More from The New Buddhism:
The Beats emulated the cool reserve of the African American jazz musicians they idealized, favored dark-colored clothes, and displayed a good deal of existential angst. The hippies, on the other hand, wore every color of the rainbow and valued above all the openness and emotional expression reflected in their famous slogan “Peace and Love.” While the Beats saw themselves as a collection of individual artists and bohemians struggling for survival in conformist America, the hippies believed they were on the cutting edge of a new ethos of sharing and communal living that would remake the world. The Beats preferred poetry and the introverted sounds of cool jazz, while the Haight-Ashbury counterculture centered on the celebration and rebellion expressed in its flamboyant rock music.
In many ways, the Beat subculture provided a more sympathetic environment for the spread of Buddhism. Unlike the Beats, the hippies had few intellectual pretensions, and as we have seen Buddhism has often had its strongest appeal among the intelligentsia. Moreover, the reserved style of the Beats certainly fit far better with the traditions of Japanese Zen (which was the only form of Buddhism with which Americans had any familiarity) than the more emotional and expressive hippies.
This reminded me of the recent essay that’s been making the rounds about the time Jack Kerouac met Ken Kesey:
Jack was 12 years older than Ken, and there was a marked difference in their energies and interests. Jack had been living in a house with his mother in Northport, although he still had to deal from time to time with the public adulation inspired by the 1957 publication of On the Road. His was a relatively passive life.
Kesey and the Pranksters, on the other hand, were on an extended high that peaked in New York. According to one of the Pranksters, Ken Babbs, every place they had stopped on the bus trip, they had gotten out their musical instruments, donned their regalia, turned on the cameras and tape recorders, and broken into “spontaneous combustion musical and verbal make-believe shenanigans.” The Pranksters were still doing a version of this in the New York City apartment.
This was the atmosphere into which Kerouac walked. Unlike the intrepid Pranksters, Jack sat quietly on the side, “slightly aloof,” as Babbs told me. They draped a small American flag over Jack’s shoulders, but he took it off, folded it neatly, and placed it on the arm of the couch.
There was absolutely no serious or colorful discussion between Kesey and Kerouac. Jack was never loud, or critical, or indignant. He seemed tired, but he was patient with the Pranksters’ antics. Still, an hour after he came, he left. In the end, he was uncomfortable with Kesey’s overwhelming display of exuberance.
…The Beats and the Pranksters showed us different ways of opting out of society. They were both countercultural movements. The Beats were trying to change literature, and the Pranksters were trying to change the people and the country.