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Lion’s Roar presents this exclusive autobiographical account from the late poet and cultural icon Allen Ginsberg, narrating his spiritual journey from Blake to the Buddha.
We’ll begin at the beginning, because what I’d like to do is trace what spiritual inklings I had that led to interest in Tibetan Buddhism and guru relationship.
I was in love with a high school fellow who went off to Columbia College when he graduated a half-term before me in Central High School in Patterson, New Jersey. So I decided to go to Columbia College instead of Montclair State Teachers College, where all of my family had gone. Out of some kind of devotion I broke away from the traditional pattern of my family but I didn’t have money, so I had to take a scholarship entrance exam. On the ferry between Hoboken and New York I got down on my knees and made a vow that if I were admitted to Columbia, I would do everything I could to save mankind. It was a naive bodhisattva’s vow out of fear of not getting into Columbia.
Around the time I got into school, I ran into William Burroughs and Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac. We became friends. Our conversation between 1945 and 1948 was recollections of our own childhood inklings, including the big question, “How big was the universe?” I think Kerouac and I had a sense of panoramic awareness of the vastness of space. So the question, how big was the “unborn,” arose. Or, how vast was the space we were in, and what was the mystery of the universe?
That led to a lot of conversations and inquiries with marijuana and wandering around the city considering the look of the buildings and the appearance of the facades of Times Square, particularly. Times Square seen as a stage set with a facade that could vanish at any second. That impression of the apparent material of the universe as “real,” but at the same time “unreal” in some way or other, either because we were high, or because time would dissolve the “seen,” or maybe some trick of the eyeball reveals the “facade” as empty.
The first time I heard the refuge vows was from Kerouac, crooned like Frank Sinatra in a beautiful way.
So we began talking about what in 1945 we called a New Consciousness, or a New Vision. As most young people probably do, at the age of fifteen to nineteen, whether it’s punk or bohemia or grunge or whatever new vision adolescents have, there is always some kind of striving for understanding and transformation of the universe, according to one’s own subjective, poetic, generational inspiration.
That led to an exploration of the otherwise rejected world of junkies around Times Square and the underworld. The world of drugs—which had a slight effect in transforming consciousness or altering moods and was presumed to be a kind of artistic specimen trial—I found quite harmless and useful as an educational experience, though some of my contemporaries did get hung up, like Burroughs—although the main problem seemed to be alcohol more than any other.
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In 1948 I Had some kind of break in the normal modality of my consciousness. While alone living a relatively solitary vegetarian contemplative life, reading St. John of the Cross, Plotinus some, notions of “alone with the Alone,” or “one hand clapping,” The Cloud of Unknowing, or Plato’s Phaedrus, and William Blake, I had what was, for me, an extraordinary break in the normal nature of my thought when something opened up.
I had finished masturbating, actually, on the sixth floor of a Harlem tenement on 121st Street looking out at the roofs while reading Blake, back and forth, and suddenly had a kind of auditory hallucination, hearing Blake—what I thought was his voice, a very deep, earthen tone, not very far from my own mature tone of voice, so perhaps a projection of my own latent physiology—reciting a poem called “Sunflower,” which I thought expressed some kind of universal longing for union with some infinite nature. The poem goes:
Ah, Sun-flower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done:
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded within snow
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
I can’t interpret it exactly now, but the impression that I had at the time was of some infinite yearning for the infinite, finally realized, and I looked out the window and began to notice the extraordinary detail of intelligent labor that had gone into the making of the rooftop cornices of the Harlem buildings. I suddenly realized that the world was, in a sense, not dead matter but an increment or deposit of living intelligence and action and activity that finally took form—the Italian laborers of 1890 and 1910, making very fine copper work and roofcomb ornament as you find along the older tenement apartment buildings.
As I looked at the sky, I wondered what kind of intelligence had made that vastness, or what was the nature of the intelligence that I was glimpsing, and felt a sense of vastness and of coming home to space I hadn’t realized was there before but which seemed old and infinite, like the Ancient of Days, so to speak. But I had no training in anything but Western notions and didn’t know how to find a vocabulary for the experience. So I thought I had seen “God” or “Light” or some Western notion of a theistic center, or that was the impression at the time.
That got me into lots of trouble, because I tried to explain it to people and nobody could figure out what I was saying. They thought I was nuts, and in a way, I was. Having no background and no preparation, I didn’t know how to ground the experience in any way that either could prolong it or put it in its place, and certainly didn’t know any teachers whom I could have consulted at Columbia University at the time, although D.T. Suzuki was there.
My first experience with Blake was quite heavenly, but the second experience, about a week later, was just the opposite. At the Columbia bookstore looking around and thinking about this and that, suddenly a sense of sea change of my consciousness overtook me again, and I got scared because everyone in the bookstore looked like some sort of wounded, neurotic, pained animal with the “marks of weakness and marks of woe” on their faces that Blake speaks of in “London.”
A night later, wandering around the Columbia campus, it happened again with a poem called “The Sick Rose,” which goes:
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
And I had a sense of the black sky coming down to eat me. It was like meeting Yamantaka without preparation, meeting one of the horrific or wrathful deities without any realization that it was a projection of myself, or my nature, and I tried to shut off the experience because it was too frightening.
By 1950 or 1951, because of those experiences, I was curious about the Tibetan thangka paintings that had the wrathful deities, but I had no idea what their functions were. I also began experimenting more with peyote and other psychedelics—mescaline and later LSD—to see if I could approximate the natural experience I’d had. My experience with them was very similar, although the natural experience was much more ample and left a deeper imprint on my nature, and it certainly turned me around at the age of 22.
By 1956 there was some poetry and fame. The impulse of my own poetry, Burroughs’, and Kerouac’s was still based on some kind of examination of the texture of consciousness. That was probably the key to why we were of interest to others. Kerouac, in spontaneous prose, trying to track his mind and give some imprint to the actual sequence of thought forms as they rose during the time of writing. Burroughs, similarly interested in alternative modes of consciousness, getting away from stereotyped mentality, experimenting a great deal with drugs, with psychoanalysis, with hypno-analysis, with writing, and finally arriving at a kind of writing that was like the nature of his own mind, primarily visual.
Kerouac began reading Goddard’s Buddhist Bible, which had samples of texts of the path of individual liberation and the Mahayana, including the Diamond Sutra, and some Vajrayana texts. And he laid that trip on me.
I remember when talking with Burroughs once, I asked him what he was thinking of. He had his hands over his typewriter, hovering, ready to write something. “What are you thinking of?” And he said, “Hands pulling in nets from the sea in the dark.” I said, “That’s a very Blakean image of God the Fisher, or something.” He explained that it was just the visual memory of fishermen on the beach at Tangiers, pulling in their nets at dawn. Burroughs’ thought forms were primarily visual, whereas mine were more verbal, auditory, rhythmic. We were interested in the texture of consciousness and how to notate it on the page, preoccupations that go through to the present for everyone alive of that group.
By 1950 Kerouac had begun reading Buddhist texts, in reaction to our friend Neal Cassady, who was involved with Edgar Cayce, a sort of “channeling” specialist somewhat famous in those years. Kerouac thought this was a crude provincial American “Billy Sunday in a suit,” so maybe go back to the original text relating to metempsychosis and reincarnation. Kerouac began reading Goddard’s Buddhist Bible, which had samples of texts of the path of individual liberation and the Mahayana, including the Diamond Sutra, and some Vajrayana texts, at least relating to Milarepa and others. And he laid that trip on me.
Now as an ex-Communist Jewish intellectual, I thought his pronouncement of the first noble truth, that existence was suffering, was some sort of insult to my left-wing background, since I was a progressive looking forward to the universal improvement of matters, if only through spiritual advancement. Kerouac’s insistence was that existence contained suffering. I thought he was trying to insult me, for some reason or other. It took me about two years to get it through my head that he was just telling me a very simple fact.
I still remember the first real dharma instruction I got from Kerouac, which was consistent with Burroughs’ laconic cynicism and critique of “all apparent phenomena”: “All conceptions as to the existence of the self, as well as all conceptions as to the non-existence of the self, as well as all conceptions as to the existence of a Supreme Self, as well as all conceptions as to the nonexistence of a Supreme Self, are equally arbitrary, being only conceptions.” That made quite a bit of sense, since Burroughs had already presented me with Western semantics, Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity, which had some similar insight.
The first time I heard the refuge vows was from Kerouac also, crooned like Frank Sinatra in a beautiful way. That it imprinted itself on me, and I began going to the New York Public Library and looking at Chinese paintings of the Sung Dynasty, interested in the vastness of the landscape scrolls, as correlating with the sense of vastness that I had already experienced.
In 1962, after a trip to Europe, I went to India, primarily to look for a teacher, because I realized I would have to get a teacher, or wanted one, or intuited that I needed one, or wasn’t quite sure.
In a cave at Ellora, Gary Snyder sat himself down and chanted the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Sino-Japanese, with echoes of the cave around, and that blew my mind.
By then I was quite well-known as a poet, and I figured that the proper move, being now famous, would be to disappear into India for a couple of years and look for some wisdom, and also experience a different culture than the Western culture, which I thought from the viewpoint of Spengler, the decline of the West, was perhaps exhausted of inspiration and it was time for a second religiousness, and so I went to look for a teacher. I went in company with Gary Snyder, who four years earlier had gone to Kyoto to study at the First Zen Institute at Daitoku-ji Monastery and had begun helping translate Zen Dust, a handbook of koans.
We went on a Buddhist pilgrimage to Sarnath, Sanchi, Ajanta, Ellora. In a cave at Ellora, Gary sat himself down and chanted the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Sino-Japanese, with echoes of the cave around, and that blew my mind. It was such an extended, long, and obviously spiritual breath, vocalized, that I got really interested and asked him about what it meant, and why he was doing it in Japanese, and what was the history of it.
In the course of our trip we went to visit the Dalai Lama, and I was interested in what he thought of LSD. He asked me if with LSD I could see what was inside of a briefcase. And I said yes, because it is empty. And Gary said, “Oh, stop quibbling, Ginsberg. Give him an answer.”
I went to Sikkim, just sightseeing, and wound up in Rumtek Monastery. I met the Karmapa and saw the Black Hat ceremony, which came to mean a great deal to me much later on. We also visited the Lamas’ Home School at Dalhousie, where my later teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was the director. Although I didn’t have much conversation with him, Gary Snyder took a picture showing Peter Orlovsky leaning over, me looking on, and Trungpa Rinpoche showing us a text that was on the altar.
I went on to Kalimpong to visit Dudjom Rincpoche, the head of the Nyingma school, and I brought him my problems with LSD, because I had had a lot of bum trips. Every time I took acid or psychedelia, I would come back to “The Sick Rose,” like some kind of monster coming to eat me from an outside space. He did give me a very good pith instruction, which I never forgot. It turned my mind around and made the world safe for my democratic thoughts: “If you see something horrible, don’t cling to it, and if you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it.” That cut the Gordian knot that I’d inherited from too rash and untutored experiments with psychedelics.
On my way home I went to Japan and visited Gary. I sat at Temple Daitoku-ji, and actually did a short sesshin, but didn’t learn anything because I didn’t get any real instructions. The problem I had in India was that I didn’t know what to ask for. I went there looking for a teacher and I saw many swamis, but I didn’t know enough to ask them for a meditation practice. Which was the simplest way in? What kind of meditation do you do, and can you suggest a practice? I was too dumb to ask that. I remember asking Dudjom Rinpoche for initiations, wang, as if I were trained enough or prepared for it, but I didn’t ask him what kind of meditation should I practice meanwhile.
Ever since then, I have perhaps been overeager to teach meditation to people who are too dumb, like myself, to ask for it. It seems to me that in America it might be useful for people to be more forward. Usually, I understand, the proper etiquette is to wait until someone asks you three times. But you can always suggest to them that they might ask you three times.
In 1968 I tried using mantra chanting, which I had been doing all the years from 1964 on, when I came back, usually “Hare Krishna” or “Om Shiri Maitreya”, a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, which I liked, without any instruction in how to do it. By 1968 I applied mantra chanting to situations of violence in Chicago, and I found that it worked on a limited scale. At least, it kept me safe and the people who were around me.
After I met Chögyam Trungpa, for the rioting after the bombing of Hanoi Harbor and the increased bombing under Nixon about 1972, he suggested using the mantra AH instead of OM, because OM was much too foreign sounding, while AH was just a good old American Fourth of July sound, like “Ah, fireworks.” Also, it goes out as purification of speech and a measure of the breath. I did try that.
By 1970 I met Swami Muktananda Paramahansa at an interesting meeting with Ram Dass, Muktananda, and Satchidananda, all of them sitting up on the altar at Universalist Church, Central Park. Swami M. invited me to come down to Dallas. I had nothing better to do, so I went down to Dallas, registered in the hotel where he was staying, and then he had the sense to say, “What kind of practice do you know, or do you have practice?” I said, “No, I don’t.” He said, “Why don’t you go to your room and sit and meditate using a mantra GURU OM at your heart level, using that on your breath.”
I was relieved. I had thought he was going to exploit me or parade me in front of his Dallas disciples as an asset of some sort, but instead he suggested that I go to my room and stay by myself and sit. That was a tremendous relief; I suddenly realized that I had a practice finally.
I did that, and he would come in and check me out every once in a while. I think he comes from the same related lineage as the Vajrayana practitioners. I remember once he invited me into his room where he was having a darshan with some students and giving them chocolate cookies. Donald Duck was on the television, and suddenly he turned and offered a cookie to Donald Duck. Somehow, I got the idea of emptiness out of that.
I ran into the Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa in 1970 on the street, coming from a poetry book-signing party on 47th Street. I had brought my poet father Louis to meet Snyder for the first time. This was a big meeting, since it was already many years since my father had read Snyder’s work and knew his influence on me.
My father was over seventy years old and couldn’t move very well. It was a New York summer, really hot, and as we went out on the street toward the Port Authority to get him back to New Jersey, I realized that he was going to faint. We got to 43rd and 6th and I saw this Asian gent hailing a taxicab with a bearded friend. I stepped in front of them and said, “May I borrow your vehicle?” which was an odd word to use—you know, the three vehicles of Buddhism—but it was a word.
Writing could be seen as “writing your mind.” You don’t have to make anything up. All you have to do is tap into the immediate mind of the moment—what are you thinking about?—and just note it down.
The friend, named Kunga Dawa, said, “Are you Allen Ginsberg?” and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “This is Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.” So I bowed and said, “OM AH HUM VAJRA GURU PADMA SIDDHI HUM,” the Padmasambhava mantra I’d learned the week before from Gary Snyder. Years later I said to Trungpa, “What did you think of that?” and he said he wondered whether I knew what I was talking about. So we exchanged addresses, and I got my father to the Port Authority in the cab.
About a month or two later, I got an invitation to visit with Trungpa Rinpoche at a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side. We sat down and Kunga Dawa, at Trungpa’s side, offered me a joint of marijuana—skillful means, I thought—and I was amazed that Trungpa was that much of a bohemian, or that supple-minded. So I smoked a little—he didn’t but Kunga did—and then he gave me his Sadhana of Mahamudra, which he offered as a poem for me to read and critique.
He asked me to read it aloud as a way of hooking me into his mind-beam. It’s a very great poem, a long poem. The refrain, “Although I live in the slime and muck of the dark age, I still aspire to see your face,” is repeated over and over in different stanzas, which appealed to my romantic heart. I really liked it, as both a religious document and as a poem, and went through the entire thing, which takes a half hour, and made friends with him.
A while later, in 1971, we had a really interesting meeting in San Francisco. I had made a date to meet at his motel. When I got there, everybody was late. Then I heard a noise outside, and I saw him with two disciples, stumbling totally drunk up the stairs. He was so drunk that his pants got caught on a nail and ripped. He got into the room, and his wife was angry at him. She had a new little baby and was pissed off that he was drunk in the middle of the afternoon.
I sat down with my harmonium. I saw his itinerary of talks and wondered, “Don’t you get tired of that?” I was on the road, and I was getting a little bored and fatigued traveling. He said, “That’s because you don’t like your poetry.” I said, “What do you know about poetry?” He said, “Why don’t you do like the great poets do, like Milarepa? You’re bored with reading the same poems over and over. Why don’t you make poems up on the stage? Why do you need a piece of paper? Don’t you trust your own mind?”
Actually, that was some very good advice, the same advice given me by Kerouac many years before. It was right in the groove of everything I had been learning but coming from another direction entirely—the insight or mind-consciousness of a well-trained meditator and specialist, a kind of genius meditator.
Then I showed him mantras I had been chanting and playing, and he put his paw, drunk, on the harmonium keys and said, “Remember, the silence is just as important as the sound.”
We went out to supper and got more drunk, and he said, “Why are you hiding your face? I’d like to see your face. Why do you have that big beard?” I had a big sixties beard, hung over into the seventies, and I said, “If you’ll stop drinking, I’ll shave my beard right this minute.” I went into the drugstore, bought a razor, and shaved my beard. I came back and said, “Now you’ve got to stop drinking.” And he said, “That’s another matter. You didn’t shave your beard completely.” Because it was still in rough tufts.
We went off to his lecture, and I remember he was sitting very sadly in a chair, talking to this group of San Francisco hippies, saying, “No more trips, please, no more trips, no more trips.” Meaning whatever, acid, but also spiritual materialist trips, the accumulation of Blakean experiences for the purpose of impressing other people as credentials of one’s own sanctity or accomplishment. It was probably the series of lectures called “Buddhadharma Without Credentials.”
I read Rinpoche Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. He said, “It’s a perfect manifestation of mind.”
At this lecture I continued shaving and I came back out again, and he asked me to improvise. “This is Allen Ginsberg, the great poet. Now we are going to have him improvise.” I couldn’t think of anything: “Here we are in the middle of June/I just ate with you and I had a spoon/and we were talking about the moon.” Actually, walking on the way over he’d said, “America is not ready for the full moon,” meaning full doctrine, I think, full dharma. And I said, “That shouldn’t dismay the moon.”
I tried improvising but I didn’t do very well, and he said, “You are too smart.” But the next day I had a regular poetry reading at the Berkeley Community Theater as a benefit for Tarthang Tulku, and I resolved that I would go on stage without any paper at all, but I did bring the harmonium and improvised something like:
“How sweet to be born in America where we have like a devaloka where the god world is here and we have all the watermelons we want to eat and everybody else is starving around the world, but how sweet to be here in the heaven world which may last for a little bit of time but how sweet to be born.” It was a bittersweet song, it was still at the height of the war. So it’s “how sweet to be born in America where we’re dropping bombs on somebody else but not on ourselves.”
I’ve forgotten because it was improvised, but it actually did me a lot of good, his prompting, because from then on I was never scared to get up on stage even if I’d left my poetry back on the train or something. It was always a workable situation from then on.
A year later I was invited to Boulder to do a poetry reading to raise money for the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center. Trungpa, Robert Bly, Gary Snyder—whom Trungpa had not met—and I were all going to read at a big auditorium, the first big reading in Boulder for dharma.
We were lined on stage and we had been joined by a sort of desert rat-Japanese-Zen-lunatic-poet-meditator Nanao Sakaki, a great character and good meditator and a really great Japanese poet, an old friend of Gary’s and mine from the sixties in Kyoto. I was going to do some singing GATE GATE, and we each chanted our own version of Prajnaparamita: Gary, the regular Japanese, “Kanji Zai Bo Satsu Gyogin Han Nya Ha Ra Mi Ta Ji…” and then Nanao a long KAAANNJJII using an extended breath, a beautiful hollow voice, and Trungpa Rinpoche almost in pedestrian offhand Tibetan. I did a version that I had worked out from Suzuki Roshi’s English telegraphese translation.
First Robert Bly read. Trungpa was drunk, as ever, and while Bly was reading, he did something very strange. He picked up the big gong and he put it over his head while Bly was reading. Bly couldn’t see because we were all lined up parallel, so he didn’t see what was going on there. The audience was tittering a little bit and I leaned over and said to Trungpa, “You shouldn’t do that. They’re making a benefit for you, they’ve come here to do you a favour. You shouldn’t be carrying on like that.” And he said, “If you think I’m doing this because I’m drunk, you’re making a big mistake.”
Then Gary Snyder read, and while he was reading Trungpa Rinpoche took the gong and put it on my head. So I just sat there figuring, well, he must know what he’s doing, or if he doesn’t, I don’t, so I’m not going to get in the way. I’m not the host, I don’t have to worry about it, though Gary was a friend of mine. After it was over then I read, and he didn’t do anything. I asked later why not and he said, “Because you don’t know what you’re doing.”
A couple of weeks later I asked him why he had done that, and he said, “Well, Bly was presenting Robert Bly—a big ham, so to speak. Gary Snyder was presenting Gary Snyder as sort of the finished Zen product. You know, neat and perfect and proper shoes and all of that.” He said that the people in the audience were his students and he didn’t want them to get the wrong idea of what was the ideal version of a poet. Later, he wrote a spontaneous poem saying Robert Bly presented Robert Bly, Gary Snyder presented Gary Snyder, Ginsberg was Ginsberg, but only Trungpa was the original drunken poet. That was the kind of original take I had on poetry from him.
That year we gave a reading in New York, this time with Anne Waldman and William Burroughs and Rinpoche and myself, and afterward I drove up with him to Karmê-Chöling, the retreat center in Vermont, then called Tail of the Tiger. On the way back, I read him through Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, ’cause it’s a four- or five-hour ride. He kept laughing all the way at Kerouac’s humor. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s a very good book of freestyle poetry, and when we got to New York, he got out of the car and said, “It’s a perfect manifestation of mind.”
I was really amazed because Kerouac had been attacked for that book by Kenneth Rexroth—somewhat an accomplished scholar and Buddhist-oriented—as a book that “separates the men from the boys,” and Kerouac was just “an amateur boy that didn’t know what he was doing”—that he was making a slapdash pastiche. All the San Francisco poets loved that book for its spontaneity and quick mind and quick notation of mind, but it was widely attacked and considered as a beatnik jerk-off. Now here was a very accomplished lama saying “perfect manifestation of mind,” and his understanding and appreciation was amazing to me.
The next day he said he couldn’t forget that voice, mine or Kerouac’s or Anne’s, or the style, and that it had changed his style of poetry from more formal Tibetan five-seven-nine syllable verse form to more international freestyle spontaneous dictated English. He asked me to be his poetry teacher and I asked him to be my meditation teacher, and so we made a kind of exchange, of which I think I got the better in the bargain.
A year later, he invited me to attend and teach some poetry at his first seminary, which is a three-month retreat, and at that point I heard a detailed exposition of path of individual liberation, Mahayana, and Vajrayana styles and practices—a detailed map, not the actual practices, but a map with all the different stages of Vajrayana yoga. A little while thereafter I began doing the foundation practices for the Kagyu lineage.
While I was sitting, I had an idea for a poem but I didn’t want to interrupt my sitting. We were doing shamatha/vipashyana on the breath, and I had this fantasy that my breath was going out the window and over the mountain into Idaho and across the desert to San Francisco, and then the zephyr was going under the Bay Bridge, and then maybe a little tornado out in the Pacific and breeze in Guam and a typhoon in the China sea and an airplane flying through the clouds over Cambodia Angor Wat all the way through to papers scattered by the wind by the Wailing Wall, and the Sunday Times lifting and settling in the breeze at Trafalgar Square or Picadilly, and then a breeze across the Atlantic across Labrador a cold wind and finally at the end, the breath coming back around the world where we were in Teton Village in Wyoming, the last line being “a calm breath, a slow breath breathes outward from the nostril.”
“Mind Breaths” was the title of the poem, and I asked, is it legitimate to write poetry about meditation? He said, well, most poetry about meditation is shit, because people are just repeating their neuroses in a sense, or writing out their complications, rather than some objective description of the mind. So this is all right because it actually describes the process of meditation—it comes back like returning to the breath. He gave me a sort of encouragement to consider poetics and meditation as related activities of scanning the mind in a sense. Related activities of observing mind and observing breath, observing space and observing the mind.
As I was still in those days dungareed and black-shirted, Trungpa suggested also that I try a white shirt on, and I said why? He said, well, see how people treat you, see if they treat you any differently. I was not sure because I thought, well, it takes a lot of money to get shirts cleaned, and so he said, well, wash them yourself. So I went to the Salvation Army and bought about a dozen white shirts (for twenty-five cents each in those days in the early seventies in Boulder) and tried them on, and I found that people treated me slightly differently, more trusting.
I began noticing the three-piece-suit sartorial manners of his Vajra Guards, his dharmapalas, and I decided, well, I’ll try some more elegant clothes. I went to the Salvation Army and bought all sorts of Brooks Brothers suits and pretty soon was all dressed up like a professor. And people treated me nicely befitting my age.
Trungpa sat at with myself and Cage and Waldman and Diane di Prima asking us to take part in founding a poetics school. So we took that responsibility, particularly Anne Waldman, and that was a whole education in itself.
In ’74 Trungpa invited myself, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, John Cage, Gregory Bateson, Ram Dass, and others to Boulder to try a summer school, like a big smorgasbord festival, everybody all mixed up, and instead of a hundred or two hundred people we had about twelve hundred people registering.
So there was this enormous dharma culture explosion that took place, and after the summer was over, Trungpa sat at a round table with myself and Cage and Waldman and Diane di Prima asking us to take part in founding a poetics school. So we took that responsibility, particularly Anne Waldman, and that was a whole education in itself. Trungpa’s conception was that there were many varieties of practices for a kind of international tantra or international Mahayana that could be adapted to an American style of Buddhism based on the Tibetan insights. It would make use of the American genius for certain things, which he saw in poetry particularly, and to some extent in painting and music, to transform those or alchemize those, paint them gold. That was his particular genius as a teacher, and as a teacher of teachers.
Speech unites the impalpable heaven—mind, thoughts—with the physiological body-breath.
The next interesting encounter—I’m trying to remember the pith exchanges that we had—was in 1976, when Vajradhatu decided to buy a building in Boulder. He gathered the whole sangha together to give a big lecture about how we are now citizens of America, we’re establishing Buddhism in America, and we have to have property, and we shouldn’t be cultivating what he called Ginsberg resentments.
I was up in the balcony. Ginsberg resentment, what is he talking about? I remember I resented it terribly. After it was all over, I went down ’cause I didn’t really have any objection to his buying a building, I had property of my own already, and I said, “Ginsberg resentment is Mukpo dumbness”—Mukpo is his family name—and he said, “Oh, I thought dumbness was a sign of genius in your vocabulary.” Which was true. In the little vocabulary that Kerouac and I had, we would talk about dumb Harpo Marx saints, and I realized at the moment that I was resentful, and I realized what a well of resentment I had within me. He had pointed out that one specific thing that I really had to work with.
In 1978 I had my picture on the front page of the magazine section of the Denver paper, and we ran into each other and he said, “Oh, I saw your picture in the paper, are you proud?” And I thought that was a baited question, but I didn’t know quite how to answer, but I said, “Well, the word never entered my mind,” and he said, “Well, you should be proud, you’ve worked very hard, you’ve worked for a very long time, you’ve done something, you should take pride in it. Be doubtless. Go ahead and do it, and not be hesitant about what you’re doing as a poet, or teaching poetry, or reciting poetry.” That was a kind of funny pat on the back or encouragement to take myself seriously as a poet, or take the poetry seriously if not myself, to take the function or role of poet—as he would define it in Shambhala Training—as a kind of warriorship where you do face the phenomenal world and make your proclamation into that space.
Trungpa Rinpoche had all sorts of ideas of poetics that interested me.
He had all sorts of ideas of poetics that interested me, partly in the Shambhala tradition, such as the notion of speech, or sambhogakaya, uniting heaven and earth, as in the traditional Taoist view that the emperor unites heaven and earth. That is, speech unites the impalpable heaven—mind, thoughts—with the physiological body-breath. So the body provides the palpable breath, the mind provides the impalpable thoughts, and the speech unifies them.
His phrase would be, speech synchronizes—proper speech synchronizes body and mind. He saw poetry as proclamation from the seat, from your seat or from your zafu or from your throne or from your chair as teacher, or from you chair as meditator or your chair as a human being or a Vajrayana student.
Poetry as unhesitating and doubtless proclamation. Proclamation of what? Proclamation of the actual mind, manifesting your mind, writing the mind, which goes back to Kerouac but also goes back to Milarepa, goes back to his original instructions: Don’t you trust your own mind? Why do you need a piece of paper?
So writing could be seen as “writing your mind.” In other words, you don’t have to make anything up, you don’t have to fabricate anything, you don’t have to fix up something to say, which causes writer’s block. All you have to do is tap into the immediate mind of the moment—what are you thinking about?—and just note it down, or observe your own mind, or observe what’s vivid coming to mind.
Where do you start? Well, with the chaos of your mind. How do you do it? Just tap into it and write what’s there in minute, particular detail. For the purpose of relieving your own paranoia and others’, revealing yourself and communicating to others. It is a blessing for other people if you can communicate and relieve their sense of isolation, confusion, bewilderment, and suffering by offering your own mind as a sample of what’s palpable, visible, and whatever little you’ve learned.
After Trungpa Rinpoche’s death in 1986, I guess it must have been 1989 or so, Philip Glass and I got together. Philip was a Buddhist from a long time back, with a good deal more experience than myself in a long steady relationship with a teacher. He’d been asked by his teacher, Domo Geshe Rinpoche, to help his friend Gehlek Rinpoche and do a benefit for Rinpoche’s Jewel Heart Center.
So I came out to Ann Arbor with Philip and we were greeted at the airport by Gehlek Rinpoche, who immediately struck me because he had the same, or similar, voice as Trungpa, and it turned out that they were friends, which I hadn’t known, and had actually begun learning English together and shared a room when they were young, when they first came out of India. So there was like a family relationship, and apparently Trungpa Rinpoche, a Kagyu, had invited the old enemy lineage, the Gelugpa, to visit and teach at Naropa. I thought that if Trungpa felt he was trustworthy, then I could trust him.
What do I do when it’s time to kick the bucket? Where do I put my mind?
How long is the world going to be able to maintain itself in the present rate of decay, destruction, muck, and slime of the dark ages?
I began a friendship with Gehlek Rinpoche that also involved a series of conversations that slightly altered my attitudes and refined my understanding of where I was at and what to do. One of the first things I was interested in—by this time getting on in age, sixty-five at the time—was Gehlek Rinpoche’s first answer was, well, cultivate a sense of openness, perhaps some emptiness; recur to the meditation practice you’re most familiar with; cultivate some sense of sympathy or compassion for all sentient beings, and perhaps recollect your teacher’s face.
I thought that was pretty good; I’d had lots of experience with shamatha/vipashyana over the years. Then I remembered that a drowning man still has eight minutes before the brain goes dead—you can resuscitate a drowning man eight minutes after he’s stopped breathing—and I suddenly realized, wait a minute, what happens after I stop breathing? What do I do with my mind then? Because shamatha depends on the breath. So what do I do then?
I went back, and he laughed and said, “Well…” and I said, “What about emptiness?” And he said, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t put all my eggs in that one basket.” So he suggested the teacher’s face as one thing I could grasp onto, and compassion, whatever combination I could get, but the teacher’s face seemed to be the most available. [Yelled from the audience: "Although I live in the slime and muck of the dark age, I still aspire to see your face.”] Yes, I still desire to see your face, even in the muck and slime of these dark ages, I still desire to see your face, so that seems to be both a last resort and at the same time a romantic first resort, for a last glimpse.
Another question arose: how long is the world going to be able to maintain itself in the present rate of decay, destruction, muck, and slime of the dark ages? If civilization’s not going to be around that long, certainly not my books or records, what’s the use of poetry? What function has poetry got if the world is going to hell in a handbasket? Gehlek Rinpoche’s answer was really great and clear: the relief of suffering, the relief of mass human suffering.
That instruction or direction is a good compass for any vocation, but it’s particularly applicable to the rudderless poet who is shifting from preservation of his own ego or projection of immortality or the romance of being a poet, to an activity that functions well for other people. There is a bodhisattva aspect of poetry, particularly when you combine it with the notion of poetry as proclamation. So:
proclamation of original mind
proclamation of primordial mind
proclamation of your candid mind
proclamation of your own chaos
proclamation of your own uncertainty
proclamation of your own fragility
proclamation of your own sensitivity
proclamation of your own cheerful neurosis, so to speak, a cheerful attitude toward your nature, which fits in well with the meditation-practice suggestion to take a friendly attitude toward your thoughts rather than try to push them away—“invite them to tea,” merely observe them with a friendly attitude, and that can be applied to poetics, taking a friendly attitude toward your thoughts, and when you catch yourself thinking, if you have an interesting and vivid thought, notating it, particularly the sequence of thoughts that might lead other people to notice their own mind.
In other words, if you can show your mind it reminds people that they have got a mind. If you can catch yourself thinking, it reminds people they can catch themselves thinking. If you have a vivid moment that’s more open and compassionate, it reminds people that they have those vivid moments.
By showing your mind as a mirror, you can make a mirror for other people to recognize their own minds and see familiarity and not feel that their minds are unworthy of affection or appreciation. Basically, poetics is appreciation of consciousness, appreciation of our own consciousness.
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