I first became interested in Buddhism while teaching certain American writers of the 1950s at Bancroft School. The Beatniks (so called, according to Kerouac, because they were the blessed, or beatified prophets of their time) Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, but most importantly the stories of J.D. Salinger allude to Buddhism and Eastern philosophy in general. Salinger has the best-known Zen Buddhist koan on the title page of his “Nine Stories.”
“We know the sound of two hands clapping, but
what is the sound of one hand clapping?”
And several of these nine have the enlightenment experience known as “satori,” and I believe at the end of “The Catcher in the Rye” Holden, while watching his sister Phoebe on the carousel, suddenly “sees the light” that one cannot be a catcher of children who are about to fall off a cliff, that they must be allowed to “fall” into the adult world with all of its attendant ills such as work, sexuality and death. Mr. Salinger seems to contrast Western Materialism with Eastern Spirituality, the latter personified by Holden and the Glass children.
The 1950s was the not the first time American literature was influenced by Eastern philosophy. The writers known as Transcendentalists, especially Emerson and Thoreau, allude to Hinduism and Buddhism, Emerson, for instance, in his poem “Brahma” (“I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.”) and Thoreau imagines his bathing in Walden Pond is similar to an Hindu doing his ablutions in the sacred Ganges of India. And the water of Walden should be seen as sacred as that of the Ganges. In “Walden” Thoreau wrote that, “I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?” Thoreau was too late, having been born in 1817 when The Buddha-to-be entered that incarnation in 563 B.C.E. Today, with Asia becoming as important to America as Europe has been, perhaps we should again look for spiritual sustenance there just as the American Navy is shifting 60% of its fleet to the Pacific.
At the end of 2012, I journeyed West, to what we have called The East, on a photographic trip gurued by Ron Rosenstock of Holden. As preparation, I looked at two articles about Bhutan in “The National Geographic,” which revealed that archery is the national sport. One time the King was shooting and hit a spectator in the leg. “It happens all the time,” he said. Another time, the best archer was hit in the neck; he pulled the arrow out of his neck, and against the advice of his doctor, ingested a meal of rice and pork fat. Though I did see archery, I did not see anyone hit.
I read that a tourist should be aware of the fact that hundreds of leeches might fall from tress on to him, but being in Bhutan in December, in a cold, dry time, I escaped the leech experience; after all, I had had that experience as a boy swimming in a muddy pond in Vermont.
I knew that the German philosopher Nietzsche believed that if one ate rice, he became a Buddhist, and that if he drank beer, he became a German metaphysician. As Nietzsche finally succumbed to madness (seen playing the piano with his elbows), I thought the rice was a better bet. But three times a day was just too spiritual. Some Buddhists do eat meat but the donor should have been slaughtered by a Muslim, or perhaps if yaks were herded near the edge of a cliff and fell over, they were edible.
The last day in Bhutan, we climbed up to the Tiger’s Nest, 12,000 feet high, built around the cave the Padme Sambhava became enlightened in. He is roughly equal to The Buddha; he subdued the Bon demons (animistic spirits) and brought the Emptiness School of Mahayana Buddhism to the region. The Emptiness school is very difficult for an American materialist. It seems to be related to the Zen mantra of “Less is more” and Lao-Tzu belief that an empty bowl is more useful than one full. A flying tiger carried him to the cliff, where he meditated for four years and gave the Bon deities their jobs back, exhibiting Compassion, the greatest virtue in Mahayana Buddhism, and of course full employment. He was a Bodhisattva, one who renounces nirvana for himself in order to show others the way and to reduce suffering for all sentient beings. The Buddha himself had trudged the dusty roads of India from about 29 until The Great Decease when he was 80, showing the Way. The thousands of prayers on the ever-present prayer flags and on prayer wheels also are purposed to help all sentient beings. I spun a couple myself, though retaining some congenital skepticism but hoped that some sentient being was spare some suffering, which The Buddha said is our common lot (First Noble Truth).
If our view in the West is linear in that we see history as beginning and moving forward to an end, and see a human life as beginning at birth and ending with death, and according to one’s religious belief, ending in a judgment and then punishment or reward, the Eastern view is represented by a circle. History ends but begins anew, and a life is just another incarnation on the endless cosmic carousel. To enter a womb means to die, then to find another one, unless one achieves Nirvana, which is impossible to define as it is not being nor non-being. Circumambulating a monastery, chorten (stupa), or temple three times in a clockwise direction is much in evidence. The world is just as one’s karma (the law of cause and effect) determines one’s next incarnation. The karmic view is that we are what we have earned: it is our spiritual report card or transcript, so to speak. Even spirits are born into “khorwa” or the world of cyclic existence as a result of their karma. Like humans, they are subject to the sufferings of birth, death, illness. Buddhists believe that, like humans, spirits have a social hierarchy. After corporeal death, there is the “in-between state known as “Bardo,” when the soul is paying one’s karmic dues for bliss or for entrance into a new womb. What is known in the West as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” in Tibet is “The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between.” It is not morbid to think of dying, and even good for one’s health. For most of us the in-between may last 21 days. Bhutanese rituals help prepare one for his or her Bardo, foreknowledge of what is to come.
A common Buddhist art form is the Mandala, or circle. Some are kept, others destroyed as quickly as Navajo sand paintings for healing. They are thrown into a stream, exemplifying the circleness of life and death. Often in the center are three symbolic creatures, the pig for ignorance/delusion, a rooster for greed, and a snake for hate. Again, the circle is an abstraction of the Eastern sense of human existence being a cosmic merry-go-around. The circle stands for wholeness with a center, and is both all that is beyond and that which is within. From Hinduism comes the concept that the beyond is within. Mandalas are used in meditation.
The Wangchuck dynasty began in 1907 and is amazing in that a king gave his people a constitutional monarchy with a parliament. And this dynasty has set GNH, or Gross National Happiness, as the nation’s goal, rather than, say Gross Domestic Product. Also, Bhutan is very committed to ecological concerns and the health of citizens (tobacco products cannot be brought into the country). Legislation decreed that 60% of the country had to be forest. I began to tire of reading that Bhutan is a Shrangri-la, but wondered whether returning home I would have trouble re-entering a culture that admired aggression, individualism, dominance of nature and materialism. At least there would be “The pursuit of happiness” as a common aspiration.