Eating the Beat Menu

Words by Nick Meador

Illustration by Kaliptus

(from issue 10, available at Amazon)

Jack Kerouac’s books contain such a variety of subjects, styles, and voices that his readers have never shared many common characteristics. On the surface, many of Kerouac’s books seem to exude a tone of rebellion against mainstream culture and everything that comes with it, be it business, government, or religion. This voice speaks to the counterculture that has existed in the developed Western world since the 1950s. Similarly, Kerouac’s major works reflect his heavy interest in Buddhism during the ‘50s – an appealing characteristic to the hordes of young Americans disillusioned with their indoctrination under the various denominations of Christianity. Yet behind Kerouac’s Buddhist leanings remained his consistent views about Catholicism, as well as his constant mentions of Christian iconography in his writing. This voice calls to those who never fully departed from the Christianity or Judaism of their youth, often because of the painful experience of disagreeing with family tradition. What most readers don’t know is that Kerouac himself lived almost entirely in this religious mindset, spurning the counterculture altogether.

In the late ‘50s, Kerouac was rather enthusiastic about the “hipster” movement happening in New York, but he used a different name for it. In September 1957 Kerouac stated on national television that “the Beat Generation ‘was basically a religious generation’ and that he was ‘waiting for God to show his face.’”[1] Just before then he had written an article titled “About the Beat Generation” in which he claimed that Oswald Spengler had “prophesied” this sort of movement. Kerouac wrote to his friend Philip Whalen that he “wanted (as originator of the phrase) to sneak it in that it means religiousness, a kind of Second Religiousness (that Spengler spoke) which always takes place in late civilization stage… The 2nd Relig. is sublime…a reappearance of the early springtime forms of the culture.”[2] Kerouac wasn’t the only one calling it a religious movement. In the same year Norman Mailer referred to the hipster scene as “a muted cool religious revival to be sure…”[3] Mailer defined “religious” only in passing, saying that “one must have one’s sense of the ‘purpose’—whatever the purpose may be…”

Kerouac had first consciously linked his mostly literary/philosophical ideas to religion in 1954 while visiting his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. When he went, in his words, to “sit in meditation in the absolutely deserted afternoon church of Ste. Jeanne D’Arc,” it dawned on him that Beat didn’t just mean “down and out”; it also meant “beatific.”[4] That word holds a specifically Catholic connotation, since “beatification” is one of the steps in the canonization of a saint after a person has died.[5] But also, “beatific vision” denotes “the direct knowledge of God enjoyed by the blessed in heaven.”[6]

To Mailer the Beat movement had a more figurative connection to religion, but Kerouac saw a literal relationship. In fact, Kerouac criticized those like Mailer who, in the words of Kerouac scholar Ann Charters, “stressed the antisocial image (‘Beat’) of the hipster instead of pointing out the religious significance (‘beatific’)…”[7] The result was that Kerouac confused most of the audiences who heard his attempts to explain “the Beat Generation,” even though he had been developing these ideas for at least three years before becoming a hit author. Writing to the editor of a Catholic magazine shortly after his “beatific” realization, Kerouac outlined his belief that “self-realization or highest perfect wisdom, ecstasy of transcendental insight…can only be achieved in solitude, poverty, and contemplation.

“…I intend to ascend by stages & self-control to the Vow to help all sentient beings find enlightenment and holy escape from the sin and stain of life-body itself—”[8]

These statements reflect the unique mash-up of Catholicism (a prominent branch of Christianity) and Buddhism that Kerouac tried to manifest in his life. Kerouac was raised in a fundamentalist Catholic environment, directed mostly by his parochial school and his devout mother Gabrielle. He didn’t rebel against this indoctrination in an outward way. Kerouac’s first wife, Edie Parker, writes in her memoir You’ll Be Okay that Jack even studied the Bible as a young adult in the early 1940s. “While he wasn’t working he was either sleeping or barricading himself in the bathroom for hours at a time reading Shakespeare and the Bible.”[9] And Douglas Brinkley, editor of Kerouac’s journal collection Windblown World (containing entries from 1947 to 1954), says that Jack had drawn crucifixes throughout his hand-written notebooks.[10]

However, by the 1950s Kerouac apparently had mixed feelings about Christian scripture, and he may have come to relate more to the figure of the Buddha than to Jesus Christ. For instance, in a letter to Carolyn Cassady written on July 2, 1954 (just before attributing the religious meaning to “Beat”), Kerouac said, “I’m sure Christ never trekked to the Orient, only wish he had, one dab of Buddhism would have wiped clean from his mind that egomaniacal Messiah complex that got him crucified and made Christianity the dualistic greed-and-sorrow Monster that it is… Buddha never claimed to be God, or Son of God…”[11]

In a similar way, Kerouac connected with and wrote about the Buddhist concept of the “Bodhisattva.” He introduces the term into the “Duluoz Legend” in The Dharma Bums as “meaning ‘great wise being’ or ‘great wise angel’…”[12] Alan Watts, philosopher of Zen Buddhism, also discusses the term in his influential 1957 book The Way of Zen: “From the popular standpoint, the Bodhisattva became a focus of devotion (bhakti), a savior of the world who had vowed not to enter the final nirvana until all other sentient beings had likewise attained it.”[13] He says the term “bodhi” means roughly “awakening.”[14] Yet another meaning is the view of Bodhisattva as “he whose being is enlightenment.”[15]

The original meaning of “Beat” as “down and out” still fit into Kerouac’s religious aspirations, because Jack found evidence for it in both Catholicism and Buddhism. “Ray Smith” (Jack’s fictional version of himself) of Dharma Bums says he “was just interested in the first of Sakyamuni’s four noble truths [of Buddhism], All life is suffering. And to an extent interested in the third, The suppression of suffering can be achieved, which I didn’t quite believe was possible then.”[16] In Visions of Gerard, Kerouac uses similar words when portraying his Catholic family: “…we were made to suffer and be harsh in return, one the other, and drop turds of iron on brows of hope, and mop up sick yards and sad–– ‘…All right, we’re all born to die, it’s the same story for everybody, see?’ …there’s no explaining your way out of the evil of existence.”[17]

 

On the one hand it was paradoxical for the Beat Generation to seek out religion, since the Western youth movement defined itself largely by a departure from traditional morals, accepted social norms, and mainstream culture. But on the other hand, Existentialist literature heavily influenced the “hipster” or Beat movement of the 1950s – and, as Walter Kaufmann explains in his 1956 anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, “…religion has always been existentialist: it has always insisted that mere schools of thought and bodies of belief are not enough, that too much of our thinking is remote from that which truly matters, and that we must change our lives. It has always been preoccupied with suffering, death, and dread, with care, guilt, and despair.”[18]

Many of these writers – Kerouac and Mailer included – faced sizeable existential conflicts of their own. With that in mind, it seems natural that Mailer would call the “hipster” an “American existentialist,” in addition to proclaiming the budding counterculture a “religious revival.”[19] In the same piece Mailer writes that “the element which is exciting, disturbing, nightmarish perhaps, is that incompatibles have come to bed, the inner life and the violent life, the orgy and the dream of love, the desire to murder and the desire to create, a dialectical conception of existence with a lust for power, a dark, romantic, and yet undeniably dynamic view of existence…”

Statements like these tie the post-war counterculture symbolically to what might be described as the original Western counterculture, which began in the first centuries A.D.: Gnosticism and alchemy. For our purposes, Gnosticism can be understood as an early form of Christianity, while alchemy – commonly misconstrued to be merely a fledgling version of chemistry – was also a psycho-spiritual practice found in various forms throughout the world, with the utmost goal of individual development. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, specifically calls alchemy an “undercurrent” to Christianity and says it “endeavors to fill in the gaps left open by the Christian tension of opposites. […] The alchemists ran counter to the Church in preferring to seek through knowledge rather than to find through faith… But in reality they were in much the same position as modern man, who prefers immediate personal experience to belief in traditional ideas… The central ideas of Christianity are rooted in Gnostic philosophy… It was founded on the perception of symbols thrown up by the unconscious individuation process which always sets in when the collective dominants of human life fall in to decay.”[20]

Jung devised that term, the “process of individuation,” to describe the sort of personal evolution that can occur when the conscious and unconscious elements of the Self become integrated through keeping a dream journal, “active imagination” (interacting with figures from dreams and fantasies), and other related methods. As he writes, “Individuation, becoming a self, is not only a spiritual problem, it is the problem of all life.”[21] Jung discovered through his work as a psychoanalyst in the early twentieth century that, in dreams and other altered states of consciousness, people had access to symbolic imagery and information with parallels in world mythology, art, and religion from throughout the ages, regardless of whether those people had ever been exposed to the content in their waking lives. Not only that, but Jung later saw the same symbolism at work in alchemy. He called the common symbols “archetypes,” and the metaphysical realm from which they sprung he named “the collective unconscious.”

The evidence became so startling that Jung had to depart from his mentor, Sigmund Freud, in order to remain scientific. The primary reason for Jung’s disillusionment was that Freud wanted to make a dogma of his sexual theory of psychoanalysis, based on three developmental stages (oral, anal, genital) and the idea that repressed sexuality led to the manifestation of most of our culture.[22] As Jung writes in his autobiography, “a dogma, that is to say, an undisputable confession of faith, is set up only when the aim is to suppress doubts once and for all.” Jung’s perspective applies not only to Freudian psychology but also to the creeds of churches – which Jung carefully distinguishes from the spiritual side of religion. “A creed gives expression to a definite collective belief, whereas the word religion expresses a subjective relationship to certain metaphysical, extramundane factors. […] To be the adherent of a creed, therefore, is not always a religious matter but more often a social one and, as such, it does nothing to give the individual any foundation.[23]

The mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) under heavy influence from Jung and Freud, because Campbell saw psychoanalysis as the key to understanding world mythology (including religious myth).[24] In that book, Campbell tracks the parallels between myths from different places and eras, and synthesizes them into a single “Monomyth.” As he writes, “In a word: the first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C.G. Jung has called ‘the archetypal images.’”[25]

In short, the process of individuation requires a decisive withdrawal from worldly affairs: social, professional, etc. And that process should very well be considered “spiritual” or “religious” development. In the “hip” lingo of the 1950s, this sort of activity was associated with the word “dig,” as in, digging into one’s own mind or soul. Mailer explains: “…you say simply, ‘I dig,’ because neither knowledge nor imagination comes easily, it is buried in the pain of one’s forgotten experience, and so one must work to find it, one must occasionally exhaust oneself by digging into the self in order to perceive the outside.”[26] In this case, the goal was to be prepared to handle anything that arises in life, be it an external (social) or internal (psychology) issue. Mailer specifically hoped to guard against “a pain, a guilt, a shame or a desire” that could disrupt one’s conscious mood or behavior.

By the mid-1940s, Kerouac had already involved himself in the world of New York “hipsters.” But the “movement” really came to fruition in the early ‘50s (at least, in its secular form), as depicted in books like The Subterraneans. Then Kerouac became infatuated with Buddhism in 1954, and that influenced most of the books he wrote from that point on, even the version of On the Road published in 1957. To this day, Kerouac’s best-known statement on Buddhism remains The Dharma Bums, a novel written in November 1957 based on experiences in 1955 and ’56. While it is published simply as “fiction,” the book – like the rest of Kerouac’s “Duluoz Legend” – is still considered at least “semi-autobiographical” in the sense that it is based on events from his life and written from the first-person perspective. Because of that, the reader gets a basic overview of some of Kerouac’s efforts at spiritual (or metaphysical) development, many of which seem to suggest that Jack was decisively engaged in his own process of individuation. From surface appearances, we would expect this to be the case for anyone following the “Beat” creed.

Kerouac had known for some time that he wanted to be a writer, but his discovery of Buddhism appears to have given him the desire to teach as well – that is, to teach the wisdom of Buddhist scriptures, or “sutras,” to the unknowing American masses.[27] Just as he had read the Bible incessantly, in 1954 Kerouac began to do the same with English and French translations of Eastern scriptures. One of his favorites was A Buddhist Bible, an anthology by Dwight Goddard that contained The Diamond Sutra, among others.[28] In the first published biography on Kerouac, Charters comments aptly on Jack’s sudden interest in Eastern religion: “Buddhism was a discovery of different religious images for his fundamentally constant religious feelings. He always remained a believing Catholic. It was just that, for a time, he was a self-taught student of Buddhism. He read widely and deeply in Buddhist texts, translated sutras from the French, and even wrote a biography of the Buddha. But at the root of his absorption in Buddhism was the fact that he felt it offered him direct philosophical consolation for the disappointments in his life, and, particularly, for the drawn-out agony waiting to place On The Road and the refusal of publishers to recognize his genius.”[29]

Kerouac considered The Dharma Bums to be a prominent part of a Buddhist awakening happening in the United States in the late 1950s. With Western readers buzzing over the English-language works on Eastern philosophy and religion by Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki and others, Kerouac wrote to Whalen that “1958 will be a great year, year of Buddhism. …now with Dharma Bums I will crash open whole scene to sudden Buddhism boom…”[30] But in the process of propagating “the path,” he made a few miscalculations. First, he imagined that the Western translations were exact equivalents to the Eastern originals – and that Eastern religion could be fully understood by reading scriptures alone. Second, he mistook religious myths (Eastern and Western) for literal truth, instead of what they actually are: symbolic descriptions of natural processes, both physical and metaphysical. Or stated a different way, he invested too much in words, while mostly missing out on the subjective experience to which the words refer. We’ll examine both in turn.

Since Kerouac had read the Eastern scriptures in French and English, with the concepts already transmuted into Western culture, he was immediately drawn to Buddhism. He felt no conflict using different words if they appeared to mean the same thing as the ones in his native Catholicism. In fact, the new terminology gave him an edge as a writer. Alien words like “Zen,” “Bodhisattva,” and “satori” retain a fresh feel in Western minds even today. But the Eastern scriptures were not written in a Western language. As Watts explains, the path by which Buddhism spread from India to China and Japan is not even fully known, so describing the religion and its development presents many difficulties. “The first, and most serious, is the problem of interpreting the Sanskrit and Pali texts in which ancient Indian literature is preserved,” writes Watts. “This is especially true of Sanskrit, the sacred language of India… Both Western and Indian scholars are uncertain as to its exact interpretation… The discovery of proper European equivalents for philosophical terms has been hindered by the fact that early lexicographers were all too ready to find correspondences with Western theological terms, since one of the primary objects of their studies was to assist the [Christian] missionaries.”[31]

Also, Westerners were largely unaware that Eastern philosophy had survived mostly through oral history and direct instruction, as opposed to the written, pseudo-historical accounts and imitative rituals (i.e., indirect metaphysical experience) in the Western monotheisms. As Jung puts it, “…the ideal [of Christianity] has been turned by superficial and formalistically-minded believers into an external object of worship, and it is precisely this veneration for the object that prevents it from reaching down into the depths of the psyche… Christ can indeed be imitated even to the point of stigmatization without the imitator coming anywhere near the ideal or its meaning.”[32] The result was a state of widespread confusion in which many people had a sense of understanding Buddhism when in fact they did not.

This problem is actually a compound one. Not only did Kerouac take for granted that he understood Eastern philosophy after reading the English translations, but he actually contributed to the Western misconceptions of Eastern ideas by putting them in his books, primarily in The Dharma Bums. One of the most persistent errors is the Western understanding of “karma,” which in its current English denotation is more Christian than Buddhist. Like most Westerners, Kerouac uses the word in Dharma Bums with a sense of cosmic morality, suggesting something like “what goes around, comes around.” As “Japhy Ryder” (based on Kerouac’s friend Gary Snyder) puts it, “…when I discovered Buddhism and all I suddenly felt that I had lived in a previous lifetime innumerable ages ago and now because of faults and sins in that lifetime I was being degraded to a more grievous domain of existence and my karma was to be born in America were nobody has any fun or believes in anything, especially freedom.”[33] According to Watts, the idea that “faults and sins” could affect someone’s future life is an odd combination of Christian “morality” and Eastern reincarnation. “Buddhism does not share the Western view that there is a moral law, enjoined by God or by nature, which it is man’s duty to obey. The Buddha’s precepts of conduct…are voluntarily assumed rules of expediency, the intent of which is to remove the hindrances to clarity of awareness. Failure to observe the precepts produces ‘bad karma,’ not because karma is a law or moral retribution, but because all motivated and purposeful actions, whether conventionally good or bad, are karma in so far as they are directed to the grasping of life.”[34]

In other words, no act is “good” or “bad” in itself, but is so judged depending on the perspective of the observer; so this process is relative to a person’s upbringing, worldview, value system, etc. People produce “bad karma,” however, when they grasp at theoretical outcomes in life (i.e., what seems like a “good” idea, plan, or scheme). Such an idea is so foreign to Western minds that we simply fit it into our own pre-existing “moral” constructs. By extension, Westerners tend to speak in ways that split thoughts and feelings from the person “having” them. Actually a person is empirically (measurably) inseparable from those very thoughts and feelings – an idea that didn’t fully enter Western thought until Alfred Korzybski developed general semantics in the 1930s. Watts writes: “This nonduality of the mind, in which it is no longer divided against itself, is samadhi…a state of profound peace.”[35] Yet Kerouac uses the term samadhi in a different sense, calling it “the state you reach when you stop everything and stop your mind…”[36] Kerouac was attracted to the idea of clearing the mind of its contents – and even Watts sometimes seems to be suggesting such a thing. But this entirely misses the point, as we’ll see shortly.

Watts also says that the long-term goal is a “natural, ‘un-self-grasped’ state of the mind.” In fact, this is basically what is meant by the original concept of nirvana. As Watts explains, “Nirvana is the way of life which ensues when clutching at life has come to an end.”[37] Opposed to this is the idea of samsara, which Watts calls a state of “pure self-frustration,” or “the vicious circle…the Round of birth-and-death.”[38] In Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, as in most Western discussions of these topics, nirvana and samsara are equated roughly to the places of “heaven” and “hell” from Christian doctrine. For example, in this dialogue, “Ray Smith” (Kerouac’s self-image) seeks clarification from “Japhy Ryder”: “’We’re all in Heaven now, ain’t we?’

“’Who said so?’

“’Is this nirvana we’re in now or ain’t it?’

“’It’s both nirvana and samsara we’re in now.’

“’Words, words, what’s in a word? Nirvana by any other name.’”[39]

Of course, Kerouac also missed the true meaning of the term dharma. He uses “Dharma bum” to signify little more than a “rucksack wanderer” [40] – a blend of American hobos and outdoorsmen, and Buddhist monks who spent their lives removed from society, often in the mountains. Watts writes that “the Buddha’s Dharma [is] the method or doctrine whereby self-frustration is brought to an end.”[41] The fact that Kerouac died at age 47 of an abdominal hemorrhage brought on by severe alcoholism is proof enough that Kerouac never escaped his state of “self-frustration.” When one examines the evidence, it becomes clear that Kerouac had little concern for using the terms how they were intended to be used. Some of the Eastern words he used most frequently had little or no connection to the original meanings. Or even if Kerouac knew the meaning, he usually made little effort to explain it to his audience. He was satisfied to toss around Buddhist terms as though they were wild cards, whether or not they matched the reality of what was happening in his life. In practice Bodhisattva became “hipster,” satori became “pseudo-enlightenment,” and “Zen”…well, by the sound of Kerouac’s “Zen Free Love Lunacy,”[42] it seems that it became the hippie movement of the 1960s.

Today, in the twenty-first century, many people do the same when discussing shamanism, the “chakra” system from Kundalini yoga, and other non-Western traditions. Watts calls this sort of thing “[eating] the menu instead of the meal,” or “climbing up the signpost instead of following the road.”[43] He was actually drawing from Korzybski, who writes, “A map is not the territory it represents…”[44] Kerouac often made what Korzybski would call “aristotelian misevaluations” – which essentially means that, in line with Western tradition (going back to Aristotle), Jack focused on verbal definitions of “religious” activity, while remaining largely ignorant of subjective metaphysical (i.e., internal, psychological, “spiritual”) development.

Some ideas with a more mythological basis will help demonstrate the problem. One example is Kerouac’s use of the term “yabyum,” which he introduces in Dharma Bums through the character “Japhy” as a “traditional…ceremony from Tibetan Buddhism” in which a woman sits face-to-face on a man’s lap, both often nude and presumed to be engaging in coitus.[45] But in the context of the novel, “yabyum” is used synonymously with “sex” or “orgy” (group sex). This is equivalent to the Western misconception of Tantric yoga as merely a sexual activity. Campbell writes in Hero that yabyum doesn’t necessarily relate to the act of intercourse at all. The mythological images of united male and female are symbolic of “eternity and time,” and are often depicted as a single hermaphroditic entity. “This is the meaning of those Tibetan images of the union of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with their own feminine aspects that have seemed so indecent to many Christian critics. …the female form (Tibetan: yum) is to be regarded as time and the male (yab) as eternity. The initiate, through meditation, is led to the recollection of this Form of forms (yab-yum) within [oneself].”[46]

A related mix-up happens in Dharma Bums when the reader is introduced to the “mandala.” In the story, Japhy draws a circular design on the ground that, he says, will allow him to “predict the future.”[47] While it’s not incorrect to call the mandala a “magic circle,” this sort of description doesn’t provide much understanding. Jung found such circular designs in religious artwork throughout the world, and he came to think of them as “a psychic centre of the personality not to be identified with the ego.”[48] In other words, the mandala is a symbolic representation of the Self in its totality – including but not limited to the parts that fall into conscious awareness. Symmetrical designs such as mandalas or yantras have also long been used to focus awareness during meditation.[49] Jung’s colleague Aniela Jaffé explains their significance: “In terms of psychological symbolism, it expresses the union of opposites—the union of the personal, temporal world of the ego with the non-personal, timeless world of the non-ego. Ultimately, this union is the fulfillment and goal of all religions: It is the union of the soul with God.”[50]

Although it’s largely absent from the Christian tradition, meditation is a key component of any subjective spiritual exploration. Kerouac incorporated meditation into his lifestyle during the peak of his infatuation with Buddhism, and he thought strict self-discipline would bring greater results. However, Kerouac’s use of Benzedrine for recreation and writing had by that time caused a drastic reduction in his physical health. As Charters explains, “His legs, already suffering from insufficient blood circulation with phlebitis, pained him excruciatingly in the crossed-leg [meditation] posture.”[51] It’s unfortunate that Kerouac stuck to that meditation position so doggedly, since it’s not at all required. According to Watts, many schools of Buddhism criticize sitting meditation with the aim of achieving “Buddhahood,” because it means one is grasping for results or caught in “attachment to form.”[52] Really one can enter a state of meditation (i.e., contemplation, focused awareness, “mindfulness,” etc.) while undertaking any activity. This is yet another example of Kerouac putting too much emphasis on an idea from Buddhism, while missing the point of the experience.

Similarly, Kerouac got the impression that one of the main points of meditation was to deactivate the apparatus of thought. He wrote a poem to Ginsberg titled “How to Meditate” that read in part: “…the mind blank, serene, thoughtless. When a thought comes a-springing from afar with its held-forth figure of image, you spoof it out…and it fades, and thought never comes––and with joy you realize for the first time ‘Thinking’s just like not thinking––so I don’t have to think any more.’”[53] As it turns out, this is only the goal in certain schools of meditation (and it might not even be the optimal way to meditate), as Arnold Mindell – a Jungian Analyst who went on to develop his own school of Process-Oriented Psychology (also called “process work”) – explains in Working On Yourself Alone (1990). Using wisdom from alchemy, Taoism, and other traditions, Mindell addresses the common assumptions that have developed in the Western approach to Eastern practices. “Like western instructors, many Buddhist teachers are, in principle, open to all experiences, techniques and religions, but in practice they tend to stress an inner focus which represses fantasies, spontaneous thoughts or ideas, and emotional affects. As a result, meditators are often bothered by unavoidable ‘disturbances’ which they are taught to tolerate.”[54] Instead of attempting to wipe out such “distractions,” Mindell argues, working with them can lead to great progress in the process of individuation.

 

When The Dharma Bums was published in 1958, Gary Snyder’s first responded with warm praise, calling it a “beautiful book” and saying that “Alan Watts is knocked out by the book & said so on the radio…”[55] However, Snyder – who had travelled to Japan to study Zen Buddhism – changed his tone by March 1959, as Charters informs us. “Snyder wrote Kerouac, ‘I told you I liked it, but that doesn’t make it right. What concerns me is your mind . . . Do you think you understand [Buddhism]?’ […] Later Snyder told interviewers that Japhy Ryder was a fictional character, not a realistic portrayal of him, and that Kerouac’s narrative about meeting him and the other poets in California in 1955 should be read as a freely embellished work of Jack’s imagination.”[56]

As we saw above, Kerouac’s attraction to Buddhism was based mostly on its apparent consolation for his trouble getting on with life. But other than the idea that “life is suffering,” Kerouac was equally attracted to the idea that “life is a dream.” In the same July 1954 letter to Carolyn Cassady quoted above, Kerouac wrote: “After reading the Diamond Sutra, which says that all things, including asceticism, are but a dream and an arbitrary conception not to be grasped, it seems I’ve been loosening my grip on Virtue…”[57] Helen Weaver got a close look at Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism while dating Jack in the late 1950s, as she shared in a 2010 interview with Beatdom editor David Wills. “The Buddha taught that the physical world around us is an illusion, as is our fixed idea that each of us is a separate self. […] When I tried to discuss our ‘problems’ with [Jack] his eyes would just glaze over and he’d tell me ‘Everything is fine, don’t worry. Nothing is real—it’s all a dream.’ So early on I got the impression that his Buddhism was just a big philosophical rationalization for doing whatever he wanted.”[58]

The field of quantum physics has now provided some evidence for the idea that the physical universe is illusory in nature. But that doesn’t require faith or belief – and it has a limited application to daily life and “ordinary” states of consciousness. In essence, Kerouac was asking people to believe something that they had not perceived directly. For most people, “reality” is based on sensory information and mental constructions enforced by social interaction. As Jung said above, dogma offers no direct path to spirituality. Even in the early twentieth century, the founders of Eastern studies in the West were calling scriptures such as The Diamond Sutra works of “metaphysical agnosticism.”[59] That is, “there is a sense in which the ‘highest perfect knowledge’ may be referred to as ‘unknown.”

Many times now we’ve come across the concept of the “union of opposites” or “incompatibles”; Jung also called them “irreconcilables.”[60] From a Jungian perspective, the goal of alchemy and Gnosticism (as well as some Eastern practices) is to integrate the conscious ego with the personal and collective unconscious – i.e., to integrate the psychic opposites. In Jung’s system this is done mostly by working with dreams, visions, and synchronicities (meaningful coincidences). But Mindell has expanded upon that in process work to include body symptoms, spontaneous movement, relationships, world conflict and more. Others would say that psychedelic substances serve the same purpose. The point in all cases is to bring disavowed parts of the Self into conscious awareness.

None of this has any connection to what we now call “religion.” “Religions are divisive and quarrelsome,” writes Watts. “…as systems of doctrine, symbolism, and behavior, religions harden into institutions that must command loyalty, be defended and kept ‘pure,’ and—because all belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty—religions must make converts. […] Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness—an act of trust in the unknown.”[61] Strangely enough (considering his earlier disparagement of Christ’s “egomaniacal Messiah complex”), Kerouac was trying to convert people to his “Beat” creed so that he wouldn’t have to face his own unconscious Self. His Westernized Buddhism functioned as a half-conscious cover-up for Jack’s lifelong attachment to his mother (part dependency, part Oedipal complex) and, therefore, to the pessimistic worldview of fundamentalist Catholicism.

Kerouac had “discovered” Buddhism at one of the lowest points in his life, when he was desperately hoping to publish On the Road and become a respected author. As Jung’s colleague Marie-Louis von Franz explains, this is the exact sort of circumstances that would lead someone toward true metaphysical development. “The actual processes of individuation—the conscious coming-to-terms with one’s own inner center (psychic nucleus) or Self—generally begins with a wounding of the personality and the suffering that accompanies it. This initial shock amounts to a sort of ‘call,’ although it is not often recognized as such. On the contrary, the ego feels hampered in its will or its desire and usually projects the obstruction onto something external.”[62] In Kerouac’s case it was the publishers who took the blame, and he subsequently directed his efforts externally into the study and practice of Buddhism. But the “call” was not to “help all sentient beings,” as he wrote Carolyn Cassady in 1954; it was first and foremost an inward call.

This leads us to yet another meaning behind the term Bodhisattva. On the one hand (in Campbell’s words): “…all suffering…the mad figures of the transitory yet inexhaustible, long world dream of the All-Regarding, whose essence is the essence of Emptiness: ‘The Lord Looking Down in Pity.’

“But the name means also: ‘The Lord Who is Seen Within.’ We are all reflexes of the image of the Bodhisattva. The sufferer within us is that divine being. […] This is the redeeming insight.”[63] Luke in the Christian tradition brings essentially the same message – that the “kingdom of God is within you.”[64] Of course, that notion has been withheld from parishioners or distorted to maintain their dependence on the Church. That institution talks incessantly about the resurrection of Christ, without ever clarifying that it is a symbolic expression of the possibility of human rebirth. In the Catholic world of Kerouac’s upbringing – as in the “Duluoz Legend” that he went on to write – we are merely “born to die” (as we saw above from Visions of Gerard). His mother had stamped this defeatist message into his mind since he could remember. It is mostly a philosophy of self-fulfilling (self-defeating) prophecy and mortal despair.

While it seems that Kerouac played an important role in a Western post-war spiritual awakening, this has by and large been a superficial movement. Kerouac’s mash-up of Buddhism and Christianity was a template for most “New Age” practices and sub-cultures that claim to use Eastern religion and philosophy to heighten “spirituality” or “consciousness.” In reality, we have yet to transcend our mostly Western mental formulations about metaphysics, and writers like Jack Kerouac are actually holding us back.

 


[1] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 73. From editor’s note by Ann Charters.

[2] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 66-68.

[3] Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro.”

[4] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 447, 526. Also: Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. pp. 200, 389.

[5] “Beatification.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 10/9/2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatification

[6] “Beatific vision.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed on 10/9/2011. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beatific%20vision

[7] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 93. From a footnote by Ann Charters.

[8] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 444, 447-448.

[9] Parker Kerouac, Edie. You’ll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac. p. 242. Also, p. 106.

[10] Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. p. xv.

[11] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 427.

[12] Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. p. 12.

[13] Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. p. 60.

[14] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 44.

[15] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. p. 151.

[16] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 12.

[17] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. pp. 13-14.

[18] Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Ed. by Walter Kaufmann. pp. 49-50.

[19] Mailer, N. Ibid.

[20] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. pp. 23, 35.

[21] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. p. 124.

[22] Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. pp. 149-151.

[23] Jung, C.G. The Undiscovered Self. pp. 20-22.

[24] Campbell, J. Ibid. p. vii.

[25] Campbell, J. Ibid. pp. 17-18.

[26] Mailer, N. Ibid.

[27] Charters, A. Ibid. p. 218.

[28] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 415-416. Kerouac called it “The Buddhist Bible.”

[29] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 190-191.

[30] Kerouac, J. Selected letters, 1957-1969. p. 111.

[31] Watts, A. Ibid. pp. 30-31.

[32] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. p. 7.

[33] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 31.

[34] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 52.

[35] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 53.

[36] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 33.

[37] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 50.

[38] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 48.

[39] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 114.

[40] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. pp. 97-98.

[41] Watts, A. Ibid. p. 51.

[42] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 30.

[43] Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. p. xi. Also: The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. 1966. New York: Random House, 1989. p. 13.

[44] Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. p. 58. Italics are Korzybski’s.

[45] Kerouac, J. The Dharma Bums. p. 28-31.

[46] Campbell, J. Ibid. pp. 169-170.

[47] Kerouac, J. Ibid. pp. 53-54.

[48] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. pp. 98-99.

[49] Mindell, Arnold. Working On Yourself Alone: Inner Dreambody Work. p. 25.

[50] Jaffé, Aniela. “Symbolism in the Visual Arts.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. by C.G. Jung. pp. 267-268.

[51] Charters, A. Ibid. p. 219.

[52] Watts, A. The Way of Zen. pp. 110-111.

[53] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 219-220.

[54] Mindell, A. Working On Yoursel Alone. pp. 5-8.

[55] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 177. Letter from Gary Snyder to Jack Kerouac.

[56] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 213. Charters added “Buddhism” in brackets.

[57] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 426-427.

[58] Wills, David. “Helen Weaver: Remembering Jack Kerouac.” Beatdom. Issue 5. January 2010. p. 69.

[59] The Diamond Sutra. Translated and introduced by William Gemmel. p. xiii. Referring to statements by Max Müller.

[60] Jung, C.G. Psychology and Alchemy. pp. 146-147.

[61] Watts, A. The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. pp. 10-11.

[62] Von Franz, M.-L. “The Process of Individuation.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. by C.G. Jung. p. 169.

[63] Campbell, J. Ibid. p. 161.

[64] “Kingdom of God.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 10/31/2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_God#Critical_approaches

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Author: Nick Meador

Nick Meador is a writer focused on human behavior, perception, culture, and the nature of reality – as informed by science, media systems, psychology, and related fields. In addition to Beatdom, his work has appeared on Reality Sandwich, Disinformation, and h+ Magazine. Nick is also an indie publisher, multimedia artist, info-activist, idea guy, etc.

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