You probably know the legend of Buddha. Princely Asian questioner-of-existence sits under a tree for like 8 years, exercises extreme mental focus and physical discipline, works out the problems of the world in his mind, then tells everyone who will listen what he learned, which alters millions of lives and leads to a major world religion.
Imagine if after only a few days of meditating, he had said, “That was cool, now I’m gonna go drive around for a while, try every drug imaginable, meditate some more, write a bunch of rambling novels, get famous and drown myself in alcohol.”
Then he would have turned out something like Jack Kerouac.
It turns out Kerouac wrote a little tome about his ancient alter ego called Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, which I picked up at a used bookstore in Tennessee while on a not-totally-Kerouacian road trip this summer.
In the foreword to this long-lost religious fiction, Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman (a brilliant/awesome fellow actually) points out that Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism focused on the Tibetan/Indian sects of the religion that emphasize compassion. He wasn’t crazy about the Samurai-rigid, discipline-minded Far East Zen schools, which he referred to as “mean” when discussing it with a fictionalized Gary Snyder in The Dharma Bums.
I found this interesting as a reflection of Kerouac’s life as a whole. His writing is full of compassion. But from his Benzedrine-fueled “typing” binges to his zigzag-around-the-country lifestyle to his alcoholic demise, it’s even more full of compulsion. Which is of course what makes it greatly appropriate and essential American literature. We Americans are always confusing “freedom” with unadulterated compulsion.
Of the two values, which are of course not mutually exclusive, this is a country—a world—that generally neglects compassion and breeds compulsion. Even if you’re a reserved sort of person, you are constantly encouraged to be compulsive, prodded to buy things you can’t afford, advised to eat food that your body doesn’t need, told to do things you don’t want to do, surrounded by compulsive behavior. Compulsive activity is so ubiquitous, as Buddha (and probably the Beats) understood, that it’s hard to recognize when you’re being compulsive and when you’re being free and acting on your own conviction.
Buddha committed to the discipline necessary to conquer compulsion and develop real freedom. Kerouac intellectually understood it, but he couldn’t develop it for a variety of reasons—from pure genetics to having-Allen-Ginsberg-as-a-friend to the fact that his fame was built in part on glorifying compulsion. (As Goethe said, “Knowing is not enough.”) Even the most prominent American Tibetan Buddhist of Kerouac’s time, Trungpa Rinpoche, a friend of the Beats, was a helpless womanizing drunk, so it’s not like Kerouac had the healthiest mentor.
Which brings me to my next point. Can compassion be taught? I find a lot of times when I feel a sense of empathy for someone, the programming isn’t there to know exactly what to do. This is something I personally need to develop. I think it’s difficult because “the right thing to do” for someone who is suffering is rarely obvious. Perhaps when you have a well-developed compassion faculty, you just know. I definitely know people who are good at being compassionate. I admire them. I’m just not one of them.
The only time I can think of when a specific compassionate response is encouraged is when a major catastrophe is involved. When something like Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti earthquake happens, it’s usually followed by months’ worth of pleas for donations by Red Cross, MSF and the like. And that’s great, to give money, goods, blood, or time. All of that goes a long way to relieve suffering. It’s obvious, simple, everyone can do it.
But what about when an everyday individual is going through a hard time? Usually they’re encouraged to buy their way out of it, whether through overpriced (they have to pay for those ads somehow!) prescription drugs or some other quick fix that makes someone else an equally quick buck. We’re taught that America is a place of “personal responsibility.” Compassion in the public sector—like, say, trying to keep the cost of emergency health care down—is “socialist,” while striving for compassion in the competitive private sector opens you up to exploitation.
So, at least my view, the “personal responsibility” to be compassionate is truly personal, because very few people will help you nurture that value. Polite? Heck yes, you have to be polite to get ahead. You kill more flies with honey. Etc. Being “nice” is just a part of the daily routine. (Lots of suicide bombers are generally well-mannered, too, I’m sure.) But what about taking the time to enact positive change in other people’s lives? I think it’s quite rare to be encouraged to do that. I think it’s your personal responsibility to develop that capacity for yourself.
Back to our tragic hero: what drew me to Kerouac’s writing early on, as a teenager reading various pieces of the Duluoz Legend, was the the open-minded, open-roaded adventure. There was a quality that seemed pure in its clumsy, refreshingly unpackaged (of course it was packaged) spontaneity. In hindsight, though, I have gained a new appreciation for his compassionate depictions of the random characters he encountered on the road.
Unfortunately, as Kerouac’s life shows, compassion and adventure doesn’t always lead to happiness or enlightenment. You have to have the discipline to ward off those “demons”—to use an outdated but appropriate word—who try to convince you that compulsion and consumption are in any way comparable to actual freedom.