The photograph propped in my window shows a man seated next to his mother, cat on her lap. His elbow leans on the back of her chair, his chin propped against his hand, half his face in shadow, the other half pensive. Or perhaps I read pensive into it: knowing he’s Jack Kerouac, knowing that at this point in his life he’s nearly written out, exhausted at forty-four from a prolific and turbulent writing career. Or maybe the melancholy is in my own disposition, preparing to write about a man so close to my own spirit, so disturbing to my own heart. Then again perhaps the mood is in the atmosphere of this late winter afternoon. Outside, the brown leaves of the oaks hang motionless on their branches. Time of day, season and mood put me in mind of the closing passage of On the Road:
…the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty . . . I think of Dean Moriarty.
Moriarty (Neal Cassady in the flesh) was to Kerouac as Kerouac, I reflect, is to me: traveling companion, literary muse, and spiritual guide. Kerouac’s was a mind that reflected and expressed the ten thousand things he met on the road: junkies, harvest hands, truck drivers, waitresses, salesmen, hobos, drunks, “a moody whitefaced cow in the sage.”
In a winter frame of mind, then, I think of Jack Kerouac . . . I think of Jack Kerouac.
He died in 1969, just three years after the photograph in my window was taken. It was also the year I first read him. At the time I hardly noticed his passing, preoccupied as I was hitchhiking my own routes, pursuing the dharma in my own fashion. On the Road was a signpost, The Dharma Bums a hint scrawled on a boxcar.
Without such roadmarks, however, finding my own way would have been even more solitary than it was. Just out of college, facing the Vietnam War on one horizon and the nine-to-five routine on the other, I welcomed the example of one who’d followed the crooked bent of his own genius at any cost. It was a crooked course indeed, and Kerouac has instructed me as much by negative example as by positive. Inspired as I was by his dedication to awareness and art, I was also sobered by his self-destructive history with alcohol and drugs.
In particular, Kerouac’s early explorations of the dharma were a light on the path, for me as well as for many of my peers of the ‘60s, as we wandered onto the Buddha Way. In 1956, influenced by Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, Kerouac read Dwight Goddard’s The Buddhist Bible, a collection of sutras in translation. He shared his discovery with Allen Ginsberg, crooning to him, in Frank Sinatra-style, the Three Refuges:
Buddham Sarranam Gochami,
Dhammam Sarranam Gochami,
Sangham Sarranam Gochami.
In the works (The Dharma Bums, Some of the Dharma, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, San Francisco Blues, Mexico City Blues, Satori in Paris) that followed Kerouac’s reading of the sutras, he cast Buddhism into the terms of his time and, in particular, into the thinking of the beat generation. If anyone ranks as our American Dharma ancestor, it’s him.
Now it’s 1997, forty years after the publication of On the Road, the novel that first brought Kerouac to the public eye. With the anniversary there’s been a renewal of interest in him and the beats in general. I recently took in an exhibit of “Beat Culture in a New America” at the DeYoung Museum of Art in San Francisco. Here were the photographs: a crew of by-now legendary poets lined up in front of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore; Allen Ginsberg pointing to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building that inspired his generation-defining poem “Howl”; William Burroughs flopped out in his underwear on a hot night in Tangiers; Kerouac and Neal Cassady, traveling companions of On the Road and Visions of Cody, arms around each other’s shoulders. Here were the videos: Kerouac, accompanied by jazz musician Steve Allen, reading from On the Road; “Pull My Daisy,” narrated by Kerouac, with a full cast of Beats, playing over and over as museum-goers came and went. Here were the matching coffee mugs and appointment books with cartoon caricatures and catchy quotes.
I came away from the exhibit with the disappointment I’ve often felt at much of the recent Kerouac revival, with its People Magazine focus on the details of his life: the drugs, the drink, the sex, the sad end at forty-seven years. Where, in the midst of the images and icons, were the words that first inspired me? “Live your life? No, love your life!” he’d declared. I couldn’t find those words in the superficial interest around the man.
Granted he was a guy whose dynamic personality and Hollywood good looks commanded attention. Granted that, particularly once he was famous, he helped fabricate his own legend. But the confusion of the personality and the art was no good for him, and the quality of both his work and life took a dive following fame. The confusion has been equally misleading to his readers, the legend distracting from the literature. As he railed at an interviewer, “Don’t ask me, read me!”
Reading Kerouac, however, turns out not to be so easy, not because he’s complicated, but because he cuts so keenly to the core of phenomena. That core can be hard, in the sense that Shakyamuni’s insight into suffering is hard. Kerouac’s vision, Shakyamuni’s vision, aren’t beautiful. Beauty, in fact, is precisely not the point when the intent is going to the core, the brute fact. Beautiful implies ugly, setting the stage for an art that pursues one and ignores the other. Kerouac’s vision and art, in contrast, ignore nothing and nobody, however down and out.
The poems of San Francisco Blues, for example, feature characters that an eye intent on beauty wouldn’t even see:
In red coats
With flap white out shoes,”
. . .
“Guys with big pockets
In heavy topcoats
And slit scar,”
. . .
“The furtive whore
Looks over her shoulder,”
. . .
Character in plaid
Workcoat and glasses
Stalking and bouncing
Slowly to his job.”
We find in the 10th Chorus to San Francisco Blues one of the downest of these nobodies, the drunk we’ve all seen on the downtown back streets of every major city of America. “Dig the sad old bum,” Kerouac instructs us and then, through a series of images, one darker than another, has us follow our man into a flophouse we’d rather not imagine, to listen to him cough and groan in a white tile sink at 3 a.m..
As poet, rather than religious thinker, Kerouac pictures suffering rather than explains it, cutting through ideas about misery to misery itself. Cutting to the core, ironically, liberates one from suffering in its fundamental sense: the unease of separating oneself from anything or anybody. To dig the sad old bum is to be no longer afraid of him and all he represents, is to keep kind company with him in that long night all of us know or will inevitably come to know.
Easier said than done. Easier to ignore him. Easier, even, to “help.” Years ago, coming into San Francisco for a meditation retreat, I got off the Greyhound Bus at Third and Market Street. (Later I’d realize that very area had been a haunt of Kerouac’s.) Taking a short cut down a back alley I encountered a man reeling from one wall to another. Steadying him, I got a closeup of a face I’d up to this point managed to keep at a safe distance: stubbled, no older than mine, bloodied, bad teeth, chapped lips, matted hair. His clothes were as graygrimed as the redbrick walls. Through the tears and hiccups I made out that he’d been rolled. His “If I ever catch that goddamned son-of-a-bitch…” trailed off into futility. As I supported him, I wanted the world in which this kind of thing happened to be different from what it was, and I wanted him to be different from who he was. I wanted, in short, to help. He was hungry: Did I have a buck for food? I bought him a hamburger he barely touched. He hadn’t slept all night: Did I have five bucks for a bed? I took him to a hotel, paid the clerk for a room, and, with a sense of returning from a detour to the course of my own purposes, walked on. At the street corner I looked back, only to see my man leaving the hotel, en route again to such comforts as he knew, comforts not to be had in hamburgers or clean sheets. So much for helping.
Kerouac shows a compassionate alternative to helping the bum: dig him, delve into him. Who’s before us, literally and imaginatively? Asking the question, closing the gap between helper and helpee, getting the Good Samaritan out of the way, might be the ultimate act of compassion. Take in the facts of the man’s life:
Presuming to hit the store
and buy his cube of oleo
For 8 cents.
Then keep him company. Knowing well his own life, as any of us know ours, our companion prepares for the long night with no more comfort than a little margarine. At 3 a.m., in the darkest hour we stand beside him as he coughs and groans into the tiled sink. If compassion means to suffer with, then with Kerouac, with the bum, because compassion requires it, we wake up out of our daytime dream of spiritual and material well-being to stagger “In the reel of wake up / Middle of the night / Flophouse Nightmares.” Following the rhythm of the language, we’re willing to reel, slam against this wall, bang against that, smack into the nightmare.
But Kerouac isn’t going to let us settle into just the suffering aspect of life. If he did, we and our nightmare companion would be no further into the heart of the matter than a good documentary could take us. The final lines of the poem stand on their own as a prayer by which to live our lives and die our deaths, a mantra to take us past delusions of fortunate and unfortunate:
His death no blackern
Mine, his Toast’s
Just as well buttered
And on the one side.
Bad news for those of us who cling to our well-buttered, whole-grained, limitless bread. Good news for those who let go of clinging to limited comforts, who resign ourselves to being uncomfortable as long as anyone else is making do without butter. Great news for all of us, sad old bums and glad young bums, knowing that butter or oleo, flophouse death or mansion death, to the open mind it doesn’t matter.
Allen Ginsberg names the First Vow of the Bodhisattva, that of liberating all beings, as key to Kerouac’s motive as a writer: “I vow to illuminate all is the purpose of Kerouac’s writing, and the ultimate ethic of his writing.” (Tricycle, Fall 1992.) All isn’t a matter of numbers. As the vow in its entirety reads, “Though the many beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them.” All might be better stated as “leaving no one out.” We tend to leave out, ignore, those closest to us, those of our own Market Streets. It’s too painful to let them in, easier to exhaust our sympathies on television images of a distant famine. Not so for Kerouac. He insists on seeing what’s commonly ignored and devotes his imagination to giving voice to what’s commonly dumb.
In doing so he follows the well-worn path of the poet-pilgrim, noting what others, in their helpfulness, as well as their callousness, might overlook. The Ch’an and Taoist poets of China, crossing mountains and rivers without end, followed that path, as did the Zen poets of Japan, such as Basho, taking their narrow roads into the interior. These pilgrims made inroads, through vision and expression, into ignorance, into the human tendency to overlook what is so often painful.
Kerouac follows also in the footsteps of Shakyamuni Buddha, in particular pursuing Shakyamuni’s insight into the universality of suffering, formulated as the First Noble Truth. It’s a bleak vision: “…nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.” Shakyamuni’s words, or Kerouac’s, tasted on the meditation cushion or in a poem, can be bitter indeed.
In Shakyamuni’s formulation, however, the First Noble Truth of suffering is followed by three others: diagnosis of the cause of suffering as clinging to desire; a promise of liberation; and finally, the prescription of a way of life that leads to liberation. At this point Shakyamuni and Kerouac part ways. Kerouac sees the desire for liberation as just another guise of ignorance, just another evasion of the whole truth. In the 211th Chorus of Mexico City Blues he borrows Buddhism’s Wheel of Samsara, or the round of birth and death, to follow through to where his own wish to jump off the wheel ends up:
The wheel of the quivering meat
Turns in the void expelling human beings,…
All the endless conception of living
Gnashing everywhere in Consciousness…
Illuminating the sky of one Mind—
Poor! I wish I was free
of that slaving meat wheel
and safe in heaven dead.
Having thought and thought about Jack Kerouac, having followed the sad old bum into his flophouse nightmare, having recalled the futility of being a Good Samaritan to my own sad young bum, having seen that the wish to be free of birth and death ends up in a dead heaven, I end up, as this short winter day comes to a close, a little more at ease. I suspect it’s possible to relax from the strain of both saving and ignoring living beings, be they groaning in agony or groaning with pleasure. After all, they, altogether, nobody left out, illuminate nothing less than the sky of one Mind! Kerouac suggests the possibility of illuminating all beings. Nothing could be easier: my hand finds the soft belly of my cat, my bare feet touch the cold floor. Outside the window, dead leaves hang from the oaks, the sun goes down behind the hill, and night comes on.
—And now a frog croaks with just the sound a drunk might make at 3:30 a.m. as he hangs on for dear life over a white tile sink.