Saturday, May 16, 2009

Jack Kerouac's "Wake Up! A Life of the Buddha": Book Review

My last entry reviewed ""The Dharma Bums," so I pair that with this 1955-penned, 2008-published meditation. He collates a somewhat stilted, often moving, distilled version filtered through Kerouac's own practice of Buddhist "Law," as he puts it, or truth-teaching. It's a serious, intense series of reflections, not of the author himself, but as a transparent medium transmitting the Buddha and his core dharma 2,500 years later. It certainly mirrors the author's own awareness, at the height of his immersion; Japhy in "DB" warns that "Ray" will revert to his Catholicism on his drunken deathbed. Who's to say that his childhood faith is not incompatible with his love of Buddhism?

Robert Thurman thinks the two outlooks can be reconciled. A pioneering Western-born exponent of Tibetan Buddhism, he's a child of the Beat generation. His thoughtful introduction argues that we need not regard Jack as macho-bullish as Gary Snyder-"Japhy Ryder" in an uncompromising Zen attitude; we also need not assume Kerouac, comfortable with both Jesus and the Buddha, rejected his Christianity in the way Thurman did, at 17, when reading "Dharma Bums," renouncing Protestantism, and running away from Phillips Exeter Academy! He proposes that Kerouac found himself able, as a Catholic, to relate to the rich panoply of Tibetan or Mahayana forms of Buddhism more easily than the austerities of Zen. Thurman excerpts a lot of key passages, but as a previous reviewer on Amazon states, these alert us to the importance and eloquence of these learned citations when they appear in the text.

As largely a newcomer to such topics, I found JK's summation of overcoming the Hindu "Atman" concept of an Oversoul intriguing: "all of it a mind-made mess, much as a dreamer continues his nightmare on purpose hoping to extricate himself from the frightful difficulties that he doesn't realize are only in his mind." (20) This fits the urgency of the title: "All is empty forever, wake up!" (68) that permeates the whole text. Here the "dharma bums" and "Zen lunatics" of his novel turn into their inspirations, "bhikshus" or wandering holy men following Gotama after he finds enlightenment and turns himself after long struggle into the historical Buddha.

As with the Gospels, the narrative combines dusty journeys with elevated preaching. It demands that you focus on intricate perspectives. Kerouac himself's absent as a character. He erases his presence so as to direct us towards the dharma's insight. The story ends beautifully; some of the Buddha's last inspiring words: "From the 'desiring-little' we find the way of true deliverance; desiring true freedom we ought to practice the contentment of 'knowing-enough.'" (141) Kerouac knows enough to stay out of the way of his subject!

It's an erudite presentation. For instance, cadences summing up how mental ignorance gives rise within us to endless cycles of trapped karma: "a sentient being's inheritance, the womb which bears him out of it, the womb to which he or it must resort; Karma is the root of morality, for, what we have been makes us what we are now. If a man becomes enlightened, stops, and realizes perfect wisdom and enters Nirvana, it is because his Karma had worked itself out and it was in his Karma to do so; if a man goes on in ignorance, angry, foolish and greedy, it is because his Karma had not yet worked it out and it was in his Karma to do so." (28-9)

For me, this played into the stereotype that many entertain of a fatalistic Eastern acceptance of one's destiny, but I may be wrong. Kerouac as a practitioner may have been reflecting his sources with far more insight than I possess. Either way, these ideas do test our Western mind, our notions of good and evil, reward and merit, predestination and free will, guilt and justice! [Buddhism also challenges our ideas of what an ethical philosophy can achieve, not an "-ism," but a moral system freed of gods and Hindu contexts that probably the Buddha himself, agnostic Stephen Batchelor argues in his existentialist "Buddhism Without Beliefs," was not entirely free of, being a messenger to/for/from his own time and place!]

Ananda plays the straight man, respectfully posing the questions that the Buddha elucidates. Still, wisdom proves elusive. "Ananda stood dazed hoping for a clearer interpretation of this instruction in the kind and gentle tones of the Master and he waited with a pure and expectant heart." (81) You may sympathize with Ananda's confusion as the Buddha by Socratic dialogue in the Shurangama Sutra tries to define the essential non-existence of one's own mind within, rather than apart from, a universal essence of mind! We mistake delusion for reality, but discrimination eludes facile phrasing. "They concentrate on the dream instead of the Mind that makes it." (82)

Our imperative: to recover free from grasping desire in "the two illusions of appearing and disappearing" (124) the "reality of the Shining Emptiness that is Essence of Mind." (107) Compared with eternal perception, the rest is "puppet-shows and racing up and down the Buddha-mountain." (122) If this sounds like gibberish, take the hundred pages preceding again and start over! I found the Seven Elements explanation easier than that of the six senses. The book's full of not superficial glimmers into truth but loaded with weighty ore that demands refinement and transformation out of this "Sea of Mystery" into gold-- or "Diamond Knowledge."

It's usually slow going; the nature of the dense, compressed material creates a weighty if slim volume. However, one editorial shortcoming, thus my subtracted star. This text lacks what would have enriched its usefulness to a wider audience, embracing Beat admirers probably more than Buddhist adepts. Take "the ten quarters of the universes," or "the realms of Tusita." Such terms need a glossary. Many Sanskrit terms Kerouac copies faithfully but these lack easy familiarity or quick recall for Westerners. Also, analogies such as "imaginary blossoms" and "morbid mist" regarding essential perception vs. that of the senses stayed for me rather obscure, despite the patience of the Buddha with Ananda and Kerouac's earnest reiteration of their recondite conversation. Footnotes or endnotes would have helped the general reader's perception of intricate concepts in a foreign language. Make no mistake: this is tough going for anyone who reads this sobering discourse carefully.

I'd recommend this for contemplative reading and patient reflection-- perhaps after finishing the four books mentioned below. The archaic tone forces you into a fresh reception to its philosophical instruction, conveyed in a folkloric or antiquated manner. The King James Version-cadences highlight the venerable registers of Kerouac's sources as he studied them-- translated into probably high-Church diction-- but their depth also slowed me down, pressuring me to concentrate on the necessity where "a sentient being sees the Light that was previously obscured by his brain as moon by cloud." (100) Thus, verily I say unto thee, regard this not as revelation to be taken within thy mind neither with lightness nor levity.

(P.S. This primer compliments Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist, Damien Keown's "Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction," Karen Armstrong's "Buddha" [Penguin Lives], and Thubten Chodron's "Open Heart, Clear Mind," all reviewed by me on this blog and Amazon US-- where nearly all of this review appeared yesterday. See also Carole Tonkinson's "Big Sky Mind," Kerouac's "Some of the Dharma" as the previously unpublished journals, and the scroll version of "On the Road". This review of "Wake Up!" to Amazon)

1 comment:

buddhist amulet said...

I have the book.