NYPL Research Spotlight: Richard Doyle and Trey Conner
This profile is part of a series of interviews chronicling the experiences of researchers who use The New York Public Library's collections for the development of their work.
Richard Doyle, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor at Penn State University, is an award-winning teacher and NSF grant-funded scholar. He’s authored eight blind peer-reviewed books, including Wetwares, Darwin’s Pharmacy, and The Genesis of Now.
Trey Conner, Associate Professor at the University of South Florida, has authored scholarly articles on Indian Carnatic music, Advaita Vedanta, open source culture, psychedelics, and digital pedagogy and is currently working on Everything Worth Doing Now.
What brought you to the Library?
The two of us began teaching courses on Buddhism and the Beats about five years ago, visiting each other's classes in Pennsylvania and Florida and introducing students to each other through the pandemic and Zoom. Both of us have been searching for ways to teach nonduality—the states beyond ego counseled by every mystic tradition—in the contemporary context. One of us had been teaching meditation for many years at a campus spiritual center. For the past seven years, one of us has been teaching courses focused on fostering collaboration with and selfless service to grassroots urban farming initiatives and progressive youth development projects like the always-evolving St. Pete Youth Farm. This work is difficult to do effectively in the contemporary pandemic university, in the midst of a planetary attention economy. We are trying to offer students an effective way to explore nondual states, and it turns out that Jack Kerouac’s own dharma writings are radically approachable and effective for a diverse array of students and fellow practitioners. They can also be read immersively by a student cohort that increasingly proves incapable of the sustained focused reading necessary for a novel. We find that building from what Kerouac called snackable “tics” of transcription and lip-smacking “pops” of poetry (Mexico City Blues) and dharma to the novels—such as Kerouac’s Dharma Bums—works very well as a kind of stairway to beatitude. We deliberately avoid teaching On the Road, as many think they know what it is about. In other words, we find what Kerouac left behind as dharma, and we practice it and share it.
Along the way we found out about Kerouac’s “transliteration” of the Diamond Sutra, “The Diamond Vow of God’s Wisdom”. This sutra is one of the most precious to us in our own practice and thinking, especially in our capacities as rhetoricians and teachers of writing informed by global rhetorical traditions, as it emphasizes and repeats the importance of having a correct view of what language can do and what it cannot do. Only in the breakdown of ordinary language can these states of nonduality, for example, occur. This is a suggestive interpretation of the Buddhist practice of right speech—right words, right time, right place, right now.
Silence is usually right speech, but not always. It is experiential and axiomatic that ineffable states (such as awe) cannot be put into language, as there is no feeling of “I” to tell the tale. We find ourselves shouting “Oh god!” Job and Moby Dick both deploy and leave behind a narrator that could somehow tell the tale. Let this one from the KJV tumble off of your tongue: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” Otherwise we would never know about Job’s ordeal or the tale of the white whale or see William Blake’s print.
The Beats more or less founded themselves as a group around a planetary scale problem—The Bomb—and as a collective and as individuals they offered a creative and courageous response to this ontological existential threat that was planetary in magnitude, with frequent recourse to plants. Sound familiar? The Beats play a vital role in the spiritual, cultural, political, and technological revolutions that have transformed the planet since they met at Columbia. It seems important to learn from them as we navigate a multiplex of planetary scale crises, which we feel have their roots in the atrophy of our capacities for focused attention. Meditation, cannabis, and psychedelics are all first and foremost technologies of attention. It also feels vital to learn from the Beats and their experiences as we go kerplunk back into the officially sanctioned venture capital-enhanced innovations of contemporary psychedelic capitalism. (We’ve written about that with Nese Devenot in a piece called “Dark Side of the Shroom”)
Most of the Beats explored what is now repackaged as “mindfulness” and contemplative practice, and they integrated practices borrowed from shamanism and Buddhism into their paths and DIY creative practice. They did so with their suffering and their joy and they were the catalysts of everything we are—the counterculture and the innovation economy it gave birth to, and the terrifying attention economy beast we find ourselves in ravenous complicity with. (Our other current book project is entitled “Menu for A Media Fast: Tips for a General Strike Against the Attention Economy”).
Treasure caches like the Jack Kerouac papers in the Berg Collection are vital. We know as teachers and scholars that many of us come to the Beats with received ideas about them, and one of them is that Kerouac was somehow not a “real” Buddhist, but a “literary” one. We wanted to explore that difference from the perspective of our own individual and collective practice and experience as meditators, teachers, and scholars. So we had to head to the Library.
When did you first get the idea for your research project?
The two of us have been researching the history of the psychedelic counterculture for many years, due to healing experiences we have ourselves been graced with in our encounters with meditation practice and the syncretic shamanism explored by the Beats. We teach courses on the work of William S. Burroughs and the King James Bible too. One of us headed down to Peru in 2002, following Burroughs and Allen Ginsbergs' trail of yage in the research for a book, and was healed of life long severe asthma. Huachuma, the entheogenic cactus medicine practiced in the coastal areas of Peru, healed one of us at the root cause of suffering. Psilocybin (Golden Teachers) taught us both gentle speech; our Sanskrit chanting practice reliably liquifies the buildup of contemporary anxious and depressed ego and reveals a collective subjective perspective of intentional love and going with the flow. Last but certainly not least, Lady Ganja (cannabis) taught us to explore some of the same states of consciousness induced by plant medicines but best practiced alongside and available endogenously through daily meditation, chanting, writing, and all of the other yogas too. Writing together with friends and students, we have observed with our hero Yogi Berra that “you can observe a lot by just watching.” In short, the doods meditate and thereby abide!
Copyright © Jim Sampas, Literary Executor of the Estate of Jack Kerouac, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC
And so, as part of a completely beatific nutritious practice of thus abiding, we like to look for a while at and through the senses as we write, enacting and redacting them according to Kerouac’s pith sensory writing instructions and his golden eternity prescriptions. We follow them to the letter: “Meditate outdoors. The dark trees at night are not really the dark trees at night, it's only the golden eternity.” We, therefore, come with a shockingly naive sincerity to the Beats as our teachers in plant medicines and practices of beatitude (see the Sermon on the Mount) relevant to and practical for navigating and healing the planetary mental health crisis. We think Kerouac as a person was interesting and complicated, like all of us, but what he left behind is definitively healing for what currently ails us.
But really, we all know that when it comes to the ineffable, nobody is ever there to tell the tale. It’s overwhelming. Even the great writer Aldous Huxley, faced with his own doors of perception cleansed unto the infinite, turned to Blake in his title: The Doors of Perception. Most of us do a better job talking about our dreams than our epiphanies and our ecstasies.
Good news: It’s also established practice in many traditions to leave (and even bury as “terma texts”) instructions in going beyond language to pure awareness—what Kerouac sometimes called the “golden eternity”. Here we had a writer hidden in plain sight in the tradition of James Joyce taking his turn at pointing the way beyond subject/object, space/time, self/other language with the Diamond Sutra. The text was buried, in its own way. (Now a transcript of Kerouac’s “The Diamond Cutter of Perfect Knowing” scroll-rehearsal notebook has been published in an exciting new collection of transcriptions with notes by Charles Shuttleworth, “Desolation Peak.” But the scroll, typescript materials associated with the scroll, and related dharma notebooks are still well buried and well tended.)
Kerouac was attempting to teach a passage to the Golden Eternity beyond thought and language but available to be experienced through self-experiment and practice.  It happened to him! We read with joy and something like verification when none other than Robert Thurman—none other than Uma’s dad and a literary lion in the study of Tibetan Buddhism—declared Kerouac an “American Bodhisattva” in his introduction to Kerouac’s remix of Jātaka tales, Wake Up!
Buddhism, in whatever stripe, is all about releasing attachments. A writer is likely to be more attached than most to language and its capacities, and the Diamond Sutra sets up shop directly on any such attachment. It can entail a sacrifice of that attachment to go beyond it. The Diamond Sutra announces that it is nothing but words, anticipating Burroughs’s cut up—it cuts itself up. Edgar Allan Poe wrote about "The Purloined Letter" and the “two fold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum in company with my friend” —a secret hidden in plain sight. Is Kerouac our finite, complex, embodied but sometimes awakened, Purloined Bodhisattva of pure awareness beyond language?
We had to see the scroll. Now we will never unsee it!
Copyright © Jim Sampas, Literary Executor of the Estate of Jack Kerouac, used by permission of the Wylie Agency LLC
What's your favorite spot in the Library?
The table in the Berg room. A close second is a perch in the cafe.
Describe your research routine.
Woke up, got outta bed, dragged a comb across me head…5:30–6:30ish. Brush teeth. Put the kettle on. Coffee. Meditate, 35 minutes to an hour. Sometimes less! Fall into the writing vortex, with Google Docs and PDFs in 8-12 tabs. Pluck, strum. Work 3-5 hours, depending. Cook and eat around 10:30. Swim, bike, or both. Cook, eat, build fires, or lather extra sunblock depending on season. Read 1-3 hours per day, in whatever direction is called for—outside whenever plausible. Get into circles to listen and share. Sometimes it clusters, and I read a bunch of texts around a theme or topic—e.g, Faust—but usually the pattern is in the connections between the different strands of inquiry, e.g. neuroscience, poetics, Joyce. Write by hand in the afternoon, cook. Drink beers with friends. The goal is always to stop at two. Hang out with my daughter or call my son. Zoom with correspondents.
Rise and shine early with the dogs, ablutions, and tea. Sitting meditation bookended with a chant or two. A spoonful of yogurt, a piece of fruit. Write (all tabs opening up to breadcrumb trails in and between different rolling documents) until hungry (@noon or early afternoon), cook and eat, then swim and/or bike. Afternoon: read, write some more, outdoors whenever possible (Kerouac: “handcopied manuscripts writ in the wilds”). Relax/cook with family in the evening, dropping a plucked note here or a thrummed chord there, sometimes gardening or drumming (not every day, every few days or so) for a bit. Get into circles to listen and share. On teaching days I workshop with students on their current writings. On special occasions, I play music with family and friends.
Teaching days differ and have their own rhythms, but the bike, meditation, cooking, and swimming provide the tempo.
What’s the most unexpected item you encountered in your research?
The smell of Kerouac’s corn cob pipe. After asking for permission, each researcher “cornswoggled” the cob with a deep whiff, taking notes like a beer geek or sommelier. “Your grandmother’s mysterious potpourri closet, with notes of cherry, tobacco, and Acapulco Gold. Begins with an oakey smokey nostril curler, unfolding into long tail of frankincense and mirth.” “It’s a two fold luxury of transliteration and a corncob pipe in company with my friend.” The Berg staff joined in with the observations.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Psalm 1 includes the injunction to “meditate.” Kerouac loved Psalms, and even wrote one of his own while sitting and writing in NYPL.
In Visions of the Great Rememberer Allen Ginsberg comments on Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s tape recording (tapes are scrolls, scrolls are tapes!) experiments and calls Kerouac’s listening-transcription techniques evidenced in Visions of Cody "a model to study"—this model, in part, informed our approach to reading (aloud, to, and for each other) and understanding The Diamond Vow of God’s Wisdom scroll.
Describe a moment when your research took an unexpected turn.
See the discussion of “cornswoggling” as an archival technique and working collaboration with Berg Staff. Also, Simi [Research Associate at NYPL] brought out William S. Burroughs’s tarot deck. You can imagine. Also, discovering that Kerouac wrote that Psalm we were reading right in the New York Public Library Great rolling scrolls, it’s a loop!
How do you maintain your research momentum?
We follow the breadcrumbs and study what we love and love what we study. We meet amazing people along the way and they teach us more than we could ever discover on our own. It’s all rather healing, humbling, and energizing. When it is called for, we cornswoggle.
After a day of working/researching, what do you do to unwind?
Cook, bike, swim, walk, loaf, hang out with our kids, garden, music, watch baseball. (Kerouac loved baseball and invented a whole fantasy league, so it’s research?! ) Music.
What's your guilty pleasure distraction?
Cheese. World Cup soccer. The Grateful Dead.
Where is your favorite place to eat in the neighborhood?
Upside Pizza. It’s no joke. One of us wept after their first bite. We couldn’t help but notice that the dough was rolled out and smoothed like a scroll.
What tabs do you currently have open on your computer?
Libgenesis, How to install a VPN, Google Docs “Shut Up and Chant”, “NYPL Researcher Spotlight Questions” “John 1:1 As a Recursive Structure”
“The Complete Biscuit Types,” The Project Gutenberg eBook of Davy and The Goblin, What Followed Reading 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', by Charles E. Carryl., C. T. Onions’ “A Shakespeare Glossary,” “Shut Up and Chant”, “NYPL Researcher Spotlight Questions”, “Grateful Dead Live at Hollywood Palladium on 1971-08-06”
Is there anything you'd like to tell someone looking to get started?
Follow your deepest curiosity, no matter how absurd or irrelevant it seems. Try to live up to the ideas that visit you and yet remain enigmatic. You’ll get to aha one way or another :) When in doubt, cornswoggle it!
Have we left anything out that you’d like to tell other researchers?
The staff at the Berg are the best! Julie, Emma, Carolyn, Simi, and Piruz are world class and helpful—vigilant about the curation of these precious and often fragile materials, and excited by their ability to share these treasures with those of us pining to access them. Other researchers would do well to conceive of their visit as a collaboration with experts. The Diamond Vow of God’s Wisdom is a scroll typed by Kerouac that is over ten feet long and 75 years old. (This digital scroll is only nine pages and therefore 8 feet three inches, by contrast, Each dharma should compress the previous?!)
NYPL's Conservation lab did remarkable work to make the scroll available within a mylar sheath, but ten feet of self curling scroll typed and transduced from notebooks full of blanks and crossed out passages on something like rather flimsy telegram paper presents challenges in access and presentation. There’s bound to be a ripple within the riddle! The scroll-wrangling and terma-tending team at the Berg worked with us and respected our need to see the scroll itself, and not just the digital images—also available in the Berg on a special hi-resolution display. We’d been warned in advance about the likely glare and we came well prepped with our cheap sunglasses but then, doggone it, we left our Dollar General shades behind at the flat. We’d just have to squint, by the dint.
We watched and listened as the Berg team whispered in an archivist’s idiom. Julie and Simi perched at opposing custom capstans , cat’s cradling from stern to bow, and gently unfurled the scroll—laying out the riggings for sailing an ocean of eloquence dharma as the Berg Room reading lamps played moire patterns over the mylar. That scroll was rolled out and smoothed like a dough.
Yes, our visit confirms that there is nothing like the analog experience of the scroll, as the oceanic continuity of Kerouac’s dharma is part of the message of the scroll. Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that “The medium is the message”, meaning that form is also content—sometimes the most important content is not just the information listed —as in the words of Kerouac’s “transliteration”—but the form in which it is presented.
In the rhetorical tradition of Isocrates and Cicero, this is something like “delivery.” McLuhan’s most familiar example was the “cool” “surfing” from channel to channel on a television—it’s almost a meditative state. Everybody knows binging feels different—it’s the continuity. Émile Benveniste notes that the etymology of “rhythm” in Greek reveals an emphasis on flow. Go with it. Swimming continuous laps feels different than short bursts interspersed with rests. Interacting with the scroll also called to mind Ramana Maharshi’s mirthful wave/ocean riff on the nondual experience of “continuous Self, uninterrupted by jagrat, svapna and sushupti. Thus it is akhandakara vritti (unbroken experience). Vritti is used for lack of a better expression. It should not be understood to be literally a vritti. In that case, vritti will resemble an ‘ocean-like river’, which is absurd. Vritti is of short duration, it is qualified, directed consciousness; or absolute consciousness broken up by cognition of thoughts, senses, etc. Vritti is the function of the mind, whereas the continuous consciousness transcends the mind. This is the natural, primal state of the Jnani or the liberated being. That is unbroken experience. It asserts itself when relative consciousness subsides. Aham vritti (‘I-thought’) is broken, Aham sphurana (the light of ‘I-I’) is unbroken, continuous. After the thoughts subside, the light shines forth.” (Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Talk 307).
A sutra is a “thread” and suggests following a continuous path , with the scroll itself taking us on a journey as we first read the notebooks, with all of their lacunae and blank spots and quasi-intentional spacings and crossing outs, then reckoned with the carefully indented typescript rehearsals revealing still more revisions, and finally read the scroll simultaneously double pulled and smoothed across the Berg table typed top to bottom, back and forth, doing street yoga over the table to see it, sometimes chanting it aloud.
We are so grateful to the staff of the Berg for allowing us to experience this scroll the way it was designed—destined?! —to unfurl. It was like some ancient purloined dharma DNA unfolding itself with a little help from its scroll-wrangling friends for transmission, transcription, and interpretation, and we will never be the same. We’re dreaming of collaborations to work more expansively with the scroll as a digital object, “continuous Self, uninterrupted by jagrat, svapna and sushupti.” Copying and recitation of the Diamond Sutra has long been a widespread devotional practice, and we'll continue to devote ourselves to it for the foreseeable.
1. “All your senses become purified and your mind returns to its primal, unborn, original state of perfection. Don’t you remember before you were born? Read, as I’m doing, the Diamond Sutra every day, Sunday read the Dana Charity chapter; Monday, Sila kindness; Tuesday, Kshanti patience; Wednesday, Virya zeal; Thursday, Dhyana tranquility; Friday, Prajna wisdom; Saturday, conclusion. By living with this greatest of sutras you become immersed in the Truth that it is all One Undifferentiated Purity, creation and the phenomena, and become free from such conceptions as self, other selves, many selves, One Self, which is absurd, “selfhood is regarded as a personal possession only by terrestrial beings”—no difference between that star and this stone.” -Jack Kerouac, letter to Allen Ginsberg, July 14, 1955).
2. ““Man the capstan! Blood and thunder!—jump!”—was the next command, and the crew sprang for the handspikes.” Moby Dick
3. “The way to place your mind is the great placement beyond something to be placed. In the continuity of realizing the view, leave your senses unbridled (“in the continuity of realizing the view” can also be phrased as “while the view is an actuality”). Leave body and mind without artifice; acknowledge without clinging. Recognize dharmakaya, but remain without holding it to be dharmakaya” (Treasures from Juniper Ridge p. 148 ).