The worlds like an endless


Game of Go.

Riprap, Gary Snyder

“All these people,” said Japhy, “they all got white-tiled toilets and take big dirty craps like bears in the mountains, but it’s all washed away to convenient supervised sewers and nobody thinks of crap any more or realizes their origin is shit and civet and scum of the sea. They spend all day washing their hands with creamy soaps they secretly wanta eat in the bathroom.”

The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac

Gary Snyder was and still is the original Dharma Bum. Jack Kerouac, with his ground-breaking novel On the Road, introduced the mythical bum or hobo (“beat”, yet holy) into the popular imagination of America and then the world, and sparked (apparently without wanting to) a cultural and literary revolution whose reverberations are still being felt even today. But it wasn’t until Snyder entered the picture that the Dharma was really added into the mix as a key ingredient, and Buddhism (with Japan as the primary source of insight) moved from the periphery to a place of prominence on the Beats’ literary canvas.

   Kerouac, as with many of the other Beat writers, was certainly not new to Buddhism before meeting Snyder (although he was somewhat naive about the discipline and sacredness surrounding it). As far back as late 1953, he began regularly studying Buddhist texts and sutras in the San Jose public library, from where, according to legend, he stole a copy of Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible which he later carried around in his duffle bag. During this time Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism was intense—he jotted down hundreds of pages of notes a month and, somewhat ambitiously for someone who was just a novice himself, starting turning them into a manuscript called Some of the Dharma in order to share the teachings by bringing them into the American idiom.[1]

   Yet it wasn’t until a couple of years later in the autumn of 1955, when Kerouac first met Snyder, that his relationship with Buddhism shifted from something brittle, bookish, and intellectual, towards a deeper, more fluid and personal understanding—the Dharma was to be found in, and experienced through, life and nature, as much, if not more, than by reading the sutras or debating Buddhist philosophy. Kerouac left the library or coffee house and entered the forest; and Gary was to become his teacher and trail guide. The two met through Allen Ginsberg, who was already living in Berkley when Jack returned from his travels in Mexico, and, for an American of that time, Snyder was very well educated in Buddhist philosophy and practice. He had been informally but sincerely studying and practicing zazen with his Reed College classmate Phil Whalen as far back as 1946, and was very much ahead of curve when it came to America’s “Buddha Boom”, which began gathering momentum in California in the mid-1950s and reached its heights in that mythical, flower-power decade that came to be known as “The Sixties”.

For Kerouac at least, Gary was more than someone with a great deal of knowledge of Eastern philosophical, literary, and religious traditions, especially Buddhism: he became the living embodiment of them. This can be clearly seen in his autobiographical novel The Dharma Bums, the inspiration for which was meeting Snyder and the surprisingly brief period of time (from the autumn of 1955 to May of ’56 when Snyder set sail for Japan) they spent hanging out together in the Bay Area, living in a cabin in Marin County countryside, and hiking the mountain trails of the High Sierras. At the start of the second chapter, Kerouac (using the pseudonym Japhy Ryder for Gary) straightforwardly acknowledges his awe of Snyder’s authenticity and proclaims his status, for him at least, as teacher and the true embodiment of the Dharma: “The little Saint Teresa bum was the first genuine Dharma Bum I had met, and the second one was the number one Dharma Bum of them all and it was he, Japhy Ryder, who coined the phrase.” Kerouac then proceeds to give Snyder’s credentials, not just as an Asia scholar but an authentic outdoorsman: “Japhy Ryder was a kid from eastern Oregon brought up in a log cabin deep in the woods with his father and mother and sister, from the beginning a woods boy, an axman, farmer, interested in animals and Indian lore… Finally he 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.”

The two become friends and later decided to embark upon a mountaineering trip to climb Matterhorn, the tallest peak in the Sierra Nevadas’ Sawtooth Ridge. As they traverse together the sparse and rocky terrain of the mountain, the shift in Jack’s understanding of Buddhism becomes visible and he begins, through Gary’s guidance, to see the Dharma in the raw nature that surrounds them. This is clearly illustrated in the following scene when they set up camp after a hard day’s hiking, which starts with the novel’s narrator Ray Smith (Kerouac):

So we unpacked our packs and laid things out and smoked and had a good time. Now the mountains were getting that pink tinge, I mean the rocks, they were just solid rock covered with the atoms of dust accumulated there since beginningless time. In fact I was afraid of those jagged monstrosities all around and over our heads.

“They’re so silent!” I said.

“Yeah man, you know to me a mountain is a Buddha. Think of the patience, hundreds of thousands of years just sitting there bein perfectly perfectly silent and like praying for all living creatures in that silence and just waiting for us to stop all our frettin and foolin.”

Although Kerouac chickens out at the last minute and hides in a cave—never making it to the very top of the summit as Gary does—the trip is still spiritually a success for him as it leads to an epiphany after galloping down the scree slope at the mountain’s top. The exchange between Japhy and Smith after they return to the bottom of the peak has a paradoxical, Zen kind of feel to it—almost like a novice monk giving the answer of a koan to his master: 

I took off my sneakers and poured out a couple of buckets of lava dust and said “Ah Japhy you taught me the final lesson of them all, you can’t fall off a mountain.”

“And that’s what they mean by the saying, When you get to the top of a mountain keep climbing, Smith.”

“Dammit that yodel of triumph of yours was the most beautiful thing I ever heard in my life. I wish I’d a had a tape recorder to take it down.”

“Those things aren’t made to be heard by the people below,” says Japhy dead serious.

“By God you’re right, all those sedentary bums sitting around on pillows hearing the cry of the triumphant mountain smasher, they don’t deserve it. But when I looked up and saw you running down that mountain I suddenly understood everything.”

As with many of his novels, The Dharma Bums is a representation (through a thin fictional veil) of Kerouac’s own life journey, both physical and spiritual, in search of some form of meaning or truth in the existential void. This driving force behind Jack’s writing was evident in his earliest works and was the centre of gravity of his best-known and seminal novel, On the Road. Sal Paradise’s (Kerouac) wild journeying around the North American continent with his sidekick Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) was more than simply an unending and out-of-control Dionysian road trip. It was also a listless search for a deeper spiritual truth to fill the existential holes in his life that his Catholic faith, which he remained true to his whole life, couldn’t entirely fill. Neal with his boundless crazed energy, his natural American masculinity, and fearless lust for life, gave the more scholarly and insecure Kerouac the confidence he needed for his journey—and a street smart guide. And so Jack followed:

…and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

In Bums a similar dynamic plays out between the two protagonists, but Ray looks to Japhy for a more profound and more spiritual answer than Sal wanted (or Dean could provide) while they were “on the road”. Publication dates can sometimes be misleading, especially with an autobiographical novelist like Kerouac, and in the case of On the Road (1957)and The Dharma Bums (1958), which came out only a year later, it would be easy to assume Jack transformed into a bhikkhu or Buddhist spiritual seeker overnight. In real time the gap was a lot longer, and actually over six years had passed from when Kerouac wrote the legendary draft of Road on one continuous, 120-foot scroll of teletype paper in a three week, amphetamine-fuelled writing binge in the April of 1951, to when he wrote Bums in late ’57. So by the time he met Snyder, Kerouac was a changed man. He had discovered Buddhism and in it—with its openness to other religions and non-judgmental approach to life itself—a new and practicable religious philosophy he could engage with without having to reject his Catholic roots. He was on the road again, but this time with Buddha as well as Christ for a guide.

Somewhat ironically, the novel which proclaimed the start of the “Rucksack Revolution” and had a major influence on the hippie counterculture of the Sixties, namely The Dharma Bums, would probably have never been written if it wasn’t for the paranoid and sinister McCarthyist fever which had gripped America for the decade prior to the book’s inception. Early in 1955, Snyder was awarded a one year scholarship from the First Zen Institute of America to study and train as a Zen Buddhist in Japan, but the State Department refused to issue him a passport (he had also been blacklisted from working for his prior employer the US Forest Service) because he was suspected of being a communist. Forced to stay in the US, his departure for Japan was delayed a year until a loosening of government policy occurred in 1956. It was during this period of downtime that the aforementioned meeting between Gary and Jack occurred; an event which would change both their lives, the course of Beat literature in general, and make a significant contribution to raising the awareness of Buddhism in the American popular consciousness. Although Kerouac’s Buddhism was less sophisticated and learned, he was able to do something Gary couldn’t with his poetry or essays—reach out to a general public which had previously had little knowledge of, or interest in, Eastern religious traditions. The publication of Road had made Jack famous overnight and turned him into a major countercultural figure and soon following in its wake, Bums quickly became a bestseller.

Yet that was a ways down the pipeline and when Snyder finally arrived in Japan for the first time in May of ’56 Road had still not even hit the shelves back home, let alone Bums which first really put him in the public eye as the model for character Japhy Ryder. Although he was supposed to work for the pioneering, eminent American Zen scholar and priest Ruth Fuller Sasaki, who had paid for his passage, he ended up becoming PA and English tutor to Miura Isshu, the esteemed abbot of Rinko-in, a sub-temple of Shokoku-ji in Kyoto. Snyder describes his new spiritual home in his essay Spring “Sesshin” at Shokoku-ji, which was published in the Chicago Review in 1958:

…behind the big wood gate and tile-topped crumbling old mud walls are a number of temples each with its own gate and walls, gardens, and acres of wild bamboo grove. In the center of the compound is the soaring double-gabled Lecture Hall, silent and airy, an enormous dragon painted on the high ceiling, his eye burning down on the very center of the cut-slate floor… and the gold-gilt Buddha sits on its high platform at the rear untroubled by drums and chanting.

Although not formally training as a Zen monk during this period, Snyder practiced hard as a lay Buddhist and participated in daily meditation sessions, sutra chanting, and koan study once his Japanese became good enough. Although this training at Shokoku-ji, and later at Daitoku-ji where Snyder became the first foreign disciple of the temple’s new abbot Oda Sesso, was all within the Rinzai Zen tradition, he never limited himself to one particular school of Buddhism.

During the 12 years he lived in Japan, most of which was spent studying and practicing Zen, he returned to California frequently for significant periods of time, and also travelled extensively, including a six month trip around India with his wife Joanne Kyger, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky, where he met the Dali Lama. These experiences exposed Gary not just to Asian Buddhist traditions outside of Japanese Zen, but also to a new and vibrant “American Buddhism” which was growing and maturing back home. Although remaining committed to and respectful of the Japanese Zen tradition, Gary also felt Buddhism could play a more political role in society and thought this was lacking in what he saw as the apolitical presentation of the religion in Japan. In his essay Buddhist Anarchism, which originally appeared in a 1961 journal put out by City Lights, Snyder raises this issue and criticizes the religion for, in his view, ignoring the societal/political context in which it exists:

Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors, considering fear-and-desire to be given facts of the human condition. Consequently the major concern of Buddhist philosophy is epistemology and “psychology” with no attention paid to historical or sociological problems.

Although less loud and overt about it than many of his literary peers, such as Allen Ginsberg, Snyder was in his earlier years a lot more of a political animal than he appeared or could be easily detected in his poetry. His parents were affiliated with the radical, revolutionary labour union the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), or Wobblies as they were popularly known, as was poet and Asia scholar Kenneth Rexroth, who was a well-known anarchist and acted as a kind of mentor to Snyder when he arrived in the Bay Area. This is clearly seen in the aforementioned essay, where Gary advocates for a more politically active, or even revolutionary, role for the Buddhist community: “Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of ‘all beings.’ This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world…. ‘Forming the new society within the shell of the old’ — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago.” He also sees many of the intrinsic qualities of living and practicing as a Buddhist as having the potential to radically transform the geopolitical and ideological structure of global society:

The joyous and voluntary poverty of Buddhism becomes a positive force. The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications. The practice of meditation, for which one needs only “the ground beneath one’s feet,” wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by the mass media and supermarket universities. The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim and repress — and points the way to a kind of community which would amaze “moralists” and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers.

Snyder sees this function of Buddhism as an agent for social change as being more likely to develop through a blending of Eastern and Western philosophy and societal systems: “The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila).”

Almost four decades later, in 1998, in an interview with Taylor Mignon for the Japanese literary journal Blue Beat Jacket, Gary echoes this notion about the possibilities to be found in the intersection of East and West in his comments about the development of Buddhism in America:

…the existence of something like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship is a reflection of American culture in which many people feel that spiritual practice and a politics of conscience, of social engagement go together. And we call that Engaged Buddhism. It’s not absent from Japan, there are Engaged Buddhists in Japan—there’s very strong anti-nuclear activist Buddhists, racial and anti-war Buddhists… So it’s not unique to America, but it’s very easy to predict it would arise in America, because American culture… being as all Occidental cultures are post-Enlightenment, heirs to the French revolution, and to the Enlightenment, that we should play a role in society. As activists. In one way or another. So those are indications of what might happen in American Buddhism.

He also talks in the interview about his eclectic and inclusive approach to the religion and reminds us that almost half a century after meeting Jack Kerouac, there is still plenty of the spirit of the young Japhy Ryder in his timeless soul:

And almost all Buddhists are syncretic. I don’t consider myself a Zen Buddhist. I’m a Buddhist. And I value what we all practice. I value Jodo-shin, I travelled in India, I travelled in Sri Lanka, I have sat in many different kinds of meditation halls, and I’ve enjoyed many Dharma discourses from many traditions. I’m a Dharma bum, I love it all.

So the Beat goes on Gary… Out from the deep drums of the temple Zendo and the shrill chanting of protesters in the streets… Upwards, to the weary mountain men clomping slowly up lonely, lofty peaks… Towards the clouds beyond.

[1] The book never saw the light of day in Jack’s lifetime, but was published posthumously in 1999—three decades after his tragic death from alcoholism at age 47.