Geoffrey Ho.


For Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, what begins as a new movement full of promise and dreams, ends up crashing and burning at their feet. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the Merry Pranksters become an influential group on the psychedelic drug scene. They hold acid tests, in which hundreds of people take psychedelic drugs and find meaning in life. “Hundreds were swept up in an experience, which built up like a dream typhoon, peace on the smooth liquid centrifugal whirling edge. In short, everybody in The Movie, on the bus, and it was beautiful…They were like…on! The Pranksters – now primed to draw the hundreds, the thousands, the millions into the new experience, and in the days ahead they came rushing in” (Wolfe, pg. 270). The crowd the Merry Pranksters drew was content in their drugs, lights, and music, experiencing satori and for them, making life meaningful.
However this great movement, this bus full of psychedelic drugs and people, eventually runs out of gas. At the final acid test, the “graduation”, there is no longer music or lights. Kesey, the leader of the Merry Pranksters, now needs silence in order to have an experience. Also, in the early acid tests everyone was welcomed, anyone who was there to enjoy. During the graduation, the Pranksters start to turn people away, claiming they aren’t “in sync” with what’s going on. The Pranksters are even called squares by other people; the tests become boring, ultimately failing. “We blew it”, are the Pranksters final thoughts, with a new generation forming after them, poised to take over. Yet the Kesey shouldn’t have been surprised, for just as the Pranksters took over after the beat generation, there time also ran short, and failure must ultimately be accepted.

Gary Snyder’s poem Mid-August At Sourdough Mountain Lookout, while although only ten lines long, fills the reader up with a sense of estrangement and separation. By using natural language Snyder seems to be reminiscing about his past, giving a feeling of nostalgia. “Down valley a smoke haze, three days heat after five days rain, pitch glows on the fir-cones, across rocks and meadows, swarms of new flies” (Snyder pg. 289). He immediately sets up the reader with the use of soft natural language, staring down over an immense space full of hot smoky haze.
In the second half of the poem, Snyder turns nostalgic, attempting to think about his real life down below, but with not much success. It is reminiscent of the feelings of Ray Smith in the Dharma Bums while he sits atop Desolation peak. After the summer, Ray doesn’t even want to return to the real world and the people he knew, but just stay there, learning from the mountain. “I cannot remember things I once read, a few friends, but they are in cities. Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup, looking down for miles, through high still air” (Snyder pg. 289). Snyder comes across here as completely separated from the world below, miles above the earth. However although his mind quickly glimpses into his past and his friends, he is content on the mountain by himself. And like Ray, would rather learn from the mountain and the silence than the busy and crowded city street.

In Alan Watts’ essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” he discusses the spread of eastern religions into the west, and that the practice and Zen has taken on many forms. Watts takes the stance that Westerners are jumping into and embracing eastern religion too quickly, without first understanding their own purpose. “But the Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously” (Watts, pg. 610). Here he is describing that the common Westerner is using Zen merely as an escape from something else. For someone who has grown up as a Christian their entire life, Zen seems like the perfect alternative at a time of personal change. “Foreign religions can be immensely attractive and highly overrated by those who know little of their own, and especially by those who have not worked through and grown out of their own. This is why the displaced or unconscious Christian can so easily use either beat or square Zen to justify himself” (Watts, pg. 613).

Since beat Zen gives a notion of rejection of common beliefs and falls into a system of “anything goes”, it is the type that is most appealing. Square Zen on the other hand comes with rules, with years of practice before someone can tell if the student has had a “satori”. The attraction to beat Zen is that satori, which are periods of enlightenment, can occur at any time under any situation. Watts takes a neutral viewpoint on the issue, explaining that both beat and square Zen can produce the same result by traveling on different paths. “I have known followers of both extremes to come up with perfectly clear satori experiences, for since there is no real “way” to satori the way you are following makes very little difference” (Watts, pg. 612). Whether beat or square, Zen proves an attractive alternative to the Westerner seeking purpose and direction.

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