“Everything was fine with the Zen Lunatics, the nut wagon was too far away to hear us.”
So I hate for this to sound like a review. I’m hoping for this not to come off as a GoodReads rant about how some 60 year-old classic is semi-overrated (it’s not) but here’s my take anyways. Let’s call it a response.
It was the perfect time to read The Dharma Bums as I have begun studying Buddhism recently, more-so mysticism than Buddhism, but it’s easy to relate to Kerouac’s Ray Smith, a writer and self-proclaimed Bhikku, or Buddhist monk, literally “beggar” or “one who lives by alms”, drifting up and down the coast of the Pacific. Smith hops aboard the 24-hour Midnight Ghost freight train, hitchhikes on the wrong side of the road, and sleeps on any patch of ground cops are unlikely to notice. Smith’s version of Buddhism allows for these long flights of illegal travel, binge drinking, occasional marijuana use, and, triple, excuse me, quadruple-teaming a beautiful blonde named Princess, a Bodhisattva, naturally, in a Buddhist ritual called “yabyum”. This disparity between Ray’s interpretation of a Bhikku’s lifestyle with the traditional vision of the chaste, still Buddha abstaining from all worldly pleasures, is the crux of the book. This incongruity would make plenty actual Bhikku’s throw down the lascivious book in disgust, but I think Ray’s optimistic naïveté is endearing, and he’s still searching and growing as all Bhikkus must do. He doesn’t claim to be finished.
His inspiration and validation for his particular brand of Buddhism comes from the great free solitary wanderers like Han Shan, a Chines e scholar hidden from the big city atop a treacherous snowy mountain, who “scribbles on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living beings.” Ray’s friend Japhy, a wise and experienced scholar of Dharma, translates Han Shan’s “Cold Mountain” from the original Chinese. Japhy is Ray’s wildman Bhikku mentor from logger land in the Pacific Northwest, welcoming his stowaway friend, Ray, to pre-hippie 1950’s San Francisco, their West Coast home base (not that either could hold a residence with their penchant for wandering), also home to their merry band of “Zen Lunatic” friends, Beat writers and poets living in decadent humility. Ray is the most zealous student of Dharma amongst his Beat friends, and he eagerly devours any Truth Japhy volunteers.
Perception is crucial in Buddhism, as paradoxical proverbs challenge traditional (particularly Western) logic. To understand reality, one must remove his ego, and discover that the outside world is full of distraction, obfuscating the true godly nature of the world, which one can only see after searching his inner soul for Enlightenment. A drifter teaches Ray that standing on his head will circulate his blood and cure his phlebitis. Ray literally has to turn things upside down to see the truth. Spending a summer atop a mountain in solitude as a lookout for forest fires, Ray stands on his head and realizes the mountains don’t just look upside-down, they are upside-down. So is he. It is only: “gravity holding us all intact upsidedown against a surface globe of earth in infinite empty space.”
Japhy, unlike the less experienced Ray, can meditate indoors, but he also understands the importance of solitude in nature, taking Ray on physically demanding and dangerous hikes, likely to exhaust their sensory organs and reduce their consciousnesses’ dependency on sensual stimulants, bringing them closer to a meditative state. The mountaintop covers the Bhikku’s heads with clouds, reduces the oxygen to their brains, and demands a journey away from civilization to a place closer to heaven. Ray has a realization atop the treacherous Matterhorn Mountain, after his fear of heights paralyzes him only minutes from the top: “Ah Japhy you taught me the final lesson of them all, you can’t fall off a mountain.”
Perhaps Ray realizes his fear and ignorance are the only things keeping him from God, like the lacerating wind and “frightening planetary space clouds” left him trembling in the fetal position on that impossibly high cliff, just a few hundred feet from the top. And this is Ray’s redemption. Humble enough to learn, he delights in the hope Buddhism imparts and the possibilities extant, like sturdy climbing rocks on the path to Nirvana.