Learning About Buddhism from Dr Sax: Jack Kerouac's Surprisingly Erudite Biography of the Buddha


Jack Kerouac. Photo by Tom Palumbo [CC BY-SA 2.0].

Wake UpWake Up by Jack Kerouac
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I began reading this book back in 2016 but it was out of my depth back then and is only now something I can appreciate after much reading and research. Jack Kerouac has been a bit hit-and-miss for me. I loved On the Road and I didn't like Doctor Sax so much. But this biography of Gotama Buddha was as surprising for me as it was for Robert Thurman who penned the introduction to this Penguin Modern Classic.

I didn't know what to expect and although I had it bookmarked well into the main text, it had been so long I had forgotten everything I'd read so I had to start over. I find it interesting that some books, Like Tolstoy's War and Peace, I can pick up at any time and continue on as if I hadn't put it down so long ago. (Of course, one can do this for years it is so bloody long!) But this one I had completely forgotten so I began it all over again.

I was surprised by the style of the introduction by Thurman. It is very thorough, but he also doesn't hold back on his sense of surprise and wonder at Kerouac's expertise. I, too, am in awe. (Especially after reading Doctor Sax, one of Kerouac's less than appealing attempts at stream of consciousness writing!)

I have read some works that cover the basics, such as the Dalai Lama's How to Practise, Herman Hesse's Siddhartha (yes I know it is a fictional history of one of Gotama's contemporaries), and also to some extent Osho's Empty Boat, but I did not expect to receive so much "direct knowledge" from Kerouac!

I was introduced to Taoism and Buddhism by a friend in Shanghai in early 2019. I was fascinated by the similarities with Stoicism but also with Confucius' teachings. After commencing the Shiva Sutras and Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I have also had some discussions with a colleague about Hinduism. He refers to Buddhism as "the daughter of Hinduism". This is an appropriate description, as I am learning while reading Karen Armstrong's Buddha right now. 

What I find most interesting is the concept of "perception" which appears equally important in Stoicism. The bottom line is that our ability to perceive is based on our senses which are subjective and we perceive objects according to our pre-programming. Transcending this knowledge requires other types of knowledge if we are to be at peace with oneself.

While I am still grappling with many of these ideas, I found the following helpful from Kerouac (2008, p. 88):
Perception is our Essential Mind; the sun's brightness or the dim moon's darkness are the conditional ripples on its surface... the phenomena that the sense-organs perceive does not originate in our Essential Mind but in the senses themselves.
The senses are changeable in that we can see space or a wall, lightness or darkness. But our Essential Mind is "neither changeable nor fixed" (p. 90). And from p. 91: 
Do not be disturbed by what has been taught, but ponder upon it seriously and never give yourself up either to sadness or delight.
I am grappling with the idea of perceptions from the senses in that this empirical knowledge is an illusion, like ripples on the sea, but our Essential Mind is pure. Or (p. 92):
...it is the eyes, not the intrinsic perception of Mind, that is subject to false mistakes.
So what is this Essential Mind? It is not any one perception of our individual senses, but some kind of whole:
There is neither Truth nor Non-Truth, there is only the essence. And when we intuit the essence of all, we call it Essential Mind.
I have many more notes on this work, but it has enlightened me to much of Buddhism that I did not know. In particular, the sense of individualism was surprising (p. 137):
...prepare quietly a quiet place, be not moved by others' way of thinking, do not compromise to agree with the ignorance of others, go thou alone, make solitude thy paradise...
And to echo James Allen's idea of conquering oneself, Kerouac writes of the Buddha:
As I am a conqueror amid conquerors, so he who conquers 'self' is one with me.
If I am learning anything from my philosophical and theological studies over the last three decades, it is that I am increasingly a Transcendentalist in the fashion of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his "Self-Reliance", and also his idea of finding one's "nature". 

But all of the philosophies and religions I am familiar with have, outside of the theological questions they address and the answers they provide, a requirement for self-knowledge. Kerouac's biography of Gotama Buddha demonstrates just how difficult that can be. 

If only we could "Wake Up".

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