Buddhism and the Beat of the Street

Where is the Buddhism that relates to the culture of the street? Where is the Buddhism that speaks the language of the street, that connects with street people? What comes to mind foremost is the Beat Poets, particularly Jack Kerouac and his poetry. I’ve been listening to recordings of Jack’s poetry, Blues and HaikusThe Beat Generation, On the Road. Jack’s poetry pulsates with the beat of the street, being as it was, about jazz and jazz musicians, about the desolation of drug havens, dharma bums, living on the lam, the beauty of common prostitutes. Contemporary western Buddhism is institutionalized, wrapped in a vacuum-sealed bag of holier-than-thou attitudes and proper form. As such it appeals to and continues to attract the same kinds of white-and-uptight, rich-bitch, sanctimonious assholes who totally dominate the practice. If we are going to relate to denizens of the street, we have to understand their culture, their approach to spirituality. We have to vibrate with the holiness of the street that exploded in Ginsburg’s Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
     starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking 
     for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
     connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking 
     in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating 
     across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw
     Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs 
     illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
     hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the 
     scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing 
     obscene odes on the windows of the skull,. . .
Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload
     of sensitive bullshit! 
Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions! gone down
     the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten years’ animal
     screams and suicides! Minds! New loves! Mad generation! 
     down on the rocks of Time!
Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the
     holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof to
     solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the
     street!

Patti Smith is a transitional Beat, one who bridged the decades between the 50s Beat Generation and the 70s punks. Her songs are searing poetic excursions into the transcendent experience of the street. (See Patti’s live performance of 25h Floor below.) Lou Reed is another 70s beat poet and contemporary of Smith, whose best album, New York, is all about the spiritual pulse of the street. Heroine, transsexuals, S&M, drug dealers, landlords, teenage criminals—these are the people and the subjects that Reed sang about. You wouldn’t know from his songs that he was a practicing Buddhist, but that’s the point. If we are doing Buddhism the way it needs to be done to reach street people, it’s not going to be anything that’s recognizable to institutional Buddhism.

The Dharma Punks were the next generation in the Beat lineage. Straight edge, yogis and buddhists, like Noah Levine and Josh Korda, these are the punks who came from the streets, lived through the highs and the hells of street life, and forged a spirituality scarred with the tattoos and lacerations of the street. These are the punk gurus who attract the disillusioned, the addicted, the angry youth perpetually searching for freedom from the chains of capitalist exploitation and self-imposed hell realms.

This is my Buddhism, the Buddhism that pulses with the beat of the street. That’s why you won’t find me in stuffy meditation halls painted white, gold-leafed and brocaded with strange Tibetan symbols. The streets and alleys of the North End are the halls where I sit and meditate, where I embrace the poverty that comes from stubborn opposition to the capitalist machine, where I practice the austerities of the dharma bums, where I decode the secret tantra of the drag queens and listen to the teachings of the coffee shop gurus.

Rat Sangha

by Shaun Bartone

Rat sangha, rat sangha
my fellow rats
my brother, sister rats
let me sit with you
here in the alley way
I smell like food
but I have none today
but let me sit with you
anyway
let us sit together
and contemplate
our existence

let us simply breathe. . .
breathe in the smell
of rotting leaves
fermented piss
and pizza crusts
breath in the smell
of old coke bottles
filled with rancid water
and cigarette butts
floating in puddles of muck

Rat sangha, rat sangha
my fellow rats
my sister, brother rats
you are awake, indeed
with your beady black eyes
and twitchy noses
with your tiny rat consciousness
you are Buddha, no less
in your precious rat bodies
you have attained
the rat view of the world
and thus,
you understand the true nature
of human beings
you see our kind
from the ground up
you smell our aggression
in your keen wisdom
you hide in the darkness
from our murderous arrogance. . .

“Ratzinger, Ratzinger”
is what you call us
we, the self-annointed Popes
of self-righteousness
we who barely conceal
our viciousness
in scarlet robes
of religious piety

“Ratzinger, Ratzinger”
is what you call us
we the self-ordained monks
of the unmoving lips
and the vacant stare
you listen for our
ringing bells
and murmuring tongues
for the moment comes
when we open the window
and dump an offering
of holy water
on your breeding grounds below

“Ratzinger, Ratzinger”
is what you call us
we the self-conjuring
gods of this world
who greedily set out
to destroy
nearly everything
in the name of
self-preservation
and leave nothing behind
for all other beings
but the discarded scraps
of our voracious appetites

on these you survive
in your alley way shrine
so let me sit
and let me dine
with you
rat sister, rat brother
let me sit with you
and see what you see
and smell what you smell
while I play on my harmonica
a hymn for you.

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