GARY SNYDER asked his teacher Oda Sesso Roshi, "Sometimes I write poetry, is that all right?" Oda laughed and said, "It's all right as long as it comes out of your true self." He also said, "You know, poets have to play a lot, asobi." The word asobi has the implication of wandering the bars and pleasure quarters. For a few years while doing Zen practice around Kyoto, Snyder quit writing poetry. It didn't bother him. His thought was, Zen is serious, poetry is not serious. In 1966, just before Oda Roshi died, he spoke with him in the hospital. He said, "Roshi! So it's Zen is serious, poetry is not serious." Oda replied "No, no, poetry is serious! Zen is not serious."
In 1973 I traveled with two other poets on a serendipitous pilgrimage to India, hoping to have audiences with particular high Tibetan lamas. We had acquired "hot" tickets ($250 round-trip to Delhi) through a Hindu hotline, a trip being organized by Western students of the then recently deceased Nim Karoli Baba. I had already signed up for the first Vajradhatu Seminary-a three-month practice situation that involves serious study of the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana paths-with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, but when the cheap tickets to India appeared and I asked Allen Ginsberg, "What should I do? Go sit with Trungpa or go to India?" he replied, "Go to India, the opportunity might not come around so soon. It'll change your life! Poets should go to India!" I had already published three books of poetry and felt "established" on that particular path. Nothing, as it proved, would shake that resolve.
Vajravarahi, Tibet, 16th Century, silver
with gold, turquoise insets, and pigments
I had been yearning for years to go to India. I had been working since 1966 at the energetic and demanding Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. During the wee hours of the morning of January 2, 1970, after a marathon New Year's event at St. Mark's, just as we were beginning to vacuum the church rugs, an English fellow named Nik Douglas wandered in with a film under his arm and asked to show it on the screen we hadn't yet dismantled. It was entitled Tantra and as it unfolded its vivid documentation of various Hindu and Buddhist tantric rites, I was riveted by the startling and stark images. I had read of such goings on, but were those jackals really gnawing on human bodies? I found the burning ghats and the ritualistic passivity, or trancelike devotion, with which devotees were carrying out their gruesome (or were they?) tasks extraordinary. All my senses were on fire, I wanted to witness firsthand some of this teeming life, so seemingly antithetical to my own culture. I had been studying Indian singing with Lamonte Young, a principal student of Pandit Pran Nath. I listened to recordings of Indian music (particularly enjoying the Bauls singers of Bengal), and had viewed Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy a number of times. India had infiltrated America in the form of exotic food, and inexpensive, colorful clothing. Every hippie was carrying a bit of the sadhu (a wandering truth-seeker who has abandoned family, caste, home) in his/her demeanor and getting high, like their Indian counterparts, on ganja. I wasn't particularly attracted to the Indian guru scene as I perceived it, but was extremely interested in the cultures of India through the music, dance, poetry. The philosophy of Buddhism had suggested a different atmosphere or tone in terms of a spiritual pursuit. I read much Japanese and Chinese poetries and was particularly drawn to Arthur Waley's versions of the nine Shaman songs, Milarepa's spontaneous dohas (songs of realization) and Basho's travel journal. What was the connection between this often wild, vivid writing and spiritual practice? Wasn't Zen practice simply too austere for women? And for a woman poet? Could I shave my head, wear a black robe, sit facing a blank wall for hours? Shouldn't I be traveling the world? Where would my poetry come from? Doesn't art arise out of conflict, chaos, passionate love affairs, female outrage, political activism? Would it quench those flames as well? But I had by 1973 been introduced to Tibetan Buddhism, and Trungpa's admonition to "Come as you are" was a very seductive invitation to the practice of sitting meditation. And wasn't one of his first questions after landing on Western soil, Where are the poets? Take me to the poets. Who ever asks to see the poets!
Since many Tibetan lamas were now living as refugees in India, this trip would possibly satisfy a spiritual-longing as well as the poet's urge to have her senses "deranged" (after Arthur Rimbaud's dictum—"dereglement de tous les sens") by immersion into a deeply exotic and esoteric "other" culture—Indian (Hindu) as well as Buddhist. Rimbaud had also said, "I is another." Not that I wanted to "go native." But I wanted to get inside a particular kind of energy that existed in traditions where people had been struggling with the raw questions of human existence. And the struggle with its austerities was decidedly experiential, not something you could simply read about. You sat in lotus posture, you bowed, then lowered your whole body to the ground in full prostration. You chanted and mumbled mantras. In the Tibetan tradition, you visualized seed syllables in your heart and throat. You became red- or green-hued as you imagined yourself some kind of buddha emanation. There was a path even if it led mysteriously nowhere. Enlightenment? Egolessness? Was that the goal? You couldn't worry about it. The practices as I understood them took the psyche apart, and then rewired the "conglomeration of tendencies" each one of us is to a saner, more compassionate view. The practices were shamanistic and communal as well. You benefited not only yourself but others in the process. People had been doing this stuff for centuries. Imagining their own enlightenment for centuries. Why? To benefit others. To alleviate suffering. To communicate in beautiful and terrifying images and sounds the refinement of mind, the edge and spill and depth of mind and heart and body together. I could finally start dancing with the phenomenal world, I realized, seeing "art" everywhere, in every gesture. I didn't want to worship idols. When I started understanding that the fierce and pleasing deities on tankas, and carved and sculpted figures, represented aspects of my own mind—and were there as sparks and guides and reminders to wake up—they became alive. They were runes for attention. Koans for attention. I could be red-skinned Vajrayogini dancing on the corpse of my own ego. There was no distinction between art and life, art and spirituality. All the sensory accoutrements for the practices plugged me in. The art was vibratory, alive. Emily Dickinson had asked of her own poetry, Does it breathe?
SO WHERE WAS THE RUB? As I was about to take refuge vows (where you give up personal history and attachment and take refuge in the Three Jewels: guru, dharma, and sangha) with the Tibetan lama Chatral Rinpoche shortly after touching Indian soil on our pilgrim-poets' journey, he said through the translator something to the effect of, Well, you'll have to surrender your imagination. Imagination! Was I hearing this properly? He was being quite matter-of-fact. Imagination! How could I surrender my imagination, the mainstay of any person's art? Imagination: my most faithful companion! Imagination was like a lover. It kept me entertained constantly. It was a relationship that fed all aspects of my life. A friend had said to me, "Don't let Rinpoche and the monks see you reading books. They distrust books!" What had I gotten myself into? Books were my teachers! I wouldn't be where I am without books! This must be some kind of stupid cultural conditioning, I thought. And I remembered a line from Milarepa, something about reading the whole world as a book. I kept my fingers crossed symbolically as I took the vow. I would not surrender my imagination. But I got serious about Buddhism nonetheless. And the imagination problem was in some ways like the woman problem, something you were expected to put up with.
"It's a cultural hangover—the feudal oligarchy, you know," one Western male student explained condescendingly about the Tibetan situation. "There is no difference when it comes to the dharma." And yet I watched grown women nuns accorded much less status than child monks. The monasteries had stricter rules concerning women. All women had to sit lower, give obeisance and defer to any man at the various ceremonies and initiations I attended. Women never sat on thrones. No reincarnate tulku tradition for women. I reasoned that without an active imagination, things would never change, that one could never really "see" the other person, that no matter how much compassionate practice you did, unless you could really acknowledge the historical and very particular suffering of women you would be stuck in a limited version of reality and enlightenment. Thus, both issues became linked in my mind. They were potent historical issues not to be trivialized.
It was a bit of a shock to discover that Buddhist cultures were no exception when it came to the repression, subjugation, and domestication of women, and that the Tibetan tradition—the tradition I was most curious about—was just as guilty of this kind of ignorance. And it was continuing in this vein, blithely, unconsciously. Yet the importance and dominance of the feminine permeate the tantric teachings. How to explain this? Why were women treated so poorly? It seems that the female—as energy principle, as cosmic cervix, as innate wisdom—could be imagined and exploited (and that was the key) as a visualized form. But respecting and honoring and dealing with the real woman with all her attendant power and energy was simply too threatening to the economy, to the patriarchal political power structure, to the lama "system." Women were meant to be mothers, nurturers, workers who supported the monolithic monastery structure. However, there were—as is coming to light—important exceptions outside the formal institutions. As one would guess, there did exist very powerful and empowered yoginis who have until recently been unsung. These were often outrageous, "crazy wisdom" practitioners who eschewed the normal paths, who faced inordinate challenges because of their commitment to the austerities of practice, who had to put up with cultural prejudice and male violence. They toppled the hierarchy in their practices. One example would be in the reversal of roles one sees in the tanka paintings depicting the Yab-Yum posture where the male deity dominates, locked in coitus with the much smaller female consort. Imagine, instead, the opposite: a huge female deity straddled by a much diminished male consort. "Yum-Yab" sets the patriarchy on its head.
I was first an artist, but also informed by a strong woman's body which unleashed, at times, a vivid imagination out of its pulsing cervix. I felt this as both a mystical and physical experience. This female form I inhabited was a sacred vessel and would never be the object of abuse, enslavement, eXploitation, or scorn. And as an artist, my body was every woman's. My writing seemed inextricably linked to the patternings of my particular female nervous system and the shifts and cycles of female time, not linear, narrative "male" time. As a novice Buddhist I knew this as a truth, and that both my body and my work were to be the "skillful means" to progress along a spiritual path. Thus, as I took those first vows, I decided to read my life and my very particular experiences in India "like a book." And India was an imagination you could not have imagined yourself, it was so fantastical, chimerical, unreal. How could anybody ever think this place up?