Jack Kerouac?s profound meditations on the Buddha?s life and religionIn the mid-1950s, Jack Kerouac, a lifelong Catholic, became fascinated with Buddhism, an interest that had a significant impact on his ideas of spirituality and later found expression in such books as Mexico City Blues and The Dharma Bums. Originally written in 1955 and now published for the first time in paperback, Wake Up is Kerouac?s retelling of the life of Prince Siddhartha Gotama, who as a young man abandoned his wealthy family and comfortable home for a lifelong search for enlightenment. Distilled from a wide variety of canonical scriptures, Wake Up serves as both a penetrating account of the Buddha?s life and a concise primer on the principal teachings of Buddhism.
In 1958, Kerouac published his groundbreaking novel The Dharma Bums, which met with great acclaim and has since been heralded as the opening salvo of an indigenous American Buddhism. This fall, Viking is repackaging that novel in a 50th-anniversary edition while also releasing Kerouac's unsung and long-forgotten tale of the Buddha's life, published in book form for the first time. The titular theme of "wake up" is rehearsed throughout Kerouac's story of Prince Siddartha Gotama, who left an indolent but meaningless life of riches to embrace asceticism and enlightenment. Drawing on multiple sutras and accounts of the Buddha's life, Kerouac focuses on Gotama's renunciation of worldly things by repeating that trope with several other wealthy characters who forsake riches in favor of nirvana. The prose is as meandering as it is beautiful, with Kerouac's Buddha spouting memorable sayings about sensation, illusion, emptiness and suffering. If there is an almost evangelistic zeal to this loose collection of axioms and Buddhist conversion stories, Kerouac at least states that openly: "The purpose is to convert," he explains at the outset.
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September 17, 2008
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