Jack Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism began after he spent some time with Neal Cassady, who had taken on an interest in the local California variety of New Age spiritualism, particularly the work of Edgar Cayce. Kerouac mocked Cassady as a sort of homemade American “Billy Sunday with a suit” for praising Cayce, who went into trance states of sleep and then read what were called the Akashic records, and gave medical advice to the petitioners who came to ask him questions with answers which involve reincarnation. So, Kerouac was interested in going back to the original historic sources. He went to the library in San Jose, California and read a book called A Buddhist Bible, edited by Dwight Goddard—a very good anthology of classic Buddhist texts. Kerouac read them very deeply, memorized many of them, and then went on to do other reading and other research and actually became a brilliant intuitive Buddhist scholar. Gary Snyder noted that Kerouac did have an intelligent grasp of Eastern thought, also a learned grasp, and that’s something most people don’t realize.
He introduced me to it in the form of letters reminding me that suffering was the basis of existence, which is the first Noble Truth in Buddhism. I was at the time a more or less left-wing liberal progressive intellectual, and I was insulted that Kerouac was telling me that the real basis of existence was suffering. I thought this was a personal insult and didn’t realize he was simply telling me what he had realized was the basic nature of life.
There is this doctrine in Buddhism of the Three Marks of Existence: first, that existence contains suffering; in Yiddish, existence contains tsuris, serious difficulty. Born, as the poet Gregory Corso says, “a hairy bag of water,” there’s going to be some difficulty before you leave your body, some irritability or discomfort. If you don’t like the word “suffering” then you have to accept that existence contains some “discomfort.” The traditional definition is that, being born, the inevitable ultimate consequence is old age, sickness, and death, well described by Kerouac. This is inevitable.
The second characteristic of existence as described in Buddhadharma is Impermanence—the transitoriness of our condition; the fact that what we have here is like a dream, in the sense that it is real while it is here. And so Kerouac would say to me, “Come back in a million years and tell me if this is real.” He had the sense of the reality of existence and at the same time the unreality of existence. To Western minds this is a contradiction and an impossibility. But actually, it is not impossible because it is true; this universe is real, and is at the same time unreal. This is known in Buddhism as a co-immergent wisdom, the fact that form and emptiness are identical. These are just basic Buddhist ideas. You’ll find the terminology of sunyata, emptiness within form, running through all of Kerouac’s middle-period writing, especially in Mexico City Blues. The idea of transitoriness, of impermanence, is not a Himalayan idea, and not an Oriental idea, it’s a classic Western idea. For, as Gregory Corso paraphrases Heraclitus—”You can’t step in the same river once.” You remember Heraclitus: “You can’t step in the same river twice”? So Corso put it one poetic move ahead.
What Kerouac was discovering was not some strange Oriental notion alien to the Western mind. He was exploring the basis of mind itself as it’s known in the West as in the East, except that he saw the Buddhist formulations as being perhaps more sophisticated than the monotheistic formulation of the West. Nevertheless there were non-theistic formulations of the same thing in writers that he read like Lucretius and Montaigne.
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