The Zen of Anarchy: Japanese Exceptionalism and the Anarchist Roots of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance by James Brown

In this article, I will describe Zen anarchism, a strain of American political and religious thought that developed among Beat poets of the San Francisco renaissance. Specifically, I will explore and attempt to explain the particular historical formation called Beat Zen anarchism, an aesthetic and political ideal that emerged from the Beat generation’s dialogue with Japanese Buddhism. I will show how Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Alan Watts, in particular, trans-muted a Japanese exceptionalist critique of American rationality and materialism explicit in the work of Japanese Zen writers, especially D. T. Suzuki, into a radical, anarchistic critique of American cold war culture. In the process of presenting Zen anarchism as an American religious phenomenon, I call into question two important narratives about American religious and political life in the twentieth century.  First, I suggest ways in which the emergence of Beat Zen anarchism in the 1950s reconfigures common narratives of the American left that tend to focus on Marxist-inspired literature and dissent. Second, and more centrally, I hope to show how Beat Zen emerged not primarily from an Orientalist appropriation of “the East,” as one might argue, but rather from an Occidentalist, Japanese-centered criticism of American materialism that followed from the complex legacy of the World’s Parliament of Religions at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

James Brown

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