Freeing Tibet: 50 Years of Struggle, Resilience and Hope
Rarely has a cause like the movement to free Tibet had such unusual allies. It began during the Cold War as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert operation. In the 1960s and 1970s, just as the U.S. government interest in Tibet began to wane, the movement was adopted by the counterculture. The spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, coinciding with the Dalai Lama's emergence from his isolation in India to become an international spiritual leader, transformed the movement into a popular global cause. At each phase in the movement to free Tibet, individual lives of unlikely allies – spies and statesmen, Beatnik poets and writers, gurus and seekers, students and performers – intersected in ways that combined to keep the hope of Tibetan freedom alive.
This book is the story of how the free Tibet movement was born, nurtured, and continues to endure...
Excerpt from Chapter 3
The Dharma Beatniks
and the Island of the Dead
The White House and the CIA weren't the only ones taking an interest in Buddhism in the 1950s. By an odd instance of cultural synchronicity, not only American warriors, but also American poets were embracing Buddhism. The Beat Generation of writers had awakened to the appeal of Zen Buddhism about the same time as President Eisenhower signed National Security Directive 5412/2, especially an obscure New Jersey author named Jack Kerouac.
In 1956, a Mongolian Buddhist monk named Geshe Wangyal opened the first Tibetan Buddhist center in the West in an old garage in Howell Township, New Jersey. Wangyal was not only the first Tibetan Buddhist scholar to move to the United States, he was also the first intermediary between the CIA and the Dalai Lama's family. Fearing for her son's safety under Chinese rule, Diki Tsering, the Dalai Lama's mother, had asked for Geshe's help in 1951 when they were both in Kalimpong, India. Geshe contacted the American consulate in Calcutta, where he met CIA officer Robert Linn. In the hope that Linn might help persuade Tenzin Gyatso to take refuge in India, Wangyal introduced Linn to the family.
Geshe Wangyal's arrival in New York harbor aboard the S.S. Liberte was featured in the New York World Telegram with a photo and a caption heralding the arrival of the "Buddhist Minister." In 1951, the United States gave asylum to 800 Mongolians who had been living in refugee camps in Europe since the end of World War II. The Mongolians, who were among the millions of people displaced by the war, came from the region of Kalmykia on the north Caspian Sea, inside the borders of the Soviet Union.
The Kalmyks formed a unique ethnic group and had practiced Tibetan Buddhism for centuries. In 1264 Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, was enthroned as the first emperor of the Mongol Dynasty to rule over China. Kublai Khan was a convert to Tibetan Buddhism. Another Mongol ruler, Prince Altan Khan, bestowed the title of Dalai Lama on a high Buddhist lama of the Gelug sect named Sonam Gyatso. The title "Dalai Lama" is Mongolian. It means "Ocean of Wisdom." The result was an alliance between the Mongol court and the Gelug. Altan Khan extended the Gelug his protection and invited them to establish monasteries in his kingdom to convert the Mongol people to Buddhism.
The Kalmyk Mongol immigrants settled in Freewood Acres, New Jersey. Geshe Wangyal joined them as the community's first spiritual adviser. Not long after his arrival, he reunited with the Dalai Lama's oldest brother, Norbu, who was teaching classes at Columbia. His local visibility and the university affiliation put him at the epicenter of the literary and cultural ferment that spawned the Beatnik scene. Poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac were just beginning to flourish.
Zen's arrival on the West Coast was the initial catalyst for the Beatniks' attraction to Buddhism. For many of the Beat Generation writers, but especially Ginsberg and Waldman, Zen served as a pathway to Tibetan Buddhism.
As a virtual unknown, Kerouac was hardly in a position in the mid-1950s to promote the popular spread of Buddhism in the United States. His first novel, The Town and the City, had been published in 1950. It received decent reviews but sold poorly. As a result, he couldn't get another book published. Over the next three years, Kerouac wrote four other novels in addition to On the Road, the book that would eventually establish him as a literary star and popular culture phenomenon. But even with this prolific output and the unrelenting efforts of his agent, Sterling Lord, he couldn't find a publisher. Fed up with trying to break into New York publishing circles, Kerouac immersed himself in Buddhism.
He began writing an epic tome called Some of the Dharma. It would ultimately swell to more than 400 pages of intricate typography and riffs labeled by Kerouac with such idiosyncratic names as "Ecstasy" or "TIC" and "Flash." (Oddly enough, for both the CIA and Jack Kerouac, the word "Flash" was part of a private language. To Kerouac, Flash meant "short sleepdreams or drouse daydreams of an enlightened nature describable in a few words." To the CIA, "Flash" meant a cable of the highest priority.) This epistle to Buddhism was not published in full until almost 30 years after Kerouac's death in 1969 at the age of 47.
Kerouac corresponded often with Ginsberg about the book's progress. In one letter in the spring of 1954, he wrote about his "discovery and espousal of the sweet Buddha." In May of that year, he told Ginsberg he had typed a "100-page account of Buddhism for you, gleaned from my notes." He gave Ginsberg a list of reading books and offered to be his guru, or teacher, in studying Buddhism.
The following year, 1955, Kerouac began working on a book called Buddha Tells Us. Kerouac considered it "by far the most important thing" he had ever written. He almost got it into print, but the publishers – Crowley, Giroux and Sterling – wanted him to guarantee the book would sell at least 600 copies before they accepted it. He couldn't....After the rejection of Buddha Tells Us, Kerouac moved to San Francisco, where City Lights Books was publishing work by the Beatniks, to join Ginsberg. The city was home to many Zen Buddhists, including the poet Philip Whalen, who later became a Zen Buddhist priest. Whalen and Kerouac enthusiastically exchanged views on Buddhism.
When City Lights published Ginsberg's incendiary poem Howl in 1956, the poet lauded Kerouac in a flattering dedication that called him the "new Buddha of American prose." Ginsberg cited Kerouac's extraordinary output of eleven books over a five-year period, including Some of the Dharma. He noted plaintively, for readers who might understandably have been mystified as to where Kerouac's books could be found, that "all these books are published in Heaven."
Ginsberg's paean of praise helped conjure Kerouac's worldly fame, for in 1956, Sterling Lord finally succeeded in selling On the Road to Viking. The book was published in September 1957. The New York Times gave it an approving review, and Kerouac's literary career went into orbit. In 1958 The Dharma Bums made its way into print...
America's literary avant-garde and the vanguard of the presidency – the CIA – were embracing Tibetan Buddhism simultaneously, although each in their own measure and with distinctly different motives and means. The Beat Buddhists gave prominence to words and awareness, the CIA, to intelligence training and weapons. This synchronicity between establishment and counter-culture was a rare convergence, one that would shape the fate of Tibetan Buddhism...