In 1958 Jack Kerouac wrote a semi-autobiographical novel entitled the “Dharma Bums”, loosely based around his early experiences of Buddhism, both in California and in the mountains in Washington State. Kerouac takes on the character of Ray Smith an itinerant American wanderer. The other principal character in the novel, Japhy Ryder, was, in real life, the poet and Zen Buddhist, Gary Snyder, who in past years has been heavily involved in the environmental movement (deep ecology). While there are a cast of other characters in the novel (the American poet of Howl, Allen Ginsberg; the British philosopher and popularizer of Taoism and Buddhism in the West, Alan Watts, Neal Cassady who plays prominently in Kerouac’s most famous novel “On the Road”), the other Buddhist of note is the late poet Philip Whalen, who went on to become a Zen monk and led the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco.
Jack Kerouac coined the term, “the beat generation” to describe an underground culture of the 1950’s that rejected materialism, embraced freedom of expression (as demonstrated through their sometimes spontaneous and exuberant poetry) and was beginning to explore the newly arrived Eastern religions that had only recently washed up on the shores of America. “Beat” could be taken to imply “beautiful or beatific”, “upbeat”, or “on the beat” as in music. The “beats” were to be a principal influence on the hippie counterculture of the 1960’s.
Kerouac was heavily influenced by Mahayana Buddhism. He even went so far as to write his own story of the Buddha’s life. The kind of Buddhism that appealed to Kerouac’s nature seems to be at peace with his Catholic upbringing and he explores the relationship playfully:
“For we all go back
where we came from,
God’s Lit Brain,
his Transcendent Eye
And there’s your bloody circle
by the ignorant
Buddhists, who will
still be funny Masters
up there, bless em.”
– from Heaven
Both Snyder and Whalen are more committed to the Zen Way. They both spent extensive periods in Japan studying Buddhism. Snyder was much affected by his time in the mountains of Washington, where all three (Snyder, Kerouac and Whalen) spent time in remote forestry lookouts on fire watch. Much of Snyder’s poetry and philosophy is rooted in nature:
holding the choker high
As the Cat swung back the arch
Limbs snapping on the tin hat
bright D caught on
ringing against cold steel.
Hsu Fang lived on leeks and pumpkins.
fields lying fallow!
But it’s hard to farm
Between the stumps:
The cows get thin, the milk tastes funny,
The kids grow up and go to college
They don’t come back
the little fir trees do
Rocks the same blue as sky
Only icefields, a mile up,
are the mountain
Hovering over ten thousand acres
Of young fir.”
– from Logging
Whalen was by far the most urbane of the three, though he too retains his sense of playfulness and joy in the natural world. He writes:
“Here beyond the Hogback I fling myself into the creek
Water not quite chest high, cold and fast
I let the breeze dry me and all of you on this page
Written in the sun where big spiders play on the rocks
Big black butterfly with cream edged wings investigates
What is the justice of any claim? Which Real,
What I want is to get loose; not to claim or be claimed,
Falling elegantly over the rocks into the creek and gone
Silent, living, moving; sometimes roar, bubble, splash
White, clear, dark smooth, move.
I said once before, “Wet is comfort.”
Probably I’m too fishy to be a seagull;
More likely a walrus or sealion…
In order to be calm and mellow
One must take time to find out what it is and practice it
So that when the atmosphere becomes busy and buggy,
Everybody rushing about,
Seeking who to blame for the confusion
They are so industriously creating….
Calm mellowness may not be necessary to me
But will be there for other folks to enjoy–supposing anybody
In all the world is interested in these commodities.
The noisy creek reminds me of silk weaving looms in Kyōto.”
-From Treading Water: Backing and Filling
While the 3 are different in their roots, their outlook, their views and their poetry, they are conjoined in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, where Kerouac spent 63 days working as a fire lookout in 1956 and which formed the seed of both “The Dharma Bums” and “Desolation Angels”. (The journey of these three poets and their experiences in the mountains with the forestry service is beautifully rendered in words and photographs in “Poets on the Peaks” by John Suiter, 2002).
In the “Scripture of the Golden Eternity”, a long sutra-like poem by Kerouac, he writes:
“What does it mean that those trees and mountains are magic and unreal?- It means that those trees and mountains are magic and unreal. What does it mean that those trees and mountains are not magic but real?- it means that those trees and mountains are not magic but real. Men are just making imaginary judgments both ways, and all the time it’s just the same natural golden eternity.”
Trees and mountains, mountains and trees. Three in one, one in three. The same, natural golden eternity.
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org