Wow. I has no idea. I did not know that Kerouac wrote this until I found a reference to it in a paper on Gary Snyder a couple of weeks ago.
In 1955 Kerouac was not yet famous or the icon he would become after the publication of "On the Road" in 1957. Kerouac was still in precarious circumstance when he set out to write "A Life of the Buddha" but it doesn't really show in the work itself. There is very little of Kerouac in the book unlike most of his others which are so deeply personal.
No, "Wake Up" is a more or less straightforward retelling of the Life of the Buddha from the Sutras in English for Americans, and as approachable as any number of Catholic "Life of St. So-and-So" pamphlets and books. Or more pertinently, "The Life of Jesus."
In fact, that seemed to me to be the model Kerouac followed in writing his "Life of the Buddha."
And he makes explicit comparisons between Jesus and Sakyamuni Buddha in a few places. He sees them as kindred spirits.
Which of course many people do. And in a sense they probably were. In their own times and later.
Much is made in Kerouac biographies of his strict Catholic upbringing and strenuous Catholic belief. Yet from my perspective having read some though not all of his books, he had submerged most of his Catholicism in a conceptual Buddhism that encompassed the "good parts" of Catholicism and left the rest behind.
He was a practicing Buddhist but not a practicing Catholic (though he could be).
I'm still not entirely sure where he picked up his Buddhism. It's clear from "Wake Up" and other works that he's studied Buddhism deeply and for quite a long time, too. None of it is unfamiliar to him. He could be a Dharma teacher if he wanted to be, and in some passages of some of his works, that's exactly what he was.
I'm assuming he must have encountered Buddhist teaching in New York in the early '50s, perhaps through Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs, maybe among others of the Early Beats. I don't know. But I feel it had to have been years before he wrote "Wake Up" -- or it wouldn't have been as sensitive and as straightforward a telling as it is.
I came to Zen in the mid-'60s through Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" (1958), but from all the evidence, Kerouac is not really a Zen practitioner; Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder) in "The Dharma Bums" is. Kerouac's Buddhism is more Indian or Tibetan, Theravada rather than Mahayana, whereas Snyder's is becoming very strict and Japanese in the book. At the end, Snyder has sailed off to Japan to join the Sokoku-Ji temple monastery in Kyoto where he will learn and practice for years, and return to America as a Zen Master -- in I believe 1965.
And it will change him. I would say not necessarily for the better, but that's just me.
From "Wake Up" and other works, I get the impression Kerouac was very much a Believer in Buddhism, much as a Catholic or other Christian believes in Christianity.
From a Buddhist perspective, that's a mistake, perhaps a critical one, because Buddhism is not a religion. You don't believe in Buddhism, you practice it. The Dharma is a path, way, not the end point. Nirvana comes or not, but it doesn't matter. As long as you stay on the Dharma Path (following the precepts, etc.) then you're on the road to Enlightenment, and once Enlightened, you're on the road to Nirvana -- eventually. Don't worry about it. Just follow the Path. Keep going. Don't give up, even if you fail, make mistakes, or get confused.
As I was taught many years ago, "The Buddha is within you, the Dharma is you, and the Sangha is with whomever you find on the Dharma Path -- even if they don't know it."
So there were times when I was reading "Wake Up" that I felt Kerouac was making an attempt to "own" the Buddha, something like Christians "own" Jesus and the Gospels. It won't work very well, at least not in the form of salvation. There is no salvation as such in Buddhism. As I said to one of the Dharma teachers, my practice is "chopping wood and carrying water." In other words, my practice is my life. ("The Dharma is you.") Whatever I do, day by day, even hour by hour, is practice. And it is never perfect, never ideal, never complete. Whatever is, is.
I think about Kerouac ("Ti Jean" as he referred to himself from time to time. I think it was his mother's endearing name for him) and how he drank himself to death in 1969, still I imagine believing in Buddhism and probably believing that drinking to excess for as long as he did -- until it killed him -- was a form of practice, and in a sense, of course, it was. Of course he was violating the precepts, but that's what people do. Drinking to excess is a direct violation of the precepts, as were so many of the other things Kerouac did during his brief life. Some Buddhists would say (and I suspect he would say) that he was living out the karma he was born with. Interestingly, the way he presents karma in "Wake Up" is essentially no different than genetic inheritance. He wrote in 1955 at a time when psychological inheritance was being made much of in plays and movies like Maxwell Anderson's "The Bad Seed," essentially arguing that what you inherit from your ancestors -- including your "mind" and its many impulses -- is immutable and inescapable.
Rhoda Penmark was a murderer because her mother's biological father was a murderer. She had inherited the "psychopath" gene from him. There was nothing (much) she or anyone else could do about it.
That's as may be. The Buddhist path says there is something you can do about it by following the precepts and the Eightfold Path. In that way it's something like AA or psychotherapy. No matter what your karma -- or genetic inheritance -- you can be in charge of your own life and change what you do and what you leave behind, though it may take many, many lifetimes to work out all that "ancient twisted karma" you're born with.
I don't know what sort of ancient twisted karma Ti Jean may have inherited. I've read that he was alienated from his father, but I know no details. Also that he was very close to his mother and sister, though their relationships were clearly complicated. The loss of his brother when he was a child was very troubling for him. And at least from the time he was at Columbia and soon thereafter, he acted kind of wild and crazy given the conformity of the times. Yet except for his alcoholism and frequent heavy drug use (mostly amphetamines and marijuana), he was never as wild and crazy as some of his Beat friends and colleagues proudly were and as he sometimes says he wishes he could be.
But "Wake Up, A Life of the Buddha" isn't about Kerouac.
It's about Siddhartha Gautama, Sakyamuni Buddha, World Honored One, as told by the Sutras and commentaries, interpreted "for Americans today" by Jack Kerouac. As I say, I did not know he wrote this until I did some research on Gary Snyder and found a reference to it in a scholarly paper about Snyder. Snyder became an acknowledged Zen master -- as no doubt he still is -- and Kerouac wrote "Wake Up" during the period he and Snyder were palling around and climbing Sierra peaks and such well before Snyder left for Zen studies and practice at a monastery in Japan.
To me, "Wake Up" follows the standard stories of the Buddha's life, Enlightenment and teachings very closely. It's not any more embellished than the usual stories are, but there are several passages of deeply felt poetics in the work that are more Kerouac than the Sutras. Yet they stick with the story. They are not out of place.
It's just too bad this is not a more widely known work than it is.