Buddhism And The Poetry Of Jack Kerouac

Essay, Research Paper

Buddhism and the Poetry of Jack Kerouac

For we all go back

where we came from,

God s Lit Brain,

his Transcendent Eye

of Wisdom

And there s your bloody circle

called Samsara

by the ignorant

Buddhists, who will

still be funny Masters

up there, bless em.

Jack Kerouac

-from Heaven

Jack Kerouac spent his creative years writing in a prosperous post world war II America. He was in many ways a very patriotic person who had no problem making known his love for his country , particularly within his literature. It was, quite literally, America that he was in love with. Taking cues from writers such as Whitman, he embraced the American landscape as a field for spiritual cultivation. Kerouac was indeed a writer with spiritual preoccupations. He saw himself as partaking in a lifelong journey through the America that was waiting to reveal itself and, consequently, himself. Also, of course, considering himself a serious writer, he would chronicle this spiritual expedition throughout a series of novels that together would be called The Duluoz Legend. This was the name Kerouac had intended the novels to take on when he would assemble them in chronological order before he died. Unfortunately he died earlier than he expected and was unable to formally assemble them. However, the legend remains.

Kerouac undoubtedly made his mark on the literary world with his prose. And his prose proves itself to be a very good example of his writing as spiritual commentary. Kerouac, while wandering the country in freight cars and the backs of pick-up trucks, saw himself as a modern day sage or bodhisatva, discovering the essence of the void and using his literature as a record of these discoveries. His body of work is a wonderful example of integrating Buddhism into the daily life and thought of a man living in a western culture. Kerouac could not help but find religion in every aspect of his waking day. Every thing or person he encountered or interacted with was a part of the essence of isness.

Within the Kerouacian canon there is, besides his prose, another shining example of Kerouac s literary translation of the spirituality of living. Throughout his career Kerouac wrote several volumes of poetry, all of which deal with using the poetic medium to express the profound and concentrated spiritual composition of everything. Much of this poetry deals specifically with Buddhism. Kerouac was a devoted student of the Buddhist way and would often impress his peers with his knowledge of the Sutras and other Buddhist texts and ideas. This is particularly interesting when it is considered that these peers were other students of Buddhism such as Gary Snyder or even Philip Whalen, who is an ordained Zen monk. In fact, Kerouac was so immersed in Buddhist thought that in 1956 he completed the manuscript to what would become a 420 page book titled Some Of The Dharma, which was a collection of notes and thoughts on various ideas taken from the Sutras. Included also were numerous poems and prose poems, which were attempts to transliterate the ancient wisdom of Buddhism into a modern context, applicable to the western intellectual and spiritual journeyman. Some of the Dharma was to be a study guide for the beginning practice of Kerouac s good friend and companion Allen Ginsberg.

While Kerouac was writing what was perhaps his best and certainly one of his most spiritually driven novels, Desolation Angels, he was also writing a poem to accompany the novel which was titled Desolation Blues. Although written after Kerouac was no longer up on Desolation Peak serving as a fire lookout in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, it was a reflection upon the many contemplations provoked by the solitude and serenity of the time he spent alone atop the mountain. From the opening line he has recognized an inherently Buddhist view of the world through his own eyes.

I stand on my head on Desolation Peak

And see that the world is hanging

Into an ocean of endless space

The mountains dripping rock by rock

Like bubbles in the void

Here Kerouac offers imagery of a world contrived and almost surreal in it s nature. It is as though he is recognizing the true nature of the mountain and the world, buried beneath it s own jutting out into a false existence. Later in the poem he ties this more directly into his own, and consequently, our own existence.

We re hanging into the abyss

of blue-

In it is nothing but innumerable

and endless worlds

More numerous even (& the number

of beings!)

Than all the rocks that cracked

And became little rocks

At this point in the poem it becomes clear that Kerouac begins to utilize the same form of writing that he used in many of his books. He fell into the spontaneous bop prosody that was very much influenced by Buddhism in the same way that many Jazz musicians were influenced by Buddhism. When Kerouac would write or a soloist would solo (because Kerouac saw much of his writing as a literary solo) something very Buddhist would take over. By becoming linked intrinsically with the subject at hand, one would stop being a person writing or playing, rather one would become the action itself. Kerouac would use this in a later section of the poem in a masterful way.

And if you don t like the tone

of my poems

You can go jump in the lake.

I have been empowered

to lay my hand

On your shoulder

and remind you

That you are utterly free,

Free as empty space.

You don t have to be famous,

don t have to be perfect,

Don t have to work,

don t have to marry,

Don t have to carry burdens,

don t have to gnaw and kneel,

the taste

of rain

Why kneel?

Don t even have to sit,


Like an endless rock camp

go ahead & blow,

Explode & go,

I wont say nothin,

neither this rock,

And my outhouse doesnt care,

And I got no body

Here Kerouac relies on intuition to execute a Zen rambling, confusing consciousness into an unconfused state of awareness of our confused human condition. Kerouac continued on with this tradition of the contemplation of the essence of existence fused with a whirling word play. Ultimately, his long-term poetic goal was to paint a confused, random and chaotic literary melange. After reading his works, this would present itself as a poetic interpretation of the nature of the world. Many of the choruses in his book Mexico City Blues-the book consists of 242 separate choruses, which are individual poems-concern themselves with this technique.

106th Chorus

Man is nowhere anyway

Because nowhere is here

And I am here, to testify.

Nowhere is

what nowhere was

I know nowhere

More anywhere

Than this here

Particular everywhere

When I fell thru the eye of the needle

And became a tumbling torso

In the Univers-O,

Brother, let me

tell you,

By this time, around 1958-59, Kerouac felt very comfortable with his ability to manipulate the English language to his own poetic end. He was also very comfortable with his understanding of Buddhist thought. He considered himself to have a working knowledge of Buddhism. This was of the utmost importance to him, as he considered it necessary to not only have memorized many ideas and names, but to also be able to apply those notions to one s own environment and circumstances. He continued on in this fashion throughout Mexico City Blues.

157th Chorus

Bring on the single teaching,

It s all indeed in Love;

Love not of Loved Object

Cause no Object exists,

Love of Objectlessness,

When nothing exists

Save yourself and your not-self

Hung in a moon

Of perfect O canopy

Sorrowing Starborrowing

Happiness Parade

Here Kerouac makes reference to the notion of compassion or, Love. Compassion (Ahimsa in Sanskrit) is a prevalent concept in Buddhism. As for the object of this love, Kerouac saw the Buddhist concept of essential selflessness and the subsequent objectlessness of everything as a wonderful opportunity to tie the proverbial tongue with a spiritual excersize in poetry.

158th Chorus

It wont happen is what

it is-

It ll lose touch-

It was the same in past


It will be with the bees


the feeling of in and out

your feeling of being alive

is the feeling of in & out

your feeling of being dead

u n a l i v e

When it comes you wont

sneeze no more, Gesundheit.

It wont happen, is what



it aint happenin now

Smile & think deeply

Kerouac makes an attempt here at explaining another Buddhist concept known as Samsara. Samsara is the beginningless cycle of birth and rebirth within which ignorant beings are caught. Kerouac explains this as your feeling of being alive/is the feeling of in & out. The cyclic nature of this phenomenon is alluded to in the following two lines, your feeling of being dead/u n a l i v e. The juxtaposition of dead and unalive within the context of the rest of the poem allows the reader to see them not as in opposition to one another, but rather as complementary opposites that exist by virtue of the other s existence. Again, with only a small amount of analysis by the reader, Kerouac is able to confuse the enlightenment right out of one, piece by poetic piece.

Kerouac, through individual poems would often try to explain individual Buddhist concepts as he saw them relating to modern America. He also at times would write a poem from the perspective of trying to abandon any idea that was too particular and embark upon an attempt to paint a broader image of the big picture, or so to speak. One such attempt is made in Mexico City Blues.

129th Chorus

We ve all been sent

On a mission

To conquer the desert

So that the Shrouded


Behind us

Makes tracks in the dust

that don t exist,

He ll, or We ll

All end in Hell

All end in Heaven

For sure-

Unless my guess is wrong,

We are all in for it

And our time

Is Life,

The Penalty,


The Reward

To the Victor

Then Goes.

The Victor is Not Self

Emphasis here is placed upon the notion of selflessness again and the necessary realization of this to become enlightened-a Victor -and to receive the reward of Heaven, or Nirvana. Another Buddhist concept is introduced here by Kerouac, that of the bodhisatva. Kerouac spent much of his time with Buddhism studying a particular type, this was Mahayana Buddhism. Within this particular school a great deal of emphasis is placed upon the bodhisatva. The bodhistava is an enlightened individual who chooses to remain in this world, being reborn repeatedly as a human in order to help others achieve the same enlightenment. Kerouac saw himself in this light and felt as though his poetry and prose would be a raft he could leave behind for others to use in their journey to the farther shore. In writing about being sent on a mission to conquer the desert/So that the Shrouded/Traveller/Behind us/Makes tracks in the dust/that don t exist, he is referring to himself and others as having an obligation to conquer the mysteries of this world in order to help others along the path to Nirvana.

Finally, Kerouac broke from his attempts to incorporate Buddhist thought into his western life and literature and simply adopted Buddhist literary technique. He made several attempts at Haiku throughout his career sporadically, although he dropped the standard syllabic pattern of 5-7-5. He explained that the great difference in writing with letters as in English, as opposed to characters as in Japanese called for this strict adherence to be dropped. In being that Haiku is Japanese in origin, it is reflected in Kerouac s attempts that he was trying to see poetry from a Zen perspective. A few such attempts are as follows.

Dusk: the bird on the fence

a contemporary

of mine

Enlightenment is: do what

you want

eat what there is

The moon,

the falling star-

Look elsewhere

Jack Kerouac was a writer with spiritual preoccupations. He allowed religion to be what it is, an integral part of everything one does, including writing. Just as a Buddhist, Jack saw life as a miracle. This was a miracle, though, that could be understood. However, from the perspective of a westerner it is believed that only God can understand miracles. Kerouac, seeing things from the perspective of the innumerable diamond essences would have no problem with this argument. He would then, through his poetry and prose, explain us all to be God. He would open his Buddhist eyes to the world and record his meditations. Life was a miracle as well as art to Kerouac. Buddhism showed this to Kerouac, and Kerouac showed this to the western world.



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