Some of the Dharma

by Jack Kerouac
(1997)
   Some of the Dharma began as a series of notes that jack kerouac made of his studies in Buddhism beginning in December 1953 and concluding in May 1956. Initially, Buddhism offered solace to Kerouac when he was going through a difficult time. Recovering emotionally from the 1953 love affair that was recounted in The suBterraneans, Kerouac sought respite in the library, reading some works of Henry David Thoreau; Thoreau’s references to Hindu philosophy lead Kerouac to The Life of Buddha by Ashvaghosa. Kerouac identified instantly with the Buddhist philosophies, especially the notion that life consists of suffering or sorrow, and he continued to read Buddhist texts after he traveled to San Jose to stay with neal and carolyn cassady. Kerouac intently studied the Buddhist texts, even compiling a bibliography of works that he considered essential, but he may have been hindered in his progress toward enlightenment by his go-it-alone approach. He never had a teacher, and as he had since the school days of his youth, he assembled his own education by reading and responding to books. Kerouac steadfastly continued his dedication to the understanding of Buddhism for years to come, in San Francisco, New York, and Mexico City, but his favorite location for meditation and journal writing was rural Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where he often stayed at the home of his sister and brother-in-law. In the woods near his brother-in-law’s house, Kerouac was free to roam and to meditate and to come home in the evenings to the sanctity of his family. In February 1954 Kerouac typed up 100 pages of his Buddhist study notes so that he could collate them and send them with allen ginsberg. Ever eager to share the discovery of new ideas, Kerouac initially assumed the role of teacher and considered Ginsberg his student; he addresses Ginsberg directly several times in the notes. Soon, though, Kerouac came to understand inherent dangers in professing to be a teacher of enlightenment, and he dropped the role except to the degree that he positioned himself as a conduit for the voice of the great Buddhist teachers of the past. His notes continued to grow and to open out into new areas as Kerouac continued to learn about Buddhism and to expand his personal responses to his spiritual study. While the published Some of the Dharma may not be as popular a book for readers as, say, on tHe road or the The dHarma Bums, its writing-that is, the ongoing act of its creation—was vitally important to Kerouac’s thematic development as a writer. The seeds of Buddhist influence that begin in Some of the Dharma fully bloom in such later works as mexico city Blues, tristessa, visions of Gerard, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, and desolation anGels. Even in his earlier, pre-Buddhist books a strong spiritual drive had been evident; after spring 1954, Buddhism became the driving force of Kerouac’s output, so much so that in January 1955, Kerouac asked his literary agent to return to him his various pre-1954 manuscripts that he had been trying to publish. He wished instead to substitute his story of the life of the Buddha: “I won’t need money the way I’m going to live. And from now on all my writing is going to have a basis of Buddhist Teaching free of all worldly & literary motives. . . . I couldn’t publish [On the Road] except as ‘Pre-enlightenment’ work.” His heart may have been in the right place, but “right livelihood” could not overwhelm entirely his desire to be a successfully published author, and several months later Kerouac again was engaged in the business of trying to get his work published. Kerouac did not live to see the publication of Some of the Dharma. He had hoped to usher in a new age of American Buddhism with Some of the Dharma and “Wake Up,” the Buddha story, and he foresaw a groundswell of new and enlightened attitudes from the general citizenry right up to the U.S. president. The Dharma Bums, however, came as close to shifting the current American cultural landscape as one had any reason to expect, and it demonstrates the power of Kerouac’s narrative art to convey the ideas about which he had been ruminating in his nonfiction study. Some contemporary critics belittled Kerouac’s apparent dabbling in Buddhism in The Dharma Bums, but the 1997 publication of Some of the Dharma finally allows readers to trace the influence of Buddhism in Kerouac’s life and his work.
   Some of the Dharma consists of 10 “books” of varying length, based on the spiral ring notebooks in which Kerouac originally composed the notes. Readers who are interested primarily in learning about Buddhism might be terribly frustrated if they rely on Some of the Dharma as their starting point. On the other hand, maybe some readers would be powerfully rewarded in a way that they might miss if they had taken a more conventional approach, and this seems to be Kerouac’s aim. The published book is not a guide to Buddhism; it is instead a guide to how Kerouac approached the subject and how his understanding of Buddhism contended with his Christianity and also with his lust for women and alcohol. There is much repetition of themes throughout the book, and in fact one might say that there is only one theme—reality is an illusion-that echoes repeatedly in seemingly endless variations. That Kerouac is painfully aware of suffering is fully evidenced throughout the book, and Buddhistic beliefs help Kerouac to see that pain, too, is an illusion.
   In Book One, Kerouac lists what he believes to be an essential bibliography for the study of Buddhism and also lists important Hindu terms along with their meanings in English. Beyond that, one cannot discern what thoughts are Kerouac’s and what ideas are his gleanings from his bibliography. Occasionally quotations are cited, but more typically they are not. Kerouac uses language that at times sounds as if it were lifted from the King James Bible (thy and thou and so on) when he is purportedly stating Buddhist precepts. At other times, he brings Buddhism and Christianity into close proximity: “Tathagata in Us All / The Lord Hath Mercy.” Shakespearean language play and a blend of Buddhism and Catholicism are present in future works as well. In addition to Christianity, other featured themes are also particularly Kerouacian. Numerous times, he refers to his Beat-Generation friends by name, and in Book Two, he astutely perceives his own situation: “I don’t want to be a drunken hero of the generation of suffering. I want to be a quiet saint living in a shack meditation of universal mind.” These references to both the Beat Generation and to his position in society (versus his yearning to retire from society) place Some of the Dharma firmly in the Kerouac canon. Throughout the book, Kerouac wrestles with his attachments to friendships, his addiction to alcohol, and his eagerness for critical and monetary success as a writer. He cannot reckon how to adhere to Buddhist precepts and satisfy his desires, and many of his notes record his ongoing battles to balance them. Finally he determines to eat but one meal per day, to quit drinking, and to drop all friendships. When he finds that he cannot maintain this regimen, he decides that he might live a double life, which he calls The City and the Path. In the City, he will indulge in sex, wine, friends, and the business of writing the Duluoz Legend to earn money. The Path represents solitude and a do-nothing philosophy. To some degree, Kerouac was able to carry on this lifestyle.
   Buddhism influenced more than Kerouac’s lifestyle; it also helped him develop a scheme for his writing. When he fully conceived his Duluoz Legend, he foresaw his work divided into six categories: Visions, Dreams, Dharmas, Blues, Prayers, and Ecstasies. This list provides serviceable divisions for his life’s work. Readers will find numerous insights to the ways that Some of the Dharma influenced Kerouac’s life and his work.
   Matt Theado

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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