A fan’s notes on the Awakened One.
Iconic Beat writer Kerouac, whose On the Road celebrated its 50th anniversary with suitable fanfare last year, took a modest interest in Buddhism while hanging out with Allen Ginsberg and dabbling in college in New York. Later in the 1950s, his studies became more serious, and he began to think of himself as a “dumbsaint bodhisattva” who, inclined to poverty and wandering, was a living embodiment of what Gautama, né Siddhartha, was up to back in the fifth century BCE. (It didn’t hurt the self-identification that Buddha “was a handsome young prince.”) This previously unpublished work is a rather indifferently written biography of the Buddha, largely cribbed from other sources—a notebook for Kerouac’s own studies, in other words, and apparently not something he was in a hurry to publish during his short but prolific lifetime. There are a few Kerouackian touches to the piece, as when the author instructs that Buddha “was no slob-like figure of mirth,” but instead “the Jesus Christ of India and almost all Asia.” Kerouac offers a few novelistic touches, sometimes to beautiful effect, as when he writes, “The groundmist of 3 A.M. rose with all the dolors of the world.” However, the overall narrative stance is matter-of-fact, encyclopedic and conventional, with a kind of didactic approach to dialogue, as when Buddha tells an Indian king, “Though your face has become wrinkled, in the perception of your eyes, there are no signs of age, no wrinkles. Then, wrinkles are the symbol of change, and the un-wrinkled is the symbol of the un-changing. That which is changing must suffer destruction, but the unchanging is free from deaths and rebirths.”
Kerouac completists will have to have this, of course. Literary-minded students of Buddhism will find Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha to be the more attractive introduction, and devotees will have had this story from many other sources, as Kerouac himself did.