A Fresh Look at the Spiritual Life of the Late Poet, Allen Ginsberg, on the 25th Anniversay of his Death on April 5th, 1997
The late bard, beloved friend and mentor Allen Ginsberg (1926-97) remains present even decades later for many of us whose lives he touched either directly or in his works. Those of us who also studied with Tibetan master, Chogyam Trungpa, are bound together even further. Trungpa’s initial entre introducing Vajrayana Buddhism to the West in the mid 1970’s was to summon “the” poets to his new endeavor, the Naropa Institute and they came. The poets (and writers of the Beat generation), on the other hand, were already prescient investigators of consciousness thru drugs, meditation and mantra who heard his call.
As history tells it, Trungpa met these open minded and wild denizens of the times head on their own terms-- smoking cigarettes, sexual promiscuity, drinking and drugging, and yet both magnetized a generation of literal and symbolical seekers of naked mind, the essence of Mahamudra free from delusion. Such was the willingness to regard new avenues of exploration. Today, Naropa University is a leading accredited institution in Buddhist inspired and Contemplative education. Many things can be said about Chogyam Trungpa but one need only read his vast scholarly and teaching transcripts to experience his greatness as a teacher, if unconventional to Westerners. For a man born in a Yak tent in a remote part of Tibet and dead by the age of 47, he accomplished much.
Early April when they both died (a decade apart) is a time, I often contemplate their profound impact on my life. In recent years I’ve taken a more objective look at the intersection of their lives historically and their mutual influence on the development of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. I’m no apologist but often find myself in the middle of a Rubik cube of misinformation trying to match up the details of my own first-hand knowledge with the shifting sands of time. But as we know, what was then no longer exists except in our wily memories. None the less, flashes of recollection spark my memory of the long working relationship I experienced with Allen within the mandala of Trungpa Rinpoche, especially Naropa Institute (now University), then later in his NYC office.
In my personal assessment of Allen as a literary figure, he synthesized for me the Blakean visionary potential (Albion) of a new era married to the humanitarian expansiveness of poet Walt Whitman who foresaw his successors as concerned with the “Main Things” which Allen fulfilled. Combine this with the clarity of his meditation practice and one can taste the fruits of his greatness as a person. While his personality may not have been perfect, his lifelong dedication for a deep empathy with others marked his early vow to benefit humanity. Recognizing himself as some kind of genius in early childhood, he fulfilled his destiny becoming an agent of change spontaneously at key historical moments transforming whole cultures and generations of writers who in turn would play significant roles in their own cultures.
I found him a superb teacher especially his evolving Dharma Poetics and Mind Writing Slogans at the jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, a bold container for nurturing aspiring poets and writers. His archive attests to the thousands of global youth who wrote him, including myself. During every world crisis, I imagine his cognizant commentary. He was an avid reader of the New York time daily engaging with world events and often appearing on television or in interviews. Delivering his mail to him in the early years I worked for him in NYC, it was not unusual to meet him in his pajamas with laundry hanging inside his entrance hallway. I often got a summation of the day’s news along with a late breakfast while sorting through mail. Those moments remain treasured memories of ordinary intimacy without artifice or tension.
As a gay man, Allen was an advocate of tender-hearted sacred fellowship iconized in his lengthy photographic record of friendships with lovers and kindred spirits. We know there were serious casualties in his charismatic love life with many a broken-hearted man and woman—especially in his earlier years and some later too. He could be irascible, shrewd, needy of love (RD Laing once said of Allen to me when living in Boulder), enthusiastic, dismissive of those seeking approval, bluntly curious, generous, and loyal to a fault. Candor was his motto and he rarely suffered fools who thought highly of themselves. His ability to connect with people was characterized by the classic Vajrayana term Padma, the symbolic engaged and charismatic lover borne of the lotus arising from mud combined with the Vajra of mirror like wisdom—the roiling waters of anger stilled in reflective clarity. He adored young and brilliant mostly straight men but disdained to be caught in binary categories as he was wont to say, because he had his “male dignity.”
I honestly do not know why he took to me in our early encounters at Naropa Institute where I was a graduate student in Buddhist Studies. He often engaged me in chit-chat some evenings in the empty hallways after hours as I cleaned offices for work study while he picked up his mail. In the Summer of 1984, when I worked as a cook at Kappa Sigma for the annual summer writing program, he often brought his dishes into the kitchen along with more chit-chat and eventually questions about my background. By the following year I lived with him and company during the summer writing program along with Philip Whalen as a kind of house mother in a mansion owned by his old classmate at Columbia University, David Padawa. By the time I met him, he was avuncular, professorial, and deeply kind. Likewise, I appreciated him dearly for his unexpected regard.
Some characterized him as misogynist often forgetting women’s names or mixing them up which was true. I never experienced that nor did some others. His generation was backwards. He called me doll in moments of affection--but in the end I was happy he had a female psychiatrist who helped him navigate unresolved issues about his mother and women. He had many professional women who admired him which he recorded in portraits rarely seen together as a collection—many of them iconic figures. This is yet to happen! Two of his first meditation instructors were women—Dr. Judith Simmer-Brown, an Acharya and Tsultrim Allione, an authorized Lama—both lifelong friendships. And, of course, he founded the Jack Kerouac School with Anne Waldman. One day arriving at his office late afternoon, generally the case, he reported that he had a remarkable experience as he crossed a street on the way to his Union Square office realizing that the anger he continually projected onto someone was really about his mother. In his journals, he recorded in minute details his hopes and fears and dreams over his complicated relationship with Peter Orlovsky with barely a mention of a female.
From my perspective, we were fellow travelers on the path to self-discovery. Unbeknownst to many of his literary colleagues and friends who were often suspect of his devotion to his various Gurus, he was a dedicated practitioner who spent years studying the basics of Buddhism with a preference for formless Vipassana meditation and Lam Rimspecializing in Madhyamika or the analytical investigation of the nature of mind. He wasn’t a great fan of ritual and all the bells and whistles of tantra except for mantra. Towards the end of his life he fully entered into the path of Vajrayana world of the classic Gelugpa triad of Yamantaka, Vajrayogini and Cakrasamvara sadhanas with his second significant Tibetan teacher, Gelek Rinpoche.
To this day not one biographer has integrated his life and work with the various phases of his progressive practice life other than the outward details of when and where he attended some retreat but never the view, practice, and integration of each practice. Simply saying he attended a Hinayana retreat means nothing to the uninitiated. For someone younger person adept in similar practices there is a Ph.d awaiting to cross reference with his copious practice notes and journals and tapes which are considerable in number. This is an important addition to his biography as some Academics not proficient in the depth of his training are now being quoted as authorities in a tangle of mistaken facts for lack of knowledge or drawing on a few essays about meditation for his classes or magazine articles early on. As a practitioner and authorized teacher of mind training, it was his goal to speak in an American idiom of common language rather than cultural overlays from other countries.
So, in April I salute Allen for bestowing his gifts of clarity and kindness in the service of language. And when I hear the early morning songs of the crows outside my window they remind me of the fragility of this life---that comes and goes but every moment, every breath an opportunity to realize the tendrils of our interconnection in the larger web of wisdom mind outside time. EMAHO…(WONDORUS…)