In a raw fog near Santa Barbara, standing by the side of the road with my thumb out for rides, I met my first Dharma bum. Of course, I didn’t recognize him right away, true Dharma bum that he was. He was just a small man of indeterminate age, from the look of the lines around his eyes a man of all weathers, clearly more traveled than I. Neither one of us had had luck that afternoon on our own, so we drifted together for warmth and camaraderie. As the cars whizzed by, I complained about the heartlessness of the “squares” who left us out there freezing our butts. My companion saw it otherwise: “Each of them is a buddha.” That gave me something to think about, but still, all those square buddhas kept speeding down the road without us.
Hungry now and growing cold as the fog thickened, we walked into town. “I know a café where we can get a free bowl of hot beans at the back door,” my friend told me. As we ate in the weed lot behind the kitchen, I asked him more about buddhas, but he didn’t elaborate. Instead, he gave me what I later understood as my first meditation instruction. “If you want to warm up,” he instructed me, “keep still and pay attention to your breath as it goes all the way down to your belly.” We breathed together a bit and I did seem to get warmer, although that could have been the hot beans. My comrade decided to go back into town, where he knew of a place to crash. I could come along, he offered, but no, I was anxious to get back out to the road, even though night was coming on. After I watched him disappear into the fog, I walked back to the highway. There once again, I began to shiver. Remembering my recent lesson, I stilled myself and watched my breathing. Before long I felt a small flame kindling in my belly. That’s the flame that has warmed me ever since in all my years of meditation practice.
By the time I met my Dharma bum, I had already read On the Road and Dharma Bums and, very much because of Kerouac’s celebration of the itinerant life, was on the road myself. Yet I still didn’t know that road as my own, and it would be a while before I realized I had met a flesh-and-blood buddha. In Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s narrator, Jack Duluoz, while riding the rails meets “the kind of thin quiet little bum no one pays attention to on Skid Row, let alone Main Street.” Nothing of the Buddha clings to this inconspicuous character. If there’s any religion about him, it’s Christianity (Kerouac himself was first and last a Catholic), and he recites the prayer to St. Theresa daily. Still, he is the first of many buddhas and bodhisattvas and “Zen lunatics” Duluoz meets on the road, and the first of many buddhas many of my generation encountered in the literature we were reading at the time.
Kerouac was our pioneer, opening the road for Buddhism to come to the West, and he may have done as much as the Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki to steer early seekers to the Way. While Kerouac’s understanding of that Way lacks Suzuki’s experience and authority, Kerouac did do his homework, studying the Buddhist texts as he found them in Goddard’s Buddhist Bible: the Lancavatara Sutra, the Surangama Sutra, the Diamond Sutra. He took notes on his reading and, ever the writer, amassed a thousand-page manuscript which has been recently published as Some of the Dharma.
Along with studying, Kerouac meditated as well as he could without a teacher and wrote exuberantly about his experiences:
Spring nights, practicing Dhyana under the cloud moon. I’d see the truth: “here, this, is it.” The world as it is is heaven. 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 what there is, is ecstasy.
There is something at the same time mercenary and idealistic about these accounts, documenting that heady stage of first encountering the Buddha Way which typified the attitude of many young Dharma bums coming up in the ’50s and ’60s. There’s also something typical and true to the time (the era of Timothy Leary) in Kerouac’s use of the word ecstasy. Ecstasy, vision, inspiration may have been what he as a writer and adventurer was after, more than the everyday Dharma of doing the laundry, paying the mortgage, and sitting on the cushion through ecstasy and boredom and everything in between.
In the novels written in the first flush of Kerouac’s exposure to Buddhism, he put Buddhist and Zen literature and vocabulary to work in the service of art. He appropriated, and to some extent misrepresented, words like satori and samadhi. The mystical states he sought through his practice of dhyana are well known in the millennial experience of meditators, but Kerouac mixes them up with other altered states arrived at through substances: marijuana, amphetamines, alcohol and caffeine. Likewise, he ransacked the sutras for images to stir his imagination, lotus flowers raining from heaven on his prose. His scope of time was enlarged by the Mahayana vision of eons, of hundreds and thousands and millions of kalpas, in the scale of which, as expressed in the Diamond Sutra, the individual life was seen as a bubble, as a dream.
Passing beyond this early infatuation with Dharma, Kerouac’s path became the path of writing more than the path of meditation per se. He devoted himself to writing as meditation, as inquiry into the nature of the mind, crafting a prose style that tracked the mind as it moved from the hobo life, to the alleys and red-brick walls of cities, to practicing dhyana under the cloud moon. In the process he arrived at a method of writing he called “spontaneous prose,” inspired by the spontaneity he attributed to the Zen lunatics. The Diamond Sutra, which he knew well, provided the imagery for his poetics:
Stars, darkness, a lamp, a phantom, dew, a bubble,
A dream, a flash of lightning, or a cloud:
Thus one should look upon the world.
So Kerouac aspired to look upon the world and to write about it in a dreamy state equally fleeting, light and playful.
Kerouac’s finest expression of spontaneous prose is in his relatively unknown work Visions of Cody. Visions is actually a radical revision of the material first set out in On the Road, a revision he undertook out of dissatisfaction with the form and language of the earlier novel, which by the standards of spontaneity seemed to him now contrived. In Visions he pulled out all the stops to follow as closely as possible the motion of the mind, one association provoking another, events less important than how they took shape in the very act of casting thought into language. Excerpting from Visions of Cody is like dipping water out of a stream. The following suggests the free flow of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose. Here, he describes his narrator’s first impression of Cody Pomeray. Cody is modeled on Kerouac’s real-life best buddy and Dharma bum Neil Cassady, a larger-than-life figure and fountain of literary inspiration to other Beat poets including Allen Ginsberg.
Have you ever seen anyone like Cody Pomeray?—say on a streetcorner on a winter night in Chicago or better, Fargo, any cold town, a young guy with a bony face that looks like it’s been pressed against iron bars to get that dogged rocky look of suffering, perseverance, finally when you look closest, happy prim self-belief, with Western sideburns and big blue flirtatious eyes of an old maid and fluttering lashes; the small and muscular kind of fellow wearing usually a leather jacket and if it’s a suit it’s with a vest so he can prop his thick busy thumbs in place and smile the smile of his grandfathers; who walks as fast as he can go on the balls of his feet, talking excitedly and gesticulating; poor pitiful kind actually just out of reform school with no money, no mother, and if you saw him dead on the sidewalk with a cop standing over him you’d walk on in a hurry, in silence.
In fact, we have seen this fellow—he’s none other than our original Dharma bum from On the Road. He is pathetic and beat, his revision is vigorous and beatific, and both represent the marginal character we’re tempted to walk by. Ironically, while younger in years, Cody is in terms of the language that describes him, and the appreciative and compassionate eye that observes him, the apotheosis of the thin little hobo. The two-dimensional nature of the earlier character is elaborated into the complex and contradictory Cody, his bony face pressed against iron bars, eyelashes fluttering. Like Cody walking as fast as he can, Kerouac’s language speeds on through associations (smiling the smile of his grandfathers), jaywalking the pauses and stop-and-go, the yellow and red lights of more conventional prose, prose such as he used in On the Road, prose in the service of plot, of the small self that reflects upon itself even when meditating, exclaiming in a self-congratulatory voice, “Here, this, is it.”
Kerouac’s vision of Cody is a true vision, and not a self-consciously Dharmic one. The focus of attention is on Cody, not Duluoz. If the aim of meditation, as the narrator grandiosely states it in Dharma Bums, is to forget the self and free all beings everywhere, in this passage he achieves exactly that, or its imaginative equivalent. Rather than hurrying to some further action up the road of plot, he stops and minutely observes and suffers with this one reform school kid, society’s loser dead on the sidewalk, the cop of social contentions, literary conventions, standing over him. Kerouac liberates Cody, and all beings everywhere like him, without a hint of Dharma—which is exactly how a Dharma bum comports himself in the world of samsara and in the world of writing.
Straying far from formal meditation, rather than seeking to quiet the mind, to be simply and barely aware, Kerouac’s prose liberates it, while documenting it, to pursue the crooked road of its nature as it careens from one thought to another, not chaotically but clearly. The character of Cody, in this one passage, is drawn surely, memorably. We see him; we know him.
If we allow Kerouac’s spontaneous prose to run through us, the rushing river of the mind which attends to the ten thousand things minutely, playfully, compassionately—if we abandon ourselves to reading him (and there is no other way to keep up with Kerouac as he walks excitedly on the balls of his literary feet), we might just catch a glimpse of a Dharma jewel of our own native American Buddhism, gleaming in the mist.