Allen in 1976 – The Vision of Naropa

western buddhist practice, contemporary buddhism, modern buddhism

Allen Ginsberg, August 8 1976, (early days), speaking on the formation and the vision of the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University)

AG: In the last few days we’ve seen a lot of high American artistic activity presented here from this stage – Wednesday night, William Burroughs, who’s perhaps the dean of American novelists, at top form and funnier than ever, read an enormous beautiful section of.. from old and new work..Naked Lunch to the present year, which actually is, for any art audience in America, a great occasion, familiar and at home with his friends, other poets. Anne Waldman presented a gamut of her recent crooning vocal works. I came on with a completely new style, quiet, and some blues, and also worked with Karl Berger of the music department and so there’s the beginning of some actual work together between  the different faculties here and a getting together of the different forms of high art that’s been developed over America in the last twenty, thirty, years. Philip Whalen, who’s a Zen monk out West and also a poet, a member of the old Beat Generation (and) the San Francisco Renaissance poetry group, was the moderator. Rinpoche Chogyam Trungpa read his poems, which are both classical, and also those in which he’d absorbed American idiom, American rhythms, and American quirky consciousness. So there was actually real action, culturally, of a historically interesting nature. [Editorial note: that reading may be listened to, in its entirety, here]

Don Cherry in performance (in Italy), 1976

Then, last night, many of us saw the Don Cherry concert which was a total knock-out for those who were here, because it was a .. the great American Black blues tradition become international and blessed by dharma and dharma teachers, with his wife’s banner of Avalakitesvara which had been blessed by the Karmapa, hanging as sign of musical compassion, so that he presented a music which included the entire audience, in which the audience could both clap hands and chant along, and yet was still within a tradition of American blues. So, actually, something artistically is happening here that’s historically great, and, as an old historically great expert, I know it and can say it. So what is it that is happening that makes it so important for it to continue? As I.. the view I’ve had of it, or the fantasy I’ve been working on, is that, as you remember, back in the early and late (19)50’s and early (19)60’s, many of us were experimenting with meditation, with or without teachers, (but mostly without teachers) and so exploring our own consciousness, taking peyote (as many still do – in this city tonight, in fact), working with LSD, and reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, reading the Evans-Wentz documents, and attempting to interpret them in isolation, like the old famous American isolatos of literature as portrayed by Thomas Wolfeand Sherwood Anderson and Vachel Lindsay, all the Swedenborgian mystics from small towns in Illinois, who had to explore on their own, with defective means and defective equipment, whatever they could get, through Theosophy, through Madame Blavatsky, through Timothy Leary, through Allen Ginsberg, through Beatniks, through home-made yogis, through American Indians. So there was a spiritual search, which I think was quite genuine, and in a sense has brought us all here together tonight finally, with many brothers and sisters all over the country. But what is great that’s happened here over the last few years is.. has.. it’s finally been.. like re-inforcements arrived from Tibet.

Leonard Cohen narrates a documentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead  The Tibetan Book of the Dead – A Way of Life (1994) – Further episodes may be accessed here and here

So, instead of having to deal with amateur and home-made secrets of Tibet, the actual bearers of the lineage and the actual bearers of the secrets..the people who have in their custody the practices of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the knowledge and calm and equilibrium and training that goes along with it, are here, open-hearted, willing to teach, willing to participate in our karma (as we are actually willing to participate in their karma). So there is kind of a materialistic spiritual marriage being made in America. The original Whitmanic Thoreauvian transcendental impulse, which has gone through all sorts of “mechano hells” in the 20th century, (as was prophesized), and come through to the other side, was kind of a.. some kind of open-heart, (as was the original American character-image) meeting the open (in fact, the totally, completely, open and empty heart of the Buddhists of Asia). So what will that mean for American culture is sort of a huge delightful guess, that we can all make, since we’re all practicing that and creating that.

For me, it’s been like a great opportunity, because, after all, I was lost, in the sense of not knowing where to go, reaching the limits of my own fear and anxiety in exploration (and I certainly needed help (as all of us have needed help). We’ve all understood the basic suffering that was built in, not only to American existence since Europeans landed and took over the land, but we’ve also understood the basic suffering of being in a body. Certainly all of us have been born on the planet, and that’s been like a … with modern 20th century world-consciousness that’s come to the surface, and that has been an enormous source of teaching and anxiety to everybody.

But here we have a situation where we have our own problems, which we’ve all been working with for five, ten, twenty, years and we have teachers who’ve also been working in the same field. Both in terms of our own consciousness, and in terms of the practical arts that we’ve been exercising ourselves on, like, in America, both in painting, in jazz, in poetry, there’s always ..there’s been developed over the last twenty years spontaneous attitude towards spontaneous creation and improvisation, use of gesture, use of “first thought best thought”, spontaneous tongue to tell frank truth. All that, which has been in the American tradition, has also been in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, except perhaps refined, more experienced, certainly with a lineage of experience that has everything to offer us which was lacking in the home-geown American culture. So, as a veteran, artist, bohemian, Beatnik, this situation, which Rinpoche has offered, has given me the space to expand, take on responsibility, and I think it has given most of the artists working here, like, a delightful audience and.. of people who are already exploring their own consciousness (which is, like, the ideal audience for artists), and so, out of that community, something great has already risen, an assemblage, certainly, in the poetry world certainly, (an) assemblage of poets that had not taken place since the early (19)60’s up in Vancouver and Berkeley, and on larger scale, even, now than the tradition before. So for me, it’s a permanent situation that I want to work with. And when Rinpoche asked me to come and take responsibility for organizing, and working with, and living here at.. using the name of “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics”(with him accepting that American vulgarity as part of the exquisite aesthetics of the situation, the hospitality of the Buddhist part), it seemed to me really worth doing. And the imagery he used was (that) it would take at least a hundred years to found a permanent poetics college (certainly a hundred years, his term was a hundred years to found an American solid karma fortress school here). And, certainly, it would take generations and generations of poets living together, learning from each other, working in collaboration, to found a tradition of transmission of poetics, music, rhythm, body-rhythm, understanding of mind, understanding of sympathy and heart, transmittable to students, all grounded in the same breath of our own nature..

[Audio for the above may be found here, starting at the beginning, and concluding approximately ten-and-a-half minutes in]

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