And then there is Jack Kerouac — Oops, Ray Smith

The pivotal character in The Dharma Bums is really the narrator, Ray Smith, Kerouac's alter ego. Unlike the idealized Japhy Rider, the narrator is all too human, as we learn early in the story:

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 was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection. Since then I've become a little hypocritical about my lip-service and a little tired and cynical. Because now I am grown so old and neutral. . . . But then I really believed in the reality of- charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquillity and wisdom and ecstasy, and I believed that I was an oldtime bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world (usually the immense triangular are of New York to Mexico City to San Francisco) in order to turn the wheel of the True Meaning, or Dharma, and gain merit for myself as a future Buddha (Awakener) and as a future Hero in Paradise.

Kerouac may have chosen the name Smith for the narrator precisely because he represents the common man, a "religious wanderer." Smith, like most of us, starts out with the best of intentions.

Smith's inability to meet his expectations are shown early in the novel. When Smith is following Japhy up the Matterhorn, an obvious symbol of his spiritual climb, we see Smith at his best:

I thought, "What a strange thing is man . . . like in the Bible it says, Who knoweth the spirit of man that looketh upward? This poor kid ten years younger than I am is making me look like a fool forgetting all the ideals and joys I knew before, in my recent years of drinking and disappointment, what does he care if he hasn't got any money: he doesn't need any money, all he needs is his rucksack with those little plastic bags of dried food and a good pair of shoes and off he goes and enjoys the privileges of a millionaire in surroundings like this. And what gouty millionaire could get up this rock anyhow? It took us all day to climb." And I promised myself that I would begin a new life. "All over the West, and the mountains in the East, and the desert, I'll tramp with a rucksack and make it the pure way."

Some of us can't help but admire Smith's desire to live "the pure way." Unfortunately, Smith is unable to keep up with Japhy and reach the top, perhaps not too surprising considering that he has never climbed a mountain before. Instead of seeing this as a challenge he needs to prepare better for, he just seems to give up.

"Now there's the karma of these three men, here: Japhy Ryder gets to his triumphant mountaintop and makes it, I almost make it and have to give up and huddle in a bloody cave, but the smartest of them all is that poet's poet lyin down there with his knees crossed to the sky chewing on a flower dreaming by a gurgling plage, goddammit they'll never get me up here again."

Throughout the novel Smith certainly is shown as the protagonist, not as a hero. His travails follow the common-man-as-victim theme which dominates so much of modern fiction.

Raised in North Carolina, Smith seems to hold the traditional, conservative American values that have perhaps served those well who have been willing to settle down, marry the girl next door, and spend their lives earning a living for their family.

At his best, in fact, Smith even seems more compassionate than the enlightened Japhy. His Christian background seems reflected in the compassion he feels for nearly everyone he meets:

At nine o'clock I was stomping with full pack across my mother's yard and there she was at the white tiled sink in the kitchen, washing her dishes, with a rueful expression waiting for me (I was late), worried I'd never even make it and probably thinking, "Poor Raymond, why does he always have to hitchhike and worry me to death, why isn't he like other men?" And I thought of Japhy as I stood there in the cold yard looking at her: "Why is he so mad about white tiled sinks and 'kitchen machinery' he calls it? People have good hearts whether or not they live like Dharma Bums. Compassion is the heart of Buddhism."
Although Smith may seek the ultimate freedom that comes from being on the road and meditating instead of working, he is unable to entirely escape the guilt caused by the work ethic that he has been raised with:
I wasn't exactly unconscious of the fact that I had a good warm fire to return to after these midnight meditations, provided kindly for me by my brother-in-law, who was getting a little sick and tired of my hanging around not working. Once I told him a line from something, about how one grows through suffering, he said: "If you grow through suffering by this time I oughta be as big as the side of the house."


Having been raised with a strong work ethic, it must have been nearly impossible not to feel guilty about living off others.

Smith's sexual mores also come in direct conflict with the life style he encounters in California. Although he obviously envies Japhy Rider's sexual freedom and sexual exhibitions, he is unable to participate himself without a tremendous sense of guilt.


"Take your clothes off and join in, Smith!" But on top of all that, the feelings about Princess, I'd also gone through an entire year of celibacy based on my feeling that lust was the direct cause of birth which was the direct cause of suffering and death and I had really no lie come to a point where I regarded lust as offensive and even cruel.
"Pretty girls make graves," was my saying, whenever I'd had to turn my head around involuntarily to stare at the incomparable pretties of Indian Mexico. And the absence of active lust in me had also given me a new peaceful life that I was enjoying a great deal. But this was too much. I was still afraid to take my clothes off; also I never liked to do that in front of more than one person, especially with men around.


He seems unable to comprehend that no matter how much you may seem to want something, it is self-destructive to do something you know is wrong before you do it. Either change your head, or change your actions. It may well be, as some existentialists argue, that nothing is right or wrong, but thinking makes it so. At the very least, if you THINK it is wrong to have sex with every girl you meet, it IS wrong. Duh. How could an enlightened man think otherwise?

At the deepest level, Smith only seems able to confront the Great Void:

I meditated and prayed. There just isn't any kind of night's sleep in the world that can compare with the night's sleep you get in the desert winter night, providing you're good and warm in a duck-down bag. The silence is so intense that you can hear your own blood roar in your ears but louder than that by far is the mysterious roar which I always identify with the roaring of the diamond of wisdom, the mysterious roar of silence itself, which is a great Shhhh reminding you of something you've seemed to have forgotten in the stress of your days since birth. I wished I could explain it to those I loved, to my mother, to Japhy, but there just weren't any words to describe the nothingness and purity of it. "Is there a certain and definite teaching to be given to all living creatures?" was the question probably asked to beetlebrowed snowy Dipankara, and his answer was the roaring silence of the diamond.


Confronting the Void may well be an important step toward enlightenment, the equivalent of the Dark Night of the Soul, but few are able to survive the constant awareness of that Void without finding something to bridge it.

Unfortunately, the only thing Smith seems able to find to help fill that Void is alcohol. As Japhy tells him:

"You're just drinking too much all the time, I don't see how you're even going to gain enlightenment and manage to stay out in the mountains, you'll always be coming down the hill spending your bean money on wine and finally you'll end up lying in the street in the rain, dead drunk, and then they'll take you away and you'll have to be reborn a teetotalin bartender to atone for your karma." He was really sad about it, and worried about me, but I just went on drinking.

Personally, I find it difficult to get enthusiastic for a novel where the protagonist's solution to his problems is to drink himself into oblivion. I know that real life can be this depressing, but I refuse to believe it has to be. If we can't be Japhy, at least we can be the best Smith we can be, and that is all we need to be.

Even Kerouac seems to realize this and tries to end the novel on a happier note:


It was Japhy who had advised me to come here and now though he was seven thousand miles away in Japan answering the meditation bell (a little bell he later sent to my mother in the mail, just because she was my mother, a gift to please her) he seemed to be standing on Desolation Peak by the gnarled old rocky trees certifying and justifying all that was here. "Japhy," I said out loud, "I don't know when we'll meet again or what'll happen in the future, but Desolation, Desolation, I owe so much to Desolation, thank you forever for guiding me to the place where I learned all. Now comes the sadness of coming back to cities and I've grown two months older and there's all that humanity of bars and burlesque shows and gritty love, all upsidedown in the void God bless them, but Japhy you and me forever we know, 0 ever youthful, 0 ever weeping." Down on the lake rosy reflections of celestial vapor appeared, and I said "God, I love you" and looked up to the sky and really meant it. "I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other."

Unfortunately, the ironic title Desolation Peak doesn't seem ironic here. This escape from despair seems at best temporary, though, for Smith, like all of us, has to test what he has learned on the mountain with the cold reality of everyday life.

Remember to balance these observations against my earlier post on Japhy. I'm still ambivalent about the novel, but I'm glad I finally took the time to read it. If you think I'm being too tough on Kerouac, see the review of another of his books here: Amazon.com: buying info: Some of the Dharma.

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."

The Dharma Bums — First Impressions

Synchronicity - I think The Obvious? calls it. While searching the web for background on Gary Snyder for the poem I just posted on this site, I read that he was portrayed as Japhy, a central character in The Dharma Bums. Earlier, while buying a copy of Kerouacâs On the Road, I had picked up a copy of The Dharma Bums because the title intrigued me.

Obviously, I was meant to read this book now. So I did.

The book reminds me in some ways of Abbey's Desert Solitaire because, for me, the best parts of the book are the scene where the narrator and Japhy climb Matterhorn in the Sierras and the last scene where the narrator spends the summer as a fire lookout on Mt. Desolation. Personally, I find Kerouac's attempts to tie these events to his version of Buddhism the most interesting part of the book.

Of course, I also found the descriptions of Japhy, the main reason I read the novel, interesting. While it's difficult to know how accurate these descriptions are, they do offer some insight into Snyderâs poetry. Also, Snyder writes in Mountains and Rivers without End, "By Way of Thanks: I thank the fellow writers who helped me shape this poem's ideas from earliest on: Phillip Walen, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Jack Kerouac, and Lew Welch." Although this obviously doesn't confirm the authenticity of Kerouac's portrayal of him, it would at least seem to indicate that he wasn't offended by his portrayal.

I am more ambivalent about the content of the novel and the characters who appear in it, particularly Ray Smith himself. Realizing this is "a slice of life" novel, without a real beginning or end, I still find it difficult to admire much about the narrator except his Huck-Finn-like search for his own personal freedom, a freedom you suspect he will sacrifice to his thirst for alcohol. At his worst, he reminds me of Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye , with his sense of personal superiority and constant whining about society in general, while at the same time failing to show any real superiority.

I need some more time to review my notes and think about the book, certainly more time than I have to devote to one day's journal.

Here's an enthusiastic review of the bookLitKicks: Dharma Bums if you'd like a different perspective.

Meanwhile, if you have strong feelings about the novel, let me know and I'll try to consider them while thinking more about this novel.