Jack Kerouac's interest in Buddhism began after he spent some time with Neal Cassady, who had taken on an interest in the local California variety of New Age spiritualism, particularly the work of Edgar Cayce. Kerouac mocked Cassady as a sort of homemade American "Billy Sunday with a suit" for praising Cayce, who went into trance states of sleep and then read what were called the Akashic records, and gave medical advice to the petitioners who came to ask him questions with answers which involve reincarnation. So, Kerouac was interested in going back to the original historic sources. He went to the library in San Jose, California and read a book called A Buddhist Bible, edited by Dwight Goddard—a very good anthology of classic Buddhist texts. Kerouac read them very deeply, memorized many of them, and then went on to do other reading and other research and actually became a brilliant intuitive Buddhist scholar. Gary Snyder noted that Kerouac did have an intelligent grasp of Eastern thought, also a learned grasp, and that's something most people don't realize.
He introduced me to it in the form of letters reminding me that suffering was the basis of existence, which is the first Noble Truth in Buddhism. I was at the time a more or less left-wing liberal progressive intellectual, and I was insulted that Kerouac was telling me that the real basis of existence was suffering. I thought this was a personal insult and didn't realize he was simply telling me what he had realized was the basic nature of life.
There is this doctrine in Buddhism of the Three Marks of Existence: first, that existence contains suffering; in Yiddish, existence contains tsuris, serious difficulty. Born, as the poet Gregory Corso says, "a hairy bag of water," there's going to be some difficulty before you leave your body, some irritability or discomfort. If you don't like the word "suffering" then you have to accept that existence contains some "discomfort." The traditional definition is that, being born, the inevitable ultimate consequence is old age, sickness, and death, well described by Kerouac. This is inevitable.
The second characteristic of existence as described in Buddhadharma is Impermanence—the transitoriness of our condition; the fact that what we have here is like a dream, in the sense that it is real while it is here. And so Kerouac would say to me, "Come back in a million years and tell me if this is real." He had the sense of the reality of existence and at the same time the unreality of existence. To Western minds this is a contradiction and an impossibility. But actually, it is not impossible because it is true; this universe is real, and is at the same time unreal. This is known in Buddhism as a co-immergent wisdom, the fact that form and emptiness are identical. These are just basic Buddhist ideas. You'll find the terminology of sunyata, emptiness within form, running through all of Kerouac's middle-period writing, especially in Mexico City Blues. The idea of transitoriness, of impermanence, is not a Himalayan idea, and not an Oriental idea, it's a classic Western idea. For, as Gregory Corso paraphrases Heraclitus—"You can't step in the same river once." You remember Heraclitus: "You can't step in the same river twice"? So Corso put it one poetic move ahead.
What Kerouac was discovering was not some strange Oriental notion alien to the Western mind. He was exploring the basis of mind itself as it's known in the West as in the East, except that he saw the Buddhist formulations as being perhaps more sophisticated than the monotheistic formulation of the West. Nevertheless there were non-theistic formulations of the same thing in writers that he read like Lucretius and Montaigne.
So, the third aspect of existence or third mark of existence is anatma—atman means self; anatma is no permanent self. That comes from the second mark, no permanence of any kind. "All the foundations of existence are transitory," or as Kerouac paraphrased traditional Buddhist terminology, "All the constituents of being are transitory." That being so, there is no permanent selfhood, no permanent me me me me me, and no permanent Great Me in Heaven. There is no reference point at all. There is nothing but open space or, as it is known to existentialists, the Void. Sunyata, as it is known in the Orient; open and accommodating space. The existentialist sense of "the void" as a claustrophobic bummer is a very Western and theistic notion. In the East, the notion of "open space" or "accommodating space" is considered a liberation from the limitation of horizon or boundary wherein a theistic God image is the ultimate reference point. Or to put it very simply, when Chogyam Trungpa, who appreciated Kerouac's writings a great deal, was asked by his son: "Daddy, is there a God?" Trungpa said: "No." And his son said: "Whew!" That sigh of relief might have solved many of Kerouac's problems.
So, he introduced me to Buddhism in the form of song. As you may know, Kerouac admired Frank Sinatra for his crooning enunciation, for his oratory, for his clarity of speech, for the precision with which he pronounced the affective emotional content of his vowels. And so, like Frank Sinatra, the first direct Buddhist word I heard from Kerouac's mouth after letters, was his singing of the Three Refuges. So, that would be the next step.
This is basic to Kerouac's understanding of Buddhism. It goes: "In Buddha I take my refuge, in dharma I take my refuge, in sangha I take my refuge." Buddha may be defined here as wakened mind; clear, not sleeping, not daydreaming but clear, aware of this space. Dharma is the intellectual explanation and exposition of the state of awakeness—historically, through sutra discourses and through understanding of the theory. Sangha is the assembled fellow awakened meditators. So he sang to me in Sanskrit: "Buddham Saranam Gochamee, Dhammam Saranam Gochamee, Sangham Saranam Gochamee"; he sang it like Frank Sinatra in 1952. And that first introduced me to the delicacy and softness of his Buddhism aside from the tough truth of suffering, transitoriness, and no permanent Allen Ginsberg, no permanent Kerouac.
Following that are the Four Noble Truths which readers read in his writing without inquiring further about what they are, although in various essays Kerouac expounds them. Have any of his critics read Kerouac closely enough to remember what he said about the Four Noble Truths? We should pay sufficient respect to Kerouac to ask: "What did he mean by the Four Noble Truths? What are these Four Noble Truths that he speaks of continually?" Perhaps they should be presented here as part of an exposition of Kerouac's ethics, because this refers directly to the central ethics we find in Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, Some of the Dharma, Wake Up, his unpublished biography of Buddha, Desolation Angels, and even in later works more charged with monotheistic Catholic notions of Sacred Heart in relation to suffering.
The Four Noble Truths (based on the Three Marks of Existence) are as follows. First, existence contains suffering. Second, suffering is caused by ignorance of the conditions in which we exist—ignorance of the transitoriness and ignorance of anatma, the empty nature of the situation, so that everybody is afraid of a permanent condition of suffering and doesn't realize that suffering itself is transitory, impermanent. There is no permanent Hell, there is no permanent Heaven. Therefore, the suffering that we sense during this transition of life is not a permanent condition that we need to be afraid of. It's not where we're going to end up. We end liberated from the suffering either by death, or in life, by waking up to the nature of our situation and not clinging and grasping, screaming and being angry, resentful, irritable or insulted by our existence.