Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

It does not matter where you are if you are in the nothingness of Buddha land.  Nine erstwhile Dharma Bums gathered at a railway yard down on 15th Street to sip saki and huddle around the once-bright flames of their misspent youth.  They spoke quietly, often in haiku verse:

Dick Arms:   Ommmmmmmmm.....  Ommmmmmmmm....  [Editor's note:  Last night, Prof. Arms had hopped the Midnight Ghost from Mazatlan and was apparently still under the influence of unspecified psychoactive alkaloids.] 

Charlie:  He can write.  Much of his writing strikes me as writing by narcissistic, arrogant youth.  It is all contradictions, e.g., asceticism vs sex and drugs.  The theme:  we are so smart, and we are the first to figure this out, and only we can tell you about it.  C.

Mike:  I cannot recommend this book to others.  The hitchhiking and hopping freights and the strong body climbing "the Materhorn was an interesting look at our lost youth, but as an introduction to Buddhism, it is superficial.  I can recall the comment from when we read On The Road [Aug 1998; #204 on The List] that "Typing ain't writing" but I did not realize we had Truman Capote to thank for that.  What can I say?  It is a C book but I partook of enough wild Pacific cedar-board cooked salmon to raise my grade to B-

Ken:  I tend to agree with the two previous comments.  I enjoyed his descriptions of backpacking [rucksacking] and hiking.  I have no interest in his religious experiences.  I found much of his dialog confusing.  C+

Bob WC  - I thought it was sophomoric.  Trying to be pretentious, but failing.  Technically, he is good, can write well at times.

Dick J:  I agree.  Parts were wonderful, and other parts I wanted to kill him.  I will not pass this book on to my nephew in Utah.  B-

Ron Bousek:  The question occurred to me:  How did this book get published?  It would not be published today.  This was a period piece, an introduction to Buddhist terminology, but it was different for its time.  The literary style is interesting, sophomoric.  Some parts were good, some parts were poetic, some parts were not good.  Typing rather than writing!  Read it to understand what literature was like in the 50s, and it is of interest for the mid-1950s.  I give it a B-

Tom G:  From time to time, we read literature about the Big Questions of Life:  Why are we here?  Where did we come from?  After some attempts to answer such questions, most intelligent beings move on to those parts of Life which are answerable, pragmatic.  I give it a C.  He had the ability to write.

Keith:  I've seen the original manuscript of On the Road - it is so scurrilous, so full of profanities, that there is no comparison to the published work.  [offers Raspberry]  I agree, he is a good writer.  The last few chapters put me in mind of Edward Abbey.  Grade: C.  I offer this haiku revu of the 5-7-5 variety for yu:

         Buddha say, "Pray, Ray!"
      Dharma Bum... "Zen, Zen" - and then
         Buddha Booms... AMEN !!

[Editor's note:  Poet Laureate offers:  Ode to Japhy on his web page here]

 Bob S:  Why I chose this book:  I am a student of history and literary style.  This was a moment in Time when cultural shifts in America were captured by an eye-witness to it.  I tried to look at:  What is Literature?  Or is this just typing?  I take away:  in this, there are elements of both.  I liked "My Old Man and the Sea" which was a daily journal, and I liked The Song of the Sirens that connected to the author's love of sailing and the sea.  I'm connected to Buddhism.  I went through the 60s, I see how it has evolved over time, and still evolving today.  We are attracted to the literature of those cultures we have an affinity for.  I found this book interesting from a historical viewpoint.  It was fun to see that it was no big deal, just "out there" writing.  It made a connection to the culture.  For better or for worse, it was well done and had its moments of illumination.  I grade everything as A or A-, and this is A-.

and from well outside the Nirvana of the night:

Unlike last year at this time when I was holed up near Bloody Marsh on St. Simons Island without shoes, this year I am still without shoes, but staring out over the sound watching the countless Buddhas hiding in the trees along Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island. Days have tumbled on days, I have been in my shorts, haven't combed my hair, haven't shaved much, have consorted only with dogs and cats and an occasional seagull, I have been living the happy life of childhood again. Taking time to read The Dharma Bums this past week seemed to interfere with my quest for nirvana and my search for a Yab-Yum partner.

Kerouac appeared to me to use two different narrative styles as Ray Smith recounted the year he spent on his "quest for Truth." I enjoyed the more pastoral segments related to his time in North Carolina and Washington than I did reading about his time doping and boozing in California. At times I got the impression that he was taking a tongue-in-cheek approach to his descriptions of his spiritual quest as he wrestled with Buddhism. For me, Kerouac's descriptions of nature are the most powerful and in my opinion, they reflect his talent as a writer much more than the philosophical aspects of the novel. I tend to believe the "philosophical final statement" he included in an autobiographical sketch in 1958 was already in play in The Dharma Bums: I DON'T KNOW. I DON'T CARE. AND IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE."  B+
     Regards, Jack

Monday, November 13, 2017

Dharma Bums - Study Guide

Generally Chapter 21 is a description by Kerouac's enlightenment.

On page 107 of Dharma Bums I found one term I was not familiar with, the word is Dhyana.
So I looked it up and here is a description of the Buddhist concept that is represented by the word Dhyana.

Summarized as simply as I can, Dhyana describes a set of practices aimed at linking insight to awareness through meditation with the goal of liberating oneself from the cycle/wheel of birth and death (karma) by liberating one's thinking from desire oriented thinking.

Unfortunately, this concept lies at the core of Buddhism and we could spend a lot of time talking about it.  My review of the Wikipedia summary informs me that this topic has been addressed for the last 2400 years with differing opinions that have led to different schools of thought. 

On page 108 is the term Triple Vehicle which refers to the three main schools of Buddhism, the Theravada or Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Tantric Schools.  Geographically speaking Tantric is Tibetan Plateau (lots of chanting meditation), Hiniyana is southeast Asian and Sri Lanka (lots of chanting on a mantra), and Mahayana is China and Japan (lots of silent meditation to gain insight).  Zen is a sub-set of Mahayana. Kerouac was practicing Zen.     For a more detailed explanation, check the term  at
Then on page 110 is Tathagata Seat of Purity.  This is a reference to the Buddha.  I suggest looking this one up on Wikipedia.  it expresses what Keroauc was saying.  The state of mind in which all form is emptiness and emptiness contains all form.  According to most people no one in physical form except the Buddha has ever achieved this perfect state of mind. the Wikipedia link is

Then on page 111 Kerouac refers to himself as "Bhikku Blank Rat".  This is a very personal reference, but a Bhikku is an ordained Buddhist Monk.  So it appears that Kerouac is giving himself a Buddhist name at the same time he is professing his ordination into Buddhism. Unfortunately, ordination can not be accomplished voluntarily; one must join a sangha or Buddhist monastery or school, like Gary Snyder did when he went to Japan. As far as I know Keerouac never took this step.

Chapter 21 is Kerouac's verbalization of his enlightenment experience as he sat in the North Carolina woods.  

The question is, Was Kerouac's associative style of writing related to his enlightenment?

Was it a result of the insight and clarity of description that is associated with an uncluttered mind or is it a part of his natural gift as an observer or his ability to write?  I think all three elements combined to help him create his style of writing, but you decide.

Another question is, If Kerouac was enlightened, why did he continue to drink?  He died of alcoholism in 1969 at the age of 47.  

For insight into that one probably needs to do more research into his life and psychic makeup.  A biography would help.  I have read 
Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, And America

Dennis Mcnally 
and I am still not clear on that.