115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Zen Ox-herding Pictures in Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums: Enlightenment as Round Trip

Matthew James Bond, University of California, Riverside

This paper will address the criticism that sees circular journeying as central to Kerouac's work and specifically to Dhamra Bums, naming the Zen ox-herding pictures mentioned in the novel as the primary guide to reading the story at hand.


Jack Kerouac’s oeuvre, and looking at Dharma Bums specifically, concerns travel. Moreover, this outward movement also necessitates return. Gregory Stephenson in Daybreak Boys identifies this when he notes that “[t]he motif of the road and the journey is central to Kerouac’s twelve-novel sequence, The Duluoz Legend” (17). The Duluoz Legend was Kerouac’s title for his corpus of work thought of as a larger, unified text, and Stephenson’s chapter on Dharma Bums specifically claims that the novels that make up the behemoth The Duluoz Legend exemplify a specifically circular journey that follow the structure of the “hero-quest,” starting with “separation,” leading to “initiation,” and finally ending with “return”—the circular shape of the stories unfold a journey “whose end is its own beginning” (17). Kerouac himself understood the importance of envisioning the journey as a round trip; important to note is that this circular trip also carries spiritual meaning for Kerouac, a writer famously connected with Buddhist ideas. For example, Kerouac’s the “113th Chorus,” also called “Mexico City Blues,” a poem that pedantically extols Buddhist idea of emptiness and perfection, tells the reader that “your goal / is your startingplace” (Mexico City Blues 113, lines 17-18). Stephenson draws a parallel between the recurrent mountain climbing in the novel and suggests that the round trip in this particular novel might be visualized as a climb up a mountain and then back down (38-39). 

Yet, despite this astute reading of the novel, Stephenson’s work on Dharma Bums fails to address what seems to be an obvious symbolic parallel. My paper intervenes at this lacuna and seeks to more fully understand the Buddhist mythological undertones associated with the spiritual round trip, building on Stephenson’s work. Specifically I want to explain how the structure of Dharma Bums mirrors the Zen ox-herding pictures, a classic Zen teaching tool that uses a panel of illustrations to depict the shape of the journey toward Enlightenment and the way back:

It was an ancient Chinese cartoon showing first a young boy going out into the wilderness with a small staff and pack…and in later panels he discovers an ox, tries to tame, tries to ride it, finally does tame, and ride it but then abandons the ox and just sits in the moonlight meditating, finally you see him coming down from the mountain of enlightenment and then suddenly the next panel shows absolutely nothing at all, followed by a panel showing blossoms in a tree, then the last picture you see the young boy is a big fat old laughing wizard with a huge bag on his back and he’s going into the city to get drunk with the butchers, enlightened, and another new young boy is going up the mountain with a little pack and staff. (Dharma Bums 137)

The ox-herding pictures highlight the journeyer’s ascent to enlightenment. It is a round trip that leads the traveler back to where he started, having gained nothing, enlightenment being empty of worth. The arrival back into world is marked by its commonplace nature, not by finding otherworldly knowledge or esoteric secrets.

The plot of Dharma Bums conforms to the shape of the journey in this teaching tool. Through it we can reassess Kerouac’s sometimes dubious understanding of the Zen teachings discussed in this novel. In addition, by seeing this novel as a depiction of the Zen ox-herding pictures, the reader can better understand the significance of Ray Smith’s return to American Cold War society at the end of the novel and judge whether his reintegration into mainstream society marks a failure to uphold his transgressive countercultural politics or signifies a personal triumph.