Japhy as Hero

The more I think about Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, the more I'm impressed by Japhy, the hero of the story. Whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of Gary Snyder, the character is, as far as I know, a unique one in modern American lit. Certainly an individual who was an avid environmentalist, a Zen Buddhist, and a poet would have been anunusual phenomena in American society in the "50's".

In many ways, he seems like a contemporary Henry David Thoreau with his unique blend of naturalist and religious philosopher, though he comes from a very different background:

Japhy Ryder was a kid from eastern Oregon brought up in a log cabin deep in the woods with his father and mother and sister, from the beginning a woods boy, an axman, farmer, interested in animals and Indian lore so that when he finally got to college by hook or crook he was already well equipped for his early studies in anthropology and later in Indian myth and in the actual texts of Indian mythology. Finally he learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen Lunatics of China and Japan. At the same time, being a Northwest boy with idealistic tendencies, he got interested in oldfashioned I.W.W. anarchism and learned to play the guitar and sing old work songs to go with his Indian songs and general folksong interests.

In a very real sense, Japhy seems to symbolize the Northwest, or at least the coastal Northwest, for Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon offer a very different heritage. Japhy represents many of the forces that have combined to give the Pacific Northwest its cultural heritage. Or, perhaps it just seems so because those are the same forces that have helped to shape me as a 3rd generation Pacific Northwesterner, though I seem to have acquired them in a very different order than Japhy did.


Those who know the Northwest know that it is dominated by the Cascade Mountains, whether it is Mount Rainer in Seattle or Mt Hood in Portland. Growing up in Seattle, I knew it was going to be a good day any time you could see Mt Rainier rising above the Puget Sound. Today, my whole day is uplifted if I can catch a glance of Mt Hood shining in the distance while driving home.

Those who actually spend much time in the mountains are even more influenced by them. And Japhy seems to have spent much of his time in them. Few can say they have reached the top of Rainier without guides:

I climbed some pretty big mountains up there, including a long haul up Rainier almost to the top where you sign your name. I finally made it one year. There are only a few names up there, you know. And I climbed all around the Cascades, off season and in season, and worked as a logger.

I have never climbed Mt Rainier, but I have climbed other mountains, and I can easily identify with Japhy's statement that the silence and immense presence of the mountain almost makes it seem like the

...mountain is a Buddha. Think of the patience, hundreds of thousands of years just sittin there bein perfectly perfectly silent and like praying for all living creatures in that silence and just waitin for us to stop all our frettin and foolin." And, at least while you are there, there is no ãfrettin and foolinä or you are silenced by your awe of the mountain.

After thirty years of hiking the high country, I can certainly identify with Japhy when he explains why Han Shan was his hero:

"Because," said he, "he was a poet, a mountain man, a Buddhist dedicated to the principle of meditation on the essence of all things, ... And he was a man of solitude who could take off by himself and live purely and true to himself."

This seems like a pretty good role model to me. I can imagine no higher calling than to live true to yourself -- if only you can take the time to discover that self you are to be true to.

The more you hike above the timberline, the more you appreciate the beauty of trees and plants that have had to struggle year after year for their very existence. Like Japanese bonsai, these plants seem to exhibit more than just a physical beauty.

"The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is. All these people thinking they're hardheaded materialistic practical types, they don't know shit about matter, their heads are full of dreamy ideas and notions."

And when you begin to realize the beauty in these simple objects, you can begin to appreciate the beauty in Japanese haikus.

"A real haiku's gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing, like the greatest haiku of them all probably is the one that goes 'The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet.' By Shiki. You see the wet footprints like a vision in your mind and yet in those few words you also see all the rain that's been falling that day and almost smell the wet pine needles."

In the end, it's hard not to admire Japhy's goals, even if they seem a little naive nearly fifty years later.

"You and I ain't out to bust anybody's skull, or cut someone's throat in an economic way, we've dedicated ourselves to prayer for all sentient beings and when we're strong enough we'll really be able to do it, too, like the old saints. Who knows, the world might wake up and burst out into a beautiful flower of Dharma everywhere."

2 thoughts on “Japhy as Hero

  1. Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) was one hell of a bicyclist. Bicycling teaches balance and patience with all living things. I come from where Kerouac was from, so have an affinity for his work. Jack and Gary always respected people, but admired those who revered life and humans with all their foibles. It’s rare to read anything so full of grace.

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