Few authors stir our imagination in the West like Jack Kerouac. Kerouac rewrote the use of language in literature.
Longchenpa in Tibet wafts the same smoke and scent. He established the efficacy of words to express the inexpressible: The Dharmakaya. A state Vessantara described as “unconditioned consciousness, beyond space and time.”
Completed in the early fifties, ON THE ROAD was published in 1957. The true life adventures of Neal Cassady, left (portrayed as Dean Moriarty) and Kerouac, right (Sal Paradise) made icons of both men. Born Jean-Louis Kerouac on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac’s native language was French. His early difficulties with English instilled in him an obsession with the use of words to set the stage for memory relived realities. Known as Memory Babe in high school for his astonishing ability to recall events and conversations word for word, Kerouac was also a gifted athlete who went to Columbia on a football scholarship. Already set in a lifetime pattern of refusal to conform to custom or discipline, Kerouac dropped out of football and resolved to spend his life writing. Allen Ginsberg became a lifetime friend of Jack’s at Columbia University.
Published a year after On the Road, THE DHARMA BUMS rewrote my life. Like all of Kerouac’s works, The Dharma Bums is autobiographical, based on adventures with the poet, Gary Snyder (Japhy). Now deeply immersed in Buddhism after a trip to Mexico, Jack (Ray) shares three week old cheese, wine and a boxcar with a “little bum sitting crosslegged at his end before a pitiful repast of one can of sardines.”
“He ate the 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 was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection…I believed I was an oldtime bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world (usually the immense triangular arc 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. I had not met Japhy Ryder yet, I was about to the next week, or heard anything about “Dharma Bums” although at this time I was a perfect Dharma bum myself and considered myself a religious wanderer. The little bum in the gondola solidified all my beliefs by warming up to the wine and talking and finally whipping out a tiny slip of paper which contained a prayer by Saint Teresa announcing that after her death she will return to the earth by showering it with roses from heaven, for all living creatures.” — The Dharma Bums
I’m sure that passage had long gone from my mind many years later when my wife, Angelina, and I began work on our novel PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation. Of course I knew who Teresa (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux) was when I took my lunch break from Technicolor movie lab, one block from Times Square. I did not know that the her reliquary was being displayed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Before I entered the Cathedral’s great vaulted wooden entrance, Angelina had already envisioned the rough outline of a story concerning a terrorist attack on Jerusalem that would frame our proposed plan for peace in the Middle East. What we lacked was a hook, a pivot upon which to focus our story, a hub around which to fashion a plot. So when I realized Teresa’s relics were present, I entered a fervent plea for her intervention, “Give us a hook, please, dear Saint.”
I have spent much of my life either in, or on the way to or from, bookstores. So it was in character for me to swing by Barnes & Noble on my return to Technicolor. There, in the basement, among the New Age and Esoterica collection, was a book I had never seen before — that in itself was amazing. For this fascinating title should have drawn my gaze many times over. THE SPEAR OF DESTINY by Trevor Ravenscroft was first published in 1973, not long after I first read THE DHARMA BUMS, and had been in paperback since 1982. Subtitled The Occult Power Behind the Spear which pierced the side of Christ . . . and how Hitler inverted the Force in a bid to conquer the World, I knew I had the answer to my prayer, and within fifteen minutes! To this day, Teresa is the patron saint of PURE VISION.
When I showed Angelina THE SPEAR OF DESTINY that evening, she understood immediately. The spear shoved into Jesus’ side by the Centurion Longinus to ease his suffering would become the starting point of our narrative.
LONGCHEN RABJAMPA, 1308-1364, and the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (seen here), were students of Rigdzin Kumaradza, a great master of Dzogchen (Clear Light Great Completion). Longchenpa performed the most extraordinary feat in Tibetan Buddhism. He mastered the expression of the infinite through the finite expression of the written word. His father was a tantric yogi. At the moment of his conception, his mother dreamed of a sun placed on the head of a lion, illuminating the world. Kumaradza’s training was strenuous and involved continuous moving from encampment to encampment amidst the most rugged Tibetan terrain. This training instilled in Longchenpa a distaste for traditional scholars and monastics. The day of Longchenpa’s arrival, Kumaradza told his students, “Last night I dreamt that a wonderful bird, which announced itself to be a divine bird, came with a large flock in attendance and carried away my books in all directions. Therefore, someone will come to hold my lineage.” The terminology we associate with Dzogchen today dates to Longchenpa.
His works are available with commentary by numerous prominent teachers. Padma Publishing under the direction of Richard Barron (Lama Chokyi Nyima, shown here with Kalu Rinpoche, from The Chariot For Travelling the Path to Freedom) has done a superlative job. The Precious Treasury of the Basic Space of Phenomena and Longchnepa’s commentary on his own text, A Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmission, are amazing books.
Reading Tibetan is essential to serious Vajrayana pratice, and without that ability chanting is not possible. Dharma books which do not include the original text will not have lasting value. Tibetan is a surprisingly easy language to learn to read. The key is spelling. You can learn to spell by first identifying the letters, and then recognizing the accent marks and how they affect the pronunciation. Translating scriptural texts is difficult. The language is cryptic and shadowed with vaguery. The translation team established by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche is to be commended. The The Precious Treasury of the Basic Space of Phenomena has the Tibetan text on the left hand page and an English translation on the right. A Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmission is entirely in English with a glossary in the back.
Just as all light is subsumed within the sun as its source, all phenomena are subsumed within awakened mind as their source — Longchen Rabjam
The Nyingma (the Ancient Ones) school of Tibetan Buddhism dates to Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche. One of the greatest strengths of the Nyingma — a strong lay presence — has served it well in the West. Ngagpas, non-monastic tantric yogis, are an essential element to a strong Dharma community. Many Nyingma teachers have imparted their wisdom and dedication to learning Tibetan and essential Dharma practice through empowerments (wangs) and verbal authorization (lungs). Growing strong communities without the cultural and mental entrapment of monastic vows has been effective in the West.
Faith is the great engine which drives spiritual progress. “Go,” said Jesus, “Your faith has healed you.” The man recovered his sight and followed Jesus down the road. (Gospel of Mark 10:52)
RIGDZIN JIGMA LINGPA (1730-1798), born over 400 years after Longchenpa, had faith. His faith transformed Buddhism in Tibet, and his faith continues to transform the world. Jigme Lingpa’s devotion to Padmasambhava was so strong that, one night in 1757 while engaged in a solitary retreat, he entered a deep meditative state after crying passionately because he was not in Guru Rinpoche’s presence. In a state of luminous clarity, he experienced himself flying a great distance on the back of a white lion. He arrived at the Bodhnath Stupa in Nepal and was met by a wisdom dakini who gave him a small, beautiful casket before vanishing. Inside were five rolls of yellow paper with dakini script as well as seven crystal beads. At the urging of another dakini, Jigme Lingpa swallowed the rolls of paper and the crystal beads. When he returned from his state of Ultimate Union (sungjuk), he understood that the Longchen (Great Expanse) Nyingthig (Heart Essence) teachings and realizations, entrusted to him many lifetimes earlier by Guru Rinpoche, had reawakened in his mindstream.
Several years later, Jigme Lingpa had three pure visions of Longchenpa. In the first vision, he received the transmission of both the words and meaning of Longchenpa’s teachings. In the second vision, he received the blessing of Longchenpa’s speech and was empowered to propagate his teachings. The final vision imparted to Jigme Lingpa the vast wisdom mind of Longchenpa and the vast power of his enlightened awareness: Longchen Nyingthig.
Seven years would pass before Jigme Lingpa passed the sadhanas to students. Rigdzin Dupa: The Assemblage of Vidyadharas (Eight Enlightened Masters), Yumka Dechen Gyalmo: The Queen of Great Bliss (Yeshe Tsogyal), and Senge Dongchen: The Lion Faced Dakini form the foundation practices of these powerful teachings. Padmasambhava/Guru Rinpoche lives in these practices — his mind, his power, his Pure Vision — available to all those who receive the empowerment and verbal transmission to practice from authorized teachers in the Longchen Nyingthig lineage.
Many wonderful and learned books have been written about Guru Rinpoche/Padmasambhava. Tulku Thondup Rinpoche is an authority on the Longchen Nyingthig. In addition to Hidden Teachings of Tibet he translated the two Longchen Nyingthig texts pictured above, The Queen of Great Bliss and The Assemblage of Vidyadharas. Also, Blessing Power of the Buddhas: Sacred Objects, Secret Lands by Norma Levine provides a refreshing overview of Guru Rinpoche’s power within the context of real life adventures. Norma Levine knew nothing of Buddhism in the early 1970’s when she was traveling to Northern Scotland to visit a friend. She stopped over at Samye Ling, the first Dharma Center in the West founded by Akong Rinpoche and Chögyam Trungpa. Her “overnight” coincided with the first visit to the West by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a giant (literally) of the Nyingma lineage. She stayed for two months, never made it to Northern Scotland, and figuratively never left Samye Ling.
Khenchen Palden Sherab (1938-2010) and his brother Tulku Tsewang Dongyal (born 1950), from the Kham region of Tibet, have been tireless and ever-cheerful teachers. Their father, Chime Namgyal, was also a Lama. Therein lies the great strength of the Nyingma family. Together they founded Padmasambhava Buddhist Center in the Catskills of New York with centers worldwide. The many books they authored together form the greatest single body of properly assembled works available to Western students. The Dark Red Amulet on the Vajrakilaya practice exemplifies excellence in Dharma. The sadhana, its history and lineage is introduced. Then line by line, with the Tibetan text and transliteration, the practice is explained. The entire sadhana is then given at the end of the book.
Garab Dorje is the first human teacher in the Dzogchen lineage. He brought the teachings from the pure lands and transmitted them to Manjushrimitra and Padmasambhava. Garab Dorje’s classic text Tsig Sum Nedek — The Three Words that Strike the Crucial Point is presented by Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal in Lion’s Gaze. The brothers present teachings on both Garab Dorje’s text and Patrul Rinpoche’s commentary, The Special Teachings of the Wise and Glorious Sovereign. Patrul was a student of Jigme Gyalwe Nyugu, a direct disciple of Jigme Lingpa, and from him received original transmission of the Longchen Nyingthig.
The portal from the East opened Westward in San Francisco. Two East Coast writers literally blasted the door from its hinges. On Thursday, October 13, 1955, Allen Ginsberg read Howl at The Six Gallery in San Francisco. Words reshaped reality. America hasn’t been the same since. Kerouac portrayed the event in The Dharma Bums.
Anyway, I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at the Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o’clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading, wailing his poem “Wail” drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling “Go! Go! Go!” (like a jam session) — The Dharma Bums
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Books and himself an excellent poet — A Coney Island of the MInd — was in the San Francisco audience the night of Allen Ginsberg’s reading. Recognizing Allen’s brilliance and inspired by what he heard, Ferlinghetti decided to publish the poem. Over fifty years later, a feature film, Howl, was made about the event. It includes portions of Allen’s poem which are set to animation. The film is an excellent portrayal and highly recommended.
I was able to hear a reading of Howl myself when I attended the Last Happening of the Sixties at Miami Marine Stadium, December 22, 1969. Allen Ginsberg decided at the last minute to add his father, Louis, also a poet, to his scheduled reading. Miami city officials, still reeling from the effects of a Doors concert earlier in the year when Jim Morrison reportedly exposed himself, refused permission.
Allen was fuming when the reading started. I was among the chilly members of the audience, my own psyche reeling from the death of my mother a year earlier and the Woodstock Festival in August. Howl spoke to me that night, and Allen gave a memorable reading. When he launched into a poem about the Czechoslovakia police state, the stadium manager had heard enough and announced the reading was over. Not for Allen, though. When he didn’t stop, the manager cut the power to Allen’s microphone and turned the stadium lights on full. Jeremiah railed on, screaming. With the music piping in over the sound system finally drowning him out, Allen left the stage to a standing ovation.
A few months later, I was back in Lawrence, Kansas, and not attending my classes at KU. Vietnam was no longer an option. My birth date had received a high number in the first draft lottery. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in town to do a reading. I went with my friend George Kimball, himself a writer and friend of Ginsberg’s. After the reading, Ferlinghetti agreed to come with us to The White House, the notorious hippie house a block from the campus where George and I lived with a crazy collection of smokers, yogis and dealers. A coterie of Ferlinghetti fans accompanied us. We sat in a circle in the largest room — on the floor, orange crates, rocking chairs and a double bed. The house’s ever present marijuana supply was passing freely. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare . . . I don’t know who started chanting . . . it was de rigueur for the times.
Suddenly, on my left George Kimball sailed a tin of Bugle Boy Tobacco, barely missing the blonde across the room seated on the floor next to Ferlinghetti. “What was that for?” The group demanded in unison. “She was off key,” George replied. The party ended on that sour note. Within minutes the crowd was gone. That same year George was defeated in his run for Douglas County sheriff. He later moved to Boston and became an award-winning sports journalist for the Boston Globe.
Decades later, Kerouac’s and Ginsber’s contributions, beyond the literary, have liberated our thought stream and opened our doors of perception. The Beat Explosion wasn’t about wine and sex, just as Woodstock wasn’t about drugs and music. Words made the difference. Writing for the moment, they wrote us all into a new time.
Carried by the natural rhythms of thought and speech, and the mind’s capacity to mock the rhythm of what it thinks about–driven mostly, in this case, by the staccato beat of freight trains–some of Kerouac’s sentences roll on for a whole page. — Gerald Nicosia
Jack Kerouac gave us the holiness of the everyday moment. Myriad works have been written on his life and writing. John Tytell, Professor of English at Queens College (CUNY) wrote a classic study of the works of Kerouac, Ginsberg and William Burroughs. It’s an excellent read for fans of these authors.
In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac dramatized a crucial shift in the Beat sensibility: instead of continuing to seek escape from boredom and the spiritually corrupting emphasis on materialism and careers through desperate activity, Kerouac began an inward search for new roots. The Dharma Bums replaces the hysteria of On The Road with a quietly contemplative retreat toward meditation. — from NAKED ANGELS: The Lives and Loves of the Beat Generation by John Tytell
Of the Kerouac biographies, I found The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson to be the most readable and informed source for Jack’s life and vision leading to On The Road. The author’s insights are authentic. She had a two year relationship with Kerouac and was with him the day the New York Times Book Review of On The Road legitimized his struggles. Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia is amazing. Herein is contained not only every inning, but every pitch of Jack’s troubled life. Mr. Nicosia is to be commended for his efforts. On the Road: The Official Movie Companion is another must for Kerouac fans.
Thinking about his months away from home, he reminded himself in emotional language that sounds directly translated from his French thoughts, “I hope, little madam, that you realize that destination is not really a tape at the end of a straight-way racing course, but that it is a tape on an oval that you must break over and over again as you race madly around.” — From The Voice is All.
Jack Kerouac died on October 21st, 1969 in St. Petersburg, Florida after a lifetime of alcohol abuse. He was 47 years old.