This essay explores the political origins and implications of Beat Zen anarchism, a cultural phenomenon located in the intersection between American anarchist traditions and Zen Buddhism in the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Focusing on the writings of D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, it shows how Beat Zen emerged not primarily from an Orientalist appropriation of “the East” 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. In staking their claims to Zen, in other words, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder—the Beat poets on whom this essay focuses—along with Alan Watts expressed the views not of cultural imperialists, as one might suppose, but of converts to what they regarded as a superior way of life.
The Beat adoption of Zen intersected with a broadly libertarian and specifically anarchist social milieu in San Francisco that congregated around Kenneth Roxroth's Libertarian Club and Anarchist Circle. The individualist, anti-statist, and anarchist political outlooks of Beat Zen anarchists were directly confirmed by the writings of D. T. Suzuki, who presented Zen as a practice of personal liberation from cultural conditioning. Suzuki's rhetorical approach—which treated Japanese Zen as both a pinnacle of Asian civilization and a key to the liberation of Western humanity from its stifling and destructive rationalism—was informed by Meiji-era Japanese nationalism and exceptionalism and by the universalism that Buddhist missionaries brought to their explanations of Zen to Westerners. Arguing that Beat Zen poets, in adopting Buddhism as it was presented to them, were foremost Occidentalist rather than Orientalist in outlook, this essay concludes that the Beat Zen anarchist cultural formation suggests a libertarian alternative to Orientalism and also reconfigures common conceptions of American radical literary history as primarily Marxistinflected.