The Dharma Girls


Arts & Culture

Still from the 2012 film adaptation of On the Road.


Dad gave me a copy of On the Road for Christmas when I was sixteen. At thirteen, it had been The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath, then The Catcher in the Rye the year after that. In our house, there was a wall of impressive hardcover books in the den, all the important works of the twentieth century displayed with the curated cool of a record collection: giant tomes like Freedom at Midnight and The Executioner’s Song, great novels like Portnoy’s Complaint and Gravity’s Rainbow and The Naked and the Dead, with glossy white jackets, seventies fonts, and enormous black-and-white photos of authors on the back covers. I was going to work my way through that wall someday, I thought.

By my senior year of high school, I was ready for the Beats. I read The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac’s wild romp through American Zen Buddhism, and the great headlong rush of voice swept me along in its current; I read without coming up for air. What drew me in particular was the flirtation with the spiritual. I was a reader endlessly fascinated by how writers used the symbologies and stories of religion to ask existential questions and demand answers of their gods. I was bored by the whiny angst of The Catcher in the Rye, but I read the more spiritual Franny and Zooey over and over, carrying it in my book bag like some sort of talisman. I couldn’t get enough of Frank Herbert’s philosophical, messianic Dune. But with The Dharma Bums, I fell in a new, complicated sort of love.

Whenever I encountered a story about religious quests, I went through the same arc of raised hopes and crushing disappointment. In Bums, Ray Smith encounters the Buddhist poet and adventurer Japhy Ryder, a close simulacrum of the real-life Zen scholar and poet Gary Snyder. Ray, an alcoholic, semihomeless wanderer, finds purpose in Ryder’s exhilarating, whirlwind leap through centuries of Zen mystical tradition. They climb the Matterhorn, get drunk, compose poetry, throw wild San Franciscan parties, and eventually part regretfully; Ray Smith still wants to be a lost boy of America, riding the rails, while Ryder is moving to Japan to study his religion in a more serious and authentic way. 

I was seventeen, and this was the first time I had read American literature that used Zen as its metaphorical backbone instead of Judeo-Christian principles. Instead of Christ metaphors and prodigal sons, there was the nonduality and emptiness of the Zen poetry and sutras I’d already been reading on the side. Zen is an exhilarating rejection of domesticity and obligation, a renunciant tradition that demands its followers cast aside illusions and all self-regard. Monks and nuns are called home leavers, and the Beats fit that perfectly. In the fifties, on the jittery fringes of a monolithic culture, America was ripe for a spiritual awakening. Zen could serve as the engine for sexual, political, and social liberation, and its exploration by figures like Snyder helped to usher in the free love and the radical countercultures of the sixties.

It was the first time I saw how the literature of America could be Zen—and how Zen could be American. As Ann Douglas writes in her introduction to The Dharma Bums, “When Kerouac, who had immersed himself in solitary studies of Buddhism at the start of 1954, arrived on the scene and expressed his surprised delight that there were other Buddhists in America, Kenneth Rexroth, the elder statesman of the West Coast poetry scene, satirized in The Dharma Bums as Reinhold Cacoethes, promptly put him down. ‘Everybody in San Francisco is a Buddhist, Kerouac. Didn’t you know that?’ ”

Part of the thrill of reading Kerouac as a young person is knowing that these saints were real, generating the great works of their generation in seedy bars. In the tradition of Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s Paris, San Francisco in the fifties and sixties existed as a magical space where art seemed to mean something. It was a world where Beat poets wore corduroy jackets and thick glasses and recited Buddhist sutras in dive bars.

The first time I was invited to a party by my creative writing professor in college, I wore a corduroy jacket and stuck some pens in my pocket, hoping that wearing the uniform would make me a writer. I must have looked ridiculous at that fashionable cocktail party. I was the only girl not in a dress.

I kept searching Kerouac’s lists for the poet who was most like me, the one who could serve as the model for the artist’s life that I would lead. But where were all the women?

In The Dharma Bums, the first female character in the book arrives when Japhy Ryder asks Ray Smith to participate in what he calls a “yabyum ceremony,” which turns out to be an Americanized version of a Tibetan ritual. Yab-yum, in Tibetan Buddhism, is a union of wisdom and compassion, often depicted in artwork as a male Buddha in union with his female goddess consort. In Ryder’s living room, a girl known as Princess arrives: “She had happened to meet Japhy and fallen in love with him and madly too, she’d do anything he said.” With little encouragement, Princess strips naked and straddles Ryder, also nude, while Ray watches them in a tortured state of confusion and inflamed desire.

I find myself wondering about Princess. Did she come to the ceremony expecting to be seen as a bodhisattva, a Buddha in training, a seeker on the path? Or did she know before she ever stepped in that living room among those laughing men that she would be seen as a temple woman, a dark void for men to fill with their desires and needs?

In the fifties and in the decades that followed, Zen continued to inspire Western writers seeking liberation from the hierarchies and familiar moralities of Judaism and Christianity. The epigraph of J. D. Salinger’s story collection, Nine Stories, is the classic Zen koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” In many of these stories, girls and women appear as tedious, chattering presences, obscuring the male characters’ quests for fulfillment, happiness, or penetrating insight. Seymour’s wife in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is a noxious voice on the telephone, doing her nails; she fails to see her husband’s crisis and even sleeps through his suicide. In the final story, “Teddy,” a precocious and spiritually enlightened boy seems to foresee his own death, at the hands of his hostile six-year-old sister, when she apparently pushes him into an unfilled swimming pool. Women make graves.

Whenever an ideology arrives on American shores, writers fit American problems and characters into the new framework. Zen encouraged American artists to reject the constraints of home, family, marriage, and children. They filled their idea of Zen with a bold new American spirituality. But as has happened before, they made no room in the cosmology, the vast universes and uncountable lifetimes of Buddhism, for women.

In The Dharma Bums, there’s a woman who wants to come along on the grand adventure:

A girl had come right after, a blonde in rubber boots and a Tibetan coat with wooden buttons, and in the general talk she’d inquired about our plan to climb Mount Matterhorn and said ‘Can I come with ya?’ as she was a bit of a mountainclimber herself.

“Shore,” said Japhy … “shore, come on with us and we’ll all screw ya at ten thousand feet”

When I was seventeen, I dreamed of climbing mountains for months after reading The Dharma Bums. I can see in my younger self that plaintive request: Can I come too? I felt the same way every time I looked at my parents’ shelf full of important hardcover books, searching for a woman’s name. I wish I could find that girl in her Tibetan coat with the wooden buttons. I hope she said fuck you and climbed the mountain all by her goddamn self.

American Zen literature made the world seem strange and spiky. Just when it seemed that all possible stories could be fit into fixed and knowable categories, Zen burst Western literature out of its constraints. These French Canadian and Oregonian Zen Buddhists, these kids raised middle-class Catholic or Presbyterian, do not fit into any easy identity. And I know women were there, too, getting drunk at those parties and screaming poetry into the San Francisco nights. There were women slow dancing on tables and women hitching rides West and women picking peaches and riding trains in overalls. I know there were women joining convents and ashrams and Zendos, women seeking enlightenment on their own terms. I’m still waiting for their stories to be told.


Blair Hurley is the author of the forthcoming novel The Devoted.