Interview with Allen Ginsberg
That impulse to find a teacher never seemed to have nagged at Kerouac. As I wrote in preface to Kerouac’s Pomes All Sizes (City Lights, 1993): the quality most pure in Kerouac was his grasp that life is really a dream (“a dream already ended,” he wrote) as well as being real, both real and dream, both at the same time. The realization of dream as the suchness of this universe pervaded the spiritual intelligence of all Beat writers on differing levels, whether Burroughs’ suspicion of all “apparent sensory phenomena,” Herbert Huncke’s Evening Sun Turned Crimson, Corso’s paradoxical wit—as in “Death hiding beneath the kitchen sink: 'I’m not real’ it cried, 'I’m just a rumor spread by Life.’”
But the doctrine of consciousness of sunyata—emptiness, with all its transcendental wisdom including panoramic awareness, oceanic city vastness, a humorous appreciation of minute details of the big dream, especially “character in the bleak inhuman aloneness” is most clearly and consistently set forth in the body of Kerouac’s prose, poetry, and essays and so forth.
Right now we have a pretty good, if somewhat surprising, sense of what the Beat movement generated. Do you have any sense of where it’s all going? I have one very clear sense. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how the basic Buddhist philosophy of bodhisattva compassion toward all sentient beings runs absolutely counter to most recent political thinking, left and right, all over the world. Instead, that’s more and more “Darwinian.” The world seems to be going toward chaos, armed gangs, breakdown of central governments, a breakdown of “law and order.” Burroughs sent me an article from Harper’s that painted a picture of emerging chaos in the big countries while little countries were dissolving into armed gangs themselves.
Sounds like what Burroughs wrote about fifteen or twenty years ago in Wild Boys. Yes, and this article was a practical layout of it as it’s happening now. Like the Serbians can’t control the Bosnian Serbians, and the Bosnian Serbians can’t control the smaller regiments, and that this is being repeated in the big cities where the underclass becomes more and more isolated, and the rich get richer, and have guards and TV screens in their Park Avenue lobbies. There’s more and more concentration of wealth in fewer hands in the US, and even with the best economy in the world, even if everybody had the same money we’d burn down the planet ecologically. That’s a whole new idea, that there’s not ever going to be restitution for imperial destruction, and there’s not going to be “economic justice.”
This is the thing, along with the commonplace notion of “diminished expectations” for even children of the upper middle class. It’s a paradoxical situation where you do want a civilized world, but on the other hand how can you maintain your civilized world when everybody else is starving? And there are civil wars in foreign countries, in Latin America, Africa, which are taking place on the streets of America too. Demagoguery about homogeneity and immigration are taking place in America as in Germany. How much immigration can you stand? So there’s all these arguments about how much we restrain hoards from countries we wrecked from taking refuge here.
Proposition 187. Yeah, given unemployment as it is now, how many more people can we take in? And how many people can we sustain in this social system, or can Europe sustain in the universal governed social system of medicine and education when there’s such unemployment there? The population is growing older and there are fewer people to pay for it all so there are visible arguments for restraining the mass migrations. There are sensible arguments as well as reactionary ones, but the Buddhist view is just universal compassion everywhere. The only limitation is that there should be no “idiot compassion.” You do whatever you can that’s practical, but the basic Buddhist philosophy is the opposite of Darwinism.
Would a conservative Buddhist argue that allowing too many people to come in is idiot compassion? Yeah, you could get that, but the central philosophy is compassion rather than the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest. The central notion is giving your space rather than clinging to your space and making it secure. It seems to me Buddhism has a tremendous amount of wisdom to contribute right now to the huge world life political dilemma, i.e., what are the limits of compassion? What are the limits in our relationship to chaos and how do we relate to chaos? Right now, politically speaking, basic Buddhist notions are really radically different from the general popular philosophy of life that is taken for granted among intellectuals, even liberal intellectuals.
What’s the best way of continuing to introduce compassion into politics? Well, I think everybody has a natural inclination to compassion. It gets covered over by frustration, ignorance, bad experiences, bad karma, but underneath it, as they say, everybody has a Buddha-nature which is compassionate. This is exactly the opposite of the Hobbesian view, which is that underneath everybody is a snarling animal. This negative view is basically behind a lot of the neoconservative and even liberal philosophies. The Buddhist thing is pure gold in a way. I don’t think it’s been tapped yet popularly as a source of encouragement, as an inspiration, politically or personally. The general sense of cynicism among the younger generation, the sense of alienation, the lack of feeling, being closed down into the TV, channel-surfing pseudo-experience doesn’t really represent the deepest emotions that younger or older people have. The older generation had the CIA-Time magazine-NBC-CBS-multimedia view—an equally cynical denial of the heart, and an emphasis on hyper-rationalistic politics which is equally flawed. The so-called plastic media “enemy” of younger people is an enemy older than currently accounted.
Is there any cause for optimism? Well personally, yeah. Everybody’s got a life to lead and they’ve got a bodhisattva tendency, everybody wants to do good, so I just think on a personal level, yeah. On a larger scale, there doesn’t seem to be any hope unless compassion becomes a more widespread important teaching on how to live. Compassion to self and others.
Image 1: Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki. Courtesy Mark Watt
Image 2: Allen Ginsberg in New York City, 1953, taken by William S. Burrough
Image 3: Allen Ginsberg with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Boulder, Colorado, 1972
Image 4: Philip Whalen in Bolinas, California, 1969, taken by John Do