DC: What kind of transformations took place in the (19)60’s? It seems that, for a variety of reasons, some of them political, like sharing that experience of a “social lie”, through the disappointment of radical movements and drug experiences and so on, that maybe a wide variety of people began to turn on to that same kind of rhythm of insight that you took in the (19)50’s.
AG: Yeah, well, I think one reason people shared it was because we were so coherent in our articulation of it, poetically, and we had to change the forms of poetry and prose, which is a solid thing to do, like building a building or something. So there was a tremendous amount of energy released when we broke the forms open in language, because, after all, everything is run by language. All the machines and all the people and all the politics – it’s all language anyway, it’s all the word. (William) Burroughs, finally, in the ’60s, arrived at the phrase, “rub out the word (which is the equivalent, in his practice, I think, of sunyata). By then, the whole ecological degeneration and over-simplification and plasticization of America had begun, and the American Dream was no longer so viable as it was for (Thomas) Wolfe, or (Herman) Melville, or (Walt) Whitman, or (Henry David) Thoreau (and we were using Whiman, Thoreau, Melville, as models too).
DC: I remember Kerouac predicting about that time that a “rucksack revolution” was going to take place, which seems to be somewhat in that same line – a kind of re-discovery of America.
AG: Of the body of America – the actual land, rather than the floating city-consciousness, the dissociated, the floating, unconnected, bodiless, city-consciousness. So there was, in a way, a return to physiology, or what (Charles) Olson would later call poetry as an extension of physiology – the actual breath and the actual thought.
DC: That movement seems to be shared in the theatre too in the last few years.
AG: Well, it’s sort of a universal…
DC: …sort of a universal thing that’s happening in the arts
AG: I think we were sort of like foam on a crest of a huge wave of transformation of world consciousness, or of civilized consciousness, industrial consciousness, and recognition (as in (Marshall) McLuhan), that some link to actual earth had been broken, and that to have any stability you had to get back to the Buddha-nature, in that sense – Buddha family brown earth. Kerouac’s phrase was “The Earth is an Indian thing”, in On The Road, “The Earth is an Indian thing”. And he was really pleased with that little lyric. And “the future’s in Fellaheen“, he said.
I don’t mean to sound as if we knew what we were doing, because we didn’t. It was just operating on our own natures and pure intention and trusting our own natures, figuring that exposition of self and nature would be the best, wisest, safest, honest-est, clearest, solid-est way, rather than sort of diddling around with the theories of Existentialism, or theories of knowledge, or theories of poetics that were being taught in the schools, or theories of politics that were being pronounce over the radio by Truman when he took over from Roosevelt
DC: Was there any influence at all of Existentialism?
DC: None at all?
AG: None of us read any of the books. There were parallel thoughts, but I thought Existentialism, still do, was an intellectual practice rather than a physical practice. It was a theory of being spontaneous and a theory of confronting the void, but they weren’t out there doing it. When they went out there to do it, it was in purely political terms, which involved a tremendous amount of aggression and hatred. Kerouac’s main proposition was a very lamb-iness of non-existence – the lamb-iness of illusion (down in the valley, the lambs, up at the peak-tops, bats – over the peak-top of the mind, bats, down in the valley, the lambs, down in the valley of the body, I guess). “High on the peak-top, bats, down in the valley, the lambs”. So Kerouac got increasingly offended by the Hippie out-growth of Beatnik-ism where it got into aggressive politics
DC: In the (19)60’s?
AG: Yeah, and withdrew completely from that, because he thought that me and Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and others were discovering new reasons for spitefulness, merely discovering new reasons for spitefulness. He hated that conception of “Kill your parents” and the lack of basic family traditional dignity involved. It’s not an Indian thing, it’s not an Indian notion, it’s not a Fellaheen notion
DC: What effect did that have on you at that time?
AG: Well, I figured that, from a bodhisattva point of view, one had to manifest some kind of intelligence in the world, some kind of cosmic intelligence in worldly form. So my practice was to go around, to Chicago in (19)68, chanting “OM”, and trying to calm the scene, but I felt some step forward into the world was necessary, into the political world. I was sort of a little bit attracted by the aggression, and was probably too aggressive and enraptured by it like everybody else, but I had a very solid foundation in (William) Blake. Actually, in (19)61, I wrote a long thing about the Cuban Revolution, saying that the trouble with it is that they didn’t take into account that the world maynot exist, and that was absolutely necessary for a complete political social revolution. So we were talking about a revolution of consciousness I think as far back as (19)57. We were talking about “New Consciousness” (with a capital N, capital C) in some interview in an old City Lights Journal and in a lot of essays I wrote. Back in (19)58, I was concerned with the growth of the military as being kind of a Moloch robot that was going to take over everybody’s consciousness, and measuring it by the budget of 30 billion dollars that year (30 out of the 70 billion dollars was military, or 30 out of the 80 billion budget was military – as is 100 billion of 300 billion now (1974), 100 billion military, 300 billion budget). Kerouac thought that was just a lot of Dostoyevskian-Snitkin intellectual worry. The main thing was the heart, and the lamb, and “St. Matthew’s Passion”, and the fact that we were all going to die. Burroughs, meanwhile, was working independently on something much more tantric, experimenting on his body with rubbing out the word, and looking into stroboscopes, and taking drugs, and practicing cut-ups of his own writing, to cut out of his own obsessional imagery – sort of inventing a home-made tantra, a Yankee tantra. His grandfather invented the adding machine (or he invented some little sprocket in the adding machine that made it work), so he had that same Yankee ingenuity, and he was applying that to his own consciousness, getting into (Wilhelm) Reich, and into Dianetics and Scientology, and all sorts of things that he went through, like Progressive Relaxation, and Psychoanalysis, looking through everything. He felt like a Faustian explorer. Kerouac’s version was “Burroughs is the last of the Faustian men”.
DC: When did you yourself first encounter Tibetan Buddhism? or the notion of tantra, in addition to Mahayana?
AG: That never really got very clear until recently. Except the notion of free-wheeling, free-style, open-form spontaneity (to the extent that that’s tantric), and observation of the absurd gap in consciousness, although I didn’t have that word (tantric) then. Kerouac had an idea of it – that the invalid is glad to listen to the scratch between announcements on the radio, gleefully seeing the swarm-storm dots on the television screen instead of the picture, and seeing that in his own mind. That’s (19)53. The scratch between announcements on the radio, listening to the scratch between announcements. So, listening to the background, the field, the background field, and dharmakaya area.
I had come into contact with Zen through painting, through going to the New York Public Library and looking at Southern Sung Zen painting – Sakyamuni coming out of the mountain by Liang Kai (which is 12th Century, or something). I’d written a poem about that in (19)53, but that was sparked by Kerouac’s interest. Actually, we were imitating funny, home-made, goofy, silly, untutored tantric practices of a kind in Dharma Bums with sort of banquet orgies.
DC: The yab-yum song
AG: Yes, which was not very far off the mark, actually. It was pretty much un-self-conscious and sort of a spontaneous practice – and fun, and we were learning a lot. We were also getting very close to each other, and there was some element of sexual revolutionary (spirit) and recognition of the complete variable nature of identity. Not bi-sexuality, but that we were worms and lizards as well as humans, mens and womens, that we were clouds. Gary got into tantra probably late (19)50’s in Japan, through Mahayana Buddhism, and then he branched off and was interested in the Yamabushi sect, which I think is supposed to be sort of tantric. He took some initiations with them. That’s sort of Japanese tantra – mountain-walking, people with fires on the mountains. Burroughs was sort of practicing a home-made tantra without the name. The Tibetan Book of the Dead came up in 1944, recommended by Raymond Weaver to Kerouac. I don’t think we actually got into it, or looked in it, until the early (19)50’s. I got more and more involved in it in the late (19)50’s, when I was taking peyote, and used it with peyote. By 1960, I’d gone to South America and brought back some ayahuasca, and took a lot of trips using The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a sort of suggestion book while I was getting high, but with no notion of how to practice, or whether it was accurate, or anything like that, simply that it presented a gorgeous universe full of possibility that seemed to relate to the visions I’d had with Blake. It also related to Blake, and, at the same time, related to the horrific vision I’d had of minions of Moloch, say, on acid, or on peyote. I used it in (19)58 at Stanford. I had a copy around when I took my first LSD, arranged by Gregory Bateson at the Stanford Medical School
DC: Was that the same period (Ken) Kesey was taking it, in (19)59 or ’60, or was that later?
AG: No, Kesey didn’t begin until the (19)60’s, that was much later. We’d begun with peyote in (19)51 or “52. Peyote first arrived in the Lower East Side in 1950 and I first turned on in ’51, and Kerouac, and Neal (Cassady), and Philip Lamantia, first turned on to peyote probably (in) 1950, up in Big Sur, in Jaime De Angelo‘s stone house. De Angelo had been an old Gnostic anthropological hero of Gary Snyder who wrote really beautiful poems and was one of the first linguists to analyze American Indian language from the pointof view of how did they think, sort of meta-linguistics – what was their thought, their conscious process, as indicated by their vocabulary and syntax and stories. So, peyote, in that area, was around then, and in (19)53, Kerouac wrote a really beautiful account of a peyote experience, saying, “Neal, it’s the death of the heart” (which is quite true, in a way. In a way, the death of the human and the beginning of another panoramic consciousness). In Visions of Cody, there’s a very beautiful account of that first peyote experience.
DC: Where has all this brought you now in the (19)70’s?
AG: Well, we’ve skipped the “60’s, in a way, all that activity. Burroughs continued his studies and detoxified and got clear of that and arrived wherever he is now. I had been to India in ’62 and ’63, with Snyder, who was coming fresh from his monastery and so quite an adept already and knew where to go, knew to go to Bodh Gaya and things like that. we went to visit the Dalai Lama, and he knew how to get down on the floor and bow properly. We went to see Anna Narga, because, by this time, we’d known the Book of the Dead and things like that and Gary had read some of the work. I went to see Dudjom Rinpoche, maybe a half year after seeing Martin Buber, for the same reason, to question (him) about the horrific visions I’d had on acid.
DC: What did he say?
AG: “If you see anything horrible, don’t cling to it. If you see anything beautiful, don’t cling to it”. Which was like a sword, a Manjusri sword, that cut right through my confusion, like Zen, and just solved the whole problem. I asked for bhang then, not knowing what it was, and not knowing what preparation was necessary. I wasn’t in the habit of sitting, either, by then, but I’d done a little. I went to see (the) Karmapa lama then, also, and probably spent an afternoon with (Chogyam Trungpa) Rinpoche in the Lama’s home-school, where he was the preceptor, or advisor (through Frieda Beatty, now “Sister Pomo”, whom I met then and Peter worked for – Orlovsky worked for a while with the Lama’s home-school). We went on a trip to the Lama’s home-school and visited around. I also went to see all the holy men I could find, everywhere, Hindu, and went to Sivananda, who said, “Your own heart is your guru“. He’s a teacher of Satchidananda. So we went to see a lot of people, and went to all the holy places, and took a regular pilgrimage. I was looking for a guru. Except then, everybody said, “don’t stop looking for a guru“, I guess, “if you’re ripe, it’ll come to you, you don’t need it”. So I really did sort of stop looking, just went around and checked out every holy man I could find in anycity I was (in). And, at that point, heard “Hare Krishna” and began singing that too. So I began discovering mantra. I discovered mantra, actually, in a cave of Ajanta, with Gary Snyder. When we got into this cave, he sat down and chanted, in Japanese, the Prajnaparamitra Sutra, which I’d never heard before fully sung in Japanese in a ritual manner, you know: “Kanji, Zai Bo-Sa Gy0-Jin, Han-Nya-Ha-Ra-Mi-Ta Ji Sho Ken Go Un Kai Ku Do I Sai Ku Yaku.” So he was doing that, full voice, in this cave, echoing, and maybe it hadn’t been chanted in there for a thousand years. So I began hearing sound, and heard a little about shabta yoga, and got sort of interested by that as a poet. And then I attended a Mushaira at the Taj Mahal, Christmas 1962, which was the first occasion of totally spontaneous improvised poetry I’d seen outside of Kerouac and the thing we used to do under the Brooklyn Bridge – just make up lines in the moonlight. So when I came back to America, I went to a poetry conference, and the first thing I started doing was chanting Hare Krishna as a sort of social, party, thing, to get everybody together. 1963, August. And then I also spent some time in Japan with Gary on the way back, and went and did a sesshin at his monastery, so that was the first sitting-sitting I did, regular. I’d done a little pranayama yoga before, four-eight-sixteen, count-of-breath, five minutes a day, for about a year, and a little sitting, and spent a lot of time in the burning grounds. Japan was a sort of cooled out and very formal sitting and also a lot of theory. Gary was then working translating the book that’s now known as Zen Dust – the translation of all those koans, an orderly translation of all the koans, put out by the Zen Institute, and Burton Watson was translating Su Tung Po in Kyoto, and so Gary and I worked with him, trying to Americanize the phrasing of his translations and get it really hip, like modern poetry.
DC: That raises an interesting question in itself. Do you think it’s possible to create an ultimately indigenous American Buddhism?
AG: Well, we were practicing some form of unlettered and indigenous American Buddhism all along, actually, I thnk, even before Jack discovered Buddhism. It just didn’t have any names, order, or teachers, or total depth. We knew we were going to die anyway, that much, and we were interested in that rather than scared of it. We were interested in consciousness (as the whole nation was, finally). In other words, yeah. Remember, Buddhism isn’t Buddhism either – Buddhism is nature and nature of mind. Maybe some transmission of approaches to it, but even the sense of transmission was something that, in poetry, was an old tradition too, from poet to poet – transmission of voice. I didn’t understand (William Carlos) Williams until I heard him speak and went to see him, and got the word from him, in a sense, that I should keep to active language, and “clamp the mind down” on objects, and “pay attention to minute particulars”(and that runs through Wordsworth, Blake, Williams, Pound).
DC: What do you feel about the Tibetan Buddhist transmission thing at this point?
AG: Okay, so that finally comes, the Buddhist transmission in the Tibetan style. There was all that imagery before of (the) Book of The Dead, and that was so gorgeous, and the mandala (which was so much like our own experience, on and off acid, or peyote), but there had never been anyone to teach the actual practices and actual meditation before, except like (D.T.) Suzuki and Zen, but there hadn’t been that open form, you know, or the idea of experiment . I see tantra as experiment on the body, experimental, practical.
DC: In the scientific sense.
AG: Human sense of experiment – “try it out!”
DC: Scientific, in the sense that it’s actually something that’s been worked out and transmitted for generations in terms of technique.
AG: Well, yeah, in that sense, yeah.
DC: I didn’t mean it in the sense of technology.
AG: So there’s a tradition of whispered transmission, of granny-wisdom. There’s a hint of that in American Indians already, and a lot of that in poetry already but nobody has been able to teach the doctrines we were dreaming about, or that I was dreaming about, like The Book of the Dead. But the crucial moment in meeting (Chogyam Trungpa) Rinpoche, for me, was when I had a conversation with him about this (upcoming) lecture tour. I asked him, wasn’t he bored, going over and over the same material?, and he said, “No, because I always speak from my mind”. I said I was bored a little with my poetry readings, and he said, “That’s because you don’t like your poetry”. And I was at my peak as a poet, so it was a really interesting suggestion, which I resented not too much, and said, “What do you mean?”, and he said, “Why don’t you do like great poets did, ancient poets like Milarepa? Why do you need a piece of paper for your poetry? Why can’t you get up and improvise on the stage, or improvise your poetry (which I’d been doing all along on thepage, and which had been Kerouac’s prescription and insistency on no revision, speak-now-or-ever-hold-your-peace, total consciousness, total mind, everything at once, total confession)? So that we had gotten “Mind is shapely, Art is shapely”. I tried it that night at one of his meetings, very awkwardly, but, then, the next night, I had to do a benefit for Dharmadhatu, and it was the first time I ever got on a stage without a text and had to improvise it out of whole cloth, out of what I was thinking at the moment. It was a little awkward and unfinished, but it was so profound. I just got into a song , “How does it feel, isn’t it beautiful to be American”, and then went into a list of all the samsara here, using my harmonium, with a two chord form, and it was so liberating when I realized that I didn’t have to worry about if I lost my poems anymore. Because I was a poet, I could just make it up. So I began practicing that more and more at every reading, and getting into it, so I do it all the time now at readings, at some point or other, and even have given a few readings without any preparation, in special places, like Saint Mark’s Church, just getting up with the harmonium and then having to make up a song. So that completely influenced my entire poetic practice in the direction it was supposed to go anyway from the beginning. I thought anybody could take that very simple piece of simple incisive Manjusri–like moment and teach me something of poetry must be my teacher because I couldn’t learn anything anywhere else (I mean not much from other poets at this point). I felt, in a sense, that I owed him something as a teacher, tremendously, because he gave me the best thing that a teacher could ever give me, which is an improvement in something I was life-concerned with…
DC: So how you found..
AG: …that deepened and deepened and deepened, and I get more and more out of it, and extended out to meditation. He gave me the opportunity to sit ten-hours-a-day in the Wyoming Seminary, which I’d never done, except briefly in Japan. Before that, I’d been through Swami Muktananda, too, or worked with him a little bit, and started sitting everyday, before I met Chogyam (Trungpa).
DC: What was your experience of that seminary in Wyoming?
AG: well I didn’t have to answer the telephone. I didn’t have to be so busy, and so I had time to do nothing, which is what I wanted to do. and I had time, the first time, to sit. Do a little teaching (which I hadn’t done much of), and relating, say, William Carlos Williams to Zen-like attentiveness (which I found very similar), and we were doing that Shinay practice, which was just paying attention to your breath. While reading through all the Williams, I stumbled across a little poem of his, written at the height of his career – “I have had my dreams like other men, but now I stand here feeling the weight of my coat around my shoulders, the brim of my hat on my head, the breath going in and out of my nose, and resolve to dream no more”.
DC: Yeah, I remember you reading that.
AG: Yeah, and that was, and that was sort of like where the Buddhist practice and the poetry practice so completely intersected, and interpenetrated, and were identical, that I felt that there was solid ground everywhere, for me, anyway.
DC: So how have you been finding the workshop you did here (Naropa) on”Spiritual Poetics”?
AG: Well that was a good opportunity to relate the American experience of poetics to the Americanization of the Buddhist experience in meditation and see what links there were, using the notion that (Chogyam) Trungpa had worked out, in (19)72, when I was here, that “first thought is best thought”, which is Kerouac’s practice, really, spontaneous poetry, which involved accepting anything that came into your head and using it. Working with negativity, working with your shit, working with anything that comes, finding everything workable, an attitude toward things of finding every thought workable, or every experience workable, the basic tantric, transformative, alchemical process, rather than selecting and rejecting and choosing, discriminating.
DC: It’s even like the speed of America and television and communications and all the kinds of things that have their negative implications.
AG: well Kerouac got the speed of the football-hero and turned it to his advantage.
DC: It’s like (Neal) Cassady himself.
AG: Yeah, because Cassady never had the chance for a teacher (which might have slowed him down a little). And he was caught up in the chemistry of the amphetamine (as Kerouac got caught up in the sorrowful chemistry of alcohol). I was attracted to Chogyam (Trungpa) also because he reminded me of Kerouac so much – even to the drinking! In other words, that’s the same thing. Kerouac once fell down on my floor, drunk. I was annoyed that he’d come to my house drunk again, and that he scared some little girl in another room, and I was all worried and bustling around the apartment, my apartment, and he fell on the floor laughing, and he looked up at me, and squinted at me, and said, “Ginsberg, you’re a hairy loss!” (which is a very Chogyamesque statement. So I kept projecting Kerouac’s drinking death on Chogyam – tell Chogyam (Trungpa) to stop projecting his death on me! But it’s a different moment, different. The teaching here has been interesting because I’ve gotten very voluble, trying to recall everything I know and putit all together, and then, finally, at the end of the course, trying to practice some spontaneous chain poem with the class. To do it, instead of talking about it. That was extended on a little radio-show that we did with Chogyam (Trungpa) where Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima and I tried to make up a poem together (which got kind of good in a certain part of it), and then, later in the evening, we went back to Chogyam (Trungpa)’s office and continued the chain poem on a tape. We’d done some work like that before. So it sharpens up my practice in my own trade, my own vocational training, because that’s more vocational training.
DC: Vocational training?
AG: So it’s amazing how the Buddhism, the Tantric Buddhism is applicable to the grubby practice of poetry.
DC: Well, in fact, that seems to be the message of it – to come back and re-invest the”mnute particulars” of your daily life with their own alive quality, rather than something esoteric, or mysterious, that one somehow is continually seeking.
AG: It was nice to get that message from the horse’s mouth. Nice to get it as official doctrine, rather than just as a home-made intuition.
DC: Where does that take you from here? Do you have any idea?
AG: Nope. Except more spontaneity. See, I had that notion before. There was a little funny book around in my book-bag (which is downstairs). In (19)68, I wrote an essay about how the future poet should be able to get up on stage naked, dancing, chanting, and improvising and prophesying, dancing. There would finally be a merger or, like, shamanistic, naked dancing and music, and spontaneous mind poetry, and, emerging, like shamanistic prophecy, as the ideal future poet. It’s almost come true a little bit, with, like, Mick Jagger, the dance, sort of dance, nakedness and chanting (and) with (Bob) Dylan,the spontaneous improvisation. After meeting Chogyam (Trungpa), I worked with Dylan a little bit, just on that, doing that. What happened was that I was applying that thing of doing it on stage, without a text, and (Peter) Orlovsky and I were giving a reading in late (19)71, at NYU, and Dylan came, and sat in the back, and hung around. When he came in, we were in the middle of just making up whatever was in our heads (Peter was about not wanting to write anymore, because it was just cutting down trees, and therefore just chanting his poems in the air, and me, (I was) sort of rhyming in it and doing (a little bit) more). Dylan was so amazed that we could just do it, just off the top of our heads, because that’s the really ancient blues tradition, it turns out. So it’s an American tradition, because the blues were all spontaneously out of a theme, or out of a line. Both calypso and blues were actually the strongest American art forms, that America produced, which invaded the entire world – the blues, or jazz-blues (what became rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues). Rhythm ‘n’ blues was Kerouac and Cassady’s specialty. I began discovering that actually that was the American tradition. The great tradition in America was improvisation, and it was only the intellectual literary universe that didn’t recognize that as poetry. Obviously, in a hundred years, the anthologies are going to be filled with blues as examples of great American poetry, just as the English anthologies are filled with anonymous Border Ballads, and things like that. So, actually, I guess, more and more music, more and more blues, more and more improvisation, more and more meditation, probably a little more solitary isolation, and..what do you call it?..retreats. I’m building a house at the moment, or a little cabin, where I can go.
DC: In California?
AG: Yeah, and hole up and sit. I have a month of solitary eight-hours-a-day sitting that I should do.
DC: No poetry? No writing of poetry?
AG: Optional. No rules, no rules. No poetry, but no rules, except sitting eight-hours-a-day. Oh, I don’t know, I suppose rules could be followed, if it were necessary, if you need a book of rules. I’m interested in the liberality and the open-ness of the formal study of tantra that is being presented because that fits in with my own notions of freedom and a sort of bohemian approach, a sort of non-programmatic and non-intellectual approach to both life and poetry, or an intuitive and spontaneous and natural (approach), relying on trust, and a faith and reliance on nakedness as a way. It’s nice that there are a few little handles, a few little rules, like sit a few hours, or sit eight hours, or.. I don’t know I mean, I don’t have to write poetry. I can just talk it at this point. It doesn’t runout. There’s an endless supply, as long as the mind is thinking. There’s always language and poetry to tune in on, just like turning on the radio
DC: I guess at this point we should probably turn off the radio
AG: Not my radio