Some of the Dharma

( 2 )

Overview

Written during a critical period of his life, Some of the Dharma is a key volume for understanding Kerouac and the spiritual underpinnings of his work.

While his future masterpiece, On the Road, languished on the desks of unresponsive editors, Kerouac turned to Buddhist practice, and in 1953 began compiling reading notes on the subject intended for his friend Allen Ginsberg. As Kerouac's Buddhist meditation practice intensified, what had begun as notes evolved into a vast and ...

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Overview

Written during a critical period of his life, Some of the Dharma is a key volume for understanding Kerouac and the spiritual underpinnings of his work.

While his future masterpiece, On the Road, languished on the desks of unresponsive editors, Kerouac turned to Buddhist practice, and in 1953 began compiling reading notes on the subject intended for his friend Allen Ginsberg. As Kerouac's Buddhist meditation practice intensified, what had begun as notes evolved into a vast and all-encompassing work of nonfiction into which he poured his life, incorporating poems, haiku, prayers, journal entries, meditations, fragments of letters, ideas about writing, overheard conversations, sketches, blues, and more. The final manuscript, completed in 1956, was as visually complex as the writing: each page was unique, typed in patterns and interlocking shapes. The elaborate form that Kerouac so painstakingly gave the book on his manual typewriter is re-created in this typeset facsimile. Passionate and playful, filled with humor, insight, sorrow, and struggle, Some of the Dharma is one of Kerouac's most profound and original works.

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Editorial Reviews

Stephen Prothero

In the mid-'50s, the Dalai Lama was still in Tibet, and Zen centers were as rare as bellbottoms. So when Jack Kerouac tuned in to Buddhism in the winter of 1953, he was pretty much on his own. With no guru to guide him, Kerouac experimented with Buddhism for the next two and a half years. And he recorded the results of his experiment in 11 spiral notebooks just published as Some of the Dharma.

Begun as a series of notes addressed to another Beat Generation star, Allen Ginsberg, Some of the Dharma is an ambitious effort to translate Buddhism into an American idiom. As vast as Texas and as tangled as a Los Angeles freeway, the book is a hodgepodge of poems, prayers, sermons, scripture snippets, commentaries, essay and story fragments, dream sequences and journal entries. Though loaded with little gems ("I'm a farmer/I grow Nirvana") and some clever translations (the Tibetan chant "Om mani padme hum" is rendered "Amen ... The gem in the rags"), the book is a jumble. At least as literature. As autobiography, however, Some of the Dharma shines.

In most of his novels, Kerouac appears as a likable character. Here, however, we get Kerouac unburnished, raw: Kerouac the misogynist, the homophobe, the mama's boy, the deadbeat dad. But we also get a refreshingly honest depiction of one man's failed spiritual quest. The book's key conflict pits the lure of "The City" against the lure of "The Path." Kerouac repeatedly renounces alcohol, drugs, gluttony, women, friends -- even jazz. His plan is as American as Thoreau's, as ancient as the Buddha's. He will take refuge in a secluded "monkshack" in Mexico (or perhaps in his mother's "hermitage"). There, by meditating three times daily, he will achieve peace of mind, perhaps enlightenment. At least that was the plan. In reality, Kerouac made a lousy monk. Repeatedly he was drawn back to the city -- to parties with Beat friends, the temptations of literary stardom, the sheen of the creamy thigh. "Go on drinking and the world'll roll you," he wrote in 1955. And the world did.

Some of the Dharma concludes in March 1956 with Kerouac's agent about to nail down a deal for On the Road. Soon Kerouac will be hailed as the voice of a new generation and hated as a corrupter of America's youth. He will also renounce Buddhism, return to the Catholic comforts of his youth, and die a drunk's death of cirrhosis of the liver. Kerouac, of course, did not know all this when he concluded Some of the Dharma with a vision of himself as "a Super Myriad Trillionaire in Samapatti." But we readers do, and our prescience lends the book a quality of pathos careening toward tragedy. Today there are Zen centers in every U.S. city and Dalai Lama movies play at the mall. Being a Buddhist is easy. But in the mid-'50s, practicing Buddhism was hard. Without a lama to watch over him, Kerouac made his own way along his own path. His Buddhist improvisations were as fresh as Charlie Parker's jazz or, for that matter, Kerouac's own "spontaneous bop prosody." Some of the Dharma is not, as Kerouac claimed, "a great book." It's not even as good as Dharma Bums. But it provides a unique glimpse into the life of a man Allen Ginsberg rightly celebrated as the "new Buddha of American prose." -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A fascination with Buddhism percolates through many of Kerouac's writings from the 1950s, especially The Dharma Bums, but even those who have read and reread the author may be astonished at the passion for Buddhism evinced in this extraordinary collection of practice notes, ideas, poems, stories, letter fragments, dialogues, journal entries and other miscellany. Buddhists who have never encountered Kerouac will also be astonished, as nothing quite like this volumea passionate outpouring of faith, understanding and hope from a committed but flailing Western student exists within Buddhist literature. This isn't a cobbled-up, posthumous collection but a book that Kerouac intentionally created between 1953-1956 but was unable to publish during his lifetime. Kerouac's experimentalism is in full flower here, even graphically, as many of the entries are arranged on the page as triangles, arrowheads, convex or concave forms and so on. Among the thousands of jottings are passages of tremendous power and beauty, flashes of insight into ultimate reality worthy of a Basho, but there are also blatherings awash in self-indulgence and self-aggrandizing; the book at times gives the impression of containing every stray or captive thought and image about Buddhism that passed through Kerouac's head. The text will prove invaluable for Kerouac scholars and admirers as it tracks the writer's struggle with his youthful failures and with the alcoholism that eventually destroyed him. More than just a significant addition to Kerouac's opus, however, this is an important early record of one Westerner's--and, by extension, Western culture's--encounter with the East. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Begun in December 1951 as a notebook for his Buddhist studies, this work records Kerouac's reactions to a variety of Buddhist texts. Over the course of five years, it grew to include poems, prayers, dialogs, meditations, and notes on his reading, as well as commentary on family, friends, and meaningful concerns in his life. Readers of Kerouac's novels may find some of the discussions of Buddhist doctrines tedious and repetitive, but those who persevere will be rewarded with interesting insights into Kerouac's struggle with alcoholism, his occasional thoughts of suicide, and his disturbing tendency toward misogyny. Long anticipated by Kerouac scholars, this major work belongs in all literature collections.William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY
Kirkus Reviews
More ersatz Buddhism from postwar America's most overrated author.

"Dharma" is a Buddhist term meaning, roughly, "law." Some of the Dharma purports to be a journal of meditations on that subject, but Kerouac is unable to keep his mind on track, resulting in a work that's ultimately chaotic. His technique seems sound enough: He takes a classic Buddhist philosophical statement and then decodes it for his own use. Unfortunately, his interpretations are usually far from the point, as Kerouac is unable to separate Hinduism, Taoism, and even Catholicism from Buddhism, with repeated incorrect assessments of how the Tao affects Buddhahood (it does not) or how Jesus was a Buddha-like figure (by most accounts he was not). Furthermore, Kerouac, by his own admission, is unable to stay sober long enough to attain any real enlightenment. He sets forth the goals of not drinking, meditating regularly, and abstaining from sex, but he makes lame excuses for his falling off the wagon, and his rationalizations for avoiding sex devolve into plain misogyny, such as his statement "PRETTY GIRLS MAKE GRAVES F*** you all," or his observation that jazz cannot possibly be a high art form if women can perform it. Kerouac's various conceits, e.g., that he is a greater writer than Joyce (whose term for verse—pome—he steals) or Burroughs (whose "cut-up" technique it appears Kerouac is trying to approximate), are downright absurd. Comparing himself as an artist to Mozart on the one hand, while unable to get his manuscripts published (a continual obsession in the journals) on the other, often renders Kerouac laughable.

If the reader is left wondering what all this has to do with Buddhism, the answer is, very little. If you're searching for real Buddhism, pick up Suzuki; if you must indulge your guilty pleasures with more Kerouac, reread On the Road.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140287073
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/28/1999
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 686,874
  • Product dimensions: 8.57 (w) x 10.93 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Jack Kerouac(1922-1969), the central figure of the Beat Generation, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1922 and died in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1969. Among his many novels are On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur, and Visions of Cody.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2001

    Odd but interesting

    The way this book is structured is somewhat odd. It's mostly just clips & paragraphs of Kerouac's thoughts on Buddhism. It's interesting, mostly for its view into Kerouac's mind and his struggle with Buddhist practice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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