F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, J. D. Salinger. When perusing the chapters of Buddhist teacher Dean Sluyter’s recent book, The Dharma Bum’s Guide to Western Literature: Finding Nirvana in the Classics, the dharmic connections may not seem so obvious. But that’s precisely the point. 

In The Dharma Bum’s Guide, published by New World Library in March 2022, Sluyter invites readers to look anew at the classics of Western literature to discover that they too offer valuable spiritual lessons. With wit and humor, Sluyter guides readers through titles commonly found in high school literature classes and reveals how their contents contain hints of the light of enlightenment, even if they didn’t use those terms explicitly. 

Tricycle recently spoke with Sluyter to learn about his inspirations for the book, the role of fun on the path to enlightenment, and the importance of looking at something, and then looking again. Read the interview below, and read an excerpt from the book’s chapter on J.D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye here.

What inspired you to write The Dharma Bum’s Guide? Two things inspired me. One was my lifelong love of literature and the fact that I was teaching literature at a fancy New Jersey prep school for 33 years. And the other thing was my lifelong involvement with dharma, which began with some spontaneous childhood samadhi experiences. I later read Eastern texts and realized, Oh, that’s what that’s called. The two things started to cross-fertilize. I taught Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, and Huckleberry Finn for upwards of 30 years each. When you keep coming back to a text and spending your summers in deep retreat and meditation, you begin to connect the dots. 

I started seeing things. Like in Huckleberry Finn when Huck rows out into the middle of the river, after he’s fled from his father, and lies on his back, looks up into the sky, and says, “The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before.” Wow, that’s the baptism into the transcendent, and, specifically, that’s sky-gazing meditation. I thought, Has anyone else seen this? I guess I better start writing stuff down. 

It’s in the book’s title—why did you specifically focus on Western literature? Because Eastern literature speaks for itself pretty well. It’s explicitly about the dharma and spells it out for us, which is why it’s precious and why we would be lost without it. Western literature and civilization have mostly not had a strong tradition of clear transmission of the dharma method and dharma experience. So it turns up in these covert forms because awakening is the universal quest—every being in every moment is yearning for awakening, whether they call it that or not. They’re yearning to be happy and free from suffering. It has to turn up. 

It turns up in The Great Gatsby in the form of Jay Gatsby stretching his arms out toward the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and thinking that if only he can have Daisy then that will be it. That’s his nirvana. And then we find out over the course of The Great Gatsby that identifying nirvana with a person in a romantic situation doesn’t work out in the long run.

In 2005, you published a book called Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies, which focused on films. Were you also thinking about The Dharma Bum’s Guide to Western Literature when you wrote Cinema Nirvana? This book has been in my mind for decades. I knew for at least 45 years before I wrote it that I needed to write it someday. And I had this recurring thought that if I’m on my deathbed and I haven’t written this book, I’m gonna be really pissed at myself. 

About two books ago, I told one of my dharma teachers—Charles Genoud, a wonderful Buddhist teacher from Switzerland to whom I dedicated the book—about this how-to book on meditation that I was planning on writing. He asked me, “Why don’t you write the literature book?” I didn’t know the answer at the time, but I eventually realized that I wasn’t ready. I needed my own dharma insight and writing skills to reach a certain level where I’d be ready to write it. Things had to fall in place and become ripe. You can’t make stuff get ripe. And you can’t always clearly understand the reasons that it’s not ripe yet. But in retrospect, now I can feel that this was exactly the right moment for me to write this book.

You wrote in the book’s dedications that the words “The Dharma Bums” are borrowed from Jack Kerouac, who borrowed it from Gary Snyder. What does the phrase “dharma bums” mean to you? Well, just as ski bums follow the snow and surf bums follow the waves, a dharma bum follows awakening. That’s a dharma bum’s first priority. While there’s other stuff in a dharma bum’s life, such as a family and career in my case, things are really organized around the pursuit of awakening. And I like the funkiness of the word bum, the way that knocks the pretension out of our spiritual quest. No one puts the words noble and bum together. It keeps us modest about things.

You talk about fun a lot in the book. You write, “If it’s not fun, what’s the point?” Does fun play a role in the path to enlightenment? Yes! So many people, whether it’s in the Buddhist world or elsewhere, equate spirituality with being solemn. I think a lot of people hear the word spiritual and right away, there’s a sense of walking around with a feeling of pain in your stomach. Or that a spiritual awakening or insight is something that you have to balance on your head like a fragile pottery jar. And as far as I can see, that is not it. 

The word dharma comes from roots that mean “that which is upheld.” This is often interpreted as meaning doctrine, that we uphold this Buddhist doctrine. I think that’s way too limiting. When I hear “that which is upheld,” I understand that to mean “that which holds up.” After all the bullshit washes away, after things come and go, we see what remains. And what remains is the dharma. The nature of life and its boundless luminous emptiness, which fills us with joy when we apprehend it, does not require us to be careful and serious and solemn for it to be. We’re in the passenger seat. We’re not driving this vehicle. As Willie Nelson once said, “Fortunately, we’re not in control.” Because who is it that could be in control? Who is it who is serious and solemn? Who is it who is proud of amassing all their dharma wisdom and reading all those books? Who is it? That’s the ego. And every time you get a chance to puncture the ego, it’s great fun. It promotes laughter.

Also, to be an effective teacher, I’m convinced that you have to be plugged into the spirit of fun. I learned this years ago from a dharma teacher of mine. Right before you’re about to make an important point in your teaching, try to make the person laugh. Because when people laugh, they’re relaxed. They’re receptive. They’re emotionally engaged. And they’ll hear what you have to say.

For some of the books, like Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, the dharma connection is not that obvious. How did you select the works that made it into the book? I selected them by writing about the things that I couldn’t wait to write about. It was that simple.

As for The Cat in the Hat, that book was the beginning of my falling in love with reading. I was in the first grade and I started off learning to read with books like Fun with Dick and Jane, which were horrible. Dr. Seuss himself said that his proudest achievement was driving the Dick and Jane books out of schools. So along comes The Cat in the Hat, and it’s imaginative and fun. It’s anarchic. I mean, the Cat is a complete prankster Buddha. He’s there to upset the applecart, but with some skill. As he says famously, “It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” To be able to shake up that which needs to be shaken up, and to do it without malice or hurting people, requires skill. At their best, the Dr. Seuss books really embody that.

And I love looking at children’s books and animated movies. Often, people are not looking for serious material there. That’s why when I was writing Cinema Nirvana, I made a list of all the movies people suggested that I write about, like The Matrix, and I made a point of not writing about them. Because that’s where it was obvious, and that wasn’t going to be fun. 

One of my favorite teaching stories is the Zen story about the monk who asks the roshi, “What is the Buddha?” Meaning, what is the highest truth, what is enlightenment? And the roshi does not answer by saying that the Buddha is the beautiful sunset or the beauty of a child’s laughter. He answers that the Buddha is the pile of cow shit in the middle of the road. It’s also the beautiful sunset and the child’s laugh, but that’s too easy. If you can see the Buddha and enlightenment in the pile of cow shit, you can see it everywhere. That’s my job.

Do you have a favorite passage or moment in the book? This is like choosing which of my five grandchildren is my favorite. But in my own ruminations and in my teaching, I always come back to William Blake’s “Ah! Sun-flower” poem:

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done. 

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

It’s such a gorgeous, universal symbol of the yearning for boundlessness that we all have. And the word sun is hidden in the word sunflower, showing that we already are that thing we’ve been looking for. It’s with that knowledge that we arise from our graves of dejection, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. To convey all of that in eight lines? That’s hard to beat. 

But also, Emily Dickinson’s poem: 

Not “Revelation” — ’tis — that waits,
But our unfurnished eyes —

How did she know that? That is the purest nondual teaching. That thing that we’re all waiting and looking for, that we think is going to be some ultimate experience revealed to our awareness… None of that is the “revelation.” It’s awareness itself. And we see that when awareness is left unfurnished, when it’s empty—shunya. All that from this woman, this recluse who spent her life in her upstairs bedroom in a house on Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Dharma Bum’s Guide? Not only is the light of awakening everywhere in literature, it’s everywhere in everything. Whatever you do—if it’s playing the saxophone, if it’s flipping real estate, if it’s raising children—there is a way to do it so that it becomes a dharma gate, a way of opening to the light.

Do you have any suggestions for how readers should approach books differently? Do more reading out loud. You have to tune into the music. Written words on a page are like musical notes on a staff—it’s not music until it’s played. The way we play language is we say it aloud.

When I was teaching high school, I always told my students on the first day of class, “You’re going to learn a lot of stuff this year. You’re going to learn about Shakespeare and how to use a semicolon. But here’s the most important thing you’re going to learn all year. Everything you write, you must read out loud.” It engages whole other brain circuits that otherwise don’t get engaged.

Have you consumed any pieces of media recently—books, movies, or otherwise—that you saw a glimpse of awakening in? I see it all the time. I once found a perfect meditation instruction on the side of a carton of Tropicana orange juice. It said, “Nothing added. Nothing taken away. Not from concentrate.” There it is. Just sit in the experience of the present moment, don’t try to add anything to it. Don’t try to take anything away. Don’t try to concentrate on anything. Just be in it. You’re done.

I have read that so many times in my life. Now I will always look at orange juice cartons differently. It’s all about seeing what’s been in front of you all along. With meditation, I thought that something needed to be added, or I needed some new experience, or I needed to concentrate on something. But it was right here in my ordinary experience all along. I just needed to look again.