Global Haiku
Millikin University, Spring 2009

Bill Ryan on Jack Kerouac

Bill Ryan

Bill's Haiku

The Influence of Buddha's Teachings on the Haiku of Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac was born March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Having been a part of the "Beat Generation," a term which he coined, Kerouac spent most of his life as a struggling writer until his later years when he slipped into the ongoing drinking binge that ended his quest for spiritual enlightenment and, eventually, his life (Beat Museum). He is most known for his novels such as the popular On the Road, but he also expressed a lot of thoughts and experiences through the art of haiku.

There are a few elements that Kerouac tended to prefer when writing his haiku: spontaneity, simplicity, and a concentration on "beatniks." His focus on these topics and his love for haiku in general is believed to have been strongly influenced by his study of Buddhism (Pop!). His haiku are truly spontaneous as he always writes them "in the moment" — literally on anything and everything he sees or feels. For this reason, it is very easy for most readers to relate to them directly with little in-depth thought or analysis required, which is what makes them great haiku. Haiku master Matsuo Basho emphasized "lightness" in haiku or, in other words, a neglect for the abstract and a focus on everyday experiences in a "seemingly artless expression" (Shirane 269). Kerouac shared this vision with Basho in saying that, "Above all, a haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella" (Kerouac x).

When comparing the following haiku by Kerouac and Basho, we can see that they did indeed feel the same way about how a haiku should be written:

The fly, just as
lonesome as I am
In this empty house

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 181

Hanging from a nail,
A cricket

     Basho, The Master Haiku Poet, 51

These haiku are not only similar in simplicity, but also in content. The mention of an insect in both is obviously something that everyone can relate to. What is even more unique in the choice of these particular insects is that they are among the most commonly seen and heard. The haiku would not have the same effect of a simple picture if it was a less common insect, such as a locust or cicada. The mention of loneliness in both haiku is also simple in the sense that this is an emotion that everyone feels from time to time. We can all relate to the feeling of being lonely and to the event of literally being alone. The comparison of loneliness to the fly in Kerouac's haiku (taken from Northport Haikus) is excellent in that we typically see flies one at a time, especially when inside our homes. In Basho's haiku, the cricket hanging from a nail also presents the feeling of loneliness in that it is isolated on a sole nail – on which no more than one cricket could fit.

In exemplifying a simple, free expression, Kerouac's haiku were written in the American-style of haiku writing – away from the traditional Japanese 5-7-5 syllable format. A number of these haiku were written with a connection to Buddhism, as a reflection of his search for enlightenment, and he began to refer to these haiku as "pops". As Kerouac said about his pops, "…I'll invent the American haiku type: the simple rhyming triolet—seventeen syllables? No, as I say, American Pops—simple 3-line poems" (Kerouac ix).

Kerouac's pops were successful in mirroring the Buddhist ideals of spontaneity and simplicity, to an extent. It must be understood that what we think of as simple and what Buddhists think of as simple does vary slightly. Typically, when we think of something being simple, we think of it as straight-forward or lacking complexity. The Buddhist thoughts of simplicity are very similar, but go one step further in that simplicity is based around living a simple life and in order to live a truly simple life, one must become enlightened and gain total consciousness.
Kerouac's haiku do wonders in displaying the definition of simple that we tend to think of, and sometimes go so far as to reflect the Buddhist simplicity, at least in the sense of him trying to achieve it. Through Kerouac's sixty-three day retreat of solitude and meditation at Desolation Peak in 1956, we can see his attempt at living a simple life (Book of Haikus 82). This retreat is where he wrote the haiku that made up Desolation Pops and Desolation Angels, which are the most recognizable as Buddhist-inspired reflections, since the quest for enlightenment through Buddha was the reason for his mission.

The following example from Desolation Pops shows not only Kerouac's focus on simplicity, but also on his fondness for "beatniks":

Man—nothing but
Rain barrel

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 87

This haiku is a fine testament to what I mentioned earlier in that Kerouac's haiku are so straight-forward that they require little to no extended thought to understand them. This haiku paints a vivid picture of a man, quite possibly homeless, wearing a rain barrel yet at the same time it brings up the much deeper issue of poverty. We being to wonder why he is wearing a rain barrel; how he got to where he is. Certain readers may even feel a bit of guilt when thinking of their worldly possessions compared to this man's.

In this sense, the haiku is also a deeper reflection in the Buddhist sense in that through enlightenment, one accepts simplicity in their life and no longer puts a focus on material objects or the unnecessary "problems" that most people spend their entire lives worrying about and as a result, suffering because of this struggle. This is a strong focus in Buddhism, in which there is no god to be worshipped. Instead, it focuses on the teaching that things are the way they are and rather than try to manipulate or change these things, we must learn to accept them (Buddhanet). Kerouac's pops relayed exactly this ideal or, at least, his search to understand and absorb himself in it. The teachings of Buddha encompass The Three Marks of Existence, The Four Noble Truths, The Five Skandhas, The Six Realms, and The Eightfold Path (Buddhanet). Kerouac's struggle and eventual failure with these teachings can be seen through many of his haiku, particularly those in the Desolation Pops and Desolation Angels collections.

The Buddhist ideas of Existence, Truths, Skandhas, Realms, and the Eightfold Path are connected so much that one can not exist without the others and one can not be either overcome or achieved without the experience of another. Essentially, Buddhism is centered on everyday experiences and the way we deal with them, based largely upon ego. Before going any further, it must be made clear that the Buddhist ego differs from the ego that we know (Buddhanet). Ego as we see it, also referred to as the Freudian ego, is the part of us that helps us make decisions based on the consequent effects that our actions might have on those around us (allpsych). The Buddhist ego is similar, but exists on a much deeper level in that one's ego is born through a series of mental events relating to a particular situation (Skandhas) that, depending on its development, determines the personality traits that we acquire, or which of the Six Realms we enter. The difference lies in that the Freudian ego is by choice whereas the Buddhist ego is by subconscious development with the ultimate goal of achieving consciousness (Buddhanet). Tied in with ego, the Six Realms can be seen as the center of Buddhism. Once you have entered a realm, you can move to a different one based on the development of your ego or through your journey on the Eightfold Path, which is seen as the path to liberation and enlightenment.

The main concepts of Buddhism that are present in all of these teachings are simplicity, struggle, acceptance, and abandonment. The realms are a constant struggle to further develop oneself until the point that we accept things as they are by abandoning our ego and omitting any struggle from our lives, at which time we will live as simplified beings. Once we have reached simplicity, we will accept that life is painful and impermanent, and that suffering can be ended through a conscious effort to eliminate manipulation and complexity from our lives. (Buddhanet).

Through Kerouac's haiku, or pops, we can see the development of his ego, his attempted journey through the six realms, and his struggle with pain and impermanence on his search for enlightenment via the Eightfold Path.

The following haiku is taken from Kerouac's Desolation Pops:

Everywhere beyond
the Truth,
Empty space blue

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 86

"The Truth" that Kerouac speaks of is most likely in reference to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: life is painful; suffering has a cause; the cause of suffering can be ended; and the path to end suffering is through meditation and the acceptance of simplicity. The interpretation of this haiku in relation to these four truths can be read in a few different ways. For one, "beyond the Truth" can be seen as the point when one has achieved consciousness and has accepted the four truths and has overcome their sufferings. In this case, the individual sees the "empty space" "beyond the Truth", or has become an enlightened being free of struggles with pain and suffering. In a different interpretation, "beyond the Truth" can be seen as struggle itself in which the individual has not come to terms with the Truth, and the empty space refers to the emptiness inside from a lack of consciousness and the coping of suffering. In any interpretation, the word "blue" is a little more obscure than the rest of the haiku's context. One possibility is that the blue could be taken as an emotion – that of sadness in that Kerouac has not reached enlightenment and is still struggling with the Four Truth.

Overall, this haiku is an excellent reflection of Kerouac's struggle with Buddhism. In the first interpretation, it is his longing for enlightenment; his vision of what it would be like on the other side of the Four Truths. In the second, it expresses his frustration with accepting the Four Truths and with overcoming his struggles and sufferings. In the next few examples, we see a direct connection between Kerouac's haiku and specific aspects of Buddhism, particularly with the Six Realms.

Hot coffee
and a cigarette—
why zazen?

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 88

This haiku, from Desolation Pops, reflects Kerouac's struggle with the Hungry Ghost Realm as well as his efforts towards achieving the God Realm. In the Hungry Ghost Realm, the individual is overcome with ego in the sense that they concentrate on and yearn to satisfy consumer-based cravings (Buddhanet). In this haiku, Kerouac is wrapped up in his coffee and cigarette so much that he questions zazen, the art of meditation associated with Zen Buddhism. The inclusion of zazen incorporates the God Realm into this haiku as well. Meditation in Buddhism is based on freeing the mind so that it is not preoccupied by worldly possessions, struggle, worries, pain or suffering. By beginning the haiku with "hot coffee and a cigarette" and closing with "why zazen?", we see Kerouac's frustration with giving up these worldly possessions and his lack of strength to do so.

The God Realm in Buddhism, however, goes much deeper than simply freeing oneself of struggle and consumer-oriented possessions. While the God Realm is considered to be the "highest realm" one can achieve in Buddhism, it is not what should be sought after to achieve total consciousness. The God Realm is associated with complete bliss and a tendency to push away negative aspects of one's life. Only when one has reached the Human Realm will they reach enlightenment, during which time they do not neglect bad things, but rather accept them and learn to not be overcome with worry about them (Buddhanet).
We can relate the following haiku from Desolation Angels to Kerouac's thoughts towards the God Realm:

While meditating
I am Buddha—
Who else?

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 97

While Kerouac states that he is Buddha, who was not a god, he still is focusing on the wrong aspects of meditation. Rather than reflecting on his unhindered mind, free of worry and suffering, he reacts to how he is when he meditates. He is the enlightened being, or so he thinks, that one strives to be through Buddhism, and this is a connection to his wanting for total bliss – for the God Realm. Another example of Kerouac's interaction with the God Realm, taken from his Book of Haikus is:

Useless! useless!
—heavy rain driving
Into the sea

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 8

This haiku shows Kerouac dismissing the rain falling into the sea. He states that it is useless since it is simply providing water to a large body of water. However, in Buddhism, the goal is to reach the point that we accept all things for what they are. By taking a negative stance towards this rain, Kerouac is not only showing his interaction with the God Realm, but with the Hell Realm as well. The Hell Realm is based upon aggression and irritation and often results in negative reactions towards anything that angers the individual. Kerouac's exclamation of the rain being "useless" is certainly a depiction of anger, and we see his experience with this realm even more so through the following haiku, also from Book of Haikus:

Listen to the birds sing!
All the little birds
Will die!

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 7

This haiku shows Kerouac's overreaction characterized by anger over a rather unimportant situation. Birds are a part of nature, and as a part of nature the enlightened Buddhist would accept them for what they are. Rather than do this, however, Kerouac lashes out due to his irritableness from their chirping and creates a rather violent depiction of his emotions. This reaction places him at the heart of the Hell Realm, a realm in which no person should or should want to be stuck.

A lot of Kerouac's haiku are similar to the few previous examples in that they display a variety of different emotions and most of which can be related to one of the Six Realms of Buddhism. When looking at Buddhism in a wider range, we can also see some of the ideals present within Kerouac's haiku. For example, the process of following the Eightfold Path to enlightenment is long and tedious. It requires the utmost patience from the individual, and patience can be seen as a recurring theme in Kerouac's haiku. In the following example taken from Desolation Pops, we see a glimpse of Kerouac's frustration in his attempts to become patient enough to study the teachings of Buddha.

The mountains
are mighty patient—

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 86

When this haiku was written, it is possible that Kerouac was sitting on Desolation Peak attempting to meditate. However, his thoughts of pain, struggle, and other worldly matters clouded his mind so much to the point that he could not bring himself to be freed from them. In his moment of aggravation, he reflected on the mountains surrounding him. He observed how they sit still, waiting for nothing and expecting nothing, and wished that he could exist in the same light. A later haiku from Northport Haikus (written sometime between 1961 and 1965) shows that Kerouac did have patience from time to time:

A quiet Autumn night
and these fools
Are starting to argue

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 177

While this haiku does show that Kerouac was patient on this night and enjoying himself in the silence, possibly in the outdoors, there are flaws to his emotions when thinking of Buddhism. His reaction to the people arguing takes him back to the Hell Realm. He is angered with them disrupting his peacefulness and again, he lashes out, destroying his chances at enlightenment. Another ideal of Buddhism that Kerouac reflected upon in his haiku is that of impermanence, or the inevitably that everything, including life itself, will end.

The following two haiku from Book of Haikus display this idea of impermanence:

The days go—
They cant stay—
I don't realize

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 49

This haiku shows Kerouac struggling to accept that as each day passes, he and the ones he love draw that much nearer to death. The days end and once a day is over, there is no getting it back. Everything that you did or did not do will live on forever in that day, and there is nothing you can do to take it back.

In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
Has died of old age

     Kerouac, Book of Haikus, 12

This haiku shows a slight acceptance of impermanence. Kerouac finds a dead fly in his medicine cabinet. What he feels about this situation is unclear, which makes it an excellent example of his focus on simplicity, but what is clear is that he realizes death is real. Through this haiku, we see him possibly accepting the idea of death as an inevitably, maybe even to the extent that he begins to think more in-depth about his own life.

As can be seen, Jack Kerouac's haiku are connected to the teachings of Buddha, although probably not in the way he would have wished for them to come out. They are either based on hopes that he would be successful in his study of Buddhism or they are reflective of his struggles and pains in the undesirable realms of the Buddhist teachings. Instead of succeeding in Buddhism, Kerouac slipped into alcoholism and lived a life full of recklessness not conducive to the study of Buddhism (Beat Museum). While he died in 1969 at the young age of 42 due to health problems developed from his drinking habits, I wonder whether Kerouac succeeding in Buddhism would have truly been a good thing. If he had accomplished his goal of walking the Eightfold Path and becoming conscious, it is likely that we would have seen a very different side of him in his writing, one that perhaps would not be as popular and we would be left without these fantastic haiku, not to mention the other great literary works that he produced during his lifetime.


Works Cited

1. "Basic Buddhism Guide." BuddhaNet. 16 April 2009.

2. "Freud's Structural and Topographical Models of Personality." AllPsych Online.
22 April 2009 <>

3. "Jack Kerouac." American Museum of Beat Art 2003. 21 April 2009.

4. Kerouac, Jack, and Regina Weinreich, ed. Book of Haikus. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2003.

5. "Pop! The Jack Kerouac Haiku Page." The Fyrefly Jar 30 May 2006. 16 April 2009. <>

6. Shirane, Haruo. Traces of Dreams. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1998.

7. Ueda, Makoto. The Master Haiku Poet: Matsuo Basho. Tokyo, Japan: Kodansha International Ltd., 1982.


© 2009 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors
last updated: June 4, 2009