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Buddhism and the Beats
Buddhism, the ancient and highly philosophical
Asian tradition, was the religion of the Beats. It began to influence
the lives of the major New York Beat writers in the mid-1950's,
when Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg each began
delving into it, unaware at first that the other was doing so
as well. Kerouac and Ginsberg began their studies
by reading books in libraries, but when they migrated to California
they began integrating the religion into their lives, inspired
by Gary Snyder (the Beat
writer most consistently identified with Buddhism) and Kenneth
Buddhism will change the life
of anyone who begins to understand it, and all the works Kerouac wrote after the mid-fifties,
particularly 'The Dharma Bums' and 'Big Sur,' can be interpreted
as Buddhist parables. Ginsberg's
works are no less influenced by Buddhist thought, and the poet
has devoted an enormous amount of his time and energy to Buddhist
causes in the last three decades.
The Life Of Siddhartha Gautama
Prince Siddhartha Gautama was
born in 563 B.C. to a royal family in Benares, India near the
foothills of the Himalayas. The young Prince was raised in a
very unusual way. Before his birth, his parents received a premonition
that their son would either grow to be a great King or renounce
all worldly goods and become an Enlightened One, or Buddha.
Obviously preferring the former, they decided to keep their child
so pampered that he would never have a reason to renounce all
For twenty-nine years the Prince
lived an extraordinarily sheltered life, until he finally wandered
outside the palace grounds and was stunned to see, for the first
time, an old man, a sick man, and a dead man. Inquiring as to
the meaning of what he saw, the naive prince was told that all
men grow old, grow sick and die. Devastated by this realization,
the Prince immediately renounced all worldly goods and left home
to join a band of penitents and self-flagellants who roamed the
countryside begging and inflicting suffering upon themselves
in an effort to gain spiritual enlightenment.
The Prince took his regime of
self-imposed suffering and denial very seriously, only to find
that suffering in itself brings no more enlightenment than pleasure.
He wandered and meditated in confusion, finally placing himself
on the ground under a Bodhi tree where he decided he would remain
until he figured everything out. During a long night he was tormented
by desires as he contemplated what to do with his life: should
he return to the vain pleasures of his earlier years, which he
now understood to be ultimately pointless, or should he continue
to suffer and deny himself pleasures, even though he now realized
that this also brought no meaning into his life?
Suddenly enlightenment came to
the Prince, and at that moment he became the Buddha. Realizing
both the self-destructiveness of those who deny their desires
and the misery of those who follow their desires, the Prince
realized that there is a Middle Path, which is to simply lose
one's desires. That is, an enlightened person should simply exist
without desire. His needs and urges cease to control him, and
he thereby avoids the cycle of indulgence and denial that tortures,
confuses and distracts every living soul.
The Buddha never said that losing
one's desires is easy. He did, however, say that it is
the only path to enlightenment.
Buddha began teaching this doctrine,
which he coded as the Four Noble Truths, briefly:
- All life is suffering
- Suffering is caused by desire
- Suffering can only cease if
- Follow the Eight-Fold Path
- Right view
- Right thought
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right attentiveness
- Right concentration
His teachings gained immense
popularity, and the rest of Buddha's life was spent practicing
and explaining his philosophy. He died at the age of 80.
An important thing to note is
the calmness and peacefulness of Buddha's life story. Unlike
Jesus, he had no significant enemies and lived to a grand old
age. Unlike Moses or Mohammed, he never fought a war or tried
to conquer land.
The Buddhist religion spread
throughout Asia, transforming into many separate branches. A
few important branches are listed below.
Theraveda, or 'original' Buddhism
Some Buddhist cultures have not
deviated from the original focus and methods of the Buddha's
teaching, with their emphasis on personal salvation and enlightenment.
This tradition is known as Theraveda Buddhism. The later
branches are often referred to collectively as Mahayana
Buddhism, although is is more interesting to look at them individually.
Theraveda Buddhism is currently dominant in Sri Lanka and Burma.
The Chinese word Ch'an
is derived from a Sanskrit term meaning 'meditation'. An intensely
meditative form of Buddhism called Ch'an began to develop in
China in the 5th century A.D. It spread to Japan, where it became
known by the Japanese term Zen. Zen Buddhism applies Buddhist
concepts specifically to the mind; the goal is to defeat the
stranglehold that reason exerts on our minds. Just as Buddhism
teaches us to avoid the cycle of pleasure and suffering by not
participating in it, Zen teaches us to avoid the cycle of knowledge
and ignorance in the same way. A Zen Buddhist lets go of traditional,
logical modes of thinking, because just as pleasure ultimately
leads to frustration, logic ultimately leads to confusion. A
Zen Buddhist is beyond either logic or confusion; he exists without
trying to grasp mentally, in a state of simple uninterpreted
The Asian masters who developed
the concepts of Zen Buddhism were about 1300 years ahead of European
thinkers. Existentialists and modern philosophers such as Friedrich
Neitzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein finally developed their own
equivalents of Zen philosophy within the last century and a half.
Tibet is a small, snow-covered
Himalayan country between Nepal and China. Their colorful, physical
and joyful flavor of Buddhism, less philosophical than other
branches, neatly merges ancient native practices with the ascetic
Buddhist tradition. The chief figure in Tibetan Buddhism is the
Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, Tibet was overrun in 1950 by Communist
China, which has been attempting ever since to destroy all traces
of this amazing religion.
Buddhist Web Sites
Note: The links below
open in a new browser window. Just close the window when you're
done to return to this page.
Excerpted From Levi Asher's