The World Is Nothing But a Dream: Jack Kerouac on the Golden Eternity, Silence, and Emptiness

“To know nothing about yourself is to live. To know yourself badly is to think,” Fernando Pessoa wrote while contemplating moments of calm amid uncertainty and disquiet. “To know yourself in a flash, as I did in this moment, is to have a fleeting notion of the intimate monad, the soul’s magic word. But that sudden light scorches everything, consumes everything. It strips us naked of even ourselves.”

Rereading these stirring lines, I can’t help but wonder about our innate potential to express the full spectrum of our sudden spiritual experiences. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once uttered, “The Tao that can be told of is not the Absolute Tao; the Names that can be given are not Absolute Names.” According to this famous dictum, some things are better left unsaid.

Yet sometimes we feel an unstoppable drive to let it out, to write it down, and in doing so attempt to capture the elusive beauty of that which can not be expressed. Indeed, it requires tremendous courage to even attempt such an impossible feat, the courage that Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969) shows us in his lesser-known writings inspired by his intense study and practice of Buddhism. Deeply personal and weaving both Buddhist and Catholic imagery, these 66 prose poems can be found in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity.

Jack Kerouac.

Kerouac writes:

God is not outside us but is just us, the living and the dead, the never-lived and never-died. That we should learn it only now, is supreme reality, it was written a long time ago in the archives of universal mind, it is already done, there’s no more to do. … In the beginning was the word; before the beginning, in the beginningless infinite neverendingness, was the essence. Both the word “God” and the essence of the word, are emptiness.

The form of emptiness which is emptiness having taken the form of form, is what you see and hear and feel right now, and what you taste and smell and think as you read this. Wait awhile, close your eyes, let your breathing stop three seconds or so, listen to the inside silence in the womb of the world, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, re-recognize the bliss you forgot, the emptiness and essence and ecstasy of ever having been and ever to be the golden eternity. This is the lesson you forgot. …

Creation of the World by Ivan Aivazovsky.

Contemplating what is born out of this fertile silence, Kerouac writes:

I remember that I’m supposed to be a man and consciousness and I focus my eyes and the print reappears and the words of the poor book are saying, “The world, as God has made it” and there are no words in my pitying heart to express the knowless loveliness of the trance there was before I read those words, I had no such idea there was a world.

This world has no marks, signs or evidence of existence, nor the noises in it, like accident of wind or voices or heehawing animals, yet listen closely the eternal hush of silence goes on and on throughout all this, and has been going on, and will go on and on. This is because the world is nothing but a dream and is just thought of and the everlasting eternity pays no attention to it. At night under the moon, or in a quiet room, hush now, the secret music of the Unborn goes on and on, beyond conception, awake beyond existence.

The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, a collection of Jack Kerouac’s most inspired writings about Buddhism and spirituality, remains a hidden gem in the legacy of one of the most beloved American authors. Complement this particular portion with Fernando Pessoa’s thoughts, dreams, and meditations in prose contained in The Book of Disquiet.

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