IN A LETTER dated March 25, 1955, Jack Kerouac wrote: “I’ve been living down South here for two months, writing a Buddhist book of 70,000 words, which I’m just finishing now.” For over a year he had been studying the life and teaching of Gotama Buddha. Immersed in the idea of leading an ascetic life in that tradition, he had decided to write “a handbook for Western understanding” of Buddhist teachings, following the story of Buddha’s life.

The title page of the finished manuscript reads: “Wake Up, Prepared by Jack Kerouac,” but the correspondence of Kerouac and his literary agent Sterling Lord reveals that this had not always been the book’s title. Originally called Your Essential Mind: The Story of the Buddha, Kerouac referred to it at various times as “my Buddhist handbook,” Buddha Tells Us, and Buddhahood: The Essence of Reality. Sterling Lord passed the manuscript on to editors Robert Giroux and Malcolm Cowley, who disappointed Kerouac by receiving it “coldly.” Jack never lost his faith, as he told Allen Ginsberg, that his book had “magical powers of enlightenment.” Sterling Lord sent the manuscript on to the Philosophical Library, and Kerouac was excited at the thought that he might have the same publisher as D. T. Suzuki. In September 1955 he heard that they considered it “very well written” and were willing to publish it if Kerouac could guarantee a sale of six hundred copies. Disappointed, he wrote Ginsberg, “I don’t know no 600 people with $3.50.”

Although Kerouac did not give up on publishing Wake Up, his primary focus was on new work, and he began to integrate Buddhism into books like Mexico City Blues, Tristessa, and Visions of Gerard, all written in the year following Wake Up. As he wrote Sterling Lord, “From now on all my writing is going to have a basis of Buddhist teaching, free of all worldly and literary motives so everything has actually worked out fine because in all consciousness I couldn’t publish [On the Road] except as ‘Pre-enlightenment’ work.”

—John Sampas, Literary Executor, The Estate of Jack and Stella Kerouac

This is the first excerpt in a series of eight from Jack Kerouac’s Wake Up. The full manuscript will be published in Some of the Dharma by Viking Penguin in 1995.


 

Title page calligraphy by Jack Kerouac.
Title page calligraphy by Jack Kerouac.

Adoration to Jesus Christ,
The Messiah of the Christian World;
Adoration to Gotama Sakyamuni,
The Appearance-Body of the Buddha.

—A Buddhist Prayer in the monastery of Santa Barbara, written by Dwight Goddard.

AUTHOR’S NOTE
This book follows what the Sutras say. It contains quotations from the Sacred Scriptures of the Buddhist Canon, some quoted directly, some mingled with new words, some not quotations but made up of new words of my own selection. The story line follows Gotama Buddha’s life as represented in Ashvaghosha’sBuddha-Charita and in Narasu’s Life of the Historic Buddha with adornments and rearrangements. There is no way to separate and name the countless sources that have poured into this lake of light, such as theLankavatara Scripture, the Dhammapada, the Anguttara Nikaya, the Itivuttaka, the Digga [Digha] Nikaya, the Majjhima Nikaya, the Theragatha, the Vinaya Pitaka, the Prajna-Paramita-Hridaya Sutra, the Samyutta Nikaya, even Chuangtse, Tao Teh King [Chuang-tzu, Tao-te Ching], the Life of Milarepa, theMahayana Samgraha, and a thousand places. The heart of this book is an embellished precis of the mightySurangama Sutra whose author, who seems to be the greatest writer who ever lived, is unknown. He lived in the First Century A.D. and drew from the sources of his own time and wrote for the sake of Brightest Divine Enlightenment. I have designed this to be a handbook for Western understanding of the ancient Law. The purpose is to convert. May I live up to these words:

To sing the praises of the lordly monk, and declare his acts from first to last, without self seeking and self honor, without desire for personal renown, but following what the scriptures say, to benefit the world, has been my aim. ” —Ashvaghosha, first century A.D.

BUDDHA MEANS the awakened one.

Until recently most people thought of the Buddha as a big fat rococo sitting figure with his belly out, laughing, as represented in millions of tourist trinkets and dime-store statuettes here in the Western world. People didn’t know that the actual Buddha was a handsome young prince who suddenly began brooding in his father’s palace, staring through the dancing girls as though they weren’t there, at the age of twenty-nine, till finally and emphatically he threw up his hands and rode out to the forest on his war horse and cut off his long golden hair with his sword and sat down with the holy men of the India of his day and died at the age of eighty a lean venerable wanderer of ancient roads and elephant woods. This man was no slob-like figure of mirth, but a serious and tragic prophet, the Jesus Christ of India and almost all Asia.

The followers of the religion he founded, Buddhism, the religion of the Great Awakening from the dream of existence, number in the hundreds of millions today. Few people in America and the West realized the extent and the profundity of religious establishment in the Orient. Few people knew that Korea, Burma, Siam, Tibet, Japan, and pre-Red China are predominantly Buddhist countries, as the United States, England, France, Italy, Mexico may be said to be predominantly Christian countries.

This young man who couldn’t be tempted by a harem-full of beautiful girls because of the wisdom of his great sorrow, was Gotama, born Siddhartha in 563 B.C., Prince of the Shakya Clan in the Gorakpur district ofIndia. His mother, whose name, curiously, was “Maya,” which in Sanskrit means “magic,” died giving him birth. He was raised by his aunt Prajapati Gotami. As a youth he was a great athlete and horseman, as befits a member of the Kshatriya, the Warrior Caste. Legend tells of a sensational contest in which he bested all the other princes for the hand of Yashodhara.

He was married at sixteen to the Princess Yashodhara who bore him a son Rahula. His father, the Maharajah Suddhodana, doted on him and plotted with his ministers to figure out ways to please him and take his mind off the deep sadness that grew and grew as he neared thirty. One day, riding through the royal gardens in the chariot, the Prince beheld an old man tottering in the road. “What kind of man is this? His head white and his shoulders bent, his eyes bleared and his body withered, holding a stick to support him along the way. Is his body suddenly dried up by the heat, or has he been born in this way? . . . Quickly turn your chariot and go back. Ever thinking on this subject of old age approaching, what pleasures now can these gardens afford, the years of my life like the fast-flying wind; turn your chariot and with speedy wheels take me to my palace.” Then on seeing a dead man being borne to his bier nearby, “The followers are overwhelmed with grief, tearing their hair and wailing piteously. . . Is this the only dead man, or does the world contain like instances? O worldly men!” cried the unhappy young prince. “Beholding everywhere the body brought to dust, yet everywhere the more carelessly living; the heart is neither lifeless wood nor stone, and yet it thinks not ALL IS VANISHING. . .

IN A LETTER dated March 25, 1955, Jack Kerouac wrote: “I’ve been living down South here for two months, writing a Buddhist book of 70,000 words, which I’m just finishing now.” For over a year he had been studying the life and teaching of Gotama Buddha. Immersed in the idea of leading an ascetic life in that tradition, he had decided to write “a handbook for Western understanding” of Buddhist teachings, following the story of Buddha’s life.

The title page of the finished manuscript reads: “Wake Up, Prepared by Jack Kerouac,” but the correspondence of Kerouac and his literary agent Sterling Lord reveals that this had not always been the book’s title. Originally called Your Essential Mind: The Story of the Buddha, Kerouac referred to it at various times as “my Buddhist handbook,” Buddha Tells Us, and Buddhahood: The Essence of Reality. Sterling Lord passed the manuscript on to editors Robert Giroux and Malcolm Cowley, who disappointed Kerouac by receiving it “coldly.” Jack never lost his faith, as he told Allen Ginsberg, that his book had “magical powers of enlightenment.” Sterling Lord sent the manuscript on to the Philosophical Library, and Kerouac was excited at the thought that he might have the same publisher as D. T. Suzuki. In September 1955 he heard that they considered it “very well written” and were willing to publish it if Kerouac could guarantee a sale of six hundred copies. Disappointed, he wrote Ginsberg, “I don’t know no 600 people with $3.50.”

Although Kerouac did not give up on publishing Wake Up, his primary focus was on new work, and he began to integrate Buddhism into books like Mexico City Blues, Tristessa, and Visions of Gerard, all written in the year following Wake Up. As he wrote Sterling Lord, “From now on all my writing is going to have a basis of Buddhist teaching, free of all worldly and literary motives so everything has actually worked out fine because in all consciousness I couldn’t publish [On the Road] except as ‘Pre-enlightenment’ work.”

—John Sampas, Literary Executor, The Estate of Jack and Stella Kerouac

This is the first excerpt in a series of eight from Jack Kerouac’s Wake Up. The full manuscript will be published in Some of the Dharma by Viking Penguin in 1995.


 

Original watercolors by Francesco Clemente. © Francesco Clemente, 1993.
Original watercolors by Francesco Clemente. © Francesco Clemente, 1993.

That night, on orders from the King, who’d heard of this, Udayi, the King’s Minister commanded the girls to entice the Prince Siddhartha with their charms. They made many winsome moves, dropped casual shoulder silks, snaked their arms, arched their eyes, danced suggestively, caressed his wrists, some even pretended to be blushingly confused and removed roses from their bosoms, crying “Oh is this yours or mine, youthful prince?” but in his mindfulness of woe the Prince was unmoved. At midnight the girls were all exhausted and asleep on various divans and pillows. Only the Prince was awake. “It is not that I am careless about beauty,” he spoke to the dark, questioning Minister, “or am ignorant of the power of human joys, but only that I see on all the impress of change; therefore my heart is sad and heavy; if these things were sure of lasting, without the ills of age, disease, and death, then would I too take my fill of love; and to the end find no disgust or sadness. If you will undertake to cause these women’s beauty not to change or wither in the future, then, though the joy of love may have its evil, still it might hold the mind in thralldom. To know that other men grow old, and sicken, and die, would be enough to rob such joys of satisfaction: yet how much more in their own case (knowing this) would discontentment fill the mind; to know such pleasures hasten to decay, and their bodies likewise; if, notwithstanding this, men yield to the power of love, their case indeed is like the very beasts. It is but to seduce one with a hollow lie. Alas! alas! Udayi! these, after all, are the great concerns; the pain of birth, old age, disease, and death; this grief is what we have to fear; the eyes see all things falling to decay, and yet the heart finds joy in following them. Alas! for all the world! how dark and ignorant, void of understanding!”

And he made this vow: “I now will seek a noble law, unlike the worldly methods known to men. I will oppose disease and age and death, and strive against the mischief wrought by these on men.” To do this he resolved to leave the palace for good and go meditate in the solitude of the forest, as was the custom in those days of natural religion.

And he pointed out the sleeping girls to Udayi, for they were no longer beautiful with their lamentable tricks laid aside, snoring, sprawled all over in different ungainly positions, mere pitiful sisters now in the sorrow-burning globe. When the king heard of his son’s decision to leave home and take up the holy life, he protested tearfully. But the young monarch said: “O! place no difficulties in my path; your son is dwelling in a burning house, would you indeed prevent his leaving it! To solve doubt is only reasonable, who could forbid a man to seek its explanation?” And he made it clear that he would rather take his life than to be held by filial duty to go on in ignorance.

Seeing his father crying, the Prince decided to make his departure by night. Not only the Maharajah but the beautiful princess Yashodhara was beseeching him not to renounce the duties and responsibilities of royal reign and of married life. With his head in Yashodhara’s lap he inwardly grieved, knowing the suffering that his full renunciation would cause her. And he pondered: “My loving mother when she bore me, with deep affection painfully carried me, and then when born she died, not permitted to nourish me. One alive, the other dead, gone by different roads, where now shall she be found? Like as in a wilderness, on some high tree, all the birds living with their mates assemble in the evening and at dawn disperse, so are the separations of the world.” Looking at his three-year-old son Rahula, the thoughts dawned that he would utter later: “Call his name Rahula, a bond, for here is another bond which I must break.”

To Kandaka his servant, in the mid-watches of the night when everything was ready, he said, “Saddle then my horse, and quickly bring it here. I wish to reach the deathless city; my heart is fixed beyond all change, resolved I am and bound by sacred oath.”

Quietly they rode out the royal gate. Looking back once, the trembling Prince cried: “If I escape not birth, old age, and death, for evermore I pass not thus along.”

Master and servant rode through the forest of the night. At dawn, arriving at a spot, they dismounted and rested. “You have borne me well!” said the Prince patting his horse. And to his servant: “Ever have you followed after me when riding, and deeply have I felt my debt of thanks—I only knew you as a man true-hearted—But with many words I cannot hold you here, so let me say in brief to you, we have now ended our relationship: take, then, my horse and ride back again; for me, during the long night past, that place I sought to reach now I have obtained!”

Seeing that the servant was full of reluctance and remorse, the Prince handed him a precious jewel. “O Kandaka, take this gem and, going back to where my father is, take the jewel and lay it reverently before him, to signify my heart’s relation to him: and then, for me, request the king to stifle every fickle feeling of affection, and say that I, to escape from birth and age and death, have entered on the wild forest of painful discipline; not that I may get a heavenly birth, much less because I have no tenderness of heart, or that I cherish any cause of bitterness but only that I seek the way of ultimate escape.

 

wakeup3
Original watercolors by Francesco Clemente. © Francesco Clemente, 1993.

“My very ancestors, victorious kings, thinking their throne established and immovable, have handed down to me their kingly wealth; I, thinking only on religion, put it all away; I rejoice to have acquired religious wealth.

“And if you say that I am young and tender, and that the time for seeking is not come, you ought to know that to seek true religion, there is never a time not fit; impermanence and fickleness, the hate of death, these ever follow us, and therefore I embrace the present day, convinced that now is the time to seek.”

Poor Kandaka cried.

“You should overcome this sorrowful mood, it is for you to comfort yourself; all creatures, each in its way, foolishly arguing that all things are constant, would influence me today not to forsake my kin and relatives; but when dead and come to be a ghost, how then, let them say, can I be kept?”

These were words of a potential, dazzling, pure Sage, yet coming from the lips of a youthful and gentle prince they were like weights of sorrow to those who loved him and coveted his continuing regard. But there was no other way; his relationship with the world had to be snapped.

“People from the beginning have erred thus,” he said, “binding themselves in society and by the ties of love and then, as after a dream, all is dispersed. You may make known my words, ‘When I have escaped from the sad ocean of birth and death, then afterwards I will come back again, but I am resolved, if I obtain not my quest, my body shall perish in the mountain wilds.'”

Then he took his glittering sword and cut off his beautiful golden hair, and attached the sword together with some precious jewels to the saddle of his swift footed war horse: “Follow closely after Kandaka. Do not let sorrow rise within, I grieve indeed at losing you, my gallant steed. Your merit now has gained its end: you shall enjoy for long a respite from an evil birth.” And off he clapped them, servant and horse, and stood alone in the forest, bareheaded, empty-handed, like a Vajra-god ready and waiting yet already victorious.

“My adornments now are gone forever, there only now remain these silken garments, which are not in keeping with a hermit’s life.”

A man passed by in ragged clothes. Gotama called out, “That dress of thine belikes me much, as if it were not foul, and this my dress I’ll give thee in exchange.” The man, whom Gotama took to be a hunter, was actually a religious hermit, or Rishi, a Sage, a Muni. The Prince soon surmised this as soon as the transfer of clothes was effected. “This garment is of no common character! It is not what a worldly man has worn.”

He wandered on, deep in earnestness. Late in the day he grew very hungry. In the tradition of old, vowed to homelessness, he begged his first meal from door to door among the village grass huts. Having been a prince, he was used to the best dishes that royal chefs could prepare, and so now when these offerings of humble food met his educated palate he instinctively began spitting it out. Instantly he realized the patheticness of this folly and forced himself to eat the entire bowlful. Whatever was given to him in charity, though it may be wretched, should never be despised. The religious life dedicated to the search for the highest peace, having the one savor of reality, was seasoning enough indeed. Having cast off worldly ties of the heart and thinking mind, it was no time to be tied to the tasting tongue. Having eaten the humbling, the dreary meal, downcast yet joyful, he who had worn garments of silk and whose attendants had held a white umbrella over him, walked on in rags in the burning sunshine of the jungle solitude.

 

Wake Up from Some of the Dharma, © the estate of Jack Kerouac, John Sampas, Literary Representative. Published by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Books, U.S.A., Inc.

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