Today, the first ever guest post at The Endless Further.
My nephew, Russ Riley (left), is a student at Hastings College in Nebraska. Last semester, he took a class on Buddhism, and naturally, to complete the course he was required to write a final paper. I think it’s pretty good. His teacher did, too. Gave Russ an A-. And I want to share it with you.
Now, since we live some 1500 miles apart from each other, I have not been much of an influence in Russ’ life. So whatever interest he has in Buddhism is a result of his own spiritual journey. Matter of fact, I don’t believe we had ever talked about Buddhism together until just recently.
Likewise, I gave him some guidance on the paper (after all, what good is having an uncle who is Buddhist if you can’t tap into his vast storehouse of wisdom), but I didn’t help him too much. And it was his professor who suggested the theme of Jack Kerouac and the Beat movement and how jazz music relates to Buddhism.
In any case, without further ado, here is one young man’s thoughts on some of the Dharma:
How You See Is What You Get
The search for happiness can be a tough one, especially with the monotony of everyday life. When people are in our way and we have to be somewhere right now, it can be easy to forget what is actually happening right now. We can very easily get caught up in our thoughts and emotions and before we know it we’re stuck in a fit of anger and frustration: all because that car didn’t get out of my way, or because I didn’t deserve to stub my toe on that crack in the sidewalk. When we practice Buddhist philosophy we can come to an understanding that happiness is all around, and that our perception is what needs to change. In order to find true happiness we must let go of our expectations and live in the present moment.
Where am I? Here. What time is it? Now. This is something we don’t often think about with our Western mindsets. To Be Here Now means to live completely in the present moment. It means not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future, but thinking about the feelings and senses of the eternal present. It means thinking about the hardness of the chair you’re sitting in, the feeling of your breath flowing in and out across your lips, the breeze lightly brushing your skin. When we practice being in the present moment we are practicing one of the most important aspects of Buddhism. One person who was particularly good at this was Jack Kerouac, one of the most influential writers of the 1950’s. He was known for his spontaneous behavior and helping create a movement called the beat movement. His writing style was as spontaneous as the lifestyle he lived and wrote about, as he often typed on 120-foot long teletype paper. This style was called spontaneous prose, a much practiced stream of consciousness with a trail of untampered thoughts, one leading to the next. Kerouac developed this style so that the words on the page were his purest thoughts. It is quite clear that this writing style has many similarities to that of an improvised jazz solo, even more specifically, a bebop solo played by Charlie Parker. Phrases were well thought out, allowing breathing space for the reader, just like Parker’s solos, each passage based around a key idea. Both based in New York in the 50’s, they ended up crossing paths and Kerouac was blown away by Parker’s spontaneity and originality in his musical phrases. As the bebop movement grew, it became more than just music. It became a lifestyle, an image of these fast paced, high energy entertainers living a life free from all the worries and problems of the real world. A prime example of this lifestyle is the beat generation, which Kerouac wrote about and helped start. Being a ‘beat’ meant you were nonconforming and original, questioning social, religious, and political matters. It meant living in the moment, being in the now.
Kerouac has said that bebop and Parker in particular were very influential on his life and works. In fact, Kerouac was so moved by Charlie Parker that he wrote the following poem about him, comparing him to Buddha.
Charlie Parker looked like Buddha
Charlie Parker, who recently died
Laughing at a juggler on TV
After weeks of strain and sickness,
Was called the Perfect Musician.
And his expression on his face
Was as calm, beautiful, and profound
As the image of Buddha
Represented in the East, the lidded eyes
The expression that says “All Is Well”
This was what Charlie Parker
Says when he played All Is Well.
You had the feeling of early-in-the-morning
Like a hermit’s joy, or
Like the perfect cry of some wild gang
At a jam session
Charlie burst his lungs to reach the speed
Of what the speedsters wanted
And what they wanted
Was his eternal Slowdown.
Jack Kerouac thought Charlie Parker looked like Buddha. At the beginning of the poem, Kerouac refers to Parker as the Perfect Musician, similar to how a monk would call Buddha the Perfect Being. Kerouac, a man who practiced Zen Buddhism for part of his life, compares Parker’s face to Buddha. He also attributes a spiritual significance to his musical playing abilities. Kerouac praises Parker’s creative energy as if it were a spiritual force working towards a musical awakening. When he wrote about his writing style, spontaneous prose, he compared it to playing jazz music. In an excerpt from the book, Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, Kerouac describes his theory of composition: “PROCEDURE: Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.” This example of how the artistic visions of Kerouac and Parker crossed paths is perfect. They both had a thirst for spontaneity and originality. Kerouac saw the Zen in Charlie Parker’s approach to jazz in this new style called bebop. In this poem, Kerouac isn’t so much comparing Parker as a person to Buddha, but more so it’s a reference to how Charlie Parker’s playing makes him feel. All Is Well.
In 1956, a Zen Buddhist and friend of Kerouac, Gary Snyder, suggested that Kerouac write a sutra. What he wrote became The Scripture of Golden Eternity. The work consists of 66 prose poems, which deal with the nature of our consciousness and the impermanence in everything. Mainly influenced by his Buddhist background, the title “scripture” alludes to his Catholic upbringing. In the first verse, he says:
Did I create that sky? Yes, for, if it was anything other than a
conception of my mind I wouldn’t have said “sky”-That is why I
am the golden eternity. There
are not two of us here, reader and writer, but one, one golden
eternity, On-Which-It-Is, That-Which-Everything-Is.
In this passage Jack Kerouac introduces another very important concept in Buddhism, which is, the oneness of everything and nothing. He believed that everything is a part of something greater. That we are all one essence functioning in a nonexistent and unimportant reality. Kerouac refers to himself as a divine being when calling himself the “golden eternity.” He also implies that others are part of this divine being when he says, “You are the golden eternity because there is no me and no you, only the golden eternity.” He is emphasizing the importance of the unity of humanity. I think the golden eternity refers to the realization of Buddhist philosophy, the principle that once one understands the endless mystery of everything and nothing, once one realizes we are all one energy, one can understand true happiness.
The problem in Western society today is that we are so focused on individualism and being different from others. We generally define ourselves by what we are not, instead of what we are. This creates a “this and them” mindset and only feeds our nasty egos. In the West we have our Golden Rule: Treat others how you want to be treated. But upon first inspection of this saying, it feeds the ego. It is based on you helping other people for personal benefit. I will act in a positive way towards you, so that the result is you acting positive towards me. I’m helping you with the intentions of getting help for myself. This should not be the case. We should be compassionate to others simply because it is the right thing to do. In Buddhism, it is said that every sentient being is the same energy. If you look close enough, smaller than atoms, protons, and electrons, there is just energy. If we think this way, it becomes obvious that we must not be harmful to others, because we are all the same. Not the same beings, but the same being. Another more scientific way to look at it is to look at the four most common elements in the human body; hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Not only are they most common in human bodies, but every other living thing on Earth. Furthermore, these elements are among the most abundant in the universe, with hydrogen making up 75%, oxygen the third most abundant, followed by carbon, neon, iron, and nitrogen. The same elements that make up 96% of the human body make up more than 75% of our universe.
The idea that we are all one is an idea that was brought forth by Siddhartha Gautama himself. This teaching is described best in one of the earliest surviving Buddhist texts, the Vajracchedika Pranjaparamita Sutra, or the Diamond Sutra. It was discovered by Aurel Stein in 1907 in the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas. The complete history is unknown, but it is said to be an adaptation of another sutra, translated in 401 CE by Kumarajava, who translated many of the Buddhist sutras. The Diamond Sutra explains that a bodhisattva must abandon all concepts of “self,” he or she should get rid of all notions “other.” When a bodhisattva helps someone, he or she should not have the idea that someone is being helped. One must empty the mind of all concepts of discrimination. Buddha says that the ultimate truth cannot be expressed in words. He says no one can attain transient wisdom, and that the very idea of attainment is one that should be forgotten.
Another essential Buddhist concept deals with our perceptions. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Perception is very important for our well-being, for our peace. Perception should be free from emotion and ignorance, free from illusion. In Buddhism, knowledge is regarded as an obstacle to understanding.” He explains that if we hold something as truth, we need to be ready to abandon it or else when truth comes to knock at our door we will not open it. He gives a very good example: A man with a young son whom he loved very much was away on a business trip. While he was gone, bandits came and burned down his village and took his son. When the man returned he saw the destruction and panicked. He found a corpse of an infant whom he thought was his child. He held a cremation ceremony and carried his son’s ashes wherever he went. He loved his son more than anything. One night his real son escaped and came knocking on his door in the middle of the night. When the man asked who it was the boy told him it was his son. He man became angry and thought it was some boy making fun of him and yelled at him to go away. They never saw each other again (48). Knowledge is an obstacle to our understanding. Understanding means to throw away your knowledge. For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.
Guarding knowledge is not a good way to understand, but throwing away what we hold as truth will help us better understand and become more aware. Kerouac wrote a verse in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity that expresses this concept very well. It states:
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.
In the first line of this verse Kerouac is referring to meditation, seeing the world as it truly is, free from illusion, being totally aware. One will see good things and bad things, but underneath all of that is just energy. Understand that it is all emptiness, empty of any self that is intrinsic, permanent, and independent. He refers to atoms emitting light, saying there is no personal separation of any of it. All things are all interdependent. We are all one. When Kerouac says, “A hummingbird can come into a house and a hawk will not” he is implying that whether good or bad, change happens. One day it is cloudy, another day it is not, but do not worry about stuff happening, be happy. Think not of the future, nor of the past, but be here now. This attitude is where Zen and Beat align. Happiness is all around, you just have to perceive it as such. In the last line of this verse Kerouac means that when we are looking for truth, we may be confronted with what we think is not truth. When we let go of our previous knowledge, we can fully understand. The idea of light and dark can be compared to that of good and evil. The Buddhist understanding is that good and evil are not two separate things, but they are innate, inseparable aspects of life. The line “devoured by darkness” is referring to the fact that it can be very difficult to let go of what we hold as truth. In order to truly understand and perceive reality, we must be ready to abandon our truths. Without darkness, there is no light. Without light there can be no darkness.
Kerouac’s verse reminds me of a famous singer and song writer who became quite well known for his teachings of peace and love. His name was John Lennon and he wrote a song called Tomorrow Never Knows, which says, “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying, it is not dying. Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, It is shining, it is shining.” The idea of this verse correlates with Kerouac’s Scripture verse quite well. In Zen, not knowing is an important concept. When we can lay down all our thoughts, let go of our preconceived notions and expectations, and surrender to the void, we can truly understand and see the light.
No matter who you are, where you are from, which religion you are a part of, you can practice Buddhism. We can all help the world be a more peaceful place by starving our ego and fueling our compassionate loving side. Abandon your views, let go of your judgments, be in the present moment and desire nothing. Buddhism is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. There are no rules and constrictions, just concepts to practice and apply to daily life. Be good to one another, for deep down, we are all the same energy. With these realizations we can find our Buddha nature and contribute to a more loving peaceful world. Happiness is everywhere as long as we remember where we are, and what time it is; as long as we remember to Be Here Now.
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