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Thoughts on Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums

Updated on June 18, 2013

Responding to Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums


In Jack Kerouac’s, Dharma Bums, Ray recounts how Jaffey mentions “Hsuan Tsang the great Chinese monk who walked from China”.Hsuan Tsang actually traveled to India on a seventeen year long trek in the 600s in search of sacred Buddhist texts in order to gain more complete translations, to rectify misinterpretations, and gain more information on the Buddha’s teachings for the people of China. His epic trek was so momentous that it became mythologized in the tale Journey to the West. Journey to the West is not a true rendering of Hsuan Tsang’s travels, yet it serves as an allegory for an individual’s personal journey towards enlightenment.


Ray’s trip from North Carolina to California is similar to Journey to the West in that Ray goes west to meet with Jaffey who maintains a better understanding of Buddhism than Ray’s piecemeal constructions of it. At the same time, Ray seems to claim that his goal is for enlightenment since he calls himself a Bodhisattva regardless of his lax use of the term. Jaffey may be more kindred to Hsuan Tsang since he traveled west to Japan attempting to get closer to the source of Zen Buddhism. At the same time, unlike Ray, Jaffey does not seem to only follow precepts which resonate with him. Instead, he maintains a more encompassing view of the Buddhist teachings, especially the seventh aspect of the Four Noble Truths, right Mindfulness. While Ray’s mind is continually drifting off to other things and places, Jaffey is always living in the moment, drawing his attention to the here and now, the things and people surrounding him.


At the end of Dharma Bums, Ray realizes that he must return to the world of people and cinemas, ”the world to which” he must eventually return, as if that world is not as real as the world that he has been occupying. Yet, in the poem “Really the Real”, Gary Snyder recognizes “what you might call,/ really the real, world” may be found within the cinema world. Perhaps just “forty miles, forty minutes” distance and time away. Ray seemed unable to realize that even while he sees the whole world as illusion the whole world is real as well, and even “really the real” is always within reach even if you are not secluded on a mountain.


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