The first four episodes of Wake Up, Jack Kerouac’s previously unpublished life of the Buddha, recounted the story of Prince Siddhartha leaving his father’s palace, taking up the homeless life, and attaining enlightenment. In Episode Four, while seated beneath the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha arrived at the decision to delay his entry into nirvana until all beings were freed from suffering. This installment picks up the story after the Buddha has stood up from beneath the tree and walked to the city of Benares. The complete manuscript of Wake Up will appear in a volume entitled Some of the Dharma, due to be published by Viking Penguin in 1995. Note: Kerouac’s original spellings and usage have been retained throughout.
In the deer park Isipatana, sat the five mendicant ascetics with whom he’d spent those futile six years in the Forest of Mortification. They saw him coming, slowly, his eyes cast down with circumspection and modesty a plough’s length along the ground as if he was ploughing and planting the Ambrosial crop of the law as he went. They scoffed.
“There comes Gotama who broke his first vow by giving up ascetic practices and mortification. Don’t rise in salutation, give him an offhand greeting, don’t offer him the customary refreshments when he comes.”
However, when the Buddha approached them in a dignified manner, they involuntarily arose from their seats, and in spite of their resolution greeted him and offered to wash his feet and do all that he might require. It struck awe in their hearts. But they addressed him as Gotama after his family. Then their Lord said to them: “Call me not after my private name, for it is a rude and careless way of addressing one who has obtained Saintship (Arhatship). My mind is undisturbed whether people treat me with respect or disrespect. But it is not courteous for others to call one who looks equally with a kind heart upon all living beings by his familiar name. Buddhas bring salvation to the world, and therefore they ought to be treated with respect as children treat their fathers.”
Then he preached to them his first great sermon.
It is known as the “Sermon at Benares,” the Dharmachakra-pravartana Sutra, in which he explained the Four Great Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, and made converts of them. Thoroughly versed in highest truth, full of all-embracing intelligence, the Buddha on their account briefly declared to them the one true Way, the Middle Way.
“These are the two extremes, O bhikshus (Religious Wanderers) which the man who has given up the world ought not to follow—the habitual practice, on the one hand, of self-indulgence which is unworthy, vain and fit only for the worldly-minded—and the habitual practice, on the other hand, of self-mortification which is painful, useless and unprofitable.
“Neither abstinence from fish or flesh, nor going naked, nor shaving the head, nor wearing matted hair, nor dressing in a rough garment, nor covering oneself with dirt, nor sacrificing to Fire, will cleanse a man who is not free from delusions.
“Anger, drunkenness, obstinacy, bigotry, deception, envy, self-praise, disparaging others, superciliousness and evil intentions, these constitute uncleanness; not verily the eating of flesh.
“A middle path, O bhikshus, avoiding these two extremes, has been discovered by the Buddha-a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to the higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, to Nirvana.
“Scatter the fire amid the desert grass, dried by the sun, fanned by the wind—the raging flames who shall extinguish? Such is the fire of greediness and lust, I, then, reject both these extremes: my heart keeps in the middle way.
“He who fills his lamp with water will not dispel the darkness, and he who tries to light a fire with rotten wood will fail.
“He in whom self has become extinct is free from lust; the self-indulgent man is led around by his passions, and pleasure-seeking is degrading and vulgar.
“But to satisfy the necessities of life is not evil. To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom, and keep our mind strong and clear.”
And then the all-knowing One expounded the joyful news of the truth of suffering and the destruction of that suffering. Amazed were the five mendicants, led by the great Kaundinya, to learn that happiness could only come through recognition of sorrow! And he showed them the Eightfold Path of proper ideas, the torch to light the way; proper aspirations, the guide; proper kind speech, the dwelling-place on the road; proper behavior, and the gait cannot be but straight ahead; proper ways of earning livelihood, so as to harm no living thing or cheat no fellow creature, this the refreshment of the holy man, the good man, the happy man; proper efforts the steps and strides themselves along the path immemoria oft forgot and found again; proper thoughts be breathing, thoughts mindful of the true nature of reality which is like a magic reflection in a dream, a mirage (“In reality it is all a similar emptiness, but you are not free for reality, O my bhikshus?”); and proper meditation the clear adorable peace that follows in the footprints thus implanted in the dust.
This was the message of deliverance, the glad tidings, the sweetness of the truth. And when the Blessed One had thus set the royal chariot wheel of truth rolling onward, a rapture thrilled through the universes.
”Truly, O Buddha, our Lord, thou hast found the truth!” cried Kaundinya, discerning suddenly with his mental eye, then the other bhikshus too joined him and exclaimed: “Truly, thou art the Buddha, thou hast found the truth.”
The five mendicant ascetics received the ordination and formed the first nucleus of the holy brotherhood of disciples known as the Sangha (the Church). Millions and millions were to come after them. Buddha walked into Benares and begged his meal. Like water that conquers the valleys of the world because it is good at keeping low, Buddha was the conqueror of the world because he chose the lowest role. At the same time this was the most precious of teachings, the Teaching Without Words, teaching humility and charity to the good householders of the land, who, seeing this tall imposing Lord of Men coming meekly to their back doors with a begging pot, learned thereby the childlike and trusting lesson with their very eyes.
Then he went to a tree outside of town, apart from the busy road, ate, put away his bowl, sat down with his legs underneath, and meditated in holy rapture.
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