More Kerouac – 2

Jack Kerouac, Tangier Morocco, 1957. Photo: Allen Ginsberg

Q: Gregory Corso, (in several of his) remarks referred to (the first) conversations he’s had with Jack Kerouac…

Gregory Corso: Yeah

Q: And I was wondering…

GC: I think it was more of a feeling he had towards things, that I was raised Catholic and that he was raised Catholic, it had a kind of bond to it.
Peter (Orlovsky)? – Peter was raised Catholic?

AG: No

GC: No, that’s it. So in the ball-game there was (William) Burroughs, who was an Anglo, there was the Jew-Boy, and, what was Peter? – Russian Orthodox? – or what?

AG: He wasn’t.. He’s a goy, so he’s not Jewish.

GC: Alright, whatever, but, nonetheless, he and I {Gregory and Jack] were (together)

AG: Russian Orthodox,

GC: Orthodox, Russian Orthodox.

AG: His grandfather..

GC: Ah, whatever. Nonetheless, he [Jack] was interested in Catholicism, and I was raised by Christian brothers and in orphanages by nuns, so there was that connect. The conversations we had about it? – je ne sais pas, I don’t recall none that we had.

AG: I (do).

GC: You do? okay..

AG: Yeah, you know what they used to say? The whole conversation was “You’re a Catholic” – “Yeah, I’m a Catholic, and you’re a Catholic..”..

GC: The two Catholics…

AG: …And he’s a Jew! – “Catholic poet, Catholic poet, yeah, Catholic poet – Jewish poet (Jewish poet)!”. That was about all!

Q: (How true to Buddhist experience do you think Kerouac’s books are (I’m thinking of
Some of the Dharma)?

AG: I once asked Gary Snyder that, because he would sort of be right in the middle in....he was studying, doing koan study Daitoku-ji monastery in Japan, and I asked Gary what he thought about Kerouac’s mind… his mind, say with koan. And Gary said that he thought that Kerouac had a very very insightful mind, and probably could, intuitively, get to resolve some of the koans in a shorter time than most students (just simply because his mind was spontaneous and loose and not bound down by conceptual rigidities) .. but, have I answered your question? – how true to Buddhism is his exposition of dharma? Close, I would say. He’s hitting…

Osel Tendzin: Sketchy

AG: Sketchy, in that one book (Some of the Dharma) – but then he has a whole bunch of books..

OT: Still sketchy

AG: I would say un-sketchy, to the extent that he embodied Buddhist ideas in dramas and dramas of disillusionment, like the account of his older brother’s death (Visions of Gerard), where insights and flashes that would have doctrinal names in Buddhist dharma are given flesh and exhibited naked and raw in the narrative.

OT: Sketchy doesn’t mean bad, particularly. (I mean sketchy, in terms of penetrating the doctrine itself, I think (he) is sketchy)

AG: How would you… That’s interesting, because…Actually,that’s what I invited you mostly, here, to hear. What’s your judgment on…let’s see now..(his) intellectual grasp of the whole scheme of the (what you say is sketchy…

OT: Kerouac? – Sketchy, I think. I think he basically got the ideas, you know

AG: Uh-huh

OT: …right off the top, because he was a very sensitive and intelligent person, and, as I said before, tender, open, so he got the ideas right off the bat. As far as penetrating into the essence, I think it would have taken him a while (if he had a good teacher) ..

AG: Yeah

OT:…which didn’t exist at the time

AG: Yes. One thing I thought, he clung to suffering. See? – Not merely recognizing Existence containing Suffering but then he got hooked on it and hung up on that one point.

OT: Well, there was an interesting thing you sent me which was from “Last Words”?

AG: “The Last Word” – yeah

OT:..and he listed the Four Noble Truths. Do you know the piece?

AG: Um.. Yes I do. It was.. I’m not sure if.. I do have it..

OT: (And) he says here ..

AG: this is an article in Escapade being an exposition of dharma (to OT): Am I talking about the same one?)

OT: No, this is it, this is it

AG: 1960 or so, he took on a contract with

OT: (reading) “Yet these thoughts stand up to the Four Noble Truths as propounded by Buddha and which I memorized under the street lamp in the cold wind of night – (1) All Life is Sorrowful” – (which is probably the translation that he could get at the time) – (2) “The Cause of Suffering is Ignorant Desire” – (which is another translation he could get at the time) – “The Suppression of Suffering can be achieved” (which is a really bad translation!) – and “The way is the Noble Eightfold Path” (which is fine) – which you might as well say is just as explicit in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, not knowing it could just as well be – (1) All Life is Joy – (2) The Cause of Joy is Enlightened Desire – (3) The Expansion of Joy can be achieved – (4) The way is the Noble Eightfold Path”. So, maybe he had some other ideas, as well as clinging to that, but..

AG: At that point, he wouldn’t…

OT: Is this at the end of his life?

AG: No, this is a kind of balance, I would say. Do you know, Gerald, what year?

Gerald Nicosia: That would be about..very early, maybe (19)54

AG: No, no, “The Last Word” is a..

GN:It was published much later, but it was written years before it was published.

AG: Do you think that’s partly from Some of the Dharma? I thought it was written for Escapade as a summary in 1960, (or) whenever those articles were.

GN: No, a lot of those Escapade articles were written years before, and that was one
AG: Okay

OT: But it seems to me…

AG: The transformation from suffering to joy is interesting.. It’s kind of Vajrayana-style, isn’t it?

OT; It’s interesting, it’s interesting, because “All life is suffering” doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re trapped (that’s the whole notion of Original Sin, which doesn’t really exist in Buddhism) and “The cause of suffering is ignorant desire” is close – the cause of suffering is ignorance (and desire comes out of that).”The suppression of suffering can be achieved” is completely off (the normal translation is “cessation of suffering”, which is also off). The whole notion of suffering is that it is.. Suffering, basically, is a kind of mirror-image of your own projection. So you suffer because you look at something and say, “What’s that? – It’s other than me!”. So it’s possible that suffering can be defused (or unwound, which is a much better idea) and the Noble Eightfold Path is that – Be good, do good, don’t say bad things about other people, be nice to people, don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt other people”

AG: What I was diggin’ here was “The Cause of Joy is Enlightened Desire” and “The Expansion of Joy can be achieved”

OT: Well, “Enlightened Desire” is an interesting point, too. “Enlightened Desire” means everybody here has a desire for something. It’s like that cross Gregory’s talking about. That cross doesn’t necessarily have to mean that somebody’s stretched out on it bleeding. The cross itself may say to somebody, “Wake up!” – So that could be Enlightened Desire, just to see a symbol, of some kind, could wake up something in you, or if you read a line in Kerouac’s work..

Gregory Corso: Yeah, but it does have a lousy history, that cross, though (I mean, good god, it’s something else!)

AG: Gregory, do you want to…

OT: Not that one.

GC: Oh not that one.

OT: Not that one

GC: Not this one!…

Q: (I don’t know who to direct this to It’s just that I’d like to try to (question the) challenge to Jack Kerouac’s Catholicism).. Do you see any comparison, (any) compatibility, between Catholicism (and) Buddhism, in the idea that, in Catholicism, there’s an acceptance of suffering (and a chance for good in the after-life, you know) ……whereas, in Buddhism, we must improve the suffering, as it says in The Eight Noble Paths Also, how enlightened… (how)… do you see any compatibility or contradiction(s)?)

GC: Well the two Catholics can answer that, right?, you, Riccardo (sic) , and me – Denial, flagellation, they would have, I mean, monasteries, vows of silence, and what-not – yeah…That’s as close as I can come to I where they would deny themselves the pleasures of life and what-not – the asceticism.

OT: There’s a little difference between the Catholic idea of why you would deny yourself that pleasurable experience and the Buddhist idea. There’s actually quite a bit of difference there. I think that speaks to this gentleman’s question.You deny it now because this particular thing we’re doing is really… and the next one is much better.

GC: That’s weird, because, the next one, if you’re going to wait for the next one, you’ll never know really. Everything is happening now

OT: Well you do know, if, if, according to the Catholic tradition, you can tune your mind to Christ

GC: Yeah

OT: Body and mind, not just mind, body and mind. Then, when you die, you’re born in a particular heaven, and life goes on..

GC: That’s a funny one to believe, though, because dead you’re really up shit’s creek, I mean you can’t do nothing. When you’re alive, you do it.

OT: How do you know, Gregory. Come on..

GC: Well, I’m alive

OT: How do you know?

GC:I don’t know nothing about death. Allen called me up the other night to explain death? – “No, thank you

John Clellon Holmes: It seems to me, as a sympathetic and interested observer of all this, that doctrines (separate) different doctrines can never be compatible, but the essence, for which doctrines are an expression is often, essentially, the same. And Jack was… Jack.. in the his first passion of Buddhism, he did not reject Catholicism, despite what you read. He didn’t concern himself with it. I never heard him say anything about it. He didn’t say that now I have.. in accepting this, I must reject that. He was… He found his beliefs via experience and not out of books (which is the very best way to find them, after all) – I think the books made it seem he was living hedonistically, which Jack did not, Jack had a deep moral sense, for which his Catholicism, I think, is primarily responsible, because those things are formed very early in life.

GC Yeah

OT: (I think the books were experience too) Well weren’t the books in there too? He read something there.

JCH: Oh yes. I mean for a.. for a doctrine about which so few Westerners know anything, there is almost no way to approach it except through books.

OT: I don’t know when he was reading all this – the Lankavatara Sutra, and all this stuff ,but it must be quite early for Americans.

AG: Yes. In the book [a history of Buddhism in America], How The Swans Came To The Lake he’s given credit for being one of the sort of precursors of the larger wave of actual Buddhist practice that took place in late 60s and early 70s.

JCH: I think he was. I’d agree with that, but we are talking about what he himself believed (or the nature of his belief, not what he believed), I don’t think he was preoccupied with tenets of any faith. If they had psychological or spiritual relevance to him, he accepted them and talked about them in his books (and) in his letters. I mean, Visions of Gerard is as intensely Catholic as Dharma Bums is intensely Buddhist

OT: That’s interesting…

JCH: They were both written by the same man and he found no incompatibility between them, but, they are no doctrinal books, they are not illustration of a doctrine. They are a depiction of human beings struggling with themselves and with their longings, and, ultimately, with death – how to confront death, how to understand it, how to cease fearing it. This is a profoundly religious point of view, but to try to say.. to try to claim Jack for any given faith or any.. to try to sum up where Jack ended up, I think we’re looking for a kind of certainty he would …he would not have appreciated. He was never certain. He never stopped growing. He was enlarged by everything that he encountered in terms of this, and we should attempt to be no smaller than that.

Q: (I’d like to ask about another figure, touching on all these matters – the spiritual transmission of Walt WhitmanSong of the Open Road“, Specimen Days “Song of Prudence”, Song of Myself writing on matters of love and death of comrades, taking care of the sick….)

AG: Well, the Whitmanic open road is very similar to Mahayana Buddhism and sutra, at least Buddhists think so. So there’s some correlation there, that is – respect for self ((Whitman’s) “I celebrate myself”), affection for self, without being hung-up, and thus transfer that affection to other people, sensibility (or, basically, a tender heart, open tender heart, open road. Same doctrine.

Q: (But isn’t there an actual direct connection to be made between Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac, Specimen Days and (all of) Jack’s…?)

AG: Ok, Yes. That’s another speech.

I had one thing I wanted to remember. The first time I ever heard the.. what do you call those things?, when you take…? – refuge! – the refuge vows, Kerouac was crooning to..crooning them to me in the voice of Frank Sinatra! – 1955 – and the way he sang it was [Allen imitates] “Buddham saranam gacchami, Sangha saranam gacchami , Dharma, saranam gacchami” (kind of mixed up, but, anyway, he was crooning the first time I ever heard it – and he kept saying , with the voice of Sinatra , this is the way of singing it. You know, it sounded great. I still remember it to this day, and you know I’ve heard it a thousand times since but that was the most striking I ever heard it – and it had, like, Sinatra-esque love-suffering in the middle of it…

It’s six o’clock. Some people have got to go to dinner at the 6.15 dinner. Anybody want to wrap it up?

GC: Yeah. Have a good life!

[Audio for the above can be heard  here, beginning at approximately sixty-one-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at the end of the tape]

[The microphone is left on for a couple of minutes after the panel ends (until the tape runs out) – so this tape ends with ambient sound – room conversation – Allen overheard speaking of busy-ness, Ken Kesey, and signing books]

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