Monday, May 7, 2012
Review: Jack Kerouac's Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha
Last night I finished reading Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha by Jack Kerouac. It was not what I expected at all. I went in blind, thinking it would be a fairly accessible biography of Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha. Instead, it was spontaneous prose meets esoteric obtusity. This book is neither for the faint of heart nor the Buddhist beginner. The insider terms come fast and furious, and comprehension is thus frequently stymied.
The main reason I stuck with it was because a goal of mine is to read everything that Kerouac ever wrote. Another reason is that at times it is fairly accessible, and, even when it soars into obscure Buddhist canonical scriptures, it is still Kerouac; hence, comprehension can take a back seat to simply marveling at his phrasing and rhythms.
According to the introduction by Buddhist scholar Robert A. F. Thurman, Wake Up was written in the first half of 1955 while Jack was living with sister Nin in Rocky Mount, NC. It didn't see publication until 2008, with the copyright assigned to "John Sampas, Literary Representative of the Estate of Jack Kerouac." One therefore might be tempted to assign this book to the "profiting-off-Kerouac's-legacy" category; however, it is certainly a masterful treatise and my major complaint, as I said earlier, is accessibility. Thurman, as a Buddhist scholar, praises the book highly, and I have no basis to argue. One Amazon reviewer described the book as a "meditative ecstasy," and that strikes me about right.
While I'm glad I read Wake Up, I'll stick with The Dharma Bums, my favorite Kerouac novel, which Thurman describes as "the most accurate, poetic, and expansive evocation of the heart of Buddhism that was available at that time" (p. viii). In an "Author's Note," Kerouac describes Wake Up as "a handbook for Western understanding of the ancient Law" (p. 5). At least for me, he partly failed on that score, but it's good to read something challenging from time to time and Wake Up certainly fits that bill.
If you're a Kerouac fan or interested in Buddhism, you might find Wake Up your cup of tea. Without either (or both) of those factors going for you, I'd avoid it.
As the world's biggest Kerouac fan and someone with a passing interest in Buddhism, I'm still going to tackle Some of the Dharma, but not right away. My brain needs a rest . . . .