Interview with Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg was an undergraduate at Columbia University in the early 1940s when he met Jack Kerouac. Together they became charter members of what would become known as the Beat Generation.
In 1972, he began studying with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and continues practicing in the Shambhala tradition, as well as practicing with Gelek Rimpoche.
Tricycle interviewed Mr. Ginsberg in his apartment in New York City in the Spring of 1995.
Can you talk about Alan Watts’s doubts about early “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” and the enormous influence of the Beat generation on literature, as well as on Buddhism in this country? I don’t think Watts realized that he himself would be leaving behind his implements and his priestly ornaments to Gary Snyder, hoping that Gary would take up his lineage or carry on for him or that Philip Whalen would become a Zen sensei in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage, or that there would be a Buddhist college like Naropa founded by other Beat poets. Watts was critical of the hippie-dippie version of Beat Zen.
Critics of the Beat generation as well as of the transcendentalists tended to think of both groups as sort of religious flakes. Well, I am a flaky Buddhist, I don’t meditate that much. I don’t mind being a flaky Buddhist. Why not? Someone has to be a flaky Buddhist. But we’ve all taken on teachers and worked with their teachings for a long time, we’ve done what we could within our capacities. Even Burroughs, who’s decidedly not a Buddhist, has such a Buddhist flavor in images of transitoriness with a kind of courage, spiritual adventurousness and recognition of emptiness at the same time as compassion, it’s quite amazing. But the flavor of American poetry definitely’s changed to have a distinctly Buddhist flavor permeating it now.
What does Buddhist flavor in contemporary poetry mean? Awareness of a meditation practice, awareness of the parallel between aesthetic artistic dharma practice and mindfulness in poetics. Interest in the spontaneous intelligence. Interest in the subject matter as subtly being the mind itself rather than purely materialistic and external. Maybe some of the dharmic doctrine like transitoriness and “making friends with your ego,” rather than the Marxist, Catholic, puritanical previous version of persecuting and murdering your ego, cutting off your ear or burning your manuscripts like Gogol. Or hiding your gayness like Henry James. I think it’s the idea of “making your neurosis your path,” or “making your neurosis your pet” through awareness, transforming waste to treasure, rather than persecuting it, as other ideologies in this century have done.
Buddhism liberated contemporary poetry from any solidified ideological fixation in the elegant sense that T. S. Eliot indicated when he spoke of Henry James as “having a mind so refined that no idea could violate it.” And I would say the same thing of me ["laughs"], and Burroughs. I mean Burroughs has a million ideas but he doesn’t solidify any of them permanently. You might find some European theoretician fixated on an idea, Marxist, Catholic or nationalistic. I don’t think you could say that of many lamas. At best they have minds so refined, no idea could violate them or solidify in their awareness, get them stuck. Like the idea of ego versus non-ego, or form versus emptiness: coemergent wisdom rather than polarization.
Zen has a similar style: contradictoriness, crazy wisdom, based on the fact that things both exist and don’t exist at the same time - relative and absolute truths. You don’t need to drill a hole in your head in order to get enlightened. You can hold several ideas in your mind that are contradictory without freaking out, Keats’s negative capability. Sure, you can reach out to “fact and reason,” as long as it isn’t an aggressive insistence, irritability motivating the reaching for fact. That’s my opinion. But historically there’s been some kind of respect for Buddhist tradition, Buddhist imagery, calm and contemplation, Buddhist brooding or Buddhist implacability, Buddhist stillness in US literature from the Transcendentalists to Sherwood Anderson, Marsden Hartley, the Americanists. In the bohemian lineage, there has always been a little Buddhism.
How do you understand the spaciousness of America and the dharmakaya—the all-encompassing skylike space of Big Mind? One thing I always noticed about Kerouac’s writing—maybe all good “transcendental” or mystical writing—is that it does include a sense of vastness of space. And Kerouac’s work possesses panoramic awareness, a theme he refers to in book after book. There’s a fantastic chapter towards the end of The Town and the City: a view of a football game, a scene on the field, a scene in the stands, and a scene in the radio boxes way up high in the stands, then a scene from above the stands, and the clouds above the stadium, the vast sky, and the camera recedes until the stadium is very small way down in the distance. It’s like a grain of sand in space, as Trungpa would call it, so that sense of all surrounding space or accommodating space or panoramic vastness, or spaciousness (another favorite word of Trungpa’s) is recurrent in Kerouac’s work. In“Dharma Bums”he has it a lot, the intensification of nostalgia, recognition of mortality and transitoriness, compassion for the hero and a take from way above looking down on the scene, as in a dream. I always thought that Trungpa’s identification of space itself and spaciousness with ordinary mind was a genius work of translation, from one concept to another, from“dharmakaya”to space itself, and that turned me on to recognizing how often Kerouac’s touchstone, or reference point, is in the few spots of time whereat everything opens out into that space and there’s that panorama of the world hanging in that space. He portrayed that in his series of novels, which are like “mountains and rivers without end.”
When you talk about this lineage of bohemia in terms of the Beat Generation, what makes it American? The pragmatic aspect. Also the natural development of spontaneity in poetry and painting and movies. Also, rather than dwelling at a distance abstractly on texts where no teacher was, we actually went out and got some teachers. I went to India consciously to look for a teacher.
That was the trip in ’62? Yeah. I found a lot of them actually, but I didn’t find any that I worked with then. But my intention was to find a teacher and to find out the “secrets of the East.” It was as simple as that. And I met teachers I worked with later in USA.