Following Spiritual Poetics, which we’ve been serializing these past two weeks, here’s another unpublished transcript from those times, Duncan Campbell’s 1974 radio interview with Allen. Allen discusses the history of Buddhism and the Beats (pre Naropa), and much else. The interview has been broken down into two parts. The second part will run tomorrow.
Duncan Campbell: Welcome to “Open Secret”. This is a series of discussions that is being recorded in Boulder, Colorado, at Naropa Institute, and I’ve just been talking with Allen Ginsberg who’s here, teaching a course on “Spiritual Poetics”. Allen’s latest book, “The Fall of America“, won the National Book Award in 1973, and, for the last four years, he has been a student of (Chogyam) Trungpa, Rinpoche who is the founder of the Naropa Institute. I thought that one of the things that’s interesting about you being here, Allen, is that, in a sense, it seems like a kind of full-circle from years and years ago, in the ’40’s, when you were out here in Denver with Neal Cassady and (Jack) Kerouac, and now you’re back in Boulder. I wonder how that makes you feel?
AG: Nostalgic. Triumphant. Because many of the mind glimpses in American perceptions and intuitions that we were having then were very similar in nature to the transmitted teachings of Trungpa’s school of whispered transmission. We were always whispering in each others ear then, but whispering secret perceptions that we had about, the illusory nature of the sky-line of Denver, say, or the stage-like appearance of the facades of the buildings, or the insubstantial aspect of city streets when you come out of the movies and suddenly realize that you’ve been in another world and that this world has come back together like after a dream. Plus the realization of mortality – that existence is death also, that life is death. In fact, in a preface to Kerouac’s “Visions of Cody”, written in (19)51, ‘2, or ‘3, that was published last year, I wrote a long essay (reading the book again, notes on reading it), recalling that some of those gleams of native perception were amazingly ripe then, and would later come to be known in America as whispered transmission. So we had our own primitive Buddhism, of a kind – a lot through (Neal) Cassady (because he was a very speedy person). His particular speed was speed of mind-recollection, and he used to talk about how “we are having this conversation, but this conversation is going on (at) seven layers at once – now, the first level is just a conversation about the car, driving back-and-forth, between LuAnne‘s house and your house, where we’re going to make love, but then, the second level, remember, was that we were thinking about when we were going to get to go to work (because we all had to work), and the third level was that we were all here in Denver for the first time together, and Jack was expected any day – and the fourth level, was the fact that none of us had any money (so we have to think about that too, while we’re in bed making love), and the fifth level, was that we have a lot of friends from Denver to see – and that was all referred to in the conversation four sentences back, if you remember, if you hearken back to what we were saying four sentences back”. So he would sometimes babble on, actually, retro-specting the entire mind-consciousness involved in our conversations, and then pointing out, also, the moments of sixth-level, of (the fact that) nobody had anything to say and (that) there was a big gap in-between the words and everyone was saying “hmmm”. And the seventh level was that we were all here together in the same place. So, well, I mean, I was just making it up, but I do remember, back in (19)48, him talking about a sort of naive introspective system that he spontaneously came up with one day, of recalling that there were (at least) six or seven levels of awareness in any split-second thought. So there was already a search for the basis of the mind and a search into the mind, and that was the basis of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose, to exploit and explore present consciousness, during the time of writing. And it was also the basis of Neal’s interest in driving – the princely power to drive a car, pay attention to everything that was going on in the road, pay attention to everything that had to be done in the car, pay attention to who needed a cigarette in the car, simultaneously carrying on a conversation with someone in the back who was worried about getting home on time, and simultaneously feeling-up his girlfriend..
DC: And going 11o miles an hour.
AG:..who had her dress up to her knees in the front seat and simultaneously keeping his eye out for a gas station, where he could steal some gas. So there was always the preoccupation with present moment immediacy, now-ness, with a kind of mellow fore-knowledge of the fact that it was all to be extincted and doomed and wiped-out in the blink of an eye, that there was an element of illusion, and, finally, that there was a possibility of some moment when everything was going on at once and all elements of thought and speech and perception and music on the radio are apprehended at once, and that the whole thing would be in one cosmic swinging symphonic jazz chorus.
DC: So where did you take it from there?
DC: Right away?
AG: Death and India. Well, I mean, a lot of people died, and I went off to India.
DC: When did you first go to India?
AG: (19)62. Well, we took it from there to “Beat Generation” – which is to say, the collapse of formal mind in America and an opening of informal mind, actual mind – which is what that meant, that phrase, among other things, with the implication of “beatific” somewhere, as Kerouac always pointed out.
DC: How did you first get into Buddhism? Was it Kerouac that first began to pick up on those things?
AG: No, no, it was Cassady that began studying Edgar Cayce, in the (19)50’s (’48,’49,’50), as a result of smoking lots and lots and lots of grass and splitting his mind up into a million fragments, and having recall of previous lifetimes. He ran into Cayce’s works and systems, which Kerouac was digusted at. He (Kerouac) wrote me letters saying, “Neal is spouting endlessly about this guy, Edgar Cayce, like Billy Sunday in a suit, or something, all of a sudden.Instead of being a railroad conductor, he’s talking about reincarnation, and six lifetimes before, and the simultaneous perception of six, seven lifetimes”, just like he was talking about seven layers of thought. And so Jack went to the San Jose Public Library to look up Dwight Goddard’s Buddhist Bible, to check back on the original sources of theories of reincarnation, particularly that Neal was transmuting and transmitting through Cayce, and through his own sort of funny Proustian total-recall mind (Proust was part of that too, incidentally. Cassady was very good at reading Proust aloud, because a single sentence of Proust, beginning with Baron Guermantes’ curled French 1910 hairstyle and settling in on a gleam of a lock of hair. Proust would go through history and bring his sentence back to the hanging gardens of Babylon as the image of his hair). Neal appreciated Proust’s High Style (as Eliot appeciated Milton‘s), as being able to include a jump in mind from Heaven all the way to the bottom of Hell and in-between, in one, long, syntactically-coherent, phrasing.
DC: Did Neal himself ever then get into Buddhism in any way?
AG: Oh, in and out. But the Buddhism that Jack first discovered was somewhat Hinayana-Catholic…
DC: Yeah, I remember, there’s this description…
AG: …so there’s still a God, sort of – sort of, not quite, but sort of.
DC: There’s that one period where he wasn’t balling (sic), I think, because he didn’t want to bring sentient beings into the world of suffering.
AG: Right. Well, I still agree with that – sort of. That’s good. A good line, anyway.
DC: Well, when you say Hinayana-Catholic, what tradition was that?
AG: Well, that’s worshipping Buddha…
DC: Ah ha
AG:.. rather than an atheistical version. And lots of rules – like, “don’t eat cheese”, or something!
DC: Well, was it Theravadan, or what sources was he working with?
AG: Well, whatever there was in The Buddhist Bible. I don’t know what texts there were, but I think there were texts on, you know, “don’t eat until after the noon” and “don’t let your thought wander”, and “follow your breath”, or “examine the mind itself, the skandas and the conceptions of impermanence and the Noble Truths. Regulatory Buddhism, you know, school-book Buddhism.
DC: When did the image of bodhisattva begin to emerge?
AG: I think Kerouac knew it, but I thnk it took more place in our thought when we ran into Gary Snyder in (19)55, which is just two years, three years, later, in San Francisco. Gary was also Buddhist, but practicing meditative Mahayanist..
DC: Japanese Zen tradition
AG: …studying Zen, yeah, and he had already studied Chinese and Japanese languages and was finishing off his study of the languages at Berkeley, and preparing to go to Japan to study in
Daitoku-ji under the auspicies of the First Zen Institute of America. He had a scholarship from Ruth Sasaki, who had been married to Roshi (Sokei-an Shigetsu) Sasaki, (who had originally come to the United States in 1893 for the World Parliament of Religions with two other Zen masters, and accompanied by a secretary, D.T.Suzuki, who spoke English well [editor’s note: not exactly, Allen is confusing Sokei-an Shigetsu with Soyen Shaku, Suzuki’s Zen Master here]). With Gary there was this connection with the ancient lineage, with the tradition and the actual formal framework of Buddhism, whereas ours was all sort of intuitive, night-ride hallucinations and realization at dawn that everything which we were was insubstantial.
DC: I remember that one line in Earth House Hold, I think, where Gary Snyder wrote, “There comes a time when a poet must choose either to go all the way out with the possibility of some sort of beautiful transcendence or dying wormishly like a dog, or steeping himself deeply in the tradition of his own country or his own writing”, or whatever. It seemed that was kind of nicely put. What do you think about that?
AG: I don’t know
DC: Do you really think there is that kind of black-and-white sort of choice?
AG: No. I’m not a triplicatist or a dualist, though I think what Gary has done has been remarkable. He’s chosen to steep himself in the woods and the American Indian tradition and sort of unify that and Buddhism – because old Buddhism was woodsy Buddhism, after all – mountain hermits and people chopping their own fire-wood and wearing animal skins and meditating in caves and communing with nature on a mountain, or just creating the space to sit by going to the mountain, where the vibes of the city were less aggressive. But I didn’t hear about the Mahayana bodhisattva idea until Gary’s presence. I was amazed to find another Buddhist. So I thought “Kerouac’s coming to town, they’ve got to meet”, because Gary sits and he’s a practicing Buddhist, and Jacks been on(to) Buddhism – and I’ve been resisting it and resenting it all along. I had been, somewhat, because of the idea of nothing coming from nothing, and nothing is nothing (which was Jack’s reduction of it all) – nothing’s nothing, nothing comes from nothing, and that’s that. So don’t excite your vanity by thinking you’re going to make something.
DC: Was this about the time that Jack had written that poem about the rose garden, where he was sniffing the rises and he had kind of a white-out vision?
AG: Yeah, I think that had occurred before, he had already written that.
DC: But was it, that was in a sense what you’re talking about – that nothing-comes-from-nothing kind of a visionary thing?
AG: For that, but for him it was more. He had sat and watched his father die (just like Buddha had gone out on the road and seen an old beggar dying on the road). Jack had an example of death in front of him, of the shrinking of the mortal rose, and the complete eradication and abolishment of any notion of vanity, or person, or self, as he saw his father’s belly fill with water and he had to empty it every night and grumble and complain and die, sort of starkly, on his bed, with a bony nose, and life depart(ing), the whole dream over. So Jack got a signal that the dream was over already. So, actually, his phrasing at the time was, “Life is a dream already ended”. It’s very beautiful, actually, and it’s quite true, I think. Buddhist poetics – “Life is a dream already ended”. So he was saying that it all ends up in golden ash. All our, all our Empire State Buildings end in golden ash. Gary introduced a much more formal Mahayana and bodhisattva framework that he got from his studies from language, and his actual practice, and his reading of Suzuki, and contact with some natural Zen practitioners.
DC: And also, I think, had he not been reading the Chinese, um Zen, poems of Han-Shan.
AG: Yeah, he’d already translated those, he was in the middle of translating them. So Jack’s Buddhism was directly from the experience of pain, the First Noble Truth of existence. Beginning with his father’s death, mostly, I think, though he already had a very early awareness of the fact that we were all mortal, and mortal kewpie dolls, wandering on the stage, trying to patch together our vanities, trying to make an existence when it was all going to be wiped out.
He saw the primitive tragedy of the scene, and, by 1951, he was saying that the center of America is a lonely back-alley behind the stores and movie-houses, where the red bricks at midnight in the moonlight are totally solitary, with no observer – which is somewhat similar to Chogyam (Trungpa)’s photographs of totally unobserved corners of the room, or flowers in solitude, without an eye.
DC: What was it about Buddhism that began to pick up the interest of more and more poets at that point?
AG: Two things. First, the concept of satori – because all of us had some form or other of enlightened mind, or visionary apprehension, or religious experience of a sudden kind, like Kerouac describes in his Scripture of a Golden Eternity – and like I’ve described in some interviews – like sort of meeting in (William) Blake‘s presence, or a meeting with the Ancient of Days, so to speak – Snyder experienced something similar in 1948, same time as us, more or less, alone by the banks of the Willamette River, after finishing a big long intellectual history of Western Gnosticism, or anthropological cynicism, or.. I don’t know what he was writing about, but something to do with American Indians and peyote, and knowledge, and epistemolgy, and Western history, and ecology (which he was already interested in). So he had finished that about four in the morning, and gone down in the darkness, Portland, to the banks of the.. Willamette River, is it?
DC: I’m not sure
AG: … (anyway) (he) went down into a gully, with a lot of trees, and there was total dead silence (pre-dawn), sat there, and while he was in a sort of ground-study, observing the deadness of all creation around him (or the complete inanimacy of creation around him) and complete moveless-ness, thousands of birds suddenly creaked over riverside hill, birds rose up out of all the branches of the trees, a great noisy flock rising at dawn, and he suddenly realized, “Everything’s alive! the entire universe is alive!”. So he had some special satori, of a kind.
Actually, I read about the word “satori” in Suzuki, in the New York Public Library, and that seemed to be the right-fitting word for what I had actually experienced. Then I got interested in Buddhism (though I didn’t see the connections, and I didn’t see the more sophisticated later considerations that satori was irrelevant, actually, and the vision was irrelevant, and you shouldn’t cling to it, and all that stuff). So we’d all had some experience of, I think at the time the phrasing I used was “a break in the continuity of normal consciousness and a new mode of consciousness”. That, coinciding with a complete break in the continuity of normal consciousness in post-war America, and the beginning of a violent apocalyptic ecological run-down and degeneration of social conscience here, and the increasing sort of Nazification and robotization of thought and television permeating everywhere. (William) Burroughs, of course, was always into a Faustian exploration of his mind, beginning, say, as a sort of searcher of souls and cities, a searcher of the void, as an exterminator in Chicago, and playing around with drugs for seeing different modalities of consciousness, an interest in (Wilhelm) Reich, an interest in a system of progressive relaxation that was still being practiced after that, through the instructions of a doctor named (Edmund) Jacobson. Progressive Relaxation was a sort of meditation exercise – relaxing your arm(s), your skull, your eyes, all the way down to your toes, in corpse posture. Burroughs was also interested in the difference between language and apprehension, so Korzybski’s Science and Sanity (which I noticed the other day in the Karma Dzong Library). In fact, that was one of the first books he handed me to read, simply pointing out the difference between words and the things they represent. We had a koan – a friend of mine and I got into a big discussion about if you carved a beautiful walking-stick on the moon and left it there and nobody ever saw it, is it art or not? In other words, is art communicative or not? So if your walking-stick is on the moon, is it art or not? And we couldn’t figure it out so we finally brought it to Burroughs, and he said, “I’ve never heard such a ridiculous argument! – a walking-stick on the moon! – You‘ve created this verbal construction. How do you want to call it? If you want to call it art, it’s art, if you don’t call it art, it isn’t art – it’s only a word. You’ve got yourself confused with words”. It’s very similar to the Zen koan of you’ve got a full-grown goose in a bottle and how do you get the goose out of the bottle without breaking the bottle or wounding or injuring the goose? Do you know that koan?
DC: I’ve heard of it, yeah.
AG: Do you know the answer
DC: I don’t remember the answer, I’ve got one that occurs to me
AG: Well Burroughs gave the answer (claps his hands – “it’s out!”)
DC: That’s what I mean, That’s what I…
AG: The same way you put it in, it;s out. You put it in with words. You can take it out with gesture or words, too. So we already had a sort of funny personal practice. Burroughs also had been psychoanalyzed at great length by Dr. Paul Federn, who is one of Freud’s descendants, who had been analyzed by Freud. In those years, Burroughs analyzed me, for about a year, and Jack as well. He was then going, by then, to Dr. Louis Walbergen (?), who was practicing hypno-analysist. So there’s a lot of mixing around with levels of consciousness, and levels of character, and character between character, and how we all contain many, many characters and you can play charades. I was a well-groomed Hungarian, and Burroughs was the loose bull-dyke-lesbian baroness from Hungary, and those later sort of worked themselves up into funny routines, with Jack being like a kid with a straw hat at the circus being led around into trouble by the well-groomed Hungarian, who takes him to the baroness, who wants to fuck him, or get his money, marry him for his Texas money. All those became routines, similar to the first routines of Naked Lunch. Naked Lunch grew out of that play between us.
DC: Oh, alright
AG: In 1946 and ’47, I had the phrase, “Supreme Reality” as my goal – that was, we were all looking for Supreme Reality (with a capital S and a capital R). We used to write poems about Supreme Reality, until I had this breakthrough vision which shattered all my language. This is all preliminary. By (19)51, Kerouac had formulated his Buddhist notions and had written a big book of several years’ study, called Some of the Dharma, consisting of haiku and comments on (The) Suryanama Sutra, The Diamond Sutra, Lankavatarya Sutra, and Hinayana texts on some Tibetan Buddhist practices. I remember he got a little phrase in one of his poems, “Dakmema, mother of Buddhas”, and I never knew who Dakmema was, and so I started reading The Life of Marpa, and I realized it was Marpa’s wife, and that made my mother a Buddhist. So Jack knew all that, or goes into it in some way or another, knew Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi or all that terminology, and had some idea of gradations of realizations and also that it didn’t make any difference. So when we met Snyder, in (19)55, with the upsurge of San Francisco poetizing, it was all sort of codified more. By then we had the advantage of being able to draw on Snyder’s really elegant library and resources. Then (Philip) Whalen came to town, and Whalen was just as learned as Snyder in Buddhist texts, and so, by) (19)56, we were hanging around in a shack in Mill Valley, at the time of (The) Dharma Bums era for Kerouac and Snyder and discussing Suzuki’s translation of Lankavataraya Sutra, and comparing notes on it. Just doing it by ourselves, without any connection, except maybe Snyder, to any formal study.
DC: Or to a teacher, for that matter.
AG: Or to a teacher. There were no teachers then, hardly. Roshi Suzuki had come to America by then, but I’m not sure.
DC: I think it was in the late (19)50’s, or the early ’60’s, maybe ’60-’61, at the earliest, I think.
AG: So this was back in (19)55. Of course, there was some Gnostic tradition to go with through Kenneth Rexroth and the anarchist poetry circle in San Francisco, the Surrealist tradition of Gnosticism that Philip Lamantia knew a lot about, having lived with (Andre) Breton and other people in New York. And Rexroth had already written prefaces to Fragments of A Forgotten Faith, wasn’t it?, a Gnostic fragment, like a great classic compilation of Gnostic documents, and he knew all about that, and William Everson (Brother Antoninus) had already read and written a great deal about early church theosophical notions and there was a theosophical inheritance here – Gavin Arthur had been a friend of Meher Baba in the (19)20’s (Gavin Arthur of San Francisco, an astrologer, grandson of President Chester Arthur, and formally a newsboy on Sutter and Market). He was employed where the cable car comes down into Market. Gavin Arthur was part of a circle of elders around San Francisco – (Alan) Watts, (Gavin) Arthur. Watts was running the Asian Institute. Gary and I were going there occasionally. This was in the (19)50’s, but Arthur, getting back to Arthur, had known Edward Carpenter, who had known Walt Whitman, so there was some kind of transmission, and Sam Lewis was around…
DC: Sufi Sam Lewis, yeah.
AG: …with Gavin, so I saw a lot of Sam then, and got to be one of his first disciples in a way. We had a big exchange of correspondence and he asked me if he could be my guru, and I said, yes, certainly, and we never did anything, except he taught me “li-lay-la-ha lay-la-la-who” which I started chanting.
DC: So was that your first guru, in a sense, in any kind of spiritual way
AG: That was later because I’d been to India already and was already chanting. That was already the ’60’s, but there was that atmosphere back in San Francisco, around Gavin Arthur, particularly. Arthur was a great friend of Neal Cassady, slept with him all the time, or whenever Neal had nowhere to go he’d wind up in Gavin’s house, sort of falling asleep, exhausted, in his bed. There was at that time very little influence of Judaism or Hassidism or (Martin) Buber, until 1960. On the way to India with Peter Orlovsky we went to see Buber and talk with him about LSD, but that’s much later. The whole Beat, uh, Movement was already textualized and formulated and famous and we were getting out from under it and going to India. I resisted and resented the notion of “Nothingness” (or what I thought to be the negativity of Kerouac’s Buddhism – and there may have been a somewhat anti-life element in it, as he drank himself to death – like total fear of samsara). He didn’t want to leave his mother, he didn’t want to throw her to the dogs of eternity, like I did mine, he accused me. So he had this sort of horrific tragic vision of the First Noble Truth – and though there may have been a Third Noble Truth – that ignorance has an end, suffering has an end, I think he saw samsara on earth as endless, and unbreakable, in terms of a novelist, seeing people who go through crowny rosy careers and then crash in thorns and die, get ripped up in auto crashes. Also we had the experience of sudden death with a friend of ours in ’46, around Columbia. And experiences of jail very early. People, friends, going to jail, and the experience of what (Kenneth) Rexroth called “the social lie” – that is, what’s totally visible now (1974) with, say, Nixon’s tape things, the difference between public language as its presented to the public, and private thought and language as it’s really spoken. Out of that came the sudy of language, and private language, and spoken language, and street language and Okie language, and correlating work by William Carlos Williams, who was, in another way, doing exactly the same thing – just trying to live in the present, write about his own Rutherford speech forms and use his own tongue and his own mind, and not let his mind wander, but have a sort of single-point, single-mindedness, or one-pointedness, in relation to locale and place where he was, which fitted in, in a funny way. So it was like a real re-discovery of America, as in On the Road, of the actual body of America, as distinct from the patriotic songs and the war lachrymose. That’s why Cassady was so important to us because he was from, sort of, Denver, which seemed to be like the far West, as if we were Europeans. He was like the Western cowboy, the radiant, glorious cowboy, with Okie talk, and reformatories, and cattle, and cars, and reformatory sentimentalities, and high-school-teacher friends from Denver, and so it seemed like mid-American heartland speaking. When he was a kid, he’d gone to the library to get out of the cold, and read all through (Immanuel) Kant, and was really interested in epistemology at the time. But his big change was when we all met. He decided that poetry was more important than philosophy, because it was an enactment of philosophy. It was an active manifestation, rather than just thought-forms. So I guess we made our religion, poetry, or, we practiced our religion as poetry, and sought poetry as the sentimental, and also the practical, and also the prophetic, priestly life that we wanted to carry on in America, to save America.
DC: So poetry, in a sense, was the link between the ideas and daily life?
AG: It still is. It still is for me. It’s the practice of reflection, the practice of recall (of) what we were thinking – seven levels of thought and what was in-between them. So there are a lot of parallels between Buddhism as practiced now and poetics as practiced then, and that’s really why it was so potent, why the poetry was so potent at the time, because it really was sort of an examination of what actual present mind was, as distinct from what it was supposed to be, in the schools or in politics.