“If you think you’re enlightened,” spiritual teacher Ram Dass famously said, “go spend a week with your parents.”
No matter how tough we may think we are, the ultimate test of faith often comes at the ruthless hammer of our parents’ judgement. Whether our belief shatters to pieces or stands like a rock depends on one simple thing — the ability to let things go and let them be as they are. This subtle art of moving on without regret is what beloved author Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969) explores in a portion of his autobiographical novel The Dharma Bums.
“Days tumbled on days, I was in my overalls, didn’t comb my hair, didn’t shave much, consorted only with dogs and cats,” Jack Kerouac writes while describing his tranquil spring days at his parents’ house. And then he adds:
Sunday afternoons my family would want me to go driving with them but I preferred to stay home alone, and they’d get mad and say, “What’s the matter with him anyway?” and I’d hear them argue about the futility of my “Buddhism” in the kitchen, then they’d all get in the car and leave and I’d go in the kitchen and sing, “The tables are empty, everybody’s gone over” to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “You’re Learning the Blues.”
“I was as nutty as a fruitcake and happier,” writes Kerouac. However, this carefree existence is interrupted when, while meditating under a tree, an astonishing thought pops in his mind, “Everything is empty but awake!” Feeling exhilarated, he decides the time has come to explain everything to his family. “You and your Buddha, why don’t you stick to the religion you were born with?” says his mother. “If things were empty how could I feel this orange, in fact taste it and swallow it?” adds his brother-in-law. To which Kerouac replies:
Your mind makes out the orange by seeing it, hearing it, touching it, smelling it, tasting it and thinking about it but without this mind, you call it, the orange would not be seen or heard or smelled or tasted or even mentally noticed, it’s actually, that orange, depending on your mind to exist! Don’t you see that? By itself it’s a no-thing, it’s really mental, it’s seen only of your mind. In other words it’s empty and awake.
“Well, if that’s so, I still don’t care,” is all he hears after his impassioned speech. Forgoing the futile attempt at breaking through the brick wall of ignorance, Kerouac writes:
All enthusiastic I went back to the woods that night and thought, “What does it mean that I am in this endless universe, thinking that I’m a man sitting under the stars on the terrace of the earth, but actually empty and awake throughout the emptiness and awakedness of everything? It means that I’m empty and awake, that I know I’m empty, awake, and that there’s no difference between me and anything else. In other words it means that I’ve become the same as everything else. It means that I’ve become a Buddha.”