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Lions Roar : November 2015
The Western Buddhist world, however it is, has to live with The Dharma Bums. I don’t have to live with it too much—people don’t talk to me much about it anymore. Jack was a novelist; he wasn’t a journalist. I am only one small model for the Japhy Ryder character. A lot of what Japhy Ryder does is fictional, but some of it is interestingly drawn on what Jack and I did together—the mountain-climbing scene is close. As a piece of writing, The Dharma Bums is not one of my favorite Kerouac novels. It was written too hastily, and you can see the haste. He just banged it together because his publisher said, “On the Road is doing so well, let’s have another novel right away.” Jack sort of got into that, so as a writer you have to be careful what your publisher needs. Turns out that On the Road is the all-time bestseller in the Kerouac oeuvre, and The Dharma Bums is the second best. I think On the Road is a very fine piece of work. The Subter- raneans is a wonderful book, and Dr. Sax is charming, a playful, youthful piece. Both of those I like better than The Dharma Bums. Can you talk about your relationship to the Beats? Was there any sense at the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955—where Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” and you read “A Berry Feast”—that this was the beginning of a movement? There was already a movement. I was very much a student of the poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth. He had an open seminar twice a month in his apartment out in the Avenues district of San Francisco. I got over there and listened to what Kenneth had to say. It was from Kenneth that I first heard discussion of labor unions, the anarchist movement, the his- tory of West Coast Communism. The circle of people around Kenneth were part of my continuous education in the history of the West Coast left. Kenneth in his earlier days had gone to all the early meetings of the Italian Working Men’s Circle on Potrero Hill. He had a lot of crazy opinions but also had very good insights. The first time I met Allen Ginsberg was at Rexroth’s house— Allen had just come up from Mexico. The first time I saw Ker- ouac was when Allen brought him to Rexroth’s place. Because Allen was living in Berkeley, I saw more and more of him. Ken- neth thought of both Jack and Allen as “talented jerks.” Was that his phrase or yours? I don’t remember. They weren’t quite grown up yet. What was your first exposure to Buddhism? I had a definite argument about the ethics of Christianity—or the absence of what I thought was ethics—in their inability to extend concern to non-human beings. That’s when I quit going to Sunday school—when I found out that our heifers that died couldn’t go to heaven. Then I learned somewhere that Buddhists and Hindus included all the different creatures in their moral concern, and I said, “Well, that’s for me!” The first big hit of East Asia that came to me was at the Seattle Art Museum, which had a wonderful collection of East Asian, Chinese, and Japanese landscape paintings. Looking at the Chinese and Japanese mountain landscapes, my thought was that they sure looked a lot like the Cascades in Washington. I also thought, “Gee, these guys really knew how to paint!” When you look at a European landscape, it might seem familiar if you live on the East Coast, but it was a very unfa- miliar landscape to me. East Asian painting covers a mountain landscape with ice and rocks and clouds that looks very much like the landscape of interior Washington. I ran into Buddhism again in college, partly through anthro- pology and world humanities courses, and partly through the presence of one Chinese gentleman who had been in the Amer- ican army in World War II and was going to Reed College on the GI Bill. He was an expert calligrapher in both Chinese and the Roman alphabet. After one semester at Indiana University studying linguis- tics, I went to Berkeley and started studying Chinese full-time. Then I went to Asia with the goal of studying with a Zen teacher. By that time, I had narrowed my territory to Zen Bud- dhism—its particular kinds of discipline, its poetry, and its heart. I managed to make my way to Japan and stayed there for twelve years. How were you embraced as a Westerner? As long as you speak the language and have good manners, you can go anywhere. At first they think you’re a little odd and then they get used to you. Were you in monasteries? I was partly in monasteries and partly living in a little place nearby. I had to do that because I needed to be able to look things up. They don’t have a library or a dictionary in a Zen monastery, so I had a place just a ten-minute walk away. To pay the rent I took on conversational English teaching jobs. Part of the time I was very much in the Buddhist world, but also I got to know Japanese intelligentsia and various European and American expat types, the bohemian subculture of western Japan. I learned a wide variety of Japanese that way: from Zen Buddhists, who speak the most learned and polite Japanese when they want to, all the way down to the dialect of the south- ern part of Kyoto, which has gambling and prostitution and bar zones. They have quite a vocabulary too. [Laughs] SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2015 72