Some of the DHARMA
by Jack Kerouac
reviewed by Dan Barth
From DHARMA beat, issue 10, Spring 1998
For Jack Kerouac fans and enthusiasts the publication of Some of the Dharma is a major event. This book that had been often rumored and mentioned is now a reality. We can finally hold it in our hands and read the words Kerouac wrote more than 40 years ago after his meditations in the Carolina woods, in Mexico City, Berkeley, San Francisco, Richmond Hill, Long Island and under the Brooklyn Bridge. It brings to mind Kerouac’s line in his fantasy "The Early History of Bop," --- "You can’t believe that bop is here to stay . . . that it is real." Some of the Dharma is here, it’s real, with a picture of handsome young Jack in coveralls on the cover, standing straight to tell it like it is. Empty and awake, a brakeman on the universal freight.
It should be said right off that this book about large Truths and about the annihilation of the discriminating, duality-making ego-self is not nearly as fast or enjoyable a read as Kerouac’s "true story novels" about himself and other discriminating ego-selves. The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, for instance, present many of the same Buddhist concepts as Some of the Dharma but they also have story and characters to keep the reader interested. Relying on Buddhist musings alone, Some of the Dharma requires a reader to be in a more meditative frame of mind. There is no plot, no story, no "mad to burn" characters, but there is much of the same wonderful word magic found in all of Kerouac’s work. Interspersed with dharma talk there are many poems and other gems of Kerouacian wordplay. And there is a goal to all of Jack’s meditation and discourse: "From out of this you emerge with loving-kindness, compassion, gladness and equanimity."
There are many ways to approach this somewhat daunting book and each reader will likely adopt his or her own strategy. Some will decide to delve here and there at random. Others may give it a cursory read and come back later for more depth. And some may want to read it in conjunction with the letters of the same period, 1953-1956, or the other Kerouac books that it most closely relates to --- Visions of Gerard, Mexico City Blues, Scripture of the Golden Eternity, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, Book of Dreams, Pomes All Sizes. I approached it as a kind of meditation, to be taken slowly, in small doses, savored and contemplated.
The Kerouac we encounter here is mostly the earnest childlike Buddhist, like Ray Smith in The Dharma Bums, who wants to "save all sentient beings from suffering and to bring them to eternal happiness." More than any other Kerouac book this one seems apart from his everyday self of storytelling and literary ambition. It is Kerouac’s meditation self that is put on the page here. This book started in December 1953 as notes on Buddhism to Allen Ginsberg. After promising to send Allen the 100-page manuscript, Jack wrote: "I haven’t sent you the Notes on the Dharma because I keep reading it myself, have but one copy, valuable, sacred to me . . . --- Besides it is not finished, I keep adding every day. . . " Indeed there are several times in this book where Kerouac writes as if he is done with it, only to pick it up again not long after. It’s almost like he was not doing it himself, was simply transcribing transmissions received during meditation and study.
Of course there’s a certain paradox inherent in this "wisdom" book by Kerouac, a man who drank himself to an early death. It becomes a "do as I say not as I do" kind of teaching, but that does not negate its validity or negate the poignant fact that during the three-year period of his life while he was writing Some of the Dharma, Kerouac was practicing Buddhist dhyana (meditation) and achieving some happiness and peace of mind. Again the idea of "transmission" suggests itself. For three years Kerouac was picking up Buddhist wisdom on an open channel; then it stopped. By 1959, as he wrote to Philip Whalen: "Myself, the dharma is slipping away from my consciousness and I can’t think of anything to say about it anymore."
Kerouac’s dharma talk can be confusing-sometimes sayings, aphorisms, advice; sometimes the multi-faceted Indian Hindu trappings of Mahayana Buddhism; sometimes the liberating, confuse-the-rational-mind quality of zen koans. From out of this jumble certain themes do emerge. One recurring theme is that all sounds are part of "the One Transcendental Unbroken Sound." The corollary to this is that all objects and activities are "d.f.o.t.s.t."---different forms of the same thing (or sometimes "different forms of the same holy emptiness.") Frequently all phenomena are seen as "visionary flowers in the air" or "a dream that has already ended." A dominant theme is taken from the Diamond Sutra: "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form" or "everything is empty and awake." At one point Kerouac writes: "ROCKY MOUNT NEGRO SHACKTOWN, Stopped, wrote this on lamp pole:-’Everything’s Alright--form is emptiness & emptiness is form--& we’re here forever--in one form or another--which is empty’." Imagine the down home folks of 1956 Rocky Mount, North Carolina trying to make heads or tails of that! These several themes and motifs all recur, overlap and interplay kaleidoscopically as Kerouac explores Buddhism in relation to his everyday life. It goes on and on and on and on. (Did you think Some of the Dharma would be some quick little light read? Think again, oh dweller in illusion.)
Another way to look at this book, and Kerouac’s Buddhism, is as an attempt to find a way to keep from drinking himself to death. He writes: "I don’t want to be a drunken hero of the generation suffering everywhere with everyone. I want to be a quiet saint living in a shack in solitary meditation of universal mind." But we know what happened. Jack keeps making his desert hut plans-retreat, plain food, no drinking. It’s a sad effort, touching, triste. But the paradox of his alcoholism is also present here. He says: "I’ve had my highest visions of Buddhist Emptiness when drunk."
There are lots of words of wisdom offered, lots of Buddhist concepts juggled and played with. As the book goes on Jack often seems confused by it all. It’s as if he thought nirvana would be as easy as two or three months of meditation. He begins to realize this is not the case, that his fate is inescapable, already mapped out - the Duluoz legend - with Buddhism just a temporary refuge.
A picture emerges of Kerouac, like Christ, just here to fulfill his destiny-to write "the ONE BOOK"---struggling and fighting against it at times, but really always just fulfilling his Fate. It’s interesting that this three-year Buddhist religious phase of Jack’s life took place in almost exactly the same years of life, early thirties, that his childhood Catholic Christ is said to have lived his public religious life. Jack’s imitation of Christ, best he knew how. He did alright and was a good writing Buddha for awhile, practicing dhyana, cultivating virtue, reading sutras, writing emptiness.
Obviously Kerouac was fascinated with all the words and concepts of oriental religion --- the six paramitas, the four transcendental virtues, the ten bhumis, crotopanna, sakradagamin, anagamin, kshanti paramita, and annuttara-samyak-sambhodi. Maybe all his Buddhism was simply stockpiling ammo for his wordslinger arsenal. In Buddhism Kerouac found new words, another language, new ways to say all the things he felt and knew. French, Spanish, English and prajna paramita. Always in love with the sound of language, Kerouac was knocked out by all the manomayakaya and acinty-paranima-cyuti word combinations he found in Buddhist texts.
And much of this time Kerouac is in actuality (in this dream of life) living with his mother and sister, brother-in-law and nephew in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and meditating in the woods with dogs---"long wild samadhis in the ink black woods of midnight, on a bed of grass." No doubt (and no wonder) his relatives got tired of all his Buddhist talk. It definitely was not all dharma and bliss. Read his letters of the same period. This is post-On the Road, pre-Dharma Bums Kerouac, away from his wild pals, in quiet and serious study of Buddhism. But this period is getting him ready for the friendship and joy of Dharma Bums.
I’m wondering if this is one of those books that will be more talked about than read. It is certainly a lovely book and a wonderful publishing achievement-as near as possible a facsimile of Kerouac’s original typescript. But for anyone without a strong interest in Kerouac or Buddhism, or both, it is a book they may not have the patience to read- 420 pages of Kerouacish ramblings on Buddhism. And the print is small. I can’t help but wonder if this book is more document than art. In editing Kerouac’s letters, Ann Charters has been accused of cutting too much. The editor of this book, David Stanford, may have to answer for leaving in too much. Perhaps a more readable book could be created by cutting some of the repetitive Buddhist ramblings. Or maybe a good publishing strategy would be to issue it in several smaller volumes, like the small Shambhala books on Eastern religions, or like R. H. Blyth’s Zen and Zen Classics. I think future editions might also be made more manageable by including an index, and perhaps a bibliography of Buddhist books that Kerouac was reading. For now though, we’ll be grateful for what we have. No matter what happens next I think it’s good to have the book issued first in it’s entirety, a mother lode that may be a long time playing out.
The book ends in March of 1956. Kerouac is getting ready to take off for Mexico again, then San Francisco and Desolation Peak and on to fame and alcohol in the remaining years of his life. Buddha Jack of the dogs and cats, not different from emptiness, listening to the sound of silence, in love with the sound of words. It ends with a picture of one of Jack’s angel dove ghosts, a truly amazing wonderful compilation book journey meditation on Buddhism and emptiness. Samadhis and Samapattis and Dhammapadda and Innumerable Aeons and Chilicosms of Blinkforths and Blablahblah wrote old Jack in his cups with a kitty walking down the path on the way that is not a way to the gate that is not a gate using words beyond words to express silence. Amen. So be it. Ainsi soit il. Thus it is. Svaha! Grah!
(copyright 1998 by DHARMA beat and Dan Barth)
Also, read Dan Barth's review of "The Awakener" by Helen Weaver.