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)



“Equally a coming Buddha”

Vasubandhu, a 4th Century Indian Buddhist, once wrote:

All sentient beings originally and universally posses the pure Buddha Nature. Thus, it is not possible that anyone should ever fail to realize Nirvana.”

– from Treatise on Buddha Nature

When you read something like this, you should feel happy. It’s really good news.

Today, I’m unabashedly gloating over the idea that all people have Buddha Nature. What a positive message. How could any person not be glad to hear it? Having Buddha Nature means that Nirvana, which is peace, is presently available. We don’t have to wait until we die to find peace, and we don’t have to rely on anyone or anything outside of our own life. Nirvana is right here, right now, if we want it.

Buddha Nature, or Fo-xing, is a term that originated in China; there is no Sanskrit equivalent for it. The word does not appear in any Indian sutras. Even in the Nirvana Sutra the term used is Buddha-dhatu (Buddha realm), although it is considered synonymous with “Buddha Nature,” as is tathagatagarbha (“womb of thusness”), expounded in the “Tathagatagarbha” sutras.* Indeed, the notion of Buddha Nature, as developed and popularized by the Chinese Yogacara and Madhyamaka schools (the basis for our present day understanding of the term), apparently was unknown in Indian Buddhism.

That’s why there is some question among modern scholars about whether or not Vasubandhu is the actual author of the Fo-xing-lun or “Treatise on Buddha Nature.” Regardless, Sallie B. King, now Professor of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University, published a study of Fo-xing-lun, titled Buddha Nature. She says, “Buddha Nature means ‘potential Buddha’ – not as a type of being, but as practice (i.e. realization) that is an action or series of actions.”

This potential has always existed within sentient beings. Some Buddhists maintain that insentient being posses it as well, that even plants and trees have Buddha Nature. However, only human beings can realize this potential for awakened life.

I think it is important to keep in mind that just because Buddha Nature and the peace of Nirvana is presently all around us, there is still some effort required to realize it. Potential, remember, means “possible,” “capable of being.” Buddha Nature is a latent quality that must be developed for it to manifest. And once we have awakened our Buddha Nature we can’t rest on our laurels. After he became the Buddha, Shakyamuni did not just sit back and say, “I’ve got it made.” He continued to develop himself.

There’s a phrase in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums that I think sums up Buddha Nature perfectly:

equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha . . .”

If you uncover your Buddha Nature, you won’t be able to see it. If you were to become a Buddha, you might not even know it. But if you can wrap your mind around the idea that there is absolutely no real distinction between an ordinary human being and a Buddha, then you’ve taken a giant step on the journey of awakening.


*Tathagatagarbha Sutra, Srimaladevi-simhanada Sutra, Anuatvapurnatva-nirdesa