An Exploration of Jack Kerouac's Buddhism: Text and Life
Contemporary Buddhism, vol.6, No. 2, 2005
Jack Kerouac’s place in the literary world was secured in the 1950s with the publication of On the Road; however, his position as a Buddhist writer and practitioner was yet to be established. This paper examines his Buddhist life and texts, and explores two of his Buddhist books while focusing on his influences, their effects on his personal life and the impact these had on his writing and on Buddhism in America. Kerouac’s ‘Buddhist’ texts are not as well known as his others, although many of his more popular books include elements of Buddhism. The two Kerouac texts that are to be explored here are Some of the Dharma and The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. While the focus of this paper is on the exploration of these two texts, their content and structure, one cannot ignore the influencing factors that led Kerouac to write them and the aspects of his life that affected the way in which they were composed.
Jack Kerouac was one of the most influential writers of the 1950s, inspiring the misguided and confused youth of the post-war era. Kerouac came onto the literary scene at a time when the world was experiencing change and wanting to discover new things about a world that seemed all too familiar. Much is known about Kerouac, his life, his family and friends. Through his writings Kerouac provided readers with glimpses into almost every aspect of his wildly fun, controversial and conflicting adventures. With his most famous book, On the Road, readers were introduced to the lifestyle of what came to be known the Beat Generation.
Kerouac’s writing took a turn when in 1953 he began to read about Buddhism and Buddhist literature. Eventually Kerouac became so engrossed in Buddhism that he became a practitioner of the religion he was reading about (Kerouac 1997, introduction). Books such as The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans and Mexico City Blues revealed how important Buddhism had become to the Catholic Kerouac.
Kerouac’s Introduction to Buddhism
In the mid-1950s Kerouac was practicing Buddhism and studying primary texts with the view that he was destined to teach the dharma and to convert millions of people (Kerouac 1997, introduction). With a change in worldview, Kerouac began writing letters about the dharma to friends like Allen Ginsberg, eventually realizing that instead of composing daily letters he would compile a text devoted to Buddhism (Kerouac 1997, introduction). The result of Kerouac’s daily thoughts, scribblings, poetry and interpretations of Buddhism became known as Some of the Dharma. What started as mere fascination with Buddhism in 1953 ended with a 420-page Buddhist text in 1956. Kerouac’s Book of Dharmas, his name for the text, became so important to him that he began to feel it was sacred. As Kerouac wrote to Ginsberg: ‘I haven’t sent you the Notes on Dharma because I keep reading it myself, have but one copy, valuable, sacred to me ...Besides it is not finished, I keep adding every day ...’ (Kerouac 1997, introduction). He never lived to see his masterpiece published as both publishers and editors could not seem to warm to the idea of Kerouac as a purely Buddhist author.
Kerouac was influenced both by Buddhist texts and by practicing North American Buddhists whom he encountered in his travels, including Gary Snyder—‘Japhy Ryder’ of The Dharma Bums—who was a student and practitioner of Zen. Some of the Dharma was completed on 15 March 1956; shortly thereafter, in the spring, Kerouac headed West to the Bay Area where he met up with Snyder, to whom he had shown portions of his Buddhist writings, and the two talked endlessly about philosophy and practice. While they were staying together Snyder suggested to Kerouac that he should write a sutra. He obliged, and the resulting text was The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, which was published in 1960—Kerouac living long enough to see it in print.
When one reads Some of the Dharma and then Scripture, the influence of the one on the other becomes clear, that writing Dharma led to the formation of the sutra. With the publication of Scripture Kerouac’s fascination with Buddhism became known to the world. Subsequently published in 1997, Dharma has allowed readers and scholars alike to delve into the realm of Kerouac’s American Buddhism, a world constructed in a formless void of prose, poetry, drawings and one-liners. Kerouac’s genius was recognized by his peers, and as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl states in the dedication: ‘Jack Kerouac, new Buddha of American prose, who spit forth intelligence ...creating a spontaneous bop prosody and original classic literature’ (Kerouac 1997, introduction). As a lone student and practitioner of Buddhism in an informal setting, Kerouac used what he had learned in formulating two books that focused on emptiness, impermanence, mind essence and transience.
Some of the Dharma
The first of Kerouac’s Buddhist texts, Some of the Dharma, exemplified what came to be recognized as his unique style of writing. Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation notes that, ‘by 1951 ... Kerouac was pioneering a stylistic revolution, forever changing the nature and content of his writing ...Abandoning conventional techniques of editing and revision, Kerouac committed himself to a new method, the practice of spontaneous prose’ (Tonkinson 1995, 23 – 4). The ‘spontaneous prose’ that became Kerouac’s hallmark was simply one of the unconventional techniques he employed in the writing of Dharma. As already noted, the construction of this book began as correspondence with Ginsberg about the excitement Kerouac was feeling about the discoveries he was making. In a way Kerouac wanted to ‘turn on’ Ginsberg to the teachings of the Buddha. The volume of the text continued to swell in accordance with the deepening of Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism. Eventually Dharma included many forms and literary devices. The so-called stylistic revolution of Jack Kerouac unfolded with the few years it took to write this book.
Unlike other Kerouac books, Some of the Dharma involved more than his typical usage of prose. Before the organization of material is discussed it is important to note and to keep in mind that this text was published posthumously and Kerouac was in no way part of the publication process. While the publishers remained true to every aspect of Kerouac’s laborious and specific effort in presentation, it will never be known if the manuscript is how Kerouac would have intended. It took him years of hard work to type the manuscript as it is presently seen. Kerouac implemented many different techniques and inventions in the form and presentation of Dharma. For example, many of his poems and sketches can be seen to take different shapes, often in diagonal slants or outlined in lines and rows of hyphens and asterisks (Kerouac 1997, 287, 299, 328). The presentation of this text was unconventional for its time, as well as an innovation for the author. In response to an editor about his different stylistic techniques, Kerouac wrote that
Even though the presentation of Dharma was aesthetically different, the form, organization of materials and ideas were also a departure from most of the works of the post-war era. Kerouac’s main focus or argument in Some of the Dharma is presented to the reader in an original and rarely seen way. Although in most texts organization of argument and presentation are different from one another, in Dharma the medium is the message, for reasons soon to be explained. The visual presentation of the text engages the reader just as much as the content does. On page 342 Kerouac provided an explanation of the various techniques of the Duluoz Legend. The publishers felt it was highly important that the readers be acutely aware of these techniques, and so they were printed on the front and back of the book. It is necessary to outline these techniques as Kerouac used them in almost every instance of Dharma. The first stylistic method that was utilized in the organization of Kerouac’s material is ‘TIC’. As stated in the book, a ‘Tic is a vision suddenly of memory. The ideal, formal Tic ... is one short and one long sentence, generally about 50 words in all, the intro sentence and the explaining sentence ...’ (Kerouac 1997, 342).
Here Kerouac merely shapes the descriptive paragraph in a simple manner, which includes the use of dashes as markers of breath. His use of TICS in Dharma was far less common than the other techniques. In all Kerouac lists twelve techniques that can be found in Dharma; in addition to TIC there are also Dream, Pop, Blues, Ecstasy, Movie, Vision, Flash, Daydream, Routine, Sketch and Dharma. Those most often used are POP, which is ‘American (non-Japanese) Haikus, short 3-line poems or “pomes” rhyming or non-rhyming delineating “little Samadhis” if possible, usually of a Buddhist connotation, aimed towards enlightenment’ (Kerouac 1997, 342); and FLASH, ‘Dreamflashes, short sleepdreams or drowse daydreams of an enlightened nature describable in a few words’ (Kerouac 1997. 342). Kerouac used all of these techniques in the organization of the material in Dharma and in the structure of the text’s focus.
These techniques are all a part of the most extensive and encompassing technique called DHARMA—notes in any form about the dharma. Of course this is the technique in which the entire text of Dharma was written. The key aspect is that with DHARMA all text takes place in the present. The implementation of this technique allowed Kerouac to engage the reader while still using other stylistic forms. The effect of these various techniques is a visual format that stimulates the eye as well as allowing the reader to make a quick identification of the state of mind that Kerouac was in while writing that particular section of the text. For example, if the reader is well aware of the characteristics of each technique then one can discern whether Kerouac was daydreaming or having a sudden memory. He demands of the reader an involvement in Dharma that is more than a simple reading, he creates a flow in the text that requires knowledge of his techniques.
As previously stated, the organization of Kerouac’s ‘argument’ or main focus and the presentation of the text are the exact same thing because of what Dharma is about. A central preoccupation is the Buddhist notion of impermanence and how everything is formless. Even though this text was constructed into various techniques and divided into 10 books, Kerouac stated how the text has no form. He writes:
Technically and literally this text has form and a definite structure; however, in light of the teachings expounded by Kerouac’s Buddha-nature and written while engaged in daily dhyana, it indeed does not have a clear form, only existing as an arbitrary relative condition. Robert A. Hipkiss writes: ‘Kerouac’s venture into Buddhism enabled him to dissolve the complex forms of day-to-day living into nothingness’ (Hipkiss 1976, 72). This dissolution of complex forms included, for Kerouac, his daily task of writing structured novels. With the support of Buddhist philosophy, Kerouac declared that the ‘consciousness of the Mind is the source of all’ (Kerouac 1997, 204). Therefore, the form of Dharma is a mere attribute of our awareness or an arbitrary conception of the mind.
The division of Dharma into 10 separate books appears to have been done with no particular motive, as there are no distinct topics for any of the 10 books. The different subdivisions appear to be a matter of convenience for Kerouac. While there are no uniform or single distinguishable topics in each book, Kerouac did make sure to highlight each area of importance on every page. For example, Kerouac would capitalize the main focus of his discussion, whether in the middle of a paragraph or at the beginning sentence. ‘NATURE, and the absence of NATURE, or the WORLD, and the absence of the WORLD, Are two sides/of the same Mind’ (Kerouac 1997, 337). Along with this little stylistic device Kerouac also included such things as doodlings to illustrate the way of proper Western meditation (Kerouac 1997, 279), hand-written arrows that direct the reader’s eye to the flow of the page (Kerouac 1997, 354), and the implementation of both French and Patois to illustrate points of interest (Kerouac 1997, 38, 301).
The various techniques and stylistic devices Kerouac used in Some of the Dharma were influenced by the reason for writing it. His enthusiastic interest in Buddhism led to the writing, but in the content of the material one can also see that many other factors were influential in its completion. While the main focus of Dharma was the teachings of the Buddha, it was through this content that Kerouac revealed much about his own life. Perhaps a reason why Dharma contains so much personal information is that his primary intention was for the content to be privately used between himself and friends, and the idea of publication came later as the text evolved. Originally it was somewhat of a Buddhism for Beginners book—with Kerouac as the beginner—starting with The Four Noble Truths and other basic concepts. Ann Charters writes that he ‘was profoundly in agreement with the First Noble Truth of the Buddha’s teaching, that all life is suffering’ (Charters 1995, 581). Kerouac begins Book One with basics, definitions of fundamental concepts such as nirvana, karma, dharma and kama, and a bibliography for beginning Buddhists. He must have realized that Dharma was more than an elementary text and correspondence with friends, since it appears that the succeeding Books became more evolved and delve deeper into Buddhist philosophy. Kerouac moved from simple definitions in Book One to analogies between him and a tiger in Book Three, to in-depth reflection about rebirth and individuality in Book Four, and in Book Eight he placed emphasis on Avalokitesvara and the Womb of Exuberant Fertility. On 7 – 8 December Kerouac writes of Avalokitesvara:
In this poem Kerouac’s spiritual questing can be seen as he erupts onto paper asking the great questions of existence. Kerouac saw this Buddhist text as more than a documentation of an intense interest in Buddhism; for him, it was an act of release. Kerouac’s spiritual journey was a shouting out and release of the bothersome things in his life while in opposition to the quiet introspective inward journey. He attempted to embody the realizations he was having, and in doing so Dharma became an act of meditation. This meditative act included the composition of the material and creation of the visual aspects, helping him come to terms with his lifestyle and beliefs. One should keep in mind that Kerouac was attempting to reconcile his lifestyle with his newfound interest in Buddhism when he began to write this text in 1953.
As a Buddhist text Some of the Dharma details the essentials of Mahayana Philosophy. Without previous knowledge in the higher forms of Buddhism, Kerouac’s formless text will appear to be the ramblings of a fool. However, once the reader works through Kerouac’s maze of thoughts, diary entries, meditations, poetry and prose they see that Kerouac was great at providing the reader with a combination of personal narrative and reflections and retellings of Buddhist doctrine.
Kerouac’s main focus in Dharma came to rest mostly on the notion of suffering and its causes. The notion of suffering, besides being the cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy, was especially appropriate for Kerouac as his life appears to have revolved around the anguish that his own lifestyle created. He struggled to define what was real, and what really mattered to him. On the one hand he outlined a strenuous regime or ‘Modified Ascetic Life’, while on the other he could not resist the temptations of friends, drugs, alcohol and women, all of which brought him tremendous suffering. Kerouac resolved to lead a monastic life; however, this resolution, written relatively early in the text, was broken short eight days later (Kerouac 1997, 138), a sign that his bhikkuhood and potential enlightenment were at the far end of a path fraught with the temptations of the world. Kerouac could not seem to take refuge in these four precepts for more than a matter of days.
The frustration that Kerouac felt in his daily dhyanas and in attempting to lead a pure life is evident in Dharma. When he starts drinking again his mood shifts, and changes in the text are apparent. While he is drunk in a cornfield, Kerouac’s poetry takes on a different tone and style. He states:
The rhyming nature of this poem is unlike the rest of the text, as is the discussion of such a topic—cornfields—both influenced by his intoxication. It was at moments like this that Kerouac’s practice of Buddhism became his second priority, as his first was the bliss he felt while drunk.
Although such instances occur throughout the writing of Dharma, the text remains Buddhist in nature and such occurrences only add to the honesty and personal quality that help readers relate to Kerouac. For Kerouac, Dharma became a living manuscript of his daily thoughts and prayers that came to reflect every aspect of his life, from squabbles with his mother about his Buddhist practice, to his friends’ and colleagues’ lack of acceptance of his teaching of the Dharma, and the inner turmoil he felt as a result of these personal conflicts. At times Kerouac saw himself as a great teacher of Buddhism, and indeed as a Bodhisattva. At the end of 1954 he wrote of his conflicts in light of his role as a Buddhist:
The pressure of an ever-devout Catholic family often caused Kerouac much stress and confusion as to whether his Buddhahood was meant to be. He seems to have found solace in reading the Diamond Sutra, his favourite Buddhist text. The Buddhist texts that originally influenced Kerouac came to be those that he looked to alleviate confusion and pain.
Even though Kerouac was enamoured of the Buddhist literature that he found in Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible, what becomes visible when reading Dharma is that his Catholic background could not be ignored. Kerouac’s family was too important for him to ignore their stress on the benefits of the Catholic tradition. Thus, Kerouac’s Catholic voice, both positive and negative, carries throughout the text. The presence of this voice is seen in such instances as when he refers to the ‘Virgin Mary & Buddha are UNO’ (Kerouac 1997, 70), or when he relates the Catholic religion to an ‘early expression of a primitive culture’ (Kerouac 1997, 99). At times Kerouac seems to have found a peaceful balance between his newfound Buddhist practice and his strict Catholic upbringing. In a January dhyana, Kerouac writes:
The final sentence can be translated as ‘this thinking is stopping here’. Here Kerouac has an experience that reflects his Christian background while engaged in his daily Buddhist practice. The result of both religious influences was, as stated in Big Sky Mind, that Kerouac ‘happily conflated Jesus Christ with Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. After all, he explained, a lot of people say he is Maitreya [which] means Love in Sanskrit and that all Christ talked about was love’ (Tonkinson 1995. 17). The outcome of this notion became apparent in the writing of Dharma. Although a text of Buddhist nature, Kerouac tended to tie all religions into one Universal belief, particularly Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity. Kerouac was continually concerned with arbitrary relative conditions and ignorance; ideas that became major concerns throughout the entire text.
He applies the notion of arbitrary relative conditions to what appears to be the Christian idea of original sin, or as he writes ‘my original ignorance’. Therefore, while Kerouac’s ultimate considerations stayed within the realm of Buddhism, especially Mahayana philosophy, he instituted much of his Catholic childhood teachings into areas concerned with Buddhism. The question can be raised of whether Kerouac used Buddhist doctrines to justify his feelings about what he had learned as a child and the things he was trying to come to terms with in his personal life—how closely are Kerouac’s personal life and religious identity as a Catholic linked to his appropriation of Buddhism?
The Scripture of the Golden Eternity
The view that Kerouac used veiled aspects of Christianity can be seen in Some of the Dharma and continues to appear in the sutra that he wrote in spring 1956. The Scripture of the Golden Eternity is a remarkable Buddhist Sutra that reveals aspects of different traditions, as may be seen even in its title. Anne Waldman writes in the Introduction that:
What we already see in the title is the Christian influence that remained with Kerouac even when he was in the process of writing a ‘traditional’ Buddhist text. His Christian background in fact is revealed throughout. Near the beginning Kerouac equates himself with the Chosen One or the Messiah (Kerouac 1994, 24), and later he seems happy in reflecting the Buddhist with the Christian. In scripture #37 Kerouac writes:
Kerouac provides a refraction of the Christianity that was often problematic in life. Instead of criticizing the tradition of his childhood, Kerouac changes its direction or path by conflating Catholic with Buddhist ideas. This merging of traditions elucidates the previously mentioned fact that Scripture was written after the completion of Dharma, so that a number of themes are concurrent. The format of Scripture, however, does not directly parallel that of Dharma; in certain parts of the first text there are instances where Kerouac made attempts to write condensed versions of sutras (e.g., on page 338 of Dharma, Kerouac has included the Envelope Sutra, originally written on an envelope).
This sutra from Dharma reflects the purpose of such a text as may be seen in traditional Buddhist sutras and in Kerouac’s own Scripture of the Golden Eternity. The function of the sutra rests in it being a collection of discourses or teachings of the Buddha, or, in this case, Kerouac.
The content of Scripture is similar to Dharma in many ways, yet differs in others. Kerouac presents his ‘case’ much more formally, thus limiting himself in ways that he did not have to in Dharma. In the scriptures of the sutra Kerouac did not use the unconventional asterisks, doodles and hyphens seen in Dharma. Scripture’s small 38-page text is divided into 66 scriptures, which Kerouac managed to fill with doublespeak logic that seems to have come quite naturally to him. Anne Waldman states:
Because the thinking’s heady enough to make you crazy, there’s a tendency in Buddhist matters to generate a magical language. To the outsider these illogical syllogisms sound like gibberish, doublespeak. They’re golden to a poet’s ear. Sanskrit poetics speaks of Sandhyabasha or twilight speech, which is an ‘upsidedown’ language harbouring contradictions and paradoxes. The Buddhist sutras, of which Kerouac’s Scripture is so redolent, are filled with these contraries. (Kerouac 1994, 2)
Kerouac loaded the short scriptures with haikus, Zen koans, poetry, prose and meditations that, like Dharma, reflected his inner search for enlightenment and outward quest for the meaning of the universe. The conflicted Kerouac of the first text appears to be absent from Scripture. Kerouac emerges in this latter as a man who was at peace with the realizations that he had made. In the second paragraph of his sutra, describing the Golden Eternity, Kerouac appears to be in a much more blissful state. He states:
Here Kerouac shows an upbeat mood that was often shadowed in Dharma by his bouts with drinking, drugs and his family. Two stanzas later, Kerouac declared:
And two paragraphs following, Kerouac discussed further his place:
Kerouac focused the material of his sutra around the Buddhist notion of emptiness and the nature of form as being consistent with concepts of emptiness. Waldman writes in the introduction that ‘Kerouac’s Scripture is accurately onto the profound dharma teaching of form is emptiness, emptiness is form, emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness ...’ (Kerouac 1994, 4). Scripture has been praised for its accuracy and brilliance, including by Eric Mottram who writes:
While Kerouac offered a meditation of emptiness and form, it is important to note that Kerouac’s emphasis was on the golden eternity. This aspect of time differs from the text of Dharma, where time was always in the present, while often looking towards the tragic future, but in his sutra time and eternity is golden and things have already been attained. The manner in which Kerouac presented his golden eternity used the form of Buddhist sutras; however, he also employed the Zen practice of koans. This was a departure for Kerouac since at this point in his life he was not as interested in Zen Buddhism as he was with other Mahayana schools. In Dharma Kerouac tended to shy away from Zen, and indeed there are moments in the text where he provided criticisms of this branch of Buddhism. In Scripture Kerouac has provided the reader with a few enigmatic scriptures that could be considered reflections of Zen koans.
The Zen aspect of Kerouac’s sutra is quite interesting when compared with his attitude towards Zen in Some of the Dharma.In Dharma Kerouac regarded Zen in a lesser light than Mahayana. He saw Mahayana as the purer form of Buddhism, writing that ‘Mahayana is the essence of Reality’ (Kerouac 1997, 251). In Book Seven he related his feelings about Zen Buddhism. His explanation:
Kerouac obviously felt that he had real reasons to disapprove of Zen. A few pages later he wrote:
Kerouac’s original influence was that of the Indian Mahayana Buddhism, and, as is evident in these passages, his interest in Zen was limited, but at the same time Kerouac had respect for D.T. Suzuki, for he read him intently and quoted him in Dharma. From this respect and interest in Suzuki, Kerouac came to be influenced by the Zen tradition of haiku poetry. Tonkinson suggests that he ‘resisted Zen because of his conviction that it emphasized attaining mystical insight rather than cultivating compassion’ (Tonkinson 1995. 17). Perhaps Kerouac felt that Zen Buddhism would lead him deeper into the world of temptations and peer pressure because it was becoming such a socially attractive and popular tradition. Whatever Kerouac’s true reasons for not identifying himself with Zen, the fact is that he was intrigued by its literary aspect, and this led to the compositions of the koans and haikus in both Some of the Dharma and The Scripture of the Golden Eternity.
The blissful and ‘golden’ tone of Scripture is an important aspect of Kerouac’s sutra because it could be said to be a direct reflection of his experience of awakening. In the prose scripture # 64. Kerouac described an experience of unconsciousness in which he realized upon awakening that everything is all right forever. Kerouac’s description of his moment of true enlightenment is as follows:
This experience of enlightenment or awakening that originated with a fainting spell appears to have affected Kerouac in such a way as to change his outlook on time and the here and now, similarly to the outcome of a near death experience. This moment of realization appears to reflect the accounts of the Buddha’s experience under the Bodhi tree. Hence, the result of this experience was a collapsing of time, a realization that the present was the golden age for Kerouac, one that influenced his daily practice and took shape in his sutra. The knowledge that Kerouac reaped from his enlightenment experience was that which he wrote in Scripture as the first teaching of the golden eternity.
This first teaching is the knowledge Kerouac gained from his experience of awakening, a Buddha-nature type realization. Kerouac did not have the answers to life’s big questions yet his golden eternity became his response to what became unbearable in his life. Kerouac’s teaching or reasoning may seem like a childlike cop-out of the conflicts in one’s life, but his vision of the golden eternity is in line with Buddhist philosophy as his second teaching confirms. The final scripture of Kerouac’s sutra reveals his second and final teaching:
‘This second teaching is directly related to the concepts that can be found in Dharma.In Scripture Kerouac continued to focus on the Buddhist views regarding emptiness, nothingness and arbitrary conceptions. Nothing exists but as an arbitrary conception of the mind and senses. Kerouac’s emphasis on the notion of arbitrary relative conceptions is less obscure in Dharma as he writes:
A few pages earlier, Kerouac writes ADORATION TO THE MIND OF BUDDHA:
It is concepts such as these Kerouac conveyed in Dharma that correspond to his knowledge of ‘the golden eternity’. During a Monday meditation practice in the North Carolina woods, Kerouac writes:
A few lines later Kerouac continues:
Kerouac’s Buddhist texts
Kerouac’s vision of ‘the golden eternity’ and his two Buddhist writings were influenced by many factors, including Mahayana Buddhism; in particular, texts such as the Surangama Sutra, Lankavatara Scripture and the Diamond Sutra. Even though Dharma appears to be a reworking of primary sources, and reinterpretations of theories, its importance goes beyond what is actually written. Together the two texts reveal a lot about the author, his practice, personal struggles and, more significantly, the influence and relation that Kerouac had and continues to have on Western Buddhism and to practitioners.
To look at the role that Jack Kerouac has played and continues to play in the rise and changes within Buddhism in the West, one must first look at what was instrumental in bringing about the rise of Buddhism in his life. In Dharma Kerouac provided a list of texts that were pivotal in peaking his interest in Eastern philosophies. The bibliography that is given in Book One allows the reader to get an idea of where Kerouac’s interests originated. The most significant of these books for Kerouac was A Buddhist Bible by Dwight Goddard. Kerouac’s connection with the texts condensed in Goddard’s book is obvious when reading Dharma.As an anthology of Buddhist texts, Goddard supplied Kerouac, as well as many Westerners, with the opportunity to become familiar with various Buddhist sources and to study the dharma more comprehensively. Kerouac was so taken with Goddard’s book that he memorized pages of text and a couple of times in Dharma one can find Goddard’s California address. On pages 213 and 329 Kerouac exhibits his fascination with Dwight Goddard and his surprise that they lived so close to each other:
Just over 100 pages later, Kerouac tosses in the address without labeling it as Goddard’s:
The three sections of Goddard’s collection that most influenced Kerouac are the Diamond Sutra, the Surangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Scripture. Each had tremendous influence on Kerouac’s writing as their main themes flow through both of the texts being discussed. The theme of the Diamond Sutra is that all things, ideas and phenomena are subjective and non-existent. ‘... all definitive things, phenomena and ideas are subjective and unreal, being merely manifestations of one’s mind; that even the highest conceptions of the Dharma and of Tathagata are mind-made and empty’ (Goddard 1994, 661). These characteristics of the Diamond Sutra are conveyed in Kerouac’s books, as shown in the excerpts already cited.
The second influential piece from Goddard’s text was the Surangama Sutra, whose focus is on the steps for attaining Supreme Enlightenment and Highest Samadhi. The aspect of the text that seemed to impress Kerouac was the details regarding the mental preparations for dhyana practice in achieving enlightenment. ‘The successive steps are given in such detail and are so intelligently interpreted that if faithfully followed from their beginning in counting breaths to their goal, one will surely attain Enlightenment and Samadhi’ (Goddard 1994, 665). Kerouac must have read the Surangama Sutra and have felt that enlightenment was possible for himself, as may have been the case with the experience of awakening in Scripture. However, it was not until Kerouac read the Lankavatara Scripture that he realized suffering could cease (Hipkiss 1976, 65), although one finds plenty of examples of both the Surangama Sutra and the Lankavatara Scripture in Dharma. On pages 201 – 4 Kerouac provides his lengthy version of the Surangama Sutra with the ‘wording rearranged for the understanding of Western minds’ (Kerouac 1997, 201). This rewording shows that Kerouac was aware of the problems that Westerners sometimes encounter in Buddhist practice. By using repetitive motifs and less ‘heady’ wording, Kerouac has provided a translation of Surangama that is understandable for the average Westerner. For example:
Here we see Kerouac employing simple language to explain the material in the Surangama Sutra followed by parentheses that correspond to the idea being articulated.
The influence of the Lankavatara Scripture is evident in Kerouac’s discussion of the origins and developments of cognition, and the progressions of false imagination and knowledge as stemming from ignorance. These concepts are present in both Scripture and Dharma, along with ideas about transcendental intelligence and the realization and intuition of Noble Wisdom as outlined in the Lankavatara Scripture. ‘The theme of it is to elucidate the profoundest experience that comes to the human spirit. It everywhere deprecated dependence upon words and doctrines and urges upon all the wisdom of making a determined effort to attain this highest experience’ (Goddard 1994, 668). In relation to Dharma Kerouac included direct quotes from the Suzuki and Goddard translation of Lankavatara with corresponding page numbers, as well as writing his own interpretation of the text and the Nirvana of the Tathagata. Kerouac writes:
Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible provided Kerouac with the basics for his Buddhist practice.
From the influence of Goddard on Kerouac comes the influence and impact of Kerouac on generations of people in the West. The question remains whether Kerouac’s deciphering of Buddhism spawned a ‘new’ Buddhism in North America. There was most definitely an Americanization of certain aspects of Buddhism happening, but were there enough changes occurring within the tradition to declare the emergence of a new branch of Buddhism? Was it enough that alterations were being made to traditional practices to claim the development of a new form of Buddhism? In the foreword to Goddard’s text, Atkin concedes that Kerouac was instrumental in Americanizing Buddhism and establishing a culture that flourished around the Zen centres in North America (Goddard 1994, viii). Would this culture have existed without Kerouac’s influence and Buddhist texts?
What helped in establishing Buddhism in North America was the manner in which Kerouac related Buddhism to his readers. As mentioned earlier, Kerouac’s approach was honest and personal, relating his struggles and frustrations with his daily practice. It became possible for budding Buddhists to identify with someone in the same situation. Kerouac suffered through sitting meditation with the pain of phlebitis, ‘a battle with pain of legs’ (Kerouac 1997, 188). Because of the pain he experienced and the realization that most Westerners cannot sit in the full lotus position, Kerouac explained his method of Western Buddhist Meditation in Some of the Dharma with instructions and a drawing that illustrates the proper positioning of the body. His method states:
Kerouac’s practical descriptions and effort in realizing the needs of Westerners was of assistance in his Americanizing of Buddhism. Kerouac was aware of the difficulty of practicing traditional Buddhism in North America, as he began to draw attention to himself. Whether this attention was positive or negative, the fact of the matter is that Kerouac was in the public eye. In a sense Kerouac relished the attention he received but he also wanted to be happy and his fame seemed to cause turmoil in his life. Realizing this, Kerouac was in search of a loner lifestyle with monastic undercurrents. Big Sky Mind quotes Kerouac as saying, ‘all I want as far as life-plans are concerned from here on out, is compassionate, contented solitude-Bhikkuhood is so hard to make in the West-it would have to be some American streamlined Bhikkuhood, because so far all I’ve done is attract attention’ (Tonkinson 1995, 25). Kerouac was cognizant of the impact he was having on the young people of the 1950s and 1960s generations—but what he really wanted was to teach Buddhism, not simply to garner attention.
Both of Kerouac’s texts relate his vision for America and Buddhism. In Scripture Kerouac dreams of the golden eternity, while in Dharma he planned ways in which he would teach the concepts of Buddhism to Americans. Kerouac went so far as to explain the approach he would take in teaching Southerners, for he must have thought them to be more pious to their Christian faith than other American citizens. Kerouac explained:
The Southerners must have affected Kerouac on his travels across the country, as Dharma includes not only ways of conveying Buddhist concepts specifically to these Christians, but also a two-page sermon called ‘Preaching to A Southerner’. In this sermon Kerouac strikes his Buddhist message on a chord of the suffering Southern evangelist worker.
It was smart of Kerouac to relate his Buddhist message to the pious southerners in terms of Christian ethics and problems. This trickery employed in Kerouac’s teaching of Buddhism attests to his awareness of the state of mind of North Americans who in the 1950s were steeped in the idea that hard work is the way to achieve the American Dream.
Kerouac as teacher of Buddhism was aware of the alterations needed and the ways in which his students, as Christian Americans, would understand the dharma. Does the approach that Kerouac took and the substitutions of Buddhist expressions allow us to classify his teachings as a new American form of Buddhism? Some people would believe this to be true, for Kerouac claimed he wanted to pursue the life of a Bhikku and recommended others to follow the same lifestyle; however, Kerouac could not endure the strict monastic way of living. The formation of meditation and dharma centres in North America are far from the monastic institutions of the East, so are these Western Buddhist centres indirectly part of Kerouac’s doing and influence? Although his sudden death preceded the formation of the majority of dharma centres, it is without doubt that Kerouac helped bring Buddhism into the consciousness of many North Americans. With the help of people like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, Buddhism began to flourish in America, particularly in California. Kerouac’s influence was felt after his death and continues to be discussed in Buddhist circles. One only has to pick up a copy of Tricycle to read Kerouac’s life-story of the Buddha (Issues 8 and 15) or head to the Naropa Institute to engage in Kerouac’s poetics and American Buddhism. Jack Kerouac’s vision of the golden eternity endures in the minds of many all over North America.
Perhaps Kerouac’s friends took it upon themselves to carry on Kerouac’s teachings and vision of the golden eternity after he was no longer able to do so. The flip side to this view is that by 1959 Kerouac had become disillusioned with Buddhism, just as his good friend Ginsberg’s interest began to peak in the teachings that Kerouac once tried to force upon him.
BRINKLEY, DOUGLAS. 1998. In the Kerouac Archive. The Atlantic Monthly, November, 49–76.