Plot Twist

smith-coat-of-arms-family-crest

This morning the alarm went off at 4:45. I slept out in the living room on the hide-a-bed Ronnie’s mom found for us at a Goodwill in the Castleton area. Because Ronnie’s back was hurting last night, and I wanted to be out of bed before the devil to get in some walking, I opted for the living room. The mattress is firm, and with the added comforter for padding, the sleep was quite comfortable, and I did not wake up stiff and groggy as I normally do. The reason, I got up so early to walk had to do with meeting a friend at a coffee shop this morning, but with the weather change added another reason. It’s hot. Yesterday was eighty-three, and today will be eighty-seven. It’s also spring and that means there is pollen and freshly cut grass to make breathing difficult. When heat is added, I feel like there is a weight compressing my chest and shoulders—the movement is sluggish. Mornings are terrible, but in the afternoon there is quite a bit of humidity in the air that feels like a towel soaked with hot water breaking your neck with its sopping weight. This morning was a little humid, but I didn’t think it would would be too bad so I put on my jogging pants, wore socks and shoes, and wore my Dharma Punx hat. I was feeling sluggish and overheated, but I was able to watch the transition from night, to twilight, and the beginning of the sun rise. A new day.

I’ve been going through another reading and listening of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road because I miss the West, and the burden of my longing only increases as I read about Indiana’s General Assembly green lighting a religious freedoms law for students. The language implies that any student can carry religious items or conduct religious practices on campus. So ideally, a Muslim kid could bring his prayer rug or a Wiccan could perform a sacred rite during lunch, but that won’t happen. There will be a fuss from Evangelical Christians who behave like former Prom Queens who wants her popularity recognized outside of high school. In the world outside of high school she is a dime a dozen. Rather than accept this fact as an adult, she will live in denial and keep her high school mentality well into mid-life making her an unbearable presence at work. I am not implying The West is Utopia, but I never experienced an imposition from an unread religious group. Christians are active out in the West, but what I saw in Portland they were all about taking care of the poor, the homeless, people of color, immigrants, and so on without raising any attention to themselves. The West has its own issues, but Conservative Christianity isn’t one of them.

The narrator, Will Patton, captures the voices of Kerouac and the characters in On the Road making you feel as if you’re in the muggy Bayou with Bull Lee (William Burroughs), in the car holding on to your seat with Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) at the wheel, or in Carlo Marx’s (Allen Ginsberg) living room rummaging through books and cigarettes. As I make the laps around my apartment complex, I can hear the roar and hum of the morning traffic on I-65, and I feel the itching increase. I also smile. Driving across the country, I can now reminisce with the feelings of trepidation over the unknown as Kerouac did with his trips—but my trip was relatively safer. I had interstates with rest stops and wi-fi. Kerouac buzzed around the United States before the advent of the interstate and the country wild with highways with slight dabs of urbanity west of the Mississippi. I finish my walk. I go inside to peel off my clothes so I can shower and shave, and start the day.

When I finish the time is 6:25. I opened the door, “Hey, honey. It’s 6:25. Time to get up.” As she moves about beginning her morning routine, I ask her, “What would you like for breakfast this morning?”
“Oh, I’ll have some toast.”
“With butter?”
“How many pieces?”
“I’ll have two.”
I go into the kitchen to turn on the stove. Our toaster died a couple months ago so I use the skillets to make the toast. Even if we had a working toaster, I still would have used the skillets. Ronnie’s mom stayed with us all last week, and she brought her bread maker. Mom makes the best bread, and she cuts them thick—too thick for toaster. I’ve no complaints. She makes her bread so thick and hearty it can feed a body with one slice. I made myself three slices cut in half for peanut butter and jelly to eat at the coffee shop, and I started the electric kettle to make coffee for Ronnie.

The mornings are rushed. Ronnie usually leaves for work at 7:00 so she can be home by 5:00 and have a few hours to relax with crafts and YouTube. Mornings like this one where I drive her to work, she can go a little slower and eat her breakfast in the car. This morning, I took my time, because I didn’t want to forget about today. What is so significant about today? Two years ago today, Ronnie and I were married at The Federated Church in Carlinville, IL. That was a stressful time. Any wedding planning is stressful, but we made it worse by doing it during our last semester at Blackburn. We both had our Senior Seminars to do, and that required a lot of research and self-loathing in addition to the regular amount of work we had with our classes. She was a Psychology major doing her seminar on eating disorders and I was a Literature major doing his seminar on the Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and the book’s relevance to 21st century spiritual seekers in America. I spent hours researching, printing articles, writing, meeting with my adviser, revising, and keeping up with my normal work load. The time spent was worth the effort because I learned I am no literary critic or public speaker. With all the packing for our move across the country, the reading and writing, and planning a wedding, I am surprised I graduated with a 3.415 GPA—.85 away from being on the Dean’s List for the third time at Blackburn.

A week after our wedding, Ronnie and I were on the road to Portland, OR. The trip had a couple set-backs involving us getting lost in the middle of Wyoming at 2:00 in the morning facing down a mountain lion, and almost flipping the rental SUV over lava rock in southern Idaho because a deer threw her body in front of us. We made it to Portland two days behind schedule, and things were not working out as we hoped as were promised. We stayed with a friend of Ronnie’s who told us jobs would be easy to get, and we would find a place of our own in no time. When we arrived, her roommates were slightly hostile towards us. We asked one roommate, whom we got on with, if we did something, and she told us Ronnie’s friend did not tell her we were coming. We were also told Ronnie’s friend has a bad habit of not communicating to her roommates about anything. Finally, the friend lied about her landlord coming in to do an inspection. We had to leave, and stayed in a Motel 6 across the river in Vancouver, WA. We didn’t care about the lie, Ronnie and I were just glad to be out of that situation. We still had to find jobs and a place to live, and we were having no luck in Portland or Vancouver. I wanted to make this work. I wanted all the pain we accumulated on the road to be worth something. So I kept forcing Oregon on us.

Ronnie and I decided to visit Eugene, OR to see if finding work and an apartment would be easier. We spent the first night at a motel that had bugs crawling everywhere. Originally, we had the room for two nights, but we got our money back for one night, and found a nicer hotel for a cheap price across the street from a mall. I was still stressed because our money was slowly depleting, and Ronnie finally told me, “You know, we don’t have to stay in Oregon. We can go anywhere we want.” All the stress went away. Yes, our van was packed, we were homeless, and we could go anywhere. I was so weighed down on making Oregon happen that I didn’t realize we had the road before us. We could go anywhere we wanted. We still can. Her statement summarizes our relationship. We have complete freedom, and we do not bind ourselves to the arbitrary notions of what we “should” do.  We also complement each other in our journey. Her usual default mode is worry and stress when circumstances look bleak and out of control, but I am the gypsy telling her everything will be fine. How do I know? I don’t. Opposite to her, I had a life full of instability since I was born. There was always the threat of going without food, of being homeless, of my family completely disintegrating, and I had nowhere safe in home, school, work, or church. I learned quickly a stable life is an illusion, and even the most established are a paycheck, a phone call, or an email away from losing everything. Regardless of the circumstances, no one is truly bound to anything, there is always freedom.

There are times, though, when Ronnie and I switch roles. I, too, am prone to worry and stress, and more so after I we were married. It is one thing to live that five by five life when you’re single, but takes on another dimension when you’re in a relationship. I get caught up in what I think I should be doing, and those things dissipate. I become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety because the instability caused my previous relationships to dissipate. Before Ronnie and I were married, I told her, “I can’t promise you a comfortable life, but I can promise it will be interesting.” I did not say this to her to give myself an out, but looking back upon my life, I thought it would be foolish to promise something I never had. She wanted to marry me anyway. She told me she didn’t care if we had the biggest mansion or a cardboard box on the street just so long as she is with me. That does sound cliché, but a week after our wedding, she got in a car with me to drive across the country to Portland, OR. She followed me even though I had no idea what would happen, but she wouldn’t go back and change anything.

Ronnie has made my life considerably better. She understands human nature and is compassionate, and earned her degree in psychology to give her insight academic weight. She understands how much I have to work to unlearn the teachings of my family, the trauma I experienced from them, and to learn the things they did not taught. That statement does not imply my family is responsible for who I am, but it does mean I need to surround myself with better examples so I know how to apply new teachings and new ways of thinking. Somewhere along the way, I adopted their violent, arrogant, and condescending attitudes as a hiding place when my soft underbelly was kicked. Unfortunately, my choice has made my life more difficult than it already had been. I would have eventually overcome those easy choices, but being with Ronnie increased my rate of evolution. I’m not her project, I’m her life partner. We’re a team, and we both work to help the other grow. This is one of her parts in my life. This is how she changed my story, and this is how she is helping me break the Smith/Culbertson cycle. Who Ronnie is, transforms me into a better human being.

Pererin Pt. 3 The Buddha

dharma bum

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.

 

The Buddha

 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.

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.