In the mid-’50s, the Dalai Lama was still in Tibet, and Zen centers were as rare as bellbottoms. So when Jack Kerouac tuned in to Buddhism in the winter of 1953, he was pretty much on his own. With no guru to guide him, Kerouac experimented with Buddhism for the next two and a half years. And he recorded the results of his experiment in 11 spiral notebooks just published as “Some of the Dharma.”
Begun as a series of notes addressed to another Beat Generation star, Allen Ginsberg, “Some of the Dharma” is an ambitious effort to translate Buddhism into an American idiom. As vast as Texas and as tangled as a Los Angeles freeway, the book is a hodgepodge of poems, prayers, sermons, scripture snippets, commentaries, essay and story fragments, dream sequences and journal entries. Though loaded with little gems (“I’m a farmer/I grow Nirvana”) and some clever translations (the Tibetan chant “Om mani padme hum” is rendered “Amen … The gem in the rags”), the book is a jumble. At least as literature. As autobiography, however, “Some of the Dharma” shines.
In most of his novels, Kerouac appears as a likable character. Here, however, we get Kerouac unburnished, raw: Kerouac the misogynist, the homophobe, the mama’s boy, the deadbeat dad. But we also get a refreshingly honest depiction of one man’s failed spiritual quest. The book’s key conflict pits the lure of “The City” against the lure of “The Path.” Kerouac repeatedly renounces alcohol, drugs, gluttony, women, friends — even jazz. His plan is as American as Thoreau’s, as ancient as the Buddha’s. He will take refuge in a secluded “monkshack” in Mexico (or perhaps in his mother’s “hermitage”). There, by meditating three times daily, he will achieve peace of mind, perhaps enlightenment. At least that was the plan. In reality, Kerouac made a lousy monk. Repeatedly he was drawn back to the city — to parties with Beat friends, the temptations of literary stardom, the sheen of the creamy thigh. “Go on drinking and the world’ll roll you,” he wrote in 1955. And the world did.
“Some of the Dharma” concludes in March 1956 with Kerouac’s agent about to nail down a deal for “On the Road.” Soon Kerouac will be hailed as the voice of a new generation and hated as a corrupter of America’s youth. He will also renounce Buddhism, return to the Catholic comforts of his youth, and die a drunk’s death of cirrhosis of the liver. Kerouac, of course, did not know all this when he concluded “Some of the Dharma” with a vision of himself as “a Super Myriad Trillionaire in Samapatti.” But we readers do, and our prescience lends the book a quality of pathos careening toward tragedy. Today there are Zen centers in every U.S. city and Dalai Lama movies play at the mall. Being a Buddhist is easy. But in the mid-’50s, practicing Buddhism was hard. Without a lama to watch over him, Kerouac made his own way along his own path. His Buddhist improvisations were as fresh as Charlie Parker’s jazz or, for that matter, Kerouac’s own “spontaneous bop prosody.” “Some of the Dharma” is not, as Kerouac claimed, “a great book.” It’s not even as good as “Dharma Bums.” But it provides a unique glimpse into the life of a man Allen Ginsberg rightly celebrated as the “new Buddha of American prose.”