Dharma Bums Essay, Research Paper
American history has perpetually been concerned with and based on the idea of seeking personal spirituality and happiness. American society is perceived as a large melting pot of outlets for achieving spirituality and accessing God. However, this was not always the case. One’s spiritual needs where not always satisfied and as a result, religious norms did not apply to every American. In Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, he writes about the struggle to find spirituality in Western religions in the 1950’s. In response, he looks Eastwards to the Chinese-based religion of Buddhism. The story is told through the protagonist, Ray Smith’s journey to find spirituality and truth. Ray explains that he had not yet “heard anything about ‘Dharma Bums’ although at this time [he] was a perfect Dharma Bum [him]self”(5). Ray goes on define the Dharma Bum as “a religious wanderer”(5) or more specifically a Buddhist wanderer. Explaining about his beliefs, Ray says that “[he] really believed in the reality of charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquillity and wisdom and ecstasy, and [he] believed that [he] was an oldtime Bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world in order to turn the wheel of the True Meaning, or Dharma, and gain merit for [him]self as a future Buddha (Awakener) and as a future Hero in Paradise” (5). This is the first time that Ray discusses some of the tenants of Buddhism and his outlook on life. One can see that Ray feels like a “wanderer”, one who does not have a role in American society and can not find security in “modern” or American religious practices. As a result, he turns to Buddhism in his quest to find the “True Meaning”. Along his path to “enlightenment”, Ray Smith rides the train, or as he calls it “the Midnight Ghost”, to San Francisco, and here, he encounters and befriends Japhy Ryder. Japhy Ryder was 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” (9). Japhy, similar to Ray considers himself a wanderer and can not relate to middle-class main stream society. Ranting about conventional society Japhy complains that “all these people, 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 that their origin is shit and civet and scum of the sea”(39). Japhy turns to Buddhism as a defense mechanism to what he considers a society removed from nature and its origins. It is with Japhy that Ray begins to study Zen Buddhism which essentially ascribes to the belief that “revelation was a personal thing”(15). One of the first forms of Zen Buddhism that Japhy Ryder turns Ray onto is the art of mountain climbing. Japhy gets his love for Buddhism from the study of his Buddhist hero, Han Shan. Ray explains that Han Shan was Japhy’s hero because similar to Japhy, “he was a poet, a mountain man, a Buddhist dedicated to the principle of meditation on the essence of all things .and he was a man of solitude who could take off by himself and live purely and true to himself”(22). Japhy related most strongly with Han Shan’s later idea of going off by oneself to find solitude. This is why Japhy, similar to Han Shan, takes a serious liking to mountain climbing. Mountain climbing to Japhy is a form of ritual practice. Japhy explains that “to [him] a mountain is a Buddha. Think of the patience, hundreds of thousands of years just sittin there bein perfectly perfectly silent and like praying for all living creatures in that silence and just waitin for us to stop all our frettin and foolin”(67). Together Ray and Japhy climb “Mattahorn.” It is on this journey that the reader is introduced into Japhy’s expression of his Buddhism. One of Japhy’s expressions is poetry. Similar to his hero, Han Shan, Japhy believes that he gets inspiration from the mountain. ” Walking in this country”, he explains, ” you could understand the perfect gems of haikus the Oriental poets had written, never getting drunk in the mountains”(59). Japhy explains that apart of spiritual inspiration comes from nature. While in the mountains, he explains that similar to his Buddhist gurus, alcohol was not a necessity in order to be inspired. Another lesson that Japhy offers is that “the secret of climbing is like Zen. Don’t think. Just dance along. It’s the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on the flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen”(64-65). Essentially, this is Japhy’s crash course on his Buddhist philosophy. Japhy believes that life is about experience and each experience should be done with excitement. One should not think or allow outside criticism, rather one should use his or her own judgement. If one approaches life, according to Japhy, like climbing a mountain, one will find himself in new and exciting places in life. Another important lesson of the Buddhist teachings is charity. Two references have already been made to the importance of charity to the Buddhist. Ray explains on his trip to San Francisco that he is reminded of charity in the ” Diamond Sutra that says ‘Practice charity, without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word’”(5). There is further reference to the importance of charity on the mountain. In reference to the meal that Japhy prepares for the two, Ray reflects that “there was another aspect of Japhy that amazed [him]: his tremendous and tender sense of charity. He was always giving things, always practicing what the Buddhists call the Paramita of Dana, the perfection of Charity. As previously described, charity is so important to the Buddhist that it can not even be limited to the word “charity”. Buddhism is extremely concerned with the notion of putting limits on things. It is for this reason that it trivializes the value of word compared to action. Similarly, Ray is reminded when he watches Japhy reach the top of the mountain that “when you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing” (83-84). This Zen teaching is so relevant to Ray because he finally realizing through his experience on the mountain that one can truly do great things if one pushes oneself. This is also the reason that Japhy is so obsessed with mountain climbing. Only on top of a mountain, away and beyond the level of the rest of the world can one experience greatness. Ray realizes that there is something amazingly spiritual about being above the rest of the world that the average man would not understand. Ray, in an expression of feeling spiritual altitude says, “all those sedantary bums sitting around on pillows hearing the cry of the triumphant mountain smasher, they don’t deserve it”(86).
Another form of Zen practice, according to Ray and Japhy, is the art of self-indulgence. Self indulgence is another way of resisting conventional standards put on society. For this reason, Ray and Japhy use alcohol, drugs and sex as a form of personal expression. One of Ray’s first Buddhist rituals pertaining to sex was “yabyum.” According to Japhy, Yabyum was a ritual practice that “they do in the temples of Tibet. It’s a holy ceremony, in which people pray and recite Om Mani Pahdme Hum, which means Amen the Thunderbolt in the Dark Void” (29). This Buddhist ritual is clearly a mating ritual in which the “thunderbolt” symbolizes the man and the “dark void” symbolizes the woman.” It is at this point that Japhy tells Ray to “take his clothes off and join in”(29). Ray has problems with sex rituals because he feels that “lust was the direct cause of birth, which was the direct cause of suffering and death.” However, according to Japhy, sex and lust are forms of expression “which had its tradition al roots in the yabyum ceremony of Tibetan Buddhism, so everything was fine”(31). Sex was a way for Japhy, through Buddhist ritual, to express his disdain for “social systems that put down sex.” After Ray’s experience with Japhy on the mountain, Ray begins to go out on his own to formulate his own beliefs and experiences with Zen Buddhism. Ray builds on Japhy’s philosophy to form his own sense of the idea of simplicity. One of the first distinctions Ray makes from his own philosophy from that of Japhy is that he is willing to accept others whether or not they lived the life of the Buddhist. Ray, thinking about Japhy’s philosophy wonders “why is [Japhy] so mad about white tiled sinks and ‘kitchen machinery’ he calls it? People have good hearts whether or not they live like Dharma Bums. Compassion is the heart of Buddhism” (132). One can see Ray personalizing and expanding on Japhy’s idea of Buddhism. Ray’s heart is much more accepting of others. This in turn makes Ray a much more complete person and more like the Buddha. Ray finds a sense of simplicity in the woods. Ray would go out into the woods and meditate. Here, he found a connection with himself through nature and essentially becomess an expert in the ways of the Buddhist. Ray builds an understanding of his relationship with the Earth. He realizes that while he is meditating in the woods he is both “empty and awake, [and] that he knew [he] was empty, awake, and that there’s no difference between [him] and anything else. It means that he became a Buddha”(145). Ray had reached the epitome of the Zen Buddhist. “He was very rich now, a super myriad trillionaire in Samapatti transcendental graces, because of good humble karma.” (149). According to the philosophy of the Buddhist, simplicity is one of the highest virtues. Ray Smith achieves enlightenment because he is able to take the teachings of Japhy and turn them into his own personal understanding of the Buddha. Ray learns to separate himself from society. What differs from Ray and Japhy is that Ray has compassion in his heart for all of nature and all of mankind. Only when one has compassion for all one’s surroundings is it possible to remove oneself from society and look introspectively. Ray does accomplish this which allows him to achieve ultimate enlightenment. It is at this point that Ray suddenly “realized that [he] was truly alone and had nothing to do but feed [him]self and rest and amuse [him]self, and nobody could criticize”(235).