Kerouac’s Buddha & Jesus

Robert Thurman, the Columbia University scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, remarks in his introduction to Jack Kerouac’s book Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha that Kerouac’s Catholicism was a decisive factor in whether Kerouac sided with the Beat Generation’s Zen or with the orientation of Tibetan Mahayana and its closer analogies to Christianity.

Kerouac was attracted to the close parallels between the life of Jesus and of Gautama. He found the hierarchy of spiritual beings in Tibetan Buddhism compatible with his Catholic familiarity with angels, saints, and demons. He was comforted by the high status afforded to the mother of Jesus as a figure of compassion and mercy. He found the analogy between “Church” and sangha reassuring. Writes Thurman:

In spite of the insistence by Christians that their teachings are sui generis and come down only from God and have no connection with any other movement on the planet, Mahayana Buddhism and Christianity have very strong “family resemblances.” It is likely that Kerouac understood the deeper, broader dimensions of Mahayana Buddhism better than his peers, either those like myself, who were strongly motivated to break away from their Christian background, or those who were receiving their knowledge through the prism of East Asian Chinese and Japanese culture, and especially through the Chan/Zen connection, where meditation and samurai-like hardball “no-thought” are emphasized.

This weighty paragraph by Thurman refers to the ultimate complex of intellectual ferment in first-century Asia and the Middle East, which we can see evolving in gnostic Christianity especially. The possibility that interrelations between Christians and larger religious and spiritual movements in the era from Jesus through the next centuries suggests a spiritual world richer than what is left today as doctrine and style. But the sentiment of the open heart in Christian and Mahayana Buddhist thinking immediately launches both on a similar trajectory.

Personal experience can play into this identification of religious or psychological style. Kerouac was close to his mother, and that opened him to identification with other persons with whom one relates through emotions, not only to the other potential “Dharma bums” but spiritually to Jesus, Buddha, Mary, saints, Bodhisattvas, human-like and spiritual beings and hierarchies of all sorts in both religious traditions.

Indeed, the core of religious sentiment may well be in the degrees of identification with personifications. This would be so because this identification is a profound expression of the conditions of nurture. The person who has received close affection in the crucial formative years of life will more readily identify with the ying, female, and the compassionate side of a given religion. Many years of work alone can bring a person with a harsh upbringing to express affection for others — but towards spiritual beings it may be easier.

Thurman contrasts the Tibetan Buddhism that attracted Kerouac with “meditation and samurai-like hardball ‘no-thought'” characterizing Zen. Historically in Japan, many former samurai came to Zen in order to change their lives, and a discipline as strong as their former one was virtually a necessity to gain their respect and transformation.

But the evolution of Zen is foreshadowed in Taoism and in Chinese culture, which greatly contrasts with the sensual imagery of the rich culture of Indian Hinduism. The tradition of meditation is too universal in the East to apply as a difference between traditions, although one senses that meditation is a tool in the West and not integral to psychology as it is in the East.

The diverse cultural manifestations of Christianity in different parts of the West were likewise reflected in the different cultural manifestations of Buddhism in the East. Just as the pomp and pageantry of a Mediterranean Holy Week differs from the austerity of a Scandinavian Lutheran counterpart, so to does the Hindu or Tibetan Buddhist festival contrast with the austerity of the Taoist or Zen temple, regardless of doctrinal differences. Indeed, the doctrinal differences may themselves have been engendered by the climate, geography, and cultural environment.

The picture is further complicated by the intermediate expressions of both religions. Where does Theravada Buddhism or Pure Land Buddhism fall, or Orthodox or evangelical Christianity? All are eventually to be measured by their proximity to the “founder” or their authenticity in capturing the spiritual quest.

Kerouac calls Gautama “the blessed hermit.” Like Jesus, one cannot simultaneously understand the spiritual person, the human being, and extrapolate that core experience into that of a “founder.” Ultimately, the actions of the “founders” are the immediate source of spiritual inspiration, and the concentric circles rippling from them represent the various contexts wherein their message, flowing outward, is diluted.

One must return to the center, to the font, to the source, however much we enjoy the embellishments of culture, history, and creativity. For Kerouac, both Jesus and the Buddha have the same message: “Wake up!”