Yesterday I got the chance to read a few articles in the winter issue of Tricycle magazine. Evan Brenner wrote a review (pp. 96-99) of the newly released Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, by Jack Kerouac. I was interested to read Brenner’s criticisms, especially because he seems to like Kerouac a lot (my own feelings toward Kerouac are lukewarm).
I’ve been seeing lots of copies of the book in various bookstores (where I did much of my holiday shopping). Now I know why — this work by Kerouac was not available in book form before.
In the end, the absence of citation contributes to the confusion surrounding an already commonly misunderstood philosophy. Were the work squarely fiction, like Siddhartha [by Herman Hesse], I could simply read and enjoy. But if I’m to take this as an instructional text, as the author suggests, I want to know the sources, or at least be able to distinguish those “new words of my own selection” from “quotations from the Sacred Scriptures of the Buddhist Canon.” It is just this kind of unreferenced discourse, in which the teacher’s ideas meld inconspicuously with the Buddha’s original doctrine, that contributes to the misunderstanding of Buddhism as vague, self-contradictory, nihilistic, or some kind of anything-goes philosophy. (Brenner, pp. 98-99)
This criticism echoes the reasons why I go around recommending Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful biography of the Buddha, Old Path, White Clouds, to everyone. Not only are all the stories and teachings in the book meticulously referenced (in unobtrusive end notes at the back of the book), but also, Thich Nhat Hanh took care to take all his sources from the oldest Theravada scriptures (even though he is a Zen monk himself). According to an author’s note (p. 576), he did this in part to show “that all sutras are sutras of Buddhism, whether they belong to the Northern or Southern Tradition.”