Cultural Arts Review: The Dharma Bums

Posted on April 25, 2013 by






The book The Dharma Bums written by Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac is a novel about two young men Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder practicing Buddhism traditions, interpreting this religion and traveling around the country, trying to find truth of life from the religion of Buddhism. The novel is based on true stories that happened to the author.


In this book, the Buddhists like the main characters, Ray and Japhy, do not go to temples or worship the Buddha in any other way. To them, being religious means more about the inside, the spirit, and practicing Buddhism act has more to do with dealing with themselves, their lives, and how they view things, than rituals. The image of Buddhism in this book is mostly the author’s interpretation of this religion. He mentioned in this book that life is but a dream. Nothing is real. He interprets the Buddhist idea of no self and emptiness and reveals in this book his interpretation combined with his story. The character Ray in this book always goes to large mountains where he gets the feeling of how tiny he is in the world. He feels like nothing is worth worrying about – all he needs to do is to live on and live well.


In this book, the main character Ray likes to go into the mountains where there is no one else but him, and meditate. He is here in search of isolation and emptiness. This is probably a familiar image of Buddhism to the western world – somewhere isolated, nature, peace, and meditation. Ray’s act exemplifies how a Buddhist practices meditation to achieve enlightment. On the other hand, the two main characters also meditate at home with their friends. It is like a gathering of Buddhists, or a party. This makes the religion seem more accessible. Meditation is the main Buddhist tradition exemplified in the book.


The author Jack Kerouac grew up as a Catholic and westerner, which has its deep influence on how he practices Buddhism. He interprets Buddhism in his own way and only accepts the doctrines that he likes or finds true. This definitely affects how he writes about Buddhism in this book. He writes this book without systematically explaining Buddhism, Buddhist traditions, etc. Instead, Buddhism is revealed as a part of the characters’ personal experience, mixed with the story, and most of the things about this religion are the author’s own interpretation. 


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