What The East Means To Me – Allen Ginsberg at Kyota Seika

Yesterday’s transcription of Allen’s Q & A at the Kyoto Seika University, Japan, on November 2 1988, is followed today by footage (and transcription) of the full lecture – “What the East Means To Me” – Katagiri Yuzuru is once again the accomplished interpreter/translator. Our thanks, once again, to videographer, Ken Rodgers.

AG: So.. the subject is “What the East Means To Me”. So I will give a chronological account.
One of my first memories was of the Pop figure, Pop art figure, kitsch figure, or comic-strip figure of a sinister Oriental, a Chinaman, Fu Manchu. He had a long mustache like this [Allen mimics it on his face] and a beard (a little bit like our friend…[Allen points, amused, and to the general amusement, to a figure in the audience] ..and I remember a radio program, when I was perhaps three years old, where a Western criminal came up in contest with Fu Manchu. (Fu Manchu was the Taoist intellectual criminal) and made a phone-call (the Westerner made a phone-call to Fu Manchu and a poison needle came out of the ear-piece of the phone into his brain. So this was my first encounter with an image of the Wisdom of the East).

Then there was another popular image of a Japanese “good guy”, a detective, Mr Moto, played by the German Expressionist actor, Peter Lorre in Hollywood movies. Lorre had played (perhaps some of you with the.. cinema here will remember the Fritz Lang movie, M, with Peter Lorre. There were also in the department stores small statues of Buddha which were for burning incense, or just kitsch, little statues for the living-room, not connected with any particular practice, and there was also in the small town where I lived, Paterson, New Jersey, a few Chinese restaurants – two! – Paterson was an interesting town because the poet William Carlos Williams lived near-by, and Walt Whitman had also lived in New Jersey perhaps sixty years earlier. Then came the War, World War II. During the War, 1944-45, I met Jack Kerouac, who was a..wanted to be a.. poet, and wrote novels, and, in Christmas 1944, I met William Burroughs, who had not yet begun writing. For those of you who are not familiar with that literary history, the group of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and myself (later, Gregory Corso) from the East Coast of the United States, became known later as the original group of the Beat Generation writers.

So Kerouac and I had a very good friend who read Rimbaud, Jean Arthur Rimbaud, a 19th century French punk poet (first punk!) – also first poet of modern era who saw poetry as visionary probe..instrument..poetry as instrument for new consciousness, catalysts for new vision..also..who also smoked some hashish, also experimented with “derangement of the senses” (re-arranging of senses, or mixing of senses) in order to examine the texture of sensation, or examine the texture of consciousness itself. So that in our group, poetry was a means of exploring mind consciousness, or a form of psychedelic research. And I remember, with a friend of Burroughs, getting into an argument, or a controversy, or a discussion – what is art? –  is art social? does it have a social function? or is it ivory tower? If I carve a walking-stick and put it on the moon where nobody can see it, is it art? or does it require a viewer? So we took the argument, the discussion to William Burroughs to be the judge. He heard our case, and shook his head at our stupidity – Birdbrain! – and quoted Shakespeare (but it would be difficult to translate) – he said, “It is too starved..” [Allen points to his belly for..] starvation..”too starved an argument for my sword” – “It is too starved an argument for my sword”.  Art is, he said, Art is a three-letter word A-R-T (and) it can be used anyway that you wish to use the three-letter word. In English, Indo-European language, it has no built-in meaning (no meaning built-in). He himself had studied the theory of general semantics with Alfred Korzybski in Chicago, the author of a book called Science and Sanity, which pointed out that the word (e.g.) “microphone” and this [Allen taps on the literal microphone] are two different things, and said that all of Western philosophy since Aristotle had reduced the world to conceptualization, and people mistook words for actual events, so that our argument was over a word, not about..the walking-stick (microphone) – the word “art”. So that we were suffering from mental delusions, semantic confusion. That was my first taste of the notion of the difference between the moon and the finger pointing at the moon (or perhaps (it) can be said that it was my first taste of  Zen, or first natural understanding of sunyata the emptiness of language, in any case).

In 1948, still pursuing some New Vision, I read a great deal of William Blake and had some kind of hallucination or some sort of degraded Western satori, or some version of.. psychosis.. The poem that catalyzed this reaction by William Blake was the Sunflower. It goes, “Ah Sunflower weary of time that counteth the steps of the sun/seeking after that sweet golden clime/where the travelers journey is done/ Where the youth pine away with desire/and the pale virgin shrouded with snow/rise from their graves and aspire where my sunflower wishes to go”. So, I looked out my window in Manhattan and saw the tops of the buildings that I had not noticed before and the enormous amount of intelligent labor that had built the cornices of the buildings, and above the building tops the vast sky hung over. So, not knowing any Eastern terminology or practice through which to understand what I had seen, I mistook it for the word “God” and fixated on traditional Western theistic language, to solidify the experience into concept, and kept seeking to repeat that same experience.

About 1951 Kerouac began reading in (the) Lankavatara Sutra..[Allen turns to translator and to audience] – Lankavatara Sutra? ( Surangama Sutra Lankavatara Sutra – VajracchedikaDiamond Sutra) – Sutra – Mahayana Sutras – and also in biographies of Buddha. My own background had been Communist social worker, atheist, and I believed in Western universal progress. In fact, it was supposed to be “the American Century”. America was going to lead the world to…er..to..er.. clean hyper-industrialization! – Pure Land, with super-highways!  But Kerouac wrote me a letter and  said that “the First Noble Truth” of Buddhism was that Existence contains Suffering.  And I got very angry! – I thought he was insulting me! – I thought he was attacking my ideology!  – in fact, I thought he was being anti-semitic! – and making fun of my Communist background, because, although I had suffered a great deal as a child with my mother’s madness, I still had some vague idea of universal progress for Pure Land with highways and space ships!  In fact, I had spent 8 months in a mental hospital trying to figure out, or trying to understand whether my vision of William Blake was insanity, or some sort of supreme sanity, out of Rimbaud (from Rimbaud).

So I went to the New York Public Library after I got out of the mental hospital and began looking at paintings, old Chinese Buddhist paintings, Sung Dynasty, and I saw one painting, Southern Sung, by Liang Kai, Liang Kai  – Liang Kai – a painting called Sakyamuni Coming Out of The Mountain, and so wrote a description of it in the New York Public Library. So I(‘ll) read that poem. It’s from 1953. [Allen reads, in its entirety, “Sakamuni Coming Out of The Mountain” (from Reality Sandwiches) but somewhat re-arranging the syntax and slightly altering the vocabulary] – “..under a tree/ out of a cave/ his bare feet/ he drags/ eyeballs/ long with weeping/ and hooknosed/ grown/ in ragged soft robes/ wearing a fine beard/ (wearing a fine beard)/ unhappy hands/ clasped to his naked breast/ humility is beatness [Allen, amused, sees the problem of translation here and offers the synonym  – exhaustion] /.. humility? – humility is beatness/ he falters/into the bushes by a stream/all things inanimate except his intelligence/ stands upright there/ tho’ trembling/Arhat/ who looked for heaven/under a mountain of stone/ and fat thinking/ till he realized/ the land of blessedness exists/ in the imagination – / the flash come -/ empty mirror – / how painful to be born again/ wearing a fine beard/ re-entering the world/ a bitter wreck of a sage (unhappy..unhappy mess of a sage)/ earth before him his only path./ We can see his soul (we can see his soul)/ he knows nothing/ like a god/shaken/ meek wretch – / humility is beatness/ in front of the world”.
So, that was my first encounter with Eastern aesthetics

Meanwhile in some attempt to reconstitute or repeat the Blake experience, I began experimenting with the Native American.. foods (American Indian) – including cactus – it was an extension of diet!  (sometimes) raw salad of peyote cactus, which also seemed to annihilate, or end, conceptions, or conceptualization and erase the screen of words in between inner and outer worlds (of the senses). It was very interesting, especially for a Westerner, especially for a Western Marxist. But it was not as interesting as the natural experience, or the aesthetic experience of Blake. But it was close, and useful.

In 1955 I went out to San Francisco with Peter Orlovsky (I met Peter Orlovsky, another poet) and met Kenneth Rexroth, who had been in the precincts many years ago, a poet, elder poet, of San Francisco Bay Area, who had a lot of experience with Western gnostic [Allen supplies a synonym for gnostic – hermetic] – and he introduced me to another young poet, Gary Snyder who was studying Chinese and Japanese in Berkeley at the University of California, and living in a small ten-foot-square hut, in a garden behind a regular bourgeois house in Berkeley. Snyder showed me his poems, they were in a broken verse page open-form (like the poem I just read you) and he explained that he had met William Carlos Williams also in 1950 and he had some friends who were poets also – Philip Whalen who later, like Snyder, lived here in Kyoto and studied.. At that time, Kerouac came back and visited San Francisco, Kerouac who had written many novels, but, which were unpublished (including his famous first lyric book, On The Road). He was sending me poems from Mexico City, which were written in very free form. He had a little notebook like this [Allen displays a small pocket notebook] – pocket  – and every morning he would get up and smoke one joint of grass, or marijuana, and a cup of coffee, and then write down the first things he thought of in the morning on one page – some kind of spontaneous compositions [Allen corrects Katagiri Yuzuru’s suggested translation as “automatic writing” – “no, no, “spontaneous’ – conscious, but spontaneous, improvised“] – He did this every morning for perhaps two hundred days – his first thoughts in the morning, his slogan was “Don’t stop to think of the words, but to see the picture better” – “Don’t stop to think of the words, but to see the picture better”.  We received these poems in a scroll and I showed them to Gary Snyder and he was surprised that Kerouac knew so much Buddhist terminology. So one day Kerouac arrived in town (from Mexico, I think) and Philip Whalen arrived in San Francisco also (from Portland, Oregon State, or Washington State, North West), and we all met by accident in the bus-station, going between San Francisco and Berkeley. So immediately Snyder and Kerouac begin trading information about meditation and about sutras (and, of course, Kerouac had also tried peyote, 1950, on the West Coast), and Gary Snyder had studied anthropology (and American Indians) and studied the syntax and the language and the mind of indigenous peoples (native peoples, local peoples). So he had also extended his diet to include peyote salad!  This was perhaps part of the large-scale movement toward organic food (food-o! food-um!)

So Snyder had four volumes of R.H.Blythe’s translations of haiku (I don’t know if you’re familiar with those books, published by Tuttle Company) – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter – somewhat an encyclopedia of haiku, with many many examples, with the Japanese script, the phonetic pronunciation, good English translations (like. say, the Issa, famous Issa haiku of  “O snail/climb up Mount Fuji (Fuji)/but slowly, slowly”, which was re-translated recently by the..Nanao Sakaki (as) “step by step” [Allen is corrected, off camera, by Nanao?, in the audience], “Inch by Inch”) – and there were also paragraphs of the explanation of the reference, cultural or literary reference contained in these Blythe volumes of haiku. So Kerouac began writing haiku and I also tried my hand. We drank sake and we did a little bit of zazen (or talked about it! – Snyder did zazen – I don’t think Kerouac ever learned! – Snyder, he had not yet taken bodhisattva vows – so I think he failed to tell Kerouac how to sit zazen, or perhaps Kerouac was too much Catholic to ask. For myself, I don’t think I realized that it existed.) So, we spent a year together in San Francisco and began giving poetry readings (which were flavored with some Mahayana  and some Zen tradition, or some imagery, in any case, surface – some reference to Chinese and Japanese Buddhist.. Chinese and Japanese Buddhist thought, which fitted a little also with Burroughs’ mind, relating to semantics, Burroughs’ understanding of the difference between words and.. things..and events).

I should add that in the same year that I had my experience with William Blake..Snyder had had a similar experience in Portland, Oregon, when he finished his studies at Reed College. He had written his thesis, student thesis, and he completed it about four in the morning and had gone down to the banks of the Willamette River in the dark and sat down under a great woods..old woods..  in the silence and stillness and motionless of no wind, quiet, and suddenly, as the sun cracked open the dawn, or cracked open over the earth, thousands of birds suddenly rose from the trees and began circling around, making noise, crying, and his hair stood on end! He later explained it to me as he had suddenly realized that everything was alive. So we all have some common experience of awakening of our minds, and with Kerouac and Snyder (also with Philip Whalen, and one other poet, Lew Welch, and, less so with myself, and, in an interesting different Western way with Burroughs), there was some flavor of emptiness or.. some, some Western Buddhist..smell. Later in that decade, and in the early (19)60’s, there was more experience with LSD. And from the mid (19)50’s there was always copies of The Tibetan Book of The Dead. So, to make a long story short, in 1962, Snyder and I, and his wife Joanne Kyger (and) poet Peter Orlovsky, all went to India, to see what we could find (Snyder had already been living here in Kyoto for several years..six years by then, studying at Ryoan-ji, sitting, writing and translating. Zen Dust – A book of answers  a book of… a scholarly book on Zen koans)
and by some happy historical chance he was the first scholarship student at the first Zen Institute here at Nichi bei Dai ichi.

I had had some very bad trips with LSD and was still trying to reach God and because I could not reach God I thought perhaps I was a sinner and I was damned to Hell and every time I tought, while I was high on LSD, it becane true and i could see these fires and smoke of satanic industry all about me, chimneys – chimneys and smog and bomb factories, nuclear power-stations, military airplanes passing overhead, robots talking on television – beautiful people trying to sell drugs like cigarettes and alcohol in the newspapers and on television, degraded foods and advertising the destruction of Nature, of the forests and of the oceans, and the extermination of the “inferior” races of the American Indians and the Ainu –  and the Australian aborigines. All this as progress, advertised.

So I encountered one Tibetan lama, Ddjom Rinpoche, by name, Djodum Rinpoche, the head of the old school or Nygingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, and I described my LSD nightmares to him. So he said [Allen mocks a shocked lama,  drawing in a mischievous breath] – “This is like meditation experience of some monks” -but I should remember.. He said, “If you see something horrible, don’t cling to it, and if you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it”. And that made sense – permanently.

So I arrived here in Japan, in Kyoto, twenty-five years ago, learned to sit.. a little bit of zazen, in that (Nichi bei Dai ichi), small sesshin with Snyder – went up to the Japanese sea, saw Ryoan-gi garden, (as I did today) (and) met the poet Nanao Sakaki in a coffee-shop, and then went on my way around the world. The Vietnamese War passed by. More mechanized assault on Nature. So I went to upstate New York and lived on a farm..for six years (as many intelligent, young Japanese artists do today, in the Southern mountains). In 1971, I met a Tibetan teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche – C-H-O-G-Y-A-M  T-R-U-N-G-P-A – Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. By this time I was singing a number of Hindu mantras and some Buddhist mantras Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”“Hare Om Namah Shivaya, Hare Om Namah Shivaya” – “Om Mani Padme Hum…” 

So I met Chogyam Trungpa and he said, “You should stop that. You get yourself all excited, and you get people excited but you have nothing to teach them to sustain the excitement. You can get them high, but you cannot ground it with any practice”. So he suggested (to me) three different mantras that would be more human “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Sva”, or the mantra for the human form of Buddha“Om Muni Muni Maha Muni Shakayamuni Soha“,  or the one-syllable summarization of Pranaparamita the Heart Sutra – the one syllable – Ah!

And in 1972, there was the bombing of Cambodia and there was a student riot in Boulder, Colorado, and I asked him what we could do, politically. So he suggested I go down, sit down in the middle of the riot and say “Ah”. So I went down the street and tried that. It seemed to work out very well (because the students all sat down, and decided to sit for a little bit, and figure out what they actually wanted to do, instead of acting in hysteria).

So, in 1974, having spent some time in doing Tibetan-style sitting-meditation practice –  (soya zen? dzogchen?.. what is it? – 0, the technical word for samatha? citta?o, citta, citta) – Trungpa suggested that, instead of being an individual, Rimbaud, anarchist, poet, I try to teach poetry, and become a bureaucrat. He thought that would be a good education, a good form of Zen, teaching patience, teaching myself patience. And he also suggested I try wearing a white shirt to see if people would react slightly different to my physical appearance.

So in 1974, with the poet Anne Waldman (also a Buddhist, and a great orator-poet..  and Kerouac was a great reciter of his poetry – as all of us have developed vocalization, based on writing poetry out of the living speech, instead of literary speech, and the tradition of Whitman and William Carlos Willliams, and in the tradition of Kerouac (himself) (and) with some element of spontaneous.. spontaneous mind) . Trungpa himself had read Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, poems, and thought it was a great book. What he said was (he laughed all the way through it as he read it), he said, “It is a great manifestation of Mind”.

So, Trungpa, my teacher founded a college, named after the Rector of Nalanda Institute, eighth-century, seventh-eighth century university in India (in its time, the largest university in the world – the President there, the Rector, or Director, was Naropa. So a lot of artists came together and we founded Naropa Institute. Anne Waldman and I worked in the Poetics Department, John Cage, music, Diane di Prima, poetry also (she, with Joanne Kyger, she had sat with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco). Gregory Bateson, the great psychologist, who in 1968, had given many lectures about “the Greenhouse Effect” was (a) founder of the Psychology Department. There were also courses in calligraphy, tai chi, other martial arts – some mixture of Japanese and Tibetan – international tantra!

So that began in 1974 and was..fruition.. there was some fruition. It was accredited as a school to exchange credits with other schools about two years ago. So the School of Poetry is called “The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics” [bells chime, indicating, perhaps, end-of-class?] – “disembodied”, because Kerouac is dead.

So “What Does The East Mean To Me”? – Finally, I guess, it means – Nothing! –

So now it’s time for questions  (for transcription of Question and Answer session, see here) )

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