Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Carole Tonkinson's "Big Sky Mind": Book Review

"Show me a good Buddhist novelist." So challenges William Burroughs, in italics. In his Retreat Diaries, he prefaces this with a nod to how he uses writing for meditation. However, he distrusts giving up what Buddhism deems "distractions" such as "visions and fireworks" in order to find creativity. "Indeed existence is the cause of suffering and suffering may be good copy." (298)

This tension permeates many within this anthology subtitled "Buddhism and the Beat Generation." The editor conflates the Buddhist transmission with the literary and intellectual impact of the Beats. She argues for a more spiritual appreciation of their cultural mission, and she shows briefly how what had been orally passed along in Asia now started to find Western recipients, eager to learn not from books but each other the dharma. Some poets had stumbled upon the teachings on their own, and were astonished to learn that others had preceded them. Jack Kerouac strutted into a gathering announcing himself a Zen "expert" only to find that all those there knew at least one Asian language.

Tonkinson arranges authors by "The Beats" (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Diane Di Prima, Harold Norse); "The San Francisco Poets'' (Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, Lew Welch among others); "Echoes" (Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Michael McClure); "Like Minds," fellow travelers Kenneth Rexroth and Anne Waldman. Stephen Prothero adds an introductory essay emphasizing how the "middle way" of the Beats, inspired by Transcendentalism a century before, connected the "early era of armchair Buddhism" with the contemporary practice of a formal setting and recognized teacher. As this 1995 collection comes under the aegis of the American Buddhist review Tricycle, it fits into the readership anticipating a sustained presentation of Beats as bhikkus. Examined carefully, hints of complexity emerge to counter the usual pop culture, marketed storyline.

Kerouac's familiar celebration of Japhy's (Snyder) "rucksack revolution" appears from The Dharma Bums. Yet, less famous works do too: he watches a Mexican bullfight as "the bull slid in dust like a dead fly kicked unconsciously." So does his 1960 departure from a Buddhist affiliation via an interview in a "men's magazine" Escapade. Kerouac explains how he could no longer reject the love of women (while the as of 1995 unpublished Some of the Dharma notebooks document his earlier, more fervent stages in exhaustive detail, a facsimile of the notebooks he kept while trying to live like a monk in the world).

Tonkinson does not include those notebooks or Kerouac's life of the Buddha, Wake Up! (Copyright issues may be to blame, as both works appeared only in the next decade.) Still, the editor shows how he and Ginsberg utilized meditation--as would Burroughs in less dogmatically earnest fashion--to inspire insight for prose and verse. Spontaneous writing guides them, and it's not so much writing as reading, Burroughs insists, what has previously been revealed. Ginsberg ties this to the "actual breath" for the line, and this expands for him and the 60's revolutionary stances assumed by Diane Di Prima into a "spiritual poetics," a "disembodied" adaptation of Keats' "negative capability."

Lew Welch tried to follow a hermit's path, taking Kerouac's direction further. He fashioned North American koans. In "He Prepares to Take Leave of His Hut," he ends up with two juxtaposed quotes. "Why should it be so hard to give up something you know you can't possess?" "Who ever said it was easy?" (259) He wound up ending his life.

Gary Snyder sought nature also, and found more healing and similar honesty there. He contrasts in a 1977 essay here the mountains and waters of Asian "mythic iconography" with the "dusty world" of 7-Elevens and parking meters to which we must return. His 1961/9 essay "Buddhist Anarchism" gains inclusion. It calls for the "mercy" of the Western "social revolution" joined to the Eastern "individual insight into the basic self/void." (178) This compliments the reminder from that essay about the cost exacted of "natural-spiritual price" when we pay for "this particular piece of affluence, comfort, pleasure, or labor saving." (182)

Snyder's journey to a more formal identification with Japanese practice intersects with Philip Whalen, who wound up leading a San Francisco monastery. Still, Joanne Kyger--in a poem about his green Walgreen's tropical hat perched high on his bald pate as he sits--finds humor in such a meditative state. It concludes: {...}I ask him which mantra he is doing--but he tells me/ in Zen, you don't have to bother with any of that./ You can just play with the beads." (239)

Finally, Kenneth Rexroth, who as an earlier student of Asian culture as well as a proto-radical had jump-started the Beats out in San Francisco even as he then quickly sidestepped away from the hype, weighs in. His poetry tends to be more academically mainstream, more controlled. Similarly, he finds a more analytical ground in his 1980 interview "The Jewel Net of Indra" with the pioneering chronicler of Buddhism in the U.S, Rick Fields. Rexroth preferred less explicit identification with Buddhism until much later than the Beats. He sought to accommodate the dharma within a more eclectic mindset, as did in a different fashion on paper his contemporary Burroughs.

Still both men, as the Beats themselves, could not fall in line with conformity. Rexroth's anarchism (shared with Snyder) meshed with his pacifism. "A life lived according to the Buddha law will not need much. If Christianity was put into effect tomorrow every state on earth would collapse in twenty-four hours." (336) He may differ somewhat from other radicals, as he places Buddhist practice apart from political alignment. He takes pains to show how Zen had been connected with right-wing Japanese movements, and how the power structure in many Asian regimes helped form a "synthetic" Buddhism abhorred by "Buddhologists" from the West who seek in vain to recover a pure form from the "so-called historic Shakyamuni." (337-9) For Rexroth, the meaning lies in recognizing that evil is always present, and always passes. War continued as sport under the Buddhist reigns in Japan, for fun. Honesty exacts a toll. Illusion is confronted and worn down by steady observation and principled scrutiny. He cites St. John of the Cross: "the measure of the defect of vision is visions."

Here, Rexroth as elder statesmen comes round to what one of his first Beat proteges also figured out, in time, by that Escapade interview in 1960. "Buddhism is just words. Also, wisdom is heartless. I quit Buddhism because Buddhism--or Mahayana Buddhism--preaches against entanglement with women. To me, the most important thing in life is love." (83) As you can see, this anthology reveals many provocative moments, and it digs deeper than the stereotypes to uncover--beneath trace elements of pious smugness inherent to shallower Beat braggadocio--the core of a tougher, sometimes playful but often more persistent, existential, everyday dharma encountered, transformed.

(See my reviews of Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums,"  "Some of the Dharma,"  "Wake Up! A Life of the Buddha" and "On the Road: the Original Scroll". I also reviewed Prothero's subsequent "Religious Literacy"  and "The American Bible") (Amazon US 8-26-12)

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