Monday, October 17, 2005

Kerouac's Book of Dharma

Early in 1954, while researching Thoreau in the Richmond Hill Branch of the Queens Public Library, Jack Kerouac came across a notation of Buddhahood that sent him back
to the shelves referencing the topic.

Utilizing Ashvaghoshga's "Life of the Buddha" and Dwight Goddard's "The Buddhist Bible,"
he began documenting the Eastern texts and discovered a new philosophy of thought
that would gradually weave its way into his work.

On the long walk back to the apartment he shared with his mother, Kerouac paused
under a Hillside Avenue street lamp. Closing his eyes to shut out the outside world,
he practiced the meditation just learned and, at that precise moment, began a Western
journey into a new consciousness, the germ of an idea that would simmer over time and eventually blossom into the contemporary texts.

Beginning in the spring of 1954, in what was originally intended as a series of letters
and teachings for his friend Allen Ginsberg,Kerouac spent the better part of the next
two years studying, writing and documenting Buddhist philosophies and translating
them through the vessel of his Western mind. These notes grew into a voluminous text
that he called "Some of the Dharma."

By 1954, several years had passed since Kerouac's critically acclaimed, albeit traditionally
styled debut novel,"The Town and the City." In the interim, he had sought and discovered a
more original voice - a rhythmic language rooted in the spontaneity of automatic writing
and the "sketching" of words. Using this technique during an explosively creative period
in the early and mid-1950s, he completed several works - "On the Road," "Dr. Sax,"
"Visions of Cody," and "The Subterraneans" among them. All were unwelcomed, however,
by a publishing community that saw no place in the world for them.

Kerouac's mirror showed a man in his mid-30s, broke, depressed, living at home
with his mother after a pair of failed marriages, and haunted with frustration over
the pile of manuscripts that remained unpublished. His buddhist studies provided
a modicum of comfort in a period of rejection.

In between cross-country zigzags - to San Jose, to Mexico City, to Manhattan nights on the Lower East Side, with a now-legendary cast of cronies - he continued to fill notebooks with his Dharma notes. By the spring of 1956, he had completed a phase of two-and-a-half years of
Buddhist studies, and the carefully typed manuscript, titled "Some of the Dharma," was met, predictably, with yet another series of rejection slips.

This month, Viking Publishing, banking on the hope of a world finally ready for it, released
the work, duplicating the text in design and the formatted blocks of Kerouac's original intention.

A massive volume of verse, call it a dual-sided sword of verbiage - one from the West,
one blowing in from the East - spontaneous lightning striking a weather vane sitting atop the earth's cracked axis, and setting off a flashpot of random white heat, sparks,flashes, spinning
at the speed of light and cutting a swath of figure 8's - the checkered pattern of
inverted infinity lying on its side - into the doldrums of a rapidly decaying planet
only now prepared to receive its communion.

"Now I remember:
The state of my Mind was pure water before I was born."

It is a beautifully designed volume of exploration filled with dreams,philosophies, sketches, routines, and haikus:

"Suppose you fill the square vessel with objects and then remove the
vessel's squareness;
are you still troubled as to the existence of
shape in open space?"

Scraps of poems, prayers, meditations, and journal entries:

"January 5, 1955: All of a sudden I learned to stop breathing (at the end of exhalations)
and was transported - as if suddenly sitting on
lotus blossoms or lily pads.
Aerial freedom, lightness, bliss . . ."

Inside the jacket cover, there is an introductory glossary of style -"Editorial Explanations
of Various Techniques" - a description of the means Kerouac used in his word "sketches," "visions," and "tics" - a resource that expounds on his original theme of the "Essentials of
Spontaneous Prose."

It is a design of language that swirls in the mind, stirring the cauldron that is the brain,
bubbling ingredients of memory and hope, of pain, of loss, of growth of soul, to open
and blossom into truth of the inner eye :

"If you were not there/ To see the world/
With your special eyes/ Conditioned eyes/
What makes you think/ It would look like that?"

William S. Burroughs once wrote that Kerouac, with his words and vision, "opened a million coffee bars and sold a million Levi's." With these transpositions of Eastern philosophies,
which also found their way into later works like "Dharma Bums" and "The Scripture
of The Golden Eternity," Kerouac, alongside other visionaries of the so-called Beat Generation, and theologians like Alan Watts, was a catalyst for opening up the consciousness of America in the search for meaning and spirituality that continues in the present day.

"Some of the Dharma" is separated into 10 "books," representing the search for epiphanies
of wisdom, truth, spirituality, and understanding.

“Some of the Dharma,” by Jack Kerouac. Viking Penguin, 1997, 420 pages, $32.95.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
originally published in the Albany Times Union, Sep 28, 1997


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