I first started reading Jack Kerouac in 1968, a battered paperback copy of On the Road, reprinted a decade after its original publication and kept in a pocket of a pack sack for easy reference as I hitchhiked around the country one summer.
The book enjoyed a small resurgence of interest as the early hippies imagined themselves as the spiritual descendants of the beats and enjoyed a similar flowering of art, music and literature.
For a brief while, many of the beat writers and musicians and their contemporaries basked in that renewed interest. I listened to Charlie Mingus, The Fugs, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and others almost as much as I listened to The Beatles, the Jefferson Airplane and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. I remember reading Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, William S. Burroughs and others around that time.
And, of course, Kerouac. On the Road was just the most popular of his publications (although not his first novel: that was The Town and the City, published in 1950). I quickly read The Dharma Bums then Desolation Angels (still my favourite of his 11 novels) afterwards (somewhere in my library I still have at least those two).
Around the same time, I was discovering Buddhism. I started reading D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Paul Reps and Dwight Goddard. The two influences – Buddhism and Kerouac – melded well for me then. They seemed a natural fit, and have continued to be factors in my own life.
Kerouac’s novels are still read, and likely every one of you has at least finished On the Road: it’s a seminal work of American fiction and not to be overlooked. It was released in an enlarged, annotated ebook edition with maps, images and more, by Penguin in 2011 (Kerouac is one of several Beat generation writers whose works have recently been of renewed interest to the reading public).
I haven’t read it myself in more than four decades, but it’s on my list to re-read this year (I know, I know: that list is already many titles long and it’s only March…).
What sparked my interest was finding a copy of Some of the Dharma in a local used book store. I hadn’t even known it existed until then. Not surprising: it was published in the late 1990s. It had sat in the archives since 1956, because Kerouac was unable to find a publisher for it. I had to get it, of course.
It’s not an easy book, and, having been a book editor, I can appreciate why it was a hard sell. It’s more like a stream-of-consciousness examination of Kerouac’s inner self. It meanders through music, jazz, sex, friends, drinking, Buddhist sutras and practice, prose, prayers, dreams, travel, writers, the Bible… all slapped together in no coherent manner, in a difficult and convoluted layout that would drive typesetters in the pre-PC days batty.
Kerouac comes across in it variously as wise, foolish, arrogant, humble, misogynistic, confused, naive, brilliant and crazy. And clearly conflicted: Kerouac struggles with knowledge, understanding, belief, image and masculinity. It is thus a very human work. It’s also very modern in many ways and fits comfortably with works by his peers like Burroughs.
If you think rap is new (and you know nothing of the New York City street poets of the 1960s), read the lengthy Poem of the Buddhas of Old (p131-135) and imagine it spoken to a rap beat. Here’s a small selection from the start:
The boys were sittin
In a grove of trees
Listenin to Buddy
Explain the keys.
“Boys I say the keys
Cause there’s lots a keys
But only one door,
One hive for the bees.
So listen to me
And I’ll try to tell all
As I heard it long ago
In the Pure Land Hall.
Life is like a dream
You only think it’s real
Cause you’re born a sucker
For that kind of deal;
But the Truth was known
You ain’t here nohow
And neither am I
Nor that cow and sow
Kerouac was an early adopter of Buddhism, which was essentially unknown and overlooked in the postwar era. He took to it right from his introduction in 1953, and eagerly spreading the word to his friends and the other writers and musicians of the beat generation. His friend Allen Ginsberg maintained his Buddhism until his death. Ginsberg once described Kerouac as “…a French Canadian Hinayana Buddhist Catholic savant)
While Kerouac’s Buddhism heavily influenced his early writing, he seems to have struggled with it; struggled to understand and fully immerse himself in it, to put it into some meaningful context that matched his postwar world and his private life, to frame it in some manner more easily understood by his American contemporaries. His Catholic background sometimes came through to complement it, but also conflicted with it, too.
Kerouac intended the book as a manual to teach others, but it’s simply too eccentric for that. It’s much more of a personal journal than a guide. But you can read in it Kerouac’s intellectual appreciation of Buddhism.
In his review of Some of the Dharma in Tricycle magazine (a major Buddhist publication), Stuart Smithers wrote,
Kerouac was confused and tortured and he used Buddhism (as he understood it) to justify his flight from the world, from pain, from his family, and from Catholicism. In a note titled “WHY DO I WANT TO LEAVE SOCIETY?” he lists several events that left him wounded, from being punched and called names as a child playing sandlot football to discovering that he was an unwanted house guest. Kerouac was torn painfully between his need for companionship and his wish for solitude. In fact, Kerouac seems to have longed for some deeper embrace while at the same time fleeing from it: in the end, he embraced the life of flight.
Shortly after he completed Some of the Dharma, Kerouac wrote The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, an attempt – inspired by the advice of his friend Gary Snyder – to craft a sutra that expressed his learning and vision about Buddhism. It’s eminently more readable, but still a bit of a slog at times.
On The Zen Site, Sarah Haynes wrote:
The content of Scripture is similar to Dharma in many ways, yet differs in others. Kerouac presents his ‘case’ much more formally, thus limiting himself in ways that he did not have to in Dharma. In the scriptures of the sutra Kerouac did not use the unconventional asterisks, doodles and hyphens seen in Dharma. Scripture’s small 38-page text is divided into 66 scriptures, which Kerouac managed to fill with doublespeak logic that seems to have come quite naturally to him…
Kerouac loaded the short scriptures with haikus, Zen koans, poetry, prose and meditations that, like Dharma, reflected his inner search for enlightenment and outward quest for the meaning of the universe. The conflicted Kerouac of the first text appears to be absent from Scripture. Kerouac emerges in this latter as a man who was at peace with the realizations that he had made.
If Kerouac comes across in the Scripture as a man who has come to terms with his beliefs, by 1960 when it was published, he had essentially given up trying to be a Buddhist in much more than name only. Perhaps he had become disillusioned by the effort. He lapsed back into Catholicism. Allen Ginsberg, remembering Kerouac in an article penned for Tricycle in 1992, wrote,
As Jack grew older, in despair and lacking the means to calm his mind and let go of the suffering, he tended more and more to grasp at the Cross. And so, in his later years, he made many paintings of the Cross, of cardinals, popes, of Christ crucified, of Mary; seeing himself on the Cross, and finally conceiving of himself as being crucified. He was undergoing crucifixion in the mortification of his body as he drank.
But even as his passion flagged, his influence on American readers, in sparking interest in Buddhism, continued and expanded. That interest grew and spread across the continent, right through to the late 1970s. By that time, Buddhism was firmly established as a popular religion in North America. It continues to grow and spread even wider today, but without Kerouac as its fuel.
To Jack Kerouac, I owe my own interest in Buddhism. It began with curiosity that grew from reading his novels almost 50 years ago – The Dharma Bums in particular started me searching – and it has grown ever since. So when I pick up his long-lost tome, Some of the Dharma, I suppose I am somewhat less critical of it than a literary reviewer because I recognize the debt I owe its author. And on that note, I need to go back to the book store for a copy of On the Road before I forget.