Jack Kerouac idealized Gary Snyder in “Dharma Bums,” similar to his idealization of Neal Cassady in “On The Road.” Both figures, although so different from each other, were made into glorious saints of the beat movement through Kerouac’s vision.
Snyder was a humble poet living in a shack lit with wax candles. He bought working class clothes only from thrift stores, meditated, drank wine in the Chinese restaurants of San Francisco, read, studied, and translated many ancient Buddhist texts, and hiked up mountain peaks with a high, echoing yodel.
Kerouac carried a lot of assumptions about what Buddhism is or could be — looking for a kind of “absolute truth” by climbing to the top of a mountain. Awake briefly in awe only to forget again.
At his most lyrically beautiful, he reminded me of a mystic filled with insight about the infinite grace of the cosmos.
Then at other times, he made Buddhism into a chore of daily understanding, a ritualized act of acquiring more and more knowledge just to show off, a literary dabbling into primary sources.
Sometimes he wrote with boyish fantasy, with naive hope, that after years of seeking, he had finally found an ultimate experience, one that would give him full understanding and end all his suffering.
Then there were moments when he was too arrogant with what he had learned about Buddhism (that others didn’t or couldn’t ever know). At those times, he basked in a false spiritual wisdom — like the main narrator in Fight Club — perceiving his role in the universe as a Chosen Bodhisattva, which seemed more like he was putting on a mask of spiritual vanity to compensate for insecurity.
Throughout “The Dharma Bums,” there was a confusion between his ideas about non-duality and what he was really like as a person, as a man who desired to fuck and eat and love and do drugs and shit and travel and be understood, as a lost bum poet who cared too much and felt too strongly and wandered through all of America with a great self-consciousness.
He always seemed to almost get the point of zen, before losing himself in a tangle of symbols. His Catholic background might have conditioned him to seek some fixed idea of Buddhism. Some odd merging of God and Jesus and Nirvana and Heaven and Hell and Buddha and so on. There was so much struggle in his search, in thinking over and again that he had finally got what It was about, that he often missed what was in front of him all along. Being a Buddha is to be nothing special, just here, now. Awake in the moment, not grasping. Not stuck.
As Lin-Chi once said, “Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand.”
There is no out there to get to, no special place, no person to give all the answers. But ironically enough, even in Kerouac’s search, whether it’s judged as right or wrong, it is still as much zen as anything else, in the same way that right implies wrong, outside an inside, and in form, there is emptiness.
Only minds make distinctions and get lost in those distinctions without looking at the passing moment. To walk round with a head full of ideas about anything, even Buddhism, is to hold an overflowing cup.
As Dogen Zenji wrote, “Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”
Kerouac, in his need for truth (more in finding his own subjective truth even when filtered through a particular person or philosophy) still came across as beautiful because of his talent, because of his earnestness, because he wanted harmony and peace and spontaneous joy, folding evermore inward on himself.
He romanticized a bohemian lifestyle, one in which artists move round the country, hitching in cars and on freight trains, meeting up briefly, smoking joints together under a roof as rain falls, pitter-patter, reading haiku to each other in coffee houses, having orgies with each other, loose and free and open to what comes.
By having an authentic lifestyle in such conflict with the conformist notions of his time, there were drawbacks. There was the uncertainty of where to eat and sleep, poverty, judgement, a threat of prison, relationships that came in moments of ecstasy only to go. There were those abused by life on the road, rootless to anyone and everything, who became victims to fear, alcoholism, paranoia, loneliness, and starvation.
Kerouac, in a sense, became a victim of his own life — dying under the pressures of fame and alcoholism and unsatisfied yearning.
The sensitivity that made his writing great brought him intense joys and sorrows. He had such perceptiveness into others but also could rationalize his own delusions, such as with “Ray’s” unfeeling talk with a paranoid Rosie before her suicide, where he never truly cared about her well-being. He spouted Buddhist philosophy only for his own ego, not out of compassion or love. Such compartmentalization shows, as the Tao Te Ching said, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”
Despite Kerouac sometimes being possessed with delusions of grandeur, and his inability to get his family to understand his disconnected insights, he was not hard to like. His affinity for all of life and reveling in its ecstasies, made him a wanderer, a loner, a rebel, spiritual in his longing and despairing in his fall. He inspired countless generations of hippies and hipsters and seekers and artists and found himself a guide for those who want meaning outside of a conventional world.