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TAPE 238 - INTVW W ALLEN GINSBERG, PT. 1:
WHY DON'T WE BEGIN BY IF YOU COULD ASSESS THE IMPACT THAT BUDDHISM HAD ON THE BEAT MOVEMENT IN THE '50s.
Well to begin with, the original '40s conjunction of beat poets as they are called now - Burroughs, myself and Kerouac and then say by 1950, Gregory Corso; in '55, Philip Whelan and Gary Snider. The original intention or original theme or the original insight was some kind of change of consciousness or new consciousness I think was the phrase that Kerouac was using back in 1945 or new vision. We were reading William Butler Yeats's book, A Vision, and Rimbeau's Season In Hell which talks about Christmas on earth, when should we be the first to see Christmas on earth. And the interest in marijuana and the early '50s peyote, you know the psychedelics by Kerouac or myself or Gary Snider was actually involved with that idea of exploring the nature of consciousness and the texture of consciousness. So about 1950, Kerouac began reading Buddhist texts and turned me on to them and turned me on to Chinese landscape painting. That was my reference and also to the Tibetan Book of the Dead and to the horrific deities, these guys appear.
So that was sort of a natural growth. The merging of the ... search of consciousness - not for but of - or re-search - and the Buddhist techniques and teachers. There already was a devotional aspect. You know, there was a kind of sacramental relationship between myself and Kerouac and Burroughs. That was a word used back in the '40s. We were using in '45 and '46 - sacramental yes, sacred world. Not the phrase sacred world as Trungpa later used it but sacramental ah sacramental Dostoyevskian adoration of each other, the sense of real respect. Just as in Dostoyevsky the characters rush up to each other and say, oh Nikolai, Nikolai, how can we forget you. So there was a kind of common mind there. Then when we ran into Gary Snider, who was already studying Chinese and Japanese and had the haiku books by R.H. Blythe, it was just a natural meeting of minds, particularly between Kerouac and Snider because although Kerouac had no teacher and hadn't done any formal sitting, Gary thought that he, by hindsight said that he always thought Kerouac was so intuitively tuned in that he probably could solve koyans relatively rapidly. Ah and then it was that kind of wild wisdom that later is known in Buddhist circles as crazy wisdom. And it's really the old tolerant Bohemian with manic sutra style that merges with the traditional Eastern thought. Historically it's very appropriate because remember, the American transcendentalists looked to the East and there was always a little tincture of over soul or bramha or even Buddhist ah hint in the American tradition.
DID YOU SEE YOURSELF AS PART OF THE AMERICAN TRANSCENDENTALIST TRADITION?
Oh yeah, sure. Well not exactly transcendentalist. They seemed a little square. More Whitman, more Whitman. The transcendentalists seemed a little bit - well when you read about them you realize they had communes, they were handling agnostic texts - the texts of Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, or neo-Platonist. And so they had some common element with Whitman and the later thing. But it was more the whole Whitman, the sense of the wier, w-i-e-r or e-i-r, I forgot, the tolerance, the negative capability of Keats which is the ability to think opposite ideas at the same time without an .... reaching after-effect and reason. That fits in with Whitman's phrasing of, Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes. And then there's the American poetic tradition very much like Zen of focusing on real things. You know, like sit when you sit, eat when you eat, shit when you shit. So -
SLURP YOUR SOUP.
Yeah and you find that in that ... in William Carlos Williams' early poetry that focus on precise, clear, definite images of total attention, total attention. So much depends on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. But even better, in 1919 or so, Williams has a very interesting poem which merges Yankee pragmatism with classic Buddhist shamata or sitting meditation following the breath. It goes something like: I have had my dream - it's called Thursday, any old day, ordinary day, ordinary mind. I have had my dream like other men but it has come to nothing. So that now I stand here feet planted on the ground looking up at the sky feeling the weight of my jacket on my shoulders, the brim of my hat, the weight of my body and my shoes, air passing in and out of the nose and resolve to dream no more. So it's that focusing concentration on being here now which is so like to Zen or some of the precision of Trungpa's Shambala training exercises. So there's a natural affinity between non-theistic Buddhist practice and up to date modern and post-modern American poetic practice. And esthetically a bigger relationship, since in the world of jazz, bohemia and art, painting of the 20th century, modern or post-modern there is a reliance on spontaneous action like the action painting of de Kooning, Klein and others which relates to Japanese and Tibetan brush work, at least Trungpa's kind of brush work. The idea of spitting forth intelligence. Candor which is what Whitman recommends. But the idea of improvisational ah magic. In fact, Trungpa has a very interesting - Trungpa Rimpoche had a very interesting phrase on Tibetan iconography - magic is the total appreciation of chance - which is exactly what the basic principle of a photographer like Robert Frank, a poet like Kerouac, a painter like Franz Klein or Jackson Pollock. The delight in improvised, spontaneous ah composition that we don't control everything but we enjoy the chaos, so to speak, or the disruption of your intention by reality.
TRUNGPA RIMPOCHE GAVE YOU A LESSON ABOUT POETRY I THINK.
Oh many. Many, many lessons, yeah. Actually he had many good ideas. But I'm not quite sure what you're referring to.
WELL, I'M REFERRING TO HIS CONVINCING YOU THAT YOU SHOULD JUST SPONTANEOUSLY CREATE ON THE STAGE.
Oh yeah. That was just one. That was Kerouac's idea actually originally. I mean to me I got that from Kerouac, that notion of spontaneous composition which is like Eastern. And it is a classic thing but American academicians or North American academicians have had a little bit of trouble swallowing that because they're so much trained in 19th century slowpoke style and sort of academic neo-classicism. But remember, the real classics all the way back from Homer on are oral, very much involved with variation - oral variation and improvisation and song. Spoken language rather than just written. But Trungpa once, we had this conversation way back in '72 I think in San Francisco. He was quite drunk and his wife was quite angry at him. He tripped up the stairway and I think cut his pants or something. I had my harmonium, was showing him how I was chanting certain mantras, Hindu and Buddhist. And he put his paw(?) on my hand, on the harmonium, the little keyboard, portable lap organ, and said, remember the silence is just as important as the sounds. And then we were comparing our itineraries because he was going around lecturing and I had - because San Francisco was on a poetry reading tour. And I said don't you get tired of constantly going around? I'm getting a little tired of running around. He said, oh that's because you don't like your poetry. I said, how would you know about my poetry or poetry? And he said, well why don't you do like the Greek poets of old, like .... Why don't you just get up on stage and compose on the tongue. Why do you need a piece of paper? Don't you trust your own mind? And of course that was exactly what Kerouac had been saying many years. So that night at his lecture, we had many adventures that night. He said, why are you hiding? I like to see what you look like underneath your beard. I said, why are you drinking? I'd like to see you without alcohol. So I'll shave my beard if you stop drinking. He said, well I don't know about that. But I did shave my beard. And then he brought me out on the - to his chair while lecturing and asked me to compose a poem. And I was a little self-conscious. Something like - here it is month of June and America, yes they can use a full moon. And we could eat our darma with a gigantic mental spoon and stock up with the mantras .... talk to croons. I'm making it up now but - says I, you're too smart. Meaning too slice and that, you know, it's easy. But then that next night I had to do a benefit performance for Tosa Ntoko in the Berkeley community theatre. And so I resolved I would try it out and I went up with my harmonium and there was a chorus of Buddhist students to do some mantra chanting. And then I went from chanting om a om baja gur pagna sidi hun - the atma sambala mantra. ... tough teacher, tender teaching - could translate it .... Vajer guru pagna sidi - diamond teacher, lotus, flower power teaching. So I began with that. And then slowly dissolved it into a vocal poem saying how sweet to be born in America where we have lotuses and buddhas and presidents and automobiles and McDonald's or Berkeley universities and plenty of roast beef and cows and cancer and nuclear establishments and gigantic armies, how sweet to enjoy all this God realm. How sad we're all going to have to give it up and die some day. But it was like a bittersweet thing sort of lamenting the destiny of America and at the same time pointing out how easy and sweet it was to live there, sweet cassava melon. But it was more like licking honey off a razor blade was a phrase that I heard from Trungpa once. Then once, a year later, I read him a lot of Whitman in an airplane going between Denver and ah Teton village where we were having a big seminary. And he was really delighted with it. Said it's just like sutra. So I lent him my copy of - my well-thumbed copy of Whitman for a couple of years. Then during that seminary I had had a funny idea for a poem while I was sitting. We were sitting 3 weeks steady, 8 hours a day. And when I got up that evening I had written it down, which was the idea of sitting and my breath going out of my nose and going through the plate glass window in the cafeteria which was turned into a shrine room and the breath going over the Teton mountains and into Idaho and breath going around to San Francisco and on a zephyr through Guam and typhoon in the Indian Ocean and a real breeze in Ilat and in Israel and Labrador, freezing blowing cold. Finally it ends, a calm breath, a slow breath, breathes upward from the nostrils when we get back to Teton village where we were sitting. I read that to him and said, do you think that's a wrong use of meditation? He said no, the thing that most people write during meditation is kind of very shit. You know, it's subjective, you know, abstract. Here you've actually given - this makes sense. It's a good example, it's a good poem. So then later on he taught me some - he suggested some principles for three line poems on the idea of sinking your mind in the sky, focusing back on the earth and then looking inside. What's your next after-thought for a three line poem, which is like an exercise I teach at Neropa institute which is a contemplative college that Trungpa Rimpoche founded back in 1974 and which had its 20th anniversary this year 1955 that I'm - 1995 that I'm speaking for. I'm babbling away in 1994.
TAPE 239 - INTVW W ALLEN GINSBERG, PT. 2:
It was a poetic exercise that he gave that I use at Naropa institute divided into classical form of the heaven-earth man or ground path and fruition. (horns honking) An exercise that he gave divided into ground path and fruition or heaven, earth and man - three different lines. Looking up at the sky, looking down on the ground, looking in your head, putting it all together. He was also a very great teacher for me cause he got me sitting steadily and ah a regular habit of sitting for a long, long while. I've fallen out of it recently. It comes in and out. Maybe 15 years I sat regularly an hour or more a day and every year went off and sat for 8 hours a day for months, or went on retreats. But what his greatness was I think was extraordinarily nice kind heart, good feeling. A feeling of empowerment for his students. Like I remember coming to Naropa in '78 and my picture was on the front page of the magazine section of the Denver Post. I saw it and I ran into him ... class .... And he said, are you proud? And I thought, this is like a barbed question. I said, well the word never entered my mind which was quite literal. He said, well you should be proud. You've worked very hard, you've done very good things, you're a great poet. You should do it without hesitation. You should go forth and be like a warrior, a poet. Use your poetry like the sword of intelligence. And it was like an empowerment, you know, like the mommy telling the son, go out in the world, you're okay - or the father. You know, it overcame certain hesitancies. Was I just doing an ego show or does this have any use for anybody else. He was able to see something genuine in what I was doing and confirm my own intuitions and courage there. And I think he did that with many of his students. You know, recognize their value, recognize their humour, recognize their salient qualities and encourage that or temper it with some kind of discipline that made it workable so that the intellectual or the physical prowess of various of his students was brought out and put to darmic use or community use so that everybody felt they had a real serious place. I remember when he founded Naropa he asked me and Ann Walden and John Cage and others to take responsibility for creating a poetic school that would be - give golden mouth to the Buddhist students so they could expound their philosophy of the world and give some kind of discipline to the poets who had a tendency toward alcoholism, suicide, drugs. So it's a good exchange and a good balance and it's worked out very well over a period of 20 years now so that we have one of the most interesting poetry centrals, especially in North America now, especially in these days when poetry becomes more and more interesting, more widespread, more and more poetry rap groups and poetry slams. Naropa is very much nourished and has nourished that whole tendency towards individuals speaking out their own character.
THERE'S ABSOLUTELY NO DOUBT HE WAS A GREAT TEACHER BUT HOW DO YOU COMMUNICATE HIS BEHAVIOUR TO A NORMAL MASS AUDIENCE.
I think I've just done it.
I think I've communicated that taste of his character to a mass audience. To the extent that I myself have maybe sort of cleaned up my act, mastered somewhat the arrogance or anger or impatience - but impatience I'd say - and become more conscious of my own irritability and tempered it and become more transparent, I think that's Trungpa's interesting teaching. I mean the one thing he did show his students was how to scan their own minds, how to recognize their own varieties of obstacle and prejudice and how to deal with it in a kind of open, humorous way rather than guilt, fear, avoidance. How to transform waste into treasure, to say with my own homosexuality. I once asked him how does that figure in the Buddhist scheme of things and he said, well one taste. That is taste of life really. It's more you know like how generous are you in your sexual relations and your personal relations, whether heterosexual or homosexual. How generous and how outward are you and how sincere are you, that's the heart of it, not the external form. What your motivation is - ultimately what is the motivation to relieve other peoples' suffering or to create more? If the motivation is to relieve and you're conscious of it then almost any gesture you make will be helpful.
DO YOU MISS HIM?
I do miss him but he's around in the sense that like Burroughs or like Kerouac - of course Burroughs is alive, Kerouac is dead -
As of 1994 - he left such an imprint on my consciousness that I in a sense see through his eyes or see through the same eyes of those occasions where he pointed direction to me. So that he left a kind of imprint or an impression that's permanent in my mind and on many of his students and maybe on the whole world in the sense of - or American world, or North American world. Just like in writing, I refer to Kerouac in my mind. I say would he appreciate this? Would he see the humour of this phrase - boxcars, boxcars, boxcars. I say would Trungpa understand the charm or - of my recitation of this new poem on the subject of what food or excrement or whatever, how when you look at it would he feel it's aggressive or would he feel it's generous, you know. Would he feel that it's angry or irritable or -. And then in terms of outrageousness, I have a few poems that are very far out sexually but very honest and I once recited one of them called Come On Jack which is actually on an Island Record. I asked him after, do you think this is too much? And he said, well, you're very honest and it's natural but what you should do is be careful where you say it because you never can tell what kind of animosity you might rise - arouse among people who are ignorant or not aware of their own built-up frustrations and anger. Well he didn't say that. He said just be careful where - that you know who it is you're talking to so that you don't rouse resentment. Which is just common sense advice. So he had tremendous common sense and I look to his common sense all the time even after he's gone, as I look to Kerouac's tenderness or to Burroughs's cynical, laconic, charming intelligence. I think we're all impressed with many, many people and we're a composite of all the people including our parents, that we've ever met who have imprinted their own charms on us. But he had such a strong central integral view that it's kind of like a very permanent, deep inhabitance, inhabitancy of my own consciousness. In that sense, they speak of you living in your guru's world or you merge with - your guru's mind and yours merges. But it's not that mystical. It's more of a practical business like everybody has merged their mind with their mothers and their fathers and maybe their aunts or their brothers or their lovers, especially if you're living with somebody a long time. But the interesting thing is Trungpa was able very quickly to communicate very beautifully his attitude of tolerance and acceptance. I remember once he was with William Burroughs's son in a hospital. Burroughs Jr. was going to have a liver transplant and had drank away his liver. And there was a question whether he would survive. And a liver hadn't arrived and there wasn't a donor yet. The guy was lying in a hospital bed with I think a bladder in his throat to keep the hemorrhaging blood from draining out into his stomach. And Trungpa looked at him and said, according to William Burroughs the elder, you will live or you will die. Both are good. And it's such an exquisite relationship to that moment of fear and choice and worry. Both are good. Wow, of course both are good. It's sort of self-evident. Both must be good by the very nature of things. So he was able to tune into the very nature of things and present that in a very simple way, in Americanese. He was a master of spoken language and that of course aided it a great deal. As well as I think absorbed high culture at Oxford, philosophy and religion and hippy culture and beat culture and grunge culture and punk culture.
HE MANIFESTED EVERYTHING.
Yeah he was very brilliant that way. His friend Geleg Rimpoche with whom I'm studying now, galimpa lama, who learned English with him and they were friends way back in India when they learned English together and were with Mrs. Freda Beatty who was their tutor in Western culture. Geleg Rimpoche has that same capacity of empathy, good heart and at the same time, curiosity and interest in the American mind. I think that's one of the major things that Trungpa, unlike many teachers from the East, dedicated himself to the American karma, gave himself over to his American students as Geleg Rimpoche has. You know, I think that was the influence of the Zen master or parallel move to the Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, not D.T. but Suzuki Roshi of the San Francisco Zen Centre was a great companion for Trungpa Rimpoche. They drank together on sake and told jokes together and learned from each other. And when Suzuki died he left his eating bowls, sort of disciplined eating in monastic form, to Trungpa Rimpoche and they're used now. So Trungpa was interested in international tantra also. I remember having a long conversation that - with Gary Snider and him in which Snider had done a lot of Zen training and poetry. And the phrase is international tantra, that is to kind of take the best elements of very exquisite disciplines that had some common awareness, practice basis and work with them so that Trungpa style involved spontaneous American poetics which changed his style of writing from a formal Tibetan to an open form mainly as a result of reading Kerouac. Japanese dress and certain behaviour and ceremony as well as the orioki bowl food eating absorbed into the Tibetan form, the use of Japanese style safu sometimes or square Tibetan gomdens or pillows, tea ceremony, archery. Masters of archery and tea ceremony are a permanent part of the Naropa institute and other activities of the darm datus of Trungpa's organization that is. And then the development of the Shambala training which was an attempt to take it away from the - to take the darma or to take the philosophy or the understanding to an American base using American language, dispensing to some extent with the Tibetan local provincial iconography which was serviceable in some ways but trying to shift it over to an American packaging but packaging in the best sense of translating into American terms. The word sumsara for instance translated into the word neurosis or sumsara tendencies, habit patterns, habitual patterns or nasty habit patterns you know, biting your nails or over-eating or abusing women or whatever, abusing your children or abusing yourself, anxiety, workaholism. How to translate those into American terms and apply the basic meditation practice, insights into solving those problems. And he found a language that's quite beautiful, particularly in the Shambala training so he kind of secularized it in a sense.
DO YOU THINK YOU CAN ASSESS HIS IMPORTANCE OR IS IT TOO EARLY?
I think he is the great breakthrough artist for Buddhism in America. There were a number of Buddhist groups from 1900 on, from the world parliament of religions. Was it Sasaki Roshi or Sakaki Roshi and Sasaki Roshi later and many Japanese teachers. There was present in America a very interesting Tibetan Buddhist yishu wanyal in New Jersey and Columbia University also teaching many many years. But they were quiet, soft spoken folks who didn't quite make the impression. But Trungpa took on the whole gamut of Americans whether upper middle class, three-piece suit types or wild acid heads and was able to talk to them. I remember that time when I shaved my beard. He was a little drunk and he was sitting shaking his head talking to these students in San Francisco in 1971 saying no more trips, please no more trips, no more trips meaning no more getting entangled in your own projections. I don't think he was down particularly on ah psychedelics so much as the spiritual materialist. Oh, I had a big vision, I had this great trip and this is going to be my excuse for existence from now on. I can lord it over other people because I saw God and they didn't see God. But he was so sadly bemoaning the American - no more trips please, no more trips. You know, but so sweet and so sad and so appealing. I wasn't sure I liked the language at the time, trips, when he was attacking our trips. But on the other hand as I understood his meaning of trips as you're ah - like ah show-off, show off spiritual, materialist gymnastics it seemed very appealing and very sensible.
SO HE WAS YOU SAID THE GREAT BREAKTHROUGH ARTIST.
WEll in the sense that I think he found a language for translating Buddhism into Americanese. He founded this great university, the first Buddhist college, contemplative college in the West, not exclusively Buddhist but as hosts. Buddhism as a host through any intelligent, artistic sensitivity and awareness practice. And it certainly had an amazing influence on American poetry. You know, almost all poets now know something about Buddhism and many are practising Buddhists or many are affiliated because of the magnitude of his effort and the subtlety and sophistication of his mind and his writings were very convincing, very clear exposition of psychological states that are familiar which can be translated into teh six worlds or you know the pie slices. The world of the gods like Mick Jagger, the world of the humans like us, the world of the hungry ghosts like all those people we see in Africa or in America -
Johnny Depp, no Johnny Depp is pretty smart. I wouldn't say Johnny Depp isn't quite a hungry ghost. He's much more accomplished than that. We're friends.
I'M THINKING OF EDWARD SCISSORHAND.
Oh yeah. No I haven't seen that movie. Then ah oh then I ... I just lost my train of thought. And that was really interesting because what he pointed out was that when you lose your train of thought and have that empty space, that's the highest mind possible rather than something to be ashamed of. That's something you could really work with, you know, instead of I've got to find something else to say that was on the line of the train that I was on before. You can acknowledge that open space and rest in it rather than feeling uncomfortable with the disruption of your mechanical cycle of thinking and blabbing. So that's a great lesson, how to relax in chaos, so to speak, or confusion. How not to be panicked by panic but how to appreciate panic, how to appreciate boredom even, how to examine the texture of boredom rather than freaking out and saying, I've got to have action now. How the boredom itself or the examination of why you're bored, what does it feel like to be bored - (end tape)
TAPE 240 - INTVW W ALLEN GINSBERG, PT. 3:
I had mentioned that he had been influenced by Kerouac and had read Mexico City Blues. We were on a car ride five hours from Vermont, karma trilling, to New York and I read him through Kerouac's Mexico City Blues. And he kept laughing all the way. And then when we got out on the sidewalk in New York, he said it's a great exposition of mind. Then the next day we met and with Ann Waldman and he said, I kept hearing your voice or Ann's or Kerouac's and changed my idea of poetry. And from then on he began writing in an open form international style as you'll find in his book, First Thought Best Thought. A phrase which he invented in the course of our making a chain poem together. And ah it's sort of interesting that he learned from his students American style and Western consciousness and his students learned from him. It was a great exchange. Like on that occasion, he asked me to be his poetry teacher and I asked him to be my meditation teacher. And I think I got the best of the deal. But a couple of years later he remembered and reminded me and said, well how am I doing, he said, after he had written these huge number of poems that were really interesting.
IN MANY WAYS HE WAS LIKE A ROMAN CANDLE. HE WAS JUST EXTRAORDINARILY LUMINOUS AND BRIGHT. BUT BRIEF.
Well there's some question as to whether he completed his work. I think he might have completed establishing his lineage more. But it seems to have survived quite well. You know it's called the mistake lineage, the crazy wisdom or mistake lineage where you learn from your mistakes. I think the difficulties, the rocky road his students went through after his death, and before sometimes, sort of got them strengthened and toughened and got them back to essentials. And it's quite a self-empowerment because they had to find their own way instead of depending on Big Daddy. And that was pretty good.
THEY CALLED IT THE COSMIC TEAT OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT? I THINK IT WAS A TRUNGPA EXPRESSION. JUST SUCKING AT THE COSMIC TEAT. ONE LAST QUESTION, I THINK ...
There is that whole ... to Halifax that's interesting. I think his interest there originally in settling in Boulder it was like the spine kundalini of America, like the central spine of America. But as years went by, you know, the American political complexion changed and got a lot more fundamentalist. All that whole Reagan-Bush era and all those theo-political televangelists, sort of demagogues. And I think he may have suspected that there would be some kind of strong reaction in America, maybe later on like ignorant disapproval of Buddhism as there had been, you know, way back in the '40s. It was an alien religion. I remember when Henry Wallace was running for president and it was discovered that he had practised yoga and he was mocked for it, you know, as if it were some kind of a kooky, off-the-wall, flaky thing. And he was out on the greensward in the mall in Washington working with a boomerang, the Australian aborigine boomerang trying to, you know, as a toy and he was mocked for that. You know the sort of chauvinistic, nationalistic, small-minded-. So I think Trungpa was worried about how America would develop as everybody else is worried about that now, though we have a little respite with Clinton at the moment from that kind of narrow mindedness. So I think he planned - he wanted I think a more neutral site to build his Shambala community basically to get the more advanced of his students together, those who were willing, to come together singlemindedly with a purpose of forming a kind of ideal society, a cooperative society where - where in the sort of mild and unassuming environment of a place like Halifax which has a sense of independence and solitude but no mania or freneticism. That the kind of gentleness and intelligence and focus that the Buddhists could bring might have a good effect on the whole community, more than in a more chaotic, wildly poisoned(?) America. So a lot of his students picked up on his project. I've been up here a number of times and done benefits for their darma datu there with Phillip Glass and I like the environment there. Of course I've done some retreats at gamlu abbey. But some of my best friends among the Buddhist hierarchy have been up there - Mickey ... , the editor of his writings, Judy Lee. And David Rohm particularly with whom I'm very close. Sort of literarily we share a lot together - Jewish literary European background. So it's always a pleasure to go up there and visit. It's sort of a seat that they have there.