Buddhism and the Beats

Scott A. Mitchell

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Buddhism and the Beats

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“For the beat generation,” Stephen Prothero wrote in 1991, “dissertation time is here. Magazine and newspaper critics have gotten in their jabs. Now scholars are starting to analyze the literature and legacy of the beat writers.” Prothero goes on to argue that scholars should take seriously the contribution Beat writers made to American religious history, and it is something of a foregone conclusion that this contribution includes perspectives inspired by Asian religious traditions. In rejecting what they viewed as the repressive climate of the 1950s, the Beats collectively “turned East” for inspiration; and some, notably Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg, explicitly sought inspiration from Buddhism. Despite Prothero’s plea, little scholarly work has been done on the Beat-Buddhism connection either in Buddhist studies or in the study of American religion. There may be a lingering bias against the Beats, the sense that their movement was nothing more than a short-lived and decadent rebellion against Eisenhower-era culture. Buddhist studies scholars often cringe at the way Beat writers misrepresent Buddhist teachings, and other critics have rightly pointed out the latent racism and sexism in early Beat writing. Nevertheless, the Beat generation influenced the development of US Buddhism in important and lasting ways. Many prominent Beat writers became leaders in established US Buddhist communities in the 1970s and 1980s, including the foundation by Ginsberg and Anne Waldman of the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at the Buddhist Naropa University in Colorado. Moreover, many of the Beats’ early experiences with Buddhism were through connections to the already well-established Japanese-American Buddhist community in the San Francisco Bay Area, a subject well deserving of further research. The lion’s share of scholarly work on the Beat generation remains in literary criticism first and in American cultural history second. The contribution that Beat writers made to the history of US Buddhism thus remains an open field. The following bibliography is meant to be more selective than comprehensive, providing the researcher with entry points to more sustained research projects. See also Buddhism in the West (North America and Europe).

Article.  7462 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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