Hard to Be a Saint in the City: The Spiritual Vision of the Beats – Review

Hard to Be a Saint in the City: The Spiritual Vision of the Beats
by Robert Inchausti
$16.95, Shambhala Books

The title of this collection comes from a rather obscure Bruce Springsteen song that David Bowie covered and made his own. It’s a great choice for this series of quotes, because if anything this is the major message of the Beats – how to reinvent an urban American spiritual vision from the wilderness roots of Emerson, Thoreau and other Transcendentalists.

In particular, but not exclusively, that vision is coterminous with the establishment of Buddhism in the West.

Hard to Be a Saint in the City The Spiritual Vision of the Beats

What Robert Inchausti has cleverly done is organize a series of “sound byte” quotes under a variety of pithy chapter headings that do really ask the right questions. “How do the Beats conceive of the Divine?” “Are there Beat spiritual practices?” “What is the Beat Response to the Spirit of Our Age?’

Of course, we now live in a time where great Asian masters have a good deal more pilot hours that this shaggy crew of the Beat Generation, and one may wonder how they are even worth re-examining in their infant stumbles?

Perhaps Gelek Rinpoche said it best when he told Allen Ginsberg that Allen, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs (only their three photos are on the cover of this book) were all going to go to dakini heaven for what they had done for Dharma in the West. (Dakinis are visionary female manifestations of primordial enlightened awareness, given to nakedness, flying around and human bone ornaments, when not incognito.)

Williams Burroughs too? Yet I’ve met a number of young Buddhists who felt Burroughs was an important part of how they themselves got on the path. See for yourself in these quotes and you’ll find that old curmudgeon did indeed know a thing or two about a thing or two. Burroughs, in case you didn’t know, was extremely committed to cutting through the habitual patterns of rational mind. By the end of his life, though individualist to the end, he’d palled around with some real Tibetan Buddhist heavyweights and respected their answers to his questions and his quest. In return, his authenticity and gallows humor about this “vale of tears” also found some Eastern appreciation. And one need look no further for a literary example of a man who has made friends with his own thoughts – however grotesque and humiliating they might be. Here’s Bill now:

“I would say the function of art, or in fact, of any creative thought is to make people aware of what they know and don’t know…James Joyce made (people) aware of their own stream of consciousness, and was accused of being unintelligible, but I don’t think very many people would find it unintelligible now, certainly not Ulysses.”

Ginsberg and Kerouac are no surprise as candidates for dakini Pure Land. Still, one might tend to dismiss them as dabblers. 

So the short answer as to why bother with this crew of beginners is just that—beginner’s mind. The Beats at their best show how this urban science-fiction landscape of ours with its giant supermarkets and rapid transit (to say nothing of the Internet) might be re-visioned as a Sacred World. Though Kerouac may have started the “rucksack revolution” that led to India and beyond, he is still first and foremost a man of his time—seeing the holiness of a smoky redbrick hotel blinking neons in a downtown of derelicts and junkies. That’s important! That’s the good news! Ginsberg took this ball and ran with it. Meanwhile, Burroughs critiqued a modern life-trap of addiction (to whatever—the “algebra of need” itself) and the hypocrisy of a prurient, controlling tightness that still needs to be lanced in our world culture.

Of course, those who’ve studied Buddhadharma know that Sacred View is not enough. The Beats, at their best, show enormous empathy, the sameness of our loneliness and desire to connect whether wino or prime minister, and a gentle regard for kittens, mules, elephants and cockroaches—i.e. all sentience and the planet itself.

Jack Kerouac is the stand-out (and obviously the most beloved of Inchausti, who has already shown his affection in print for a decidedly different Catholic Buddhist, Thomas Merton). But the quotes of Kerouac remain fresh and timeless as when they were first spoken. Kerouac’s humor, insight and literary genius all shine through, well beyond any reputation he gained for On The Road. Much has been made of Kerouac’s repudiation of Buddhism in various letters later in life, but seeing that he quotes Buddha even when he has less than a year to live on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line indicates a man given to enormous mood swings and inconsistencies as his alcoholism accelerated (For instance, inviting Ginsberg to that very TV taping and then putting him down from the stage). I don’t believe his alcoholic remarks capsize his legacy of innovation and intelligence:

“It’s all like a dream. Everything is ecstasy, inside. We just don’t know it because of our thinking minds. But in our true blissful essence of mind is known that everything is alright forever and forever and forever.”

Allen Ginsberg, of course is always the Great Explainer, and the best of what he has to say here comes from after his own Buddhist maturity post-1970, even when he gets the order of the Eight Fold Path wrong (putting Right Effort (or “Energy” as he puts it) after Right Mindfulness). Still, he always inspires:

“There is a bodhisattva aspect of poetry, particularly when you combine it with the notion of poetry as proclamation. So:

proclamation of original mind
proclamation of primordial mind
proclamation of your candid mind
proclamation of your own chaos
proclamation of your own uncertainty
proclamation of your own fragility
proclamation of your own sensitivity
proclamation of your own cheerful neurosis

…for other people to…not feel that their own minds are not worthy of affection or appreciation. Basically, poetry is appreciation of consciousness, appreciation of our own consciousness.”

Of course, everyone included is not a Buddhist, and Inchausti’s compilation of spirit is not exclusive. Even Norman Mailer, essential a secular humanist with a existential view, has a chance to speak. Elements of pre-Industrial, even paleolithic origins are also reconsidered. A return to shamanic investigations, whether traditional or invented, is a huge part of Beat questioning and its impact on the culture that followed, all the way to Burning Man.

But some of Inchausti’s gaps in choice are as strange as other inclusions.

Where are Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima, Philip Whalen, John Giorno? All serious Buddhists who logged a lot of opinion in interviews and essays. Instead, we have Beat scholars giving their own opinions, which is all fine and good, but in a less than exhaustive collection, a curious use of space. And how did Stephen Gaskin, a chatty hippie philosopher who is barely remembered by any but the die-hard tie-dyed, get to be part of the Beats?

Michael McClure is given more than his share of essay time. Though sometimes called a Buddhist, his view is mostly a well-spoken peyote vision ecology that is known to anyone who ever took a psychedelic. One of my favorite poets, he still offers only an armchair pantheism with little of the discipline or training that his colleagues investigated until late in life.

Gary Snyder, by comparison, is given less time, but personally I’m a bit tired of the tendency to make him the main spokesman-scholar of Buddhism and Beat. There is something far more vulnerable and honest about Kerouac and Ginsberg, while Snyder rarely reveals his own foibles. Since all are pilgrims, I like mine more confessionary. But I too have a Catholic background.

So a majority of Beat writing is American Buddhist pilgrim’s progress, warts and all. It is a tradition that remains relevant and affects many writers and poets working to this day. Robert Inchausti has certainly succeeded in showing this in a book that is both a great introduction and a Crackerjack box with a few surprises for those already thoroughly steeped in the path of Beat.

Marc Olmsted’s authored four collections of poetry, including What Use Am I a Hungry Ghost?, and the memoir Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg 1972-1997 – Letters and Recollections.


5 thoughts on “Hard to Be a Saint in the City: The Spiritual Vision of the Beats – Review

  1. Snyder did the hard practice… actually in a Zenfo for quite awhile in Japan as I recall. The others never put forth the same kind of effort. That is why Snyder get the call to rep Buddhism for the Beats. Doesn’t mean the others aren’t important and amazing in their way but Gary put in the practice time.

  2. The well-written insightful kind of review we’ve come to expect from Olmsted, though I’ve one quibble: certainly Stephen Gaskin doesn’t qualify for inclusion as a Beat, but dismissing him as “a chatty hippie philosopher” is quite unfair IMO. Has Olmsted read “This Season’s People: A Book of Spiritual Teachings”? Gaskin is more profound than he seems to realize.

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