Whether it be through Existentialism in France or through Zen Buddhism in the United States, the attraction towards metaphysical nihilism among young men and women of the postwar world has drawn attention in cultural circles. In the States, they became known under their own title of "The Beat Generation." John C. Holmes, one of their literary leaders, said in a New York newspaper interview, "The second war ended in 1945 and by 1947 everybody was talking of the next one. By 1948 who could believe that any international organization would be able to work this thing out? So that thrust you back right on yourself. What you felt yourself, your eagerness for life, that was the important thing, and that meant jazz, liquor and fun." I might add that for many others it meant drugs too. A Greenwich Village friend who saw these types almost daily told me that by "fun" these devotees of Beat meant the free indulgence in sex.
Holmes' conclusion was exactly the same as the one I made in The Spiritual Crisis of Man, that the world-crisis forced us to look to ourselves. But whereas he thought the next step was "jazz, liquor and fun," I thought it was to develop our inner spiritual resources.
Jack Kerouac's novels have been bestsellers and have done more to make known the ideas and conduct of the "beatniks," as he called them, than any other books. Neal Cassady, the hero of three of them and once his close friend, said, "Marijuana is the mystical shortcut to beatific vision, the highest vision you can get. He also said: "Everyone is trying to get out of their mind one way or another, and marijuana is the best, the easiest way to get to the Eternal Now."
It is true that Allen Ginsberg, the leading poet of the Beat Generation movement, spoke in the same interview of "beat" meaning "seeing the world in a visionary way, which is the old classical understanding of what happens in the dark night of the soul, in Saint John of the Cross' conception. . . . The primary fact of any beat writer of any interest is that each of them has individually had some kind of Kafkaian experience of what would ordinarily be called the supernatural. I had an illumination of eternity which lasted for a few seconds and returned three or four times. These were blissful experiences . . . I was loved by God." But this further statement merely shows the confusion and chaos which has mingled liquor and jazz with mysticism and Zen Buddhism. Need we be surprised to learn that Ginsberg was treated for three-quarters of a year in an insane asylum, or that he has experimented with several different kinds of drugs?
What is the real value of illuminations when the recipient is unbalanced to start with and becomes still more unbalanced after them? Is there not a clear case here for introducing the one thing these "Beat Generation" mystics reject--the discipline of the Long Path? They want the Overself's treasure but do not want to pay the price for it.
Even as I wrote these thoughts I was delighted to hear my old friend Dr. D.T. Suzuki, then the world's leading authority on Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, make a public protest in Boston against those Westerners who take shelter for their weaknesses under Zen's umbrella. "One has to be on guard," he said, "against the misunderstanding of the idea of freedom by many who study Zen. They seem to think it means the freedom to do what one likes, and especially the freedom to be licentious. Real freedom is very different from this and comes from a deeper level."
The fact is that these young people were not really looking for truth in its highest and purest sense. They were looking for thrills. They were mostly sensation-seekers just as much as the narcotic addicts are, although in a different way and through different means. The remainder were trying to get the supreme enlightenment free of cost, without giving up anything, without giving up the ego, without undertaking any discipline. They were caught in a coil of self-deception.
-- Notebooks Category 23: Advanced Contemplation > Chapter 2: Pitfalls and Limitations > # 71