A Route to Revelation: Re-reading THE DHARMA BUMS

A Route to Revelation:

Rereading The Dharma Bums

Laurence Coupe

Beat Scene, 55 (Spring 2008), pp 40-43

Please note that this is not an academic article, so I’ve not included a list of references.


Writing this article in the wake of last year’s celebrations in the press and on radio and television of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s most famous novel, ON THE ROAD, I must confess to being in two minds. On the one hand, as an admirer of Kerouac, I am glad to see him being given due recognition; on the other hand, I am disappointed by the assumption behind those celebrations. Just as during his lifetime, the author has again been represented as a wild man of American letters – a restless, irresponsible hedonist whose writings simply record what he saw, what he felt and what he consumed as he went looking for ‘kicks’. That scarcely does him justice. Kerouac is a serious and substantial author, for whom fiction is a valid medium of spiritual enquiry. Of course, a proper reading of ON THE ROAD would demonstrate that; but perhaps it would do no harm to turn to the novel he wrote in the wake of its rapturous reception and which was published in the US the year after. I refer, of course, to THE DHARMA BUMS. Fifty years old this year, this novel still stands as a challenge to each and every one of its readers to find a route to revelation, and so make sense of this world.

But first we need to get our bearings. The first draft of ON THE ROAD was written between 1947 and 1951, but was not published until six years later. In between the writing and the publication came the period of Kerouac’s discovery of, and research into, the nature of Buddhism. This was documented in the detailed notes which he made on Buddhist doctrine during the years 1953-6, collected under the title SOME OF THE DHARMA but only published posthumously. Here we discover what I would regard as the true Kerouac, not the Kerouac of the popular image. On the evidence of this collection, he seems to have anticipated the way he would be misrepresented: ‘I don’t want to be a drunken hero of the generations … I want to be a quiet saint living in a shack in solitary meditation of universal mind’. Studying the ‘Dharma’, that is, the ‘truth’ or ‘law’ revealed to the world by the Buddha, leads him to some impressively searching reflections: ‘Every new human being is just another sensitive, tormented talent for suffering – that’s why the Tathagata [a title given to the Buddha] is full of compassion and sorrow or wishes to serve in the emancipation of all sentient & human beings from time past to time uncome from their sad trap of the life and death, delusion and despair, innocent rage, darkness of mind, perturbation, weariness, hopelessness….’ Such sentiments could hardly be dismissed as the ramblings of ‘a drunken hero’.

Confusion about Kerouac in the media seems to relate to confusion about the term ‘Beat’. Some commentators seem to think that all you have to know is that ‘Beat’ refers to the ‘beat’ of bebop music (as represented by the music of Charlie Parker, which undoubtedly influenced Kerouac’s ‘spontaneous prose’). Others think they have gone rather deeper into the subject when they discover that it can also refer to the feeling of being ‘dead beat’ (as expressed in the New York street idiom of Kerouac’s friend, Herbert Huncke). The point is not that these two usages are wrong, but that they only take us so far – as Kerouac kept trying to insist. We have, then, to heed such exasperated pronouncements as this, made in an early article of his called ‘Lamb, No Lion’:

Beat doesn’t mean tired, or bushed, so much as it means beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude, like St Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practising endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of heart. How can this be done in our mad modern world of multiplicities and millions? By practising a little solitude, going off by yourself once in awhile to store up that most precious of golds: the vibrations of sincerity.

I think that, in this light, it is only fair to take Kerouac at his word and assume that the work of the late fifties and early sixties is informed by his quest for spiritual meaning.

In the statement just quoted, the spirituality espoused seems to derive largely from Buddhism, but it is significant that the one figure whose example is commended is St Francis, representative of the faith in which Kerouac’s French-Canadian family brought him up, namely Catholicism. Certainly, if we are to take Kerouac seriously as a spiritual writer, we must acknowledge the tension which lies behind his vision. On the one hand he is attracted to the path of enlightenment, or awakening, opened up by the Buddha; on the other hand, he cannot forget the urgency of the summons to salvation made by Jesus Christ. The one results in the state known as ‘nirvana’, the extinguishing of the fire of the ego; the other results in the state known as the ‘kingdom of heaven’, the final reconciliation with God. Most people who adhere to one or other of these religions would see them as incompatible, given that Christianity assumes the existence of an all-powerful deity, while Buddhism sees the question of that existence as irrelevant. In technical language we would say that Christianity is ‘theistic’, while Buddhism is ‘non-theistic’. Kerouac seems anxious to embrace both, trusting that they ultimately agree.

It’s my conviction, then, that Kerouac is a spiritual writer working within the tension between the Catholicism of his upbringing and the Buddhism which he discovered as a young man. Consider another public pronouncement of his, made shortly after the one just quoted, in an article on ‘The Origins of the Beat Generation’: ‘I am not ashamed to wear the crucifix of my Lord.  It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to it. … No, I want to speak for things, for the crucifix I speak out… for Buddha I speak out …’ Kerouac moves easily between the religions (he also refers to the founders of others, such as Lao-Tse and Mohammed, in this same statement), convinced that there is a common spiritual wisdom underlying their differing types of religious expression.

It is in the novel under consideration here that we find his yearning for that wisdom articulated most clearly. THE DHARMA BUMS is nothing less than a fictional meditation on the nature of religious commitment. The very title announces an important insight: that the sacred (the ‘Dharma’, the Truth revealed by the Buddha) may manifest itself within the heart of the profane (the world of the ‘bums’, or dropouts). As such, it is echoed by the title of another novel of Kerouac’s, DESOLATION ANGELS. It is typically Beat to fuse the sacred and the profane in one phrase: we might recall also Allen Ginsberg’s poem, ‘Howl’, which speaks of ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’.

Typically Beat again, THE DHARMA BUMS begins with an image of hard travelling as a way of indicating a spiritual calling. The narrator, Ray Smith, is hitching a ride on a train to San Francisco: ‘Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara’ (p. 7). The spiritual dimension is introduced almost immediately, when the presence of the little old ‘bum’ who hops the freight at the same time prompts Ray to reflect on the words in the [Buddhist] Diamond Sutra concerning charity and to offer to share his food with him. In doing so, he later realises, he is acting as a ‘Dharma Bum’ (p. 8):  ‘The little Saint Teresa bum was the first genuine Dharma Bum I’d met, and the second was the number one Dharma Bum of them all and in fact it was he, Japhy Ryder, who coined the phrase’ (p. 12). As we shall see, Japhy is central to Ray’s quest for meaning.

In order to fully grasp Japhy’s significance in the novel, we have to understand that he is a practitioner of what is known as ‘Zen’, and that this is a version of Buddhism by which Ray is fascinated but about which he is sceptical. And in order to be clear about Zen, we need to make a differentiation, even at the risk of simplification: that between the Dharma of compassion and the Dharma of contemplation. We have just met Ray, and have witnessed his kindness to the ‘bum’ who has a dedication to a Christian saint, namely Teresa; Ray’s instinct is that compassion is what unites Buddhism and Christianity. Certainly, it is compassion which is emphasised as much as contemplation in the more traditional kind of Buddhism, derived from the Indian context in which the Buddha taught. We might say for convenience that, by contrast,  the radical reinterpretation of the Dharma which emerged centuries later in China and Japan, known as ‘Zen’, compassion is (or at least seems to be) less important than contemplation.  Zen, that is, encourages either ‘sitting quietly, doing nothing’ (long periods of meditation) or else wrestling with a mind game known as a ‘koan’ (the most famous being ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’): both of these may afford the moment of spiritual release.  In order to ensure this, the Zen master is entitled to suspend his compassion for his pupil and use shock tactics (such as sudden blows with his stick), thus confirming that contemplation is rather more important.

Where are we, then? Just as the novel more broadly attempts to mediate between Christianity and Buddhism, so more narrowly it explores the tension within Buddhism itself. In strictly Buddhist terms, the novel may be read as a debate between two kinds of practice: one represented by Ray Smith and the other by Japhy Ryder. Japhy lives frugally in San Francisco, as much in the spirit of Zen as possible – a spirit which does not exclude a taste for alcohol and sexual experimentation, however. Ray, by contrast, is much more anxious about following what he regards as a proper Buddhist code of conduct, involving self-denial and charity. The novel explores the tension between Zen freedom and orthodox restraint.

While there is little doubt that Japhy is Kerouac’s fictionalision of the poet Gary Snyder, it must be said that Kerouac is using the character as a way of articulating his own ambivalence towards Zen. There again, that does not mean that the author is offering an imbalanced picture which is biased towards his narrator. For it is by no means clear that Ray stands for Kerouac himself. There is frequently an ironic distance between author and narrator – as when, for instance, Ray returns home for Christmas , only to offend his family by his ill-considered attempt at explaining Buddhism to them. However, one can certainly see traces of the author’s spiritual concerns in the narrator’s dispute with Japhy over the validity of Zen:

‘Lissen, Japhy,’ I said, ‘I’m not a Zen Buddhist, I’m a serious Buddhist’ … my contention being that Zen Buddhism didn’t concentrate on kindness so much as on confusing the intellect to make it perceive the illusion of all sources of things. ‘It’s mean,’ I complained. ‘All those Zen Masters throwing young kids in the mud because they can’t answer their silly word questions.’ (p. 15)

Even though some of Kerouac’s other writing, notably his SCRIPTURE OF THE GOLDEN ETERNITY, is indebted to Zen mind-games, Ray’s objection to what goes with them in practice is probably sanctioned by Kerouac, on the evidence of SOME OF THE DHARMA: for example, ‘Zen is a modern shallow naive almost “popular” innocent idea’.

Given such doubts, it is to the credit of Kerouac that he maintains the tension between Ray’s Dharma of compassion and Japhy’s Dharma of contemplation throughout the novel. Sympathising with Ray, while aware of his weaknesses, the reader must yet be given a sense of how inspiring the ideas and the presence of Japhy are to all who meet him – else, why would the narrator want to talk so much about him?  It is, then, Japhy’s vision of a Zen future for the United States that the rest of the novel seems to endorse. He speaks of

‘a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway … I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution, thousands or even millions of young Ameri-cans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason …’ (p. 83)

There can be little doubt, despite the shadow cast on this beatific future by other characters – notably Rosie Buchanan, the depressive girlfriend of Ray’s friend Cody Pomeray, who eventually commits suicide after predicting a police state rather than a ‘rucksack revolution’ – that this manifesto conveys much of Kerouac’s own faith in the future at the time of writing.

We might compare Japhy’s pronouncement with Kerouac’s own account of the novel, provided as the jacket copy for the original Viking hardback edition:

Dharma is the Sanskrit Word for Truth. It may also be translated as The Duty, or The Law. The Dharma Bums is a surprising story of two young Americans who make a goodhearted effort to know the Truth with full packs on their backs, rucksack wanderers of the West Coast, hiking and climbing mountains to go and meditate and pray and cook their simple foods, and down below living in shacks and sleeping outdoors under the California stars. … [This] is the ancient Way of all the wild prophets of the past, whether St John the Baptist in the West or the holy old Zen Lunatic Hanshan in the East. … In this new novel, Jack Kerouac departs from the `hipster’ movement of the Beat Generation and leads his readers towards a conception of ‘continual conscious compassion’ and a peaceful understanding truce with the paradox of existence.

It might almost be Japhy speaking – were it not for the allusion to John the Baptist. For, even here, we should not overlook Kerouac’s assumption of the compatibility of Buddhist and Christian thinking.

In this light, it would seem that the author endorses his narrator’s search for an inclusive worldview in which both of these have their place: that is, a version of what the philosopher Leibniz (and after him, Aldous Huxley) called the ‘perennial philosophy’, a mystical wisdom common to all religions. Ray seeks what he calls ‘the truth that is realisable in the dead man’s bones and is beyond the tree of Buddha as well as the cross of Jesus’ (p. 115). In order to attain that truth, he knows that he has fully to understand the meaning behind both symbols. Gautama demonstrates the possibility of enlightenment for all humanity by meditating under the ‘bodhi’ (enlightenment) tree: thus, he becomes Buddha.  Jesus saves humanity from sin by dying in agony on the cross: thus, he becomes Christ. Both are inspiring icons, equally valid, and Ray’s aim is to reconcile them in the service of an inclusive wisdom.

In case we are tempted to come down on the side of Japhy’s Zen as opposed to Ray’s quest for a faith that comprehends both Buddhism and Christianity, Kerouac is careful to provide evidence of Japhy’s limitations. In particular, we are surely meant to query his blithe dismissal of Christianity itself. When he and Ray come across a black, evangelical Christian woman preaching on the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Ray is pleased, not only because of what she’s saying but because of her delivery, which reminds him of Ma Rainey, the early jazz/blues singer. But Japhy can only grumble, ‘I don’t like all that Jesus stuff she’s talking about,’ to which Ray retorts: ‘What’s wrong with Jesus? Didn’t Jesus speak of Heaven? Isn’t Heaven Buddha’s nirvana?’ Refusing to make any concession, Japhy condescendingly replies: ‘According to your own interpretation, Smith’ (p. 97).

Taking him as representing a certain spiritual trend, then, we can say that Japhy, while being an inspiring and provocative figure, is not necessarily the most likeable character in the book. For many readers, Ray, a vulnerable and fallible seeker, is likely to prove more attractive. Whether Ray finds what he seeks is another matter. The novel ends ambiguously. With Japhy having left to spend time in a Japanese monastery, Ray follows his advice to serve as fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Cascade Mountains. The closing paragraph of the final chapter has Ray on the one hand invoking the spirit of the absent Japhy, thus implicitly affirming the non-theism of Zen Buddhism, and on the other hand declaring his adherence to the theism of Christianity: ‘Down on the lake rosy reflections of celestial vapour appeared, and I said ‘ “God, I love you” and looked up to the sky and really meant it. “I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other.” ’ (p. 204). But as this is a novel with a spiritual theme rather than a religious treatise in fictional form, we should not worry about this closing paradox. Perhaps there is more wisdom in Ray’s apparent confusion than is to be found in the letter of this or that law.

Certainly, THE DHARMA BUMS is a work which merits regular re-reading, not merely as a report on the doings of the Beat generation but rather as a challenge to whatever certainty we are currently clinging. It is this sense of perpetual possibility which makes it, to my mind, a spiritual classic. It reminds us that a valid route to revelation will inevitably bring us back to the beginning, though with an altered perspective. As T. S. Eliot tells us at the end of FOUR QUARTETS: ‘We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.’ Thus Ray has learnt to look upon reality from a ‘beatific’ point of view, which incorporates both ‘the cross of Jesus’ and ‘the tree of Buddha’. It incorporates, too, Japhy’s Dharma of contemplation along with his own Dharma of compassion, which now seem to complement rather than contradict each other. It is with this wisdom that, in the closing sentence of this fascinating but underrated novel, Ray ‘turned and went on down the trail back to this world’ (p. 204).

Edition quoted: THE DHARMA BUMS (Penguin: London, 2000).

Laurence Coupe

Further reading:

Laurence Coupe, Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat spirit and popular song (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)