The Dharma Bums.
March 19, 2009
Photo by (Waltzing) Mathilda Lorre
I wrote earlier about my love for/obsession with Kerouac and briefly mentioned my re-reading of The Dharma Bums; prompted by the 50th Anniversary edition of the book. (Yes, I bought it when it came out…back in September. Six months is about right for the amount of time that new books ferment on my shelf since there is always a backlog of books to be read.)
This book was perhaps the most important book of my adolescence. I remember reading this the summer after I graduated from high school and feeling like it was speaking specifically to me. I grew up in a Buddhist household; as a kid I remember going to UU Sunday School in a shed (literally) and coloring in pictures of the Buddha. One of my favorite books as a kid was a picture book of Prince Siddhartha. Another favorite was The Mountains of Tibet, a kids’ story about reincarnation. So, The Dharma Bums was not an introduction to Buddhism so much as a real “adult” connection to it as a way of life. Certain books come along at just the right point in our lives, and upon re-reading this now at 27, I realize that 17 was exactly the right age for my first encounter with The ‘Bums.
Photo by DanAllison
Thought dear ol’ Jack has plenty of beautiful little spiritual nuggets, the feeling of it is so adolescent than I wonder if I could connect with this at all were it my first reading. Kerouac writes about Buddhism with a convert’s zeal, a zealousness that he himself sees – via the persona of Japhy Ryder – will not last given his continued reverence for the Catholicism of his childhood and his original saint, his brother Gerard.
Reading this now, I feel more and more sympathy and less and less tolerance for Japhy Ryder – who continually commits the sin of self-righteousness. At one point, Japhy doesn’t even let Ray speak, assuming that he himself is more enlightened and automatically knows whatever it is that Ray might have to say. Even more than Ray’s passive misogyny, Japhy views women with less reverence than trees on the path to Buddha-hood. Japhy Ryder will extoll the Buddha-nature of a mountain and proclaim that a woman should only be used for a man’s sexual explorations (via “yabyum”) because women can not become Bodhisattvas. (And since they all “know” this, clearly this arrangement suits them.) A typically wrong-headed opinion. Any woman understands that she, in her embodiment of the “life force” is already one with the “Buddha-nature” of the universe.
Other than Ray’s total idolization of Japhy, the other aspect that strikes me as completely adolescent is the need to experience Buddhism by completely checking out of life. While there is plenty to be said for solitary meditation and removing one’s self from the endless cycle of consuming to work and working to consume, it’s naïve to think that “ordinary” life can’t be holy. It’s easy to devote yourself to meditation being totally devoid of responsibility – much more challenging to be a Bodhisattva of the modern world bringing your Buddha-nature to work. If all the saints checked out, then where would the world be – suffering the endless samsara of the 21st century with no one to point us toward peace.
Not only do I believe that we need our holy “bums” in daily life for the common good, but I don’t believe that it’s totally possible to achieve enlightenment in a vacuum. Buddha himself eventually returned from under the Bodhi tree. I truly believe, as Kerouac states, that “Buddhism is getting to know as many people as possible.” Not only does a life of hermitude lead to the mistake of righteousness, but it’s selfish to insist on peace gained by forsaking the holiness of every day life. Truly, our karma is worked out through other people – we can not erase the pains of our lifetimes or attain the Bodhisattva goal of helping all creatures reach enlightenment by checking out of human interaction in the long-term.
Still, the book is magical to me and Kerouac’s earnestness brings home my own painful earnestness at seventeen. Even if that self embarrasses me a bit by how self-important she was, I need to cherish her as part of who I’ve been on this crazy journey called life. Kerouac’s words have guided me on that journey more than any other writer, and for that, I feel like while I may out-grow him, his work will always be a touchstone for me.
Here, this, is It. The world as it is, is Heaven. I’m looking for Heaven outside what there is, it’s only this poor pitiful world that’s Heaven. Ah, if I could realize, if I could forget myself and devote my meditations to the freeing, the awakening, and the blessedness of all living creatures everywhere I’d realize that what there is, is ecstasy.