Wake Up: A Life Of The Buddha
By Jack Kerouac
New York: Viking Adult, 2008
160 pp., $24.95 (cloth)
THERE IS NO definitive life of the Buddha. All biographers, all creative expressions of the Buddha’s life rely on story fragments—some old, some older—and anyone who takes up the challenge must construct his own tale. I think the Buddha would have welcomed this process, since, by his own declaration, his life was a worthy and fruitful subject of investigation and contemplation.
In Jack Kerouac’s tribute, Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, the great Beat poet and novelist has left a puzzling and provocative work. Although written in 1955 and serialized in Tricycle starting with the Summer 1993 issue, it has not been published in book form until now. Wake Up is a spicy mix, hard to digest, but an intriguing read that may be just right for some.
In the interest of full disclosure, I come to Kerouac’s work having embarked on a similar endeavor. I wrote, and have been performing, a one-man play about the life of the Buddha that relies exclusively on the sutras. The project came from a desire to understand the man’s life and original teachings and, to the extent possible, distinguish traditional Buddhist teachings from pop-cultural embellishment that, it seemed to me, had often strayed significantly from the Buddha’s original message. To prepare the play, I immersed myself in the sutras for several years and for background read numerous other accounts of his life. Biographies of the Buddha inevitably reflect the agenda and cultural milieu of their authors. Kerouac’s is no exception.
Kerouac’s Catholicism infuses the story from the start. As an epigraph, he opens with a prayer, “Adoration to Jesus Christ, / … Adoration to Gotama Sakyamuni,” written by Dwight Goddard, a former Christian minister who compiled The Buddhist Bible, the book that triggered Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism and was one of his main sources for Wake Up. Like the gospel writers of his native Christianity Kerouac states his purpose unequivocally: “I have designed this to be a handbook for Western understanding of the ancient Law. The purpose is to convert.”
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