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Seekers in Dharma Bums Essay


There are many ways to identify a seeker. There is a hunger in their eyes, a look of inquisitiveness and often skepticism. They are looking for the answer and that search is rarely interrupted. Every experience and every moment is analyzed and scrutinized for its application to their lives. In Jack Kerouacs Dharma Bums,Viking Press1959 we have a story chock full of seekers. From the narrator Ray and his fellow bums, to the poets and people he meets along his journeys across the country and back again. The characters in this novel are searching for something. They have internalized this search and for the main characters it is the teachings of the buddha that best symbolize and fit the answer they are looking for. Best symbolize, because the pick and choose pragmatism of the characters throughout the story does not truly follow those teachings, they simply have the firmest roots in them. In particular the two major characters Ray and Japhy while espousing buddhist principals make the choices that best suit their go with the flow attitude.

One area this can be seen plainly is in their sexual relations with the female characters in the book. In Rays case we see huge discrepancies in what he claims to believe and follow, and how he ultimately acts. In chapter five he states his case clearly when asked to disrobe and join Princess, Japhy and Alvah in yabyum.

But on top of all that, the feelings about Princess, Id also gone through an entire year of celibacy based on my feelings that lust was the direct cause of birth which was the direst cause of suffering and death and I had really come no lie to the point where I regarded lust as offensive and even cruel. (pg 21)

Not two paragraphs later he is engaging in the activity he so vividly denounced. It begs the question of whether or not his celibacy was less a vow to adhere to a philosophical belief or more as a convenient explanation for why he hasnt been sexually active. We know that his year of celibacy happened to coincide with his previous encounters with Princess Id had such idealistic longings for that girl in the past year and had conscience-stricken hours wondering if I should seduce her because she was so young and all (pg 20). It seems his celibacy over the last year may have been less about choice and more a way to hide his self doubt and feeling of inadequacy in relation to Princess. Japhy on the other hand is staunch in his declarations of simple living in particular avoiding excesses and vice. When it comes to women and in particular, sexual relations with women, Japhy indulges mightily and without regret. His decidedly pragmatic view of the buddha is plainly spoken after his yabyum session with Princess and his fellow bums.

Smith, I distrust any kind of buddhism or any kind of philosophy or social system that puts down sex, (pg 22)

Strange that it is appropriate in Japhys mind to engage in a so-called buddhist temple ceremony, yet denounce the teachings that produced it. He even goes so far as to validate the activity to Princess and the bums by calling her a bodhisattva. This is a clear example of choosing the area of the buddhist teachings that fits what is important to him, and discarding the rest of it as irrelevant.

Another area that these two characters seem to disregard hard and fast doctrine is the area of consumption of alcohol. They both dedicate time to study and meditation in order to become more enlightened. They also focus on being prayerful and avoiding those things which inhibit focus on following the path (pg 18) After all the talk between the two about clearing the mind we see this over indulgence evidenced in several places, the get togethers at Rays place, the first leg of the trip to the mountains, but most notably in chapter 27. Ray is the most apt to get drunk. Similar to the way sex is the vice Japhy has no problem with and is comfortable with, Ray is similarly at ease with his drunkenness. Japhy while given to enjoy drinking is at least aware of the dangers and tries to warn Ray.

How do you expect to become a good bhikku or even a Bodhisattva Mahasattva always getting drunk like that?

It is almost comical to hear Japhy spouting off about being spiritual given the level of vice and non-spiritual behavior he engages in. But like Ray, Japhy has his insecurities too. It is interesting to note that Ray is usually the one with money because he has been paid for published work. Japhy even comments that it is Rays poems that he has read at the buddhist center discussion they are supposed to attend. It is possible that Japhy dislikes drinking because he is insecure about his ability to write or deliver without his full mental capacity. This in an area where Ray is more self assured and comfortable and is more apt to just forget it all and drown himself in a poorboy of ruby red port (pg 146). In the end, just like Japhy and Alvah convinced Ray to join in the yabyum, with a little nudge from the other attendees at the discussion, Japhy got drunk and reveled.

You know what happened Smith? I went to the Buddhist lecture and they were drinking white raw sake out of teacups and everybody got drunk. All those crazy Japanese saints! You were right! It doesnt make a difference! (pg 147)

Once Japhy was able to get past the fear of having to engage in a serious, scholarly discussion on poetry or Buddhism, he was able to let go and be what he is best at, which is an entertainer and life of the party.

There is little doubt that these two characters were actively seeking in their lives. Whether they were actively seeking answers to lifes questions, or seeking answers that fit their lives is another story. It would seem that at this moment in these two characters lives it would be the latter. They seemed quite capable of adjusting philosophy to affirm the lifestyle choices they were making.

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