Jacob Rabinowitz on Allen Ginsberg and The Heart Sutra

The third oldest dated copy of the Heart Sutra, 672 CE, Beilin Museum

Jacob Rabinowitz’ lively and immensely entertaining memoir, Blame it on Blake, describing his bond and his friendship with Allen and his encounters with many of the other leading figures of the Beat Generation has (we’re thrilled to announce) now been made available – free – at the Internet Archive (archive.org)  Seehere.
– as is his recent rendering of the Heart Sutra (“Gone Beyond”) – See here

Here’s an informative up-date – Jacob’s observations and meditations on Allen’s particular and idiosyncratic use of this particular Sutra and his appreciation of its place in the ever-evolving dialogue between it and the Anglophone world.

Is there such a thing as Buddhist poetry? For that matter, is there such a thing as Christian or Jewish or Islamic poetry? Is there poetry that depends, for its aesthetic structure, on a specific religious belief?

It’s easy enough to find poetry by persons of a given religion that make the occasional religious reference, and there are even great poems that explicitly teach religious doctrine (like The Dhammapada or Paradise Lost or Rumi’s Mathnawi  – but when we try to define an aesthetic that belongs to a specific religion, there don’t seem to be any hard facts.

The problem is that an aesthetic, at root, deals with perception, and that varies from person to person. There are as many different ways to have a Buddhist sensibility, and express it in poetry, as there are to be a Buddhist person. You might as well try to define Buddhist cooking as Buddhist poetry, and for exactly the same reason.

Now Allen Ginsberg set out very deliberately to elaborate a Buddhist aesthetic, and to bring his writing into line with its principles. His great success doesn’t contradict what has just been stated. Allen didn’t establish the one true way of writing Buddhist poetry—he never would have suggested he had. He developed a personal Buddhist aesthetic that fit his style of poetry, and his style of Buddhism. While it’s not a recipe one can simply follow to produce results as good as his, it’s something one can learn from, to the enhancement of one’s appreciation of poetry and of Buddhism. In his long teaching career Allen articulated his system clearly. Understanding it, one comprehends his relation to the Heart Sutra, a great religious poem which Allen made his signature scripture.

The Heart Sutra, based on a Sanskrit text, took shape as a Chinese adaptation in the seventh century AD. It is the most famous, the most beloved, and the briefest of the Mahayana “Perfection of Wisdom” sutras, which appear about the beginning of the common era, and expound the distinctively Mahayana themes of Emptiness  (a critique of all conceptualization) and the Bodhisattva (the saint who defers Nirvana to stay and help all suffering beings).

The Heart Sutra was first translated into English in 1865, and since then has appeared in at least half a hundred renderings, most of which are based on other translations.

The most intelligent of the translations is that by Edward Conze, the eccentric genius who fled his native Germany when the Nazis came to power. Considered an enemy of the Reich due to his vocal Communism, he was denied a tenured post in England or America, his chosen lands of exile for there too he wouldn’t repent of his political convictions, despite the Cold War

Curiously, it was not Conze’s profound transition and commentary, nor the rather more reader-friendly rendition in Dwight Goddard‘s  A Buddhist Bible (the book which introduced Buddhism to Kerouac) that most impressed Allen. Rather, it was a word-for-word literal rendering that was only meant to explain the transliterated Japanese text on a chant card, made by Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and founder of the San Francisco Zen Center (not to be confused with D. T. Suzuki, author of equally accessible but rather more magisterial works on Zen)

Chant Card used for services at the San Francisco Zen Center 1962

Below the Japanese text on the card, which was chanted, is the Chinese version, and below that Suzuki’s English rendering.  (I only quote a few lines, to give the flavor. If it seems disjointed, bear in mind it was only meant as a help to reading the Japanese.)

Emptiness not different (from) form.
Form is the emptiness. Emptiness is the form.
Sensation, thought, active substance, consciousness, also like this.
Sariputra, this everything original character . . .

Bodhisattva depends on prajna paramita because mind no obstacle.
Because of no obstacle no exist fear; go beyond all (topsy-turvy views) attain Nirvana. 

Allen was taken by the succinct, telegraphic concision of this version, and chanted it at poetry readings, at political and at solemn events, to a liturgical melody he himself invented. Why did he prefer this version, which seems to be in pidgin-English?

The rationale goes back to Ezra Pound’s Imagism, which Pound defined thus,

I. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

Allen developed these principles far beyond anything Pound imagined. He expanded “direct treatment” into “directness of  treatment,” elevating into poetry uncensored aspects of life and thought, giving special attention to ordinary things, and by that attention making them extraordinary (something Allen had in common with the Pop artists).

The Heart Sutra is an unglamorous, factual, brief inventory of the psyche and cosmos. The concept of Emptiness, applied to everything, gives a surreal emphasis to every single thing. The Heart Sutra treats Reality, bathed as it is in the weird glamor of Emptiness, with the scientific specificity of the periodic table. This is “direct treatment of (every) thing” carried out with unsurpassable, philosophic, and perhaps pitiless rigor!

Let us turn to Pound’s second law of Imagism. Allen’s lifelong campaign against superfluous words (even definite articles) in poetry is well known, imparting at times a telegraphic style to his lines. The unintentional “pidgin” quality of Suzuki’s chant-card translation matched this, albeit by happy chance.

Finally, Allen was fascinated by the rhythms of ordinary speech, the spontaneous musicality of un-metered spoken language. Suzuki’s original was a staccato trot: Allen modified it over the years into a flowing, poetical text (I reproduce Allen’s modification of the lines quoted above from Suzuki’s chant card),

. . . form is not different from emptiness. Emptiness is not different from form. Form is the emptiness. Emptiness is the form. Sensation, recognition, conceptualization, consciousness also like this. Sariputra, this is the original character of everything..

Every Bodhisattva depends on Highest Perfect Wisdom because mind meets no obstacle. Because of no obstacle no fear’s born. Gone beyond all topsy-turvey absolutes attain Nirvana..

Allen has softened the choppiness of the original, but kept just enough of it to be a little unsettling and surprising. Now the text flows with its own rhythm. To this Allen added his own chant melody

It is worth remarking that it sounds, at the most dramatic lines, like the traditional Jewish chanting of the Torah. In that art form (to which Koranic recitation and Gregorian Chant are closely related), melodies are used, not to make songs, but as a kind of punctuation, to define units of meaning. This is exactly what Allen has done. He has made the base of the recitation a steady repetitive East Asian chant style, but switched to a more oratoric or operatic Hebraic style for special emphasis. Allen re-ordered Suzuki’s Heart Sutra, in adherence to Pound’s advice, “in the style of a musical phrase.”

Allen believed that his poetic record of physical reality, and of the way the mind observes it, was profoundly Buddhist. He taught that truly dispassionate observation of world and “self” could reveal a “not-self” (universal) perspective. Allen believed sharp-eyed description could prompt an awareness of the “suchness” (the deepest reality) of things, if it also showed, unedited, the twists and turns of the observer’s thought. What was noticed first, and especially what the conscious mind censored as unimportant or “unpoetical,” was, to Allen’s thinking, often the most precious ore of observation. This is why Allen’s naturalistic descriptions are not just Naturalism such as we find in Zola or Flaubert. Allen observes himself observing, and reveals the skittish mind with its sometimes hilarious embarrassments and stratagems! This psychological self-awareness was something Allen honed through countless hours of meditation, observing how his mind produced thoughts, without controlling or getting caught up in them. This aware detachment, the very Emptiness enjoined by the Heart Sutra, was the poetic attentiveness Allen cultivated and made a basis of his mature art. So the Heart Sutra, in the form that Allen gave it, and the content it articulates, served him as a Buddhist aesthetic credo.

When I met Allen, nearly fifty years ago, I had no idea what to make of it. A seventeen year old with a sense of art I owed to Poe and Baudelaire, I was hopelessly outgunned. Unsurprisingly, I have had to wait until I was about the age Allen was when I met him before I could fully understand it.

And I was sufficiently intrigued by Allen’s engagement to acquire Sanskrit and make my own rendering of the Heart Sutra. To quote it here, paralleling the lines, would only serve to remind the reader that comparisons are indeed odious. My aim was to articulate the intellectual content of the sutra with utmost clarity. Though I attempted to make my rendering poetic as well, I could not compete artistically with Allen’s version.

The relevance of my own work is as a small, but direct, link in the two-thousand year transmission of the Heart Sutra from Sanskrit, through several East Asian languages, and then into English.

The Heart Sutra first appeared here in some rather King James English versions, till via Conze then two Suzukis, it began a century-long conversation. This began during the high tide of Theosophy, Spiritism and Occultism, when Zen seemed just another exotic flavoring— though of course now it has a century of evidence to attest its real depth, while the rest are amusing footnotes.

The dialogue between the Heart Sutra and the Anglophone world was renewed during the great flowering of  spirituality and widening of mind that marked the sixties, when Allen transfigured Suzuki Roshi’s words.  In the video of Allen chanting the sutra with Ed Sanders, you can hear the deep-breathed exaltation of Allen inspired (I used the term precisely) by the sutra.  After another half-century, authorized by Allen’s example, I have found my own engagement with this unremittingly intriguing text.

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