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The Dharma Bums: Judging a Book by its Cover

On Dave Moore’s wonderful Beat Generation Facebook group – a partner to the very active Jack Kerouac group – there is at present a thread discussing the following cover for Jack Kerouac’s classic, The Dharma Bums.


(The discussion actually revolves around the front cover and not the whole jacket as featured above.)

The person who originally posted the cover remarked that it was the, “Worst cover ever!” and questioned whether or not the cartoony style made the reader expect a graphic novel rather than a modern literary classic.

While some people defended the cover or at least suggested that it was not all that awful, many commenters showed their disapproval. It was described as “truly ugly,” “unspeakably ugly,” “juvenile,” and a few people took issue with the fact that Kerouac is depicted as a dog.

Putting aside the inside flaps, which contain a bizarre comic strip (based upon dialogue from within the book), I must say that I take an opposing view to most of the people in the thread. I rather like the cover. For a start, the colours are pleasant. The simple orange and black appeal to me, seem to reflect the melancholy under-riding the book, and also are a nod to its publisher, Penguin, of whose Classics series this is a part. Moreover, Kerouac frequently describes the sun, and in particular the sunrise, as well as the fire and rocks of his mountain camp, as orange. He also drinks orange juice, eats oranges, eats on orange crates, and Japhy Ryder keeps his Buddhism books on shelves made of orange crates. Towards the end of the book, discussing what is and isn’t real, Kerouac argues with his family over the validity of an orange. Does it exist as we perceive it?

I’ll admit that the image of Kerouac as a cartoon dog is unusual and did catch me a bit off guard. The edition I own features a tramp-like man and the woman by his side. It adheres more to the hobo-beat vibe that pitched the book at a certain demographic in the footloose, hitch-hiking sixties.dharmabums

So why depict Kerouac as a cartoon dog? Maybe it’s again a matter of sales and demographics – Penguin Classics wants to grab readers of a certain age who are perhaps more interested in comic books or graphic novels. While the old debate about judging a book by its cover tells us that the content is more important, we can never forget that first you have to grab the reader’s attention. And if a cover endears a new generation of readers, what’s the harm? The old guard might complain, but they’re hardly going to give up on Kerouac because of one cover…

But, personally, I think the artist deserves a little more credit than having produced a cutesy cartoon dog for kids. I think the dog was a deliberate choice that went a little deeper. jackkwithcat

When we think of Kerouac, we’re more likely to think of cats. Not just because Kerouac, like so many other writers, including his friend William S. Burroughs, was a cat person, who wrote about and was photographed with his cats, but because in Beat parlance, he was a cat. A cool cat, a hep cat, etc. Indeed, in The Dharma Bums, Kerouac both references actual cats that he owned, and also refers to Gary Snyder’s character, Japhy, as a cat: “Japhy I gotta hand it to you, you’re the happiest little cat in the world.”

It is less frequent in Kerouac’s novels to see references to dogs, either as animals or a description for a person. They are sometimes viewed negatively. In On the Road, for example, dogs are barking at Kerouac and trying to bite him. Yet, in The Dharma Bums, there are more references to dogs than cats, and they are viewed as overwhelmingly positive. Even when these references are seemingly innocuous they are connected to the spiritual and religious ideas Kerouac had at the time. As the book advances, dogs become undeniably important to Kerouac’s personal journey.

About halfway into the book Kerouac describes a conversation between him and Gary Snyder, wherein Snyder asks “What would you say if someone was asked the question, ‘Does a dog have a Buddha nature?’ and said ‘Woof!'”Kerouac claims that this is part of Zen Buddhism, which is “silly” and concerned with verbal games rather than serious religious thought. Although he is dismissive of Zen Buddhism, Kerouac is tying the dog into the discussion and connecting it, as representative of the animal kingdom, to the Buddha. Until this point dogs had existed largely as a backdrop – their barks as the soundtrack to serene nights and meditation.

Later, we are introduced to “Bob, a big bird dog,” in a scene of pure serenity, where Kerouac’s character comes as close to nirvana (the word on his sign on the book’s cover) as he ever would:


After they’d gone to bed I put on my jacket and my earmuff cap and railroad gloves and over all that my nylon poncho and strode out in the cottonfield moonlight like a shroudy monk. The ground was covered with moonlit frost. The old cemetery down the road gleamed in the frost. The roofs of nearby farmhouses were like white panels of snow. I went through the cottonfield rows followed by Bob, a big bird dog, and little Sandy who belonged to the Joyners down the road, and a few other stray dogs (all dogs love me) and came to the edge of the forest. In there, the previous spring, I’d worn out a little path going to meditate under a favorite baby pine. The path was still there. My official entrance to the forest was still there, this being two evenly spaced young pines making kind of gate posts. I always bowed there and clasped my hands and thanked Avalokitesvara for the privilege of the wood. Then I went in, led moonwhite Bob direct to my pine, where my old bed of straw was still at the foot of the tree. I arranged my cape and legs and sat to meditate.
The dogs meditated on their paws. We were all absolutely quiet. The entire moony countryside was frosty silent, not even the little tick of rabbits or coons anywhere. An absolute cold blessed silence. Maybe a dog barking five miles away toward Sandy Cross. Just the faintest, faintest sound of trucks rolling out the night on 301, about twelve miles away, and of course the distant occasional Diesel baugh of the Atlantic Coast Line passenger and freight trains going north and south to New York and  Florida. A blessed night. I immediately fell into a blank thoughtless trance wherein it was again revealed to me “This thinking has stopped” and I sighed because I didn’t have to think any more and felt my whole body sink into a blessedness surely to be believed, completely relaxed and at peace with all the ephemeral world of dream and dreamer and the dreaming itself.

He we see Kerouac at his happiest and most content. He has achieved peace, or “blessedness.” And he is surrounded by dogs. “All dogs love me,” he claims, as they follow him. Then, as he meditates, so do they. “The dogs meditated on their paws,” he claims. As all thought is lost, he is aware only of sounds in the distance – one of which is a dog barking. His entire religious experience, here, is tied to the presence and existence of these animals.

He goes on to give one of the best known quotes from this novel when he says, “One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls,” while petting Bob, and seems to relate this action as the aforementioned act of kindness. He observes that, when considering the concepts of Buddhism, he is no different from the dogs that sit around him as he meditates, saying, “All living and dying things like these dogs and me coming and going without any duration or self substance…” The dogs are clearly inextricably linked to his spiritual discoveries.

The dogs appear in the novel when Kerouac is happy or making some sort of discovery. Bob, a bright white dog, at one stage literally leads Kerouac down a “dark path.” The imagery there is hardly subtle. The dogs are leading or accompanying Kerouac on his personal journey. This means that dogs have acted as both his followers and his guides. Towards the end of the book, when spring comes and he is thinking less about philosophy and learning to enjoy simply existing, is is again surrounded by “happy dogs,” who are “yawning and almost swallowing [his] Dharma.” Along with the usual spring imagery of budding flowers, the dogs are ever present for his own reawakening. As he enjoys the feeling of “ecstasy of the endless truebody” (his enlightenment) he “consorted only with dogs and cats.” He has achieved total happiness at this stage and it is clear he views the dogs as an essential component of its attainment.


Sunday afternoon, then, I’d go to my woods with the dogs and sit and put out my hands palms up and accept handfuls of sun boiling over the palms. “Nirvana is the moving paw,” I’d say, seeing the first thing I saw as I opened my eyes from meditation, that being Bob’s paw moving in the grass as he dreamed.

Kerouac’s ecstasy is short-lived, however, as his family – who are largely disturbed by his happiness – want Bob chained up. His brother-in-law explains that the dog is simply too expensive to have its freedom. It should remain chained up in the back yard, lest he lose money. The symbolism here is obvious: freedom and happiness are all well and good, but the cold reality of life means that we are shackled and denied our natural state of being. At this point in the book, Kerouac’s family are trying to get him to give up his Buddhism and come back to his regular life. Indeed, in reality Kerouac was convinced to return from his Buddhist wanderings and live in the reality unto which he was born – living with his mother until his early death.

Kerouac returns to the woods to muse this situation, and finds shame in having pride in his kindness to animals. He comes to his next great realization – everything is “empty” and does not exist as perceived. “My pain was in getting rid of the conception of people and dogs anyway, and of myself.”

Throughout the book, dogs are symbolic for Kerouac. They have followed him, guided him, and surrounded him during his quest for enlightenment and understand. They are inseparable from his spiritual discoveries, and represent his adventure beyond simply a man with a backpack. So why not have him represented as a dog on the book’s cover? If Kerouac eventually realizes that “the conception of people and dogs” is false, why not swap a human for a dog? It seems to me that in The Dharma Bums Kerouac was going beyond the physical in search of a greater truth. If the orange that his brother-in-law presented did not exist, and nothing existed, then surely a dog is as valid a representation of the story as a man.

The Second Wave of American Interest in Japanese Culture: Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder

by Charlie Canning

Photos by John La Farge and David S. Wills


Since the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1853, the United States and Japan have had a long and varied history. Initially, the United States wanted trade with Japan to extend American influence in Asia as well as to compete with Britain, Russia, and France. These were mercantile and political concerns that had little to do with Japan as an extant civilization with something to offer the West. But three times in the last one hundred and fifty years, American interest in Japan has been decidedly cultural.

The first wave of American interest in Japanese culture was brought about by a group of writers and art collectors from Boston in the 1880s that included Edward S. Morse, Ernest Fenollosa, and William Sturgis Bigelow. Henry Adams, John La Farge, and Percival Lowell would follow. Small as it was, this group of Bostonians had enormous influence on the reception of Japanese culture and art in the United States.

The second wave of American interest in Japanese culture took place in the 1950s. This time around, it was a West Coast phenomenon based not on Japanese art but on Zen. The works of D. T. Suzuki were widely read and later popularized by Alan Watts. Jack Kerouac, who had became an overnight sensation with the publication of On the Road, popularized Zen (and Japanese culture) further, in his novel The Dharma Bums. Finally, the poet and writer Gary Snyder, himself mythologized in Kerouac’s writings, led the way by traveling to Japan and entering a Zen monastery.Amida Buddha at Kamakura by john La Farge

According to Roland Kelts in his book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Has Invaded the U.S., we are currently experiencing a third wave of interest in things Japanese. This time around, it is an interest in Japanese pop culture that is the driving force. Behind this trend are the game platforms manufactured by Nintendo and Sony as well as Japanese manga and anime.

Although the second wave of interest in Japan has much in common with both the first and third waves, it is singular in many respects. One thing that sets it apart from all other periods is that it followed close upon a war. Considering the antipathy, fear, and hatred that had been whipped up by World War II, this is surprising. But after the war, there was a reappraisal of Japanese culture that began to go significantly beyond the “know your enemy” brand of research typified by Ruth Benedict’s groundbreaking study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946).

Another thing that differentiates the second wave from the first and third waves was that it was primarily religious in nature. Although it might be argued that Fenollosa and Bigelow were also interested in religion (both ultimately “converted” to Buddhism), they were principally art collectors who developed an interest in religion. The group in the second wave, however, traveled light. They were in it for the Zen. (Some of the Buddhas that Fenollosa brought to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are over two meters tall. The Beats carried theirs in their backpacks.)

A third major difference between the waves was that the second, unlike the first and the third, was countercultural. The interest in Zen Buddhism was driven by a deep dissatisfaction with the prevailing culture in America. Although one could argue that both Fenollosa and Bigelow were dissatisfied with Boston culture, their aim was more to share the artistic wonders of Japan with their countrymen than to challenge the prevailing mythos of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. Henry Adams was dissatisfied, to be sure, but he looked more to the medieval cathedrals of France rather than to the temples of Japan for his unifying vision of cultural force.

Finally, the second wave is quite singular in that its influences were readily absorbed into an American subculture. In this respect, the Beats may have borrowed a page from the Japanese: Watts, Kerouac, Snyder, and others took something foreign and made it their own. Now that Zen Buddhism has become popular on both coasts of the United States, it may be surprising to learn that it was relatively unknown in America before the 1950s. There are several reasons for this. One was that Christianity as the predominant faith of America was largely unquestioned. Another was that Buddhism was an Oriental rather than an Occidental religion. A third was the war. And finally, there was the language barrier. Many of the Buddhist texts were written in Asian languages and had never been translated into comprehensible English.

As Ann Douglas has pointed out, “Interest in the East had been building since the late 1940s, part of what historian Robert Ellwood calls ‘the spiritual underground’ of Cold War America.” (xvii) Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain (1948) and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) were widely read and discussed in academic circles.

The central figure in the introduction of Zen Buddhism to America was D. T. Suzuki. Suzuki was a fine translator, but since there was not a lot written about Zen to begin with, his greatest contribution was in explaining things that were seemingly beyond words. In his books Essays in Zen Buddhism (3 vols. 1927-1934), Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (1930), The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk (1934), An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934), Manual of Zen Buddhism (1935), and Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (1938), Suzuki sought to make Zen intelligible to a Western audience.

Suzuki began lecturing at Columbia in 1951. At first, the turnout was often quite small. But the few who heard his lectures were singularly impressed by his scholarship, wit, and saint-like bearing. He was a favorite of both Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts. Later, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg (both one-time Columbia students), and Gary Snyder would read him voraciously. Although Professor Suzuki had a sublime way of explaining Zen, his books were primarily for an academic audience. It was up to Watts, Kerouac, and Snyder to popularize Zen still further.

Englishman Alan W. Watts (1915-1973) was a prodigy of sorts who developed a lifelong passion for Buddhism and Oriental philosophy when still a child. He published his first booklet on Zen in 1932 when just twenty-one years old. Though Watts’ The Spirit of Zen was largely derivative of Suzuki’s three-volume Essays in Zen Buddhism, Watts’ contribution was in making what was both foreign and sublime that much more accessible to the general reader. Watts combined a lucid prose style with an engaging wit and an uncanny feel for the right metaphor. Allied to this was an abhorrence of any form of philosophical cant or academic posturing. He had no patience with those who sought to use language to obscure meaning or truth. Like Suzuki, who was in many ways his spiritual mentor, Watts wanted to be understood.

After marrying the daughter of Ruth Fuller Everett (later Sasaki) in 1938, Watts moved to New York City where he studied Zen with Sokei-an Sasaki. Later, he left New York to enter the seminary in the hopes of one day bridging the gap between Christianity and Eastern religions. This was to be a recurrent theme throughout the remainder of his life.

In 1951, Watts relocated to San Francisco where he soon became one of the most recognizable figures in the Bay Area. He continued to write and publish on all sorts of religious, spiritual, and political subjects and had his own weekly radio show, (some of these broadcasts are now available for download on iTunes). Watts’ enthusiasm was contagious and he soon developed a large following both in California and on college campuses around America. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, young people across the nation were reading books by Watts with titles like The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), The Way of Zen (1957), Nature, Man and Woman (1958), This Is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (1960) and Psychotherapy East and West (1961).

Another cult figure of the 1950s and 1960s that did much to promote Japanese culture in America was writer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). Kerouac’s breakout novel was On the Road, published to wide acclaim in 1957. Here we have Kerouac’s frenetic “spontaneous prose,” a breakneck monologue of highways, truck stops, freight trains, jazz, cigarettes, and booze.

Kerouac’s next novel The Dharma Bums was published in 1958. Although similar in some respects to On the Road in its depiction of the “devil-may-care” life of the modern American hobo, The Dharma Bums sought to portray the more spiritually driven quest of the Buddhist bihhiku or wanderer. Buddha himself was a wanderer, we are told, and he reached nirvana through travel and meditation. Might young people in America reach enlightenment in a similar way?

The hero of The Dharma Bums is Japhy Ryder (a “semi-fictional” character based on Gary Snyder), “a kid from eastern Oregon” who “learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen lunatics of China and Japan.” (6) Japhy introduces Ray Smith, the narrator of The Dharma Bums and Kerouac’s alter ego, to the Chinese and Japanese forms of Buddhism. There are frequent references to Japan and Japanese culture throughout the novel including allusions to D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen, Okakura Tenshin’s The Book of Tea, R. H. Blyth’s four-volume work on haiku, and the stone gardens of Roanji.

Kerouac’s portrayal of the spiritual quest had tremendous appeal – especially among young people. In his “Introduction” to Kerouac’s biography of Buddha, entitled Wake Up, Professor Robert A. F. Thurman recalls his own reading of The Dharma Bums when the novel first came out in 1958:


 But now I realize that when I read The Dharma Bums as a teen in the late fifties, I was exposed to perhaps the most accurate, poetic, and expansive evocation of the heart of Buddhism that was available at that time. Not to say that it was perfect, or to pretend that I would be able to tell if it was or wasn’t – it’s just that it is so incredibly inspiring, and must have deeply affected my seventeen-year-old self in 1958, the year it was first published and the year I ran away from Phillips Exeter Academy and went looking for a revolution. (vii-viii)


Some critics, however, including Alan Watts, did not think that Kerouac’s understanding of Buddhism was all that accurate. Thurman again notes, “The thing about Kerouac that might have made him less accepted among early California Buddhists – Gary Snyder and Alan Watts and others – was that he was not taken by the Ch’an/Zen line of things, though he loved the writings of Han Shan, the ‘cold mountain’ poetic meditations transmitted by Snyder. Kerouac was more moved by the Indian Mahayana line ….” (ix)

In his book Buddhism in America, Joseph M. Kitagawa wrote of the popularity of Zen Buddhism among the Beats and “the temptation to consider Buddhism as a sort of escape from workaday reality.” “Young nonconformists in America” have tended “to use Buddhism for non-religious ends.” (327) But for Kerouac, it didn’t really matter whether he understood Zen perfectly or not. He was a Catholic who viewed Buddhism and Catholicism as one and the same. And as Ann Douglas has pointed out, “At a time when Americans were routinely told they had only two choices – Soviet-style communism or American capitalist democracy and all that went with it – Buddhism offered a third way.” (xxii) Kerouac’s novels were popular among the youth of the 1950s and 1960s because they offered a spiritual rationale for leading an alternative lifestyle.

The final person responsible for the second wave of interest in Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture is poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder (1930-). Snyder came to Japan on a scholarship from the First Zen Institute of America in 1956. Initially, he practiced Zen at Shokoku-ji in Kyoto, the same temple where the great landscape painter Sesshu had studied with Shuban. Although Snyder had not come to Japan to study painting per se, Chinese landscape painting (later referred to as Bunjin-ga in Japan) was to have a profound effect on both his poetry and his environmental activism. As Dana Goodyear has noted in her 2008 article on Snyder in The New Yorker, “Snyder’s most complex and difficult work is ‘Mountains and Rivers Without End,’ a poem cycle that absorbed him from 1956 until 1996, and whose title is taken from a category of Chinese landscape painting.”

The connection between Chinese landscape painting, Snyder’s poetry, and his environmental activism is to be found in the spiritual dimension of the paintings. They combine philosophical ideas and meditation with key natural elements (mountains, rivers, and trees), in an attempt to express “the beauty of the natural world.” (Munsterberg 128) For anyone who can appreciate this, conservation is axiomatic.

Snyder continued his studies of Zen Buddhism in Japan throughout the 1960s. After returning to the United States, he settled in the California foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1971. Since then he has published widely on all manner of themes, trying to integrate his poetic vision with the Buddhist precept of the “right means of livelihood.” This has resulted in a unified, spiritual form of grounded environmentalism that seeks to connect people with their immediate surroundings.

The final thing that should be said about Snyder is that while others may have “talked the talk” about Zen, Snyder has “walked the walk.” Not content with just reading about Zen and Japanese culture in a library, Snyder traveled to Japan, entered a Zen monastery, and learned the language. Both in his writings and in his life, he has served as an exemplary model for others about how best to live and learn about all cultures whether they be foreign or our own.

In a letter to Snyder just before The Dharma Bums was published, Kerouac wrote that he “hoped to ‘crash open whole scene to sudden Buddhism boom … everybody reading Suzuki on Madison Avenue,’ paving the way for Snyder’s poetry. ‘Gary, this is your year,’ he promised.” (Douglas xviii) Although this didn’t happen, the influences of the second wave on both American and Japanese culture are still with us today. The present interest in New Age spiritualism is a direct outgrowth of the Buddhism of the Beats and the “Age of Aquarius” of the Hippies. Gary Snyder and the environmental movement are still going strong.



Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

“Alan Watts.” Wikipedia. 3 Nov. 2008.

Benedict, Ruth. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1946.

Douglas, Ann. Introduction. The Dharma Bums. By Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 2006. vii-xxviii.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. “Buddhism in America” in On Understanding Japanese Religion.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987, 311-328.

Faas, Ekbert. “Gary Snyder.” Towards a New American Poetics: Essays & Interviews. Ed. Ekbert Faas. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1978, 91-104.

Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. 3rd ed. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.

Goodyear, Dana. “Zen Master.” The New Yorker 20 Oct. 2008:66.

Hayes, Kevin J., ed. Conversations with Jack Kerouac. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2005.

Kawamura Junko. “Noh.” Kyoto Journal 70 (2008): 77.

Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Has Invaded the U.S. New York,     Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Kerouac, Jack. Book of Haikus. Ed. Regina Weinreich. New York: Penguin, 2003.

—. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin, 2006.

—. On the Road. New York: Penguin, 1972.

—. The Portable Jack Kerouac. Ed. Ann Charters. New York: Penguin, 2007.

—. Road Novels 1957-1960. New York: Library of America, 2007.

—. Wake Up. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. “Buddhism in America” in On Understanding Japanese Religion.      Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1987, 311-328.

McKibben, Bill. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Library of      America. New York: Literary Classics, 2008.

Munsterberg, Hugo. The Landscape Painting of China and Japan. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1956.

Murphy, Patrick, ed. Critical Essays on Gary Snyder. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Murphy, Patrick D. Understanding Gary Snyder. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P,    1992.

“Philosophical paintings from intellectual giant.” Daily Yomiuri 30 Aug. 2003: 16.

Thurman, Robert A. F. Introduction. Wake Up. By Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 2008. vii-xxix.

Snyder, Gary. Earth House Hold: Technical Notes & Queries to Fellow Dharma    Revolutionaries. London: Jonathan Cape, 1970.

—. Interview with Ekbert Faas. Towards a New American Poetics: Essays &

     Interviews. Ed. Ekbert Faas. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1978.


—. Look Out: A Selection of Writings. New York: New Directions, 2002.

—. Regarding Wave. New York: New Directions, 1970.

Steuding, Bob. Gary Snyder. Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1976.

Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Bollingen Series LXIV. Princeton:     Princeton UP, 1959.

Watts, Alan. Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen. San Francisco: City Lights, 1959.

—. In My Own Way: An Autobiography 1915-1965. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

—. The Spirit of Zen: A way of life, work and art in the Far East. 3rd ed. London: John Murray, 1958.

Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face: Favorite Saint of Gabrielle Ange L’Evesque Kerouac

Saint Therese
Thérèse Martin (1873-1897) was four years old when her mother died. She entered the Carmelite convent at Lisieux, France, at the age of fifteen and took the name Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. (Thérèse’s five sisters also became nuns.) She died at the convent when she was twenty-four. Thérèse was canonized in 1925 and would have been fifty-two years old. In 1997 Saint Thérèse was made a Doctor of the Church and was known to the world as “The Little Flower.” Thérèse achieved a great intimacy with God that she shared with the world in her still best-selling autobiography The Story of a Soul, which has been translated into more than sixty languages. Thérèse said “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses.”
Gabrielle Ange L’Evesque Kerouac (1895-1973) was born in St-Pacôme, Quebec, Canada, and orphaned at the age of sixteen. Saint Thérèse was her favorite saint. Gabrielle was a pious woman whose life was entrenched in the Catholic Church of the Latin Mass (before the changes of Vatican II), and her first language was French, (a French-Canadian dialect, as was Jack’s).
Jack Kerouac had a boyhood habit of praying to Saint Thérèse and was an altar boy at St. Jean Baptiste Cathedral, (the site of his funeral Mass). After the death of his older brother Gerard, at the age of nine
from rheumatic fever, Gabrielle spoke of Gerard as a saint. Jack said, “I really believe in sweet baby Jesus” and the “little lamby Jesus,” and wrote of the “snow-white cart drawn by two lambs” that ascends to heaven in Visions of Gerard, Gerard’s vision. Ti Jean relates the tender story of Gerard’s little mouse and its death, so in spirit and sweetness like a letter Thérèse wrote to her sister, Marie, when she spoke of an actual lamb and the symbol of the lamb:
“Well, my dear Father bought me a new-born lamb, all white and fleecy… a lamb is symbolic…We were already building castles in the air, and expected that in two or three days the lamb would be frisking round us. But the pretty creature died that same afternoon. Poor little thing, scarcely was it born when it suffered and died. It looked so gentle and innocent that Céline made a sketch of it, and then we laid it in a grave dug by Papa. It appeared to be asleep. I did not want the earth to be its covering, so we put snow upon our pet, and all was over…”
There was a statue and holy pictures of Saint Thérèse in the Kerouac home. The orphan Gabrielle could easily identify with the French-speaking, pious, forever-young Thérèse. Gabrielle lost a beloved child; the Martins had four children who died before adulthood.
Thérèse is a modern saint. Her life is documented in photos from the late nineteenth century (The Photo Album of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux), which show Thérèse from infancy to her death. Thérèse’s sister, Sister Genevieve (Céline Martin), was an amateur painter and photographer, so the short life of Thérèse is well preserved in images and her own words and manuscripts; she wrote volumes of letters, poems, prayers, and eight plays. She was a mystic, writer, and contemplative. Jack the writer drew and painted religious images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and at times yearned to be contemplative. Apparently,
Jack thought of Thérèse as a friend stating, “It’s a nice thing we can go to church, that St. Thérèse is there.” Jack stopped attending Mass as a teenager and perhaps never fully returned to the Church, but he never fully turned away from Catholicism either.
Thérèse called herself a hermit and withdrew from the world, “The desert where God wanted me to go also to hide myself.” Jack often said he wished to live as a hermit and withdrew from society—to his mother’s house—and attempted his unsuccessful retreat to Big Sur:
“And in the flush of the first few days of joy I confidently tell myself (not expecting what I’ll do in three weeks only) ‘no more dissipation, it’s time for me to quietly watch the world and even enjoy it, first in woods like these, then just calmly walk and talk among people of the world, no booze, no drugs, no binges, no bouts with beatniks and drunks and junkies and everybody, no more I ask myself the question O why is God torturing me, that’s it, be a loner, travel, talk to waiters, walk around, no more self-imposed agony…it’s time to think and watch and keep concentrated on the fact that after all this whole surface of the world as we know it now will be covered with the silt of a billion years in time…Yay, for this, more aloneness.”
In The Darma Bums on a freight train leaving Los Angles, Jack wrote, “But then I really believed in the reality of charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquility and wisdom and ecstasy…” He rides a boxcar with a “thin old little bum” and together they share a meal with bread and wine. The bum is meek, grateful, and accepting, and reveals a scrap torn from a magazine that he reads “most every day,” a “prayer by Saint Teresa announcing that after her death she will return to earth by showering it with roses from heaven, forever, for all living creatures.” How many living creatures he asks after the bum has departed and he is on the beach alone in a contemplative happy mood, in one of the “most pleasant nights” of his life? “I don’t rightly know but it must be a couple umpteen trillion
sextillion infideled and busted up unnumberable number of roses that sweet Saint Teresa and that fine little old man are now this minute showering on your head, with lilies,” such is Jack’s memorable encounter with the devout, humble “little bum of Saint Teresa.” In a letter to her sister, Céline, Thérèse wrote, “Time is but a shadow, a dream; already God sees us in glory and takes joy in our eternal beatitude. How this thought helps my soul! I understand then why He lets us suffer…” But, little Gerard asks the great questions, “God why’d you do all this this suffering?…Why did God leave us sick and cold? Why didnt he leave us in Heaven…I dont like it. I wanta go to Heaven. I wish we were all in Heaven …Why cant we have what we want?” After a torturous night the adult Jack (Duluoz in Big Sur) surmises, “My mother’ll be waiting for me glad…On soft Spring nights I’ll stand in the yard under the stars—Something good will come out of all things yet—And it will be golden and eternal just like that…”
Parents are first teachers and Gabrielle was certainly Jack’s. Requiescat in pace, mater cara, Mémère.
In loving memory of Tina Rose (who loved Teresa of Calcutta)…and her mother Teresa (who kept a painting of Saint Thérèse)
(June 30, 1993, was the termination of St. Jean Baptiste Parish as the mother parish of the French Catholics of Lowell, Massachusetts.)
(Thérèse dreamed of being a missionary and hoped “to travel over the whole earth.” A Carmelite community in New Caney, Texas, provided a Discovery shuttle astronaut a relic of the saint, which he took with him into space in 2008, the same year the parents of Saint Thérèse were beatified.)
(In recent years, the Reliquary of Saint Thérèse toured the world and drew record crowds, as she remains one of the world’s most popular saints. The most recent tour was February 2013, Philippines.)
Society of the Little Flower
Therese Letters.pdf

American Zen

Zen Books

Zen Buddhism is nearly impossible to write about. The use of words and logic to explain Zen are in opposition to its nature, one free of such restrictions. The question then arises: how can we know the principles of Zen if we can’t directly talk about them? The solution is that we study the principals of Zen, which are contrivances, to forget them in order to move closer to Zen. The point of such a contradictory exercise is to provide a base from which we practice zazen[1] in order to shed away our dualistic ways of thought and proceed towards Satori[2], or Zen enlightenment. This is at the core of the Zen Buddhist practice and was central to the Buddhist influenced work of the Beat Generation writers Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Jackson Mac Low. These writers used Zen Buddhism as an influence to present a countercultural Zen aesthetic that frees the reader from the mainstream materialistic culture by exemplifying what an understanding of a truer nature of existence or satori-like experience might look like with poems that mirror the meditative practice of zazen. Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta” synthesizes Zen enlightenment while Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” provide us with zazen meditative “kôans” to contemplate. These poems are awakenings that transcend the dualistic and show us how we can arrive at a deeply realized nature of existence.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Last Night In Calcutta” begins: “Still night./ The old Clock ticks,/ half past two. A ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling. The gate is locked/on the street outside–sleepers, mustaches,/nakedness,/but no desire. A few mosquitoes/waken the itch, the fan turns slowly–/a car thunders along the black asphalt,/a bull snorts, something is expected–/Time sits solid in the four yellow walls.” (1-11) The opening phrase “Still night” frames the poem and the quietude of this opening utterance accomplishes two things: it centers the poem in the present, and invites us into Ginsberg’s zazen meditation. The lines that follow further establish this work as a meditation. The poet’s perception of his surrounding, the “old clock ticks…a ringing of crickets/ awake in the ceiling,” show him embarking on his meditation and exemplify his opening of “the hand of thought” through zazen practice. These lines are fixed in Calcutta, May 22, 1963, and present a grounded immediacy. This is what is, there is no construction, no imposition, these lines are and “time sits solid in the four yellow walls” of this place.

This opening initiates the zazen meditation and becomes more deeply entranced in Zen with the twelfth and thirteenth lines that read, “No one is here, emptiness filled with train/ whistles & dog barks, answered a block away.” (12-13) The statement is curious. If no one is here, who is writing the poem? The disintegration of the ego, of “I”, is essential in Zen, and for man to move closer to satori he must not suffer under the imposition of selfhood. Ginsberg is exercising this freedom, removing signs of egotism and self in order to get to the true nature of existence. We must note that Ginsberg, quite a self referential, does not use any personal pronouns in this poem and this is a testament to this poem’s Zen aesthetic. These selfless lines drive the poem deeper into zazen and set the poem in orbit around a possible satori state of transcendence.

The rest of the poem hovers around the Zen principal of satori and shows what this awakening to the nature of existence might look like. Ginsberg shows us that his meditation reshapes his understanding of existence and delivers him to a higher understanding through Zen. This epiphany is exemplified in the thirty-sixth line of the poem: “Skin is sufficient to be skin, that is all.” The realization that skin is skin shows the new way of thought achievable through enlightenment. This line is a shedding of meaning and focuses on the true nature of existence through Zen as being one that is inexplicable. This poem encapsulates Ginsberg’s aesthetic understanding of Zen and its poetic application. Ginsberg simulates the zazen process for us as readers with this poem and shows us what a satori epiphany looks like.

Gary Snyder’s poem “Riprap” and Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” are both Zen poems that provide us with “riprap” of our own on our journey towards satori. Snyder’s and Mac Low’s poems are not exhibitions of satori or an awakened state (as we saw with Ginsberg’s “Last Night in Calcutta”) but instead they are kôans that are meant to provide us with meditations that contribute to our Zen practice. We must quickly define “Kôan” and “Riprap” so that we may understand how these poets use these ideas in their poems. A “kôan” is a fundamental part of Zen Buddhism; it is a story, dialogue, question, or statement provided by a Zen master for a student to meditate on during zazen. A kôan is meant to transcend rational thought moving one closer to an intuitive state on the way to satori. “Riprap” is loosely defined as a set of stones one lies down on as a path to create traction, and we can see how a kôan might be considered a mental riprap of sorts. The concept of both of these poems, as kôans that provide us as readers with riprap, creates a framework into which we may understand the Zen aesthetic Mac Low and Snyder employ.

Snyder’s poem “Riprap” opens with the lines, “Lay down these words/ before your mind like rocks.” (1-2) This is an invitation. The poem is presented as a kôan with these lines, and Snyder is asking us to use this poem as “riprap” for our own personal zazen exercise. Snyder, like a Zen master, guides us through a meditation: “place [these words] solid, by hands/ in choice of place, set before the body of the mind in space and time:” (3-6) This instruction ends with a colon and the poem then lists what we are to “set before the body of the mind” to meditate on in this kôan. Snyder lists, “Solidity of bark, lead, or wall/ riprap of things:/ Cobble of milky way,/ straying planets/ these poems, people.” (7-11) The solidities in the first line send us into contemplation on the categorization of things and attempts to strip the meaning from this duality through juxtaposition. We are challenged to question this quality of things as “solid.” The list of “milky way” “straying planets” “poems” and “people” presents another set of comparisons. Snyder’s kôan poem induces a zazen state that forces us question the linguistic duality or separation of things, and we can’t help but meditate on the question: are we part of the Milky Way, a straying planet, a person, or are we poems? Finishing this poem we come to question the initial invitation of “laying down these words” and sit with the kôan contemplating if these words are riprap from which we gain a footing on our Zen way, or are we meant to lie down and forget the words that make us this poem.

Jackson Mac Low’s “1st Dance—Making Things New—6 February 1964” is a kôan that invites us into contemplation like the poem “Riprap” by Gary Snyder. The fundamental difference between Snyder’s poem and Mac Low’s is that “1st Dance” is more obtuse and lacks the instructive quality seen in Snyder’s poem. “1st Dance”, from the collection The Pronouns, opens with the pronoun “He.”(1) This is quite different from Ginsberg’s pronounless “Last Night in Calcutta” and Snyder’s use of the possessive “your” in “Riprap.” Mac Low’s use of the indefinite pronoun creates an ambiguity not present in the other poems. We immediately begin to question who “He” is. The poem then proceeds with a series of surrealistic images of what “He” does. The first two lines read, “He makes himself comfortable/ & matches parcels.” What does Mac Low mean by “matches parcels?” There is an inherent contradiction in “matching” or bringing together in pairs and “parceling” or dividing into portions. The lines that follow also stultify. Mac Low writes in lines 6-7, “Soon after, he’s giving cushions or seeming to do so,/ taking opinions” and we are left to wonder what this means. These lines act, just as Snyder’s poem, as a kôan, but are more perplexing because of these strange images that clear our mind and break down our categorized thought.

Mac Low ends the poem with, “A little while later he gets out with things/ & finally either rewards someone for something or goes up under/ something.” (15-17) and these final lines are an ambiguous riddle which sends us into a state of zazen that transcends rational thought. There is less invitation and instruction here compared with Snyder’s “Riprap” and Mac Low seems less of a Zen master and more of a Zen practitioner. Mac Low pushes with this poem towards the transcendence of dualistic meaning and both ushers us and forces himself along on the journey towards satori. This poem offers a pure Zen aesthetic that initially confounds but hidden deep within it is the possibility of eventual satori state of enlightenment.

There are a few problems regarding these poems as Zen poems that we must confront. Zen Buddhism is a laborious task. There are no quick roads in Zen. In the early 1950’s, D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts popularized the principles of Zen in the Western world, and made them seem quickly accessible to all and any, (these poets are adapting Zen from what they learned from Watts and Suzuki and these poems make Zen seem extremely accessible.) This claim for Zen as accessible to all is not the case. Zen is something you dedicate your life to, that you must practice rigorously each day. Zazen is an especially painstaking activity of thousands of hours of meditation in order that one might come close to satori, while knowing quite well that they might never achieve this understanding. If this is the case, why do Ginsberg, Snyder and Mac Low write these poems that synthesize the zazen meditation? The answer is that these poets are showing us how this Zen process works and are using the zazen meditation and the kôan as a framework to present a poetic counter-reality that uses Buddhism as an aesthetic principal. This type of poem allows Ginsberg to show us what satori might look like, and for Snyder and Mac Low to help us on our way by providing meditative kôans. These poems invite the reader into a zazen state that opens his eyes to question: how can we transcend rational thought, break free of mainstream materialistic culture, and get closer to understanding the true nature of existence? These men show us this is possible, and that the Zen way is the road that will get us there even if it is not true to the sense of Zen, but instead what we then must call “American Zen.”


1. Zazen is the Buddhist meditative practice of “opening the hand of thought.”  This is done while sitting and allowing the mind to become unhindered by its many layers.  When this is achieved the experience gives way to an insight into the nature of existence and the individual then gains satori or enlightenment.


2. Satori refers to the “enlightenment” or individual awakening to a world that transcends the dualistic mind and deeply realizes the nature of existence as it is achieved through Zen.



This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #12. You can buy it on Amazon (as a paperback or ebook), or at our webstore.


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.

[6] “Beatific vision.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed on 10/9/2011.

[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.

Tristessa: Heavengoing

by Paul Arendt


Jack Kerouac’s surroundings invariably affected his writing style. Narrator Leo Percepied’s voice in The Subterraneans reflected Kerouac’s emergent interest in psychology, and the author’s vision of the stream-of-consciousness as a frantic and self-conscious purge. This interest in psychology found its way into Kerouac’s aesthetic. The result was a manic prose. The narrator tore into his thought patterns and behaviors with a seemingly psychotherapeutic authorial agenda. Kerouac’s application of psychological theory in his writing allowed him to move beyond the stylistic limitations of On the Road and truly engage the stream-of-consciousness. His psychological definition for the stream-of-consciousness was, however, a temporary one. Upon completing The Subterraneans, he began to immerse himself in Buddhism, and this markedly changed both his aesthetic and his theories on the human experience.

Kerouac wrote Tristessa in Mexico at the height of his Buddhist studies. Religious devotion calms the narrator, named simply Jack. He no longer focuses on sex, self-loathing and shame as he did in The Subterraneans but on chastity, compassion and religious devotion. Jack explores his feelings for Tristessa, a Native Mexican morphine addict. Using an active present tense he muses on love, piety and drug addiction while considering Tristessa’s relationship with Catholicism and his own relationship with Buddhism. The writer has spent years refining stream-of-consciousness technique in his novels and poetry. Tristessa is an embodiment of Kerouac’s stylistic goals; the narrator’s arrangement of suffering, compassion, and spiritual awareness makes it thematically mature.

Still, the text is often excluded in criticism. The limited scholarly work focuses primarily on Kerouac’s handling of race and gender. Often, critics are compelled to bind The Subterraneans and Tristessa into one story, one idea, as they both concern a narrator exploring the essence of a dark-skinned woman. Stylistically and thematically the texts are quite different.

With a Buddhist’s detachment, the narrator separates himself from Tristessa’s world of morphine and poverty. From his own world he offers observation and metaphysical contemplation. The self-conscious writer now becomes a selfless Buddhist student, one who uses Tristessa and her home to meditate on the subjects of sadness and balance. The writer’s focused consideration of these two subjects, sadness and balance, is evidence that Kerouac had truly become a craftsman, that his post-On the Road work should be considered more relevant in criticism. Each step he took to develop his style led to different and more refined stream-of-consciousness. This is overlooked in most critical studies of the author.

Benedict Giamo recognizes Kerouac’s “impressive creative outpour” after he had discovered Buddhism. In “Enlightened Attachment: Kerouac’s Impermanent Buddhist Trek,” he writes that Buddhism was a valuable and perfectly timed “inspiration for [Kerouac’s] ongoing spiritual-literary-artistic quest” (180). Giamo is one of only a few critics who have explored that quest and its effect on Kerouac’s style. Buddhism certainly took his writing in a different direction, but, perhaps more importantly for Kerouac, it “provided the means and conditions necessary for delivering one from the trepidations of mortal hopelessness” (Giamo, 2003 181). Kerouac did not go through this spiritual transition alone; the religion made sense to many Beat writers, especially poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Buddhism proves central to the seven books Kerouac wrote during his most productive period (1955-1957): The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, Some of the Dharma, Desolation Angels, Visions of Gerard, The Dharma Bums, his collection of poems Mexico City Blues, and Tristessa.

Kerouac took Buddhism very seriously. It was not a passing interest. He writes in Some of the Dharma, a recently published journal, of his daily reading of Buddha’s Diamond Sutra, his exploration of other ancient texts, his experiences with meditation. He engaged and applied Buddhist ideas in his daily writing. But, as Gregory Stephenson submits in The Daybreak Boys, even though Kerouac embraced a very disciplined lifestyle, books like Tristessa give a narrow view of his relationship with Buddhism. Stephenson writes that Kerouac’s “affinities with the teachings of the Buddha are largely limited to his unreserved acceptance of” the first noble truth of Buddhism: All life is suffering (Stephenson 34). Kerouac offers emotionally balanced writing in Tristessa and the possibility of transcendence, but the nature of the work aligns with the idea that Kerouac never moved too far away from this first truth, from a lifelong artistic intention to prove that life is sorrowful:


Tristessa says ‘How is Jack-?-’she always asks: ‘Why are you so sad? -muy dolorosa’” and as though to mean ‘You are very full of pain,’ for pain means dolor-‘I am sad because all la vida es dolorosa,’ I keep replying, hoping to teach her Number One of the Four Great Truths,-Besides, what could be truer (18). 


The narrator makes it clear that suffering is not a product of chance but a function of human existence. Kerouac’s emphasis on this first truth in Tristessa, though he was quite educated in wider Buddhist theory, divulges an extremely focused artistic usage, but other elements in Tristessa demonstrate a wider application.

Though he spends considerable time filling passages with evidence of the first truth, with images of sadness and corrosion, Kerouac is also intent on combating it through writing of a faith he has in a shared destiny of transcendence and a calibrated scale on which all events are inevitably weighed. These attempts to combat sadness yield a wider usage of Buddhist theory as the narrator considers the idea of balance, divine compensation. He creates a surreal, almost dreamlike sorrow with Tristessa’s afflictions in the physical world – drug addiction, helplessness, poverty – but consistently emphasizes the harmony and amelioration to be found in the metaphysical world: “Bright Explanations of the crystal clarity of all the Worlds, I need to show that we’ll all be all right” (34). These bright explanations oppose, and perhaps make neutral, the dark observations.

As he considers the sad state of affairs in Tristessa’s home, Kerouac reasons with the subject matter by projecting onto it Buddhist Truth, Catholic symbol, and a conviction he has in an organizing principle. This organizing principle is a compassionate and neutralizing force, a mixture of Catholic God and Buddha which Kerouac began to assemble as he wrestled with a cultural homelessness, unsatisfied with the spiritually atrophied America he saw from the margins. The different parts of the religious mixture can be isolated and separated, but in the story they complement each other; they blend into each other to form a unified spiritual light that illuminates Kerouac’s writing, guides his romantic recollection with absolute language and a dual project: capturing the magnitude of sadness and balancing it on a scale. The emotional cadence of the story is determined by Kerouac’s constant juxtaposition of negative woeful image with positive multi-religious prose burst. Most of Kerouac’s attention seems to be on balancing pain with reward, on the construction of theories that rely on divine compensation, combat the pain, and function as an opposing weight on his scale. Paradoxical words, opposing emotive energies and balance are the new patterns which Kerouac uses in his stream-of-consciousness.

Kerouac is often seen as an improviser, but even they who pull art from the air in improvisation work from patterns. These patterns give an artist order and control in what seems to be random, chaotic, improvised expression. In “Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art,” David Sterrit notes how “extemporaneous creation is tempered in practice by realities of repetition” (171). Kerouac’s patterns in small, descriptive phrases reflect the emotional patterns in large passages and the intersecting “realities of repetition” that exist on, and outside, the page. The patterns of sadness and corrosion begin with the narrator’s initial description of the Mexico he sees around him. He travels through “the whore street district,” the “poor district of Rome” (9). Tristessa’s home is a “tenement cell-house” with “dripping faucets and pails” and “rain still falling from the leaves and boards that served as the kitchen roof” (9).  It is full of “chicken garbage” with wild animals sitting in their own filth, like the “little pink cat taking a little pee on piles of okra and chickenfeed” (9). The room is “ransacked as by madmen,” and the writer cannot adequately explain “the awfulness of that gloom in the holes in the ceiling” (12). From the streets to Tristessa’s tenement, Kerouac begins to lay out the indefatigable power of corrosion that will drive his story and function as a giant weight on one end of his scale.

During this impressionistic tour of Mexico, the writer introduces Tristessa as a walking paradox of sorts, a figure of beauty and corrosion, piety and sadness, a tortured angel. She is “high, beautiful as ever, goin home gayly to go to bed and enjoy her morphine,” yet her first words are “I am seek (7, 8).” In his first physical descriptions of her, Kerouac writes, “gorgeous ripples of pear shape her skin to her cheekbones, and long sad eyelids, and Virgin Mary resignation” (8). In this one description the reader finds the three key elements that shape his complex vision of Tristessa and what she represents: sexual beauty, sadness, and religious devotion. These elements are projected onto her throughout the story in descriptive patterns.

Descriptions of Tristessa contain paradoxes, disharmony, words and images that sit in direct opposition. She is a “sad mutilated blue Madonna,” and a “bundle of death and beauty,” whose face is “so expressive of the pain and loveliness that went no doubt into the making of this fatal world” (73, 52). In “We’re On the Road to Nowhere: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the Legacy of the Great Depression,” Jason Spangler submits that the “melancholic mixture of possibility and disenchantment” in Kerouac’s work originated in the author’s childhood (310). The humbling forces of the Great Depression, and a catastrophic flood in his hometown Lowell, Massachusetts paved the way for these conflicting “realities of repetition” in Tristessa. As she simultaneously embodies the highest and the lowest, the corroded and the pure, as a tortured angel junky Tristessa seems a fitting subject for a meditation on the disharmony Kerouac sees in the human experience.

Kerouac’s descriptive patterns reflect his Buddhist understanding of illusion in the physical world: “everything is nothing” (32). This understanding is amplified in unforgiving paradoxes like “born to die BORN TO DIE I could write it on the wall and on Walls all over America …beautiful to be ugly…glad to be sad” and “living but to die, here we wait on this shelf” (32,42). Gregory Stephenson also notices these patterns and narrative tendencies in Tristessa. He finds that the phrases and passages in physical and emotive conflict with each other “represent both a microcosm of the dichotomies and contradictions of existence and a projection of [Jack’] inner conflicts” and they are all “emblematic of the irreconcilable duality of the world, its disunity and its disharmony” (Stephenson 34-5). The larger disharmony seems a more important subject than Tristessa’s specific disharmony; the narrator sees a world of Tristessas. But he can be the cause of Tristessa’s transcendence, and his own, through testifying to her holiness and the holiness of all.

The narrator faces the “irreconcilable duality” of the physical world, its paradoxes. He concludes that all the dualities, paradoxes and binaries are but mental fictions, illusions. His patterns of disharmony, his consistent emphasis on poverty, sadness, corrosion, contradiction, are balanced out by his use of spiritual conclusions. These conclusions appear often in prayers of lament: “Ah Above, what you doin with your children?…your stolen children you stole from your mind to think a thought because you were bored or you were Mind” (88). In his last thoughts the narrator writes “O movie – A movie by God…this is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours” (96). These conclusions function throughout the story as rifts that separate torrents of sad images, and they function as strategically placed punctuation marks. The first punctuation mark comes after setting up Tristessa’s home, addiction and sickness:


It’s gloom as unpredicted on this earth, I realize all the uncountable manifestations the thinking-mind invents to place wall of horror before the pure perfect realization that there is no wall and no horror just Transcendental Empty Kissable Milk Light of Everlasting Eternity’s true and perfectly empty nature (16).


This kind of verbal mathematics exists throughout the story. Tristessa’s pain, and Kerouac’s pain as witness, is inevitably neutralized through conclusions that seek to add holy illumination to a wretched mortal darkness, to qualify an organizing principle. In this moment, like many others, Kerouac leans on the infinite and absolute in his language, “uncountable manifestations” and “Everlasting Eternity,” the stillness of it all having a “perfectly empty nature.” Once these kind of moments begin repeating themselves, the reader can see them as another refrain, an always-applicable chorus to drown out the patterns of the saddest tune in all the world. Immediately, Kerouac begins arranging new images of sadness: a “dead dog in the gutter,” followed by “beggars on the sidewalk with no hats looking at you helplessly,” and a little girl next door “praying little woeful squeals enough to make a father’s heart break” (17). These knots are untangled in a similar manner. Absolute language amplifies the narrator’s spiritual conviction and his belief in a calibrated balance “that recompenses all that pain with soft reward of perfect silent love” (33).

This pattern continues as Tristessa’s woe becomes larger, and more specific. The narrator becomes increasingly reliant on his own vision of God, Buddhism, and the absolute language necessary to qualify them:


It makes me cry to realize Tristessa has never had a child and probably never will because of her morphine sickness (a sickness that goes on as long as the need and feeds off the need and fills in the need simultaneously, so that she moans from pain all day and the pain is real, like abscesses in the shoulder and neuralgia down the side of the head and in 1952 just before Christmas she was supposed to be dying) holy Tristessa will not be cause of further rebirth and will go straight to her God and He will recompense her multibillionfold in aeons and aeons of dead Karma time (22-3). 


This burst of writing builds again upon woeful images, but with a familiar formula. The facts of her life get worse and worse. The emotional content increases and increases, as does the need for absolute, conclusive theory. First Kerouac presents the image of Woman without Child, an image that is a result of an incapability. Tristessa has been denied a feminine function and instead must carry out a unisexual function of sadness. The morphine has replaced her sexual inclinations and her desire to procreate. Next, her incapability is placed into a circle of futility, evoking the ouroboros snake eating its tail to represent the cyclic prison of her drug addiction. Then comes an image of physical corrosion with Tristessa, beautiful and young, defaced by the drugs that control her. Finally an image of Tristessa dying on Christmas, an image of sadness gaining emotive power from the mention of religious celebration and thoughts of a suffering Christ. As is the rhythm of Tristessa, these images are neutralized by a final image of God, heaven, balance. Tristessa is rewarded, removed from the cycle of reincarnation. His attempt to sanctify Tristessa’s world is part of Kerouac’s balancing act as he considers a shared world and weaves images of mortal collapse with images of divine construction.

Kerouac scholar Robert Hipkiss writes that the narrator’s goal is to “minister to Tristessa’s condition with a dose of innocent faith,” though she is given much more than a dose (Hipkiss 7). Similarly, Benedict Giamo submits that Kerouac’s “compassionate response to [Tristessa] causes him to sanctify her world from the profane perspectives of abject poverty, drug addiction and junk-sickness-unto-death” (Giamo, 2000 104). This compassionate response is more evidence for Giamo that Kerouac’s writing became more complicated and more significant as he became more spiritually driven to write. This is the part of Kerouac’s catalogue that should invite more critical attention. His attempt to sanctify Tristessa’s world is part of his balancing act as Kerouac considers a shared world and weaves images of mortal collapse with images of divine construction.

This particular divine construction, that of Tristessa being rewarded for her pain and suffering with “dead Karma time,” comes from Kerouac’s own vision of the Buddhist idea of karma, the highest balance. Often credited with bringing Buddhism to the West, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso defines karma in these terms: “Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potential, on our very subtle mind, and each karmic potential eventually gives rise to its own effect” (Gyatso 9). But Kerouac seems to think that each one of Tristessa’s actions and trials leaves an imprint directly on “her God.” In Kerouac’s interpretation of karma, Tristessa is not being rewarded for exhibiting positive action but for being so inundated with negative experience. The spiritual theories he imports are adjusted to fit into, or complement, his Catholic foundation.

In a scene where Tristessa runs out of morphine, she points to the sky and compliments Kerouac’s karmic theories. ‘So I geev every-things I have to my friend, and eef he doam pay me back…my Lord pay me back…More’” with Kerouac adding “as the spirit swims around the room I can tell the effective mournful horror of it (her reward is so thin) now I see radiating from the crown of her head innumerable hands that have come from all ten quarters of the Universe to bless her.” He concludes “her Enlightenment is perfect” (57). He also envisions a universal understanding of karma as he watches young Mexican baseball players, writing how “they wonder ‘Did I make a bad play in the fifth inning? Didn’t I make it up with that heet in the seventh inning?’” (43). Even Old Bull Gaines, a minor character who passes like a ghost, must find a delicate balance of chemicals to get to sleep, mixing morphine, codeine, coffee and cigarettes to find the Nirvana of sleep (48). Each separate element in the story challenges the author to find a place for it in a balance. Kerouac even balances an active, present tense narrative in the first half of the story with a reflective, past tense narrative in the second.

Indeed the most noticeable element in Tristessa is religion, its spiritual intent, its attempt to speak with a religious voice. The narrator lays out a complicated multi-religious network and ornaments Tristessa, her friends, her country, even the animals in her home, with Catholic and Buddhist symbols and sentiment. Kerouac’s mystic and reclusive nature provided him with years of solitude to practice Buddhist meditation and prayer. He withdrew from society. Tristessa is a product of that solitude, that mixture of spiritual introspection and detachment.

Kerouac weaves his Catholic upbringing and the ubiquitous Catholic imagery in Mexico into his new interest in Buddhist theory; he balances the imagery, precepts and metaphysical theories of these two religions, mixes them with his own unique language play and American poetics, and projects them onto subjects and objects as he writes. Though many of the narrator’s conclusions draw from Buddhist theory, he never wholly commits to Buddhism as an exclusive, superior means for understanding mortal trial. Benedict Giamo sees a tremendous value in Kerouac’s religious pluralism. He writes that after Kerouac’s “long and passionate engagement with Catholicism and Buddhism-amid a post-Nietzschean world spun out of divine orbit” he began ”craving for belief and devotion to affirmative conceptions of the sacred in human life” (Giamo, 2003 202). As Americans transitioned from their introduction to apocalyptic military power in World War II to the fear and confusion of the Cold War, Kerouac’s “affirmative conceptions of the sacred in human life” became all the more significant for his readership. He did not simply advocate intellectual resistance to mass American culture, he advocated the heavens when God seemed to be dead, or like Tristessa’s white dove (“God the Dove”), sitting “in nest ever contemplating the entire scene forever without comment” (25). Giamo also ranks Kerouac’s expression of Buddhism “among the most innovative evocations and energetic expositions of traditional Eastern belief in modern American literature” (Giamo, 2003 174).

Later in his life, when an interviewer asked Kerouac what the difference was between Jesus and Buddha, he answered “There is no difference” (Berrigan 68). While Kerouac isolates a pattern of sadness, and offers a thematic pattern in prayer, he ends up emphasizing what Giamo calls “the direct subjective experience of the divine as a living reality.” The reader can “pivot freely between the living Christ and the living Buddha, for each…manifests an imminent holiness in humankind” (Giamo, 2000 112). The narrator sees the names, the weight of each figure in religious history, as one name, one weight, and the emotive power in his language comes directly from the force of religious energies combined, the force of a writer who is writing of his faith, his private spiritual theories.

In Tristessa Kerouac advocates a Buddhist approach to his American readers, and while documenting his experiences with that approach he rejects the American sociocultural norm.  This rejection is also a pattern in Kerouac’s catalogue, as it is in other Beat Generation texts. Kerouac writes of the inner world, what could potentially happen inside that world. His commitment to self-exploration, self-cultivation and widening his own spiritual capacity anticipates the tremendous interest Americans have in Buddhism, yoga, acupuncture, imported wisdom. Allen Johnson writes of the significance of the Beat Generation authors in terms of the effects their resistance to typical American spirituality and ambition had on both the intrinsic and social consciousness of their readers. “The Beat rejection of consumerist aspirations and the existing economic order helped open the way for a critical perspective on modernity that still influences those who feel alienated from the dominant culture” (Johnson 122). The monkish and contemplative lifestyle Kerouac describes in his books offered an alternative, and therein lies the social significance of the Beat Generation. Due to critical emphasis upon On the Road, the scope of that social significance and intellectual resistance has been limited to wanderlust, drugs, jazz and hip language. The Beat writers moved away from the sensory pleasures found in On the Road; their critics did not.

Johnson sees writers like Kerouac giving his readers permission, through their writing, to look for a new angle. Similarly, Stephen Prothero contends “the Beats were spiritual protesters as well as literary innovators” (208). He believes this should make them more significant in conversations outside the literary sphere. He argues that the critical world should pay more attention to the curiously sustainable writers and poets of the Beat Generation and their contributions to the spiritual atmosphere of succeeding generations. Kerouac and the Beats “responded to the challenge of religious pluralism by conjuring out of inherited and imported materials a wholly new religious vision” (Prothero 220). Like the transcendentalists, who have solidified a place for themselves in American religious history, Kerouac made “contact with the sacred on the nonverbal, transconceptual level of intuition and feeling” and then transmitted what he found into his writing (Prothero 220). For this he, and other beat generation authors, should be included in discussions about American religious history. Their work helped to bring Buddhism into American intellectual and theological discussion, and contributed to the widening of a country’s religious landscape. This is not a common angle for literary criticism on Jack Kerouac, because to consider his application of spiritual theory would require a consideration of how his aesthetic developed over many years and projects.

Kerouac never turned his back on Catholicism. In Tristessa he places it right beside Buddhism to show them as flowers from the same stem, as two dogmatic systems that can synthesize the same world, the same ephemeral and convincing illusion, in similar ways. Kerouac writes “the Buddhas and the Virgin Marys are there reminding me of the solemn pledge of faith in this harsh and stupid earth” (16). The narrator swears “on the Bible on God on Buddha” (71). After lighting a cigarette with one of Tristessa’s prayer candles, he makes “a little French prayer: ‘Excuse mue ma ‘Dame’ – making emphasis on Dame because of Damema the Mother of Buddhas” (30). When watching moments of religious ritual, be it Tristessa praying for morphine or lighting a candle, he is quick to blur the line between East and West. “The Virgin Mary has a candle, a bunch of glass-fulla-wax economical burners that go for weeks on end, like Tibetan prayer-wheels” (11). A Catholic image is, more often than not, immediately followed with a Buddhist image. While briefly considering Tristessa as a sexual partner, a lover, a third wife, Kerouac finds her “lodged in the Virgin Mary, and her love of wish-for-me,” which “makes her as mysterious as the Tathagata whose form is described as being…as inscrutable as the direction in which a put-out fire has gone” (54). Tristessa is sexually unattainable, which the narrator romantically equates to holiness and purity. The writer then makes another quick association to Buddha essence, the Tathagata. Kerouac does not disregard his childhood religion, does not simply replace it with his current Buddhist interests, but incorporates it into the story with balance, seemingly matching image for image, symbol for symbol, god for god.

Religious balance is also seen in the way Kerouac expands the idea of sentience to bring into the narrative the animals in Tristessa’s home: a hen, a rooster, a dog, a cat, and a dove. Kerouac ornaments the human characters, Tristessa, her sister Cruz, their friend El Indio, with Catholic images. This human Catholicism is balanced by animal Buddhism. Kerouac projects onto each animal some kind of Buddhist nature, allowing the animals to participate in dialogue, and meditate on metaphysical subjects with superior understanding. The cat is “meditating among our mad endeavors like the Dove above” (29). He says, in Spanish, “Your cat is having golden thoughts,” assuming that as the cat is observing the filthy apartment, the daily drinking and morphine sicknesses, she understands everything completely, and knows all is still well (30). The dog has her own “reflections on the subject of Nirvana and death” (32). Kerouac also uses the dog to serve as an example of the trappings of impure thoughts. The dog howls in pain.  “Tristessa says she’s in heat and that’s why she cries” (13). The hen “walks around the golden kitchen of Time in huge Nirvana” (20). When pecked by its holy beak the narrator notes “what a gentle touch it is from Mother Maya,” and sympathetically calls the animal a “poor sentient being” (34,20). “God The Dove,” representing the silent organizing principle, is resting “in nest, ever contemplating the entire scene forever without comment” (25). The Buddhist animals, the Catholic angels and saints, the narrator’s own dogmatic amalgam, “it’s all taking place in one vast mind” (35). Expanded sentience works to balance Catholicism with Buddhist image and sentiment, and to reaffirm that all is well. In a way the narrator tries to prove that everyone, and everything, is practicing some kind of Buddhism, and they all know it without knowing it.

Though the thematic energies in Tristessa are balanced, and the language more elegant than in his previous works, the reader can still see traces of Kerouac’s old habits, residue from his psychological experience with The Subterraneans. When the narrator begins to wonder what Tristessa is thinking, worried she will judge him for the way he spends his money, he stops himself before the writing becomes overly self-conscious, “no time to think,” and continues on without incident (9). Aware of the trappings of sexuality, pleasure-seeking, powerful moments where the mind is controlled by the body, he writes of his experiment with chastity early in the story and how it will allow him to transcend the shallow flesh: “I have sworn off lust with women,- sworn off lust for lust’s sake,-sworn off sexuality and the inhibiting impulse- I want to enter the Holy Stream and be safe on my way to the other shore” (22). He understands the psychic boulders that could potentially dam the stream-of-consciousness. He understands that his neuroses will appear in his writing. By eliminating women and sex from his life, by eliminating the whole world of The Subterraneans, by moving away from its darkness, its sexual objectives, its ruinous cycle of sin and self-conscious reflection on sin, he can allow the stream to flow upward.

The line separating self-conscious participation and selfless observation can be seen more clearly as Kerouac reverts, in brief moments, back to his old self-conscious style. He becomes increasingly preoccupied with his own sexual feelings for Tristessa as the first section winds down; he begins to focus on himself, his place in the story. There is very little action in Tristessa. The narrator observes from the outside. Once he begins to think about participation, especially in the form of romantic pursuit, the content shifts abruptly, regresses back to the habits of neuroses-laden narrator Leo Percepied in The Subterraneans.


I don’t want to disgust Tristessa – It would horrify me to cause her ruinous fleshpetal tender secrets and have her wake up in the morning lodged against the back of some unwelcome man who loves by night and sleeps it off, and wakes up blearing to shave and by his very presence causes consternation where before there was absolute perfect purity of nobody (55).   


Jack finds so many moral flaws in his imagination when Tristessa resounds in his mind as an object of sexuality, and not a subject of sadness and religious devotion. The familiar self-loathing narrator returns in this moment. The balance begins to disappear as self-consciousness and thoughts of sexual conquest infiltrate the writing. He writes, “It’s all my own sin if I make a play for her,” for if he does make that play for her she would be nothing more than “a material witness to my murderous lust” (54). To curb his thoughts, to paint them as futile and empty gestures of the mind, he leans on the idea of Tristessa as a holy figure, a nun, a saint, an angel, a nonsexual idea that in its enlightenment floats above that kind of toil. “I play games with her fabulous eyes and she longs to be in a monastery” (58).

Tristessa’s second chapter finds Kerouac again returning to the Self, his personal trials, and thoughts of sexuality. This time he reiterates the Oedipus complex seen in The Subterraneans, and explicitly references his mother as he waves goodbye to unattainable and holy Tristessa: “I’ve screwed everything up with mama again, Oedipus Rex, I’ll tear out my eyes in the morning,” concluding that he is always “the positional son in woman and man relationships” (93). Perhaps this turn, or return, is inevitable in any of Kerouac’s works given that he is more often than not applying the self-conscious technique of the stream-of-consciousness, but the momentum gained by his observations in this text seems to disappear as the writer makes himself the subject at the end of each section. The fact that this happens so infrequently in Tristessa may be a testament to Kerouac’s Buddhist lens, as he tried in the middle of the 1950s, shortly before becoming a famous author, to place some distance between his spiritual experience and his physical experience.

Stylistically, and thematically, Tristessa was an achievement of Kerouac’s. It harmonizes the blurring melodies of the stream-of-consciousness style with long, overarching thematic drones. He created space for the drug-sick to have humanity and soul, though they struggle with the will in mortal skin. He welcomed imported spiritual wisdom during the peak of twentieth century American xenophobia. He concentrated his energies on compassion. Kerouac relied on his typing speed in The Subterraneans, and the result was engrossing and manic, but the story does not move far beyond the narrator’s ego. Tristessa, however, contains the same narrative energy, a signature of the stream-of-consciousness narrative energy, but it is ornamented with expansive thematic significance, and a thoughtfulness, for which the author should be known.




Jack Kerouac’s writing is a reflection of the maddening times he lived in, of the changing American realities in the twentieth century. He turned to the stream-of-consciousness, while turning away from ordinary American life and writing conventions. He retreaded inward, behind the eyes, and ensconced himself in the inner world because the external world was threatening, unsatisfactory, controlled. He discovered his own unique literary form; once he focused on the spiritual world, he successfully integrated significant content and profound insight into that form in works like Tristessa, Big Sur, and Visions of Gerard.

On the Road was published at the right time to speak for a collective unconscious, to guide a countercultural movement, but generations later we can see that timing also hid Kerouac’s post-road work in a haze of negative criticism and tunnel-vision emphasis on one lonely text. On the Road is well-written; Dean is a beautiful character. It is a period piece, he a timeless eccentric. Today people still reach for something when they read it, something that is gone.

While timing made Kerouac famous, it also made him simple. There was pressure placed upon him to embody the “beat generation.” All the positive and negative energies of this movement were projected onto him, and onto his famous travel novel. Six years after writing the novel—having become a spiritually driven prose poet, a quiet Buddhist wanderer, a prolific author with a style entirely his own—Kerouac was forced back into the skin he had shed. He was often asked to justify On the Road, qualify “his generation;” he was never taken seriously as an author, but was dismissed as some kind of spokesman for a small percentage of the American youth.

He is rarely allowed in the classroom; in the sphere of literary criticism he is rarely allowed his many dimensions, or his genius. He resounds as a simplified sociocultural figure, an icon, and not as an important American author.  Jack Kerouac, writer of the inner world in the twentieth century, rich with psychological and spiritual layers, a writer who harnessed the musical texture of language, who saw the synergy of poetry, prose and sonic melody. There is much to learn from his work. So many roads to take with him as a guide. So many roads, if only we get off the beaten path, the road often traveled that cuts across a flat earth, leave it and be heavengoing.


Works Cited


Berrigan, Ted. “The Art of Fiction: Jack Kerouac” Conversations with Jack Kerouac Ed.   Kevin J. Hayes, Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005. 51-81.

Giamo, Benedict. Kerouac, the Word and the Way: Prose Artist as Spiritual Quester, Carbondale:   Southern Illinois UP, 2000.

————.“Enlightened Attachment: Kerouac’s Impermanent Buddhist Trek.” R&L 35:2 (2003).    173-205.

Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang. Eight Steps to Happiness: The Buddhist Way of Loving Kindness, Glen       Spey: Tharpa Publications, 2000.

Hipkiss, Robert A.. Jack Kerouac: Prophet of the New Romanticism, Lawrence: Regents Press       of Kansas, 1976.

Johnson, Allen. “Consumption, Addiction, Vision, Energy, Political Economies and Utopian          Visions in the Writings of the Beat Generation” College Literature 32:2 (Spring 2005)    103-126.

Kerouac, Jack. Tristessa, New York: Penguin, 1992.

Prothero, Stephen. “On the Holy Road: The Beat Movement as Spiritual Protest.” HTR 84:2           (1991) 205-22.

Spangler, Jason. “We’re on the Road to Nowhere: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the Legacy of the         Great Depression.” Studies in the Novel, 40: 3 (Fall 2008) 308-27.


Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation,            Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990,

Sterritt, David. “Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art.” The Journal of   Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58:2 (Spring, 2000) 163-72.


Issue Ten: Religion

Another issue, another controversial topic.
The Beats were no strangers to religions and spirituality, and as such it is only logical that we devote an issue of the magazine to exploring this relationship. Whether it’s the conflict between Kerouac’s Catholicism and his Buddhist leanings, or Ginsberg’s long quest for enlightenment, we want to know what you think. Any essays exploring these ideas, or any relationship between literature and religion, are welcome.
Of course, we are also open to poetry, memoirs, short stories and artwork. Send it all to the usual address – editor at beatdom dot com. The submission deadline is November 1st.

Happy Birthday, Bob Kaufman!

On this day in 1925, Bob Kaufman was born.

From Beatdom Issue One:

Bob Kaufman: The Unsung Beat


It always baffles me to find Bob Kaufman omitted from a great many books and documentaries and websites and talk about the Beat Generation. For me, Kaufman is the embodiment of Beat. That is not to say that the more well known names and faces did not embody the spirit they are most widely credited with creating and fulfilling, but rather that Kaufman was as Beatnik as any of them, and people today forget that all too easily. Hell, many critics argue that it was Kaufman who actually coined the phrase “Beat”, and not Jack Kerouac.

What would Kerouac say? Kerouac and his well-known Beat Generation contemporaries respected Kaufman as much as anyone, but he has been downplayed by later critics and fans. In France, where his largest following existed, he was known as the ‘Black American Rimbaud”.

Maybe there is a simple explanation for this apparent amnesia… Kaufman only wrote his poetry down on paper when forced to, preferring instead to read it aloud in public, or to indulge in a little guerrilla poetry, posting notes on shop windows, criticising society and the police. He preferred to recite his works in coffee shops and on the streets, once reading to Ken Kesey before the two knew each other, and frightening the young Kesey with his mad appearance, but impressing him nonetheless. Consequently, little accurate biographical information is available for willing scholars, and Kaufman remains for most a mythical Beat figure.

“My ambition is to be completely forgotten,” he once told Raymond Foye, editor of his collection of poems, The Ancient Rain.

His poetry had many of the influences of the works of other Beats, primarily jazz and Buddhism. He also had drug problems and run-ins with the law. And his life consisted of stories the equal of those that made famous. For example, when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Kaufman took a vow of silence that he never broke until the end of the Vietnam war. When he spoke, he recited a poem he had written, entitled “All Those Ships that Never Sailed.” Although he did speak after this, he remained more or less in solitude until his death in 1986.


The following bio is drawn from an extremely wide selection of reading, containing a number of conflicting dates and stories. Although this is testament to the wonderfully elusive life and times of the poet, it also means: Take the info with a pinch of salt, friend.

Bob Kaufman was born in New Orleans in 1925, to a German Jewish father and a Martinican black Catholic mother. His grandmother was a practitioner of Voodoo, while he was active in both Catholic and Jewish traditions, and later he became a Buddhist. It could therefore be stated that he was influenced in one way or another by a variety of religions and had an unusual and diverse racial heritage.

To add to these experiences, Kaufman joined the Merchant Marines when only thirteen, survived four shipwrecks, and travelled the world, meeting Jack Kerouac. He read widely and studied literature at New York’s The New School, where he met William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. He led unions and spoke on the docks on both coast, and was friends with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus. In 1944 Kaufman married Ida Berrocal, in 1945 their daughter, Antoinette Victoria, was born, and in 1958, he married his second wife, Eileen Singe.

So when he moved to San Francisco in 1958, with Ginsberg and Burroughs, it would be fair to say that he had gained quite a bit of life experience. He met Ferlinghetti and Corso in San Francisco and helped develop the local literary Renaissance. Here he devoted himself to spontaneous oral poetry that flowed to the beat of jazz and bebop, the music that pulsed through the dives and haunts of the Beatnik North Beach area. He often took his son, Parker (named after Charlie Parker), into coffee houses and cafes, to “hold court”.

With Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly and William Margolis, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine in North Beach, in 1959 (or ’65 or ’75 depending on the used resource). The magazine today exists in name and memory through Beatitude Broadside and Beatitude Press. Coupled with this accomplishment, and the creativity of his poetic performances, Kaufman read at Harvard and was nominated for the English Guinness Award.

However, as with so many Beats, Kaufman found himself addicted to drugs, in financial strife, and in frequent trouble with the law. Then when arrested in New York City for walking on the grass of Washington Square park, he was arrested and forced to undergo electro-shock therapy. So, with the assassination of JFK, Kaufman withdrew into silence. After the end of the war in ‘Nam, he regained some creativity, but soon went into a sort of retirement until his death in 1986.

He published three volumes of poetry, Solitudes Crowded With LonelinessGolden Sardine, and Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. He published Golden Sardines, as well as a number of chapbooks in the mid-sixties, through City Lights. He also founded Beatitude and a variety of ‘Abomunist’ texts, including theAbomunist Manifesto.


Kaufman’s poetry blends high English with street language, the structure and rhythm of African-American speech, surrealism, and the beat and improvisational qualities of jazz. He would recite his poetry aloud in the Coffee Gallery or in diners or during traffic jams, rarely writing them down, except perhaps in loose note form on napkins. Many listeners state that his best performances were done alongside a jazz musician.

Naturally, for a poet so obsessed with the orality of his poems, Kaufman’s work reflects speaking patterns – and not just through reciting his poems aloud. The words that make up his poems are everyday words, and the rhythms reflect everyday speech, in keeping with the style of Walt Whitman, although imbuing it with contemporary streetwise language.

He frequently features in volumes of African-American and avant-garde poetry, but seems forgotten in the predominantly white world of Beat history. But I guess that although he embodied Beat ideals and poetics, he was extremely unique within the bohemian world and was so occupied with new poetic ideas that he is of greater interest to more specific schools of thought than the often overarching generality of Beat literature studies. Of course, more likely than that is the fact that he preferred to not write down his poetry. Conflicting sources would have us believe that Kaufman’s wives wrote his poems down on his behalf, and also that they encouraged him to write them down himself. Either way, published collections of his work only reveal a small section of the full body.

However, although it is mostly true that he was averse to writing down his poetry, a handwritten manuscript was found by incredible fortune in the burning rubble of a hotel fire, from which Kaufman had narrowly escaped. Many of these poems went into The Ancient Rain.

But back to the poems… And Kaufman is frequently compared to twentieth century surrealist painters for his appreciation and use of strong and madly juxtaposed imagery. His use of symbolism is incredibly vivid and sensual. His Whitman-esque use of lists to build images imbued with sound, colour and feeling also draws upon Pound and W.C. Williams in its minimalist economy and effective conveyance. ‘Jazz Chick’ is a great example of such devices, and is easily available to read online.

First Thought, Best Thought?

A discussion of the importance of editing.

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Happy Birthday Gary Snyder!

On the anniversary of Gary Snyder’s birthday…

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