It was my destiny to join in a great experience. Our goal was not only the East, or rather the East was not only a country and something geographical, but it was the home and youth of the soul, it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times.
— Herman Hesse, A Journey to the East
How did I get into this world of Buddha dharma? Why was I called to the meditation cushion? Why would a Jewish boy from Nebraska travel to the other side of the planet to study a philosophy and discipline so alien to his own culture? Sometimes it seems marvelously incongruous that I would become a follower of the Buddha’s path, and then at other times it doesn’t seem so strange at all. Especially when I remember that this is the twentieth century and the world has shrunken down to a single marketplace, and this is America where all trade routes converge and merge. I was born into a time and place that offered me a choice of all the world’s mythologies, philosophies and spiritual practices. So why wouldn’t I choose the very best?
The theme of this Inquiring Mind on “Passing Around the Dharma” led me to think back on the influences that pointed me toward this path. Of course, each of us has our own personal history of suffering that moves us to seek the end of that suffering, and I have my own sad tales that I won’t bore you with here. On another level, it is impossible to know for sure why any particular person seeks liberation or pursues the perennial wisdom. It might be the result of past lives and old karma, or possibly genetic quirks or even subatomic quarks. Eastern sages would have a different explanation from modern physicists, and psychologists and historians would have another story altogether. My interest here is in the more obvious cultural influences that seem to have pulled me far from my beginnings all the way across the earth and back through the centuries, into the lap of the Buddha.
My experience with various Western psychological therapies and my long romance with existentialism were perhaps the two most important occidental way stations on my cultural journey to the East. But the first time I ever heard about actual Zen masters and koans, mantras and tantras, or the exciting possibilities of nirvana, satori or moksha, was from the writings of my elder brothers and sisters in the dharma, the beatniks.
—Jack Kerouac, The Last Word
I attribute several degrees of my turn Eastward to my proud membership in the subcultures of mid-century America: the beatniks and the hippies. The mainstream society viewed both of these subcultures as little more than outbreaks of juvenile delinquency, and to this day it has not been understood that both the beatniks and the hippies were essentially spiritual seekers. Of course many people joined in these movements just for the kicks, but the artists, writers and adventurers who defined the beat and hippie sensibilities were basically looking for metaphysical sanity. The two subcultures adopted very different styles, each fitting the mood of their times, but whether it was “real gone” or “far out,” whether it was “happenings” or “human be-ins,” the beatniks and the hippies were both attempting to stage a spiritual revival.
If you were listening for the sound of a different drummer in the America of the ’50s, chances are you heard a bongo drum being played in some beat pad in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village or San Francisco’s North Beach. The beatniks were born in reaction to the conformity and consumer frenzy of the postwar era, and were, as Allen Ginsberg once told me, “beatifically beat down.” They were spiritual outcasts, hiding in cellars and basements from the harsh light of American optimism and the forward rush of progress. The beat malaise was evident from their choice of clothing: black sweaters, old denim, dark sunglasses. They removed themselves from their culture through the attitude of detachment. They believed in being “cool.”
The beats and hippies both turned to the Far East for metaphysical sustenance, but they chose two different Asian styles. The beatniks were drawn to Zen, which was hidden and mysterious like themselves. There was an edge of irony and a nihilistic tone in Zen that suited the beat generation perfectly. As poets, the beatniks were also fascinated by Zen’s mind-twisting koans and the haikus of sudden epiphany.
The beatniks found a kindred ideal in the detachment of Zen, and may have come to understand it as simply a more conscious and purposeful form of being “cool.” And a more radical one. Zen detachment was “cosmic cool.” It was cool in the face of all life’s changes, even death. I mean, like the living end! Can you dig it?
The writing and antics of the beats helped to crack open the spiritual shell of America, and by the mid-l960s the hippies emerged, bringing the fast growing subculture out into the light of day. As America became the most affluent and powerful nation in the world, many of the children who were about to inherit the American dream suddenly decided to turn it down. They chose to become mystics and rebels, or “anything you wanted to be in this lifetime.” No more dressing in black and hiding in basements and being so cool that no one knew you existed. The hippies didn’t want cool, man, they wanted hot. The old beat poets had listened to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and snapped their fingers, but the hippies plugged themselves into electric rock and roll and began dancing ecstatically. The hippies were “takin’ it to the streets” and “letting it all hang out.”
The spiritual revolution will be manifest and proven. In unity we shall shower the country with waves of ecstasy and purification. Fear will be washed away; ignorance will be exposed to sunlight; profits and empire will lie drying on deserted beaches . . .
—The San Francisco Oracle, l967, promoting the first Human Be-In, the great ingathering of the hippie tribes.
As outsiders we don’t really choose a subculture. The style our alienation takes is simply a matter of timing, or if you will, karma. In my case, I went to San Francisco in order to be a beatnik but I was too late, so I was assigned to the hippies. This may have been fortuitous in my turning to the East, because it was customary that shortly after becoming a hippie you were offered a mystical experience—a dose of the perennial wisdom soaked onto a paper blotter or a cube of sugar. I suspect that even without LSD and the hippies, I would have eventually made my way to Asia, but chances are I would have ended up in Japan instead of India.
While the beats had tuned in to Zen and the sparse Japanese aesthetic, the hippies turned on to the hot Indian-Hindu style, which fit their mood of exuberance. The Hindus lent the hippies their flowing, multi-colored cloth, the madras and tie-dye and mirrored garments, the intricate mandalas, the fantastic deities, and most of all, the ideal of joyous mystical union with the cosmic Oneness.
The differences between the beatniks and hippies had a lot to do with their choice of drugs. Marijuana and speed were the turn-on drugs of the beatniks, with ever-present alcohol as the antidote to the manic state. In contrast, the hippies did not drink much. Their journeys were ever upward, as high as you could go, as “far out” as you could get. Like the beatniks, the hippies smoked a lot of marijuana, but that high was still ordinary reality compared to the world opened up by LSD. What made the hippie into a new breed of rebel, and what helped to turn an entire generation far, far Eastward, was the chemical substance d-lysergic acid diethylamide. The Sacrament of the Sixties.
LSD blasted open the minds of young Americans, beyond where any psychologist could go. Although some people had a very difficult time with the drug and saw darkness and terror everywhere, for many LSD helped to explode the fictions of ego and separation that seem to engulf humanity. And although most of us were unable to integrate those LSD experiences into the rest of our lives, we had still seen a different reality, and the most common theme of that reality was that all things are One and that Love is the answer. Both those things are still true, at least as far as I can tell.
The experimentation with LSD was accompanied by the recognition, especially on the part of the various high priests of the movement, that visionary drug experiences were best substantiated or explained by certain Eastern spiritual texts. Timothy Leary and his collegues began advising the use of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Tao Te Ching as guides during LSD sessions. Many of us believed that what was happening on LSD was not just hallucinatory play, but the absolute truth of a mystical experience of the universe.
One popular myth about LSD was the line, “You never come down all the way,” which implied that you could always keep some of the LSD insights with you. But the real hope—most of us being spiritual materialists of the first order—was that if you continued to get high on LSD you might eventually reach a permanent state of bliss: nirvana. For most of us, however, after a few trips, or a few hundred, the effect of LSD started to wear off, and even became wearying. The cosmic light show began to lose its luster, and we started coming down, further and harder. Eventually, a lot of hippies and acidheads decided to go to Asia and search for another way to get high.
Be here now.
From Be Here Now by Ram Dass.
At the top of my list of guides to the East, I would place a trinity: Alan Watts, Gary Snyder and Ram Dass. These three were my personal Bodhidharmas and Padmasambhavas. And right next to them, chanting “Om Shalom,” I would place Allen Ginsberg, the Jewish Milarepa.
Alan Watts was a British intellectual with a hipster’s spirit, and in my opinion, he is still the best theoretical interlocutor between East and West. In his writings and lectures, which gained great popularity in the 1960s, Watts would poke fun at Western beliefs and institutions, and then offer the wisdom of the East to us young seekers as an antidote to the failings of our own culture. Watts’s interpretations of Hinduism, Taoism and especially Zen Buddhism revealed a metaphysics that suited our existentialist needs and fit our scientific understanding of the universe. He made the Oriental spiritual practices seem both exotic and accessible to us at the same time. Watts’s books The Way of Zen and Psychology: East and West are both watershed works, and Nature, Man and Woman is a brilliant statement of deep ecology, long before anyone had even coined the term.
After the publication of The Way of Zen in 1957, Watts became somewhat of a star on college campuses and in bohemian circles. I remember hearing him lecture at the University of Minnesota in about 1965. The auditorium was full of members of the burgeoning counterculture, and Watts offered a brilliant combination of dharma talk and stand-up comedy routine. It was the first time I ever saw balloons batted through an audience—a practice that became commonplace a few years later—and I will never forget coming out of the auditorium that night feeling as though I could, and would, look into this Eastern meditation game.
I first met Gary Snyder in the pages of Jack Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums, as the character Jaffy Ryder. In real life, as in the book, Snyder was one of the few in the beat scene who took meditation seriously, and he continually tried to teach his wild poet friends how to practice. I also admire the fact that in the middle of the great beatnik hoopla Snyder chose to disappear to Japan for many years to study Zen.
I feel especially indebted to Snyder for his excellent early translations of the poetry of Cold Mountain (Han Shan), which first introduced many of us to the crazy wisdom tradition of the Zen poets of China and Japan. This was an important piece of the Eastern puzzle, demonstrating to us spiritually ambitious Westerners that there are many paths up the mountain, and it’s okay to stop and hang out at the tea shop on your way, to share a little poetry, wine and laughter with friends.
In 1969, Snyder published a collection of his writings in a book called Earth House Hold, which was subtitled “Technical Notes and Queries to Fellow Dharma Revolutionaries.” In this work Snyder managed to forge a sort of American middle path, speaking to those in the counter culture who were spiritual seekers as well as political activists. In a brilliant synthesis of his own interests, Snyder brought together Native American and Asian cosmic perspectives, nature-ecological wisdom, and common sense political values. He wrote to his fellow travelers on the path, “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both.” Snyder’s voice continues to grow more prophetic and valuable as the years go by.
The last of my three guides to the East was Ram Dass, who as Richard Alpert became somewhat famous as one of the gurus of LSD. In 1967, just before the LSD phenomena began spiraling downward, Alpert went off to India to find out if he could get the permanent big bliss promised in the ancient Hindu scriptures. When he came back calling himself Baba Ram Dass and began talking about his wondrous experiences as a disciple of an Indian guru, the die was cast, the link was established, and the East-West bridge was laid. Thousands of hippies immediately took off for the Hindustan.
The story of the young Western seekers traveling through Asia in the late ’60s and ’70s needs to be told in full detail someday. But it was Ram Dass and his book Be Here Now that launched that first great pilgrimage to the East. It would seem that Richard Alpert, being Jewish and a Harvard psychologist, might have been more attracted to cool Zen, but for some reason—maybe it was the LSD—he found his way into Hinduism where the light show was much better. It was in the Hindu tradition that Richard Alpert became Ram Dass, a name given to him by his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, who turned out to be everybody’s Jewish mother, the smiling, chubby guy in the blanket who jump-started the heart of the New Age.
In the twenty-five years I have been part of the American countercultures, Allen Ginsberg has always been at center stage as the East-meets-West master of ceremonies. A seeker of truth and a speaker of truth, Allen has many times raised his indignant Jewish prophet howl against war or the evils of plutonium, or against greed and hatred in general. In between those howls Allen sings crazy wisdom songs about his left-handed tantric sexual practices, sweet melodies for William Blake’s poetry accompanied by a droning harmonium, and passionate hymns to the difficulties and joys of meditation. Allen brought the East into the cultural life of America in many ways, but I will always have an image of him chanting “Om Nama Shivaya” at the First Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, or chanting various other Hindu mantras at one of countless anti-government protests. The East and West come harmoniously together in Allen Ginsburg, the world’s first yiddishe yogi.
Living is easy with eyes closed. . . . nothing is real, nothing to get hung about. . . . Strawberry fields forever
I feel compelled to mention the Beatles as part of the influences that turned me Eastward, or turned Eastward with me. I would guess that the vast majority of Western seekers have at one time or another heard the Fab Four singing inside their meditating heads, “Let it be, let it be-ee….” Or else deep in a retreat, after your heart has been opened up, you suddenly hear, “All you need is love . . . ya da da da dah . . . .” Some meditators might also be familiar with the sonorous voice of George Harrison droning “…it all goes on within you, and without you.” It was the Beatles, way back in 1967, who went off to visit the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India—along with Mia Farrow and Donovan and other celebs—and came back extolling the virtues of mantra practice. One of my favorite pieces of pop art is the cover of a Mad Magazine which shows Alfred E. Newmann dressed up as the Maharishi in robes and a pointy little beard, being held aloft on an Indian carpet by John, Paul, George, Ringo and Mia. In fact, dressing Alfred E. Newmann up as the Maharishi was a very appropriate gesture. If you look closely you’ll find that Alfred E. and the Maharishi have exactly the same smile, and they both teach a similar message. Of course Alfred E. Newmann himself would definitely make my list of dharma ancestors. “What, me worry?” repeated over and over again in the pages of Mad Magazine may have been my very first taste of the perennial wisdom, a long, long time ago.