Buddhism and The Beats (Ginsberg 1993 – I – Introduction)

A real treat this weekend – with gratitude to Robyn Brentano and students from the NYU Ethnographic Film Program – “Buddhism and the Beats.”. “In 1993, Allen Ginsberg spoke to a gathering of students of the Tibetan Buddhist monk, Lobsang Samten, about the impact of Buddhist thought and practice on himself, the Beat writers, and American culture at large”. The full hour-and-a-half tape is transcribed below (continuing tomorrow, and with the Q & A session to be featured here next weekend)

AG: Well, good evening, Rinpoche [Lobsang Samten Rinpoche] and I met very recently at the house of an artist, the proprietor of The Gas Station, a poetry-art gallery, Osvaldo Ramirezand we took a long subway-ride home and then he invited me to come here and explain to you something of my own history in relation to Buddhism and poetics and the counter-culture that I come from, and somewhat represent, or misrepresent.   I’m coming here actually from a very interesting situation a few blocks north at the Life Café, where the twenty-fifth anniversary of Neal Cassady’s death (and I think the sixty-ninth anniversary of his birth), is being celebrated (him, being a very prescient, intelligent Westerner, who had a great awareness of his own mind, and so impressed Jack Kerouac with his speech and rapping, and influenced Kerouac’s prose. So it’s sort of like, Neal’s.. Neal Cassady’s attraction to a whole cabaret full of people, up the street, and a celebration that is going on now, relates somewhat to the subject that we’re considering.

Neal Cassady (1926-1968)

So I should go back and give you some of my own background. I was born in Paterson, New Jersey and my father was a poet, quite a good poet, traditional style (which was to say Lisette Woodworth-Reese, Elinor Wylie, Edward Arlington Robinson, Edna St Vincent Millay, Robert Frost), and so, young, I got absorbed into something of the sound., shabda, aspect of poetry and something of the kind of spiritual exaltation of the greater poems of (Percy Bysshe) Shelley, “The Ode to the West Wind”, (which is about spirit, about breath – “O wild west wind thou breath of Autumn’s being”  is the first line) and the ecstasies of Edgar Allan Poes “(The) Bells” and “The Raven”, and the melancholy and ghoulishness of “Annabel Lee” and the conscience of “Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado (if you know those – most people do, around the world, actually know Poe, as a kind of spiritual progenitor of paranoia, twentieth-century awareness and almost (a) Planet News).

So probably that’s my first spiritual experience is through poetry. But in 1945 I met a group of other young people (older than me), William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, when I was seventeen. And our conversation in those days was about having a New Vision or some kind of New Consciousness, actually (this is, say, 1945, after the splitting of the Atom, and the splitting of Civilization with the dropping of the Bomb – same year as the invention of LSD – synchronously).

Our own preoccupation was with poetry as a kind of Gnostic probe into New Consciousness, or a manifestation of New Consciousness, and we were interested, particularly, in Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell, in which he says “Progress! Science! The New Nobility! The world marches on. Why doesn’t it turn around?” [ “La science, la nouvelle noblesse ! Le progrès. Le monde marche ! Pourquoi ne tournerait-il pas] ? (a disdain for the mechanical bourgeois elements of scientism, which, later, people have noticed, the hyper-rationalistic science which, by its very obsessive rationalism, that is to say, with (Henry) Kissinger or the scholars of war,  brought the world to the edge of chaos),  whereas, as the alchemist, Harry Smith recently remarked, before his death, “Science leads to ecological degeneration or nuclear destruction. Science is a lie!” (which is a far…sort of a far-out statement, but it’s kind of the seed of..an interesting thought.) Anyway, we were inheriting, around 1945, that disillusion with Western Civilization (sparked, to some extent, by reading Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of The West, a book that traces the rise and fall of many dynasties, empires and histories) and we put the American Century (which was the sort of the.. media hype of the day) in that context, but were interested in kind of something that was more durable spiritually, so we looked for it in art (as, to some extent, I still do – dharma art, or art as dharma)

(William) Burroughs was interested in searching for the nature of some alternative reality, or some reality, or.. (Jack) Kerouac was interested in mortality (because he had seen his brother die when he was very young, and had sat with his father as his father died, and his best friend from high-school died in World War II). So Kerouac had experienced both dukkha and transitoriness very early, and was already ripe for some kind of renunciation of the world, in a sense, (or acceptance of the world as suffering, whichever way you want to look at it). And our friend (Neal) Cassady, around 1948, became involved with Edgar Cayce and the… what’s it called? – the Research and Enlightenment ?…Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach . So..does anybody here know who Cayce was or anything about him? – He’s pretty well-known. He was a sort of mythical American, mythic American primative..what.. provincial.. Spiritualist. And Cassady was a very intelligent guy (the man whom I was speaking of just before, we’re having a celebration of his birthday, the late Neal Cassady). So Cassady got really interested in..Cayce, and Cassady got interested in notions of reincarnation. And Cassady had been for Kerouac the prototypical model for the character Dean Moriarty in On The Road and Cody Pomeroy in a later book, Visions of Cody, (which are among Kerouac’s best books, the best early lyric books). So Kerouac went out to San Francisco and stayed with him (in San Jose, actually), and wrote me that Cassady was like Billy Sunday with a suit, some kind of provincial American hustler, hustling Cayce ideas. So Kerouac went to the San Jose Public Library to look at the origin., the Himalayan origin, of those ideas, and found a book called.. by Dwight Goddard, called A Buddhist Bible (which has pretty reasonable translations of (the)) Surangama Sutra, Lankavitara Sutra fragments, Prajnaparamita (Highest Perfect Wisdom), Milarepa stories, Vinaya rules– some Hinayana, some Mahayana, some Vajrayana texts) .And Kerouac got really involved because he recognized the suffering, the dukkha aspect of the three marks of existence, immediately, and wrote me about it. And I was more or less of a nice Jewish liberal kid and I thought that when Kerouac said “Existence is suffering” in his letter,              I thought he was making fun of me as a Jew! (you know, like , oi! ..tsuris! ..ah…”). I thought he was… you know.. particularly my sort of Neo-Pinko Liberalism, where everything was supposed to be Progress, and you go in on from here to progessive stages of Workers Paradise, and everything getting together in the future with Science and Industry, and The Worlds Fair of 1939, and automobiles, and dirigibles, and space-ships, finally, to some kind of Earthly Paradise. So when he said, you know, “Existence is suffering”,  I sort of felt he was insulting me, actually. It took me a long while, actually, to get it through my head that “dukkha” is not so different from the Yiddish word “tsuris” – Existence contains Tsuris (it’s a Yiddish word for ..yeah..trouble, trouble, trouble- (Your grandmother had gallstones, your father needs an operation on his foot, your uncle lost his job, your other uncle is an alcoholic and has to be overseen once in a while as he falls down on his face in the apartment!) – And so, it sank into my head (that) maybe it was so. The other aspect, transitoriness, was easier to swallow. Anatman  (the notion of no permanent essential inherent eternal self ) was a little harder. since I did have some kind of general intellectual angelism in mind, as a sort of poetic idea (like in Shelley). You know, the “luminous ineffectual angels beating their wings in the void in vain” [Allen here is quoting Matthew Arnold on Shelley –“A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain”] – Matthew Arnold spoke of Percy Shelley as a Platonic poet, Neo-Platonic poet – But, anyways, a Romantic notion of art, and a Romantic notion of your soul, which was somewhat undercut by Kerouac’s Buddhism,. But, finally, when he came back from San Francisco, he sang, he crooned, me a very beautiful melody and words which really turned me on, which was an almost Frank Sinatra version of The Refuges…like [Allen begins singing] –”Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi. 
Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi. 
Sangham Saranam/ Gacchâmi. 
Dutiyampi Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi. 
Dutiyampi Dhammam Saranam/ Gacchâmi. 
Dutiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi. 
Tatiyampi Buddham Saranarn/ Gacchâmi. 
Tatiyampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchâmi./
Tatiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchâmi”

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969

Well, I’d never heard anything like that . It was the first ancient music I heard, ancient or Indian.music I heard (whether or not it was accurate, or whether or not the pronunciation was correct) .But it really intrigued me, or moved me. It sounded like some ancient Lead Belly blues (Lead Belly? the blues singer)

Student: Which year would that be , Allen”?

AG” That would be 1950-51. Around the same year that having read Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, I tried some peyote, which was on sale in a store-front on East 10th Street and Second Avenue (New York) –great baskets of it were displayed, legally, in the store-front, from Magic Gardens, Laredo, Texas. It was circulating around quite commonly among the subterraneans of New York who hung around the San Remo bar with Frank O’Hara and Franz Kline and the painter (Willem) de Kooning and Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, and many others, Kerouac, myself and Burroughs, between the years 1950-1953. So there was the introduction also of the psychedelic catalyst, which was of interest, although by 1948 I had a sort of natural event of mine that opened me up somewhat, which was an auditory hallucination of hearing (William) Blake’s voice reciting “The Sunflower” and some sense of vastation of consciousness or oceanic feelings, as (Sigmund) Freud calls them, a sense of the infinite accommodating spaciousness of the sky itself, or.. above the roofs of Harlem actually, looking out our window, looking out above the roofs of Harlem, realizing how much intelligence and energy had gone into the labor of making the cornices of the buildings, of the tenement buildings of East Harlem, and a realization that there was a tremendous deposit of solidified sentience in the actual brickwork in (the) artifice of the Corinthian.. copper Corinthian flutings..or Corinthian column flutings. (If you’ve ever walked along noticing, moving up towards the sky, at the building tops of the old buildings, you’ll notice there’s quite a bit of old nineteenth-century hand-labor ornamentation, and effort, and labor, and prayer, and appreciation of the materials).

But for some reason or other the combination of (William) Blake..or a kind.. a sort of auditory hearing of Blake saying, “Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,/Who countest the steps of the Sun:/Seeking after that sweet golden clime/Where the travellers journey is done./  Where the Youth pined away with desire,/And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:/Arise from their graves and aspire,/Where my Sun-flower wishes to go”

So I had a very strange, sort of physiological audition of his voice, which is probably what you might call a low-grade hallucination, And, looking out of the window onto the sky and the tops of the buildings, a sudden glimpse of some kind of ancient vast open space.

William Blake (1957-1827)

I didn’t have any kind of language to deal with that, except, at the time, I was reading St John of the Cross and Plato’s Phaedrus and Western.. some Western Gnostic material, so I got all mixed up with monotheistic language. Within about a year or two, I wound up in a bug house for about eight months, trying to say the universe exists or doesn’t exist, or, this is real but it isn’t real, or..  I had some glimpse of Co-emergent Wisdom, but didn’t know the language, or the practice. or the.. how to stabilize it, or how to ground it, or how to work with it, or how to relate to it in terms of language, in terms of behaviour, in terms of other traditions. The nearest I got was from Mark Van Doren, who was a teacher at Columbia, who said “Oh you had a glimpse of light”, whatever that meant (but I think he was thinking in Christian terms). My more liberal professors like Lionel Trilling, who was a sort of a secular liberal, humanist, made no sense of it at all and just thought I was plain nuts. And I was nuts, but it was a…it needed someone who spoke my nutty language to give me some dharma, actually, and, at that time, around that time, Suzuki Roshi was teaching at Columbia College, and John Cage and others were visiting (but I didn’t hear about it, though I was in that neighborhood).

So I had a few episodes of this kind of breakthrough a few times but..as well as this sort of heavenly, or vast, there was also the terrific and horrific aspect of it. As Huxley describes in Heaven and Hell, there were a few moments when my… sort of creepy-crawly, looking at the sky and realizing that it was kind of going to come down some day and eat me up and I was going to disappear and die. So that was the ground to which Kerouac was writing “Buddham Saranam Gacchâmi”,  Existence is Suffering, Transitory, is Anatman, No Permanent Self .

“Sakyamuni coming out of the mountain”

Then I went to the New York Public Library out of curiosity and began looking up old Chinese painting, Buddhist painting, Sung Dynasty painting, Liang Kai(a) very beautiful portrait of Sakyamuni coming out of the mountain, with long eyebrows and sort of like a woeful expression, like grounded finally, like he’d sat under the mountain for a long time and sat and finally got up, and walked away knowing absolutely nothing, which really struck me as being, like a..some acme. And I wrote a poem then, around 1953, saying “humility is beatness”, or describing this Buddha coming out of the mountain.
Then began looking at Suzuki Roshi’s Manual of Zen Buddhism, with his pictures of the ten bowls – the ten..the ten..ox-herding pictures. Does anybody know that? -[show of hands] A few- yeah – showing a young man catching a glimpse of the ox’s ass, or footprints and then his ass, and then chasing after, and finally grabbing him and him leading him by the nose, and finally sitting on him, and finally directly sitting up there, casually playing a flute, ox and man becoming friends. And then finally, a mysterious one, a circle where there was nothing inside, like a big empty sunyata circle. And then a branch flowering, and then, in the last picture, there’s old… the same guy but (he’s) now old and with a big belly and a big sack on his back full of goodies for the rest of mankind, coming down from the mountain to give out his dharmic wisdom delight.

“the ten ox-herding pictures”

And that always intrigued me. And around the same time, somehow I was intrigued by the Tibetan Book of The Dead,.particularly by the pictures and, you know, the horrific deities , because it reminded me of the horrific aspects that I’d seen with William Blake (who has somewhat of a similar imagination pictorially), to the Yamantaka , or Apollyon, in Blake’s paintings of Pilgrim’s Progress, of a great, apparently horrific, creature surrounded by lightning, forcing Christian, the pilgrim, on his knees, to his knees.

 William Blake – John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (Plate 20) -“The Christian Fights Apollyon”

1960’s.. well (in the) late “Fiftes I had some bum trips on acid and kept coming to the horrific aspect, to a death-trip and couldn’t get beyond that . Because I was always wanting to get to Heaven and see my Eternity again, just like the Blake vision, and grasping for that, and, failing to get that, decided I must be the worst person in the world and the biggest sinner, and must therefore be in Hell and immediately Hell would rise around me since I was high on acid!  So I got entrapped in my own projections immediately. First, a projection of a Heaven and a God and a monotheist system that I was going to become part of, and then. failing to get some kind of permanent stabilization there, realized, thinking, “Well, I’m the worst spider on the most remote spider’s web, in the last rung of the universe!” . (But I was actually high on acid in an army-conducted test in Stanford University in 1958, with electrodes stick into my head and electroencephalographs, and everything like that, taking my body temperature, heart-beat, and respiration, and white walls, in the laboratory, like a rat, with a distinct feeling that Big Brother was looking in on me, (which turned out to be true, since they were LSD experiments sponsored by the CIA and the Army ultimately)).

So, going through Europe in the ‘Sixties, I stopped off with the perplexities of Heaven and Hell and polarity, what we might call “topsy-turvy absolutes”, and what Gelek Rinpoche , amending Suzuki’s translation of (the) Prajnaparamita, “go beyond all topsy-turvy absolutes and attain nirvana” –( I don’t know if you know that passage in Prajnaparamita? – go beyond all extremes (nihilism or eternalism) – So I was really trapped in that nihilism or eternalism dichotomy. So I knew better really, intellectually, but I couldn’t quite get off it. And I stopped off to see Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher in Jerusalem, to say that I had had this glimpse of the non-human and what should I do? – And he said, “Mark my words, young man, the human is what we have to relate to” – Not the non-human – Which was a pretty good answer, but not good enough. It was a good Jewish humanist answer, but it wasn’t satisfying.

Dodjom Rinpoche (1904-1987)

And by the time, (in (19)62, (late (19)62, early (19)63), I got to India and spoke to Dodjom Rinpoche, he had a much more interesting sword to cut through the Gordian knot of my intellectual paradox, when I told him my story, (like the Ancient Mariner, going around with an albatross on his neck, telling his story – “I heard Blake’s voice and I got scared and I don’t know what I’m doing!” – “and whatever I take acid, I get on a bum trip and what am I going to see?!”) – He just (shrugged his shoulders) in sympathy and said, ”Oh, some of our monks have these experiences from meditation”, and he said, “If you see something beautiful…”, no – “If you see something horrible, don’t cling to it , and if you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it” – And that was absolutely exactly right on the precise point, a perfect response, because my problem was that I.. thinking that I had seen some horrific divine presence of death, or something (actually incomprehensible and incoherent, both in acid high and in a natural high, without acid) I thought I should do everything in my power to encounter that, or encompass that, or create that, or become that, in my ordinary everyday life, and therefore I had to die in my life in order to get through this barrier of fear (which is like a feedback, you know, feedback, mental feedback, emotional feedback, that could only, you know, go up to a crescendo of self-destruction – and I think that that’s what goes on with a lot of people who have a glimpse of some divine or demonic energy and feel (that) they have to nail it down and ground it but don’t have the means, and instead try and force it, with amphetamine, or cocaine, or crack, or junk, or acid, or a combination of sex, or thrill, or burglary, or suicide, or whatever. You know, pushing reality to the limit, in order to test the.. to break through the wall of apparent sensory phenomena and get to the other side of some kind of visionary experience – a vision quest, basically, which is quite human and quite sympatico, but, on the other hand, lacking skillful means, it results in a lot of brain damage )

So in 1961-2-3, I spent a year-and-a-half in India in the course of which… (with Gary Snyder – I should say here, mid-‘Fifties in San Francisco, Kerouac and I together ran into the poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen – Snyder , who is now a Zen adept, internationally known for his many years spent in Japan mastering Chinese and Japanese, translating Zen Dust, a book, helping to translate, and founding Ring of Bone zendo, shrine-room, in the Sierras. and Philip Whalen, his friend, fellow poet, student of William Carlos Williams, from Reed College, is now Philip Whalen sensei, Abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco. So, in a sense, with all the Buddhist la-di-da and Beat Zen, Square Zen, Zen rumor of the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat Generation, actually, my confreres were quite serious and nothing promised that was not performed, in a sense, in a sense that the early interest in Zen maintained itself over a period of thirty years, so that we all continued studying and some of us attained a certain measure of formal, practical accomplishment, enough for Gary and Philip to be teaching, particularly Philip, Philip Whalen, in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi)

Gary Snyder

So, in India I went on a Buddhist pilgrimage with Gary Snyder . We went to Sanchi, Ajanta, Ellora, Khajuraho . We went to visit Lama Govinda, saw a good deal of Freda Bedi -[to Lobsang Samten Rinpoche] Freda Bedi  (Sister Palmo)? you know? Freda Bedi, the lady who founded the Young Lamas’ Home School in Dalhousie?

Lobsang Samten Rinpoche:  Oh yes, yes.

AG:  Freda – Sister Palmo . Sister Vajra.  I saw in  KhammamI believe, Darjeeling maybe, a specialist in The Twelve-fold Chain of Dependent Origination. Then I hitch-hiked up to Sikkim to visit the Rumtek monastery. By some strange accident, arrived when they were having the Black Hat ceremony and then had a long conversation with the Karmapa lama about LSD – and then in Kalimpong with Bhikshu Sangharakshita, had this interview with Dodjim Rinpoche which was maybe the most precise and good, piece of teaching I got, and was just a few words but hit home. Then went to Dharamsala and visited the Dalai Lama with Gary Snyder (who was more officially there, and so,, as a Buddhist) to listen to their conversation (but also talked about LSD there!).

The Dalai Lama

And the Dalai Lama said could I see what was inside the briefcase? And I said, ”Well, yes, because it’s empty”, and Gary kicked me and said, “Oh shut up, stop playing verbal jokes. (we’re talking) serious here.” Met Suman Khazi (sic),, who was the interpreter at the time, a friend since then, I met in New York again. Then, on my own, went to Bodh Gaya and Rajgir, visited Nalanda, which turned out later, to be intuitive.. synchronous, synchronicity. Since I belong to Naropa Institute, the visit to Nalanda was fortunate because that’s a little bit of background on the old university of the eighth century – if you know what Nalanda is? – It was the largest university in the world in its time, drawing students from India , China, and everywhere, even the West maybe, studying Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, everything available then, and Naropa was the Rector, I believe, in one of the schools, and went off to find his teacher, Tilopa and through Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, Karma Pakshi, and others, founded the Kagyu lineage which later I came into contact with through Choyam Trungpa Rinpoche

From India I went on to Japan and sat with Gary Snyder in Daitoku-ji monastery for a short sesshin and stayed six weeks but somehow it never rubbed off, and though I went to India to see if I could find a teacher, there was one thing I didn’t know what to ask.. You know, I told them my story, I asked them what they knew. But I never asked them. “What is your method of meditation?” . Like some stupid dope, I was going around looking for the wrong thing, or wanting some contact but didn’t know what to ask for. And I remember asking Dodjim Rinpoche for initiation – a wang – not exactly knowing what  a “wang” was, thinking, “Well, that’s an initiation, a way you study something with him, or you study something”. I kept asking all these Tibetans for awang“,  but, obviously, I wasn’t ready, instead of asking him, what should I do? what kind of sitting should I do? what’s the beginner’s step?  And for some reason or other, Snyder, who knew zazen, sitting practice, never told me or Kerouac . (And this year, I finally asked Snyder, “How come, you were already sitting, you never told me, or Kerouac ,or anyone around? – And he said, “Well, you know, first of all, in those days, Buddhism was much more formalistic and not quite so open and not quite so bohemian, and I thought maybe this was forcing it on you, so to speak, and you shouldn’t really tell anybody about it unless you’re asked three times”. Well, how can you know to ask if you don’t know what to ask for?! – Well, so it seems to me that in America you really have to be a little more forthright and explain to people what they’ve got to ask for, or what it is that’s going on, at the very beginning, in order to avoid confusion and paranoia, and late blooming, because I think people would take to it. – I certainly would have taken to it like a duck to water if I had known just (what) simple samatha vipassana was. It just so happened that I never ran into anybody who just sat me down and said, “Well, why don’t you just sit down on your ass and pay attention to your breathing”. Just the beginning thing. It’s something really simple. Snyder, I think, thought that was too mysteriously Oriental  for the Western mind, so he was timid in exposition (he talked a great deal of theory, dharma theory, you know, of what is dukkha and what is karma, Eightfold Path – so we got a good education very early in all those buzz-words and buzz-thoughts, but the actual sitting, I regret not picking up on for a long long time, even after India, and even sitting in the Zen Center, they didn’t give me a real explanation of zazen, except to follow the rising and falling of my stomach, but it wasn’t clear that I was following my breath (or was supposed to) – much less the outbreath, (as in Soto Zen)

However I did have a good experience on acid in 1967, and I finally gave up trying to get to Heaven and just sat there breathing and it was the first time I’d not had a bum trip in a long time, ((I) wrote a very good poem called “Wales Visitation, which is coherent both as an acid record and as a record of a nature poem, an ordinary Wordsworthian nature poem

from ms. of “Wales Visitation”

I’m going on a little too slowly and too long but I wanted to give you sort of the American background of, say, the ‘Forties, ’Ffties and ‘Sixties, to begin with, to get in some idea of, say, what natural.. some sort of natural, spiritual, experimenting (which I guess some of you have all gone through, one way or the other, in your own way)

By !970, I ran into Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa through Ram Dass. Ram Dass I had known since 1960, and actually I’d taught him some of the mantra that I’d learned in India, and when I came back from India in 1963, I began singing quite a bit, whether Hare Krishna or Hare Om Namah Shivaya  or Om Shri Maitreya  or Gate Gate or Om Mani Padme Hum just sort of singing them, And I ran into Muktananda, who’s a swami, pretty good, interesting late swami, who, actually, I think is descended from the same lineage, or similar parallel lineage to the adaiah mahasiswa  [sister students in Indonesia] That branch of Hinduism has some common thing with Tilopa and the others. And I think, with Ram Dass, there was a meeting at a church with Ram Dass, Muktananda and Satchidananda (Satchidananda Saraswati). Satchidananda I had known since I visited with Gary, visited his teacher, Sivananada, and taken some lessons in hatha yoga in ’(19)61 to (19)62.  There were all three of them together, so I went up and said hello to Ram Dass, and he introduced me to Satchidananda, who invited me at 6.a.m. the next day to visit his morning breathings. When I went there the next day, he said, “Do you have any meditation practice?”, and I said, “No, I don’t”. And he said, “Well, why don’t you get a plane and come down with me to Dallas this weekend and I’ll teach you a meditation practice”. And having a American Express card and nothing to do, I actually did that!.     But I thought he was going to sort of exploit me, as his famous-poet mascot, to his group in Dallas, but instead he put me.. he said, ”You have a hotel room”, He gave me instructions for just sitting, with a mantra, (on my breath, silently, at the heart level). He said, “Why don’t you go to your room and sit there and do that all day, and I’ll come in every once in a while” – So I did, and boy, was I relieved!  I didn’t have to do anything!  I could just sit in my room and breath  (because I was already overworked and in the thirteenth year of relative fame, actually, so I was glad to be able to be by myself, in this strange city ,in a strange hotel-room, doing nothing but learning how to meditate. It was, like, a delight) . So I studied with him for about two years (meaning I just practiced what he said) , and then I met Trungpa Rinpoche on the street corner almost the same year..

My father was ill. We’d gone to a book party for Gary Snyder at the Gotham Book Mart  on 47th Street and Sixth Avenue (in New York City), and it was a hot summer day, and I think it was Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island,  or something like that, had come out, a good book of poems, And I thought, my father had never met Gary, so we went out there, (or (he) knew him maybe, knew his…_ But my father was then seventy, and it was a very hot New York summer day. We had to walk from Sixth Avenue to Eighth Avenue to the Port Authority. He looked like he was going to have a heart-attack! So, as we went past Town Hall, I saw this gook (sic) with his friend, hailing a cab, a yellow, Chinese-looking, fellow )(sic), so I stepped up and said, ”May I steal your vehicle?” (which was a funny pun – not knowing who he was), and he said, “Of course”.  And his friend said, “Are you Allen Ginsberg?”, and I said, “Yes”. And he said.”This is Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche”. And I said, ”This is my father, Louis Ginsberg” – Om ah hum vajra gur padma siddhi hum  which was a mantra I’d learned a week before from dear Gary Snyder and had been singing all week. Years later, I asked Trungpa Rinpoche what he thought when I did that. And he said, “Oh, I wondered if you knew what you were taking about!”.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987) – (photograph © Robert Del Tredici)

So, a few weeks…a few months later, I got a message from the same assistant, a bearded fellow, Kunga Dawa to come.. Rinpoche invited me to meet him on 27th Street and First Avenue, somebody’s little Lower East Side flat. I went up and Kunga Dawa produced a joint of marijuana and Trungpa Rinpoche produced his long sadhana that he’d written called “The Sadhana of Mahamudra”, a long very beautiful ecstatic poem (it has a refrain “the muck and slime of the dark ages, I still desire to see your face”, which was very much Shelly-ian, in a way, very poetic and romantic). And he asked me to read it through, to check it out as a poem. I think, really just hooking me into his thought-form process and making, giving me an opportunity to go through his Sadhana. – And I was really impressed with it, (a little high also – and part of his skillful means – I thought it was a little, a little vulgar of him to be offering the old Beatnik a stick of grass, nonetheless. it was nice that he was that bohemian, that he wasn’t scared of it, so I respected him immediately, there was some element of adventurous humor to his teaching). And we didn’t see each other again until, oh, about a half year later (19)71). He was in San Francisco to do a lecture and I was there to do a benefit for Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan lama friend of Gary Snyder, (a) Nyingma lama, something of a more intellectual, maybe heavier-handed, lama, very active. (Tarthang Tulku taught me a very beautiful melody for Padmasambhava mantra that immediately clicked somehow (Om ah hum vajra gur padma siddhi hum)  I’m not doing it right but I could do it on a harmonium – (the) long breaths, and also Om mani padme hum shri , somehow they clicked and I began singing it at poetry readings)

Diana Mukpo and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche – (photograph © Karen Roper)


So I visited Trungpa who was living in a motel with his wife and new child and had an appointment with him (since he was in town and I was in town and we knew each other and he had a very small group so he had time to see me). So I waited for him at his motel and then – oh god! , half an hour late – he stumbled up the stairs, totally drunk, a rip in his pants, being assisted up, like Falstaff, by two of his old students.  And I said,, “Wow! what kind of lama is this ! ? He. leaned over the bed, over the baby and his wife, cursed them out, and said, “Get off that baby with your filthy alcoholic breath!”. And then he sat down,  and I had my harmonium with me and I started illustrating “Om Mani Padme Om”, And he put out his drunken paw and stopped my hand, and said, “Remember, the silence is just as important as the sound”, (which intrigued me because he was making sense). The we discussed the question of his itinerary and mine. And I said, “How can you go (on)… don’t you get tired of going from city to city like this?  (don’t you get) fatigued?  I have a large itinerary and I’m giving readings every week, and I’m beginning to get a little bored, or tired of it, or exhausted”  And he said, “Oh, that’s because you don’t like your poetry”!  – (I responded) “What do you know about my poetry anyway!” – He said, “Why don’t you do like great poets, like Milarepa, improvise on the spot?”. He said, ”You have a mind. Why do you need a piece of paper?  Don’t you trust your mind?”. And that was exactly consonant with what Kerouac had said to me years before, and which I’d learned from, which was spontaneous improvisation, which is actually a classic form for Tibetan and Japanese and American poetry in the form of the blues – which is dukkha – blues – dukkhasamsara. So that night I had to do the..no, that night I went to his lecture, and he… we got into this funny conversation about.. “You’re hiding behind your beard”, he said.  And I said, “Well, no I’m not, it’s just a beard like.  .I’ll shave it off if you stop drinking!” – So he said. “Ah, you’re too attached to it”.  So I said,”No I’m not, and I went from the Chinese restaurant where I was into the next-door drug-store, bought a razor. and shaved it off in the bathroom, and came back to the table. And he said, “You didn’t get it all off”. ((There was) just a little stubble here and there). And I said, “Okay, lets use that to stop drinking”.  Then we walked into his lecture, and he said “America’s not ready for a full moon”. And I said, “Well that shouldn’t disturb the moon – “The autumn moon shines kindly on the flower thief’”  (that’s an old haiku by Issa) – whatever all that meant.- with me it was just literary banter. But I.. well, later understood his symbolism more amply. But that moment was crucial, I guess that turned  it around, because the next night I had to do the benefit for Tarthang Tulku and I actually got up on the stage, with no piece of paper and a harmonium, and improvised for about half an hour, a long beautiful poem about how sweet it is to be in America where you’ve got everything you want and automobiles and everybody else in the world is starving, in samsara but on tv but you’ve got it made in the devaloka, how sweet it is to be in the devaloka, bitter sweet like, regretful,

to be continued


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