One afternoon in 1953, a young poet named Allen Ginsberg visited the First Zen Institute which was then still housed in an elegant private uptown apartment in New York City. Ginsberg occupied himself by perusing the Zen paintings, records and books in the library. But he did not stay very long: the whole atmosphere of the place made him uncomfortable; it was, as he remembered years later, “intimidating—like a university club.” Ginsberg had only recently discovered Buddhism and Chinese philosophy in the New York Public Library. “I had only the faintest idea that there was so much of a kulcheral heritage, so easy to get at thru book upon book of reproduction,” he wrote Neal Cassady in California.
He had also begun to read, he wrote Cassady, “a little about their mystique and philosophy which I never did from a realistic viewpoint before… I am working eastward from Japan and have begun to familiarize myself with Zen Buddhism thru a book (Philosophical Library Pub.) by one D. T. Suzuki (outstanding 89 yr. old authority now at Columbia who I will I suppose go see for interesting talk).”
Jack Kerouac also came to Buddhism in a library. He had just finished writing The Subterraneans, a novel about an unhappy, drastic love affair, in three benzedrine-powered days and nights. “I didn’t know what to do,” he told Al Aronowitz for his, New York Post series on the beat generation in 1959. “I went home and just sat in my room, hurting. I was suffering, you know, from the grief of losing a love, even though I really wanted to lose it.
“Well, I went to the library to read Thoreau. I said, ‘I’m going to cut out from civilization, and go back and live in the woods like Thoreau,’ and I started to read Thoreau and he talked about Hindu philosophy. So I put Thoreau down and I took out, accidentally, The Life of Buddha by Ashvagosa.”
That was the beginning. In the years to come, as Kerouac drifted back and forth across America, the pages of his unpublished novels heavy in his pack, his interest in Buddhism would continue to grow. The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths especially (all existence is suffering) gave him a philosophical basis for understanding his life and the lives he observed all around him. While visiting the Cassadys in California he found and devoured Dwight Goddard’s Buddhist Bible in the San Jose library. He also read all the sutras he could lay his hands on, as well as Patanjali, the Vedas, Lao-Tzu and Confucius. He took extensive notes while reading the Buddhist Bible, and when he typed it all up he found that he had more than a hundred pages. He called it Some of the Dharma, and thought of it as kind of an ongoing study for both himself and Ginsberg, who was now in Yucatan.
Back East he moved into his mother’s house in Richmond, New York and read the Diamond Sutra every day. He began memorizing and reciting sutras, and he carried Goddard’s Buddhist Bible with him everywhere, even on the subway. He began to discipline himself in meditation, first brewing a cup of green tea, then locking the door to his bedroom (his mother disapproved) and finally sitting down on a cushion, painfully crossing his legs for twenty minutes or so—and then forcing himself to remain seated another minute. He now considered the football he had played in high school and Columbia as preparation for his new life.
Practicing meditation and realizing that existence is a dream [he wrote Ginsberg] is an athletic, physical accomplishment. Now I know why I was an athlete, to learn perfect physical relaxation, smooth strength of strong muscles hanging ready for Nirvana, the great power that runs from the brow to the slope of the shoulders down the arms to the delicately joined hands in Dhyana, the hidden power of gentle breathing in the silence.