50 Years On: Buddhism Celebrated as Part of the “Summer of Love”
SEATTLE—There is a reason that “turn on, tune in, drop out” could be mistaken by some young seekers today as a quote from the Buddha. This year marks the 50-year anniversary of the “Summer of Love,” a socio-cultural phenomenon that took place in 1967 when as many as 100,000 young people flocked to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, inspiring similar gatherings around the Western world. While their motivations were many: politics, art, drugs, and community to name a few, one motivation worth noting is religion, specifically Buddhism.
A decade earlier in the 1950s, the famous Beat poets, including such Buddhist-influenced luminaries as Allen Ginsburg, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac, paved the way for the consciousness revolutions of the 1960s. Kerouac, famous for The Dharma Bums (The Viking Press 1958), also wrote a version of the Buddha’s life called Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha in 1955. His explorations into Buddhism began with his chance encounter with Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible (self-published 1932).
Ginsburg, who would gain greater fame for his connections to the Tibetan master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the Nalanda Institute (now University) in the 1970s, had already traveled to India in the early 1960s, studying with every holy man he could find, including the 16th Karmapa (Ranjung Rigpe Dorje) and Dudjom Rinpoche. Snyder also showed interest in Eastern as well as Native American wisdom, traveling to Japan in 1955 and staying at the same Zen temple that Dwight Goddard had stayed at nearly 30 years earlier, where he would take refuge under the abbot, Miura Isshu. These three, along with others, developed a uniquely American blend of Zen and American drop-out culture that would blossom in the 1960s.
Blossoming alongside Buddhism were psychedelic drugs. Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia, who would go on to marry Grateful Dead lead man Jerry Garcia, describes the mixture of drugs and Buddhism in 1967: “It got people into a spiritual dimension without the religion attached. It was personal contact with the realm of spiritual energy, with an unseen force that connects everybody to life itself, to nature,” she said. “Many spiritual communities have evolved from the hippie times, including people taking on Buddhism and other Asian religions and recreating them as modern movements. If you want to find out about spirituality and psychedelics, just talk to your yoga teacher.” (Houston Chronicle)
Remarking on the psychedelic counterculture emerging from the Summer of Love, journalist Don Lattin notes, “It was all of that, but the mind-blowing revolution that rocked the streets of San Francisco that summer may also be seen as a new religious movement that profoundly shaped the lives and spiritual expression of millions of Americans who never dropped acid, grew a beard, burned their bra, or set foot in a hippie commune.” (Religion News Service)
While “turn on, tune in, drop out” was, in fact, uttered by Timothy Leary at the “Human Be-In,” a gathering of some 30,000 hippies in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967, the mantra paralleled aspects of the Buddha’s own life as a drop-out, as well as his teachings of “going against the stream” of society and tuning in to the activity of one’s own mind. While it is quite possible that Buddhism would have grown and spread without being adopted (and adapted) by the Beats and their heirs the Hippies, it is almost certain that it would not have become so deeply rooted in American (counter) culture.
Lattin continues: “Anyone who has ever participated in yoga classes, practiced “mindfulness” meditation, looked into alternative medicine, or referred to oneself as “spiritual but not religious,” may want to find a 70-year-old hippie this summer and simply say, ‘Thank you.’” (Religion News Service)
'Summer of Love' shaped American lives, spiritual expression (Houston Chronicle)
How San Francisco’s Summer of Love sparked today’s religious movements (Religion News Service)
Buddhism and the Beats (Beatdom)
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