Nothing and Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942 – 1962
(Evolver Editions, 2012)
I met with Ellen Pearlman at Yaffa Café in the East Village. She had the salmon. I had an iced mocha. It was a dismal day but we sat outside so I could smoke which, it turned out, I couldn’t. We talked about her book, Nothing and Everything: The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde, 1942-1962 which was released by Evolver Editions, an imprint of North Atlantic Books, in April. We talked of how Buddhism influenced the Beats; crazy Buddhist monks; when happenings were going on; when the East Village was cool—you know, before we got here.
Jade Sharma (Rail): So you helped found the Rail, right?
Ellen Pearlman: Yeah, there was a bunch of us. At first, it was touch and go. After every issue we would go out and celebrate but after two years it started doing well.
Rail: What was your intention with the Rail?
Pearlman: We wanted to capture the Williamsburg scene.
Rail: Did you write art or—
Pearlman: Art, book reviews, dance. A year or two after the Rail started, I got a grant from the Asian Cultural Council to go to nomadic Tibet and I went and filmed sacred dance and went through China and decided China was really happening. So in 2005 I decided to live there.
Rail: So you’ve written other books about China?
Pearlman: Four. But no one has ever written a book like this. This is a rewriting of an intellectual history.
Rail: When you conceived this book, were you more interested in the religious side or the art side of how Buddhism influenced the avant-garde?
Pearlman: Well, you know the artist always knows what’s going on before everyone else. I was with Allen Ginsberg when he died, just about 15 years ago. I wasn’t the only one with him, there were 40 of us. So I saw someone important passing before me and…the story would be gone. Some of the subjects I write about have since died. There’s a lot of archival material in the book that’s never been published. So I thought it was important for someone to tell the story. I felt responsible to do it.
Rail: Was Buddhism central to Allen and the Beats?
Pearlman: Yeah, but not always. It happened in the late ’40s when they were up at Columbia and they wanted what Lucien Carr said, “a new vision.” I interviewed Allen about it and he said that, like every generation, they were looking for a new vision. But there was a lot of awful stuff happening. Lucien Carr killed David Kammerer because David made an advance—Lucien pulled out a penknife and stabbed him. At the same time Allen was involved in a group of petty thieves, you know, Herbert Huncke. So what happened, instead of them finding a new vision, someone’s dead, Allen’s hanging out with a bunch of petty thieves. After that, he was arrested and ended up in a psych ward. So, they were really having a hard time.
Rail: Who was it that brought Buddhism into the picture?
Pearlman: Kerouac was in California and got a hold of Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible which affected him profoundly because what he was reading matched with what he was feeling. So he started taking all these notes that Viking published as Some of the Dharma. Kerouac started instructing Allen. But Jack had no method. Gary Snyder was actually going to Japan and studying there, and he was the real practitioner. That happened a lot in California. There was a small group of painters called the Northwest School that was influenced by Buddhism. It was very underground. I have to give this presentation, and I made 20 or 30 maps of everyone’s relationships with everyone else and how Buddhism spread.
Rail: Buddhism started in India and then where did it go from there?
Pearlman: It went to China, Korea, and it went to Japan. And it took 2,000 years or 1,000 years, depending on how you date it. When it came to the United States is documented in Rick Field’s book, How the Swans Came to the Lake. How it came to the cultural avant-garde has not been so well documented. The ideas of Buddhism happen to work with Modernism and Postmodernism as the world was dissolving into structural reality, and the painting was leaving the canvas. Buddhism gave a philosophical and methodological basis for these practices.
Rail: How did people learn about Buddhism on an individual level? Were there books?
Pearlman: Yeah. Gary Snyder was reading these books, but they were considered esoteric and very strange. But no one had access to meditation. No one had access to anything.
Rail: In the book, you talk about Suzuki’s famous classes where people like Erich Fromm, John Cage, and all these influential people went. How did that come to be?
Pearlman: Well, there was a man named Cornelius Crane. If you go to the bathroom and you look at the sink, it will say “Crane.” He was a wealthy heir, and he actually paid for Suzuki to teach these classes, not just to the students, but the class was open to the general public. Ginsberg and Kerouac knew he was teaching but they didn’t go to his class. They did meet him.
Rail: What I found curious was how differently Zen Buddhism affected American artists, as opposed to Asian artists.
Pearlman: Well, this idea of Zen as tranquility and peace; part of that is Zen but another part of that is Asian aesthetics. That’s how they made art there, whether it was Buddhist-inspired or Shinto. But in Japanese art there’s always this idea of the crazy Japanese monk. And there were stories of a Buddhist monk who would take a chicken and dip the chicken’s feet in paint and have him run around the canvas.
Rail: It was refreshing to hear about people making art that wasn’t referential or elitist, but really struggling with what the purpose is. Do you think you’ll write other books about how Zen affected later generations?
Pearlman: It’s that first step from one place to another that I wanted to capture; the book I did just opens the door. There’s a lot more work to be done.