“Hopping a freight train out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara.” – Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Jack Kerouac ruined my life – or saved it. I’m still trying to figure that out.
At the completely ignorant age of 18, Anoka-Ramsey Community College had the audacity to ask me what I’d like to study.
“They tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years / And then they expect you to pick a career.” – John Lennon
I was 18. I didn’t like authority. I wanted to make money. I thought owning a business was a good career choice.
No, 18-year-old Jeff. Wake up.
The fact that I didn’t like any of my business classes didn’t tip me off. I really didn’t like many of my fellow students, either.
The summer of 2000 I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac and my eyes finally opened. In the fall of that same year, I checked out The Dharma Bums from the UW-Stout library (it may have been the only one I ever did.) It was all over. I finished my business classes like a full, lonely man eating one more helping of dessert at The Old Country Buffet just to get his money’s worth. I took on a double minor of English writing and journalism and approached the classes like I was starving for information.
It’s because of Jack Kerouac I have yet to establish a real career. It’s because of Jack Kerouac I’ve never had a lot of money. It’s because of Jack Kerouac I don’t care I haven’t established a career and have never had a lot of money and I enjoy my life and am a happy person.
I’m not giving him all the responsibility, but outside of my parents, family and friends, he may have been the greatest influence on my personality.
Ever since the fall of 2000, I’ve wanted to be a dharma bum. I will likely never be 100% dharma bum since I have a bit of an addiction to health insurance. However, right now, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, I may be a dharma bum or at least as close as I’ll ever become (with universal health coverage to boot.)
A dharma bum is a truth seeker. In The Dharma Bums Jack Kerouac, poet Gary Snyder (Japhy) and friends come together in cities and hiking in the mountains and simply talk about life and Buddhism. They also read books and poetry and do a lot of other beatnik activities that would make Bill O’Reilly throw up. They live off the minimum and do their best to eliminate as much suffering from their lives.
I was recently sitting in a restaurant in Surin, sipping coffee and reading The Dharma Bums while waiting for my friend Christine to meet me when I realized, I am a dharma bum!
The Dharma Bums got me interested in Buddhism. I am now surrounded by Buddhists. I have very few possessions, but I do have a lot of books (for a Peace Corps volunteer). Yes, it is 2011 and I have things like this computer, an iPod, digital camera and a Kindle. These things weren’t in Kerouac’s vocabulary in 1955. I also take pride in my lack of fashion, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend. When I’m not working, I have four identical Fruit of the Loom grey undershirts. They fit well.
“…with nothing in it but typical Japhy appurtenances that showed his belief in the simple monastic life – no chairs at all, not even one sentimental rocking chair, but just straw mats. In the corner was his famous rucksack with cleaned-up pots and pans all fitting into one another in a compact unit and all tied and put away inside a knotted-up bandana … He had a slew of orange crates all filled with beautiful scholarly books, some of them in Oriental languages, all the great sutras, comments on sutras, the complete works of D.T. Suzuki and a fine quadruple-volume edition of Japanese haikus … Japhy’s clothes were all old hand-me-downs bought secondhand with a bemused and happy expression in Goodwill and Salvation Army stores: wool socks darned, colored undershirts, jeans, workshirts, moccasin shoes, and a few turtleneck sweaters that he wore one on top the other in the cold mountain nights of the High Sierras in California and the High Cascades of Washington and Oregon on the long incredible jaunts that sometimes lasted weeks and weeks with just a few pounds of dried food in his pack. A few orange crates made his table, on which, one late sunny afternoon as I arrived, was steaming a peaceful cup of tea at his side as he bent his serious head to the Chinese signs of the poet Han Shan.”
There are times I forget I’m doing something good for the world. I’m having fun talking broken Thai to my neighbors and they seem to be enjoying my presence in their community.
“He ate cheese and bread and drank the wine with gusto and gratitude. I was pleased. I reminded myself of the line in the Diamond Sutra that says, ‘Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word.’”
I’m not hopping freight trains (yet), but I am bumming rides from neighbors and friends. The novel ends with Kerouac going to the peak of Mount Matterhorn in the Cascade Mountains of Washington to be a fire lookout. He’s all alone with nothing but his books and his thoughts. Sounds familiar.