Buddhism and Sexuality in Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums”
The Beat Generation has always been associated, and rightfully so, with themes connected to sexuality. Beat writers were, and still are, famous for advocating sexual liberation and free love, being open about their homosexuality when that was the case (like Allen Ginsberg did for all his life), and much of their literary production is filled thoroughly with erotic experiences. All of this inevitably clashed, or merged, with the Buddhist faith that most of the Beats came in contact with, for different time spans and definitely with different results. The relationship between Buddhism and sexuality can be observed in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums, published in 1958. The novel’s protagonists are Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder, based on Kerouac himself and his dear friend and writer Gary Snyder (who had largely introduced him to Buddhism), on a semi-fictional journey of self-discovery in the wild. The two have completely opposite approaches to sexuality: while Ryder has embraced it fully, Smith cannot find a way conciliate it with his commitment to Buddhist faith. Throughout the book there are several hints of the duality that troubles Smith, and the difficulty he encounters in trying to reconcile his religious side with his sexual impulses. He sees sexuality as an hindrance to faith and a source of unhappiness, and he explains having “gone through an entire year of celibacy based on my feeling that lust was the direct cause of birth which was the direct cause of suffering and death and I had really no lie come to a point where I regarded lust as offensive and even cruel. “Pretty girls make graves,” was my saying” (Kerouac 31). This can be related to a Buddhist belief contained in the Sutta Nipata, in which Buddha declares that desire (tanha), and in particular sensual desire (kama), brings pain (dukkha) and is an obstacle to obtaining an enlightened mind. “So one, always mindful, should avoid sexual desires. Letting them go, he will cross over the flood like one who, having bailed out the boat, has reached the far shore.” (Kama Sutta, Sutta Nipata, 4.1)
Buddhist expert Barbara O’ Brien, in her article What Buddhism Teaches About Sexual Morality, proposes more of a modern interpretation, arguing that “The Second noble truth teaches that the cause of suffering is craving or thirst (tanha). This doesn’t mean cravings should be repressed or denied. Instead, in Buddhist practice we acknowledge our passions and learn to see they are empty, so they no longer control us. This is true for hate, greed and other emotions. Sexual desire is no different.” (‘O Brien 1) This seems more compatible with Japhy Ryder’s views. He is much more confident than Smith, he is comfortable with expressing his sexuality, and even explicitly linking it to religion. In chapter five of The Dharma Bums, a girl named Princess wants to join the group through some sort of sexual initiation – “she wanted to be a big Buddhist like Japhy and being a girl the only way she could express it was this way” (Kerouac 31) – and “Japhy wasn’t at all nervous and embarrassed and just sat there in perfect form just as he was supposed to do” (Kerouac 30). He explains that “This is what they do in the temples of Tibet. It’s a holy ceremony, it’s done just like this in front of chanting priests. People pray and recite Om Mani Pahdme Hum, which means Amen the Thunderbolt in the Dark Void. I’m the thunderbolt and Princess is the dark void, you see.” (Kerouac 30) This is not just something that Ryder is completely making up to legitimate his actions.
Buddhist expert Peter Harvey, in his Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, states that some sexual practices are “necessary at the highest level for the attainment of Buddhahood”, although their use is “highly regulated. It is only permitted after years of training and […] has historically been extremely rare.” (Harvey 142) Smith is fascinated with this practice, and has feelings of admiration and envy towards Ryder’s freedom, but his own inhibitions, guilt, and fear of failing his beliefs stop him from joining the sexual encounter. Still, he cannot get rid of this conflict, and he constantly swings between wanting sex and either being repelled by it or denying it to himself. In chapter twenty-five he is going into detail about some mundane party he attended before he decided to embark on the Buddhist journey; he is with a friend, they are sitting in a corner, observing other people’s behavior, and he describes it as follows: “We were the old monks who weren’t interested in sex any more but Sean and Japhy and Whitey were the young monks and were still full of the fire of evil and still had a lot to learn. Every now and then Bud and I looked at all that flesh and licked our lips in secret.” (Kerouac 178) This quote is the perfect example of his internal strife: he thinks that people giving in to sexual desires are somehow weak and “evil” and lacking wisdom, but he still can’t help to yearn “in secret” for what they have. The strife goes on in chapter twenty-six: “I felt lonely to see everybody paired off and having a good time and all I did was curl up in my sleeping bag in the rosebushes and sigh and say bah. For me it was just red wine in my mouth and a pile of firewood”. (Kerouac 187) So, he regrets his self-imposed isolation and wishes he could just bring himself to do like everyone else, but “then I’d find something like a dead crow in the deer park and think “That’s a pretty sight for sensitive human eyes, and all of it comes out of sex.” So I put sex out of my mind again.” (Kerouac 187)
Some may argue that such hesitation, such a binary point of view, is not a true Buddhist attitude. For example, ‘O Brien comments that “Western culture at the moment seems to be at war with itself over sex, with rigid puritanism on one side and licentiousness on the other. Always, Buddhism teaches us to avoid extremes and find a middle way. As individuals we may make different decisions, but wisdom (prajna) and loving kindness (metta), not lists of rules, show us the path” (‘O Brien 1). While Smith is caught up in his contradictions, Ryder spontaneously, matter-of-factly internalizes Buddhist spirituality in regards to sexual behavior. “There was no question of what to do about sex”, he says, “which is what I always liked about Oriental religion. […] I didn’t feel that I was an American at all, with all that suburban ideal and sex repression and general dreary newspaper gray censorship of all our real human values” (Kerouac 32) It is easy to see Gary Snyder’s personality and mindset behind Japhy’s.
In his article Buddhist Anarchism, Snyder himself stood up for a similar position. “The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love”, he writes, “There is nothing in human nature or the requirements of human social organization which intrinsically requires that a culture be contradictory, repressive and productive of violent and frustrated personalities” (Snyder 1). It almost sounds like Ryder giving a speech to his less emancipated friend Ray. He later insists on the necessity of “defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual” (Snyder 1). Other Buddhist experts seem to agree with his and Japhy Ryder’s view. For example, Winton Higgins, in a speech about Buddhist sexual ethics, explained that “Buddhism does have a strong sexual ethic, but not a repressive one. The main point of this ethic is non-harming in an area of life where we can do a lot of damage by acting violently, manipulatively or deceitfully. These and breaches of the other precepts – ill will, taking the non-given, lying and stupefaction – are the Buddhist no-no’s in sexual practice” (Higgins 1). So, according to these principles, Japhy Ryder isn’t breaking any Buddhist rule by living out his sexuality. Higgins further specifies that “because of its universalistic character, Buddhism as such certainly does not buy into prejudices and inhibitions associated with social engineering”. Kerouac’s auto-biographic character Ray Smith might also be affected by the writer’s concerns with the concept of stoic masculinity and a certain irrational fear of women.
As explained by Pierre-Antoine Pellerin in his Jack Kerouac’s Ecopoetics in The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, “Kerouac’s alter ego and first-person narrator engages in an escapist fantasy into the animal realm where he can regain a sense of authentic masculine identity, away from the feminizing effects of domesticity and civilization.” (Pellerin 6) In an essay from his early writing years, Kerouac appears worried about men losing contact with their primordial nature, their authentic wild side, and being emasculated by mothers and partners: “Man in the Beginning was a proud animal who went out and killed his game and dragged his woman to a cave and ate with her, and performed the sticky art of love on her, and slept with her, and awoke in the morning, cold and dreary in the prehistoric pink of primeval dawn” (Kerouac 6.13). So it is possible that this is what Ray Smith – and, therefore, Kerouac himself – truly wants but he is scared to admit it since it obviously does not harmonize with his commitment to Buddhism. Kerouac goes on: “Today, he shells out five bucks for some grocery food, takes it home to a haughty, commandeering wife, meekly performs the sticky art of love on her at night in a soft willowy bed, and wakes up in the cold and dismal pink of civilized dawn. The difference? Man is now a civilized animal, but he is no longer a proud animal”. (Kerouac 6.13) This loathing of Western civilization is what holds Ryder and Smith together and pushes them towards the physical and spiritual adventure they share but, while the first manages to make the most of it, the latter can never come to terms with himself.
In The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, Robert Aitken Roshi says that “for all its ecstatic nature, for all its power, sex is just another human drive. If we avoid it just because it is more difficult to integrate than anger or fear, then we are simply saying that when the chips are down we cannot follow our own practice. This is dishonest and unhealthy”. (Roshi 41) So, in regards to sexuality, despite his carnal weaknesses, incoherences, and undoubtedly “Western” interpretation of the Eastern way, the “truest” Buddhist out of the two seems to be Japhy Ryder.
Works cited:Kerouac, Jack, The Dharma Bums, The Viking Press, 1958
Kerouac, Jack, “‘A Noble Experiment,’ Subject: What will my books be about this summer?”, unpublished, New York Public Library Archive, Berg Collection, 1941.
Aitken Roshi, Robert, The Mind of Clove: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics, 1984O’ Brien, Barbara, What Buddhism Teaches About Sexual Morality, 2014
Pellerin, Pierre-Antoine, Jack Kerouac’s Ecopoetics in The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels: Domesticity, Wilderness and Masculine Fantasies of Animality, 2011Harvey, Peter, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues, 2000
Snyder, Gary, Buddhist Anarchism, Journal for the Protection of All Beings #1 , 1961Higgins, Winton, Buddhist Sexual Ethics, BuddhaNet Magazine, 2007
Jack Kerouac’s Fear of Women and Lust
In Jack Kerouac’s novels and poetry he is always searching for something to believe in, be it himself, God, or something else. Surprisingly, he manages to also simultaneously be constantly running away. Fear of responsibility and conformity is present in the majority of his works; this is the reason for his elusiveness, and the constant desire and search for a path far removed from the traditional ho-hum home-life leads him to Buddhism, which was then a novel concept in America. Kerouac’s newfound beliefs lead him to be zealously against lust, because it leads to the formation of karma: lust leads to birth, which leads to suffering, which leads to death, which leads to the continuation of the cycle.In Dharma Bums, Ray Smith (Kerouac’s pseudonym for himself) had “gone through an entire year of celibacy based on [his] feeling that lust was the direct cause of . . . suffering and death.” He even claimed to have “come to a point where [he] regarded lust as offensive and even cruel.” Due to the “absence of active lust,” Smith had a “new peaceful life that [he] was enjoying a great deal” (Kerouac Dharma Bums, 29). Robert A. Hipkiss addresses this when he states Kerouac’s belief that “women fill an unholy and very earthly office. Women continue the cycle of karma” (Hipkiss 271). Smith does, however, eventually give in to his sexual desire and “all the peaceful celibacy of [his] Buddhism [goes] down the drain” (Kerouac Dharma Bums, 30). Alvah (Allen Ginsberg) and Japhy (Gary Snyder) had convinced him to join in with their game of “yabyum,” which is essentially a “Zen Free Love Lunacy [orgy],” where a young girl named Princess was the main attraction (Kerouac Dharma Bums, 30). Before Smith retires that night, however, he meditates and eventually “wasn’t taken in by no Princess or no desire for no Princess and nobody’s disapproval and [he] felt glad and slept well” (Kerouac Dharma Bums, 35). Kingsley Widmer blames this indecisiveness and paradoxical living on Kerouac’s “guilty sexual fears” (Widmer 305), as he is “crudely malely sexual and cannot help [himself] and [has] lecherous and so on propensities . . .” (Kerouac The Subterraneans, 3).In The Subterraneans, Kerouac temporarily gives into “the sweet return to the protective sanctuary and succor of the womb” (Tytell 272); however, he treats Mardou, a timid, small black girl that he loves temporarily, poorly due to a lack of trust, and he also “wanted another drink with a rowdy fiend . . .” (Kerouac The Subterraneans, 105), which was what finally puts her over the edge. She did, however, stay with Kerouac for quite a while, despite the recurring theme of “poor Mardou going home alone, again, and drunken maniac [Kerouac]” rushing off (Kerouac 101, The Subterraneans), which shows why Kerouac was attracted to her; “the women least likely to make demands upon him are the most desirable” (Hipkiss 271). Eventually, Mardou rids herself of her “drunken maniac,” which leaves him “weeping for [his] lost Mardou and so stupidly because [he]’d decided to throw her away [himself]” (Kerouac 103, The Subterraneans). Kerouac concludes that “there’s a lover on every corner – they’re all the same, boy, don’t get hung-up on one” (Kerouac The Subterraneans, 110), which is preliminary to Buddhism as an excuse for his avoidance of attachment. Mardou becomes one of the “hundreds of lover-girls everyone of em betrayed or screwed in some way by [him]” (Kerouac Desolation Angels, 124).Some of the Dharma contains numerous rantings about female sexuality and its dangers. Kerouac’s fears about lusting after women is summarized when he states his belief that:”Men are ‘taken in’ by women, since beginningless time, —this is how birth and ignorance continue—Men don’t realize that women are their own Rib of Lust, Self-Lust, and are actually nothing but (like men) skin & bones with shit inside—Watch women closely & see if I’m not right—-The True Man eschews women, has no children, and seeks No-Return to the dreary wheel of life & death—He is constantly on his guard against lust & concupiscence & cupidity—” (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 170).Kerouac illustrates clearly here his belief about humans being nothing constant, and he knows that “everything [he] had ever known and would ever know was One” (Kerouac On the Road, 147). Since everything is impermanent, Kerouac instructs his readers to “instead of seducing women, control yourself / and treat them like sisters; instead of / seducing men, control yourself / and treat them like brothers. / For life is pitiful” (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 175). He wants humanity to “put an end to human rebirth, by abstaining from sexual intercourse” (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 338).Kerouac also says to ” … give up… all lusting after sex…” because there are “two things to do: eat and teach” (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 77). He goes from sad and quiet with conversations along the lines of:”…then suddenly he sees chickens in crates in the inside dark Chinese store, ‘look, look, they’re all gonna die!’ He stops in the street. ‘How can God make a world like that?”I don’t want a world like that from God.”I don’t blame you.'” (Kerouac Desolation Angels, 189)Then, however, he grows increasingly poignant with statements such as “PRETTY GIRLS MAKE GRAVES Fuck you all” (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 151) and his assertion that “if Jazz was profound women couldn’t play it” (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 139). His anger with and fear of women, and the sexual desire they arise in him, is mixed with Buddhism and beliefs in non-duality, meaning all things being One, a central theme in Buddhism, and is concisely expressed in his A B C’s of Truth:A Creamy thighs of beautiful young girl 3DB Baby crying because it doesn’t want to be born 3DC Corpse decaying in grave (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 159).The internal struggle he expresses in many of his writings is because his “last obstacle is an unmatured sexual karma” (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 162). He elaborates on and justifies his imperfection in this area by claiming that “sexuality [is] the most powerful force in / all nature because of its sometimes / fabulous delight, is the very in- / carnation of Ignorance . . .” (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 198). Kerouac’s belief in Buddhism includes the believe that one should “love everyone equally / Everyone equally empty / Each one a coming Buddha” (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 239). He also teaches that “lust is no different than / killing:- the squeal of the murdered / pig, the hoarse panting of the / sexers, it’s all vicious, fleshy / and blind, and subject of the devouring worm” (Kerouac Some of the Dharma, 198). When Tristessa offers herself to Kerouac, he turns her down and thinks later, “But what I’ve missed when I don’t get that friend lunge of the lover’s body, coming right at me, all mine, but it was a slaughterhouse for meat” (Kerouac Tristessa, 55). Kerouac sees sex as causing “the crying horror of birth and the impossible lostness of the promise of death” (Kerouac Desolation Angels, 316), so it has the same end result as murder does; sexual reproduction creates life, which eventually has to end, thus both bring about death, while one just takes longer and involves more pain. Kerouac was always searching for an excuse to avoid responsibility and to see everything, and he found Buddhism to fit perfectly with his needs. Kerouac is said to have only “sometimes thought himself to be” a “Zen devotee” (Duffey 166). His novels feature “child-men” which “will never have a growing-up” (Duffey 166), each of whom symbolize Kerouac. His novels all show a “revolt against the ‘square’ world . . . the world of rational and responsible living” (Kazin 165). His “frantic flights across country, [his] rootless and disaffected behavior” are always an “attempt to escape from an intolerable personal or social situation . . . [a] search for values or for inner light and understanding . . . a search for God” (Feied 166). Kerouac finally finds this inner light and a god with Buddhism, and this also conveniently gives him an excuse for shunning relationships, commitment, and responsibility. Before he found Buddhism, he explained it by claiming “women love [him] and then they realize [he is] drunk for all the world and this makes them realize [he] cant concentrate on them alone, for long, makes them jealous . . .” (Kerouac Satori in Paris, 21).Kerouac’s belief of lust resulting in birth, and the suffering that’s unavoidable in life, and then death, which is equally inevitable, and their interrelations cause him to shun lust, and therefore always be on the run from it and the women that cause him to feel desire. Hipkiss addresses Kerouac’s difficulties with attachment and his constant need to escape by asserting that “the call of the road . . . is as often as not a call away from entanglements with women” (Hipkiss 270). Buddhism provided Kerouac with an excuse for what was already part of his innate personality, the desire to recoil from attachment. Women are seen as the method that life, as well as death, since the two come together, uses to reproduce itself. Women produce sexual desire in the loins and minds, and occasionally even attachment in their minds – which is perhaps Kerouac’s ultimate fear – and thus they are the carriers and causes of continued pain and death for so many. Because of this, Kerouac attempts to keep from being caught up in their karma cycle trap in which numerous men become entangled. His motives certainly include self-centered issues, such as avoiding settling down to a responsible family life with a woman, but they also include a noble aspect; he believes, either from self-delusion or sincerely, that sex directly causes death, as “all of us [are] trembling in our mortality boots, born to die, BORN TO DIE,” which would be a valid reason for avoiding having active lust in one’s life (Kerouac Tristessa, 32).Works CitedDuffey, Bernard. “The Three Worlds of Jack Kerouac.” Recent American Fiction (1963): 175-84. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 1. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 166.Feied, Frederick. No Pie in the Sky: The Hobo as American Culture Hero (1964): 57-61. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 1. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 166.Hipkiss, Robert. Jack Kerouac: Prophet of the New Romanticism (1976): 26-282E Rpt. inContemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 29. Ed. Jean Stine. Detroit: Gale, 1984: 269-272.Kazin, Alfred. “The Alone Generation.” Harper’s (October 1959): 127-31. Rpt2E inContemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 1. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Detroit: Gale, 1973. 165-166.Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angels. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.—. Dharma Bums, The. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.—. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.—. Satori in Paris. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.—. Some of the Dharma. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.—. Subterraneans, The. New York: Grove Press, 1958.—. Tristessa. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.Tylell, John. “The Joy of ‘On the Road’.” Naked Angels (1976): 430. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 29. Ed. Jean Stine. Detroit: Gale, 1984: 272-273.Widmer, Kingsley. “The Beat in the Rise of the Populist Culture.” The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama (1970): 155-73. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 14. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Gale, 1980. 305-306.