The Buddhism of The Dharma Bums and Jack Kerouac
The Beat Generation is most often remembered and revered for its explicit portrayals of the human condition, its countercultural support of various social liberation movements and its revolutionary literary style. It was also marked by an attention to what Jack Kerouac labeled “a second religiousness” developing within an advanced civilization like the United States. The Beats’ works explored Eastern religious traditions in the context of their Western world. In Kerouac’s novel, The Dharma Bums, he explores the Beats’ and his own vision of Buddhism in 1950s America.
By the mid-20th century, Buddhism, particularly Zen (Chan) was growing in popularity in America, most notably due to the efforts of Japanese author, D.T. Suzuki. However, there existed no such classification of American Buddhism or American Buddhists. Up until this point, American born Buddhists had been introduced to the lengthy history of Buddhism through purely academic means. The curiosity of American lay people, like the Beats, led to the development of a western modernist interpretation of the tenants, texts and practices of Pre-Modern Asian Buddhism. The presence of Buddhism in popular literary works, particularly Kerouac’s, propelled such curiosity. The exotic and universal allure of Buddhism acted as a foil to the America of straight lines, nuclear families, and fabricated Post-War peace and prosperity. Where much of Western religion seemed to stifle the revolutionary ideals of The Beats, Buddhism acted as a new medium open to their own interpretation, as shown by Suzuki’s statement,“Spontaneity is the font of creativity,”
During his initial meeting with his companion Japhy Ryder, a character based on American Zen Buddhist Gary Synder, Jack Kerouac’s character Ray Smith says, “Lissen Japhy. I am not a Zen Buddhist, I’m a serious Buddhist, I’m an old fashioned dreamy Hinayana coward of later Mahayanism.” Smith is quick to adopt the tradition and titles of Asian Buddhism for his own, unfazed by his geographical location, background, or lack of formal certification. Both Smith and Japhy are to some extent forced to create their own personalized Buddhist practice and identity. They did not have tales of American Buddhist’s that came before them to emulate, they were some of the very first men to proclaim themselves as Buddhists in America. “He knew all the details of Tibetan, Chinese, Mahayana, Hinayana, Japanese and even Burmese Buddhism but I warned him at once I didn’t give a goddamn about the mythology and all the names and national flavors of Buddhism, but was just interested in the first of Sakyamuni’s noble truths, All life is suffering. And to an extent interested in the third, The suppression of suffering can be achieved, which I didn’t quite believe was possible then.” Early in his Buddhist practice, Smith is propelled by his own desire for spiritual liberation and figures that his ignorance to the various Buddhist traditions is bliss. Smith, like many of the Beat poets, often thought in existential ways about the meaning of life and the nature of reality, which led him to Buddhism.
By actively deciding which religious practices and philosophical ideas to take as their own, the characters in The Dharma Bums create a unique American Buddhist way of life. They mold Pre-Modern Asian Buddhism, steeped in tradition and myth, to their own lives at any given moment. Through decontexualizing and recontexualizing some of the Buddhist sutras and ancient texts, it becomes easier for Japhy and Smith to believe in the authenticity of their own practice. The characters spend much of their time mountain climbing and exploring the American West Coast’s wilderness, and Buddhism is ever present. “‘The secret of this kind of climbing.’ said Japhy, ‘is like Zen. Don’t think. Just dance along. It’s the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen.’ Which it was.” After studying Eastern traditions at the University, Japhy moved to a small shack in the wild to live isolated as a monk would. He can’t help but apply the Buddha’s teachings regarding meditation and acceptance to his background as a logger and forest lookout. “Try the meditation of the trail, just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don’t look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by.”
Smith sees Buddhism in everyone he meets. He shows a particularly acute awareness to a person who is fasting, praying or giving compassionately. He quickly declares many of these people he meets hitchhiking on the road or conversing with at a mad party, bodhisattvas. When one of Japhy’s friends asks him where he met Smith, Japhy shouts back to “I always meet my Bodhisattvas in the street!” The two Beat Buddhists also lovingly refer to their friends as bhikkus, or ordained monastic monks who stringently follow tradition. “What we gonna do with all this? We’ll have to feed all the bhikkus.” In due time we had more bhikkus than we could handle.” They are not surrounded by monasteries and monks which they can present alms or offerings to in the form of food and drink, so they re-interpret this practice as their own with everyone in their presence. Additionally, Japhy’s house is often the place where communal gatherings are held and he plays host by feeding people and giving them a place to stay.“He was always giving things,” Smith says about Japhy,”always practicing what the Buddhists call the Paramita of Dana, the perfection of charity.”
Smith believes that Buddhist prayers and poems are similar in nature. “‘Let there be blowing-out and bliss forevermore,’ I prayed in the woods at night. I kept making newer and better prayers. And more poems.” He finds merit in coming up with newer and more encouraging prayers, just as he does his spontaneous poetry. While visiting his family in North Carolina, Smith helps his mother overcome her sickness by accidentally discovering she has an allergy to flowers. He believes that this discovery is a direct result of the power of his daily meditation practice as he says, “This was my first and last ‘miracle’ because I was afraid of getting too interested in this and becoming vain. I was a little scared too, of all the responsibility.” To Smith, the idea of committing miracles himself is as much of a possibility as it is for any of the Buddha’s in the stories.
“His meditations were regular things, by the clock, he’d meditate first thing waking in the morning then he had his mid-afternoon meditation, only about three minutes long, then before going to bed and that was that. But I just ambled and dreamed around. We were two strange dissimilar monks on the same path.” While Smith and Japhy are both Buddhists in America, they practice in very different ways. Where a Chan Buddhist in China may not consider himself of the same faith as a Theravada Buddhist in Burma, the Beats chose to emphasize the “end” as opposed to the “means.” There are no overbearing Buddhist establishments in the rural Californian coast to try to convince Smith and Japhy otherwise. Additionally, both characters choose to connect with many of the same historical figures in Buddhism, include the poet Han Shan. “Han Shan you see was a Chinese scholar who got sick of the big city and the world and took off to hide in the mountains.” It is easy to see why these Beat poets, in particular, would connect to a figure who is turning to a life of isolation and devotion, denouncing urban life in the neon marketplace.
Within 1950’s America there existed a conflict between social norms of American life and their reinvention by new agents of cultural change. This re-evaluation ultimately led to the countercultural revolution of the 1960s. The Dharma Bums interpreted society in Buddhist terms, viewing them through a Buddhist framework, resulting naturally in countercultural ideals. Japhy quotes Whitman and muses on a world full of rucksack wanderers and “Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming.” Smith and Japhy”s lives both conflict with the materialistic and neo-liberal way of life and are able to reinforce their discontent through their Buddhism. “That’s why frontiersmen are always heroes and were always my real heroes and will always be. They’re constantly on the alert in the realness which might as well be real as unreal, what difference does it make, Diamond Sutra says ‘Make no formed conceptions about the realness of existence nor about the unrealness of existence,’ or words like that. Handcuffs will get soft and billy clubs will topple over, let’s go on being free anyhow.” Freedom is paramount in the Dharma Bum’s interpretation of Buddhism. Smith’s romanticism of the dropping out of society can be found in the following passage, “It reminded me of the early chapters in the life of the Buddha, when he decides to leave the Palace, leaving his mourning wife and child and his poor father and riding away on a white horse to go cut off his golden hair in the woods and send the horse back with the weeping servant, and embarks on a mournful journey through the forest to find the truth forever. ‘Like as the birds that gather in the trees of the afternoon,’ wrote Ashvhaghosha almost two thousand years ago, ‘then at nightfall vanish all away, so are the separations of the world.’” Simply by living outside of society and by practicing their Beat Buddhism, they are completing a revolutionary act.
In most of the novel, Smith practices celibacy in an attempt to avoid the distraction and complications of sexual consortium. “So I put sex out of my mind again. As long as the sun shined then blinked and shined again, I was satisfied. I would be kind and remain in solitude, I wouldn’t pook about, I’d rest and be kind. ‘Compassion is the guide star,’ said Buddha. ‘Don’t dispute with the authorities or with women. Beg. Be Humble.’” In some way, Smith views having a sex life as enabling a person to become more self-absorbed and vain. This attitude is a far cry from the norm within his social circle, as polyamorous relationships seem to develop more often than not. Japhy, on the other hand, believes in the opposite as he explains, “Smith, I distrust any kind of Buddhism or any kinda philosophy or social system that puts down sex.” Instead, Japhy describes a kind of “Zen Free Love Lunacy” in which sex is performed in ceremony in front of priests in Tibet. “People pray and recite Om Mani Pahdme Hum, which means Amen the Thunderbolt in the Dark Void. I’m the thunderbolt and Princess is the dark void, you see.” Japhy, a translator of Asian texts, often places his own creative spin on Buddhist concepts and lore. Interestingly, even the usually confident Japhy is conflicted about what role he really wishes to live out as he says,“‘I’m gonna get married, soon, I think, I’m getting tired of battin around like this.’ ‘But I thought you’d discovered the Zen ideal of poverty and freedom.’ ‘Aw maybe I’m getting tired of all that.’”
Raised by a devout Catholic mother, Kerouac also puts Buddhism in a dialog with Christianity. In The Dharma Bums, his autobiographical character Smith develops his Buddhism and is often strict in his devotional practice. However, throughout his life Kerouac would perpetually turn towards and away from Buddhism, as he would Christianity. We can often find his character Smith making reference to the Buddha and Jesus Christ in the same breath. “The truth that is realizable in a dead man’s bones and is beyond the Tree of Buddha as well as the Cross of Jesus. Believe that the world is an ethereal flower, ye live. I knew this!” It’s almost as if Smith is acknowledging the validity of the truth discovered by these prophets while avoiding believing in any one religion or doctrine as better than the other. Japhy, not a proponent of Christianity, often dismisses Smith’s comparisons or references to Christianity during their talks on Buddhism in which Smith replies, “What’s wrong with Jesus? Didn’t Jesus speak of Heaven? Isn’t Heaven Buddha’s nirvana?” This statement highlights Smith’s urge to interpret Buddhism through a lens of someone who subscribes in part to Christian doctrine. ”You really like Christ, don’t you?” Japhy asks Smith, “‘Of course I do. And after all, a lot of people say he is Maitreya, the Buddha prophesied to appear after Sakyamuni, you know, Maitreya means ‘Love’ in Sanskrit and that’s all Christ talked about was love.” Smith envisions Jesus and his message as simply an reinvention of Sakyamuni Buddha’s tenants, a universal truth. This is an inherent part of Kerouac and his character’s belief system, that all religions and doctrines are really different variations on the same themes. It is interesting to note that in the last few pages of the novel, after his two months alone on Desolation Peak, Smith does not mention the Buddha but instead says, “‘God, I love you’ and looked up to the sky and really meant it. ‘I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other.’”
The Dharma Bums spend much of their practice within a kind of individual mindfulness phase, primarily concerned with individualistic personal transformation through their Buddhism. To Smith, American suffering is not a macro idea which can be solved in any group-based way. Instead, it is a conglomeration of individuals needing to get free from suffering. It is here that the Romanticism of the Beat Generation becomes prevalent in Smith’s practice. He focuses on that truth which is inside of each being that must be let out, that people have good hearts whether they live compassionately or not. “Everything is possible. I am God, I am Buddha, I am imperfect Ray Smith, all at the same time, I am empty space, I am all things. I have all the time in the world from life to life to do what is to do, to do what is done, to do the timeless doing, infinitely perfect within, why cry, why worry, perfect like mind essence and the minds of banana peels.” His Zen meditation has helped him to overcome artificial divisions, another mark of Romanticism, and to see “The world as it is, is Heaven, I’m looking for a Heaven outside what there is, it’s only this poor pitiful world that’s Heaven. Ah, if I could realize, if I could forget myself and devote my meditations to the freeing, the awakening and the blessedness of all living creatures everywhere I’d realize that there is, is ecstasy.” It is known that Kerouac’s favorite Buddhist sutra was the Diamond Sutra, which is about conditioning one’s mind to emptiness. Smith, with his Western upbringing and personal vices constantly struggles to remain steadfast in his practice of non-attachment and non-abiding. “What does it mean that I am in this endless universe, thinking that I’m a man sitting under the stars on the terrace of the earth, but actually empty and awake throughout the emptiness and awakedness of everything? It means that I’m empty and awake, that I know I’m empty, awake, and that there’s no difference between me and anything else. It means I’ve become a Buddha.” Here we find a conflict between the individualistic nature of the Beats and Romanticism and the Zen concept of No-Self. He has found that which is within is a truth that all are connected. “This world is the movie of what everything is, it is one movie, made of the same stuff throughout, belonging to nobody, which is what everything is.”
“One night in a meditation vision Avalokitesvara the Hearer and Answerer of Prayer said to me ‘You are empowered to remind people that they are utterly free’ so I laid my hand on myself to remind myself first and then felt gay, yelled ‘Ta,’ opened my eyes, and a shooting star shot. The Dharma Bums can be interpreted as the bridge that brought the Romantic, Beat ideals of inner experience outward to later become an emphasis on social change. As socially engaged Buddhism, bringing the wisdom learned through Buddhist practice to the community at large, becomes a by product of Buddhist modernism. Perhaps the countercultural social revolution is a by product of the Dharma Bums graduation from the Beat movement. “They thought I was crazy, but everybody that gave me a ride I’d spin ‘em the Dharmy, boy, and leave ‘em enlightened.” Hitchhiking across the U.S. and Mexico, Smith spreads the wisdom he has learned with anyone he meets. In Buddhism, Japhy and Smith have found an identity which matches their loving and respectful attitudes. “You and I ain’t out to bust anybody’s skull, or cut someone’s throat in an economic way, we’ve dedicated ourselves to prayer for all sentient beings and when we’re strong enough we’ll really be able to do it, too, like the old saints. Who knows, the world might wake up and burst out into a beautiful flower of Dharma everywhere.
As The Dharma Bums develop their practice, Kerouac’s vision of Buddhism becomes less about appearances and Buddhism as a novel hobby. Smith and Japhy settle into their Buddhist practice to discover that their faith is rooted in their lives and philosophy. They aspire to spread the Buddha’s wisdom outward in America, no longer content with a merely private spiritual liberation. Buddhism becomes recognizable in the very fabric of American life, through the thoughtful lens of the Beat poets. No longer reserved for Asian men, Buddhism becomes visible in the Dungarees and flannel shirts of the American layman.