Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Avant-Garde Buddhism

I finally hit on what it is that I’ve been seeking in my Buddhist practice that is so missing in the usual sanghas of Buddhism-as-religion: avant-garde Buddhism. I have called it by many names: post-buddhism, x-post-non Buddhism. But “avant-garde’ finally hit the nail on the head.

My greatest inspirations in the dharma have been avant-garde  artists who were also Buddhists, or who were influenced by Buddhism: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Meredith Monk, and transcendental artists like Patti Smith and Bjork. I’m about to get into a book on the subject: Nothing and Everything – The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde 1942 – 1962  by Ellen Perlman (Penguin-Randomhouse, 2012).


But beyond avant-garde art forms, I’m also keen on avant-garde approaches to the dharma per se. Avant-garde art influenced by Buddhism gives way to avant-garde transformations of Buddhism itself. I’d like to courageously push the dharma as far into the avant-garde edges of mysticism, philosophy, sociology, art and human experience as I can. I’m sick of religious Buddhism and its use as a narcotic for the neurasthenic middle class. I want to engage in a practice that pushes the dharma and my own practice experience to a vertiginous edge.

I’m working on a new piece of music and performance art called Shunyata: process, flow. I use electronic and improvised music, light, chant and dance to portray shunyata as the process/flow of natural events.

The key for me is not to push only on the avant-garde end, but to let the rebellious dissent and transgression of the avant-garde vibrate in tension with religious Buddhism. If one only pushes toward the avant-garde, then all you get is something that tries to be weirder than weird and fails to communicate anything. But if you let it stand in direct tension with religious or traditional Buddhism, it gives the avant-garde something to push against, something to define itself.

And mind you, this is not some schmaltzy attempt at the “middle way.” No, this is a head-on collision between two opposing forces, and the messy explosion of atomic energy that it generates.

The following blog post by author Joseph Hutchinson starts to say what I’m getting at.

Buddhism, Darwinism, Avant-Garde

4 comments on “Avant-Garde Buddhism

  1. jhwriter

    I’m glad you found my post useful, Shaun. On the subject of avant-garde/post-modernism etc., give Percival Everett a try. His novel Percival Everett by Virgil Russell is an example of post-modern sensibility with “something to push against.” I don’t know if Everett is a Buddhist, but there are traces of Buddhist sensibility throughout his work….

    Glad to be following you. Very rich stuff, from the little I’ve read so far….

    • Shaun Bartone

      Thanks so much for the reference, John, and thanks for letting me re-post your article. I look forward to reading more on your site.

  2. Michael Lee

    I’ve been thrust into the realm of Buddhism and the Avant-Garde for years now. But I wonder where we are now? Who are the contemporaries pushing this edge that are engaged in both of these two rich traditions? There are the obvious ones that you state, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Anderson, Cage and the rest… Am I too much in the thrust of my own time that I’m unaware of my peers, or is the time of Buddhist Avant-Garde past us?

    • Shaun Bartone

      I certainly hope we’re not past it. Westerners have been focusing too much on psychology and neuroscience. We’ve forgotten that the other way to ‘relieve suffering’ and experience joy is through art and creativity. This blog contains many articles on art.

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This entry was posted on 2016/08/22 by and tagged , , .


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