From Dharma Bums to Metanoia Bums: San Francisco, Beat Literature, and an Early Step Towards Orthodoxy

As odd as it may sound, Jack Kerouac played a role in my journey towards Orthodoxy.

Prior to this last week, I had never been to Northern California, and had only once before been to California, when I traveled a few years ago to Long Beach. But I had the privilege of being in San Francisco for a work conference, and had some time to wander around the city. My feet have been very sore the last couple of days, but I have had the chance to visit MoMA SF, Chinatown and the Chinese Historical Society of America, eat lunch under redwoods at a park near the Transamerica Pyramid, and ride the famous cable cars, which go right by my hotel.

There were two parts of my visit, however, that felt the most personal. The first was City Lights Bookstore; the second was my set of trips to Holy Virgin Cathedral (a ROCOR cathedral on Geary Avenue where St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco was laid to rest) and Holy Trinity Cathedral (the OCA cathedral, founded by St. Tikhon) in Pacific Heights.

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The Poetry Room of City Lights Bookstore
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The relics of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, Holy Virgin Cathedral
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Inside Holy Trinity Cathedral

 

 

City Lights is famous for being a site for Beat literature and poetry, as well as radical activist literature. Its famous poetry room lives up to its reputation, and in addition to its large selection of Beat literature and poetry, the shop had a lot of reading from some of my favorite writers: Wendell Berry, Tove Jansson, and Czeslaw Milosz. I sat upstairs and read for a bit, looking through Gary Snyder’s poems; of those associated with the Beat group, I always found his work to be the most endearing, possibly because he was connected, yet off on his own.

I took a Literature of the ’60s course in college, filling my first semester of undergrad with the works of Kerouac, Kesey, Tom Wolfe, and many others. After reading On the Road, I sought out other texts by Kerouac, ultimately finding The Dharma Bums (which I admit, I read during a college chemistry class). From the age of 13, I had taken an interest in Buddhism, reading several books by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, and learning about the processes of meditative prayer, asceticism, and eliminating desire. So, naturally, reading The Dharma Bums, and seeing Japhy Ryder/Gary Snyder’s character be so seemingly in tune with Buddhist practice, I latched onto the book all throughout my undergrad years, and even into my graduate school days. I sympathized with Ray Smith/Jack Kerouac’s struggle to find one’s center in a world of chaos. I saw how desire could be a trap.

In reading about Thomas Merton’s interest in Eastern religion, I began to shift towards an interest in ancient Christianity, which is how I managed to be invited into Orthodoxy. As a catechumen who’d heard about Fr. Seraphim Rose’s devotion and study to Buddhism, I was intrigued by the similarities, even though I knew there were still sharp differences. I started jokingly using the term “metanoia bum” in a blog, without really thinking much about it; I wondered what Gary Snyder would be like if he were Orthodox. It ended up becoming a user name for my social media accounts.

Since I’ve been here in San Francisco, I have thought about what those terms mean. Dharma is a complicated word with multiple meanings (depending on which faith is followed), but it has to do a lot with duty, adherence to religious practices, and ultimately, the maintenance of divine order. Metanoia, rather than maintaining order, is “a change of heart,” or even “a repentance.” It’s a process of shifting.

I thought about the similarities between the two. Dharma, with its focus on order and duty, requires devotion and practice. It is possible to see why Kerouac might have sought out being a dharma bum; he seems to have been looking for order in a generation of artists and writers who openly defied order. Metanoia, rather than being an order, is a process. It implies a radical shift, and change of heart, but it’s also something that is continuous. According to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, this process

…is not a mere incident or stage through which one passes and then leaves behind; rather it is an attitude which colors one’s whole life and for which, at the same time, one must struggle continually. […] It is a continuous pathway, at least in this life, a perennial striving, an all-embracing motion and not merely an occasional emotion.

As Orthodox, our willingness to struggle and change over time, out of a belief that it is impossible to truly be self-sufficient, is what makes our sense of duty and order what it is. We are not alone, and the practices that shape metanoia can help us to realize that sense of connectedness with something besides ourselves.

As I rode the bus back from Vespers, I wondered if Kerouac ever walked, or took transit, down either Geary or Van Ness. I wondered if he ever sat quietly on the bus, thinking about connectedness and the constant sense of struggle and flux. I would like to think that Kerouac noticed the juxtaposition of faiths, cultures and movements that dot the city; the same city that played a role in the Beatnik and hippie movements, was also home to some of the greatest saints of the 20th century.

It makes you wonder what Kerouac’s writing would have been like, had he shifted from being a dharma bum to a metanoia bum.

 

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