In my late teens, I heard the saying “You can’t go home again.” and thought to myself that a person could never reclaim the feelings of safety before they left. I still agree with my youthful conclusion, but only in part. Two years after I returned to school, I transferred to a small liberal arts college in central Illinois, and after graduating and getting married I continued west. My travels were romantic because I recognized I drove through the same towns as Kerouac when he first traveled across America. I believed myself to be Neo-Beat who had, in the bottom of his soul, the same dissatisfaction as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty looking for IT in the rocky, bristly landscape of the youthful frontier; but they didn’t find IT, and neither did I. I still had the same dissatisfaction with no release, but my perception changed in Wyoming when I forgot my phone at a rest stop and a driver met us in Rawlins, WY to return my phone. After four years on the road going across country and meeting different people, I returned to Indianapolis to reconnect with friends I had not seen. I came back to familiar surroundings, but I was not home. People had not changed, I had changed, and I had outgrown many of those old relationships including family. Other relationships took on a new dynamic, and increased in richness.
The country from Nevada to Cheyenne, WY on I-80 is desolate with sand and salt except for the sprinklings of Reno, Salt Lake City, and Evanston, WY. There is no illusion of safety reinforced by concrete and Starbucks, and without kindness from others a person can die from solitude. I felt that same kindness as I joined in the chants, meditation, and teaching at The Shambhala Center in Portland, OR. For me Kerouac’s words came to life as I talked over tea and fruit with people who met him and Allen Ginsberg. The Dharma these people put to me was the same simple approach Kerouac observed through the eyes of Ray Smith wandering across the American landscape living out of his rucksack like the incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha, known as Budai. Budai was a poor, Zen monk who traveled around China in the 10th century C.E. He was also an eccentric monk who carried nothing with him but his mala beads and whatever could fit into his bag. Smith received kindness and gave kindness, and survived his trek across the country by living in the stripped down religion based on loving others as he loved himself. This spiritual practice, though did not prepare Smith for what he would face as a fire watcher on the American/Canadian border in Northern Washington. Smith came face to face with himself after his vision of Avalokiteshvara, and all romance disappeared. I went through a similar deconstruction, but I was in southern Idaho with my wife when we almost died from hitting a deer.
My wife and I left Riverton, WY about 3:00 p.m. MDT, and the gps calculated a nine and a half our trip to Boise, ID. Most of the trip would be on a vacant state highway passing through sleepy towns and mountains until we reached I-84 to get to our hotel in Boise. Almost six hours in to the trip we stopped to get gas in Arco and snacks, and proceeded on our way. We were driving along the mountains, and my wife pointed out to some deer on the side of the road. Three of the deer were lounging like cats on the shoulder, and two were standing next to the lounging trio; but one was dancing with indecisiveness. I slowed down to forty, and the deer made a decision. He jumped in front of us. My peripheral vision went black as if I were staring through a cardboard tube holding paper towels. I saw the deer’s body fly up with the hood as the airbag expanded in front of my face. I felt the rumbling of the suv, and I knew I was off road. My foot was pressing on the brake, burying it into the floor, and the only thought in my head was my wife’s safety. Fortunately there were people on the road who helped us and called EMT’s and the local sheriff. After being treated, the sheriff took us to a local motel, and when we woke up, I went outside to see King Mountain across the street. My wife and survived with our bodies intact, and with no distractions or words, I understood the Buddha as I returned to my room full of gratitude.
When Kerouac went up to Desolation Peak to live alone for sixty-eight days as a fire watcher he believed he was due for a vision from the divine—to come face to face with God where he would learn why we live, why we die, and why we suffer in between the two. Kerouac wanted to touch what the Buddha touched under the Bodhi tree and to be ministered by the same angels who ministered to Jesus facing his own devil after forty days in the desert. Kerouac did not take into account the psychological price Buddha and Jesus paid to earn their divine revelation, and how those encounters transformed them. This is the same with the ancient Desert Fathers of Christianity’s early monasticism, and the demons they had to encounter to be fully connected to God—or divinized. Without the distractions of people and wandering, Kerouac had no escape from seeing himself as he was; and the encounter would leave him shaken until the day he died. This shrinking back did not reveal any kind of moral or spiritual weakness of Kerouac—though he had many—, but his need to make up an internal lack with an external substance—even if that substance is an interpretation of Buddha or God. The end of Dharma Bums, though he captured his divine need through the vision of Ray Smith.
Kerouac encountered the tremendous dread as spoken by the theologian Rudolf Otto, and there was nothing safe to protect him under the naked sky. His soul roared the skull breaking words of God to Job bereft of suffering and demanding answers. In all fairness, Kerouac was a mystic and experienced visions of Jesus and The Blessed Mother throughout his adult life. These visions were irrespective of places, and he saw The Blessed Mother while living in an opium den in Mexico City and sleeping with a prostitute. Three years prior to going up the mountain as a fire watcher, Kerouac discovered Buddhism, and the teachings of the Buddha gave him insight to his Catholic background. He studied Buddhism relentlessly putting out his non-fiction work, Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha and Some of the Dharma published posthumously in the 1990s. By changing his perception, Kerouac hoped for the deeper vision explaining all of life and finding a place of peace for his restless heart; and that desire determined whom he met on the mountain one evening.
During his annual nightly meditation, Smith has the sought after vision, the attending angel and Bodhisattva, Avalokitsevara whom he calls the “hearer and answerer of prayer.” In this vision, Avalokitsevara tells Smith, “You are empowered to remind people that they are utterly free.” Smith takes this to heart, begins by reminding himself of his freedom; but this is a freedom he understand superficially, and is forgotten in Desolation Angels. This freedom is not a thing limited to wonder, hope, and no restraints; though, freedom includes those things. Freedom is terrifying, and the ideas and things formed can hide us from the terror of Tillich’s “ground of all being.” There stands God and The Buddha’s teachings empty of our preconceived notions and unrestrained by how we think they should be. They are dangerous because they cannot be controlled or formed by our arbitrary doctrines, and what is horrifying is we don’t know if we can trust them. Run into the buildings and find a dry space in dogma—religious or secular—and never venture out to life’s fullness. In the end Kerouac lost himself in the familiarity of the bottle and the crucifix, and both killed him because he could not reconcile the tension between his own anxieties with a God who cannot be tamed. Like Kerouac or his alter ego, Ray Smith, we are not guaranteed any kind of stability should we take the leap of faith into Desolation, but what is certain is the ground we are standing upon is crumbling and our house is on fire—eventually, we will have a smoldering rubble of impermanent things we forced into permanence. The lessons we take from Ray Smith finding refuge in the Dharma, the sangha, and The Buddha is we are not bound to anything, we need very little to enjoy life, and we are reborn from one moment to the next.