Beatnik Buddhism in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums

Monday, October 7th, 2013

A talk to the White Heron Sangha, October 6, 2013

I was introduced to the writings of Jack Kerouac by a trumpet-player friend in high school who gave me a copy of On the Road just after it came out in 1957.  But though I’d already done some hitchhiking around New England and hung out in Greenwich Village on Friday nights, I was put off by the book’s frenetic style and its praise of aimless, restless travel.  Twelve years later, in 1969, I encountered The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s second most popular book, while selecting works to place on the syllabus of a class at Columbia University I called “Pastoral and Utopia, Visionary Conceptions of the Good Life.” This book’s triumphant celebration of free love, wilderness adventures, bohemian companionship, and Buddhist meditation made a perfect fit.  Forty four years later, while looking for a topic for a Sangha talk to follow up on the one about Thoreau’s Buddhism I offered last Spring, I picked The Dharma Bums in order to consider how my perspective on the novel and its Buddhist themes might have changed in the meantime. (more…)


Thursday, August 8th, 2013

July 16 2013

[click images for full-screen view]

Up at 5:00 for bath and sitting. I pack for the  trip on the Sunshine Coast Trail, including dry and wet dog food.  I deliberate about whether to take Tai’s harness because it might hang her up in the bush, but opt for doing so for a better connection to the leash and because it has all her tags in case she were to get lost and be found.  I think about adding the area code to the tag with Jan’s number but its presence on the animal services tag would be sufficient if the worst should happen.

We’ve reserved a ride on the water taxi since the trailhead is well beyond access by either of our vehicles.  We arrive at the dock at 8:15 as scheduled and find that it will only cost us each twenty dollars  because we’re joined by two younger couples also hiking the trail.  We make a dicey landing on the rocks at Sarah Point which requires me to jump with the dog in my arms.


Once onshore, she seems to love the trail, running out ahead, coming back between us, her little feet trotting along jauntily, her fur silky soft, her sides rock-hard muscle.  There’s no need for the light leash I carry in my pocket during the  40 minute  ascent to Desolation View, a clearing with vistas of the Sound and mountains beyond.


I sign the guest book hanging on a tree with an expression of thanks to Eagle and the trail-building and maintenance volunteers, stating that after 43 years of summertime stays in this area, it’s my first time on this magnificent section of the trail.

As we sit snacking on gorp, our fellow hikers come to the viewpoint and one of them comments on my hat, “I’ve been to San Gregorio.”  This is an opening I’ve looked forward to since first spotting the hat for sale last March while roaming through the store in the rain during a camping trip with Claire and the boys.  “Really,” I chirp.  “How’d you find it?” “We went to University in the Bay Area,” he says, “and loved that part of the coast.”  Turns out he and his wife are from Vancouver, met at Berkeley, and now are both professors of chemistry in St. Paul MI. The other couple are their friends since childhood and own an international coffee roasting business in North Vancouver called “Worldwide Bean.”


Another 40 minutes down the trail, we arrive at Feather Cove, a crescent beach facing Zephine Head across the mouth of Malaspina Strait.  I give the dog water from my Camelback and get into my bathing suit, but then our new friends arrive and the conversation continues.  Peter swims off the point and returns, and then I head into the water and swim for fifteen minutes and come out enthusiastic about the view of Mt. Denman visible from down the beach.

I half notice Tai’s absence and assume she’s exploring and will return soon.  The two couples head down the trail and now I realize the dog is missing.  As I lace up my boots I call and whistle hoping for her to pop up, then feel uneasy. Could she have chased a chipmunk and gotten her harness stuck? Could she have followed the folks further down the trail? What else could have motivated her to leave? The only thing I can think of doing is return to our starting point at Sarah Point, since she may have decided to go back to where the trip started.  Without a backpack, it should take about two hours round trip.  Peter says fine, he’ll wait and take a nap.

I hurry up the trail with a one-liter water bottle in my pocket feeling more anxious at every step. I whistle and call Tai’s name.  I know by now its most unlikely I’ll find her, but at least I have to make the effort.  I realize I wont be able to stop torturing myself.  I hear Jan’s voice repeating, “she’s not a bush dog, she’s a lap dog, don’t take her hiking.  You can leave her at a kennel in Powell River.”  I imagine the dog lost on the network of trails or getting stuck in the deadfalls, or worn out with exhaustion and lack of water and food or attacked by cougar or coyote.  I envision Jan’s horror and anger at the news. This is one of  the worst things I’ve ever done, comparable to leaving four year old Joe up in a tree house I was trying to repair and falling 20 feet to the ground 37 years ago. In that situation, disaster was averted only by good luck. But this time I will have to face tragedy and forever carry the weight of guilt for causing the dog to die miserably and Jan to grieve and this vacation to be spoiled for her, the kids and the grandkids.

As I approach the start of the trail, I indulge a slight hope the dog will be there waiting for me, but of course she’s not.  Now I must turn around and head back to Peter and the packs and figure out what to do next.  I rehearse my words to Jan: “the dog is lost…it’s my fault…I’ve searched for hours and given up hope…I’m so sorry.” On the way uphill I start gasping, stopping every few steps to catch my wind as if I were at eleven thousand feet, and I feel a painful tightness in my chest.  I remember the German proverb I recently translated: “Disasters seldom come alone.”  Is this an incipient or progressing heart attack?  How long must I rest to get back my wind?  I’m out of breath even on the level and downhill. Dying out here will at least relieve my guilt for losing the dog.  Will it make Jan hate me less or more?

I get back to the beach exhausted and wake up Peter. As I describe my symptoms, my breath slowly returns along with alarm about the dog.   What about the miniscule chance that the dog is found by someone with a working cell phone and they call Jan with no information about us. That might disturb her even more than the loss of the dog. She would call Peter’s wife, so we must find a way to reach Margaret to let her know that we are all right. But here there’s neither cell nor shortwave reception. We need to go back up the trail to the viewpoint for that.


It’s another hour before we reach it, my third time there and four hours since the dog went missing. No longer breathless even with the pack during the climb, I talk out my sad thoughts with Peter–the need to deal with bad outcomes.  I’ve experienced that with my father’s terrible last days, but he was 89. Peter had to deal with his father’s worsening pain and death when he was a teenager. I accept the need to tell Jan the terrible truth rather than put it off with a contingency call to Margaret. Jan may decide not to come on the trip at all; she may come and be depressed and angry the whole time; or we may be able to grieve together.  I keep rehearsing the conversation as we hike.  At the vista point there is cell reception, but the battery is low.  I ask Peter to give me the phone and a minute to compose myself. I sit down, take deep breaths and dial Jan’s number.  After one ring she answers, and before I can say a word she shouts, “ You lost the dog.”

Instantly I know we are saved. My mind calculates that the probability of her intuiting the dog’s loss from this unexpected call is even tinier than the tiny probability that the dog was found by someone in the bush who called her number on the tag.  To confirm, I say, “I am calling to tell you that, how did you know?” With fury in her voice, she says she got a call from someone named Nancy, who found Tai and can be reached by cell. Peter stands by me and writes down the numbers as I dictate.  As I repeat each of the numbers after her, Jan shouts “stop talking and listen.” I feel blissful at being unfairly yelled at. She says, “I’m not sure I wrote the last four numbers correctly.  I’ll check in my phone and call you back if they need correcting.” I know I will treasure this moment for the rest of my life.

She calls back and corrects the number and tells me she’s just about to head into a closed session at City Hall and that she feared just this and that if I want a dog to go in the bush I should damn well get my own dog, and that Tai is a lap dog and belongs to her, and she is really angry at me and will have more to say later.  I’m flooded with shame, but still joyous, and the ferocity in her voice excites me. When she pauses I say, you’re right, I’m sorry that you’re being put through this, but I want you to know that no matter how sorry I feel, it’s nothing compared to the sorrow I felt for the last four hours assuming that the dog was gone.

She hangs up, and I call Nancy’s number and express my gratitude through a choppy connection. Nancy says she and her husband found the dog on the road between Bliss Landing and Sarah Point and  had a hard time catching her.  They’re now heading back to Lund but they can turn around and drive back toward Sarah Point and meet us within an hour.  Peter and I race toward the campsite at the Point, leave our packs, and then continue along the trail and then on the very rough road up a long steep hill that Peter is sure no vehicle can negotiate. I’m exhausted again but happy to press on. A new Jeep Rubicon appears at the top of the hill and heads toward us and stops.  In the passenger seat Nancy is smiling and cuddling Tai on her lap. I take the leash from my pocket and put it on her harness and then greet her.  She’s relieved to see me, but not ecstatic.


Nancy and her husband Don are our age and fun to talk to. They stopped at Sharp’s Bay and called the local SPCA as well as Jan before reaching us.  Peter determines that Don was at UC Berkeley during the sixties as a reporter on the FSM for the student newspaper. He’s a Physics Ph.D. at Hanford Nuclear Reseration in Washington State and she’s a contract officer.  They used to visit Lund in their sailboat and now come in a motor home.  They accept my invitation to come for dinner at Knoll House after Jan arrives.

We say goodbye and then walk back toward the campsite, looking for water along the way without success.  We’d planned to be at Wednesday Lake tonight, not here on the rock bluffs. We are down to a liter and a half, for a thirsty dog and two dehydrated men.  We’ll phone the water taxi and order a ride back for tomorrow morning but in the meantime we’ll be dry. At the tent platform I tie up Tai and give her all the food and water she wants.


Its 8:30 pm and I’m ready to sleep. But the wet ocean looks inviting.


I dive in and luxuriate in its buoyancy. I swim toward a boat fishing off shore and ask if they can spare a liter or two of drinking water.  They say yes but are suddenly preoccupied with a ten pound salmon on their line.  I swim back to shore and get dressed and then the boat speeds toward us.  Aboard are three bearded young men heading to Toba Inlet with mountain bikes.  They have water in liter bottles frozen for their cooler and can spare one, which they toss to me on shore and then take off into the sunset.

And what a sunset.  The water flattens, the horizontal rays gild the arbutus trees and nearby cliffs and distant islands.


To the south over the Ragged Islands a vertical column of rainbow color suddenly appears, extending from high in the sky down to just above the land and is reflected by the placid surface of the water.


Then the clouds surrounding it turn pink but the column of color doesn’t lose brilliance.


After 20 minutes it fades, replaced by a final display toward the north: rainbow colors radiating from all the sky and water.


As this light finally darkens, Peter sets up the tent, I blow up my mattress, grab the dog, climb inside, and drop off to sleep overwhelmed with gratitude, wonder and love.

Thoreau’s Buddhism

Monday, June 24th, 2013

A presentation to the White Heron Sangha June 23 2013

Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817 and died at 45 years of age on May 6, 1862. His name is a household word, especially among those of us who grew up during the 1960’s, when his two most famous works, Walden and “Civil Disobedience” offered compelling guides to non-conformity, self-reliance, appreciation of nature, reduction of one’s environmental footprint, opposition to war and injustice and spiritual quest.

Although not widely appreciated during his life, since the late 19th century Thoreau’s works have become classics, admired by later writers, assigned in schools, and the subject of a burgeoning scholarly industry. He produced more than 20 volumes in a dense and quirky literary style, at times pompous and bombastic, at others intimate and funny. (more…)

Backpacking with Ian

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

President’s Day Weekend was the date chosen for the big demonstration in Washington D.C. planned by the Sierra Club and to urge Obama to block the construction of the XL Pipeline. It was the first massive public action on Climate Change, and I wanted to join it, but no group transportation arrangements were available from California and I didn’t have enough miles on my frequent flyer account to make it feasible to go.

Nevertheless, after the satisfactions of the Peru trip and the recent hike to Sykes Hotsprings, the urge to travel again outweighed both inertia and the motivation to work on other projects. “Seize the Day” was accumulating authority as a watchword for my seventies and full retirement.

Reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot strengthened my desire to return to the trail.  Ian’s five-day Winter recess from Grade 4 was coming up and he was excited by the slideshow about backpacking presented at his last Cub Scout meeting, so I decided to return to Big Sur with him on an overnight camping trip.  I’d been up the Salmon Creek Trail a few years ago with a former student and remembered a remote campsite by the creek only two miles in but requiring a thousand foot ascent.


We sat at the computer together and ordered a packsack for him, a butane stove, and a water purification bottle from Amazon, which were delivered within two days. The weather forecast was mild and the Ranger said no fee or fire permit was required till May.

We departed at 10 AM and stopped at Spencer’s Market in Morro Bay for baguettes and Hershey Bars to complete the food selection plucked from the cupboards at home.


As we drove north on Highway 1 along the open Pacific, the radio reported that a 300 foot wide asteroid was about to pass within 17,000 miles of the earth—only two diameters away—and that a large meteorite just landed with the blast of 25 Hiroshima atom bombs somewhere in Russia.  This was the first I heard about either of these apocalyptic cosmic invasions, and the news only confirmed my motto.  I couldn’t think of a better place to meet the end.

We shared a Hearst Ranch hamburger at Sebastian’s in San Simeon and parked near the trailhead at noon.  Ian’s pack weighed about 20 pounds, mine about 35.  The first section of the well-traveled path was a trudge, relieved by dramatic views of the ocean below and the steep canyon above.



The ecology of this valley was  similar to that of the Big Sur River I’d I’d traveled through two weeks earlier, but also different.  A hundred miles to the south, here there were no Redwoods, but occasional large Douglas Firs and a full canopy of California Bay Laurel, whose new winter leaves glowed fluorescent light green.  Lush Fremont Iris bloomed in the shade,



and the sunny patches of exposed Serpentine soil where no trees grew sported rich displays of Poppies, Paintbrush and Shooting Stars. Ian distracted both of us from muscle pain and fatigue by recounting the plot of Shadowmage, the novel he’d recently  finished reading on his Kindle for a book report.

It took us an hour and a half to reach the high point almost directly above the road and our tiny Prius, Reddy. There the trail headed inland on a level contour cut into the mountainside, zigzagging toward and away from tributary creeks grooving the main canyon. After the shakedown climb, the last mile and a half of the hike went fast and smooth.  At the first trail junction we descended toward the main creek, whose rush and roar we’d heard the whole way, down to the dark and somewhat dismal campsite I remembered.  But further exploration led to a crossing of  Spruce Creek just above its convergence with Salmon Creek and a promontory bathed in Winter afternoon sun.


We pitched the old tent, gathered firewood and relaxed a little while.



Then it was time to enjoy the pleasure garden: the play of light and water over rocks,


the bloom of  pollen-spilling alder catkins,


the extremes of color and shadow on leaf, moss, stone, and liquid,


the thrill of hopping, climbing and jumping,


the satisfaction of building dams and taking pictures.

IMG_4454.JPG After the sun passed below the canyon’s wall and our little island of light was engulfed in shadow, Ian built a layered pyramid around a sheet of crumpled newspaper–tinder first, then pencil sized twigs, then thicker sticks—and lit the fire with a single match.  He nursed it with bellows breath and fed it with fuel wood until the sparks crackled and the bed of coals was hot enough to ignite the thick wet logs we’d dragged from a distance out of the forest.



He cooked a box of mac and cheese in the coffeepot on the camp stove, drained it and gobbled it down as I munched bread, cheese and salami.



Afterwards we toasted marshmallows and made s’mores, stashed all the food in a bag, and hung it with a cord from a thin branch above the stream to keep it away from the bear.

Snug in sleeping bags by 7:00, we saw the moon rise above the canyon walls through the branches overhanging the tent. By 7:30 we’d stopped talking.  Though I woke up every hour or so, feeling my leaky thermarest mattress gradually deflating and listening to the rich music of the creek, I slept eleven hours and awakened refreshed.  Ian slept another hour while I cooked cowboy coffee and restarted the fire.  He got up and made another pot of mac and cheese for his breakfast.


We set off through the creek in search of a large waterfall about a mile upstream, him leading the way over big rocks, across logs, and up steep banks, as the going got rougher and more spectacular.



We turned back before finding the waterfall, hoping to avoid exposure to poison oak stems that hadn’t yet leafed out and therefore remained hard to recognize


We sighted budding triliums and boulders of jasper



and posed together for a self-timed photo before drenching our feet and boots in an awkward stream crossing.


Back in camp we packed our gear, doused the fire, and at noon, as planned, hit the trail back.  The return hike was less arduous than the way in.

IMG_4496.JPG Just before reaching the car, we followed a spur leading to an impressive waterfall  that compensated for the failure to reach the one upstream. It was topped by a loose boulder that looked like a teetering meteorite.


It was no great challenge for us seasoned backpackers to clamber over the rockfall that hid the pool  and cavern at its base.


The way back down required crossing the creek along a twisted steel pipe while hanging on to a stretchy  mountaineering rope—a nice adrenaline rush to conclude our short, satisfying adventure.



Slideshow of full-sized pictures