I find myself circling around Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums once again. There have been people who say On the Road captured The Beat Generation as Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises captured The Lost Generation; and I agree. On the Road caught my attention, and I resonated with the search for God, IT, and whatever else is bigger than the manufactured grey life; but Dharma Bums shook something deeper in me. The book is not entirely fiction, but a creative non-fiction with the real events novelized to express the longing Kerouac had to find a place of peace in the presence of Jesus. Granted he goes back and forth with Buddhist and Catholic imagery, but for him the two approaches were intertwined, and the teachings of The Buddha are what gave him insight to his own Catholicism. The religious imagery, though, is not what drew me to the book, but Kerouac’s journey from Mexico and across America as a religious wanderer—a modern bikhu (monk) practicing the teachings in The Diamond Sutra. I did not discover the Buddha until my early thirties, but, like Kerouac, the teachings helped me understand my own Catholic faith and why I found the spiritual practice empty. The emptiness was not limited to Catholicism, and I experienced the same lack in the three branches of Christianity. I had become a disaffected Christian as Alan Watts so aptly put in his 1958 essay, “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” to describe the people in the 1950’s who flocked to Zen Buddhism to become more Christ like. Jack Kerouac’s journey in Dharma Bums can be separated into three parts as the three jewels of Buddhism: “I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the sangha. I take refuge in the Buddha.”
As I wrote this, I realized this post could be a long read if included all three parts. For the sake of brevity, I decided to do a three part series on Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Enjoy!
The book opens with Kerouac’s character, Ray Smith hopping a train in southern California after getting off another train from Mexico. He was already two thousand miles into his journey, and had another four hundred miles before he reached San Francisco. He met another bum whom he called a St. Teresa bum because the man had taken a magazine clipping of a prayer by St. Teresa who prayed it every day. St. Teresa had been canonized as a saint in the 1920’s, and was a prominent figure in Kerouac’s French-Canadian home. She lived a short life, but one of the things she is noted for is her view of kindness in spiritual practice. For St. Teresa the smallest act of kindness on earth is the greatest devotion to God. When making a stop, Smith asks the St. Teresa’s bum to watch his rucksack while he buys a gallon jug of red wine to go with his bread and cheese. While eating, Smith notices the bum only had a can of sardines, and offers his food. Doing so, Smith noted his act of kindness in the context of The Diamond Sutra: “Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is a word.” Smith considered the little bum as the first Dharma Bum he met, but did not realize he had yet to meet the number one Dharma Bum, Japhy Ryder.
Japhy Ryder is based off the poet and scholar, Gary Snyder whom Kerouac met while he was in San Francisco during the Poetry Renaissance. Gary Snyder is often included in The Beat Generation, but he never identified himself as a Beat poet, though he ran in the same circle. At the time Snyder had been translating the poetry of Han Shan, a ninth century poet and hermit, from Chinese into English for the Chinese scholars of Berkley. Snyder saw Han Shan as the original Dharma Bum, but felt a kinship with him as well. Snyder grew up on the mountains of Oregon, and a saw a brother in Han Shan who retreated to the mountains as a hermit synthesizing the religions of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism while meditating and writing poetry. For Snyder, the Dharma was standing on a mountain without any unnecessary baggage—there, prayers and chants could bounce off the mountain, and the echoes would cover the world. After Smith and Ryder meet they both say how the other is like Han Shan, and Ryder tells Smith he needs to climb a mountain. They both make plans to go to the Sierras, and buy the necessary supplies to fit in their rucksacks.
In the presence of the mountains, whom Japhy calls Buddhas that patiently wait for the rest of us to wake up, Smith shares a prayer he created, “I sit down and say, and I run all my friends and relatives and enemies one by one in this, without entertaining any angers or gratitudes or anything, and I say, like ‘Japhy Ryder, equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha.” The Buddha’s first noble truth is that life is suffering, and the second noble truth is suffering is caused by attachment. This attachment has positive and negative connotations because we don’t love or hate a person or thing, but our interpretation of the person or thing. Without our interpretations whoever stands before us can be the recipient of lovingkindness that can go out into the world creating an environment of compassion. Smith does not want a life of material success as a company man or working a job he hates to support a family, but the life of a monk where he can be alone to pray for the world while bestowing his quiet acts on any who come his way. He has no judgment on those who do work and have a family, and the Buddha said the practice of the Dharma is not reserved only for those who have chosen the religious life. The Dharma is what people do to themselves, to each other, and the world outside their front door. The Dharma isn’t about shaved heads and robes but cultivating simple kindness while becoming awake.
Dharma Bums came out in the United States in 1958, and the culture seems worlds apart from today’s culture; but it still speaks. For me, I’ve been attracted to that simple life, and, in some ways, I live it. I’ve driven across country from New York to Washington State in my car or in a car with friends, and I had nothing more than a backpack filled with necessary books, some clothes, and a few snacks. In Kerouac, I found a kindred spirit who was stranded in the wilderness because God had left the church, and he wanted to find the God who became a hobo and walked about the desert. On the road, I experienced unexpected kindness from people I did not know, and on the quiet shore of Cannon Beach in Northwestern Oregon I felt the sea foamed realization of my place in the world. In the quiet, God had become something tangible in how we talk and think about people, and in our small acts of kindness. Reading his other works, and the works of those who knew him, I don’t think Kerouac ever realized that God is not something external, and the divinity he sought was before him, behind him, and within him. That misunderstanding did not negate his efforts or the lessons he learned. Like Ray Smith we are all pilgrims finding our way home, and the best thing we can do on our journey is being kind to one another.