Refugee

Alexandria Shooting

I am facing overwhelming emotions concerning the shooting yesterday in Alexandria, VA, and the response I read in The Washington Post. James Hodgkinson from Belleville, IL opened fire at a Republican baseball practice for an annual charity game against Democratic Senators. According to one of the people who left the stadium, Hodgkinson asked him what party the players belonged to, and when he had been told they were Republicans, Hodgkinson walked away. Sometime later, Hodgkinson returned and began shooting people. Besides four other people, Senator Scalise was shot in the hip, and was taken to the hospital in critical condition. Hodgkinson died later from gunshot wounds sustained from a shootout he had with the police.

Hodgkins

He was a Democrat who supported Bernie Sanders, and he would send angry letters to his senator exclaiming Trump’s betrayal of the United States.  The media, along with some members of the Republican Party, spun Hodgkinson as a left wing extremist. Rodney Davis, R-ILL, referred to the shooting as an act of terrorism, and Chris Collins, a representative of New York said the Democrats, “need to tone down their rhetoric.” Did they forget the words of Donald Trump during his campaign, and how he offered to pay for the lawyers to represent his supporters who attacked protesters (New York Times March 13, 2016)? Did they forget the veiled threat Trump made should Hillary Clinton be elected? “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know (New York Times Aug. 9, 2016).” And a final example out of many when Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Ave. and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters (CNN January 24, 2016).” Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and LGBT has emboldened many people in the United States to attack these groups without consequence.

Is the Republican Party trying to be ironic? The terrorism the United States has faced before 9/11 and after 9/11 has been, mostly, from white, Christian, right-wing extremists. Where is the crackdown on the extremism from the Right concerning the violent behavior of their constituents? From my perspective, I call bullshit, and I call hypocrisy. One side cannot do consistent acts of violence, get away with their crimes, and cry foul when the opposing side responds in a similar manner. Violence is reprehensible no matter who does it, and the issue isn’t simply political. Besides the shooting in Alexandria, VA on June 14 there was also a shooting in San Francisco at UPS where four people died.

San Francisco Shooting

As I write this there have been 154 mass shootings in the United States this year. It’s June 15, 166 days into the year.  The statistic is similar to what it was in 2016 where there seemed to be a mass shooting everyday.  Like Trump and the polarization of the United States, I think the mass shootings are symptoms of a deeper sickness. Generally speaking, people don’t pick up a gun to kill people and themselves without some kind of grievance. Instead of looking within, they will strike outside themselves to find a form of healing they will never have. They are ignorant of what to do. We are ignorant of what to do.

To break this down, all of us want to be happy, we all want to be free of suffering, and we all want to live in peace. Regardless of our various political stances, philosophies, religions, or socioeconomic status we all want fulfilling lives. To paraphrase The Buddha, all life is suffering, suffering is caused by attachment, we can be free from suffering, and that freedom from suffering comes through right mind, right speech, right action, and right livelihood. What I said was a mouthful, but I think the teachings applicable for the first steps towards a solution. To stop the violence we see in our world, we need to stop the violence in ourselves. We begin the changes by taking a few minutes to focus on our breath, to let our thoughts be, to realize we are not our thoughts, and that we are all interconnected. In these breaths we take refuge  in our own Buddha nature, or whatever holy nature that resonates with you. We take refuge in the Dharma, the teaching directing us to our true selves. We take refuge in the Sangha, or community because that is what we are. All living beings are completely interdependent to one another, and when one suffers, we all suffer.

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One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Jack Kornfield told the story of one of his teachers who was an abbot of a monastery in Viet Nam during the war. There were Christian missionaries who found themselves caught in the crossfire between the Viet Cong and American troops. These missionaries were granted sanctuary by the abbot. The missionaries observed the monks’ constant meditation, and one missionary became so angry he confronted the abbot, “There’s a war going on out there! People are dying, and all you and your monks do is sit here and do nothing!” The abbot nodded and pointed to his heart, “If I don’t stop the war in my heart, I will never stop the war outside these walls.” The missionary took in the words of the abbot, and soon the Christian missionaries were participating in the monastery until they left.  Meditation and breathing seem overly simple, but they seem to work with those who live and serve in violent areas. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand change begins within ourselves. Not only do we need to live the change we want to see, but we need to change our hearts and minds to see. The only thing we have to lose is our knee jerk trust in violence.

 

Following Jack

Sunday was a lucky day for me. Ronnie and one of our friends spent time at our apartment to have a girl’s day. The original plan was to hang out with another friend, but he was otherwise incapacitated so I opted to go to the north side to Half Price Books to search for my more books by and on Jack Kerouac. There are four Half Price Books in Indianapolis—one on the south side, two on the north side (Castleton and 86th & Ditch), and another in Avon. I prefer the Half Price in Castleton because they have free coffee, and a quality selection of literature and Jazz. What I wanted to do at the bookstore was to sit, drink coffee, read a few books before buying them, and get in a little writing. Unfortunately, Half Price was busy with people lounging at the tables. No bother. There are plenty of coffee shops to go to, one of them a Starbucks one block east of the store. I found Stephen Eddington’s  The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation Writers as Spiritual Guides and On the Road the original scroll with four essays of brilliant literary criticism. I have a On the Road based on the original scroll, but I had loaned it out to a friend who also enjoys the writings of Kerouac. I texted him to let him know he could keep the book as a gift. I think the 1957 Viking publication of On the Road too tame and did not say what Jack wanted. When Kerouac first wrote the book in 1951, he spent three weeks of all-nighters tapping out his story on a scroll so his thought would not be interrupted by the changing of paper. When told he would have to edit and revise, Kerouac, with his right index finger in the air proclaimed, “This was dictated by the Holy Ghost!” like an Old Testament Prophet. Having read both versions of the story, I am inclined to agree with Kerouac.

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With Eddington’s book, I felt like I hit the literary jackpot because this is the kind of criticism I should have written for my senior thesis on Dharma Bums. While keeping up with my regular academic load, I researched Jack Kerouac, The Beats, the political and religious culture of the United States, and, the protagonist’s, Ray Smith, role as a spiritual wanderer to support my claim that Dharma Bums, though published in 1958, was still relevant to 21st century spiritual seekers. Eddington made the remark that On the Road is the gospel for the modern world, and I agree. For many Christians I know they rely on the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to point them to Jesus. For me my four gospels are, On the Road, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, and Big Sur pointing to the wilderness to look for the God who left the churches seeking honest hearts.

For the introduction of Eddington’s work, David Amram, who was a friend of Kerouac, noted how Kerouac was at peace with his Catholic background even though he stopped going to mass at the age of twelve. The reason he stopped had to do with the hypocrisy of the Church, and its control issues. The control wasn’t about the people, though that did play a significant part, but controlling God—going so far as to tame this God into a bland New England boil. I have similar objections with my refusal to go to mass. The doctrine of Republican Christianity has infected the holy faith and tainted the host. Every Mass has become an act of sacrilege. My last Mass was just before the election at St. Jude’s off Thompson & MacFarland where, in a sanctuary packed with white people, the priest roared about the persecution of Christians in this country, and how the laity needed to galvanize and impose their faith on everyone. I was done. The other Catholic Churches I went to in Indy shared similar sentiments, or talked about playing nice with Trump and his supporters. At the moment in the Mass where Christ descends upon the altar becoming the host we Catholics imbibe to be his image to a world searching for peace, he skipped the altar and ran out of the sanctuary.

I have been in a state of dissonance ever since I walked away from Mass, and I’ve been fighting that tension at every turn. I exacerbated this internal struggle when I threw out everything connected to Christianity, including God, but I am no more at peace than when I sat in the pews encumbered by robed Trump acolytes. The reality is, and I am loathe to say it, is I am still very much a Catholic who cares deeply about the image and message of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and Holy Mother Church. Kerouac didn’t waste his energy bashing the negative behavior of The Church, but sought God’s face in everyday life while wandering. Perhaps, I should as well. Like Kerouac, and many others who were of similar mind, I am a displaced Christian. Alan Watts in his essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” talked about these Christians who desire to be like Jesus but lack the tools and examples in a Christianity whose adherents make the company man with the grey flannel suit synonymous with being a good Christian. That spirituality chews life into a gnarled mush spitting it on the ground. Where is that abundant life that Jesus talked about in The Gospel according to St. John? That life is overshadowed by waving American flags and hate pouring out from red clean shaven faces like sweat on the pulpit. It’s one thing to acknowledge this lack of life, but it is quite another thing to remain in the pew with constant complaints. The better option is to get up and leave the building, and finding God for yourself. Waiting for Godot in the church is an act of futility because “he” will not set foot in a church anymore. God can be found in the homeless face, the child’s laughter, the open flower, and the transparent artist. God is found on the road with a rucksack strapped to “his back” looking for anyone who wants to meet “him” in spirit and in truth.

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The way Kerouac came to peace with his own faith background was through the teachings of the Buddha which he came across by accident. One of his favorite American writers was Henry David Thoreau who daily read the Bhagavad Gita, the holy scriptures of Hinduism, and the basis for Thoreau’s writing. Kerouac wanted to tap into the same spirit as Thoreau, but instead found the Buddha. Kerouac’s discovery of The Buddha was serendipitous and answered the questions of his sensitive heart through the four noble truths, and the first noble truth, “All life is suffering,” spoke to him. Kerouac wanted to know more so he devoted three years to studying Buddhism. That research produced his book, Wake Up: The Life of The Buddha, and his posthumous work, Some of the Dharma. From his first four published novels, I can only speculate that Kerouac was influenced by The Dhammapada, the collected sayings of The Buddha. In this Buddhist text, The Buddha says, “’He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease. ‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.(3-4)” Kerouac does not mention his disdain for the poor practices of The Church, but remains Catholic while looking for God outside of The Church. He forgave everybody while walking down his road.

Yoga

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I do yoga every now and again to help out with my shoulder and knee issues. I enjoy working out and keeping in shape, but I’m now at the age where being 6”8 is catching up with me in my knees, shoulders, and blood pressure. Instead of ceasing all manner of working out, I changed my routine to adapt to my current situation. Before I made the transition, I had already incorporated a few yogic poses in my work out with planks, Hindu push-ups, and Hindu squats. After I experience painful issues, I ended the push-ups and squats, and focused on planks and cardio. Planks are a wonderful exercise targeting every muscle of the body especially when I turn my palms down on the floor. I rarely did yoga because I couldn’t do the poses correctly and my inflexibility made my sessions unpleasant. I never went to an instructor, but, through watching youtube on my tv, I was able to pull up basic yoga poses from generous instructors. Before I did yoga, I dismissed it as a soft exercise that could not help me achieve my workout goals. When I did the basic approach, I sweated buckets and my heart rate broke my chest with 150 beats per minute after fifteen minutes. I bowed my head in deference, and recanted my disrespect.

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Before I sat down at a desk in Dr. Meyer’s Asian Religions class, I only knew of yoga as an Eastern exercise practiced by white women in $800 lululemon yoga pants. One of the books we used for this class was Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. This book is a book worth having in your library and read until the pages fall off the binding. Smith was a devout Methodist who saw the validity of different religious traditions, and incorporated what he learned into his own Christian practice. Smith’s chapter on Hinduism opened my eyes to a different perspective on ontology, and various spiritual paths through Yoga. Yoga involves physical positions such as downward dog into upward dog, but is not limited to the physical. Yoga, to put it glibly, is a spiritual tool to go beyond yourself and experience the divine according to your individual needs. One form of yoga centers around logic and rational thinking, and another form include physical poses, but one is not better than the other. Think of Brahmin or, God, if you will, as sugar. You can either examine the sugar, you can taste the sugar, or you can become the sugar. There is no incorrect way to your approach of sugar, but there are specific tools to specific approaches.

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Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism speak to me in a way that Christianity does not speak to me, but that has to do with my baggage with the latter. That does not mean one is right and the other is wrong, but I’m not going to listen to someone speaking the truth after they have beat me to the ground. The other reason for my affinity for Eastern religions is they speak to my inner mystic. That’s how I relate to my spirituality. I “see” the divine moving in and out like breath moving in and out of lungs. There is a pulse to life that I can feel when I sit still, close my eyes, and focus on my breath. Mysticism exists in Christianity, but, what I’ve observed, is treated with suspicion, disregarded, or buried. I’ve read extensively on Christian history and the writings from those spiritual heroes such as Meister Eckhart in the 14th century. Meister Eckhart once prayed, “I pray God, I would be quit of God that I may see God.” What he’s saying is he wants to experience God without his own preconceptions and religious boxes getting in his way. That’s some Zen lunacy Eckhart is laying down for those who have plucked up the courage to leave the buildings and hear God’s voice unencumbered by the dead weight of a priest’s droning chant.

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At the time I was at school, I took advantage of the free counseling on campus, and discovered a friend in my sessions. My counselor incorporated Buddhism and Buddhist teaching into our talks, and his eyes lit up when I brought up yoga. He’s very much into martial arts and body weight resistance for his exercising, and told me what he learned from one of his teachers, “Without meditation, yoga is simply stretching.” I took those words to heart, and they gave me a different way to relate to my own exercises. Exercise is good for the body, but if the act is limited to just the body that will eventually die and decompose, then the fruits will be shallow and limited. But when spiritual practice is integrated with the physical then the body becomes a tool to dissolve the ego, and lose yourself in the divine. There is nothing right or wrong with treating yoga as a physical exercise. There are many health benefits to practicing yoga, but treating yoga only as a physical exercise you will also miss out on the spiritual benefits.

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Tonight, while I did my basic yoga to the throat chants of Tibetan monks, I focused on my body and my breath. The inflexibility is still there, and my joints are quite stiff. Instead of becoming frustrated, I looked upon my limitations as echoes of my heart’s condition. I have become stiff and inflexible with my hatred and fear I learned from my family and my Christian experience. Do not misunderstand, I do not blame my family or the Christian religion for how I am today, or hold either responsible for my struggles. During those early years, I was alone, and made a choice to survive by retreating into my head while disconnecting from my heart. For a time that disconnect helped me get through some bone shattering trauma, but eventually, I left that environment. Adapting to the outside world has been difficult, and I’ve much to unlearn. Hiding is easy, but facing your past and your rotting broken heart so you can heal is difficult and takes a warrior’s courage. I listened to my heart speaking through my clumsy transitions and sharp pains in my shoulder and knees. I said nothing, but embraced the supplications with my breath.

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My yoga practice takes between ten and fifteen minutes, but after I finish, I am able to get into a half-lotus position to do a brief meditation. According to teachers, lotus or half-lotus is a comfortable sitting position, and more so when I’m sitting on my linoleum floor. The hardness bites into my ankles and I am incapable of being inside my breath. Where I am in my spiritual practice it takes me at least fifty breaths to go into full concentration so who I am can be liquid flowing between myself and God, whom I refer to in the feminine rather than the accepted masculine approach. Neither one is the “right” way to address the divine, but the use of the masculine is a reflection of the patriarchal hegemony and misogyny in our culture. Where I am with my sexuality, I am uncomfortable in addressing God with such oppressive language, and is a constant reminder of the violence I received. Changing the language and my relationship to pain, I can do the healing work allowing my heart and body to flow like a gentle stream.

Looking For Jack Kerouac

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The ninth century Zen Master, Linji Yixuan once made the statement, “If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a ghost, kill the ghost.” The saying is harsh, but a deeper examination reveals more about the observer of The Buddha instead of The Buddha himself. Killing The Buddha means killing the fixed idea you or anyone creates about a person, a place, or an object. The relationship is not based on anything real, but on the interpretation of the matter. When the reality is experienced there is still that buffer between the new interpretations creating the tension with the old. People of all creeds and backgrounds do this, confusing their own ideas as fact; and when a person is offended by irreverence expressed towards their sacred cows their anger only increases when reminded it is the mere idea of the cow insulted and not the cow itself—whatever that cow may be. The interpretations we conjure with our experiences help us confront whatever life has given us in the moment, and aid us in our next step. Think of the coping mechanism of the child reaching for a teddy bear or a blanket. The child realizes they are in an unstable universe filled with monsters they cannot hope to beat without any help. The teddy bears and blankets are tangible reminders of a hand holding them and guiding them. Eventually, as the child becomes older the need for teddy bears and blankets decrease. This is similar to what some Eastern Orthodox monks will communicate concerning a Christian’s need for liturgies and prayer ropes. When the saint has reached perfection the familiar tangible approaches become more of a stifling restraint than actual help. At this point God can be realized without any preconceived notions and moves freely to and fro as in a dance—enjoying God as God instead of killing God with our dogmas and hierarchies.

This is the approach Barbara Shoup has taken in her novel, Looking for Jack Kerouac. She kills the legendary Kerouac people have formed by reading his popular books, On the Road, Dharma Bums, and Desolation Angels, and introduces us to a man who is an alcoholic spouting off racist, hateful, and right wing remarks, but also brimming with compassion and love. People don’t want Kerouac the man, they want the twenty-something, road-going hipster whose life is one big adventure filled with Jazz, women, sometimes men, booze, and drugs. People cannot fit in to one main category, and will asphyxiate in any box they are forced into for the convenience of a fantasy. Jack Kerouac was a human being, beautiful and scarred like the rest of us, and he was just a Catholic kid trying to find God roaming across America. He never found God, though, instead he came face to face with his own devils as The Buddha faced Mara under the Bodhi Tree and Jesus faced Satan in the desert. Where they overcame, Kerouac was consumed. He was neither timid nor weak in faith, but he was a gentle and sensitive person who did not consider the steep price he would pay in his quest for God. Kerouac was a merry saint overwhelmed with grief, who needed to be loved as the flawed human being he was. Shoup gives us the gift of Jack Kerouac in this book.

Shoup divides the two approaches to Jack Kerouac with the characters, Duke Walczak and Paul Carpetti, two young kids from East Chicago, IN who wanted more out of life than working in the mill. Duke’s approach to Kerouac’s On the Road was one of fantasy and a naïve romance because he wanted to be a writer influenced by Kerouac with the desire to surpass him. Duke believed in the urgency of Sal Paradise’s desire to get on the road and follow Dean Moriarty to Denver, CO, and, eventually to meet his friend Remi Boncoeur in San Francisco for work on a ship that never manifested. Paradise wandered across America, bouncing from town to town, and dive motel to dive motel, never knowing where the next meal would come or if there would be a bed that evening. Kerouac did not mention the dangers he faced on the road but focused on the different people with eyes of complete wonder; but there are dangers, and there are people who seek to harm another. Duke ran into naked hostility and racism when he and Paul were in southern Tennessee as they procured a ride from an older black man. There were boys the same age as Paul and Duke with a confederate flag on their car yelling for these “Yankees” to go back home, and called them “n****r lovers.” Duke wanted to engage them, but Paul convinced him to get in the black man’s car and leave. The boys chased them, throwing beer cans at the car, speeding up and slowing down, driving along side of them, and eventually sped away. The driver apologized to Duke and Paul when he dropped them off outside Chattanooga, but he knew the country better than they, and if they stayed with him, all three might find themselves lynched.

When Duke and Paul finally arrived to St. Petersburg, FL they spent a few weeks living out of a YMCA and restaurants asking about Kerouac to annoyed locals. The irritation had nothing to do with the questions but how Duke related to them in the bars and diners treating them as a means to an end. He was also writing down notes and observations, and, whether intentional or not, Duke objectified the people he talked to. He had a predetermined box to force upon people, and eventually at the Tick Tock people responded to him and Paul with violence. There was an old drunk spouting off his bigotry and right wing politics all in a slur. Duke took on the man by reminding him of the constitution, and perhaps he should take time to read the document before spreading such hateful words. The drunk tried to take a swing at Duke, but fell over himself. He was picked up by a good friend and other people in the bar surrounded Paul and Duke. They all knew Duke and Paul were looking for Kerouac, and the men pointed at the passed out drunk, “There he is.” Duke’s idealism had been shattered as he and Paul were beaten, and thrown out of the bar. Duke decided to leave for California to get his next fix from the next person, but Paul opted to stay in St. Petersburg.

Paul Carpetti, though, is truly a Beat character who is wholly dissatisfied with life, but he is trapped by his own confusion—he doesn’t know what he wants, but he knows what he doesn’t want. While on a class trip to New York City, Paul finds a copy of On the Road, and is instantly drawn to the rougher area of Greenwich Village to experience the Jazz and poetry of Kerouac’s longing. His girlfriend, Kathy, is suspicious of his attraction to On the Road, and when Paul invites her to read the book she dismisses the book because their priest said it was offensive; and that was good enough for her. After they had returned from New York, Paul’s mother is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and dies the following spring. He passes through high school numb and disaffected, and gets a job at the local mill instead of going to college as his mother intended. Kathy moves in and becomes the care taker for Paul, his brother, and father; and after a few months begins discussing marriage. He saw himself ten years in the future still working at the mill, but trapped by marriage and four kids. He felt he had no way out of his life until he met Duke.

Paul found a kindred spirit when Duke roared Kerouac’s love of the mad ones to coworkers deriding his Polish ancestry. The two friends would spend their breaks discussing the deeper issues of existence and what they wanted in their lives; and this was a point of contention with Kathy because Duke was leading Paul away from the standard formula of living. Duke did no such thing. Paul was unhappy and quietly desperate, and in Duke he found a companion who would join him in his search for God knows what. One day, Duke excitedly approached Paul with the news that Kerouac’s sister had died, and the Kerouac’s were currently living in St. Petersburg, FL. After a fight with Kathy over Duke and marriage, Paul finds Duke, and they leave for Florida that evening. Duke proved to be a tiresome pilgrim with women, alcohol, and his tall tales, but the breaking point came when his idealization of Kerouac caused him to mistreat people by harshly judging them—something Kerouac never did because he sought the diamonds in the street. One particular person Duke loathed was Chuck, a college student who worked at the YMCA where Duke and Paul had rooms and the library to pay his way through school. The two become fast friends, and Chuck brings Paul into his adopted family as Duke makes his way to San Francisco.

As Paul stays and works at a local crab shack, he learns that Chuck is friends with Jack Kerouac and his mother. Chuck invites Paul to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play against the New York Yankees in the World Series at the Kerouacs. There were times during these visits they had to leave because no one ever knew which Jack would come out while he was drunk—alcohol was a dice roll for the appearance of Dr. Sax or Mr. Kerouac. One evening, Paul is sitting under Kerouac’s window listening to him type when he is discovered. Paul apologizes profusely for imposing, but genuinely wanted to hear him work. Mamere, Kerouac’s mother, invites Paul in to chicken and noodles, and as he eats, both Kerouac and his mother weep for the loss of his sister, Nin. His brother Gerard died almost forty years prior and the wounds of that loss were reopened. Paul blurted out that he lost his mother earlier that year, and that is when he made a connection with Kerouac the man. Kerouac told him, “And you will never get over it. It’s not meant for us to get over that kind of sadness.” Kerouac’s remark awakened the human side of grief in Paul who had been told that he will soon get over his mother’s death, that the sadness was temporary, and life would get better. Later, he wept in the arms of his friend Ginny, and felt he could continue.

Since I finished this book, the constant word I have for it is “beautiful.” Shoup took away the mystique of the road going legend who sought for the beauty in others and in the roads he walked, but never saw the beauty in himself. He was Jean Val Jean who died never accepting the God who loved him and had mercy on him; but was generous to a fault to the people in his life. Jack Kerouac lost his brother and his sister, he abused drugs and alcohol, he was promiscuous, struggled with accepting his own bisexuality, misogynistic, a devout Catholic, a Buddhist who embraced the sacred hearts of Mary and Jesus, an estranged father, and a bum. How he saw life came out of his experiences, and he saw nothing but suffering. He wanted to seek God, and find out if there was more to life than pain; or at the very least why we have pain. He had belief in God, and still followed Jesus, but his spiritual path was unapologetically messy. His path was honest, and it was human. Shoup put on her gardening gloves and opened the thorny covers of Kerouac’s exterior to see the roses he carried within himself. Kerouac does not deserve our sympathy or worship, but our love. He is our companion in this elegant mess, and an icon pointing us towards that holy road.

Pererin Pt. 2

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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.

 

 

The Sangha

 

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.

Pererin Part 1

dharma bum

 

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 Dharma

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.