Jack and the Buddhastalk

Today some more about Jack Kerouac’s connections with Buddhism. I’m one of those people who consider Kerouac an important American novelist. He possessed a phenomenal memory, almost total recall, and as his “novels” were autobiographical, he documented the affairs of a small group of people who would become known as the Beat Generation, and who would have a tremendous influence on American culture. His writing style was as spontaneous as the life he lived and documented, a completely unique voice in literature.

No, that’s not an ancient Buddhist scroll, it’s Kerouac’s original manuscript of “On The Road,” that he typed onto a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. (Photograph: AP)

Like Alan Watts, also identified with the Beat Generation to some extent, Kerouac was one of my earliest Buddhist influences. Unlike Watts, however, it was not what Kerouac wrote about Buddhism that impressed me, which in his novels is not a great deal, but simply that he was into Buddhism. Kerouac was cool, so Buddhism must be cool. That’s how I reasoned things back then.

Kerouac was probably introduced to Buddhism by Allen Ginsberg, who according to Gerald Nicosia (Memory Babe*), in 1953 “had begun an intensive study of Chinese and Japanese art, literature, and religion,” and “began to communicate his new enthusiasm to his friends almost immediately.” Nicosia reports that in late ’53, Kerouac was describing himself as a “big Buddhist.”

Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism, although intense, lasted only a few years. By 1957, he no longer considered himself Buddhist, and those readers familiar with his life story know that in his later years (he died in 1969), he retreated to his mother’s house in Lowell, MA where he returned to his Catholic roots, practiced his alcoholism and adopted some rather conservative views.

While he dabbled with meditation, I suspect Kerouac was more of a book-reading, intellectual kind of Buddhist. Nicosia says the texts most influential on him were the Surangama and Lankavatara Sutras, the Tao te Ching, the Sutra Spoken by the Sixth Patriarch, and most especially, the Diamond Sutra, as I wrote about the other day. All these works are found in Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible that he carried around with him in a leather wrapper. It’s likely that this one book was his sole source of Buddhist information, as it also contained a biography of the Buddha.

Various paperback editions of “The Dharma Bums.” (click to enlarge)

Buddhism permeated Kerouac’s writing during the period he immersed himself in its philosophy. The Dharma Bums is essentially the story of the relationship between himself and Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder), “the number one Dharma Bum of them all.” Snyder was, and is, a Zen Buddhist, but Kerouac was not particularly attracted to Zen, he was more interested in Indian and Chinese Buddhism. In the novel, he writes,

I’d say that was a lot of silly Zen Buddhism.” This took Japhy back a bit. “Lissen Japhy,” I said, “I’m not a Zen Buddhist, I’m a serious Buddhist, I’m an oldfashioned dreamy Hinayana coward of later Mahayanism,” and so forth into the night, my contention being that Zen Buddhism didn’t concentrate on kindness so much as on confusing the intellect to make it perceive the illusion of all sources of things.”

Desolation Angels, which he began writing in 1958 or 59, and not published until 1965, also reflects his interest in Buddhism, and as well, Japanese culture in the way he incorporated haiku poetry into his prose.

In 1956, Snyder suggested to Kerouac that he should write a sutra. This resulted in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, which Kerouac subsequently lost and was published without his participation in 1960. This work consists of 66 prose poems, and my favorite is Scripture 22:

Stare deep into the world before you as if it were the void: innumerable holy ghosts, buddhies, and savior gods there hide, smiling. All the atoms emitting light inside wavehood, there is no personal separation of any of it. A hummingbird can come into a house and a hawk will not: so rest and be assured. While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.

You can read the entire work here.

During his Buddhist period, Kerouac also put together a “book of Dharma,” originally an attempt to explain Buddhism without using Buddhist terms. He struggled to get Some of the Dharma, as it was eventually titled, published during his lifetime, but it didn’t see publication until 1996:

Buddhism is a return to the Original mind.

Return those shoes
to the shoemaker
Return this hand to my father
This pillow to the pillowmaker
Those slippers to the shop
That wainscot to the carpenter,
But my mind
my tranquil and eternal Mind
Return it to whom?

In 2009, Penguin Books released Kerouac’s Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, featuring a forward by Robert Thurman, who reveals that like many others, his interest in Buddhism was sparked by reading The Dharma Bums in his youth; Thurman calls it “the most accurate, poetic, and expansive evocation of the heart of Buddhism that was available at that time.”

Snyder: “the number one Dharma Bum of them all.”

Gary Snyder quoted in Memory Babe:

Jack made the moment everything – the present was where he wanted to be, and for people around him the present became the only thing that mattered.”

Overall, Jack Kerouac’s sense of what it meant to be in the present moment, along with his grasp of Buddhism, was to some degree immature and naive, fueled by a certain amount of hedonism and self-aggrandizement. Nicosia writes: “Although Jack would say, ‘I am Buddha,’ Gary was sure Jack knew better.” However, through the legacy of his words (“cease to cherish any arbitrary conceptions as to your own self, the selfhood of others, of living beings, of an Universal Self”), we get the sense that on an elemental and intuitive level, he got it. It’s just too bad he didn’t stick with it.

Here’s Kerouac in 1959 on the Steve Allen Show reading a medley of On the Road and Visions of Cody. He had a page of “Cody” taped inside of the first edition of “Road” he reads from. Dean Moriarty is, of course, the legedary Neal Cassady.

*Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (Grove Press, 1983)

 

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Avocado

I’m getting ready to take a brief trip up north to the Bay Area and Monterey. I thought I’d get out one of my favorite novels and reread it, Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, to kind of get in the mood. Not that I need to get in the mood, but it’s a good excuse to become reacquainted with an old friend: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

As I was digging around for one of my three copies, I ran across Turtle Island, a book of poems by Gary Snyder, whose name certainly brings forth Northern California associations for me. Buddhism, too. Thumbing through Turtle Island, I found a great poem I hadn’t read in years, and I just had to share it with you. It’s called “Avocado”:

The Dharma is like an Avocado!
Some parts so ripe you can’t believe it.
But it’s good.
And other parts hard and green
Without much flavor,
Pleasing those who like their eggs well-cooked.

And the skin is thin,
The great big round seed
In the middle,
Is your own Original Nature –
Pure and smooth,
Almost nobody ever splits it open
Or tries to see
If it will grow.

Hard and slippery,
It looks like
You should plant it – but then
It shoots out thru the
fingers –
gets away.

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Earth Day and Smokey the Buddha

It’s Earth Day, when each year we remind ourselves of all the things we can do to help and protect Mother Earth.

I remember the first Earth Day in 1970. It was called a “national teach-in on the environment.” Teach-in is term you don’t hear anymore. The first major teach-in was organized by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1965. What made Earth Day rather epic is that it was really the first mass movement born out of the counter-culture to gain wide-spread support from mainstream America. And that first Earth Day was a big deal. On April 22, 1970, over 20 million people participated – on the streets, in parks, churches and auditoriums, 2000 colleges and universities and 10,000 elementary and high schools.

We had a rally that day at my high school, which was not that big of a deal unfortunately. Just sitting in the bleachers on the football field listening to some students and teachers give speeches. Pretty boring, actually.

It is heartening to see how Earth Day has grown over the years, but disheartening to think that we are still abusing our planet in ways that could have been stopped at any time during the last four decades. Three years after that initial Earth Day celebration, the United States had the first “oil crisis” when OPEC decided on an oil embargo to protest the U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur war. To save gas, Nixon reduced the speed limit on highways to 55. Here it is 2011 and we are still dependent on oil.

I’ve always thought of Buddhism as a “green” philosophy. Many of the core principles relate directly to our relationship with the environment, particularly interdependency (pratitya-samutpada), which teaches that all things, sentient and non-sentient, are interconnected. Japanese Buddhism has the term esho funi or “self and environment are two but not two.” Our environment is only a reflection of ourselves. If the Buddha were still around and if he was invited to speak at an Earth Day event, I imagine he’d tell us that we will never clean up our outer environment until we clear up our environment within. The green revolution is really an inner revolution. You already know that, yet I don’t think we can remind ourselves of it too often.

Since it’s also National Poetry Month, I think this is the perfect occasion to present Smokey the Bear Sutra, the poem that Gary Snyder wrote for the 1969 Sierra Club Wilderness Conference. It takes the form of a Buddhist sutra with Smokey the Bear as the reincarnation of Vairocana Buddha, a celestial Buddha who first appeared in the apocryphal Chinese text, Fan-wang ching or “Brahma’s Net” (also the origin of the Mahayana Bodhisattva ordination precepts). It is a somewhat satirical piece (some might say sacrilegious), but satire often allows a writer to communicate valuable principles without having to get up on a soapbox and preach.

 

Ancient statue of Smokey/Vairocana found in Chinese cave

SMOKEY THE BEAR SUTRA

BY GARY SNYDER

Once in the Jurassic about 150 million years ago, the Great Sun Buddha in this corner of the Infinite Void gave a discourse to all the assembled elements and energies: to the standing beings, the walking beings, the flying beings, and the sitting beings–even the grasses, to the number of thirteen billion, each one born from a seed, assembled there: a Discourse concerning Enlightenment on the planet Earth.

“In some future time, there will be a continent called America. It will have great centers of power called such as Pyramid Lake, Walden Pond, Mt. Rainier, Big Sur, Everglades, and so forth; and powerful nerves and channels such as Columbia River, Mississippi River, and Grand Canyon. The human race in that era will get into troubles all over its head, and practically wreck everything in spite of its own strong intelligent Buddha-nature.”

“The twisting strata of the great mountains and the pulsings of volcanoes are my love burning deep in the earth. My obstinate compassion is schist and basalt and granite, to be mountains, to bring down the rain. In that future American Era I shall enter a new form; to cure the world of loveless knowledge that seeks with blind hunger: and mindless rage eating food that will not fill it.”

And he showed himself in his true form of

SMOKEY THE BEAR

A handsome smokey-colored brown bear standing on his hind legs, showing that he is aroused and watchful.

Bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances; cuts the roots of useless attachments, and flings damp sand on the fires of greed and war;

His left paw in the mudra of Comradely Display–indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits and that of deer, rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, dandelions, and lizards all grow in the realm of the Dharma;

Wearing the blue work overalls symbolic of slaves and laborers, the countless men oppressed by a civilization that claims to save but often destroys;

Wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the west, symbolic of the forces that guard the wilderness, which is the Natural State of the Dharma and the true path of man on Earth:

all true paths lead through mountains

With a halo of smoke and flame behind, the forest fires of the kali-yuga, fires caused by the stupidity of those who think things can be gained and lost whereas in truth all is contained vast and free in the Blue Sky and Green Earth of One Mind;

Round-bellied to show his kind nature and that the great earth has food enough for everyone who loves her and trusts her;

Trampling underfoot wasteful freeways and needless suburbs, smashing the worms of capitalism and totalitarianism;

Indicating the task: his followers, becoming free of cars, houses, canned foods, universities, and shoes, master the Three Mysteries of their own Body, Speech, and Mind; and fearlessly chop down the rotten trees and prune out the sick limbs of this country America and then burn the leftover trash.

Wrathful but calm. Austere but Comic. Smokey the Bear will Illuminate those who would help him; but for those who would hinder or slander him…

HE WILL PUT THEM OUT.

Thus his great Mantra:

Namah samanta vajranam chanda maharoshana Sphataya hum traka ham mam

“I DEDICATE MYSELF TO THE UNIVERSAL DIAMOND BE THIS RAGING FURY BE DESTROYED”

And he will protect those who love the woods and rivers, Gods and animals, hobos and madmen, prisoners and sick people, musicians, playful women, and hopeful children:

And if anyone is threatened by advertising, air pollution, television, or the police, they should chant SMOKEY THE BEAR’S WAR SPELL:

DROWN THEIR BUTTS

CRUSH THEIR BUTTS

DROWN THEIR BUTTS

CRUSH THEIR BUTTS

And SMOKEY THE BEAR will surely appear to put the enemy out with his vajra-shovel.

Now those who recite this Sutra and then try to put it in practice will accumulate merit as countless as the sands of Arizona and Nevada.

Will help save the planet Earth from total oil slick.
Will enter the age of harmony of man and nature.
Will win the tender love and caresses of men, women, and beasts.
Will always have ripened blackberries to eat and a sunny spot under a pine tree to sit at.

AND IN THE END WILL WIN HIGHEST PERFECT ENLIGHTENMENT

…thus we have heard…

(may be reproduced free forever)

 

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