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Romanticism or Realization?

The Dangers of Kerouac's Mystic Ramblings in 'Dharma Bums'



"A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again."

Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Essay on Criticism [1711]


Jack Kerouac was an American writer whose novel 'On the Road' became an instant classic and spoke for the entire beat movement. He wrote his books at lightning speed which gave them the fast rhythm of a jazz drummer. The Beats were an intellectual movement in the 1950's and sought to open their minds to new territories in opposition to the conformity of their society. They did this through drinking, drugs, poetry, uninhibited sex, and keeping their lives, their minds, and their poetry at the furious pace of the improvisational jazz they so loved.

The Beat movement was also taking place at the same time that the ideas of eastern mysticism began to become more widespread throughout America. The Beats being open to new and different things immersed themselves in the eastern culture. What many readers of Kerouac may not know is that he originally had the opinion of himself as a Catholic mystic (discussed in OTR) and then just a short year later he described himself as a Bodhissatva (enlightened being) in Dharma Bums. On closer examination, one with the sufficient background in Buddhism, mysticism, or meditation may critically examine Kerouac's inflated claims towards himself and easily reject them as ridiculous and romanticized words to sell his novel.

The question may be raised-if the evidence of the matter weighs heavily against Kerouac being a mystical figure, what is all this writing of mystical, spiritual, eastern qualities? The truth is that in all his excitement Kerouac and, indeed, the Beat movement in general jumped on the eastern bandwagon and used it not in pursuit of Satori, highest wisdom, but rather as a springboard for arts and literature. "…the Beat generation discovered their Eastern roots through the medium of zen…the intellectual, 'cocktail-party' interest in zen. This was followed in the late 60's by a more practical interest…(Feurstein, 259)."

After all, these were poets and writers, that was their identification. They were more concerned with writing haiku than experiencing the intuitional source from whence the mystical poets have found their inspiration. It may be argued that all mystics have been poets because the only way to describe the mystical experience is by using multilayered words to signify that which is unsignifiable, to give form to the formless. Yet, it does not logically follow that any writer of poetry is a mystic.

There is one aspect of Kerouac's works that really connects with most readers. All great novels deal with the theme of an inner battle, man vs self, in which he must grow and evolve. They may also deal with man vs nature, man vs man, but without the inner conflict and growth the novel will lack purpose. This often corresponds to a youth in a coming-of-age novel, such as the works of Salinger or Hesse. This genre appeals to a wide audience because all people have to, in some way, deal with the conflict of growing up within a "consensus reality." This is the idea that all people must grow up seeing the world through a certain perspective that has been ingrained into them by their society, without an understanding of reality as is. These rules and values are entirely arbitrary. As the adolescent grows he may come to realize that what he has been living is a lie and becomes disillusioned and angry at the empty values of the society he was brought up to respect. This cruel joke is necessary for normal functioning of society and the conformation of the individual to his society for his survival.

Once he has been established and successful and has challenged the ideals of his society (often characterized in literature by the outlaw or outsider) he may practice certain exercises to expand his individual consciousness. By this he may live within that society, yet remaining above it, in absolute reality, the superconscious state. As society may never be as complex or full as superconsciousness, the average man will always feel empty. It is partly that longing of ego and ego identification that is causal to the running, leaving, and searching of writers like Kerouac. Not knowing the techniques of meditation, the unfortunate protagonist will run, searching for his higher self, which is inside him all the time.

The waves of mind that Kerouac wishes to unravel have been likened to a vast ocean. At the top most part of the ocean the waves are of moderate size, rough, unsteady. What is driving these waves are currents and cross currents of water, gulf streams, etc, which are much greater than the waves on the surface. One primary objective of meditation is to be able to still the mind into calmness so that no thought waves arise whatsoever. Only by controlling his mind may man and Kerouac in particular be able to fathom his completeness. "The main idea is that the infinite, the absolute, God, the Oversoul, or whatever you prefer to call it, is always present, but veiled or masked by the thoughts of the mind, just as one cannot hear a heartbeat in a noisy city (Crowley, 91)." Rather than swimming along the top of his mental ocean by running from place to place, thought to thought, Kerouac must dive to the bottom to the depths of himself to find his goal. He does not do so.

The problem of dealing with Kerouac's mysticism is that to use any word to describe it such as religion, God, mysticism, Buddhism, enlightenment, etc, is to use a word that is extremely loaded and will not be properly understood by anyone, or rather, understood by everyone only in the way that their ego grasps it. Words are inherently unable to adequately describe an experience. It will be difficult to present the argument against Kerouac using the aforementioned words because since they may have many different meanings, the ideas of this argument could be misinterpreted and misconstrued. Just as in science it is admitted that the observer cannot conduct an experiment without influencing the outcome of the experiment, the perceptor will not be able to understand these words without changing the meaning to fit their own constructs. Much of the cause of violence, ignorance, and arguments in this world is the result of the inability of people to understand each other. By romanticizing Buddhism that he does not fully understand (as that knowledge is only obtained by practical experience) Kerouac adds a little more confusion into the world. This must be treated on the same level as all other groups, political or religious, that have caused violence by ignorance and therefore must be considered a problem.

To properly deal with Kerouac I will offer some a basic outline of some terms that will then be compared to Kerouac's practice. For example, Kerouac describes himself as a Buddhist. The essence of Buddhism is the practice of meditation in order to achieve enlightenment. Samadhi (the highest stage of enlightenment) is considered an attribute of the universal mind-field and "knowledge itself…does not fully occur until the last stage of Samadhi (Bharati I, 449)." The ahamkara is the ego, the "faculty by which the personality establishes its identity, such as 'I am this body' (Bharati I, 94)", and develops "when there appears, as it were, self-sameness of the seeing power of consciousness-force on one hand and the (buddhi's) power as an instrument of seeing on the other, it is called asmita, that is, I-am-ness. (Bharati II, 83)."

As it will be seen later, the 'vision of God' or 'Union with God' or 'Samadhi', or whatever name we may agree to call it, has many kinds and many degrees, although there is an impassable abyss between the least of them and the greatest of all the phenomena of normal consciousness. To sum up, we assert a secret source of Energy with explains the phenomenon of genius. We do not believe in any supernatural explanations, but insist that this source may be reached by the following out of definite rules, the degree of success depending upon the capacity of the seeker and not upon the favor of any divine being. We assert that the animal phenomenon which determines success is an occurrence in the brain, characterized essentially by the uniting of the subject and object (Crowley, 19).

While Crowley and many non-meditating biologists treat consciousness to be an epiphenomenal construction other more reputable sources describe it as an experience pertaining to a related but separate superconsciousness. In either case, that experience is the goal of the seeker and the core of the self, something that Kerouac did not even approach. Crowley even goes on to say that "by it's (Samadhi) light all other events of life are as darkness…compared with this, all human life is absolutely dross (16)." If Kerouac had done a little more reading instead of wasting his time getting drunk, maybe he would have read a passage such as this that would have inspired him to fully commit himself. It seems he emanates the hopeless romantic who merely fantasizes but has no will to act and achieve.

The unfolding of man's consciousness cannot be limited to the word Buddhist. Kerouac thinks that by calling himself a Bodhissatva he is an enlightened being, but it is an experience, not a word. I may say that I am dead, but I am still here. I may say I am in California, yet I am not if I am here. I may say that I am Buddhist, yet what change has just come over me? Nothing. It is still the same conscious experience. Neither can this experience resulting from meditation be limited to a place, name, or era, nor can the reading or writing of words produce a change in consciousness. While being the origin of all religions, there is no religion in mediation. In the reputable Eastern lineages it has been said that "that which is not present in deep dreamless sleep is not real (Wilber, 44)." In deep sleep or meditation in which delta-waves are present in the brain, one has no sex, no height, no name, there are no words. So how may one expect a word or label to convey, equal, or adequately describe an experience? Kerouac seems to be hinting at this in his frequent talks of the void, the emptiness, the non-existence of things, but once again his words carry no weight.

There are many levels of knowledge in understanding the world. This applies not to such facts as material sciences, baseball statistics, or street smarts, but of the subtle operations of the universe, mind, and the self.

The humanity to which we belong…in reality constitutes only the outer circle of humanity, within which there are several other circles…The inner circle is called the 'esoteric'; this circle consists of people who have attained the highest development possible for man, each one of whom possesses…all forms of consciousness possible for man, full control over these states of consciousness, the whole of knowledge possible for man, and a free and independent will. In literature which acknowledges the existence of esotericism humanity is usually divided into two circles only, and the 'exoteric circle' as opposed to the 'esoteric,' is called ordinary life. 'The outer circle' is the circle of mechanical humanity to which we belong and which alone we know. (Ouspensky, 310)

While Kerouac rejected the ideals of society, he still remained within the exoteric circle by not understanding and romanticizing Buddhism. Those who really undertake the path towards enlightenment undergo intense sadhana (spiritual practices) for their whole lifetime with the help of a master to achieve their goal of Samadhi. Kerouac, on the other hand, seems to have become a master in the one year that elapsed between writing OTR and Dharma Bums. Moreover, the yogi will place strict emphasis on the difference between experiential knowledge and mere bookish learning. The enlightened being is able to enter into any state of consciousness at any moment, yet may be a scholar or illiterate. Kerouac merely seems to be a fan of speaking zen-like phrases, yet throughout the book he describes himself as an enlightened being without having obtained the highest knowledge of the self. He also seems to have a strong dependency on books, which are beneficial as tools in gaining insight and recording experience but provide the reader with no actual knowledge. This may be compared to a pre-pubescent male reading books on sex. His knowledge has no value, for how may he understand those words without having experienced the pleasures of the flesh? Many students upon reaching their goal even go so far as to destroy or give away their books.

When Tokusan gained an insight into the truth of Zen he immediately took out all his commentaries on the Diamond Sutra, once so valued and considered indispensable that he had to carry them wherever he went, and set fire to them, reducing all the manuscripts to ashes. He exclaimed, "However deep one's knowledge of abstruse philosophy, it is like a piece of hair flying in the vastness of space; however important one's experience in things worldly, it is like a drop of water thrown into an unfathomable abyss (Suzuki, 94).

The importance of centering, concentrating, calming the mind is very important in being able to establish harmony as well as in removing oneself from the attachments one's mind has with the people and objects around you. In concentration during meditation one becomes aware of their many thoughts and daydreams. One problem with many people is that they will hallucinate or imagine some great voice telling them what to do or that is giving them knowledge. Kerouac very often has these images of past Buddhist masters sending him messages. If Kerouac had been in his Christian stage, maybe he would have gone out preaching about Christ being the savior rather than preaching the doctrine of dharma or reincarnation. While the basic idea of the meditative traditions is to eventually liberate oneself from samsara, or the cycle of death and rebirth, we see Kerouac telling about the joy that would come from another chance for life on earth.

Kerouac's rampant drug and alcohol abuse are a very significant flaw by which one can easily deny his experiential ability or even practical understanding. Any esoteric meditative, scientific system invariably depends on the ability of the practitioner to control, concentrate, and purify the mind. Hence in many systems you see acts of asceticism or discipline to control the mind, break attachments, and break the ego. Other methods used are breathing exercises to purify the mind as well as concentrations on mantras (sacred sound vibrations), light, geometrical symbols, etc, to dissolve the mind and enter into higher awareness.

Thus one basic facet of a meditation practice is to refrain from use of mind-altering substances including drugs and alcohol. Any scientific study will describe the lack of control over the mind resulting from the use of these substances, while the practice of meditation on the self requires the utmost clarity and concentration of mind. In stark contrast we find Kerouac and his dharma bum friends frequently intoxicating themselves. The motive for this is unclear, it may have been used either directly as artistic creativity or indirectly to create crazy situations that would be interesting to publish. Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) is a person who lived out the potential that Kerouac only wrote about. He was associated with the hippies in the 1960's and also frequently used LSD until he met his guru Neem Karoli Baba in India and got involved with an authentic tradition. When he first met Baba, he ate all of his LSD (enough to kill a hundred people) with no effects. That is the power of a strong mind, power that Kerouac did not have.

Kerouac seems to be comparing the bums, the poor, the unsuccessful of his kind to be like renunciates or ascetics, yet this is completely misguided. In the meditative traditions it is known that before one renunciates one must actually achieve something. How can you renounce a marriage, a job, wealth, power, if one has never attained those? Otherwise, that renunciation will be false, a giving up on life out of despair because one is unhappy with the world and oneself. The real renunciate does so to break the attachments he has made in his mind with the world after fulfilling all of his duties, his karma. He will also continue to perform his training while sometimes serving others by acts like building hospitals or schools. What actions has Kerouac done? In embracing his version of karma and dharma he does nothing besides a little reading, infrequent and poorly done meditations (because of his romantic fantasies), and a lot of partying. One would imagine that if Kerouac had become enlightened, his old habits would have lost meaning for him. Instead, he merely performed an external change, creating the personality of a fake mystic by using different words and misunderstood philosophies.

While Kerouac himself was not completely serious about his efforts, some of his friends were to a slightly greater extent. Japhy was going to Japan to study with a Master, and even called Kerouac on his falsity. "But now I wanted to tell him all the things I'd discovered that winter meditating in the woods. 'Ah, it's just a lot of words,' he (Japhy) said, sadly, surprising me. 'I don't wanta hear all your word descriptions of words words words you made up all winter, man I wanta be enlightened by actions (169)." However, not even Japhy is immune to the artsy, romanticized Buddhism, and he also is open to many of the same arguments against Kerouac. "Strangely Japhy wasn't interested in the Buddhism of San Francisco Chinatown because it was traditional Buddhism, not the Zen intellectual artistic Buddhism he loved-but I was trying to make him see that everything was the same." (115)

Kerouac did nothing brilliant by claiming his Buddhist nature. Since the Beats strove against the values of the previous generation, they would have gladly embraced anything that was different, exciting, or exotic. If Americans were predispositioned to being Buddhists and a religious revival occurred with nice poems worshipping Jesus Christ then Kerouac may have been doing the same thing, saying, 'yes, yes, Jesus, that's IT.'

Now that it has been shown how and why Kerouac does not fulfill his assumed role as an enlightened being it is able to be understood why his romanticisms are so dangerous. Throughout history people have taken their opinion of what is correct and used it to subvert other members of the population. Most notably this is done by religious groups who use a supposedly loving God to persecute people. They do not embrace the knowledge as such, they do not embrace knowledge in its purity. That is either romanticism or ignorance, not reality. Two simple examples would be the Muslim jihad or the work of Church authorities to disregard Gnostic texts and change the traditional Christian texts to promote their political agendas.

America accepted many immigrants into its country and tried to mold them or reject them according to its own view of reality-hence the ghettoes and slums of the major port cities, the stereotyping, violence, etc. Had these people been accepted as they were and not subject to change it may have been a more peaceful transition. Yet another example would be the abuse of the IQ test (originally only to be used to find students needing extra assistance) by American politicians, scientists, and religious leaders to support racist theories of intelligence and remove social welfare programs.

The origin and perversion of morals may be an unsolved issue but there are two primary aspects of concern here. Originally morals were presented within the context of the meditative traditions to provide a way of living that would not disturb that mind, thus allowing deeper meditations. That was the primary reason. These moral codes were soon described by organized religions (a form of misknowledge) as God's law to produce shame, guilt, and fear in the uncritical person. It could be said that attachment to ideas that are incorrect in themselves and then perversed even worse and taken to be absolute law are used to conform the rest of society to that will. "Some of these are only the 'virtues' of a slave, enacted by his master to keep him in order. The real point of the Hindu 'Yama' (restraint) is that breaking any of these would tend to excite the mind (Crowley, 42)."

The process of misinterpreting knowledge is prevalent in accumulating information, or changing religious standpoint, or whatever one may be doing with one's intellect-one does not accept it as is, but conforms it to his own preconceived notions about what they think that knowledge means. That is a functioning of the ego of man. To view one's spiritual practice, learning, or morality as greater than others, or thinking 'I am so great, I am a great bodhisattva' like Kerouac did is only the stroking of one's ego. That is in fact what drives most religions as well. People following a religious practice on the exoteric level do so not out of love but out of fear. They are afraid of death, of being alone, of not understanding themselves or life. Everyone has an opinion, but how many opinions are intelligent or thought out? Why does everyone choose an opinion for themselves? Because it serves the ego. The ego needs to grasp something, to affirm itself, to exist. For someone to say that they do not understand something leaves one vulnerable and scared. Kerouac was a scared and depressed man, unsure of what to make of the world. That is why he was so quick to embrace the ignorant romanticism that has corrupted the exoteric Western Buddhism.

Poets, literati, humanitarians, and historians may not find this romanticism to be outrageous and my even celebrate Kerouac as one who bridges gaps across cultures. One who, in the tradition of the melting pot of America, assimilates knowledge from different sources with an open mind. The problem with those thoughts is that they are romanticisms of the same romanticism Kerouac fell victim to. In their mental laziness they fail to notice the many examples throughout history of the dangers that wrong knowledge has had in the destiny of humanity.

In rejecting the governmental, familial, societal norms of his time Kerouac embraced new ideologies. This can be akin to the idea of Hegelian dialectics, in which one ideologue is replaced by another, as its opposite, which takes its place and becomes the new ruling ideal again. This concept can also be described as cycles of creation, preservation, and dissolution, ideas of different name replacing each other without real change. We can see this all over in history. Historians, including Hegel, feel compelled to describe history as cyclic rather than linear as a result of this. What Keoruac is trying to accomplish by his romanticism is fifty percent individualistic and fifty percent socialistic. Half of him is on a quest, looking into himself, pursuing the aims of meditation. The other half, the romanticizing half of him (sustained by his ego) is merely looking to destroy the ruling norms and establish new ones. To replace one ideology, one way of life with another. This is where the dangers of misunderstanding, of misknowledge are apparent and dangerous: the espousing of one lie for another, merely resulting from the desire to change, causes much trouble.

Kerouac is seeing things to be wrong yet replacing them with something that is correct only according to his egoist mind-centered viewpoint. This is still wrong, based on ignorance, and therefore must be refuted. An example may be the idea that 'the sun sets in the West.' Well it does, doesn't it? In the afternoon, I look west, and there is the sun setting. However, it is known that the sun does not move at all. The appearance of the sun to be setting is caused by the location of our awareness, of our sense perception, being located here in this point on a planet that is circling the sun and also rotating along its own axis. Therefore as the idea of a setting sun is incorrect, because it is based on wrong knowledge, it is incorrect. So also may Kerouac's romanticism of meditational principles be classified as incorrect. Why does this matter? The problem of misunderstanding and romanticism has caused many problems throughout history. Even the example of the setting sun has practicality, for the notion of a setting sun led to an earth-centered universe that supported the Church's ideas and provided them with the ability to control their populations.

To overcome all of the ignorance of the consensus reality it often helps to remove oneself from that society. It is here that the adventure novel claims its source, but herein also lies the problem. The adventurer goes on a trip to cast off the sheaths of ignorance that have been thrust upon him by the society that he has been born into and grown up in, but since that is the only reality he knows he will return to it if he fails his mission of complete understanding of his self. The dog who runs away from his master, who does not know how to fight or feed himself any more, must return to his master. That is the master-slave relationship of person to government, person to religion, person to family, etc. It is this attachment that binds one to those who in their hate and ignorance pretend to love you and keep you enslaved. The Christian who claims to love you actually uses their own "moral superiority" based on assumed rules and supernatural laws to elevate themselves above you. While denouncing your selfish acts their entire lives are motivated by the future reward of heavenly existence. Rather than practicing the rule of loving thy neighbor they would rather kill you so that you may sooner face God , his judgement, and the subsequent eternal pain in hell as they prepare to celebrate their heavenly splendors.

The governmental systems also thrive on this power of ignorance. The government can only rule by dominating and leeching off others. The placement of life, of knowledge, in anything but yourself therefore results in slavery , ignorance, and suffering, which is why the modern man, the literary adventurer protagonist, must go out on his own to find the truth. Many of these heroes become lost, either ending up in another contrived reality or merely disillusioned into whatever reality his mind has tricked him into living by. The edge of knowledge, of genius, of enlightenment, is a fine line between insanity and death. One may say that his is why anyone who does not have complete knowledge is insane reflecting and strengthening the insanity of our now globalized society. At any level at which your present understanding is, if it is at all tainted by avidya (false knowledge or ignorance) the possibility remains to be once again caught in the endless dregs of existence which man is trapped in. This terrible warfare of mind is evident in many literary works such as The Bhagavad-Gita, alchemical writings (the metaphor of the creation of gold from the imperfect, material elements), and in the universal theme of light versus dark, good versus evil. Of course the effects of ignorance have been evident in all of these as well. Examples are the materialistic alchemists trying to make gold, the reduction of Hatha yoga as mental cleansing and preparation for higher energy to mere physical exercise, and the idea of purity versus impurity being changed into an anthropomorphic God and his nemesis, Satan….all of these things are the result of confused minds filled with ignorance. That is why there is so much violence, hatred and confusion in the world. That is why we must not be intellectually stagnant but critique, criticize, and analyze all workings of our external world, workings of the internal world, and destroy that which is false while discovering and living the truth. That is what Kerouac was writing about, yet didn't fully practice.

In fact, Zen, or the Zen Buddhism that the characters like Japhy and Ray Smith romantically embrace is actually an outgrowth of this idea of the dangers of misunderstanding, of ignorance, of impure knowledge. The Zen masters emphasize words like void, the contemplation of koans, etc, not just as mental exercises but because they knew that to spread the practice of meditation throughout China, they would need to teach it without any accompanying philosophies. These practices also force one to put aside preconceptions and false knowledge. They knew that it would be best to allow the peasants to learn from their meditation experiences, rather then risking the harm that would ensue had they tried to teach them the complicated systems of Indian philosophy, science, and metaphysics. It is shameful that even the non-intellectualization of Zen could be misunderstood and misused for artsy means by Kerouac.

In delegating control over oneself, by ignorance, to those forces outside of you one's mind becomes susceptible to excitation by those disturbing forces. It is when the mind becomes disturbed, agitated, uncentered and unfocused, that one takes action. This has its implication throughout history. In religions, for instance, when the thoughts of sin, heaven, and God and his laws have dug deep, strong trenches in one's mind, they will predominate one's thoughts and any external impulse related to these thoughts will immediately bring the same reactions to happen, as opposed to actions that are dictated by one's own will.

You will find this, for instance, in the war that is happening right now. If one does not watch the media or think about the war as it has not affected himself in any way whatsoever, he will remain calm. However, to the ordinary person who watches the news sources, the ignorance and lack of control of his mind will allow his mind to become agitated and will usually reply either mentally or in conversation with others by words that have been seen on the media or are standard mental responses. For instance, many people when asked about the war will reply that 'it is in God's hands.' Where did this idea come from? They certainly did not think it for themselves. It is the same story with the idea of terrorism. If the media brands a leader such as Saddam Hussein as a terrorist threat to United States citizens, the word 'terrorist' will systematically bring unthought, unwilled thoughts to the mind. Hence the necessity to think for oneself, to practice meditation to learn the tricks and levels of functioning of one's mind, and to think through loaded words.

Many people use religions or groups and whatnot for escapism from the world because they are depressed. That is ok, initially, but Kerouac never gets past this as he is lost in his talks of the void, constantly telling himself that this world is false, this world is meaningless, so he shouldn't be depressed anymore. This is akin to Christians who have the conception that they are blessed with eternal life in heaven after death, yet are miserable now. That seems rather silly. If one lives for 60 years out of eternity (really those two figures cannot be compared and the philosophical implications of eternity would immediately derail Christianity if Christians were smart enough to think for themselves) then how could anything bother them now?

When properly understood the comparisons between Kerouac's actions and the ideas of Buddhism show that Kerouac was a depressed person who was looking for a quick fix, and merely identified himself with something foreign and exotic. Unfortunately ignorance brings the same results whether from a Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or atheist. While Kerouac may have been a talented writer his work falls short of integrity. Although many people do not have a problem with this there are many examples throughout history of the dangers of misunderstanding and of ignorance, and the mystical ramblings of Dharma Bums will only strengthen this problem. Kerouac certainly started out on the correct path by rejecting the social norms but failed in the end a broken man partly resulting from his ignorance and romanticism of Eastern meditational systems. The great irony with Kerouac is that he died, disillusioned, from his alcohol problem which went against the Buddhist, meditation-oriented lifestyle he expounded. Such is the death of a romantic, such is the death of the ignorant.




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PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, Politics and Science. Nr. 88, Summer 2003