Kerouac’s life of the Buddha


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.”



8 responses

  1. The quotation points out just the sort of reason I’m lukewarm (at best) about Kerouac and all the beats (with the exception of Gary Snyder, but was he truly a beat?). They may have popularized Zen for a generation, but I’m not sure their freewheeling sloppiness with it did Buddhism any favors.

    I’ll have to put “Old Path, White Clouds” on my list. Sounds promising.

    Thanks for posting this.


  2. I don’t think the Buddha himself would mind a little “new words of my own selection” from “quotations from the Sacred Scriptures of the Buddhist Canon.” What I think he would mind would be a little black & white thinking along with a healthy dose of dogma (this is the right way). I have no opposition to anyone studying Dharma, integrating it into their life and sharing their understanding of how it has or is working in their lives, whether I agree with them or not. It’s when we become experts in Dharma and when we start determine the authenticity of others experience of it because of ” absence of citation” that I begin to get a little concerned. That’s when this beautiful thing turns into religion.

    ” Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.” Etc. Etc.

  3. @Chris – I think you are right; we are all free to share the Dharma as we see fit. If we love the Dharma, if we want to help other people, sometimes it is the correct thing to do. But it is a short, short step from sharing to preaching. And preaching is often a kind of exhortation to dogma, to “my way is the right way.”

    Even in Buddhism, there are different approaches. I find myself sometimes thinking my way is superior to some other way. Uh-oh! Danger! How can I be a judge of that?

  4. Chris,
    I want to thank you for your comment above. It really made me stop and think…. And the more I thought about what you have said there, the more I knew that really in my heart I think you are right too. And in reading back over the comment I left above, I am a bit ashamed of myself, to be honest, because it manifests an attitude that I do want to manifest….

    Thank you for teaching me today.

  5. Just to provide a counter-view, I do think it’s pretty important to cite sources and know your references though when teaching the dharma to others. Brenner’s point is right on in that a lot of well-meaning teachers have a tendency to inject their own interpretation, which may not be accurate if their understanding of the Dharma is not that good. Students may not even question this and take it as fact, adding fuel to the fire.

    Your concern of dogma is certainly valid, but so is quality-control among teachers and experts. Some monks like Bhikku Bodhi, Ven. Yin-Shun and Thich Nhat Hanh are good at presenting the Dharma their own way but still careful to transmit the Dharma accurately. They have the benefit of monastic life, many, many years of study, and a sincere desire to “get it right”. This is what marks them as good teachers as opposed to ones who provide more free-wheeling interpretations.

    Buddhism has survived for 2,500 years because people adapted it to their own culture, but still worked hard to preserve it as it is within that context. That balance is important to continuation of the Dharma.

  6. @Gerald Ford – Thanks so much for your comment. I feel some concern that a lot of people in the West are exposed to a lot of teaching that calls itself “Buddhist” but has only tenuous connections to — let me say this as inclusively as I can — teachings from long-established schools of Buddhism.

    I am not learned enough to make distinctions between, say, branches of Tibetan Buddhism, or between Japanese Zen and Korean Zen. I can’t even say a whole lot about the differences between Theravada and Mahayana. If someone has been “studying” or “practicing” Buddhism for a short time (like me, for example), that person simply lacks the experience necessary to teach someone else “this is Buddhist” without citing sources.

    Or, well … I can say what I please, I suppose — but my hearers would be wise to check out anything I say against other (more experienced) sources!