Buddhism and The Beats (Ginsberg 1993 – Q & A)

Following on from last week’s “Buddhists and The Beats” video -the Q & A, the final segment.

Do we have time for questions.?

AG: Yes, sure

Q: You said that your poetry is a practice as well, so..is it..do you meditate every day? do you use poetry as a practice?

AG: It’s a form of practice. I sit now about forty minutes to an hour every day. There have been long periods where I’ve sat for an hour, two hours, every day, and there have been long periods where I have been on retreats where I would sit all day, or, three-month retreats at the seminary, where I would sit four hours a day during lectures and eight hours a day when there’s not lectures, and I’ve been to four of those seminars, But I’m not actually a very adept practitioner or advanced one, because most of the people who started at the first seminary, as I did, have long gone way ahead of me and run into,,,and taken abhisheka and what-not. I never felt any pressure from Trungpa or any other teachers to push myself beyond what I could do. In the Shambhala practices of Trungpa, it’s proposed that the careful attention to any discipline which focuses the mind over and over on one spot, the ability to return to contemplate one theme and be aware of the mind moving, is a form of practice that’s useful and feeds into dharma.

Q: Is that how you use your poetry as a practice for yourself, to have that consciousness?

AG: No, I wouldn’t call.. I’m just… Externally, I’m saying it’s a practice. I just do it. Just do it. And I’m used to doing it .And used to inspecting my mind, from this point of view. See, I don’t write to., I don’t make up things to write, My own practice is, in poetry, is to re-collect what I just thought, catch myself thinking, and then write it down, so that when I’m writing (it) is stuff that comes along naturally, rises on its own, rather than it’s fabricated for the purpose of writing poetry. So that means a scanning of the mind and an awareness of what you’re thinking, particularly when something odd happens, when you see something haiku-like, like “Put on my tie in a taxi, short of breath.rushing to meditate”. – it’s something ..a haiku I wrote about a month before I had heart-failure – “Put on my tie in a taxi/short of breath/rushing to meditate” – I was rushing over to the dharmadhatu to do some meditation practice thing, and huffing and puffing and short of breath, and over-worked, rushing around. So I suddenly realized that was a situation I was in, and then I wrote it down. Or, “Two blocks away in a taxi, the fat lama, punched out his mugger” (from an anecdote that Gelek Rinpoche told me, about how he’d been mugged in Amsterdam, or somebody (had) tried to mug him) – Or “Caught shop-lifting, ran out of the department-store at dawn, and woke up” – Caught shop-lifting/ran out of the department-store at sunrise, and woke up” – (which is condensing a dream and waking and realization of the dream) – Or “Get used to your body, forget you were born, suddenly you’ve got to get out”     ( I thought of that on a bus in Seoul in the rain, where we passed by a huge bus-accident, where a bus had gone over a cliff and there was ambulances and lights and rain and crowds, and my bus was the next bus in the same line coming up, and I realized “Get used to your body/Forget you were born/Suddenly you’ve got to get out” – Funny, yes?              So, in other words, it’s re-collecting your mind, recollecting insights or things that you say to yourself, catch yourself thinking,, if you catch yourself thinking. Yeah?

Allen Ginsberg – Photograph by Elsa Dorfman

Q: I thought it was kind of interesting what you said about having auditory hallucinations at one point. I work with psychiatric patients and I’m kind of horrified at the amount of new drugs, anti-psychotic drugs, that people are being pumped into taking. And I often, you know, when I look at these people and I’m working with them, I often get the feeling that they’re grasping the real issues, very deep issues, and I kind of try different ways (and I haven’t found one particular way) to kind of help them work creatively through these different issues. But the way the world’s going right now it’s, put them on these new drugs, like Clorazaril, and all these new ones that are coming through. I just wondered if you had any thoughts, or any ideas about all that, or thoughts..?

AG: Well, I’ve had a lot to do with nuts in my life from my mother on and I find that listening is helpful.

Q: Yeah.

AG: It seems to me if you can figure out what the language is. R.D.Laing was at Naropa for many years

Q: Oh really?

AG: Yeah, he was in and around – and also Gregory Bateson, both of whom listened, specialists in therapeutic listening, or just human listening, trying to figure out what the language is, but I haven’t been too successful in helping people out (at least, not that I’m aware of) – except for, obviously, being calm, patient, and listening (where it’s not too threatening a circumstance, where you don’t feel threatened by these visions) is helpful.[points to Lobsang Samten – He’d be a good person to deal with that

Q: Yeah, I’ve talked to….

Lobsang Samten: I have a question.. Before meeting Tibetan lamas and teachers, and. especially, before studying Tibetan Buddhism and meditation, and, at that times [sic], feeling and understanding what the reality (is). And then, since then, up to now, what ia the change?

AG: Formal dharma means confirmation of vague insights that I had already, and intuitions, and impulses, and finding a form to explain them, and finding a simplified practice of ordinary mind to transmit to others, and to transmit to myself some sense of… that everything’s alright in doing,, and being gentle. That it is not necessary to fly off the handle and be angry. The key thing I’ve learned I think, in terms of skills, is to observe my own anger and track it and become more aware of it as it rises.

Gelek Rimpoche (1939-2017)

I should mention for the last few years I’ve been studying with a Gelugpa teacher, a friend of Trungpa Rinpoche, Gelek Rimpoche, who said something very interesting, recently, last year, that struck me – “Once you become aware of anger, the awareness itself tends to dissolve eighty-percent of the heat of the anger” – just merely by becoming aware. So that, as I quoted Kerouac before,  (from Mexico City Blues),  “Anger does not like to be reminded of fits”  (you know the phrase “a fit of anger”?) – “Anger does not like to be reminded of fits” . If you become aware of your anger or irritability, according to Gelek Rinpoche, it tends to dissolve, eighty percent, (and I asked him the other day, and he said, “Well, maybe sixty percent!”) . So I think from Trungpa Rinpoche saying ”Ginsberg resentment” up to that, it’s been a slow progression in the recognition of my own anger..angers, and more and more delicacy and subtlety in recognizing it before it flowers and strikes out at other people, in terms that are a totally practical result. In terms of dealing with my mind, regular meditation practice has seemed to me to be a reasonable alternative and growth from either accidental satori , accidental experience, or drug experience. I still like to try some drug, like marijuana or ecstasy (as Trungpa did, actually, toward the end, with his advanced students -he would take some acid, occasionally, to unblock something, see what it was like, or out of conviviality, or to share the experience of the students, it wasn’t a method of teaching but it was in his peculiar bohemian adventurousness).  I would say, I still think acid is a useful educational tool, used properly, and probably, combined with meditative practice, might be alright, occasionally, just to sort of explore the.. some ramifications…   I know one of the best… in doing prostrations, I remember once, I took some acid and then did several hours of prostrations, before going off on an airplane to an LSD conference in Santa Cruz, and I wanted to do my homework, in fact, and it was one of the most satisfying, transporting, grounded, sessions I’d ever done, in fact, and I left feeling very…, left on the airplane to my destination feeling, in some respects, (that) I had (had) a good bit of both worlds, and felt secure that I’d done homework in most directions, and it didn’t do me harm (in fact, I wrote a long essay, on the whole subject of acid paranoia, on the plane).

Henri Michaux (1899-1984)

But, so I would say as an alternative to the forcing of the issue with psychedelics, the long-range grounding of meditative practices is useful, as a skillful means. Especially, as…  There’s a French poet, Henri Michaux, who did a lot of experiments with mescaline and (he) said (that), he wasn’t so much interested in the visions that people had as he was in what they did with it the next day, how they could ground it. So the meditation practice seems appropriate for grounding your extraordinary experiences, so to speak, and making them ordinary. or, absorbing them into ordinary mind.

Q: Allen, don’t you think that the psychedelic increases our illusive nature, illusory nature?

AG: Increases the visionary nature?

Q: No, the illusion, the illusion.

AG: No I don’t think so because the first thing it teaches you is that there are many realities and they’re all delusions. Of course, if you get someone deluded who gets impressed in his projections, sure, you can say so, but for somebody with a little bit of common sense smarts, it’s an experience of the relative nature of mind and reality. I once asked Doctor Hofmann, the inventor (of LSD) about his experiences and how many times he’d taken acid, and he said, “Oh, about eight times”, (which may not…may have been very few for him but I thought, “Gee, that’s not so many”), “So what philosophical principles did you derive from that?”  – And he said, “That there are many realities” – “Well didn’t you want to explore it further?” – And he said, “Well. I already had the experience, so why would I… why repeat it over and over again?” – “So what do you now”, I said, “for some experience?” -”I take a walk in the woods behind my house”.

Albert Hofmann (1906-2008)

And, as the father of acid, I think he really got a good grasp of it. I don’t think it actually increases delusion particularly, (unless you’ve got adolescents who have absolutely no background and no training at all, you know, who think that if they get a vision that’s it. But that’s more (an) educational problem, that’s a problem with the educational American system not a problem of acid). I think anybody who’s had a little experience with meditation practice, letting go of thoughts, is sort of grounded and centered enough to be able to deal with that – unless they’re grasping for Heaven, or if they think that what they’re going to get is the ultimate thing, (but they’d have the same problem with meditation – that they’d grasp on to something they saw in meditation and think that that was it forever.   Is that not so?

Lobsang Samten: Allen, I have a question. I’d like to ask you that ..   actually, in here tonight, some of the people come straight here from Sunday meditation, which is like a basic meditation, and also some here come to Monday, which is very advanced meditation (because Kalachakra practice) , But the people in here (are) really, very much, you know, very sincere and (they’re ) very much (ready) to learn about the Tibetan meditation and how to develop practice. So I’d like to request to you to give us advice to how to improve, or how to really… through your experiences, you know, do you have any idea about ..how do I put that? (ways), to develop our meditation?

AG: I’m not a good meditator. I’m not a good sitter. The only thing I have found is that when there is a regular practice, it seems to take root and affect the day. And I sure feel better during the day, if I haven’t missed practice. And I feel some sense of security, or stability, or maybe lack of guilt maybe (maybe it’s an artificial state of self-satisfaction, or something), but, anyway, like a baby-blanket, if I’ve done, you know, the full liturgy and everything I’m supposed to do in one day, I really feel much better. So it’s a pleasure. It’s a pleasure to do, in the long run. Once you get over the initial drag of determining to do it, and I find, having taken a kind of vow to do the sesshin yoga and some yamantaka short sadhana every day, I’m obliged to do it (and I’ve missed about twice in the last year –  tho’ I’ve made it up again the next day – adjusted)  –  but (I’ve) found it…. (I’ve been) really amazed at myself at finally settling down to a regular practice, I really feel secure in a way (but I don’t know if that’s a good enough reason, but it’s a sort of carrot-and-stick thing).

The other thing is that, during more extensive bowing practice, the prostrations, I don’t know if you do them in the same way, but what we did, with Trungpa Rinpoche, what we did was, years of samatha vipassana, just sitting on the breath, then the introduction of the whole map of vajrayana, and then the beginning of foundation practices, beginning with the refuge and prostrations. And when I did that with any kind of regularity and extensiveness (on retreats, particularly), it was an amazing expansion of feeling, and grief, and pleasure, and devotion, and reality of all different kinds, that it was really like…like flying, it was just sort of like.. brilliant. And I was amazed by the intelligence of the whole scheme, it just seemed so profound and well-devised to cover the body with bowing and the speech with the mantra and the mind with the visualization. It seemed like such a brilliant, subtle invention, …Who could have thought of such a thing?, you know, Who was so smart as to get to that? And to hand it on in a way that was formulated in a practice, so that you had centuries of practice and lots of teachers, it seemed like so sophisticated and so.. like a Beethoven symphony or something like…Bach’s Goldberg Variations..the elaboration in it and the capacity, and capaciousness, the capaciousness of the practice.

The other (thing), I tended to fall in love with my teachers, you know, in a heart-love (Trungpa or Gelek Rinpoche) and, oh, wanted to please them by doing the practices they suggested, knowing that it would do me good, and knowing that doing myself some good would do them some good (so they won’t have to be so lonesome and vain trying to teach a bunch of dumb Americans… you know), to actually give some response to all the energy and heart that they put out, you know, (staying up at three a.m and getting up at five a.m. to prepare for an initiation, and, you know, the indefatigable hard-working guys those teachers are – it’s heart-breaking!) – to give something back.

Q: Has studying the dharma, in what way has that affected your art, being started out as a Beat poet and…(starting out with) anger…?

AG: Well, you know, the Beat, the Beat the element of anger… the Beat thing was much more a beatific and spiritually sophisticated (thing) than angry. The anger was sort of the hype that was laid on it by the middle-class who was itself angry. But Kerouac’s notion was beatific. And I don’t think anger, if you really look at the classics, whether On The Road or Howl (I mean, after all, the point of “Howl”  is “I’m with you in Rockland”, and in “Kaddish” which is a large poem, (maybe my best of that time,) is a great hymn of love to my mother, no matter what she was like, no matter how badly off she was, it’s still an exhibition of good ol’ filial devotion and piety. That’s at the heart of it (and its at the heart of “Howl”, basically, because “Howl, for Carl Solomon” (sic) is a mask for a Howl for my mother in the mental hospital. So that, basically, “I’m with you in the mental hospital”, in solidarity – From my poetry..   (And)  Kerouac is totally full of adoration and Catholic mysticism, devotion.

You get “beat-niks”, Frankensteins made by the media, or imitators (I mean imitators of a style, who are using it for aggression). But I think that the thing Trungpa liked about Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, (which was written in nineteen fifty-five, fifty-four, three, four, five,  so it was a very early work) was that it was a great exhibition of, a manifestation of, mind. And our interest from the very beginning, in nineteen forty-five, was “widening the area of consciousness:, not “protesting”, (unless you take, etymologically, “protest” –  (“pro” – in favor of something – “test” – witness in favor of something ) – like, most people don’t understand even the meaning of the word “protest” and think it means something negative.)

Q: Well has the dharma had any effect?

AG: I think it’s certainly refined, or ..shin-sbyang ?

Lobsang Samten; shin-sbyang

AG: ..laundering.. the processing , or laundering the rougher edges of my sensibility, given me a certain sense of self-confidence. I think before I go.. before I start a poetry reading I visualize my teacher and then I straighten my back and present.. present whatever dharma is in my poetry. So it’s given a certain method of devotion.

Q: So that has made it easier?

AG: Oh yeah. I remember before when I used to give poetry readings, I used to get down on my knees in the toilet stall in the bathroom behind the back stage in the green room and pray ! And now I just sit up there and do a visualization practice before, and wait a moment before I launch into my..bullshit. You know, just straighten my back and.. Something else that I learned from watching Krishnamurti lecture – how he placed himself, he found his seat and he placed himself in his seat and became comfortable in his body, and put his feet in front of him, and found a way to sit up straight, and then address himself to the outside. And I watched Trungpa many times do that (because I imitated him – this thing I do here   [ Allen bows] – you know, not afraid to hang down there quite a while and not have to go [Allen jerks his head up quickly]  like that, nervously and panic, you know. It was [bows again] take your time, nothing’s happening, so you’ve got nothing to lose, you may as well do it. So that sense of nothing to lose and willingness to be a fool which Trungpa emphasized as part of dharma and dharma poetics art.

Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1938-1987)

But there was some consonance between sort of the Beat ethos (which was quite learned, you know, with Kerouac and Burroughs, both had very good educations, and were very devoted to each other), It was like a sangha..to me.. In fact, what I liked about the big sangha was it was like the little sangha, the poetry sangha, some sense of sacramental community. So there was a certain, you know, parallel manner, which, fortunately, Trungpa noticed and liked (that was the significance of saying under “Naropa Institute”, “The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics”. It was a real meeting of East and West, I think. Traditionally Eastern Gnostic bohemian sacramental art-for-arts-sake as a form of spiritual development and the traditional Eastern dharma art bodhisattva vow to enlighten all beings, to liberate all beings, and to overcome all obstacles within oneself, to overcome one’s own, uncover one’s nature. Yeah?

Q: Can you say something about how you’ve been working with the certainty of death and coming to terms with your own sense of death?

AG: I’ve been having a long conversation with Gelek Rinpoche about what to do after you stop breathing. When you’re drowning, there’s eight minutes before your brain goes dead and they can revive you if you’ve been in less than eight minutes, so there must be something still going on in there after you stop breathing. So I was asking what should I do when (it’s) my moment of death.,you know, just before I go out. And he says, “Well, fix your mind on whatever meditation practice you know best – maybe some sense of emptiness, and cultivate a feeling of compassion for all sentient beings at that moment”. And I went away and said, “Well, I’m good at samatha vipassana, I’ve had years of that – but that’s breathing! – So I went back and said, “Now wait a minute, what happens when you stop breathing? – And he said, “Well, your teacher’s face, or whatever meditation”, you know.. And I said, “Well, what about emptiness?” – And he said, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t rely on that!”

[ Allen concludes with a couple of poems]

Well I have a poem about that and I would like to read some poems that have to do with this.. recent.. this last.. this year.. Lalon Shah is a North Bengali Baul singer (Baul? the Shahjahan  sect of trickster wandering musicians. Lalon, like Tagore, was a nineteenth-century poet from Northern Bengal who was in that Baul group who wrote poetry (like, in America, it would be coyote figure, the trickster) and I read a book of his and then began writing in his mode . And in these kind of saint-poet series like Mirabai or Mukta Bai or Kabir, usually, the poet signs his name at the end, you know – “If love were for sale in the market-place at the price of a head I would cut off my head, so says Kabir:. You know that. So this is a series of six poems I wrote one night sort of waking up and then going to sleep and then getting inspired and waking up, called “After Lalon Shah”   – [Allen reads the poem]  (“It’s true I got caught in the world…”…”Allen Ginsberg warns you, “don’t follow my path to extinction”) – So that’s what I think about my death.

I do have one sort of…one poem I’d like to read which is of a sort of familiar nature. This is theSupplication for the Rebirth of the Vidyahara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche – because – you know, you know this kind of genre? – or supplication – for the long life, or rebirth, of a teacher?  So what I try to do is take the formulaic, you know, the Tibetan-ized, the English Tibetanized, the Englishized Tibetan formulaic poem, (which sometimes is a little bit draggy, because (of) buzz words and repeated flowery phrases).. and try to personalize them, But also put a little stamp of US vernacular into it. [ Allen  reads the poem]  (“Dear Lord Guru who pervades the space of my mind…”…. “by the Vajra poet Allen Ginsberg supplicating protection of his vajra guru Chogyam Trungpa”) – So..that’s about where I’m at..


John Lobell : Have you thought about the..if you look at sort of the movement of mind over the geo-mythic history of civilization, the significance of Buddhism coming to America at the time, at this time, how it might change the movement of Western thought, you know.. ?

AG: Sure. Yeah, you know, in America, we already had the Transcendentalists, and earlier, even earlier on, the Neo-Platonists and Gnostics were borrowing from Arabic sources and there was some influence of Middle Eastern and Himalayan and Aryan thought. So there’s always been this strain, even in Heraclitus, of anatman and non-theism, and there’s been..there was in the nineteenth-century translations in Germany and in England, and in the late nineteenth-century, mid-nineteenth century in America, Brook Farm and the Transcendentalists and (Walt) Whitman and “Passage to India” by Whitman. So, in those days, they couldn’t afford an airplane ticket to – or didn’t have airplanes – and they couldn’t go directly to India, and I think in the ‘Sixties, ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties, what’s really remarkable, it was the first era where American transcendentally-inclined poets and writers actually could go to visit the gurus of the East (like Gary Snyder going studying Zen and myself and Peter Orlovsky and Gary and Joanne Kyger going to India, making prototypical voyages to the East, which has been a European tradition for a long while, but what we did was we took the literary tradition of going to Paris and being, you know, expatriates in Paris, we did it to the Orient, because we’d already been in Paris in the ‘Fifties, Peter and I and (William) Burroughs and everybody had done that already and when it was..(when) 1962 came, it was time to try something deeper, or varied and more inclusive, and so we went to India – and Gary had already been in Japan. So it was inevitable with the jet-plane, as well as with telecommunication, real communication possibilities, (though the first time we went was by land and boat, from Dieppe to Paris, to Marseilles, to Tangier, to Greece to Israel, down the Red Sea, to Mombassa, across the ocean to Bombay.. )

John Lobell : A real Journey to the East!

AG: And meeting Gary Snyder in Delhi..and then coming back and spending a month in the house of a lady who was Krishnamurti’s friend and biographer. And then going on to visit with the Dalai Lama with Gary, and doing.a Buddhist pilgrimage. So that wasn’t possible in the nineteenth century. It was sort of inevitable with the decline of the West, so to speak, the decline of Western technology as a spiritual compass.

I would say the advantage of this meeting of East and West is the moderating of the Faustian aggression to build something up, in favor of a greater sense of cessationtoward the end of diminishing the mass of human suffering any way it can be done. And the great accomplishment would be some awareness which mixes balm or medicine to the possible loss of the planet, or the inevitable suffering of existence (in any case, which is never going to be dismissed, or dissolved, or gotten over with). So I would say the fruition will be more in the realm of healing the pain, or diminution of the sentient pain, than in building any new order. I wouldn’t bank on a renaissance. I don’t know if the planet will survive. Nor do I think its inevitable with its survival that it has to. But the role of art and the role of dharma still maintain..still maintain themselves as assuaging suffering.

Q: Well, I was interested in what you’d tell people who say, “Well, politics is politics and dharma is dharma and I don’t want to mix the two

AG: I say different things at different times but I was explaining that I was all involved with the anti-war protests and the anti-.. the Beats protest against the Vietnam War and the clean environment protests relating to Rocky Flats, and, at the time, a lot of the Buddha-dharma people in Boulder, in their three-piece suits, thought this was some kind of vulgar American Beat politics, but it turned out to be quite prophetic, and they’re all involved in it now, because it actually turned out to be a real threat, rather than a paranoid delusion – the pollution of the environment around Rocky Flats in Boulder.

Q: So this is really the environmental issue that made a lot of people aware..

A: Well, Nah.. I think it’s more the mistreatment of Tibet by China that’s got them involved in petitioning and protesting,  circulating around the UN (like they were doing, mocking other people years ago.) – And, actually, they could learn a bit from the old protest movements. The thing they could add in and teach is non-violence and a method, method of processing aggression. You know, the Buddhists have the great techniques for dealing with aggression (their own, I mean, as well as the enemies’). So, actually they have a really great role in finding skilful means for relating to politics.

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