Ginsberg-Cherry-Rowan – Buddhism in Song

Don Cherry

Peter Rowan

Allen Ginsberg

Don Cherry at Naropa in August of 1976. We featured him a couple of days ago, we thought to include him again today, alongside Peter Rowan (who we’ve previously featured here) in a discussion (and performance) of Buddhism–in-song. Audio for the occasion is here

Allen begins with a couple of his songs (Gospel Noble Truths and Guru Blues), beginning first with some spontaneous improvisations on the Prajnaparamita, Heart Sutra

Transcription follows.

AG:.Do you know Gate gate, para gate, parasam gate, bodhi svaha – so I just made up one verse last night when we were talking [Allen begins tuning his harmonium and then starts singing] –

“I’m gonna study mind and breath now that I’m gonna be age fifty/I won’t be in America forever, some day I’ll go away/I’m gonna see my mama, my papa and my grandma/gate gate paragate parasam gate bodhi svaha”

“I’m gonna come in and teach my poetry and also teach (attitude)/ Gonna make up the words out of spontaneous mind and sing them all to you/Gotta come out of the back of my ear and come forth from my mouth, ah ha ha / gate gate paragate parasam gate bodhi svaha

It would be kind of interesting to start up a new genre of song/ Come find the old-time ancient blues that (Don) Cherry’s grandma sang all along/ same time thinking of the sufferings/ of my old insane mama/ passing through – sing gate gate paragate parasam gate bodhi svaha

I had a.. Not making use of Buddhist terminology, but trying to make use of Buddhist conceptions, I wrote a gospel which put together the three marks of existence – suffering, change and – anatta (soul-lessness, or no soul, or no ego – anatta) – the Four Noble Truths – Suffering, Ignorance as a cause of Suffering, End of Ignorance – and the fourth Noble Truth, the way out, the Eightfold Path on the dharma wheel, the eight spokes of the dharma wheel, which are…you all know that? – formulaic matter – Right Vews, Right Inspiration, Right Speech, Right Activity, Right Labor, Right Energy, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation – and then I included a stanza giving instructions for sitting, standing and laying down (which are, like, the three possible things we can do with the body, laying down.. lie down, sit, or stand, sort of samatha instructions, or basic mindfulness instructions) and then a run-down of the five senses, or six senses, Sight, Hearing, Taste, Touch, Smell – and Thought – six. So..

[to Peter Rowan] – Shall we tune up? – My “A” is… [to Don Cherry] – You wanna play bells? – The rhythm’s easy – gospel-style – I’ll try and keep the rhythm regular, and Don.. most of you saw Don Cherry the other night ? [Allen sings “Gospel Noble Truths”, Peter Rowan provides the echo/response] – Erm.. see, what else is there? . I had other, “Guru Blues”, that.. which I had recorded – or recorded, so I’d like to play that. That was tending to take Buddhist material and lay it on sort of a devotional to the guru , and mix it up with totally modern Pete Seeger-ish or faggot-crazy poetics, so, put it all together, like, the devotional material and the Buddhist terminology, (and) American ecological preoccupations. So, this is “Guru Blues” – [Allen plays a recorded version of the end of “Gospel Noble Truths”, followed by (recording of) “Guru Blues”] – That was sort of more blatant, in that it was direct use of any kind of terminology that came into my head like direct Buddhist.. The.. but the.. both.. most of the melody, and the first stanza, actually, came in a dream. I, literally, wrote it in a dream, saw it written in a dream, or sang it in a dream, and then woke up almost instantly and wrote out the first stanza then copied.. copied the form to continue.

[to audience] – So anyway, actually, all three of the poet-musicians here on the floor, on chairs in front of you, have all been occupied, in some extent, over the last few years in trying (to).. how do you translate dharma into communal language? (Don) Cherry, actually, doing it in terms of, to some extent, in terms of classical, classical Black blues (but family music, for children), Peter (Rowan), in terms of do did you make it a private practice?, at the same time how did you get up on a public stage as a folk singer and..?

PR: Well, it depends on the situation, really. Some situations you can be a lot freer with combining, you know, actual dharmic things, like prayers in Tibetan and dharmic instruments, you know, subtle instruments. Some situations are open to that. Other situations you‘ve gotta.. you’re playing in a bar or something like that, so you play what you’ve recorded, and stuff like that..To me, dharmic music is where there’s room for inspiration in the actual creation within the material, you know, at some point in the compoisition, to do something that hasn’t been done, that you don’t know what you’re gonna do..

AG: Do you think of of it in terms of, like, creating on the spot, or..?

PR: Yeah.. or a framework, you know, because that’s inspiration and intuition and all those things come into play when.. In some situations people aren’t asking for that and if you give it to them it just doesn’t.. you know.. It depends, you know. That’s the magic of it..

AG: What’s the furthest out you’ve got as far as combining American form, American pop form and Buddhist doctrine?

PR: Who’s doctrine?

AG: ..or Buddhist presentation. At the same time, American.. disguised in American.. have you ever tried that? (no?)

PR : Not in.. not in the way that you actually took deep doctrine and translated…

AG: Yeah, I tried to translate it

PR: Yeah I’ll just play something that.. [to Don Cherry] Were you gonna say something, Don?

DC: No go ahead

PR: I wrote this after a seminar on Naropa, about four years ago at the Tail of the Tiger, Karme Choling, and then I wrote the part that will follow it. I read (Chogyam) Trungpa Rinpoches book Born in Tibetand friends of mine were in Nepal and they were sending back letters describing how the Khampa army of Tibetan herdsmen were being pretty much slaughtered by the Chinese, and the Nepalese were siding with the Chinese, and this is all part of the spreading of the dharma. The lamas would never have left Tibet if they hadn’t undergone this terrible suffering to that whole country. It’s not doctrine so much, it’s just my feelings about it.

AG: Yeah, I heard this. This is a funny combination of Wild West, Western ballad, cowboy ballad, (or outlaw ballad), and esoteric Buddhist history

[Peter Rowan begins singing – “I’m an outlaw on the run/John Law swears I’m running guns/joined the rebels in the mountains of Tibet/ for the coral and the turquioise I can get..”…”o Naropa!”…” sweet little dakini, she came dancing on the mountain./I’m gonna let that Rapture capture me”.]

AG: I like that line – “Milarepa was a..?”, “Milarepa was a yogi”?– how did you use it? how did you use Milarepa there? It just sounds like some country ‘n western.. rapist!’
[Peter Rowan puts on mock Southern accent] “Mila-rape-a was a yogi”

DC: Giving all that love.

PR: Giving all that love, right .

Student: You know that song “I’m proud to be a Yogi from Muskogee”?

PR: No! – It’s happening…

AG: [to DC] What kind of reaction do you get from musicians when you introduce mantra?

DC: Yeah, well that’s one of the reasons that.. you know, you have to live what you do and do what you live.

And if you’ll be trying to learn the dharma and enter the dharma and go out into (that other) world, you have to try to do it in a positive way, and by trying to write compositions with the mantra is a good way of trying to suddenly.. because [to Allen], I remember the first time when we met, you gave me the first mantra which was..

Student: Excuse me, you can’t be heard at all.

DC: Oh yeah? – Well (you know) what they say, – “you gotta listen”! – [DC then, purposefully, whispers] – what I’m saying is the first time Allen gave me a mantra, which was om mani mani maha muni shakyamuni ye soha , that to me, was very powerful, I remembered, and I worked upon it and worked upon it..

And then I remember Kalu Rinpoche and him giving me the first mantraom mani padme hum, and it was very powerful, and I felt that I should share that with other musicians (and) that it’d be just as powerful to them, and it’s a seed, you know – and so, working with you, and I asked Kalu Rinpoche. I said, “I’m working with children, what would be the best way of working with children at the beginning, and he said, “om mani padme hum”, and teach it to them and let them realize that it brings a happy feeling. So that’s the way that I ended up trying to.. incorporate it into the music.

AG: What I figured was.. what you were doing was using the..taking the rhythm of the mantra

DC: Yes

AG: and then just building, building (up)

DC: Yes

AG: Using that a seed and building up

DC: the form. It’s very strong and goes into different times and..but it’s very strong.

PR: And Kalu Rinpoche talks about the sound of mantra,and many people chanting mantra, as the sound of millons of bees buzzing, the sound overlapping, like ocean waves.

AG: See, Peter (Orlovsky)’s a student of Kalu also, oddly

DC: Yeah, yeah

AG: It’s funny . Amazing. Peter Orlovsky got.. took his refuges from Kalu too.
I got one last song I want to lay out. Again, application of dharma. Running around with the Rolling Thunder Review, Dylan said he believed in God, and, you know, and was carrying too much weight for.. and he said “I’ve been up on the mountain”, and.. We had a long conversation and he said he’d been up on the mountain, and God (had) said, okay, you’ve been up on the mountain now go down – come, see me, check in, later, you know! – I’’m busy! (so) check in.. So he was carrying a mountain around with him, I thought, so I thought good Buddhist advice was.. [Allen concludes with his own “Lay Down Your Mountain]

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