It was raining when I left Massachusetts. A perfect dreary day in Lowell, a tough post-industrial slice of America that still breathed. I had accomplished presenting my first academic paper “Transcendence Through Music: Buddha and the Blues” at the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival. I went not knowing what was in store but had found a new sense of understanding of Buddhism in what became a Dharma talk hidden inside all those words.
It all started two summers ago when I was doing a radio visit at WUML. I was promoting the latest release of my music with this character I play called Reverend Freakchild. I sang a couple of old Blues tunes and then DJ Wireless Mike and I talked about the album. I mentioned I was working on a new paper called Buddha and the Blues. Mike said that an essay like that would be perfect for the next Lowell Celebrates Kerouac Festival they do ever year in the fall. He had a curatorial role and wanted to get me involved. Soon after our on air conversation I sent him a copy of the essay and he invited me to present the paper and perform. He was able to offer me some money and a hotel stay and I jumped at the opportunity. Jack Kerouac, the writer, the adventurer, the spiritual seeker, the cultural icon, the dual religious belonger, the man, the myth, the legend, had always been a hero of mine and now I was going to be part of a celebration in his hometown. Little did I know that I was going to find a greater awareness of myself and a deeper sense of compassion for the man I so admired.
When I got to the festival, I thought, this is going to be fun, having performed many times before but soon some fear creeped in, this was going to be different. Sure, I love to have a little banter with the audience between tunes while tuning up my guitar or from time to time I tell a story or two, but presenting a paper? I was a little wired, tired after a great day before the gig of partaking in some of the festival events, readings, meeting many artists and living associates of the late great Kerouac and finally visiting his grave. I continued to make changes to my abstract and jotted down notes of ideas I wanted to talk about when presenting the paper. I was intrigued with the similarities between early American Blues music’s singing of suffering and the suffering describing in the Buddhism I was studying at Naropa. The very idea of an experience of the mindfulness of suffering was itself transcendence.
I had picked up a copy of The Dharma Bums before embarking on this adventure and on the flight I set my eyes upon the descriptions I had not read since high school. I fancied myself to be a Neal Cassidy like character coming from Colorado, like Dean Moriarty in On the Road, but perhaps I brought more of a Buddhist Gary Snyder vibe. As I reread Kerouac’s words of Gary disguised as Japhy Ryder in the book, I was struck by how much Buddhism they were talking about in the pages of that rusty old tale of hiking and magic. How much of that deep Mahayana Buddhism had made sense to me when I first read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in high school? I had no teacher then to make sense of it – it sounded cool and crazy awesome and I knew I was onto something but now I had continued to study with many teachers. The pages turned and I was taken away again on the adventure into the freshness of spiritual seeking. That night I awoke from my sleep with another idea and then another almost rewriting the paper the night before the presentation and performance.
I slept late, did some hatha yoga in the hotel room and then arrived at the venue early. It was still light out but the place looked like it was going to be a better fit with the dark of night and a few drinks and cigarettes. I’ve been sober now for over a decade but this was going to be the perfect place for this kind of song to the unknown and celebration of transcendence, a preaching to the crazy choir of drunks and intellectual working class folks that celebrated this town of Lowell, to travelers and poets and people on pilgrimage to the place that shaped Kerouac. The rhythm of the French Canadian cadence was in the air; Mister Kerouac’s presence was near.
We sent up for the gig, Wireless Mike and the soundman helping to figure out how to present the visual component of a loop of me ringing a meditation bell. The video and the essay contained in the latest Reverend Freakchild CD we gave away that night as a promo gift and is now available for purchase as Preachin’ Blues (www.treatedandreleasedrecords.com). Several people who had already read the essay approached me and expressed their delight in the read. Then I started the performance and presentation. I played a few old Blues tunes, as I usually do to start a show, and then put down the guitar. I started to read my abstract of the essay and folks in the club were into it. Drinks in hand I could feel that they wanted to know more, like Kerouac did in those early days. What really are the Blues? What is Buddhism? What was religion for? What was this life anyway? I started to go off script and took an unorthodox intellectual tone. With a hint of preaching philosophical investigation I began to punctuate the presentation with some curse words and the energy of the room started to simmer like a pot of boiling water. I continued to explain the transcendence of music that was evident in the Blues and how it related to Buddhism. Reading a couple of excerpts from the paper, I then moved on to showing the video of the ringing of the meditation bell and proving the point, as the Buddha did in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, that the ear is always hearing, and questioning - what is sound? Is it the sound of the ear sense faculty or the consciousness of the ear? Or perhaps it was the intertwined appearance emptiness of the inter-dependent origination of the sound, the ear hearing and the mind that delights in such aural pleasure.
I finally picked up my copy of The Dharma Bums and started reading a passage where Kerouac is praising but perhaps misinterprets the meaning of a Bodhisattva. I kindly related that Avalokiteśvara wasn’t a saint but was rather an emanation of the compassionate Buddha. Then my Naropa interreligious education kicked in as I explained that perhaps we cannot ever fully understand one religion from the perspective of another. A pluralist view might be possible yet each religion had to be explained from its own perspective and from its own cultural location.
In that moment of explaining a deeper meaning and perhaps the suffering of the hermeneutical circle that Jack was caught in I came upon compassion for Kerouac. He too was studying but had only Snyder and some books as a teacher. It was a different time and the Dharma was not so readily available in the west as it is now. He was perhaps not a realized master but only a confused poet like the rest of us; I do not think even Kerouac knew to what end. You could feel the compassion in the room for a man long since dead but alive in the words of realization that he was not realized but aware of the world and what might be in it. We suffered with him and hoped for a joy to manifest. A space inside me opened and we all realized with a gentle curiosity and appreciation, that Kerouac had died too soon, become too wrapped up in the confusion of fame, of drinking, of being human. We honored his art, his legacy and his continued effort to seek spiritual transcendence and his inspiration for us to do the same!
“The world you see is just a movie in your mind. Rocks don’t see it. Bless and sit down. Forgive and forget. Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now. That’s the story. That’s the message. Nobody understands it, nobody listens, they’re all running around like chickens with heads cut off. I will try to teach it but it will be in vain, s’why I’ll end up in a shack praying and being cool and singing by my wood stove making pancakes.”
- Jack Kerouac
As I pulled out from another random hotel I noticed a BBQ joint across the street. I had been on the road for a few months promoting the new album, playing gigs and making appearances. When I approached the establishment I was greeted by the soothing soulful sounds of the late great blues master Muddy Waters singing "I Can't Be Satisfied." It came wafting around me with the aroma of smoked meat and the perfume allure of BBQ in the air. I sat alone at the bar and ordered a coke; the waitress brought me biscuits. She asked me if I had any questions so I asked if she meant in general or about the menu, because I had been wondering about the nature of reality and its implications for living an enlightened life. We laughed and then I ordered some mac and cheese, greens and the BBQ chicken. Mmm… comfort food and just waiting on heaven now, but then I began to wonder what the Buddha might think of all this. Perhaps we would discuss different BBQ sauces at first. I think he might be more of a Kansas City style or a Carolina dry rub kind of man, maybe a little vinegar spice as he did reside in India with all that spicy food, but that was many moons ago. As for myself I am more suited to a sweet Texas style sauce. But the real trick with BBQ is not the sauce, which is essential, but the slow smoked meat that just falls off the bone. But what is the bone? What is the marrow of life? Is it merely just a dynamic flow of pratītyasamutpāda? (Sanskrit for co-arising interdependence.) Or is it an emptiness and luminosity beyond the conception of thought and the emotions of a created self? Can we use certain provisional skillful means like music to ultimately find a definitive meaning in going beyond any conceptualization and just experiencing the cosmos? Can I make any sense of these causes and conditions I find myself inhabiting? What is this existence and why am I here?
When I first decided to embark on a deeper investigation into a Buddhist Bluesology, my music and Dharma studies had started to naturally mix. Although I’m a white boy who grew up in Hawaii within a Christian faith, my music and songwriting has always been informed by the Blues and was beginning to be influenced by the Buddhist cosmology I was studying. I even composed a song about the four reminders (precious human birth, impermanence, saṃsāra, and karma) or the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma, called All I Got Is Now. The poetry was not overtly Buddhist and the rhythms and tones were based on the musical tradition of the Blues. So when we were in the studio recording the tracks for the song no one knew it was Buddhist themed until the flute player, a bit of a Buddhist, said: “Hey this is Dharma Rock.” I laughed, as it is almost impossible to hide these spiritual themes within my work when recording and performing under the name of Reverend Freakchild.
So perhaps this essay is part of the evolving journey of art and music that is a spiritual seeking: a practice that provides a heightened awareness to respectfully engage in a sacred universe that is impermanent but also provides an opportunity for enlightenment.
I would like to thank: Mark Miller in Naropa’s music department who suggested I work with Emily K. Harrison, a professor at Naropa and the University of Colorado with a Ph.D. in performance studies, on this independent study. Professor Judith Simmer-Brown, Ph.D., was gracious enough to allow me to attend and audit her class for a second time, The Second Turning of the Wheel: The Bodhisattva Path, which provided practical inspiration for this paper. Also for their editorial support in the process of writing this paper: Joshua Shelton, Cody Foster, Brian Amsterdam from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets, Phil ‘Lodro Chodzen’ Sidoff, Reverend Dr. Jason Hayes for his notes on Appendix III, Dr. Emilia Hall for her direction in composing a Rock & Roll Sutra and my Father who first turned me on to the Blues, as well as my meditation instructor, Robert Spellman, a visual artist, musician and Dharma art teacher at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
What in this impermanent interdependent universe can help us to realize the best way to experience existence? How is one inspired to act in accordance with these forces? How shall we best behave and transcend the adventitious imputations of our mind in this realm and realize nirvāṇa? May this essay be of benefit to all sentient beings, prove to be an auspicious and potent deed, and provide a greater foundation for pursuing the training of the mind in Dharma art on the middle way path.
Music, especially the Blues, because it is rooted in suffering provides a powerful path to transcendence. The artist or musician is in a constant state of becoming, like the bodhisattva abiding by means of prajñāpāramitā. Much in the way the bodhisattva needs others to realize the nature of reality (that is emptiness and compassion or bodhicitta), the artist needs an audience in collaboration to complete the circle of creativity. Music and sound can be an upaya or skill in means to gain awareness, manifest meaning, and abide in the liberation of the appearance emptiness of suffering. This essay will explore the relationship between the view of suffering that is similar in Buddhism and Blues music, as well as perspectives on art and music as a spiritual practice that is the manifestation of transcendence.
What is sound itself in terms of spirituality? Continue to Read Transcendence through Music: Buddha & the Blues by Reverand Freakchild.
 The Portable Jack Kerouac Quotes (accessed April 20, 2016) https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/1354192-the-portable-jack-kerouac
 See Appendix I
 See Appendix II & III