That's a summary of the text of Prajnaparamita: "Highest Perfect Wisdom" Heart Sutra. Most of Kerouac's mid-late poetry depends on some glimpse or some understanding of that statement, as both an ethic and a philosophical take on reality and appearance. Once you get that terminology down, you'll be able to read his Mexico City Blues very easily and see how funny they are, what a good representation of the mind they are and how trenchant philosophically. Few readers have had the inquisitiveness to go into his Buddhism and learn its basis which can be summarized in one sentence which Kerouac often quoted from the Vajraheddika, or Diamond Sutra:
All conceptions as to the existence of the self, as well as conceptions as to the existence of a supreme self, as well as all conceptions as to the non-existence of the supreme self, are equally arbitrary, being only conceptions.
It's not very far from the notion that William Burroughs laid on Kerouac in 1945 when he gave him a copy of Alfred Korzybski's Science and Sanity, the basic foundation work in general semantics. The theme was: don't confuse words (and ideas) with events. The table is not a table. This is not a finger, it's called a finger but it is what it is. This leaves the universe open. The slogan is: "Avoid the is of identity."
Unfortunately, Kerouac had no teacher in the lineage of Zen or classical Buddhism. And so the one thing lacking was the tool, the instrument to realize the sort of substratum of all this exposition, namely the sitting practice of meditation—actually to take in his body the notion of emptiness or examine it as a process of mind, through the practice of classical meditation as handed down in immemorial "ear-whispered" tradition.
However, Kerouac was very intelligent and knew that substratum almost intuitively. You can tell that from his writing, from his poetry with its metaphors of emptiness and the description of vast spaciousness, which is the same thing as emptiness. You can see it at the end of The Town and the City, the vision of a football field, the sun going down behind the clouds and the vaster spaces beyond in the sky. The sense of "panoramic awareness" runs through all of Kerouac's descriptions of landscape. You always find him focusing on Neal Cassady at the pool table or the snooker table with the camera receding as it does at the end of the movie Les Enfants du Paradis when the camera recedes above the buildings, above the Ferris wheel, until we see the vast crowd receding in a much vaster space.
Kerouac, however, lacked specific instruction in the actual method of meditation practice in Zen. This, basically, is to follow the breath and take a friendly attitude toward one's thoughts, but bring the mind back to attention to the breath. Kerouac had worked out his own form of sitting practice which involved squeezing his anus, closing his eyes, and trying to see a golden light.
He had some kind of satori from that. But the instruction one gets in ancient sitting practice is: as soon as you see your thoughts, renounce them, let go. Don't cling to thought, don't try and make it a reference point, keep the space of mind open. As Blake says, "He who binds to himself a joy/does the winged life destroy/He who kisses the joy as it flies/lives in eternity's sunrise."
That's the basis, simply paying attention to the ongoing process of breath while it's proceeding, and taking a friendly attitude towards your thought forms. Not inviting them in, not pushing them away, allowing them to take care of themselves, but keeping your attention on the actual physical space around you, the flow of the out breath. That's Tibetan style meditation. Gary Snyder never did teach him Zen Buddhist sitting practice style because of some odd miscommunication.
Kerouac's satori was clinging both to despair of suffering, fear of suffering, and permanent Hell, fear of a permanent Heaven: "I am only an Apache/smoking hashi, in old Cabashy/by the lamp," humorously frozen in a kind of horrible hashish Hell. He constantly refers to that image: "Pieces of the Buddha material frozen and sliced microscopically in morgues of the North ... skeletons of heroes ... fingers and joints ... elephants of kindness torn apart by vultures." So obsessed was he with the suffering he encountered that he wasn't able to let go. I think the alcohol amplified that suffering, left him prey to the phantasm of the monotheistic imposition which Blake had denounced as being "six thousand years of sleep" for Western civilization.
So, we have a contrast here, ethically and philosophically, between non-theistic Buddhist space-awareness or awareness practice, and theistic Catholicism's contemplation of or fixation on the Cross of suffering.
As Jack grew older, in despair and lacking the means to calm his mind and let go of the suffering, he tended more and more to grasp at the Cross. And so, in his later years, he made many paintings of the Cross, of cardinals, popes, of Christ crucified, of Mary; seeing himself on the Cross, and finally conceiving of himself as being crucified. He was undergoing crucifixion in the mortification of his body as he drank. Nonetheless, he did have this quality of negative capability, the ability to hold opposite ideas in his mind without "an irritable reaching out after fact and reason," which John Keats proposed as the true mind of the Shakespearian poet.
"I am Canuck, I am from Lowell, I am Jewish, I am Palestianian, I Am, I am the finger, I am the name." Kerouac was not heavily entangled in such fixed identity.
We owe it to Burroughs somewhat for having cut Kerouac loose from that "is of identity" in the mid-1940s so that Kerouac had the ability to empathize with the old transvestite queen and become "one of the world's/great bullshitters/girls," as he says in his Mexico City Blues: "Darling! Red hot/That kind of camping/I don't object to/unless it's kept within reason." He could empathize with the all-American boy, football hero. He could be a sophisticated littérateur or an old drunk alternatively. He could be country bumpkin, he could be as Thomas Wolfe, or he could empathize with William Burroughs as a "non-Wolfian" European sophisticate. So, in the end, his poetry and his prose becomes a perfect manifestation of his mind. That was the whole point of the spontaneous prosody. And the great Tibetan Lama Chogyam Trungpa, examining Kerouac's poetry, said: "It's a perfect manifestation of mind." His work is accepted in the Buddhist community as a great manifestation of poetic mind; true to the nature of mind as understood traditionally by Buddhist theories of spontaneous mind, how to achieve and how to use it.
Kerouac wrote an essay, "Last Words," in January 1967 (published in Escapade) quoting the Surangama Sutra:
If you are now desirous of more perfectly understanding Supreme Enlightenment, you must learn to answer spontaneously and with no recourse to discriminate thinking. For the Tathagatas (the passers-through) in the ten quarters of the universes, because of the straight-forwardness of their minds and the spontaneity of their mentations, have ever remained, from beginningless time to endless time, of one pure Suchness with the enlightening nature of pure Mind Essence.
Then Kerouac continues:
... which is pretty strange old news. You can also find pretty much the same thing in Mark 13:11. "Take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do you premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given to you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak but the Holy Ghost!" Mozart and Blake often felt they weren't pushing their own pens it was the "Muse" singing and pushing.
In another sense spontaneous, or ad lib, artistic writing imitates as best it can the flow of the mind as it moves in its space-time continuum, in this sense, it may really be called Space Age Prose someday because when astronauts are flowing through space and time they too have no chance to stop and reconsider and go back. It may be they won't be reading anything else but spontaneous writing when they do get out there, the science of the language to fit their science of movement ...
To break through the barrier of language with WORDS, you have to be in orbit around your mind, and I may go up again if I regain my strength. It may sound vain but I've been wrestling with this angelic problem with at least as much discipline as Jacob.
Adapted for Tricycle by Allen Ginsberg from an essay in Un Homme Grand: Jack Kerouac á la Confluence des Cultures (Carleton University Press, 1990), edited by Pierre Anctil. Interpretations of Buddhadharma are modelled after expositions by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Shambhala Publications, 1972) and other discourses. The translation of Prajnaparamita Sutra is adapted by the author and Gelek Rinpoche from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi's.
Images 1, 2, 3: © Allen Ginsberg.