I came across this letter from William S. Burroughs to Jack Kerouac and it’s about Kerouac’s recent ‘conversion’ to Buddhism and how in light of that, he’s taken a vow of chastity and is abstaining from sex (Kerouac, not Burroughs).
As a Burroughs fan, especially his dark and gloomy works, I found this letter to his friend a real treat and surprise to read. By this time, he’d had already accidentally shot dead his second wife Joan Vollmer, he was in a spiral of despair, which ironically began his period of his greatest work, albeit most of it done under the influence. This letter to Jack Kerouac, his arguments about why Buddhism isn’t for the West, is surprisingly lucid, logical and analytical.
This letter piqued my interest because I was brought up in a Buddhist household until I was 18 years old. My mother is a devout Buddhist as is the rest of her family. I was technically raised a Buddhist but I never felt myself to be a Buddhist. I always felt myself to be an impostor when I am in a Buddhist space chanting or praying. It never felt real or sincere to me. I never spiritually or emotionally connected with it. I always knew deep in my gut I am a Catholic and one day I will return to the Catholic church (I was baptized by at birth because my father was a Catholic). I knew the Catholic church, for all of it’s problems, is where my spiritual heart belongs, it is where I belong.
I had several issues with Buddhism, and my chief complaint is I found it to be too passive and devoid of emotion or as Burroughs calls it ‘avoiding suffering’. From how I understand Buddhism (and that’s not saying much), the aim of being a Buddhist is to release ourselves from this painful world full of human suffering by attaining enlightenment so that we can become a Buddha ourselves and leave this suffering world behind for eternity. There are many ways to achieve this but the central and main method of achieving this is to detach ourselves from all worldly things and they include love for parents, children, family, romantic love, love for your pets as all those emotions are seen as an impediment to enlightenment because they cause unnecessary emotional attachments. I’ve seen many Buddhist morph from normal sentient human beings to being a emotionless robot who cannot process the most common of human emotions. I do not think this is what the great Siddhartha had in mind when he created Buddhism.
Burroughs (perhaps in an altered state as it’s safe to assume that he spent many years of his life in an altered state) has articulated what I long felt about Buddhism: “…So my conclusion was that Buddhism…it is not, for the West, An ANSWER, not a SOLUTION. We must learn by acting, experiencing, and living; that is, above all, by LOVE and by SUFFERING. A man who uses Buddhism or any other instrument to remove love from his being in order to avoid, has committed, in my mind, a sacrilege comparable to castration. You were given the power to love in order to use it, no matter what pain it may cause you”
I do not believe in order to attain ‘enlightenment’ or salvation, one must become a robot devoid of any emotions, sympathy and empathy. I don’t believe that to feel love for another fellow man, women or animals is an impediment to our ultimate enlightenment. In fact, it’s sometimes through love, especially love that was unexpected, and I don’t mean romantic love, but real agape love, sincere love towards another human whom we didn’t expect to love, do we find our salvation. Such as finding love for someone who has wronged us, someone whom we would not normally love but we are able to look deep in ourselves and find that even people who we find repugnant also deserve love and mercy, do we find the true meaning of life and God’s Will for us. This is what ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ means.
It’s very easy to love people we like and to whom we have much in common with, and it’s also very easy to dislike all people equally for no good reason, but it is very difficult to find love and mercy in our hearts to people we find unlovable. And this, according to Burroughs is the meaning of life, “Whether you like it or not, you are committed to the human endeavor. I can not ally myself with such a purely negative goal as avoidance of suffering. Suffering is a chance you have to take by the fact of being alive.”
This is what make William S. Burroughs a great writer and thinker, in the depth of his despair (by his own doing), in the downward spiral of addiction, he can still articulate the essential idea of love and the human endeavor. His own, mainly self inflicted problems, did not obscure what his mission in life is, and that is to love.
The full text of the letter is below:
...I can't help but feeling that you are going too far with your absolute chastity.Besides, masturbation is NOT chastity, it is just a way of sidestepping the issue without even approaching the solution. Remember, Jack, I studied and practiced Buddhism (in my usual sloppy way to be sure). The conclusion I arrived at, and make no claims to speak from a state of enlightenment, but merely to have attempted the journey, as always with inadequate equipment and knowledge (like one of my South American expeditions), falling into every possible accident and error, losing my gear and my way, chilled to the blood-making marrow with final despair of aloneness: What am I doing here a broken eccentric? A Bowery Evangelist, reading books on Theosophy in the public library (an old tin trunk full of notes in my cold water East Side flat), imagining myself a Secret World Controller in Telepathic contact with Tibetan Adepts... Could I ever SEE the merciless, cold FACTS on some Winter night, sitting in the operation room white glare of a cafeteria - NO SMOKING PLEASE - see the facts AND MYSELF, an old man with the wasted years behind, and what ahead having seen the Facts? A trunk full of notes to dump in a Henry St. lot?... So my conclusion was that Buddhism is only for the West to STUDY as HISTORY, that is it is a subject for UNDERSTANDING, and Yoga can profitably be practiced to that end. But it is not, for the West, An ANSWER, not a SOLUTION. We must learn by acting, experiencing, and living; that is, above all, by LOVE and by SUFFERING. A man who uses Buddhism or any other instrument to remove love from his being in order to avoid, has committed, in my mind, a sacrilege comparable to castration. You were given the power to love in order to use it, no matter what pain it may cause you. Buddhism frequently amounts to a form of psychic junk... Because if there is one thing I feel sure of it's this: That human life has DIRECTION. Even if we accept some Spenglerian Cycle routine, the cycle never comes back to exactly the same place, nor does it ever exactly repeat itself... When the potentials of any species are exhausted, the species becomes static (like all animals, reptiles and other so-called lower forms of life). What distinguished Man from all other species is that he CANNOT BECOME STATIC. "Er muss streben oderuntergehen" (quotation is from myself in character of German Philosopher)-"He must continue to develop or perish."... What I mean is the California Buddhists are trying to sit on the sidelines and there ARE no sidelines. Whether you like it or not, you are committed to the human endeavor. I can not ally myself with such a purely negative goal as avoidance of suffering. Suffering is a chance you have to take by the fact of being alive. I repeat, BUDDHISM IS NOT FOR THE WEST. We must evolve our own solutions... I am having serious difficulties with my novel. I tell you the novel form is completely inadequate to express what I have to say. I don't know if I can find a form. I am very gloomy as to prospects of publication. And I'm not like you, Jack. I need an audience. Of course, a small audience. But still I need publication for development. A writer can be ruined by too much or too little success... From "Letters of William S. Burroughs 1945-1959." Edited with an introduction by Oliver Harris. Viking, 1993.