When an interest in Buddhism germinated in Jack Kerouac, he didn’t just got acquainted with meditation (though he’d left instructions), this philosophy irreversibly penetrated his writing and thought and resulted in some of his most illuminating writings, among them The Dharma Bums (1958). Other greats of this golden age of Buddhism in the West —the latter half of the 1950s and early 1960s— were John Cage, master of silence, and the great Alan Watts, one of the most prolific translators of Zen Buddhist writings.

Watts, in fact, once criticized Kerouac’s approach to Buddhism, calling it “always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.” One of the Kerouac’s most intimate texts seems to have escaped this verdict. In a letter to his ex-wife, Edie Kerouac Parker, written in January 1957 (a decade after their marriage had been annulled), Kerouac laid out several of the principles of Buddhism brilliantly. He closed the letter with a poem, explaining gentleness as one of life’s basic qualities.

At the beginning of his letter, Kerouac shares some of the most valuable lessons he has gathered:

I have lots of things to teach you now, in case we ever meet, concerning the message that was transmitted to me under a pine tree in North Carolina on a cold winter moonlit night. It said that Nothing Ever Happened, so don’t worry. It’s all like a dream. Everything is ecstasy, inside. We just don’t know it because of our thinking-minds. But in our true blissful essence of mind is known that everything is alright forever and forever and forever. Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for 3 seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky way soft cloud innumerable worlds long ago and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing. I call it the golden eternity. It is perfect.

In the introduction to the letter, one of most brilliant minds of the Beat Generation speaks of a much-needed silence, a unique truth, and the risks posed by thinking minds. These are minds which, to Buddhism, lead us away from The Truth, as they are born of ego and feed on an illusory world. He continues with a reference to the primordial vacuum, one of the key concepts of Buddhism:

We were never really born, we will never really die. It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea of a personal self, other selves, many selves everywhere: Self is only an idea, a mortal idea. That which passes into everything is one thing. It’s a dream already ended. There’s nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be glad about. I know this from staring at mountains months on end. They never show any expression, they are like empty space. Do you think the emptiness of space will ever crumble away? Mountains will crumble, but the emptiness of space, which is the one universal essence of mind, the vast awakenerhood, empty and awake, will never crumble away because it was never born. 

To close his letter, he wrote a poem as simple as it is dazzling. In it, among other things, he urges her to be gentle with everyone, all the time, and speaks of this virtue, not as a way of doing good to others, but as a form of happiness for the doer —a lesson both essential and timeless:

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.

Rocks don’t see it.

Bless and sit down.

Forgive and forget.

Practice kindness all day to everybody

and you will realize you’re already

in heaven now.

That’s the story.

That’s the message.

Nobody understands it,

nobody listens, they’re

all running around like chickens with heads cut

off. I will try to teach it but it will

be in vain, s’why I’ll

end up in a shack

praying and being

cool and singing

by my woodstove

making pancakes.

Image: Public domain

When an interest in Buddhism germinated in Jack Kerouac, he didn’t just got acquainted with meditation (though he’d left instructions), this philosophy irreversibly penetrated his writing and thought and resulted in some of his most illuminating writings, among them The Dharma Bums (1958). Other greats of this golden age of Buddhism in the West —the latter half of the 1950s and early 1960s— were John Cage, master of silence, and the great Alan Watts, one of the most prolific translators of Zen Buddhist writings.

Watts, in fact, once criticized Kerouac’s approach to Buddhism, calling it “always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.” One of the Kerouac’s most intimate texts seems to have escaped this verdict. In a letter to his ex-wife, Edie Kerouac Parker, written in January 1957 (a decade after their marriage had been annulled), Kerouac laid out several of the principles of Buddhism brilliantly. He closed the letter with a poem, explaining gentleness as one of life’s basic qualities.

At the beginning of his letter, Kerouac shares some of the most valuable lessons he has gathered:

I have lots of things to teach you now, in case we ever meet, concerning the message that was transmitted to me under a pine tree in North Carolina on a cold winter moonlit night. It said that Nothing Ever Happened, so don’t worry. It’s all like a dream. Everything is ecstasy, inside. We just don’t know it because of our thinking-minds. But in our true blissful essence of mind is known that everything is alright forever and forever and forever. Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for 3 seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky way soft cloud innumerable worlds long ago and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing. I call it the golden eternity. It is perfect.

In the introduction to the letter, one of most brilliant minds of the Beat Generation speaks of a much-needed silence, a unique truth, and the risks posed by thinking minds. These are minds which, to Buddhism, lead us away from The Truth, as they are born of ego and feed on an illusory world. He continues with a reference to the primordial vacuum, one of the key concepts of Buddhism:

We were never really born, we will never really die. It has nothing to do with the imaginary idea of a personal self, other selves, many selves everywhere: Self is only an idea, a mortal idea. That which passes into everything is one thing. It’s a dream already ended. There’s nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be glad about. I know this from staring at mountains months on end. They never show any expression, they are like empty space. Do you think the emptiness of space will ever crumble away? Mountains will crumble, but the emptiness of space, which is the one universal essence of mind, the vast awakenerhood, empty and awake, will never crumble away because it was never born. 

To close his letter, he wrote a poem as simple as it is dazzling. In it, among other things, he urges her to be gentle with everyone, all the time, and speaks of this virtue, not as a way of doing good to others, but as a form of happiness for the doer —a lesson both essential and timeless:

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.

Rocks don’t see it.

Bless and sit down.

Forgive and forget.

Practice kindness all day to everybody

and you will realize you’re already

in heaven now.

That’s the story.

That’s the message.

Nobody understands it,

nobody listens, they’re

all running around like chickens with heads cut

off. I will try to teach it but it will

be in vain, s’why I’ll

end up in a shack

praying and being

cool and singing

by my woodstove

making pancakes.

Image: Public domain