Blaming Japhy Rider: Memoir of a Dharma Bum Who Survived
Philip A. Bralich, Ph.D.

Bathwater, not the baby …


Steinbeck and his friends also had a habit of scooping up drinks deserted by exiting patrons, mixing the leftovers into a cocktail, and then drinking that to save money. I checked around some more, and a couple of guys in their nineties said the pictures I had printed out looked very familiar, but they couldn’t say for sure if they knew him. In his memoir entitled Big Sur, Kerouac discusses Monterey, but pretty much just as the last bus stop from San Francisco on the way to Big Sur. He had to hitchhike the last forty-five miles. He was waiting for a bus at one point in Monterey on his way back to San Francisco, and he wandered the streets of Monterey a bit, but there is no mention of him going into the city far enough to look for Steinbeck. It sounded to me like Kerouac just wandered around close to the bus station. The Steinbeck haunt is about two miles away.

I chose Kerouac’s Dharma Bums for the first book to read. At first, his reports of the beat study of Buddhism heartened me; but, later, I was aghast at these descriptions, his depiction of the poet, Japhy Rider, in particular. Kerouac was very widely read by the beats and the hippies. The dharma bums—that is, the Buddhists who were traveling around different centers or just reading on the subject—also read a lot of Kerouac. I am sure millions of copies, at least, were sold. What bothered me was that Kerouac, in his ever-generous and gentle manner, described scenes with Japhy Rider having sex in the Tibetan ritual style on the floor, during parties and with multiple partners, and Japhy always encourages others to do the same. Kerouac never criticized Japhy; further, he reported that Japhy said that the Tibetans were like that, and that this was what Tibetan Buddhism was all about: cross-legged sex on the floor in front of other people. A great Chinese lie, I thought.

At first, I thought it was irresponsible for Kerouac even to report such a thing, but then I decided that, as he wasn’t that much of a scholar, he might actually have believed Japhy. It would be difficult to know, as Kerouac always reported gently rather than critically; but, in the memoir, Kerouac comes off as too shy and actually too respectful of women to have tried the Japhy variation on the Tibetan practice himself. But, as Japhy had pretenses to being an expert in Zen and things Buddhist—and, as his translation of Chinese Zen Poetry into English gave him a bit of credentials in the area—I thought that he should have been more discerning and less licentious in his rapid jump to conclusions on the Tibetan lifestyle. There is certainly nothing to suggest that he had done any reading or practice that would have led him to those orgiastic conclusions—other than credulity in the face of critics of the Tibetans, those who would dismiss the entirety of the culture and the religion with that one foolish lie