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.

Allen Ginsberg.
Allen Ginsberg.

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.

So, the third aspect of existence or third mark of existence is anatmaatman means self; anatma is no permanent self. That comes from the second mark, no permanence of any kind. “All the foundations of existence are transitory,” or as Kerouac paraphrased traditional Buddhist terminology, “All the constituents of being are transitory.” That being so, there is no permanent selfhood, no permanent me me me me me, and no permanent Great Me in Heaven. There is no reference point at all. There is nothing but open space or, as it is known to existentialists, the Void. Sunyata, as it is known in the Orient; open and accommodating space. The existentialist sense of “the void” as a claustrophobic bummer is a very Western and theistic notion. In the East, the notion of “open space” or “accommodating space” is considered a liberation from the limitation of horizon or boundary wherein a theistic God image is the ultimate reference point. Or to put it very simply, when Chogyam Trungpa, who appreciated Kerouac’s writings a great deal, was asked by his son: “Daddy, is there a God?” Trungpa said: “No.” And his son said: “Whew!” That sigh of relief might have solved many of Kerouac’s problems.

So, he introduced me to Buddhism in the form of song. As you may know, Kerouac admired Frank Sinatra for his crooning enunciation, for his oratory, for his clarity of speech, for the precision with which he pronounced the affective emotional content of his vowels. And so, like Frank Sinatra, the first direct Buddhist word I heard from Kerouac’s mouth after letters, was his singing of the Three Refuges. So, that would be the next step.

This is basic to Kerouac’s understanding of Buddhism. It goes: “In Buddha I take my refuge, in dharma I take my refuge, in sangha I take my refuge.” Buddha may be defined here as wakened mind; clear, not sleeping, not daydreaming but clear, aware of this space. Dharma is the intellectual explanation and exposition of the state of awakeness—historically, through sutra discourses and through understanding of the theory. Sangha is the assembled fellow awakened meditators. So he sang to me in Sanskrit: “Buddham Saranam Gochamee, Dhammam Saranam Gochamee, Sangham Saranam Gochamee“; he sang it like Frank Sinatra in 1952. And that first introduced me to the delicacy and softness of his Buddhism aside from the tough truth of suffering, transitoriness, and no permanent Allen Ginsberg, no permanent Kerouac.

Following that are the Four Noble Truths which readers read in his writing without inquiring further about what they are, although in various essays Kerouac expounds them. Have any of his critics read Kerouac closely enough to remember what he said about the Four Noble Truths? We should pay sufficient respect to Kerouac to ask: “What did he mean by the Four Noble Truths? What are these Four Noble Truths that he speaks of continually?” Perhaps they should be presented here as part of an exposition of Kerouac’s ethics, because this refers directly to the central ethics we find in Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, Some of the Dharma, Wake Up, his unpublished biography of Buddha, Desolation Angels, and even in later works more charged with monotheistic Catholic notions of Sacred Heart in relation to suffering.

The Four Noble Truths (based on the Three Marks of Existence) are as follows. First, existence contains suffering. Second, suffering is caused by ignorance of the conditions in which we exist—ignorance of the transitoriness and ignorance of anatma, the empty nature of the situation, so that everybody is afraid of a permanent condition of suffering and doesn’t realize that suffering itself is transitory, impermanent. There is no permanent Hell, there is no permanent Heaven. Therefore, the suffering that we sense during this transition of life is not a permanent condition that we need to be afraid of. It’s not where we’re going to end up. We end liberated from the suffering either by death, or in life, by waking up to the nature of our situation and not clinging and grasping, screaming and being angry, resentful, irritable or insulted by our existence.

It is possible to take our existence as a “sacred world,” to take this place as open space rather than claustrophobic dark void. It is possible to take a friendly relationship to our ego natures, it is possible to appreciate the aesthetic play of forms in emptiness, and to exist in this place like majestic kings of our own consciousness. But to do that, we would have to give up grasping to make everything come out the way we daydream it should. So, suffering is caused by ignorance, or suffering exaggerated by ignorance or ignorant grasping and clinging to our notion of what we think should be, is what causes the “suffering of suffering.” The suffering itself is not so bad, it’s the resentment against suffering that is the real pain. This is where I think Kerouac got caught as a Catholic, ultimately, because I don’t think he overcame that fear of the First Noble Truth.

The Third Noble Truth says there is an end to suffering, there is a way out of it. And the Fourth Noble Truth is called the Eightfold Path out of our suffering. The Eightfold Path is as follows: first, Right Understanding, Right View as it is called, Right Perspective on the whole scene of consciousness and space, which is the realization of suffering and the realization of transitoriness and the realization that there is no permanent ego. Right View, then, leads to the Right Aspiration or Right Ambition, or the ambition to overcome the obstacle of ignorance and greed and passion and clinging, and to get out of the fix.

Third after Right Aspiration comes Right Speech, speech that is in line or coordinated with an understanding of the basic situation. This is distinct from, let us say, the problem that Kerouac came to later, within the suffering of grasping for a permanent reference point in a Catholic God, who will save you and take you to Heaven, or who might condemn you to Hell: a sense of permanent doom or a permanent bliss that you are going to come to. So, Right Speech, not creating more mental garbage, not creating more mental fog for others or yourself.

Allen Ginsberg.
Allen Ginsberg.

From Right Speech, the fourth step is Right Activity, not messing up the universe with an insistence that other people follow you towards your obsessive wars, either wars against God or for God, or for Hitler or against Hitler, or for your mother or against your mother.

From Right Action comes Right Labor, a right kind of work so you don’t get the wrong job in the atom bomb industry and help blow up the world. From Right Labor comes Right Mindfulness, the awareness of what is around you unobstructed by guilt over what are you doing, saying, thinking, and working at.

From Right Mindfulness comes Right Energy, waking up in the morning, happy with what you are going to do, not obstructed by your own garbage. From Right Energy comes Right Samadhi or Right Meditation, basically being here where you are, unchanged, without guilt. Being able to exist without credentials, existing simultaneously with the earth without apology any more than the sun has to apologize.

Here we come to Walt Whitman’s original American proclamation of this condition: “not till the sun rejects you do I reject you.” This was also in line with Kerouac’s understanding. So, from this comes a term which Kerouac pronounces over and over again in his poetry, the “bodhisattva.” How many know what a bodhisattva is, and how he’s using it? Here’s the formula: the bodhisattva makes a very clear set of four simple vows.

First: sentient beings are numberless. I vow to liberate them all (dogs, worms, kitty cats, mommys, myself, Ginsberg). I vow to illuminate all, is the purpose of Kerouac’s writing and the ultimate ethic of his writing. Second: obstacles are countless, I vow to cut through them. My own neuroses are countless, my own graspings are countless, one’s own aggression is inexhaustible. Yet, one vows to relate to it, to acknowledge it, to work on it, to cut through it and open up and admit the existence of other sentient beings into one’s universe and relate to them in an honest way.

Third of the four vows of the bodhisattva: dharma gates are uncountable, I vow to enter every gate. Dharma gates are situations in which to practice wakeful mind, situations to enter into without being afraid, including the situation of birth and death, the situation of writing dharmic works for America as Kerouac did, and the situation of not being afraid to be corny & display Sacred Heart in expounding Kerouac’s prose. It’s the disposition to allow our own emotion and tears and sense of suffering, to allow mutual confidence in each other with our most sensitive feelings, as Kerouac confided to us his most sensitive feelings: “Gates of dharma are endless, I vow not to boycott anyone.” No boycott of any situation, but total openness toward all situations.

And last of all, Buddha path, or path of awakened mind, is infinite, endless, you never can finish with it, it’s too long. I vow to follow through anyway. These are the Four Bodhisattva Vows.

Now, when you take the Bodhisattva Vows it doesn’t mean you can do it. It only means that this is the direction in which you would like to go. This is your ideal. This is your compass or this is your heart’s desire even if you can’t accomplish it. You need not be prevented from being a bodhisattva for fear that you’ll not be able to accomplish these four vows, because if that’s a heart’s desire, that’s sufficient for you to take that vow. It’s a compass point or a direction or an indication of desire, and a vow to go in that direction. No permanent Heaven, no punishment of permanent Hell for that. So, this then leads to the next: Highest Perfect Wisdom, or Prajnaparamita, the ultimate philosophical and ethical statement of Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, found in a text which Kerouac knew very well, the Heart Sutra.

To summarize the gist, Prajnaparamita, the Heart Sutra, says: “Avalokitesvara (down-glancing-Lord-of-mercy) Bodhisattva dwelled in meditation on Highest Perfect Wisdom when he realized that all the five heaps (skandas) of consciousness we have were empty, this relieved every suffering.” Then this discourse continues:

Shariputra (student), form is emptiness, form is no different from emptiness, emptiness no different from form, form is the emptiness, emptiness is the form. Sensation, recognition, conceptualization, consciousness are also like this. Shariputra, this is the original character of everything. Not born, not annihilated, not tainted, not pure, does not increase, does not decrease…. No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object; no eye, no world of eyes until we come to no world of consciousness. No ignorance, also no combat against ignorance … no suffering, no cause of suffering, no nirvana, no path, no wisdom, also no attainment because no non-attainment. Therefore every bodhisattva depends on Highest Perfect Wisdom because mind is no obstacle, because of no obstacle fear does not exist. Go beyond screwy views, attain nirvana. Past, present and future, every Buddha depends on this Highest Perfect Wisdom…. Therefore, I know Prajnaparamita is the great holy mantra, the untainted mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, is capable of assuaging all suffering. True because not false. Therefore he proclaimed Prajnaparamita mantra, and said mantra goes: Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha! Gone, gone, gone over the top, gone all the way over the top to the other shore, wakened mind. Salutations.  

That’s a summary of the text of Prajnaparamita: “Highest Perfect Wisdom” Heart Sutra. Most of Kerouac’s mid-late poetry depends on some glimpse or some understanding of that statement, as both an ethic and a philosophical take on reality and appearance. Once you get that terminology down, you’ll be able to read his Mexico City Blues very easily and see how funny they are, what a good representation of the mind they are and how trenchant philosophically. Few readers have had the inquisitiveness to go into his Buddhism and learn its basis which can be summarized in one sentence which Kerouac often quoted from the Vajraheddika, or Diamond Sutra:

All conceptions as to the existence of the self, as well as conceptions as to the existence of a supreme self, as well as all conceptions as to the non-existence of the supreme self, are equally arbitrary, being only conceptions.

It’s not very far from the notion that William Burroughs laid on Kerouac in 1945 when he gave him a copy of Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, the basic foundation work in general semantics. The theme was: don’t confuse words (and ideas) with events. The table is not a table. This is not a finger, it’s called a finger but it is what it is. This leaves the universe open. The slogan is: “Avoid the is of identity.”

Unfortunately, Kerouac had no teacher in the lineage of Zen or classical Buddhism. And so the one thing lacking was the tool, the instrument to realize the sort of substratum of all this exposition, namely the sitting practice of meditation—actually to take in his body the notion of emptiness or examine it as a process of mind, through the practice of classical meditation as handed down in immemorial “ear-whispered” tradition.

However, Kerouac was very intelligent and knew that substratum almost intuitively. You can tell that from his writing, from his poetry with its metaphors of emptiness and the description of vast spaciousness, which is the same thing as emptiness. You can see it at the end of The Town and the City, the vision of a football field, the sun going down behind the clouds and the vaster spaces beyond

Allen Ginsberg.
Allen Ginsberg.

in the sky. The sense of “panoramic awareness” runs through all of Kerouac’s descriptions of landscape. You always find him focusing on Neal Cassady at the pool table or the snooker table with the camera receding as it does at the end of the movie Les Enfants du Paradis when the camera recedes above the buildings, above the Ferris wheel, until we see the vast crowd receding in a much vaster space.

Kerouac, however, lacked specific instruction in the actual method of meditation practice in Zen. This, basically, is to follow the breath and take a friendly attitude toward one’s thoughts, but bring the mind back to attention to the breath. Kerouac had worked out his own form of sitting practice which involved squeezing his anus, closing his eyes, and trying to see a golden light.

He had some kind of satori from that. But the instruction one gets in ancient sitting practice is: as soon as you see your thoughts, renounce them, let go. Don’t cling to thought, don’t try and make it a reference point, keep the space of mind open. As Blake says, “He who binds to himself a joy/does the winged life destroy/He who kisses the joy as it flies/lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

That’s the basis, simply paying attention to the ongoing process of breath while it’s proceeding, and taking a friendly attitude towards your thought forms. Not inviting them in, not pushing them away, allowing them to take care of themselves, but keeping your attention on the actual physical space around you, the flow of the out breath. That’s Tibetan style meditation. Gary Snyder never did teach him Zen Buddhist sitting practice style because of some odd miscommunication.

Kerouac’s satori was clinging both to despair of suffering, fear of suffering, and permanent Hell, fear of a permanent Heaven: “I am only an Apache/smoking hashi, in old Cabashy/by the lamp,” humorously frozen in a kind of horrible hashish Hell. He constantly refers to that image: “Pieces of the Buddha material frozen and sliced microscopically in morgues of the North … skeletons of heroes … fingers and joints … elephants of kindness torn apart by vultures.” So obsessed was he with the suffering he encountered that he wasn’t able to let go. I think the alcohol amplified that suffering, left him prey to the phantasm of the monotheistic imposition which Blake had denounced as being “six thousand years of sleep” for Western civilization.

So, we have a contrast here, ethically and philosophically, between non-theistic Buddhist space-awareness or awareness practice, and theistic Catholicism’s contemplation of or fixation on the Cross of suffering.

As Jack grew older, in despair and lacking the means to calm his mind and let go of the suffering, he tended more and more to grasp at the Cross. And so, in his later years, he made many paintings of the Cross, of cardinals, popes, of Christ crucified, of Mary; seeing himself on the Cross, and finally conceiving of himself as being crucified. He was undergoing crucifixion in the mortification of his body as he drank. Nonetheless, he did have this quality of negative capability, the ability to hold opposite ideas in his mind without “an irritable reaching out after fact and reason,” which John Keats proposed as the true mind of the Shakespearian poet.

“I am Canuck, I am from Lowell, I am Jewish, I am Palestianian, I Am, I am the finger, I am the name.” Kerouac was not heavily entangled in such fixed identity.

We owe it to Burroughs somewhat for having cut Kerouac loose from that “is of identity” in the mid-1940s so that Kerouac had the ability to empathize with the old transvestite queen and become “one of the world’s/great bullshitters/girls,” as he says in his Mexico City Blues: “Darling! Red hot/That kind of camping/I don’t object to/unless it’s kept within reason.” He could empathize with the all-American boy, football hero. He could be a sophisticated littérateur or an old drunk alternatively. He could be country bumpkin, he could be as Thomas Wolfe, or he could empathize with William Burroughs as a “non-Wolfian” European sophisticate. So, in the end, his poetry and his prose becomes a perfect manifestation of his mind. That was the whole point of the spontaneous prosody. And the great Tibetan Lama Chogyam Trungpa, examining Kerouac’s poetry, said: “It’s a perfect manifestation of mind.” His work is accepted in the Buddhist community as a great manifestation of poetic mind; true to the nature of mind as understood traditionally by Buddhist theories of spontaneous mind, how to achieve and how to use it.

Kerouac wrote an essay, “Last Words,” in January 1967 (published in Escapade) quoting the Surangama Sutra:

If you are now desirous of more perfectly understanding Supreme Enlightenment, you must learn to answer spontaneously and with no recourse to discriminate thinking. For the Tathagatas (the passers-through) in the ten quarters of the universes, because of the straight-forwardness of their minds and the spontaneity of their mentations, have ever remained, from beginningless time to endless time, of one pure Suchness with the enlightening nature of pure Mind Essence.

Then Kerouac continues:

… which is pretty strange old news. You can also find pretty much the same thing in Mark 13:11. “Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do you premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given to you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak but the Holy Ghost!” Mozart and Blake often felt they weren’t pushing their own pens it was the “Muse” singing and pushing.

In another sense spontaneous, or ad lib, artistic writing imitates as best it can the flow of the mind as it moves in its space-time continuum, in this sense, it may really be called Space Age Prose someday because when astronauts are flowing through space and time they too have no chance to stop and reconsider and go back. It may be they won’t be reading anything else but spontaneous writing when they do get out there, the science of the language to fit their science of movement …

To break through the barrier of language with WORDS, you have to be in orbit around your mind, and I may go up again if I regain my strength. It may sound vain but I’ve been wrestling with this angelic problem with at least as much discipline as Jacob.

Adapted for Tricycle by Allen Ginsberg from an essay in Un Homme Grand: Jack Kerouac á la Confluence des Cultures (Carleton University Press, 1990), edited by Pierre Anctil. Interpretations of Buddhadharma are modelled after expositions by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Shambhala Publications, 1972) and other discourses. The translation of Prajnaparamita Sutra is adapted by the author and Gelek Rinpoche from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.