffs" (Snyder 2009, 55). Likewise, in poem five, the speaker wants to "settle" and find a place that is "safe" (43). Snyder's Han Shan speaks not of Beat restlessness but the contentment valorized in Buddhism. Snyder challenges the Beat Generation by presenting Han Shan as a role model for Beat irreverence who is nevertheless not straightforwardly assimilable into Beat culture.
Snyder's efforts to synthesize Buddhist and American freedom develop more fully in his original poems. In Riprap, Snyder relies on Buddhist concepts of emptiness and impermanence that owe much to Han Shan. But Snyder innovatively presents Beat adventurism as a liberating expression of this underlying Buddhist vision. Buddhist emptiness comes across strongly in "Piute Creek," where the speaker, upon seeing "Sky over endless mountains," rhapsodizes that "All the junk that goes with being human / Drops away" (Snyder 2009, 8). In this expansive vision, "A clear, attentive mind / Has no meaning but that / Which sees is truly seen" (8). Snyder's title suggests that the same Buddhist sense of meditative expansiveness Han Shan experiences in China is available in America.
But Snyder also gives voice to a more rambunctious spirit in Riprap than in Cold Mountain Poems. For example, in "All Through the Rains," the speaker tries to grab onto a moving horse to go bareback riding, a stunt the unassuming Han Shan would probably not have attempted. Also, the poem "Toji," written at Shingon temple at Kyoto, conveys a distinctively Beat combination of reverence and irreverence. A statue of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of compassion, has "An ancient hip smile / Tingling of India and Tibet." It is a fine piece of venerable craftsmanship, "haloed in snake-hood gold," but it is also "Cool" and "hip" (Snyder 2009, 20). Thus, the speaker solicits the reader's Orientalist curiosity about Avalokitesvara's "ancient hip smile"; the hope is that one will pursue the inner peace from which the expression presumably arises. Furthermore, Avalokitesvara is "Bisexual and tried it all." This line refers to the fact that the Indian and Tibetan version of this Buddha is male, while the Chinese and Japanese version is female (Yu 2000). But Snyder's gloss of Avalokitesvara as "Bisexual and tried it all" carries a sense of sexual experimentation and free love absent from traditional Buddhist contexts. "Toji" exemplifies how Riprap creatively combines Buddhist calm with Beat wildness. Snyder's Buddhist American freedom is its own kind of Zen koan, a paradox of individualism and nonself.
Just as Snyder helps to shape Beat Buddhism in the 1950s, he also ties Buddhism to the hippie counterculture in the 1960s. This project is exemplified in Snyder's short prose piece "Smokey the Bear Sutra" (1969), which rewrites a Buddhist scriptural genre for a hippie audience. While Snyder, in his 1986 commentary on the essay, is right that it "follows the structure of a Mahayana sutra fairly faithfully" (1986, 244), its innovative appeals to American values and institutions are significant. The essay replaces traditional Asian Buddhist tropes with American counterparts and mixes Buddhist formality with countercultural irreverence.
The text's central conceit is that Smokey the Bear is a Buddha. This conflation sets up Buddhist critiques of environmental destruction. The Great Sun Buddha, speaking "in the Jurassic, about 150 million years ago," prophecies that "The human race in [Snyder's] era will get into troubles all over its head and practically wreck everything in spite of its own strong intelligent Buddha-nature" (Snyder 1986, 242). In Mahayana Buddhism, every being has Buddha-nature, the inherent potential to become enlightened (Smith 1991, 2, 388). This potential is heavily obscured by ignorance, especially in those who pollute. One must carelessly objectify nature in order to abuse it. Later, the narrator calls forest fires a symptom of "the stupidity of those who think things can be gained and lost whereas in truth all is contained vast and free in the Blue Sky and Green Earth of One Mind" (242). This admonition seems to misattribute accidental fires started by careless campers to corporate greed. But the larger point stands that environmental degradation is caused by those who objectify nature. A more insightful attitude would emerge from the doctrine of nonduality (Suzuki 1938, xxix), such that oneself and nature are inseparable.
Snyder makes these points speak to contemporary America by inserting American place names into Buddhist figures of speech. The Buddha prophecies that a future "continent called America ... will have great centers of power such as Pyramid Lake, Walden Pond, Mount Ranier, Big Sur, Everglades, and so forth; and powerful nerves and channels such as Columbia River, Mississippi River, and Grand Canyon" (Snyder 1986, 242). America has sacred spaces just as India has the Ganges River. The narrator later says, "those who recite this Sutra and then try to put it into practice will accumulate merit as countless as the sands of Arizona and Nevada" (243). Snyder tweaks a common Buddhist hyperbole which describes immense quantities "as there are grains of sand in the river Ganges" or "as high as Mount Sumeru" (Goddard 1994, 95, 91). By rewriting Buddhist expressions with American instead of Asian place names, "Smokey the Bear Sutra" appeals to an exotic, mystic East while also suggesting that sacred places are not confined to Asia; they are in America as well, right in its readers' backyards.
Snyder's substitutions give "Smokey the Bear Sutra" a different tone from canonical Buddhist texts. Whereas Buddhist sutras are rigorously formal, "Smokey the Bear Sutra" is irreverently playful. By deifying Smokey the Bear, the sutra plays on the comical tension between the Buddha's mystical dignity and Smokey the Bear's status as a mass-media cartoon mascot. Accordingly, Smokey is "austere but comic." He holds a "vajra shovel" and raises "His left paw in the Mudra of Comradely Display" (Snyder 1986, 242). "Vajra" is a Sanskrit word for "diamond," conveying clarity and strength; a mudra is a ritual gesture (Seager 1999, 29-30). The text thus describes Smokey's signature pose in Buddhist terms, a move that simultaneously makes light of Buddhist decorum and valorizes Smokey's appearance.
This essay is an act of synthesis that combines Buddhist and hippie concerns. But it also gives another, even less expected meeting point. "Smokey the Bear Sutra" actually merges a broad critique of industrial civilization with an indebtedness to US institutions. The text criticizes modern pollution as the result of "a civilization that claims to save but only destroys." And yet, the essay's central figure is a production of the National Forest Service, which is funded by the Federal Government. Therefore, American "civilization" does not "only [destroy]" nature. Snyder resists this point in his 1986 commentary to the essay by saying that the Service was unaware "that it was serving as a vehicle for this magical reemergence" (1986, 244). He works hard to avoid acknowledging the US Government as the source of something good. Even so, Smokey wears "the broad-brimmed hat of the West, symbolic of the forces that guard the Wilderness" (242). The West does not simply destroy the wilderness; it can protect it as well.
Although Snyder's implicit affirmation of the West may seem surprising, it makes Buddhist sense that Snyder would find merit even in US institutions. If Snyder is serious about Buddhist nonduality, then he cannot treat the United States as a monolithic evil. Buddha-nature can be obscured, but never lost. Therefore, even a degraded civilization must still be capable of manifesting wisdom. For Snyder, Smokey the Bear is a rare touchstone of holism in a culture increasingly alienated from nature. Snyder's imagery does not simply denigrate the West, of which the modern United States is a major part, but makes room for productive engagements between Asian and North American traditions.
This emerging synthesis becomes even more explicit later in Snyder's career. Earlier texts such as "Smokey the Bear Sutra" transmit the raucous energy of countercultural movements. These texts capture the mood of Beat Buddhism, which defined itself against an American mainstream it sought to subvert. From the mid-1970s onward, however, Snyder's writing shifts from revolution to reconciliation, while retaining his basic commitments to spirituality and environmentalism. Snyder's evolution, and the ambiguous place of Beat Buddhism in American culture more broadly, gains particular illumination in his 1990 essay "The Etiquette of Freedom." While Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems is consciously derivative of Han Shan, and "Smokey the Bear Sutra" inhabits a Buddhist literary genre, Snyder's later essays are less dependent on Buddhist role models, having more in common with the essays of Henry David Thoreau.
"The Etiquette of Freedom" has broad significance for the life and afterlife of the countercultures with which Snyder was involved. Snyder proposes an alternative understanding of the word "wild" that replaces negative connotations of chaos with positive resonances of naturalness. Snyder is aware of how the term "wild" is not only an epithet against general unruliness; it is a historically specific criticism of the Beat and hippie countercultures. Popular culture of the time saw Beats and beatniks as "delinquent" and "ridiculous," views somewhat encouraged by Beat writers but also resulting from being caricatured by the journalists covering them (Petrus 1997, 5, 9; see also Lawlor 2000, 233). The hippies also bore a "stigmatized identity" often associated with filth and delinquency (Hoffman and Steffensmeier 1975). In "The Etiquette of Freedom," Snyder implicitly writes against these unfavorable perceptions, even though time has reduced their intensity.
Snyder poses his central question: "Where do we start to resolve the dichotomy of the civilized and the wild?" (1990, 15). He works toward an answer by defining "the wild" as a type of order, a counter-intuitive move that nevertheless makes sense within Snyder's body of work. In his straw-man definition, a wild society is "uncivilized, rude, resisting constituted government." But in his favored definition, a wild society is one "whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation" (10). Here, "wild" and "order" are complementary. In sum, Snyder asserts that "To speak of wildness is to speak of wholeness" (12). The wild is not brute savagery, but a healthy balance, a self-regulating system. Snyder attributes these positive definitions to Buddhism and Daoism, emphasizing that his understanding of the wild "is not far from the Buddhist term Dharma with its original senses of forming and firming" (11).
Snyder argues that "impermanence"--a word Westerners usually associate with fear and instability--is actually crucial to liberation, writing that "in a fixed universe there would be no freedom. With that freedom we improve the campsite, teach children, oust tyrants. The world is nature, and in the long run inevitably wild, because the wild, as the essence and process of nature, is also an ordering of impermanence" (Snyder 1990, 5). This positive treatment of impermanence echoes the preeminent Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who made a similar claim using the related concept of emptiness. In the second century, Nagarjuna influentially declared that "All is possible when emptiness is possible" (Siderits and Katsura 2013, 276). Snyder's synthesis uses Buddhist thought to encourage American social activism, relying on both the concept of impermanence and the classically American imperative toward "freedom."
Snyder's discussion implicitly reflects on his entire career. In his early writing, Snyder is "wild" with an exuberance that Alan Watts criticizes as "Beat Zen." Snyder's later definition of the wild does not contradict his early Beat enthusiasm, but recontextualizes it. The energy and irreverence in "Smokey the Bear Sutra" have faded, and are tempered with calm. In his 1960 address "Notes on the Beat Generation," Snyder speaks approvingly of Beat "revolution" (1995, 11). In 1990, Snyder writes instead of "The Etiquette of Freedom." Snyder's terms of choice change from subversion to politeness. A young Snyder fondly called Han Shan "a mountain madman" (1959, 33). But the Snyder of the 1990s and beyond would surely not use "madman" as a term of praise. Snyder's ongoing adaptations of American Buddhism speak to the mood of his times, while always retaining the spiritual imperative to defy oppressive forces and honor the natural world. Snyder's later work marks an important development in Beat Buddhism that continues its process of cross-cultural adaptation. Ironically, Snyder's capacious "Etiquette of Freedom" creates a conceptual framework for audiences to understand Beat Buddhism as increasingly compatible with non-rebellious American middle-class life.
Gary Snyder was central to the Buddhist explorations of the Beat Generation's preeminent spokesperson: Jack Kerouac. Kerouac met Snyder in San Francisco in 1955 and the two quickly became close friends (Tan 2009, 231). Snyder's presence in Kerouac's writing rapidly grows from two brief mentions in Some of the Dharma to, in the fictionalized persona of Japhy Ryder, the central figure of The Dharma Bums (Kerouac 1997, 346, 408; 1958). Kerouac, like Snyder, offers Buddhist critiques of American consumerism and an injection of American restlessness into Buddhism. But whereas Snyder's long career evolves toward a greater synthesis of Buddhist and American values, Kerouac's writing reveals a hope for synthesis that it does not fully realize. Kerouac's Buddhist period, which peaked from 1954 to 1957 (Giamo 2003, 180), is characterized by intensity, hope, pain, and conflict. Kerouac's Buddhism came exclusively from reading texts and conversing with Beat colleagues; he met D. T. Suzuki once but never studied under an in-person Buddhist teacher (Lott 2004, 172-73). Buddhism did not become a stable spiritual home for Kerouac, and after 1960, he gave it up (Aronowitz 1960, 83). But during his fleeting engagement with Buddhism, Kerouac produced important reflections on how Buddhism was emerging in the United States.
Kerouac's Buddhist period yielded several works of poetry and prose; my discussion will focus on the latter. Kerouac's Buddhist poetry, comprised of Mexico City Blues and The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, tends to be highly abstract, dreaming, for instance, of "the knowledge that sees the golden eternity in all things" (1961). Kerouac's Buddhist prose more fully envisions what an American Buddhism might look like; therefore, I will examine Some of the Dharma (1997) and The Dharma Bums (1958). Furthermore, by reading Some of the Dharma in tandem with The Dharma Bums, we can newly appreciate the latter as a dramatized outgrowth of the tensions presented in the former.
In the leading reading of Some of the Dharma, Nancy Grace convincingly argues that Kerouac's "Buddhism was more than Beat whim" by showing, among other things, how Kerouac "combines Buddhist and Christian concepts" and develops a "distinctly American" Buddhism that emphasizes individualism (2007, 134, 156, 158). But this adaptation does not only occur on the level of concepts; it also happens on the level of images. These images involve Orientalist resonances that Grace does not address, and the critics who do address such Orientalism view it as mutually exclusive with a serious commitment to Buddhism. My reading of Some of the Dharma explores how Kerouac appeals to abstract but salutary philosophy and concrete but stereotyped images at the same time.
Some of the Dharma develops Kerouac's conflicted commitment to spreading Buddhism in the United States. Even though the text reads much like a freewheeling private journal, it is an essentially missionary work Kerouac intended to publish, although this did not happen until nearly thirty years after his death. Kerouac is convinced that Buddhist nonattachment and nonself are crucial antidotes to American consumerism and technocracy. Kerouac laments, "In America only the silent Buddhahood may be possible... the clinging here is so intense and widespread (democracy) the populace is literally unteachable and sees not life as sorrow" (1997, 61). Thus the very reason that America needs Buddhism is also the reason it is difficult to establish.
Therefore, Kerouac's efforts at cross-cultural adaptation remain fundamentally conflicted throughout the text. Kerouac cannot decide how compatible American and Western culture are with Buddhism, and he reads Buddhism both into and against Western traditions. Kerouac regards "even great thinkers" in the West as "ignorant compared" to Asian sages who "understand everything" (1997, 288). He wants to write "AN AMERICAN DHARMA" that contrasts from the Western literature of "Proust, Emily Dickinson, Joyce, etc." (255). Accordingly, Kerouac dismisses Shakespeare's poetic brilliance as "just a shining technique in the darkness, and goes out" (103). But later, Kerouac cites Shakespeare's phrase "waste of shame" as a gloss on Buddhist understandings of the dangers of sexuality (239), and he likens Buddhist concepts of emptiness to "the first pages of Dostoevsky's 'Eternal Husband'" (117). While these links are provocative, Kerouac does not present a fully formed idea about how to synthesize the sacred East and the profane West, a problem deepened by Kerouac's nostalgia for a mystic Orient of the past.
This longing expresses itself as a fantasy of geographical transposition. Kerouac, eager to feel "connected with Asia" (1997, 278), imagines North America as Asia, declaring that "West is East" (319). For instance, Kerouac asserts that "My India / Is right in this house" (78), "Mexico is like old India" (124), and, writing in San Francisco, "It's Saturday morning in China" (241). Encompassing people as well as places, Kerouac imagines "In America, real wandering Taoist bums going around the country," here using "Taoist" as closely aligned with "Buddhist" (115). Rather than considering how Buddhism could change America, and vice versa, these transpositions convey the escapist wish that Buddhist Asia replace America.
To try to bridge this gap, Kerouac envisions distinctive forms Buddhism can take in America, creatively reapplying Eastern terms to Western situations. He encourages hermetic living in vehicles: "Get an old panel truck for $95 and be your own Monastery in it" (1997, 117). With this image, Kerouac innovatively combines tropes of monasticism and the Asian hermetic sage with Beat motifs of motorized road trips. Kerouac also applies the language of Western political activism to the Buddhist path to overcome spiritual blindness by calling upon the reader to "BOYCOTT IGNORANCE" (166). He further recommends explaining Buddhism to Americans by retranslating the Buddhist term "Mind Essence," Dwight Goddard's influential translation of the Sanskrit term tathata (roughly "suchness," or the unelaborated nature of reality) (Goddard 1994, 518-19; Giles 2011, 194), as the "Mind of God" (Kerouac 1997, 198), prioritizing the use of theistic terminology recognizable to Westerners over philosophical accuracy. These efforts at cross-cultural adaptation coexist with lamentations that Americans are unteachable and Western civilization is too spiritually impoverished to understand Buddhism, demonstrating Kerouac's conflicted combination of hope for and frustration with American Buddhism.
In the midst of this tension, Kerouac struggles with whether to abandon literature as a self-aggrandizing, worldly fetter or to embrace it as a skillful means of teaching others. As other readers have observed, Kerouac wants to spread Buddhism through his writing, but also develops hubris from imagining this missionary role (Grace 2007, 150-51; Smithers 1998). Kerouac is ambivalently aware that he is "using Buddhist images for [my] own advantage, instead of for spreading the Law" (1997, 169). Although he aspires to be "THE WRITING BUDDHA" (312), Kerouac "realized I should perhaps not write a Buddhist novel for fear it will re-attach me to self-attainment" (188). This ambivalence makes it difficult for Kerouac to decide whether to continue writing at all (159, 310), and if so, what Buddhist literary projects he should take up. Kerouac imagines "BUDDHIST MOVIES" and "BUDDHIST STORIES" as effective teaching tools for Westerners (199), and also considers writing a "Historical Novel of Buddhist India" (304). Kerouac's sense of conflict is productive, spurring him to develop new ideas continuously.
Rather than write Buddhist movies, short stories, or a novel of ancient India, Kerouac decided to write The Dharma Bums, which is closely based on his own life during 1955-56 (Miles 1982, 95). The Dharma Bums attempts to harmonize Kerouac's conflicted Buddhist literary aspirations by dramatizing Buddhist content in an American-set prose narrative. It is Kerouac's most detailed vision of what American Buddhism could look like, and his most famous and influential contribution to American Buddhism. It is true, as critics have held, that Kerouac's avatar, Ray Smith, and Snyder's fictionalization, Japhy Ryder, distort Buddhist teaching and indulge in Asian stereotypes. But Ray's failings are not simply Kerouac's; they are conscious exhibitions of the problems of Orientalism that impede Ray's spiritual progress. The Dharma Bums contains a sincere hope for cross-cultural synthesis that it cannot fully envision.
The Dharma Bums is the first novel set in America with a Buddhist protagonist. Ray seeks to adopt the altruistic motivation of a Mahayana Bodhisattva, one who delays entry into nirvana in order to teach other beings the path of liberation from cyclic existence (Smith 1991, 124). The reader encounters many of the leading lights of Beat Buddhism in fictional form. In addition to Kerouac as Ray Smith and Snyder as Japhy Ryder, readers will also recognize Allen Ginsberg in Alvah Goldbrook, among other playfully transparent references. The novel exemplifies Beat Buddhism by linking Asian religion to countercultural critiques of capitalist consumerism. This move is evident in the novel's title, which connects Westerners who adopt bohemian lifestyles--"bums"--to Buddhism--"Dharma." For Japhy, the mythic realm of ancient East Asian Buddhism contrasts from a degenerate modern America. Accordingly, Japhy describes the novel's Beat Buddhists as "Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming" (Kerouac 1958, 73). If one is against American capitalism, then one should be for something as far away from America in both time and space as possible. In order for Buddhism to remain relevant to Ray's counterculture, Eastern religions must remain exotic relative to mainstream culture. This is a tension in Beat Buddhism that later writers attempt to resolve and that Kerouac seriously wrestles with.
Ray and Japhy cultivate a version of Beat Buddhism that valorizes ancient role models for contemporary rebellion. They discuss Japhy's in-progress translations of Han Shan, whom Japhy describes as "a poet, a mountain man, a Buddhist... who could take off by himself" (Kerouac 1958, 22). Even though Ray (and Kerouac) turn askance at Zen in favor of a more eclectic Mahayana Buddhism (Giles 2011, 180, 203n6), Ray speaks affectionately of the "Zen lunatics of China and Japan" and listens to Japhy Ryder tell "anecdotes about the Zen lunatics of the Orient" (6, 11). This description exoticizes Buddhism because the content of this Zen lunacy is not clear at first apart from Ray's repeated emphasis that the "Zen lunatics" are Oriental.
This Orientalist Zen lunacy turns out to be, for Ray and Japhy, a way of rediscovering American freedom. Alvah Goldbrook calls Japhy "a great new hero of American culture" even though Japhy "didn't feel that I was an American at all" because "nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom" (Kerouac 1958, 22-23). Buddhism, with its perceived lack of repression, is an antidote to America's "general dreary newspaper gray censorship of all our real human values" (22). Japhy's Buddhism models an exotic freedom of spontaneous action that is truer to the American revolutionary spirit than the conformity into which American "freedom" has deteriorated.
Ray and Japhy's stereotyping gives credence to Alan Watts' complaints against "Beat Zen." The novel often presents Beat Buddhism with too much of a point to prove to evoke Buddhist non-attachment effectively. But The Dharma Bums is not merely a symptom of this appropriation; it is a conflicted engagement with it. The novel recognizes the faults of Orientalism even as it acknowledges that exoticism is a large part of what draws many Americans to Buddhism. More broadly, the novel expresses the vague hope that Buddhist ideals can spread across America and transform US individualism into enlightened wisdom. But Ray cannot envision how American society at large could integrate Buddhist teachings. Instead, he nurtures the escapist fantasy that an ancient Buddhist paradise would replace contemporary America altogether, a vision begun in Some of the Dharma.
Japhy's cultural openness arouses Ray's admiration, but the novel does not wholly endorse it. This fact represents the ambivalence of Beat Buddhism as it struggles to integrate that which it reveres. Japhy says, "East'll meet West anyway. Think what a great world revolution will take place when East meets West finally, and it'll be guys like us that can start the thing" (Kerouac 1958, 155). For Japhy, the Westernization of Asia is one side of a growing, positive exchange between two hemispheres. He has a "vision of a great rucksack revolution 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" (73-74). Japhy eagerly hopes for reviving America with Buddhism: "just think how truly great and wise America will be, with all this energy and exuberance and space focused into the Dharma" (74). Ray is not on board with this social vision, reflecting that he "didn't want to have anything to do... with Japhy's ideas about society" (80), but he admires the optimism in Japhy, whom he memorializes as "the number one Dharma Bum of them all" (5).
Ironically, Ray is too tied to a rarefied exotic vision of Buddhism to experience a Buddhist transcendence of all conditions. He tries and fails to transcend his Beat Buddhism as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak, where he lives alone for two months. Peering out from his secluded cabin, Ray muses, "the clouds were distant and frilly and like ancient remote cities of Buddhaland splendor" (Kerouac 1958, 180). Ray directly compares his surroundings to a Buddhist pure land, a heavenly realm in Mahayana Buddhism. The implicitly Asian "ancient remote cities" exist in a celestial "Buddhaland," which replaces Desolation Peak. In this vision, the exotic is heavenly.
This spatial imaginary also includes a spiritual description of Japhy:
I saw that unimaginable little Chinese bum standing there, in the fog, with that expressionless humor on his seamed face. It wasn't the real-life Japhy of rucksacks and Buddhism studies and big mad parties at Corte Madera, it was the realer-than-life Japhy of my dreams, and he stood there saying nothing. "Go away, thieves of the mind!" he cried down the hollows of the unbelievable Cascades. (Kerouac 1958, 186)
Here, Japhy appears as unequivocally Chinese, but also takes on a mythic dimension. Ray's description is saturated with paradoxes. Japhy is both clearly visible and "unimaginable." His face shows "humor" yet is "expressionless." The Japhy of his dreams is "realer-than-life." He is silent, "saying nothing," yet he shouts. These paradoxes show that Ray thinks in terms of Zen koans, unanswerable riddles that are designed to propel the mind beyond conventional, intellectual thought (Smith 1991, 133-36). This moment illustrates how much Japhy has taught him. Earlier, when mountain climbing with Japhy, Ray is not yet comfortable with koans: "with horror I remembered the famous Zen saying, 'when you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing'" (Kerouac 1958, 63). At the time, Ray takes Japhy's remark too literally; but when Ray sees dream-Japhy on Desolation Peak, he has learned how to let koans work on his mind without intellectual resistance. This is the moment at which Ray is supposedly enlightened (Miles 1982, 103), and the stylistic imitation of Zen koans is impressive evidence in Ray's favor.
But Ray's vision is still shaped by Orientalism, and as a result, his realization is limited to specific conditions. Although Ray feels exalted in the moment, he also remains bound to concerns of time and space, and he feels the "sadness of coming back to cities" (Kerouac 1958, 186). It may seem as though Ray is tranquil when he "turned and went on down the trail back to this world" (187). But given Ray's apprehension about his return--and the opening retrospective in which Ray admits to having become "a little tired and cynical" (2)--we know that going back to the world means going back to more problems. If Ray were really enlightened, he would not feel sad at the prospect of reentering cities, given the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of the nondifferentiation of samsara and nirvana (Faure 1998, 39-40). True enlightenment would be impervious to circumstance. But by fixating on an image of exotic Asia, Ray is not using the relative truth of appearances to guide himself toward the ultimate truth of emptiness. Instead, he mistakes relative truth for ultimate truth. Ray's realizations do not transcend changing conditions because of his attachment to Orientalist fantasies.
Kerouac's Buddhism was a bright flame that burned out quickly; he did not live long enough to reflect on his Buddhist period at a great distance of years. But it has much to teach us about American receptions of Buddhism. The cultural associations Buddhism carries have made Orientalism an unavoidable aspect of Buddhism's growth in the United States. In this context, The Dharma Bums does not portray a successful fusion of East and West, but it sympathetically dramatizes the obstacles to such harmonization. As a groundbreaking work of American Buddhist fiction, The Dharma Bums juxtaposes the appeal of Buddhist transcendence with the risks of cross-cultural appropriation. Kerouac's portrayal is largely aware of Beat Buddhism's limitations. The novel's unfulfilled hope remains influential in later generations, as writers continue to wrestle with how to go beyond admiring Buddhism to being truly changed by it. As it evolves, this search leads to new ideas of what it means to be an American and what goals Americans should pursue.
Kerouac directly influenced a prolific but overlooked contributor to Beat Buddhism--Tom Robbins. Because he did not travel in Beat circles at the Generation's peak, and his first novel did not appear until 1971, Robbins is not considered a Beat writer, even though he is only two years younger than Gary Snyder and befriended Allen Ginsberg in the 1960s (Robbins 2014, 222-24). But Robbins (b. 1932) deserves attention for extending Beat themes and motifs well beyond the Beat--and hippie--periods, especially through his investments in Beat Buddhism. A recent collection of interviews calls Robbins "the principal voice of American countercultural fiction" (Purdon and Torrey, back cover), an alignment Robbins inched toward early in life. Robbins' experiences hitchhiking around the country and taking LSD are typical of Beats and hippies, respectively (Purdon and Torrey 2011, xxi; Rentilly 2011, 125-26; Miller 2011, 154). Robbins also lived in Korea and Japan as a weather observation instructor for the Air Force, where he developed an interest in Asian religions; upon his return, he took master's coursework in Eastern religions (Purdon and Torrey 2011, xxiii). Robbins has not done extensive, rigorous meditation training; his study of Asian religions and travels throughout Asia indicate a level of involvement with Buddhism that is greater than Kerouac's and less than Snyder's.
In spite of his wide readership and skillful artistry, Robbins has received very little critical attention. Except for a handful of articles and one critical book in a series on "popular writers" (Hoyser and Stokey), most publications about Robbins are interviews. However, Robbins is an important artist thoughtfully engaged with what it means for Asian religions to become popular in the United States. References to Eastern religion can be found in all eight of his novels, and it is a particularly conspicuous theme in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1977) and Villa Incognito (2003). I will show how these novels indicate Robbins' movement toward greater receptivity to Western practitioners of Asian religions, and touch on how he further refines his thoughts in his recent memoir Tibetan Peach Pie (2014). Robbins' vision lies in between Snyder's one of union and Kerouac's one of incommensurability. Robbins' early work combines a fascination with Eastern religions with a skepticism toward all Western attempts to practice them, suggesting that cultural--and, troublingly, racial--differences prevent Westerners from doing anything other than merely appropriating Buddhism and Hinduism. Robbins' later work signals a progressively greater openness to cross-cultural adaptation and a hope that Eastern ideals can revive American freedom, although he still retains a strong touch of humility about Westerners' ability to understand Asian faiths such as Buddhism.
Robbins achieved literary success during the 1970s when the countercultures with which he identified were fading. During this time, as R. John Williams explains, many texts engaged in "post-countercultural" reflection on the supposed excesses of the 1960s (2011, 18-19). Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a noteworthy reflection on this situation. The novel admonishes its readers of the risks of adapting foreign religions, but further develops Beat Buddhism's hope that Buddhism can renew and transform American freedom. Cowgirls' spiritual vision directly engages with Kerouac. Like The Dharma Bums, Cowgirls is a road novel with a strong debt to Asian mysticism. The novel attempts to carry on Beat Buddhism's zeal for subversion and enlightenment while envisioning a more complete cross-cultural synthesis than what The Dharma Bums presents. Its heroine, Sissy Hankshaw, is the greatest hitchhiker in the world due to her exceptionally large thumbs. This fact makes Jack Kerouac, whom Robbins fancifully imagines as having briefly dated Sissy, deeply envious (Robbins 1977, 47). Also, throughout her travels, the "rucksack" Sissy wears alludes to the "rucksack revolution" Japhy prophesies in The Dharma Bums (170; Kerouac 1958, 351).
Sissy's better hitchhiking reflects her better insight as well. She improves upon Ray Smith's Beat Buddhism by pursuing spiritual liberation without resorting to Asiatic fantasies. Paradoxically, the novel promotes the transmission of Buddhist (and Hindu) teachings even as it admonishes Westerners against believing they can understand and practice a religion from a distant culture. This allows Robbins' Beat Buddhism to be more sensitive and informed than Kerouac's while maintaining more cultural distance than Snyder's. Robbins shares Kerouac's and Snyder's Beat Buddhist irreverence and commitment to mystical liberation as an alternative to Western consumerism. But whereas early Snyder and Kerouac ambivalently use images of the exotic East as both obstacle and lure, Robbins is especially emphatic about ironizing Orientalist stereotypes, and even slurs, allowing him to form an especially complex and daring synthesis between East and West.
Sissy's main spiritual teacher, the Chink, is a deliberately outrageous caricature of old Asian wise men. For all his wild behavior, his most alarming feature is Robbins' exclusive use of a slur as the character's name. I will not try to argue whether this choice is ethically justified, but it is a deliberate and provocative tactic. The narrative seeks to satirize and defuse the slur's offensiveness through nonemphatic overuse. Furthermore, it draws attention to the indignity of ethnic conflation as well. The Chink is actually Japanese American, and claims that a group of Native Americans misnamed him with the wrong slur (Robbins 1977, 197). The Chink has chosen to riff on his marginal status by ironically reclaiming a label that is doubly offensive both as an insult and a sloppy misidentification.
The Chink's appearance and behavior are almost as extreme as his name. When Sissy first sees him, we learn that his "problem was that he looked like the Little Man who had the Big Answers... He looked as if he had rolled out of a Zen scroll, as if he said 'presto' a lot, knew the meaning of lightning and the origin of dreams. He looked as if he drank dew and fucked snakes. He looked like the cape that rustles on the backstairs of paradise" (Robbins 1977, 163). The Chink is a mysterious guru, but he relishes in sexual libertinism, vulgar speech, and teachings that focus more on appreciating one's present life than dissolving into a property-less transcendence.
These traits make the Chink an exemplar of Tibetan "crazy wisdom," a term profoundly linked to Kerouac's earlier coinage, "Zen lunacy" (1958, 73). The term, coined by the Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche as a translation of the Tibetan term drubnyon, refers to the "disruptive holiness" of eccentric saints. These teachers' outrageous actions--including drunkenness, fornication, and pranks--serve to jolt their students out of conventional dualistic thought. By flouting distinctions between sacred and secular, pure and impure, "crazy wisdom" is supposed to help students realize the innate emptiness of all phenomena (Bell 1998, 59). Echoing the anti-conformism of the Beat and hippie countercultures, Robbins has repeatedly emphasized the influence of crazy wisdom on his fiction (Miller 2011, 151-52), defining it as "the opposite of conventional wisdom. It is wisdom that deliberately swims against the current in order to avoid being swept along in the numbing wake of bourgeois compromise" (Robbins 2005, 180). Although the Chink never uses the term "crazy wisdom," he carries on this tradition of unconventional Asian spiritual teaching. Furthermore, Robbins' crazy wisdom shares the countercultural values of Snyder's and Kerouac's Beat Buddhism, even though Cowgirls makes jokes at Kerouac's expense.
Like The Dharma Bums, Cowgirls showcases a myopic perspective on Asian religions that the novel as a whole calls into question. In The Dharma Bums, Ray fails to practice an Asian religion effectively because he cannot see Buddhism outside of his Orientalism. In Cowgirls, the Chink argues that Westerners cannot practice Eastern religion at all, a claim the novel refutes through Sissy's own spiritual journey. The Chink declares,
Throughout the Western world, I see people huddled around little fires, warming themselves with Buddhism and Taoism and Hinduism and Zen. And that's the most they ever can do with those philosophies. Warm their hands and feet. They can't make full use of Hinduism because they aren't Hindu; they can't really take advantage of the Tao because they aren't Chinese; Zen will abandon them after a while--its fire will go out--because they aren't Japs like me. To turn to Oriental religious philosophies may temporarily illuminate experience for them, but ultimately it's futile, because they're denying their own history, they're lying about their heritage. (Robbins 1977, 230)
When Westerners try to get light, or insight, from Eastern religions (which for him includes Christianity), what meager light they can get from it will only "temporarily illuminate experience." Westerners should instead follow their ancestral pagan lineage: "the United States of America is the logical place for the fires of paganism to be rebuilt--and transformed into light" (Robbins 1977, 234). Not only does this passage react to Asian religions' growing popularity in the United States in the preceding two decades; it also implicitly criticizes Kerouac himself, given his eventual abandonment of Buddhism and his susceptibility to the criticism that his Buddhism is shallow and under- or misinformed. But the Chink troublingly indicates that Kerouac's limitation is not one of understanding, but race. Cross-cultural adaptation is impossible; spiritual seekers should restrict themselves to whatever the religion of their "heritage" happens to be. The Chink's admonition to avoid appropriation ends up positing gaps between cultures so unbridgeable that it starts to sound like racial determinism. In this context, the Chink's self-directed use of the slur "Jap" is especially noteworthy. His casual reappropriation of this slur suggests that he is immune to feeling ashamed by others' racism, reinforcing his teaching that "freedom is... largely an internal condition" (183). Furthermore, the Chink ironically redeploys this racist insult as a marker of superiority, positioning him in a privileged position of authentically understanding Eastern wisdom in ways Europeans cannot.
Yet, against his own words, the Chink transmits Buddhist insight to the Westerner Sissy by inspiring her spiritual awakening. This suggests that Eastern wisdom is available to Westerners after all, as long as they stumble onto it through crazy wisdom rather than seeking it in a doctrinaire system. The Chink helps Sissy realize what she already knows (Robbins 1977, 174), which is that "one can change things by the manner in which one looks at them" (72). The Chink's method resonates with Zen Buddhist pedagogy, which focuses not on believing in propositions but realizing one's innate wisdom (Kapleau 1989, 55). His message also fits the Buddhist notion that external reality is an illusory projection of one's own mind (Seager 1999, 30-31).
The Chink further adopts Zen methods by using koan-like enigmas to teach Sissy, a pedagogy Robbins sees as aligned with crazy wisdom (Robbins 2005, 182, 186). The Chink gives Sissy paradoxical or nonsensical statements that force the mind to abandon familiar logical categories. While not strictly Zen koans, they employ similar tactics of contradiction and surprise. For example, the Chink explains to Sissy that the world needs "magic and poetry" to permeate all levels of society, including stereotypically prosaic enterprises such as politics and journalism (Robbins 1977, 333). When Sissy asks if such a poetic sensibility could ever prevail on a mass scale, the Chink replies, "If you understood poetry and magic, you'd know that it doesn't matter" (333). This statement may seem to be a dangerous retreat from politics, but the Chink does not mean to generalize that one should care about "poetry and magic" and not bother with the world at large. His comment has a more immediate purpose: he tells Sissy what she needs to hear at that exact moment. The Chink's apparent negation mysteriously resolves Sissy's uncertainties. This moment is expressed by the convergence of several events: "The moon rose. / The clockworks struck. / A crane whooped. / She understood" (333). The novel expresses Sissy's new understanding in a seemingly abrupt, non-narrative digression that defines poetry as "an intensification or illumination of common objects and everyday events until they shine with their singular nature" (333). In this Buddhist-inspired epiphany, objects and events, although distinct, occur within a background of transcendent "illumination" that permeates everything. Furthermore, by presenting this realization without direct segues, the novel's form imitates the sudden enlightenment of Asian spiritual practitioners (Cheng 2000, 595-600). Cowgirls seeks to transmit Eastern wisdom in the United States without explicitly calling it as such, thus avoiding Orientalist stereotyping.
The novel further synthesizes Buddhist and American notions of freedom by making Tibet a destination for American whooping cranes. These cranes symbolize courageous, individualistic American freedom, an ideal the novel both values and complicates. Earlier, the narrator emphasizes that the cranes evolved in North America and are paragons of "majestic beauty" that habitat loss has driven to the edge of extinction (Robbins 1977, 251-52). The narrator rhapsodizes, "Unlike those integrity-short teemers, including man, the whooper opted for quality instead of quantity.... It would survive on its own terms or not at all" (252). Near the novel's end, the cranes change their migratory pattern and leave the country altogether. Observing this journey, the narrator rhetorically asks, "Is the most splendid and sizable American bird searching for a new home, scouring the globe in quest of a place where it can be private and free?" (360). The novel thus underscores the birds' Americanness by emphasizing privacy and freedom.
Although the novel positions these birds as quintessentially American, their quest for life, liberty, and the pursuit of whooping crane happiness ironically leads them out of the United States into Tibet (Robbins 1977, 360). Robbins uses animal symbolism to place American values in the service of an Eastern vision. Rather than rejecting American individualism altogether, the novel suggests that the American aspiration for individual freedom is most fully realized in Buddhist-inspired teachings. In this view, the Buddhist freedom of spiritual liberation is more profound than the, for Robbins, debased version of American freedom responsible for an "industrialized, urbanized, herding" society that the narrator identifies as the "one wrong way" to live (192). By imagining Tibet as the whooping cranes' best new home, the novel nudges its American readers toward Buddhist wisdom as well. This move seeks to integrate Buddhist liberation into American life in a way that Kerouac hoped for but failed to envision. It also celebrates its particular sense of freedom as American more explicitly than Snyder's work does.
Robbins evolves his hopes for Eastern inspiration in America in Villa Incognito, which shows an increased, but still qualified, openness to Caucasians practicing Eastern religions. Whereas Cowgirls highlights an Asian guru who settles in the United States, Villa Incognito portrays an American-born guru who settles in Asia. Mars Stubblefield, a former US soldier lost while helicoptering over Laos in 1973, is declared missing in action and presumed dead, but survives the crash and settles in a remote village in Laos, choosing to remain there even after the Vietnam War ends. Although technically a prisoner at first, he quickly charms his way into a position of prominence as a local spiritual authority, combining his Western philosophical training with his accumulation of experiences with local Buddhism and shamanism. Like the Chink, he is unkempt, sexually promiscuous, intellectually independent, given to didactic speeches, and self-deprecating.
Ironically, Stubblefield remains invested in American ideals even though he chooses to live in permanent exile (Robbins 2003, 142-43). His frayed relationship to his home country is tied to his history of insubordination and anti-war sentiment, even intentionally botching missions to avoid "inflicting collateral damage" (119-20). Nevertheless, Stubblefield's conflicted experiences as a soldier have led him not to reject American freedom as a ruse, but to critique contemporary American politics as a corruption of worthy ideals. At one point, he muses, "what bouncy, enterprising weirdness is leaking out around the edges of [America's] disguise? That's the real America. That's what justifies its existence" (114). The novel leaves the question open. But the question's prominence suggests that the American "enterprising" spirit can find its justification in "bouncy, enterprising weirdness," the freedom of joyful, disruptive spontaneity that carries on the "crazy wisdom" discussed above. America has a "disguise" of bourgeois conformity, but a "real" American spirit can be revealed underneath this superficial layer. Crucially, Stubblefield's notions of what it means to be American arise because of his spiritual development in Asia.
Furthermore, Stubblefield's crazy wisdom relies on tropes from the Beat generation. He describes the soul as "a long, lonesome freight train rumbling from generation to generation on an eternally rainy morning: its boxcars are loaded with sighs and laughter, its hobos are angels, its engineer is the queen of spades--and the queen of spades is wild" (Robbins 2003, 78). This passage is steeped in Beat imagery, style, and themes, including a focus on boxcars, a Kerouac-like freewheeling and run-on syntax, and a veneration of the derelict. Here, the word "generation" invokes both the Beats and the Eastern doctrine of reincarnation. Stubblefield is also self-deprecating, saying that the speech he just gave "might be high wisdom, it could be pure bullshit" (79).
The fact that Stubblefield is a white European demonstrates that one does not have to be Asian to gain crazy wisdom. But Stubblefield must settle in Asia to do this, suggesting that what matters is not ancestry, but immersion in a particular culture. One must live where a religion has become indigenous to realize its wisdom. It is troublingly ironic that a necessary precondition for this immersion, in Stubblefield's case, is the gruesome escalation of the Vietnam War. But Stubblefield distances himself from the war to the extent that he can and embodies a cross-cultural intersection that suggests new relationships between Americans and Asian religions. In the novel's opening part, which takes place in late nineteenth-century Japan, a Zen monk says that "The blue-eyed ones can attain neither wisdom nor tranquility... because they're too busy clapping their hands in glee over the suffering of the damned" (Robbins 2003, 20). Generations later, Stubblefield's example refutes this overgeneralization. But the "blue-eyed ones" must leave Western territory to overcome their ethnic disadvantage, as Stubblefield does.
The views of cross-cultural adaptation in Villa Incognito gain additional development in Robbins' more recent writings and interviews. In a 2009 interview, Robbins echoes the Chink's hope for a pagan "revival of mystical nature worship" in the United States (Miller 2011, 154). But he does not repeat the Chink's insistence that Westerners take a spiritual detour around Asian religions altogether. Instead, his caution is more understated; Robbins says that "Americans may hold Buddhist ideals in our hearts and minds, but they're not yet in our genes" (Miller 2011, 154). In an apparent continuation of the racial-religious boundaries the Chink posits in Cowgirls, Robbins implies that one must have a particular religion in one's "genes" to practice it effectively. But by saying that Buddhist teachings are "not yet in our genes" (emphasis added), he suggests that Buddhism can work its way into Westerners' genes with enough time and, presumably, practice. With these remarks, Robbins' post-Cowgirls perspective moves closer to Japhy Ryder's vision that "East'll meet West" after all (Kerouac 1958, 430).
However, Robbins also thinks that the United States is not yet a suitable place for realizing Eastern wisdom, establishing something of a spiritual catch-twenty-two. In his recent autobiographical book Tibetan Peach Pie, Robbins reports an experience of satori, or Zen insight, in 1966 in which he "was witness to an indissolvable totality of reality" (2014, 89). What is especially interesting is how Robbins assesses the aftermath:
Had I been Asian and of a certain temperament, I suppose I would have repaired to a Zendo, an ashram, or a wilderness cave to meditate on my neon golfball satori for the rest of my life, striving to integrate it somehow into my daily existence. Instead, although shaken, galvanized, and fairly splish-splashing in a fading aura of awe, I just motored on through the subsiding snow squall and went to a Hollywood movie. (Robbins 2014, 89-90)
In this account, Asians have culturally supported opportunities to develop spiritually that Westerners such as Robbins lack. Of course there are far more retreat centers in the United States now than there were in 1966. But Robbins, writing about this memory in the present day, gives no indication that he thinks the cultural gap he posits has disappeared. He also opines that the risk of culturally shaped misinterpretations is so great that "Asian spiritual texts were probably best left to spiritual Asians" (2014, 215). However, one does not necessarily have to be an ethnic Asian to be a "spiritual [Asian]," so Robbins subtly leaves a door open. While Robbins envisions a fuller synthesis than Kerouac does, he gives more weight to the persistence of cultural difference than Snyder does.
The authors I have discussed indicate the variety of visions within Beat Buddhism. But while they differ in how fully they venture to do so, Snyder, Kerouac, and Robbins are similarly devoted to synthesizing Buddhist and American notions of freedom through creative cross-cultural adaptation. Beat Buddhism's images of a far-off Asia have complex implications for cultural difference within the United States as well. While a fuller treatment is not possible here, it is worth gesturing in closing toward significant intersections between Beat Buddhism and Asian American literature, both to illustrate Beat Buddhism's lasting influence and to suggest horizons for further study.
Writing about this connection, Josephine Park argues that "Though minority poets fought cultural appropriation, they appreciated the creation of the counterculture.... Activist Asian American poets redeployed the terms of Beat enlightenment in order to usher their own culture into existence" (2008, 106, 121). Park's point focuses on the Asian American movement of the late 1960s and 1970s that made "Asian American" into a recognizable identity category. But my reading of Beat Buddhism suggests a relevance to more recent Asian American literature as well, even after the unifying impetus of the Asian American movement has given way to a greater attention to multiplicity and inclusion (Zhou 2005, 3).
The work of Maxine Hong Kingston provides an especially provocative case in point. Kingston's interest in Buddhism did not come from her culturally Chinese American upbringing, but from Beat writers (Whalen-Bridge 2009, 178). In 2009, Kingston said that "what really got me was reading the Beats. Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. It just seemed like so much fun to be a Buddhist. Be a dharma bum!" (Carolan 2009). Kingston's work is a noteworthy instance of Beat literature remediating Buddhism to a prominent writer of Asian descent. Given this, it would seem worthwhile to examine Beat Buddhism's role in her writing. But while scholars have discussed Kingston's Beat influences, particularly in her 1989 novel Tripmaster Monkey (Arthur 2013; Park 2008, 122-125), their analyses have not dealt with Buddhism. Set in late 1960s San Francisco, Tripmaster's protagonist Wittman Ah Sing, a fifth-generation Chinese American hippie, resents Kerouac's stereotype of "little twinkling Chinese" (Kingston 1989, 69-70), but under Kerouac's influence also recognizes everyday people as "bodhisattvas... like in The Dharma Bums" (235). Buddhism's significance to Wittman grows in Tripmaster's sequel, The Fifth Book of Peace, in which he has an epiphany in a roomful of Buddha statues that leads him to become more compassionate and service-oriented (Kingston 2003, 191-92). Dovetailing Wittman's Beat-influenced interest in Buddhism, Peace later shifts its focus to Kingston's real-life application of Buddhist meditation techniques to writing workshops for Vietnam Veterans. In an innovative synthesis of Buddhist and American freedom, Kingston provocatively posits that the five main precepts of Buddhist conduct are resonant with the US Constitution: "the Precepts are not too different from the Bill of Rights.... [The Amendments] are our American precepts" (336, 384). Beat irreverence is absent here, but the lineage of Beat influence is clearly present.
Beat Buddhism's direct impact on Asian American literature appears not only in Kingston's work, but also in writers such as Lawrence Fusao Inada and Albert Saijo. In other cases the influence is indirect: writers including Marilyn Chin, Ruth Ozeki, and Russell Leong do not reference specific Beat writers or tropes, but their Buddhist content presupposes a readership whose receptivity to Buddhist ideas and images has been at least partially shaped by Beat Buddhism. This trend does not mean that Beat Buddhism is never Orientalist, but it does indicate a way in which Beat Buddhism has succeeded on its own terms. The project of harmonizing Beat Buddhism and American freedom continues, not only among the mostly white, male Beat writers who romanticize marginality, but among minority writers who seek to overcome marginal status. The complexity of Beat Buddhism has been fruitful for American literature and culture. This rich area of study shows how cross-cultural adaptations cause notions of American freedom to evolve, compete, and coexist.
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KYLE GARTON-GUNDLING is a Lecturer of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research has appeared in The Journal of Transnational American Studies, and he is working on a book tentatively titled Enlightened Individualism: Buddhism and Hinduism in American Literature from the Beats to the Present.
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