Filed in Arts & Culture

Mind is Shapely, Art is Shapely

Anne Waldman

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I HAVE BEEN A SNOB most of my life. I do not trust people who do not read books. I will not work with a so-called writing student who thinks he or she is the first person ever to write a line of meaningful poetry, who thinks the classics are old-fashioned and/or "intimidating." One student had a line in a poem admonishing the listener to "tear up your dictionary." My dear boy, I cautioned, do not tear up your dictionary. You'll be an ignoramus the rest of your life! I intensely dislike the notion of poetry as therapy and do not subscribe to the facile idea that "everyone's a poet." Poetry is poetry. Do I claim to be a musician because I can crank out "Heart and Soul" on the piano, never having studied musical theory? I am not interested in stilling my mind in order to write nice peaceful friendly haiku. Frankly, I'm sick of cute meaningful haiku! I still my mind to see things as they really are, and they are powerful, vivid, strange, ordinary, heartbreaking, luminous, and basically empty of my projections of them. But for some perverse reason, that gives me energy and a desire to continue to live sanely, not harm others, to write, and perform my own writing to benefit myself and others. It's the best I can "contribute." Isn't that New Agey enough? And it gives me an even greater ongoing commitment to the study and teaching of other writing and world literatures, and to pass on this passion and intensity. To go to Sappho, Mirabai, Euripides, Dante, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Navaho song, and countless other poetries as sacred text. To attend them for the insight, beauty, truths, energy they provide. Reading such writing does not enhance ignorance, aggression, greed, and other vices. On the contrary, such a reading habit awakens, delights, challenges consciousness. It is a wisdom practice. I feel bold in declaring the study and writing of poetry as a complete path.

When we founded the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 1974—the first Buddhist-inspired, contemplative college in the West—(I had been back in the U.S. several months from Asia) Trungpa Rinpoche suggested we think of it as "a hundred-year project, at least." He wanted meditators to know something about poetry and vice versa. At a meeting (which included John Cage and Gregory Bateson), Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, and I were invited to design a Writing and Poetics Department which we promptly named, after a great night of deliberation and fantastical imaginings, "The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics." Why such an exotic moniker? Kerouac, not only an experimental prose writer, was one of the finest spontaneous "Be-Bop" poets. He had also realized the First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering, had glimpsed satori, and had read intensely in dharma matters and literatures. "Disembodied" was the wild card, a flash-in-the-pan inspiration that stuck. It suggested that although not all the great teachers were alive and present in their bodies, their work was still active and hovering on the hearts and tongues of young contemporaries, and we were still feeding on these elders with a sense of continuing the lineage. Around Buddhist scenes you hear a lot of talk of "lineage." These concepts, if you will, certainly didn't sound alien to the poets' ears. In our founding poetics statement we declared:

Though not all the poetry teachers are Buddhist, nor is it required of the teachers and students in this secular school to follow any specific meditative path, it is the happy accident of this century's poetic history—especially since Gertrude Stein—that the quality of mind and mindfulness probed by U.S. poetry is related to quality of mind probed by Buddhist practice. There being no party line but mindfulness of thought and language itself, no conflict need rise between "religion" and "poetry," and the marriage of two disciplines at Naropa is expected to flourish during the next hundred years.

Trungpa, himself an artist and poet, had from the outset given his sanction and provided generous accommodation for us to teach writing and poetics under the auspices of a contemplative school. A college founded on the principles of non-competitiveness and non-aggression was welcome ground for both seasoned old-dog poets and aspiring ones, a group consistently marginalized in society, who needed a haven for work and study. I dubbed "our" particular poetry-teaching lineage "outriders," in that we were not interested in being "academic" poets—vying for tenure—but wanted to "honor poetry itself' by having it taught by practicing writers whose primary preoccupation was poeticizing rather than teaching, and to continue a tradition of a national convocation of poets working with open and experimental forms. Don't take criticism from anyone who has not written a notable work of art, was Ezra Pound's dictum. Thus we were committed to working outside the academic mainstream. Would you prefer to go to a professor in religious studies to study dharma, or gravitate toward an authentic guru who was active in the practice him- or herself?

And yet there seemed a subtle underlying mistrust, and fear of these "outrider" poets by some of the more dyed-in-the-wool Buddhists around the Boulder area as well as students coming to Naropa for other studies, particularly in psychology and Buddhism. A cautious mutual suspicion developed which at first seemed merely a question of language and style. The poets dressed funny, their talk was salty, hyperbolic, witty. The Trungpa Buddhists were dressing up in suits and ties, looked stiff and humorless and used insufferable, vapid buzzwords all the time. They were perceived as clones. The poets were still "tangible" individuals. But they smoked dope, wore their hair long, and were solipsistic, self-involved, politically active. I remember how issues would arise over the effectiveness of demonstrating at the nearby Rocky Flats plutonium plant. The poets (and other local artists) would be out on the front lines, the Buddhists stayed at home.

Vajravarahi, central Asia, 12th Century, gouache on cotton

THE BUDDHISTS FELT it was naive to think you could change the world, you had to change your own mind, work with your own pollution first! The poets didn't think twice about going to Rocky Flats, exposing themselves to radiation, getting arrested. The projections got stranger and stranger and led to further breaches of friendship and general mistrust all around. The Buddhists saw all poets as "trouble," and the non-Naropa poets carried on their campaign against the "Yellow Peril!" Meanwhile, there were those of us caught between the two worlds, dwelling in a kind of interstitial nightmare, wanting to get on with the business of writing and teaching and practicing Buddhism as well. And wanting to respect the "vision" of our little fledgling college (the arts program was inspired in part by the now-historic Black Mountain College) and maintain the contemplative backdrop. "Should we pull out our Kerouac school and move it to New Jersey?" I agonized. Those of us "inside" knew there were no evil scenarios afoot, and yet the issues raised were real and presented valid conundrums. Do you throw your "discriminating awareness wisdom"—your prajna—into the fire when you "take refuge?" Do you surrender everything to enter the dharma path? Is your ego supposed to be thoroughly maligned and insulted? Can't there be any holdout? Do teachers abuse their power? Certainly that's been proven repeatedly. And Trungpa and other spiritual teachers, in spite of their profound teaching, were no exception. Some of the Eastern teachers were slow to comprehend that they were, as males, perpetuating an exploitative pattern, even in the name of compassion and egolessness. That they were repeating the same victimization and authoritative paradigms that exist in a predominantly patriarchal, consumeristic, theistic Western culture. Arguments were made for the ultimate "meaning" of such power plays—that both men and women were being tested, released, zapped from this deity who had descended from an exotic "above" and was willing to work with our neurosis. It was an "honor" to spend time with the teacher. Every word, every gesture, every nuance, every kiss was a "teaching." The irresponsible behavior and rampant sexism of many Buddhist teachers were particularly confusing to women. It was hard to stomach at times. One spoke out. One didn't swallow the Buddhist version with its sexism whole. One had to separate out the real psychological truths of the teachings, get beyond the habitual patterns of ignorant sexist conditioning. Again, imagination was needed. I felt that a poetics school would be a good antidote to the conservative underpinnings of the Tibetan-style enlightened monarchy, and the American Protestant work ethic, which basically mistrusts art. Yet, I wondered, were there unalterable rules to being Buddhist just as there were unspoken rules about being an artist? Who cooked up the vows, anyway? How could an artist—and a female one at that—get into such matters deeply? Were art and dharma really at odds? Where had the misconception intervened? Wasn't the best writing really free of ownership and ego anyway? Wasn't that obvious to everyone? Didn't the imagination cut through personal, confessional indulgence and extend out, empathetically, to others?

I queried some friends on these matters of art versus dharma. One artist said he had originally had more of a conflict between the notion of dharma and Freudian theory than between dharma and poetry. The confusion between the two very distinct meanings of "ego" was at first troubling. Then he realized that the welldeveloped ego in the Freudian sense had the strength to recognize its insubstantiality, its egolessness in the Buddhist sense. "But it was art that essentially drew me into Zen—particularly the poetries of India, Japan, China." There was no conflict, he stressed. Poet Diane di Prima spoke emphatically of her sense of the imagination in her poetry and her early relationship to the Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi. "My work, my life, is images. This is what I do. When I first began sitting zazen I realized I was clearing my mind. By practicing deeply, the images start to flow. My teacher never contradicted this." She continued, "Dharma practice and art are two sides of the same coin. Meditation is a rest from the art work. Dogen has described zazen as falling asleep in the arms of your mother." Another poet also remarked that she engaged in practice to "clear her head for writing," and how in working with the practice of "capping phrases" and lines like "the rat is at its wit's end in the monkey tube" in the Zen tradition she was using her "art mind" as well, and how rich that tradition of images was. A student writer remarked that although she was attracted to dharma practice she noticed that many practitioners she met were arrogant and snobbish and became terribly "pious" around dharma matters, needing to whisper all of a sudden as if Vajravarahi, central Asia, twelfth century, gouache on cotton everything were "suddenly too sacred, fragile, precious." And the Zen master or guru? "That's personal. You have to check that person out thoroughly, go with your gut feeling. There are some good teachers around." Amazingly, there have been teachers for centuries and many of them were artists and poets. Milarepa, Hakuin Zenji, to name a few. . .

Don't you need personal history to write? I do. Don't you need conflict to give rise to creativity? I do. Wouldn't it be frightening to have that resolved? No, but. . . I remember William Burroughs abandoning his typewriter but refusing to give up his pen and paper when he went on a meditative retreat (of his own design, it must be said). "What if some fabulous idea, image, story, phrase came up and I didn't catch it? What if the greatest idea for a novel or story came to me and I didn't get it? I'd be a damn fool!" For the upwardly mobile meditator you could posit the reverse. What if some amazingly fantastical idea came up and I dwelled on it and I didn't let it go? I'd be a fool!

IN BALI THERE IS NO WORD for art. Yet syncretic Hindu-Buddhist-Balinese Bali is one of the most artistic and spiritually integrated cultures still extant on the face of the earth. Art is so integrated into everyday life, each gesture of dance and gamelan so refined that one is indeed inside it. There is no neurotic separation, no pious sentimentality separating the mundane and the sacred. Humans there make art to perpetuate the balance of the world and after working in rice paddies during the day become gods and goddesses psychologically as they perform at night. The artists are not named or credited in the ritual performances. There is communal effort to these events. There is little aggression and violence in this culture. People are extremely dignified, open, generous. One's whole life is practice, is art.

Both, both. And yet in this culture, when you sit you sit. When you make art you make art. When you write you write. Writers are involved in the practice of writing. If you've been serious long enough there's no way back. When you've been serious long enough about Buddhist practice there's no way back. And when you are writing you are not sitting on the tatami mat or meditation cushion, you are generally at a desk which in many ways resembles a shrine. You are plugged in, you are awake, your mind is shapely, your art is shapely. Your cushion is in the corner awaiting its turn. It's 3 A.M. The poem is done. You'll light the shrine candles and begin a Red Tara sadhana for your father who has recently died. Imagine this: a beautiful red woman holding a red utpala flower by the stem and within the petals of the flower is a fully drawn bow and arrow made of delicate flowers. She is known as the "open door to bliss and ultimate awareness."

Anne Waldman's most recent book is IOVIS (Coffee House Press). She is the Director of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute and recently co-edited a book of lectures from the Naropa poetics program, to be published by the University of New Mexico Press.

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