Millennials are insulted because they are considered lazy with an overwhelming sense of entitlement. The irony of this derision is that it’s mostly said by my generation, Generation X with added knocks from the Baby Boomers. In the 1990’s, those who belonged to Generation X were considered shiftless and lazy without the consideration of the culture, and the new issues we were facing. I will not be so presumptuous as to speak on behalf of my generation, but I will speak for myself and how I viewed the world as part of Generation X. The Baby Boomers who dismissed us as a generation of slackers were, thirty years prior to us, living in communes, living on the road, smoking and snorting whatever they could find, and living on their terms. Why? In the 1950’s Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac wrote of their reaction towards the newly created military industrial complex in “Howl” and On the Road. American culture had adopted the need for conformity and becoming the company man for the sake of building up the machine that was otherwise anti-humane—either to the people in its own borders or outside its borders. There was no life and no equality, and the American Church accepted the complex, and distorted the image of Jesus with Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and Bishop Fulton Sheen. Ginsberg and Kerouac traveled the world to find the piece that had been discarded—the piece that could make them whole. For Kerouac and many others in The Beat Generation that missing piece was Jesus. Jesus had left the building in a hurry lest he be crucified again by the people who worshipped him.
Many of the Baby Boomers took Kerouac to heart, and translated his words into their story of racism, sexism, freedom, and Viet Nam. The religious and political system was not working and the Hippies sought alternative expressions of spirituality through religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism; and through their spiritual practice formed their own community. By the 1980’s, though, these same Hippies became clean cut and donned the three piece suit to involve themselves in Corporate America—some went so far as to reshape Christianity in the corporate image and created megachurches. My parents were not middle class even though they were part of the Baby Boomer Generation, but their outlook was somewhat liberal. They imposed Christianity on my brother and me because of the guilt trip my great-grandmother put on my mother. A bible had been thrown at me to figure out the religion, and I liked the bible just fine, but I loathed the preaching. The pastor would speak of Jesus’ message as revolutionary, but would equate following Jesus with voting Republican and being a “good, American citizen.” What’s revolutionary about that? When I turned sixteen, I was told to get a job to pay for the rest of my high school education, and I saw the same structure in the workplace as I saw in church. I was disgusted, but I wasn’t the only one. Many people my age had the same reactions to culture and religion, and I, like them, went our own way to form our own communities.
Here we are twenty years later and we Gen Xers are middle aged, and many people I know—not all—have went the way of their predecessors finding their way back into the corporate world of work and religion. To an extent, I do not fault the people I know who returned to such a destructive culture. They were motivated by fear, uncertainty, and the prospect of instability because they married, divorced, had kids, and watched their parents die. I went through some of these things myself, but I didn’t have kids; however, I’m not returning nor will I return to that way of life. Yes, losing parents, relationships, and having kids is scary—I think a person foolish if they weren’t fearful of such things in their life. What I find equally foolish is returning to the corporate world with a corporate religion to medicate the pain of real life when those things are the cause of suffering; and expecting their kids, The Millennials, to join them in their way of life is simple desperation. Choosing to reject the corporate life for a simpler life with love and community is a criticism on those who have retreated; and one they cannot ignore. We all must live with our choices, but to force others to make a similar choice so we don’t feel alone in our consequences is childish. This sentiment, I think, is something Jack Kerouac touched upon in the second part of Dharma Bums.
What I find ironic about this childishness is Kerouac’s character, Ray Smith, is dismissed as naïve because he chooses to live as a bum out of his rucksack—hopping on trains while blessing the people he meets on his journey. Smith found himself as part of a community with the San Francisco poetry crowd, partying, drinking wine, discussing poetry and the Dharma, and learning how to climb a mountain. Kerouac illustrates the insanity of those who condemn Smith for his life choice in the sudden suicide of Rosie Buchannan. Rosie seemed to have suffered a psychotic break, and wrote down all the names in their little community—along with their “sins”—, including Smith’s, flushed them down the toilet, and taken out by a man from the sanitation department after the paper clogged the toilet. She believed the man to be a cop, and attempted suicide by slashing her wrists with a dull knife. Smith had to watch her while his friend Cody went out, and Rosie begins to tell Smith that he and all the other “religious squares” they know are going to be hauled off by the government. Smith put aside Rosie’s excited rambling by telling her it was all in her head; but she ignored him. Smith thinks to himself, “I had the feeling I always got when I tried to explain the Dharma to people…they never listened, they always wanted me to listen to them, they knew, I didn’t know anything, I was just a dumb young, kid and impractical fool who didn’t understand the serious significance of this very important, very real world.” Rosie’s second suicide attempt was successful after she went to the roof and broke the glass on the skylight so she could slash her wrists with the shards. A neighbor saw what she was doing and called the cops to protect her, but when they went after her, Rosie threw herself off the roof. A befuddled Smith remarks, “Was I talking so dumb after all? Are my ideas about what to do so silly and stupid and childlike? Isn’t this the time now to start following what I know to be true?” The old way wasn’t working and ended in death, but in the mysterious presence of the Dharma there was a chance at life.
Before meeting up with Cody and Rosie, Smith was already in the process of buying necessary items for his trip across America to spend Christmas with his mother, sister, and brother in law in South Carolina. After Rosie’s death, Smith starts his journey east, and is picked up by a truck driver, Beaudry, from Ohio. Originally, Beaudry agreed to take Smith as far as Tucson so he wouldn’t lose his job for picking up a hitchhiker; but he changed his mind after Smith cooked steaks for them and cleaned the dishes, and decided to take Smith further east to Ohio. While they talk over their meal, Beaudry asked where Smith learned to survive as a hobo, and how to cook saying, “And you know I say funny but there’s sumpthin so durned sensible about ‘em. Here I am killin myself drivin this rig back and forth from Ohio to L.A. and I make more money than you ever had in your whole life as a hobo, but you’re the one who enjoys life and not only that but you do it without workin’ or a whole lot of money. Now who’s smart, you or me?” Smith made no judgment about Beaudry, or the life he had chosen, but he had sympathy for the man who bought many things with his money and didn’t have the time to enjoy them. Smith did not think himself better than Beaudry, but viewed him as a great man who had befriended him.
Once Smith arrived to his sister’s home, he lived a simple hermit lifestyle by sleeping out on the enclosed porch in a sleeping bag, and going out in the middle of the night to a solitary place to meditate. The quiet beauty of his spiritual practice brought him to the conclusion that “One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls.” What did the churches, priests, and dogmas do for Smith other than twist the image of Jesus into the American company man with a grey flannel suit, and watered him down with practicality. Smith saw the difference between Jesus and the church through the eyes of his own Buddhism regarding “Augustine as a spade and Francis my idiot brother.” In the dark hours of Christmas Eve, Smith watches the midnight mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and reads the words of St. Paul while sitting by a warm stove, “Let him become a fool, that he may remain wise…already are ye filled, already are ye become rich.” Smith’s affirmation becomes a source of contention between him, his sister, and his brother in law over their dog, Bob. Smith would unchain Bob so he would have company during his mediation. Smith’s brother in law has money invested in Bob and doesn’t want to lose him. Smith argues, “How would you like to be tied to a chain and cry all day like the dog?” They don’t listen, and his sister said she did not care. Besides ignoring Smith, the two of them wondered why he wasted his time with the Buddha when he should come back to the religion of his family. Why would he associate with a religion that condoned the mistreatment of people and animals that are fellow creatures of God?
This disconnect between religion and the God who inspired said religion is why people like Ray Smith seek out alternative practices to be true to themselves and to their environment. Many people like Smith’s family confuse Buddhism for a religion and, depending on who ask in the different Buddhist branches, it is a religion; but the Zen Buddhism practiced by Smith and those in his generation deconstructs Buddhism from its pomp and circumstance to get to the core of the Buddha’s teachings. The teachings themselves are a science of the mind, rather than a religion, and allow people to grow into a better whatever they may be through focusing on the breath. For Smith, Zen gave his spirituality a substance his Catholicism could never give because it was too concerned with conforming itself to the image of the American machine. When people like Smith want to increase in love, charity, and gratitude they will gravitate towards a practice that cultivates those virtues. By doing so a community is formed around them, but not in the sense of belonging to a specific group of people who share a common goal. The community is one based on interconnectedness because they are something in common with all sentient beings: they are alive, they want to be happy, and they want to be free of suffering. Even in solitude we are connected, and every small act kindness we do is an improvement in the world around us. Ray Smith ceased to be a Buddhist and a Christian, and became Buddha-like and Christ-like.