Buddhism Buddhism and the Beats
Scott A. Mitchell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0109


“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).

Historical Overviews

The origins of the Beat movement can be traced to two separate events. The first was during the mid-1940s when Kerouac, Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and others met while attending Columbia University. Their early friendships, poetry readings, and late-night discussions led to Kerouac coining the phrase “Beat generation” in 1948. The second event was a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on 13 October 1955, a reading that included Ginsberg, Snyder, and Philip Whalen, among others, and one that was attended by Kerouac. Ginsberg read his epic protest poem “Howl,” which Kerouac depicted in The Dharma Bums, and the following obscenity trial surrounding the event thrust the Beat poets into the national spotlight. Below are historical overviews of the Beat generation to provide the researcher with a broader context for the movement. Ann Charters is a go-to source for scholarship on the Beat generation; Charters 1983 provides two full volumes of biographical sketches on most of the major and minor Beat figures. Hendin 2004 is a concise collection of essays on post–World War II culture more generally. Watson 1995 provides an accessible and heavily illustrated historical overview. Most critical work on the Beats comes from the field of literary criticism; Stephenson 1990 is a good entrée. Whaley 2004 contextualizes the work within the jazz movement and material culture. The Six Gallery reading was attended by writers and artists who did not considered themselves to be a part of the Beat generation; Davidson 1989 gives good context for the larger San Francisco Renaissance that overlaps with the Beat scene. Fields 1992 and Seager 1999 provide overviews of American Buddhism for the general reader. Not listed here are works that deal specifically with Japanese-American Buddhism, which are listed separately below.

  • Charters, Ann, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 16, The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.

    A comprehensive and essential encyclopedia of major and minor figures in the Beat movement as well as associated writers and thinkers. Provides a good overview of the lives of the Beat writers, edited by one of the foremost scholar in the field.

  • Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511570391

    The Six Gallery reading marked a pivotal moment for the Beat generation, depicted in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. It was also an important event for the San Francisco Renaissance, a literary movement that both overlapped with and diverged from the Beats. Davidson’s work provides context for this movement.

  • Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. 3d ed. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.

    Something of a standard reference in the field, Fields provides a highly accessible narrative of Buddhism in the United States from the 19th century on. A full chapter is devoted to the Beats and their numerous connections to Buddhism and Buddhist thinkers, including, among others, Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki.

  • Hendin, Josephine G., ed. A Concise Companion to Postwar American Literature and Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    Regina Weinreich’s contribution to this volume provides a good, succinct overview of the Beat movement. The volume as a whole provides excellent context for other mid-century literature and culture that the Beats were, at turns, influenced by and reacting against.

  • Seager, Richard Hughes. Buddhism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

    Something of a textbook for the study of US Buddhism, an accessible book to contextualize the Beats within Buddhism proper. Seager addresses the Beats, drug culture, and material culture.

  • Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

    Literary criticism essays that focus on major Beat writers as well as lesser-known figures. Stephenson explores the themes of the passage from darkness to light, myth, magic, primitivism, spontaneity, and improvisation within Beat literature.

  • Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944–1960. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

    An illustrated history of the Beat generation that is an essential overview of the movement, its major characters, publications, and moments. Includes photographs, chronologies, maps, and bibliographies.

  • Whaley, Preston, Jr. Blows like a Horn: Beat Writing, Jazz, Style, and Markets in the Transformation of US Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Places the Beat and counterculture movements in conversation with the contemporaneous jazz movement, tracing their development from jazz clubs and poetry readings to pop-cultural stereotypes of beatniks and hippies.

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