Beatniks and the Birth of American Buddhism


The 1950s were a time of great social and political changes. The United States had just come out of the Second World War and wanted a return to normalcy. Americans had become tired of change and conflict. They moved towards a more conservative life style; flocking to the suburbs and taking comfort in family and new technology.  As a whole, Americans became more conservative and more focused on family values. Americans hoped for a time of isolationism where the problems in other countries would not be able to reach them. Families started becoming more and more materialistic wanting televisions and all the latest technology and the most popular kitchen appliances. This became the normal culture in the United States. Out of this conservative post war culture came the sub-cultures, rock and roll started to hit the air waves musicians like Elvis were all the rage and we would soon be invaded by the British music scene, and then there were the beatniks.

The Beatniks were poets, writers, artist, and musicians hoping to pull away from the norm and “hoped to change consciousness” (Leland). They brought with them drugs, sex, alcohol, and new ideas about life. The leaders like Kerouac and Cassidy became the poster boys for this movement of young people. A major grouping of these people went to San Francisco where, in 1953, the City Lights Bookstore opened where they sold and published many of the beats works. At the same time Buddhism had become a new hip following for this subculture. Since the mid 1800s Chinese and Japanese immigrants had been coming to San Francisco beginning with the gold rush. The Chinese Buddhists brought there own kind of Buddhism which was a mixture of Japanese Zen, Taoism, Confucianism, and Chan. In 1898 they built the Buddhist Church of San Francisco, which became home to many of these hip ideologists. People like Kerouac, Snyder, Cassidy, and Ginsberg started the new Buddhist movement which became a fuel for all sorts on new ideas and social changes.

These Beat writers found ways to write about there experiences with Buddhism in different ways. Kerouac wrote two books, one was called the Dharma Bums which described his beginnings and his travels to try and learn the Buddhist ways of living. He also wrote another book called Wake up: a Life of the Buddha which is a story about Prince Siddhartha Gotama, who decides to give up his meaningless riches in order to live a life of poverty and seek enlightenment. He even said that the purpose of writing this story was to “convert” people to Buddhism. He became fascinated by the Buddhist life style and it began to be shown in his writing, especially in his later works like The Subteraneans and Mexican City Blues. Some of the Dharma explains most of Kerouac’s studies and research on Buddhist, writings, literature, and doctrines.

Through his friends Kerouac began to learn a lot more about Buddhism. He met Gary Snyder (known as Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums) who was a devote student of Buddhism and also a poet. He was also living with Allen Ginsberg (known as Alvah Goldbook) who was also a poet and had begun to study Buddhism himself. He was a close friend of Kerouac and although he had a great interest in Buddhist study he did not formally become a Buddhist until 1972. A lot of his poetry was influenced by his Buddhist ideas. Ginsberg said that “Since art is merely and ultimately self-expressive, we conclude that the fullest art, the most individual, uninfluenced, unrepressed, uninhibited expression of art is true expression and the true art.” Later on Jack Kerouac wrote a lot of poems, mostly haikus, on his outdoor adventures. Snyder wrote a lot about nature and about his studies of Zen Buddhism, a lot of his studies took place in Asia where he often visited. He loved the American frontier and traveled much of it. He and Kerouac both describe learning a lot from these trips and from camping out in the wilderness. That seems to be where their understanding of Buddhism came from. He introduces Kerouac to a more humble lifestyle and tries to introduce him into the wilderness. In many of his works of writing he wrote about different gods and their relation to nature like in his poem “Burning Island” he write “O Sky Gods/cartwheeling/out of   Pacific/turning rainsqualls over like lids on us /then shine on our sodden— / (scanned out a rainbow today at the/cow drinking trough/sluicing off/LAKHS of crystal Buddha Fields/right on the hair of the arm!)”.

Buddhism first came around in 623 B.C. in Nepal, India. At the core traditional Buddhist beliefs are based mostly on inner peace and understanding. They are compassionate people and also very aware of themselves and others around them. Some of the main precepts that are followed by traditional Buddhists are to avoid dancing, singing, drinking, killing, sexual misconduct, and luxurious items. They believe in eating moderately and focusing on oneself. They want to live a life of peace and tranquility. They also follow what are called the Eightfold Path which they believe will bring them to the perfect place of peace. They try to be aware of everything they do and think their actions thoroughly. Buddhists are supposed to avoid places that harm other living beings (like circuses, slaughterhouses, ect.) and also places that have intoxicants (these are places like bars and liquor stores). They want to avoid with things that can tamper with their brain and that could make it harder for them to find true understanding, also known as Nibbāna (or nirvana). At the same time Buddhists have interests in arts, civil rights, and social changes. They believe in many different sutras like the heart sutra, known as discourses of the Buddha, and the diamond sutra (which Kerouac mentions a few times in The Dharma Bums). Many Buddhists are also vegetarians (going with their belief in harming no living creatures) this was something that many of the major beats were not.

There are some very clear differences from the traditional Buddhist ideas and the ones the Beatniks had. They had in common a love for arts and a strong interest in social changes and civil rights. It is even possible that Buddhism helped bring about some of the ideology of the 50s and 60s which became a time of great civil rights debates and of protests. The beatniks had a strong disdain for the lifestyles that became popular in the 1950s. They did not want to settle down and become white collar city workers they wanted to travel and learn and have fun. One of the main differences between traditional Buddhism and the Americanized version was the drug and alcohol indulgences that many of the Beatniks and Buddhist partook in. Jack Kerouac was known for his drinking habits. In a lot of his writings he talks frequently about drinking and some of his drunken escapades. He argues in many parts of The Dharma Bums that alcohol brings him closer to his inner peace. He was not the only one, Allen Ginsberg is very open about his recreational drug use and Cassidy ends up becoming one of the poster boys along side Ken Kesey, for the use of psychedelic drugs during the 1960s when Buddhism was still in blossoming popularity. The Buddhist Church of San Francisco was right near the popular Haight and Ashbury hippie headquarters. Buddhism became a magnet for these hippie enthusiasts.

The Beatniks found great enjoyment in having parties and yelling and screaming out their thoughts and ideas. In many of their writings they describe having wild parties full of dancing and singing and also sex. Kerouac writes a lot about orgies and Snyder and his women in The Dharma Bums This difference could be seen in the social changes taking place in America. These cookie cutter houses and families were things the Beatniks raged against and they did not want to fall into these conservative molds. They wanted to be heard and take their ideas to everyone that would listen. Another difference at least with Kerouac was that he seemed to incorporate his catholic religious beliefs into his Buddhist beliefs he often refers to a singular god in his book The Dharma Bums and tries to convince others that the catholic “god” goes hand in hand with Buddhism beliefs. In an article called “The Wild Mind of Gary Snyder” Snyder says “Catholicism is a devotional religion too, and Jack Kerouac’s Buddhism had the flavor of a devotional Buddhist. In Buddhism the idea that anybody can do practice is strongly present. In Catholicism practice is almost entirely thought of as entering an order or as becoming a lay novitiate of an order. So that explains Jack’s devotional flavor. There’s nothing wrong with devotional Buddhism. It is its own creative religious approach, and it’s very much there in Tibetan Buddhism too.”(Carolan). It is interesting though since the idea of an institutionalized religion seems like something that the Beatnik movement might be against but considering the times religion and spiritualism might have given them something else important to hold onto.

The one thing that they most had in common was their drive for change and interest in the rights of others. As more and more people tried to avoid the thought of a possible nuclear war looming over their heads, and stay happy in their suburban homes, the Beatniks and Buddhist rejected the normal consumer way of living and tried to live a more humble life. Snyder, Kerouac, and Ginsberg described sleeping on mats and buying clothing from the good will store for a penny. The character Japhy Ryder based off of Gary Snyder describes eating simple meals of dried fruits, vegetables, cereal, and a lot of tea. While the majority of America was out buying expensive kitchen appliances they chose to eat the simplest foods they could. In The Dharma Bums Kerouac’s character Japhy Ryder talks about society at the time and says ‘they all got white-tiled toilets and take big dirty craps like bears in the mountains, but it’s all washed away at the convenient supervised sewers and nobody thinks of crap any more or realizes that their origin is shit and civet and scum of sea. They spend all day washing their hands with creamy soaps they secretly wanta eat in the bathroom”. It is a perfect example of how the distain they had for the lives that these people were living. The Beatniks wanted to shake the establishment and make people think about the issues in the world and in the country and try to be a catalyst for change.

Ginsberg studied much Zen Buddhism and he was also an outspoken political activist. He participated in protests about the Vietnam War and also about homosexual rights. Snyder was also very against the consumer America and talked about it frequently, it was especially prevalent in his poetry. The 1950s was a huge time for the civil rights movement which many beatniks were in full support of and spoke out for the equal rights of black Americans. It makes sense that Buddhist beliefs could bring about attention to the unfair system that was around and make many people angry enough to go out and speak about it.

Kerouac says “Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in the system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of 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”

This quote describes very well what these beat- Buddhists were looking for and hoping for, for America. These same arguments and debates are still going on today. With all of the new technology in our lives it is hard to find the peace and enjoyment in the simple and natural things in life. It is even hard for us to use the tools we have at our disposal to make effective social changes and pay attention to the important issues affecting us today. It seems that the Beatnik and Buddhist ideas are still very prevalent today. They wanted changes and they wanted to work for things other than money and electronics. Buddhism provided a new ideology consuming a lot of these things and also happiness and understanding. These ideas helped bring about a whole new way of thinking for people, and they are ideas that American culture could still learn from today.


Carolan, Trevor. “The Wild Mind of Gary Snyder.” Modern American Poetry (2005): n. pag. Web. 9 Dec 2009. <;.

Garfinkel , Perry . “In Buddha’s Path on the Streets of San Francisco .” New York Times. (2008): Print.

“Gary Snyder (1930 – ).” Poetry Foundation . 2009. Web. 16 Dec 2009. <;.

Ginsberg, Allen . Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco : City Light Books, 1956. 57. Print.

Haynes , Sarah . “An Exploration of Jack Kerouac’s Buddhism: Text and Life .” thezensite 6.2 (2005): n. pag. Web. 10Dec 2009. <;.

Kerouac, Jack. Book of Haikus. New York : Penguin Books, 2004. 240. Print.

Kerouac, Jack . The Dharma Bums. New York : Penguin Books, 1958. 244. Print.

Leland, John . “The Mad Ones .” New York Times. (2009): Print.

Lorentz, Melissa. “Basic Doctrines of Buddhism.” Minnesota State University Mankato . 2007. EMuseum , Web. 4 Dec 2009.

Maxwell , Glyn. “About Gary Snyder.” Modern American Poetry (2005): n. pag. Web. 9 Dec 2009. <;.

Pope, Roger. “The Story of Buddhism.” South China Morning Post  2007: Print.



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