Kerouac's Dharma Bums

October 15: Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums was published on this day in 1958, a year after On the Road. Influenced by Gary Snyder and others, Kerouac began to study Buddhism in the early 50s. His novel opens with its autobiographical hero, Ray Smith, hopping a freight train, quoting from the Diamond Sutra, and almost believing "that I was an oldtime bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world (usually the immense triangular arc of New York to Mexico City to San Francisco) in order to turn the wheel of the True Meaning, or Dharma, and gain merit for myself as a future Buddha (Awakener) and as a future Hero in Paradise."

 

But Ray is also devoted to writing, and a few pages later we get his famous description of Allen Ginsberg's first public reading of Howl:

Anyway I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o'clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem "Wail" drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling "Go! Go! Go!"

Ray's Buddhism is challenged from without, too. Fed up with his chants—"O wise and serene spirit of Awakenerhood, everything's all right forever and forever and forever and thank you thank you thank you amen"—Ray's mother and sister, both of them good Catholics, tell him to "stick to the religion you were born with." Alvah Goldbook, the Allen Ginsberg character in the novel, says "to hell with all this Buddhist bullshit." Even Japhy Ryder, the Gary Snyder character, complains that there's too much bum in Ray's dharma:

"Why do you sit on your ass all day?"

"I practice do-nothing."

"What's the difference? Burn it, my Buddhism is activity…"

Later on in the novel, it's Ryder who calls for a revolution led by "a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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