Jack Kerouac

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