Located in the heart of Lower Manhattan’s restaurant supply district, 222 Bowery is an unlikely dharma fortress. Constructed as a YMCA in 1884, this solid-looking brick hulk has become the home and studio space of a number of well-known New York artists and writers, including poet and Buddhist practitioner John Giorno, who has resided in the former Y’s library since 1966. Greeting me on the wide interior staircase, his handsome, somewhat smashed face lighting up with an infectious smile, Giorno beckons me into a large square room, then pads barefoot over a carpeted floor to fix us coffee. His hair is short and faintly hennaed; his voice is flaring, reedy, and excitable, with a youthful enthusiasm belying his 57 years. In 222 Bowery’s large mezzanine-floor loft a few evenings earlier, I had watched him sitting in full lotus, listening rapt along with 80 others to a talk by Tibetan lama Kyentse Jigme Rinpoche, an old friend visiting from France. Several years
ago Giorno converted this space into an elaborate shrine room for use by Tibetans from the Nyingmapa, Kagyupa, and Sakyapa schools—all the extended lineages of Padma Sambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. Important lamas who have used 222 Bowery as their Manhattan center and dormitory include Khempo Palden Sherab and Khempo Tswewang and His Holiness Sakya Trizin, head of the Sakyapa lineage; H.H. Kempo Jigme Phuntsok and Dodrup Chen Rinpoche have also given teachings thanks to Giorno’s generosity. The YMCA-locker-room-turned-shrine-room, with three massive porcelain urinals in the lavatory, had for six years been the famed “Bunker” residence of Beat legend William Burroughs, who reportedly enjoyed the heavy psychic traces of countless naked boys…
Life on the world’s most famous skid row sometimes tumbles over the edge: Giorno arrived home one winter night a few years ago to find a Bowery corpse frozen on his front steps. CBGB, the original petri dish of punk music, is a few blocks north, where Giorno occasionally performed in the eighties, fronting a four-chord rock band. Further north is St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, where Giorno the poet has appeared innumerable times since the late sixties, ranting about romantic humiliation and sexual exaltation, drugs and tantric sex—not excluding fist-fucking, water sports, and poppers. In his 1970-72 poem “Guru Rinpoche,” Giorno mixed pop imagery with sacred sutras, portraying gay eroticism as a form of spiritual devotion:
He carries He carries
the Vajra in his right
in his right hand
hand the Vajra in his right hand
the Vajra in his right hand with palm
with palm upwards
upwards with palm upwards
with palm upwards against
against the chest
the chest against the chest
against the chest
feeling his cock
his cock feeling his cock
feeling his cock swelling
swelling even more
even more swelling even more
swelling even more inside
inside the man
the man inside the man
inside the man…
Ask him what his Tibetan friends think of his work, and Giorno laughs.
I don’t think they understand my poetry because they’re not readers. But when they come to live performances, they see the energy. They see the intentions aren’t bad, so they usually don’t have any judgments at all.
A pioneer of performance poetry—one of the leading cultural trends of the nineties—Giorno has fashioned a signature style of intense, highly amplified, repetitive verse, with subtle shifts of phrasing, volume, and pitch to alter time and sense. Giorno has also been crucial to expanding the range of avant-garde poetry and music via new media technologies: his record company, Giorno Poetry Systems, has released 28 albums since 1967, producing experimental rock groups such as New Order, Sonic Youth, Live Skull, Husker Du, and Cabaret Voltaire, as well as Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, and Diamanda Galas, and selling as many as 20,000 CDs, LPs, and tape cassettes of each release, along with Video Paks. Many of the releases bear wonderfully mordant titles, such as Big Ego, Sugar, Alcohol and Meat, Smack My Crack; and Better an Old Demon Than a New God. His compilation album A Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of a Corpse (1985) included Burroughs’ vicious Mr. President, which led to Giorno Poetry Systems’ abrupt de-funding by the Reagan-era National Endowment for the Arts.
Sixties Renaissance man, seventies media maven, and eighties art-provocateur, Giorno has been a devoted Buddhist practitioner for almost twenty-five years, exemplifying the late-twentieth-century cultural phenomenon of activist-as-yogi. His Poets & Artists with AIDS Fund gave away $88,000 last year, providing gifts to the sick and needy, help for the Tibetan Medicine AIDS program of Dr. Trogawa Rinpoche, and funding for the Gregory Kolovakos Award for AIDS Writing. “It’s one of those blessed things,” he tells me, “we always have just enough money to give to every request.” Little known outside avant-garde poetry and music circles, having long ago rejected aesthetic orthodoxy and intellectual chic, Giorno basically opted for following his heart and living a more or less compassionate life.
Born in Manhattan in 1936, the grandchild of Italian immigrants who arrived in the United States in the early 1880s, Giorno was raised in upper-middle-class Roslyn Heights on the north shore of Long Island, while his father commuted to Wall Street. “I was part of a generation of privilege who believed we could do anything,” he recalls. Giorno became a poet at age 14, when a school assignment gave him “a blissful feeling of recognition”; at 16 he realized he was gay, and he never backed down from that identity, either. Devouring modern literature in high school, then majoring in comparative literature at Columbia University from 1954 to 1958, where he studied with the resident greats—Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling, Eric Bentley—Giorno idolized the T.S. Eliot of “The Waste Land” and edited an issue of theColumbia Review. Attending three of Dylan Thomas’ legendary 92nd Street YMHA readings (the first was as early as 1951), Giorno subsequently nearly wore out his LP of Under Milk Wood—the distant origin of his own performance poetry. Then one night durng Easter break, someone gave Giorno three joints and a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which sent him running through Morningside Heights to Riverside Park, screaming with joy. “In 1956, to read Allen’s words was like liberation,” he explains. “Before that, there was just nothing but the dismal, depressing fifties, you know?”
Attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop after graduation, he lasted in the Midwest only six months before returning to New York, where a suicide attempt, spurred by a broken love affair, prompted his parents to withdraw financial support in 1959. So he took a job on Wall Street, “which at the close of the Eisenhower years was a place you wandered in at 10:00 or 11:00, and the place closed shortly after 3:00.” After work, Giorno usually went home for a long nap in preparation for a night of partying with a group of 30 or 40 downtown visual artists, dancers, and musicians, who tended to show up at the same openings and performances. “The poet who works as a stockbroker,” as Giorno was widely known, first met Andy Warhol in late 1961, becoming his platonic date and occasional lover through the early years of the Pop explosion. He also became a footnote in cinema history as Warhol’s first “Superstar.” The aspiring filmmaker used to watch Giorno slumbering in bed for nights at a time, and eventually made him the subject of his first movie, Sleep (1963), which showed the poet in various positions over the course of a very uneventful six hours.
Saving some money and landing back on his parents’ dole, Giorno left Wall Street and returned to poetry, which still seemed “totally out to lunch” to him in those years. But the influence of Pop art came naturally: Giorno’s “found” poems of the early sixties utilized images taken from “everyday life, coming into my sense inputs from newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, or books…” as he wrote a decade later. Giorno’s first book, The American Book of the Dead, published in 1964, bore unmistakable parallels to Warhol’s Contemporary “suicide” silkscreens of car crashes and electric chairs. Giorno and Warhol were together in November 1963, weeping in front of a TV at the events of the Kennedy assassination. But shortly after the opening of the West 47th Street Factory in November 1964, Giorno left the Warhol scene, not long before meeting Brion Gysin, white magician, world-class storyteller, and champion of the literary “cut-up.” Gysin had introduced the latter technique to his close friend William Burroughs, who at 50 was already notorious as the author of Naked Lunch (1962), a novel Newsweek had hailed as “a brutal, priapic, terrifying, paranoiac, and savagely funny book that swings giddily between uncontrolled hallucination and fierce, exact satire.” Giorno kept running into both men at parties and readings across the city, and by March 1965, he and Gysin were lovers, with the older man very much the mentor and Giorno the devoted adept—a recurring theme throughout the poet’s middle years. The two men subsequently took 34 LSD trips together in Room 703 at the Chelsea Hotel. “Brion was not a meditator in any formal way,” Giorno recalls of that period:
But he did sit in lotus position and follow his mind—not watching it to see its nature, but just following it, the opposite of meditation….But I gradually discovered that if I didn’t hold on to a thought and just let it go, my mind rested, and that this was very powerful. And then, if one was lucky, one had a degree of bliss or a shot of white light that lasted for as long as one didn’t grasp after a thought. A fleeting glimpse of the relative, that only mirrors the absolute….Brion and LSD changed my life.
So did high technology: a pioneer in the use of special effects in recorded poetry, Gysin collaborated with Giorno on some of his earliest sound tapes—collage verse backed with ambient sound. After Gysin and Burroughs departed for Europe that August, Giorno eventually followed, sharing his lover’s apartment in Tangier next door to Jane Bowles and below her husband, Paul. In the ancient city of Fez, Giorno took LSD to visit the ruined tombs of the Merinides kings; on trips further south to Jajouka, he and Gysin smoked kef with Bedouin tribesmen and heard the “Pipes of Pan,” not long before the old masters died and their culture vanished entirely. But by September 1966, Giorno was back in New York, feeling alone and somewhat befuddled:
It was like all those things, the sixties sound heroic now, but the other side was that that was one of the most unhappy periods of my whole life. Everyone was always grasping at anything and miserably unhappy. There were suicides and fights, somebody was always breaking up with their lover—it was really sort of hellish.
At least the expanding counterculture had improved the climate for public art: two weeks after returning from Morocco, Giorno moved into 222 Bowery and took a job as Robert Rauschenberg’s video operator for Experiments in Art & Technology (EAT), a historic collaboration with Bell Lab scientists at the East 26th Street Armory. Rauschenberg and Giorno became lovers, and their work together advanced another motif in Giorno’s career: a belief in grass-roots dissemination. His second small-press book, Poems by John Giorno (Mother Press, 1967), was lauded by critic John Perrault as “a literary event, a paradoxical indictment, and a perverse celebration of rawad-mass language.” HisConsumer Product Poetry (1968-74) consisted of words printed on matchbooks, T-shirts, flags, and chocolate bars—the latter commissioned by a German art gallery. Eventually Giorno followed Rauschenberg into environmental performance, taking all five senses into account: his first “Electronic Sensory Poetry Environment” was Raspberry, a March 1967 “happening” at New York University, during which 500 people smoked pot and wandered around under black lights, in what looked like a tank of ultraviolet water, listening to the poet’s recorded verse.
Although Giorno had not yet found the dharma, he was firmly set on a path of transformation and self-exploration, pushing himself into some of the most radical art experiments of his day. His most notorious art endeavor of the sixties was inspired by the National Weather Service: “Dial-a-Poem,” which began at the Architectural League of New York on West 64th Street in December 1967, featured two-and-one-half-minute recorded phone poems by Giorno, Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Diane di Prima, LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, Abbie Hoffman, Black Panther Bobby Seale, and East Village teenager Jim Carroll. After The New York Times and The Today Show ran favorable pieces, lines were deluged with tens of thousands of calls an hour; when Junior Scholastic published an article, suburban kids dialed in to hear Burroughs’ homo-erotic scamper The Wild Boys and Carroll’s drug-and-sex-soaked Basketball Diaries, prompting a parent’s complaint. Phone service was temporarily suspended, but the New York State Council on the Arts helped to restore lines that stayed open until June 1968, accepting 1,112,337 calls in all. In the meantime, Giorno became gossip columnist for Culture Hero, a short-lived, Interview-like quarterly founded in 1968 by artist Les Levine. His column infuriated the art world with its accounts of extramarital affairs, its graphic descriptions of former lovers’ penis sizes and sexual proclivities; Gysin in Europe reportedly referred to Giorno as “the Pepys of the pariah set.” But were these “Vitamin G” columns truly attacks on the self-serving images and growing commercialization of the New York art world, or Giorno’s boorish response to not having his ex-lovers’ wealth and fame? “Maybe underneath it all there was some malice, but that certainly wasn’t the intention,” Giorno says today. “I thought I was just mirroring their own maliciousness.” Old dharma friends characterize his style as being “like a trickster,” wanting to expose people, to blow their covers. Whatever his motivation, Giorno would continue his tendency to burn bridges; in a 1974 interview inGay Sunshine, he branded Allen Ginsberg a “pushy Jew…a founding father of the bullshit liberals,” and “more or less a bad poet” who hadn’t written anything worth reading since the fifties—a possible explanation for why Giorno would remain uninvited for thirteen years to the poetry school Ginsberg helped to create at Naropa Institute.
Giorno was perhaps legitimately angry at the art world for its lack of concern with the political crisis and the war in Vietnam. In the fall of 1969, he shifted ground, becoming actively involved with the co-founders of the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Determined to make poetry “a razor blade…cutting through the ego of America karma,” Giorno was the central organizer of a 30-hour-long New Year’s Eve 1969 benefit at St. Mark’s Church for White Panther “political prisoner” John Sinclair, who had recently been busted for selling joints to an undercover agent. In March 1970, he participated in a press conference that kicked off “free radio” WPAX, and eventually performed the actual labor of assembling ten 90-minute recordings of rock music, gay and women’s shows, and anti-war news for Radio Hanoi in both the north and south. After the broadcasts aired, Vice President Spiro Agnew personally denounced Giorno and Abbie Hoffman as “would-be Hanoi Hannahs,” and called for their arrest as traitors. (No one had been convicted of treasonable speech since Aaron Burr, but Giorno’s lawyers assured him this could only occur during a declared war, which Vietnam was not.) Antiwar work continued at the “Information” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in June, where Giorno installed twelve Dial-a-Poem tapes, including political messages from Bobby Seale and Hoffman. Diane di Prima’s “How to Make a Molotov Cocktail” was on the line the day that a gigantic bomb exploded in the IBM building, raising the possibility that the Rockefellers’ favorite museum may have provided information to terrorists. Panicky trustees allowed the Dial-a-Poem program to continue for 3 more months, in order to avoid the appearance of censorship, and publicity pushed calls to 60,000 a week.
The fusion of mass poetry, technology, and politics that characterized Giorno’s turn-of-the-decade activism was an uneasy one: his third book, Balling Buddha (Kulchur Press, 1970), written before taking formal vows of refuge, suggested the poet’s longtime casual sense of himself as Buddhist, and a growing desire to “make it” to some higher spiritual ground. Balling Buddha’s surrealistic evocations of war, brutality, joy, and explicit sex introduced the formal device of double columns down each page, which Giorno has employed ever since. “After doubling the line, tripling it, I found musical rhythms developing in the flow of the words, like chanting,” he later wrote. Otherwise the poet felt on the verge of nervous collapse: “His power consisted of whispering potent phrases from newspapers,” he wrote in one poem, echoing both the era’s minimalist zeitgeist and his own mounting despair. “Everything failed,” Giorno later claimed. “Drugs failed—they gave you an indication of the nature of mind, but you ended up crashing and being totally depressed.” Visiting upstate in Cherry Valley at Allen Ginsberg’s summer place and tripping on LSD every three or four days, Giorno was making so many annoying spiritual inquiries that Ginsberg finally bellowed, “Ahh!! Stop asking me so many questions! Why don’t you go to India and find out for yourself?”
“I went through shock, then anger, then feeling ‘What a great idea!'” Giorno says. By March 1971 he was in New Delhi, then heading to Almora, a hill station near India’s western border with Nepal, in the company of friends Wynn and Sally Chamberlain (who were Hindus). In Almora they rendezvoused with their friends Nena Thurman, whom they knew through her ex-husband, acid guru Timothy Leary, and Nena’s current husband, Robert. The future chairman of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, Robert Thurman had been the first Westerner ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk since the Chinese takeover in 1959, but had recently renounced his Gelugpa vows; he now invited Giorno to accompany his family across northern India to Dharamsala, where the group passed two weeks as houseguests of the Dalai Lama himself. (Giorno sat silently for hours while Thurman and His Holiness conversed in Tibetan.) Returning to Almora, Giorno met a Nyingmapa teacher, Nyichang Rinpoche, and accompanied him to Sarnath, site of the Buddha’s first teachings after Enlightenment, where Giorno spent July and August studying Tibetan language and religion.
His spiritual wandering was soon to end: invited by an American friend, Dhammadipo (John Mills), Giorno traveled overnight by train to Darjeeling, where he met his friend’s teacher, His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche. He stayed for two months, during which Dudjom Rinpoche accepted Giorno’s vow of refuge. “One takes refuge in one’s own Buddha-nature, which is no different from that of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha,” Giorno says today.
But in reality, as a practitioner you take refuge in your teacher, since he is an example of that Buddha-nature which is beyond concepts, beyond subject-object relations. You take refuge in him as a lover, in the best sense—or you should, at least—and with great devotion. That’s the preliminary. And then over years of practice, one takes refuge in one’s own wisdom-mind, one’s own enlightenment, and there is no longer any difference between the teacher’s mind and the disciple’s mind. And that’s the source of all refuge, and it manifests beautifully at various levels.
In a classic sixties-to-seventies conversion, Giorno had not only embraced the Buddhist notion of enlightened mind; he also became the unlikely favorite American student of the leader of one of the four principal schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Nyingma means “old school” or “ancient ones.” It traces its origins to Padma Sambhava, the Indian sage (and non-monk) who along with the monk Shantirakshita introduced Buddhist teachings to the Land of Snows. The pinnacle of Nyingmapa teachings is an approach to meditation known as Dzogchen, or Great Perfection. The Nyingma grant special importance to the notion of tertons, treasure finders—twenty-five reincarnated disciples of Padma Sambhava, whose scriptural discoveries and visionary revelations maintain the freshness and vitality of the teachings. Dudjom Rinpoche was one of these treasure finders, widely venerated as a scholar and a great meditator. Studying with him there and living in a Tibetan-run guest house virtually in the shadow of Dudjom’s residence, Giorno felt blessed. Returning to New York in September 1971, he resumed serious Buddhist practice and studies at 222 Bowery, in private classes with a Western scholar, Arthur Mandelbaum. In December, he visited Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s year-old Vermont retreat center, Tail of the Tiger (later renamed Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, or KTD), doing Nyingmapa practices with Trungpa Rinpoche, who, Giorno believes, helped him immeasurably.
But the repercussions of earlier events continued to effect the present: during the trip across northern India, Giorno had suffered an accidental blow to his left testicle, and the injury had never healed. By November 1972, during yet another acid-drenched “happening” at St. Mark’s Church, he was approached by Nanau, a Japanese Zen poet-monk, who told him he looked sick and urged him to see a doctor. Examining physicians at Bellevue wanted to operate immediately, but Giorno talked his way out and eventually landed at Memorial Hospital, where doctors relieved him of a testicle, which had swollen rock-hard to the size of a small lemon. A biopsy revealed four kinds of cancer, three of them highly lethal; five surgeons went to work, displacing Giorno’s small intestines through a twelve-inch incision, removing fifty lymph nodes along his spine, replacing his intestines, and sewing him up again.
Ten days later, he was home; three days after that, he was at a ski lodge in the Grand Tetons, attending a seminar on the eight aspects of Padma Sambhava conducted by Trungpa Rinpoche, where meditation, hot saunas, and rolls in the snow brought Giorno back to life. Cancer in My Left Ball (Something Else Press, 1973) registers the shock and recovery of those days, although most of the poems were written prior to surgery. Finishing his 100,000 prostrations, the required preliminary practice, Giorno was eager to see Dudjom again and to meet other lamas. By Labor Day 1973 he was back in India, accompanied this time by writers Michael Brownstein and Anne Waldman.
“John had a real plan,” Waldman recalls. “Surrendering ego, giving up reference points, leaving behind personal history—the trip was a powerful way to enter the mandala.” Landing in Delhi, the trio traveled directly to Darjeeling, where six great Nyingmapa lamas lived within a quarter-mile of each other: Kangyur Rinpoche, a legendary holder of the dharma library (who would be dead within a year); Chatral Rinpoche (who became Waldman’s root lama); and Dilgo Khyentse, Dodrup Chen, and other major Nyingmapa rinpoches then in Darjeeling, which lay on the historic trade route to Tibet. Giorno spent three months living in Dudjom Rinpoche’s household, a virtual family member. “Dudjom Rinpoche was a very elegant, gentle man, and the whole family adored John,” recalls Vivian Kurz, another longtime student. “The lamas love eccentrics, personalities. They like people who are themselves. They look for an interest in transformation—a spark, an openness to develop the mind and develop compassion.” Giorno’s homosexuality, which he had never concealed, was never remotely an issue with the Tibetans, in part due to what the poet considers the Nyingmapa tradition of loving tolerance.
“All of the monasteries in all of the traditions are very, very gay,” Giorno claims.
When I was visiting the dormitories at Sarnath, I’d see these real young men—they may have been nineteen, but emotionally they were fourteen—sleeping in each others’ arms. They may not have called it gay, but they were lovers—they made a heart contact, they loved each other the way you love a person…I’ve had wonderful relationships—I’ve had many Tibetans completely in love with me…To have that emotional connection was enough. It was without problems—never jealousies, none of it.
Strictly speaking, wasn’t homosexuality frowned upon? Giorno responds:
I’m not sure about the various traditions, but at least among the lamas that I’ve spoken to, they’re very aware that a man’s mind and a woman’s mind is the same mind—we’re all made up of male and female energies—and that some people have a need for more of one or another, more masculine energy or female energy.
After a five-week retreat at Kangyur Rinpoche’s monastery, Giorno returned to New York in late January 1974, confident that his spiritual “retreat” was by no means an evasion. He may have lost much of his faith in Western art, but felt increasingly intent on expanding and disseminating alternative cultures. A two-record set based on the Dial-a-Poem series, Disconnected (1974), was followed promptly by a Burroughs album, a Frank O’Hara album, a record of his own poetry, and another of Waldman’s. By late spring 1975, Giorno was traveling to Kathmandu, where Dudjom had relocated, with plans to invite his teacher to start a center in New York.
Raising money from a number of wealthy American practitioners, Giorno finally welcomed Dudjom to Manhattan in April 1976; and a permanent dharma center opened on West 16th Street as a place “to lure the lamas back,” says Vivian Kurz, who joined Giorno, Les Levine, and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer on its board of directors.
Giorno enjoyed a spiritual double life through the late seventies and early eighties, splitting time between His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche and William Burroughs, who had moved into the 222 Bowery Bunker in November 1975. ”I’d be coming down the stairs and William would wave me in for a joint and a vodka and tonic,” Giorno recalls with a laugh. “Then I’d go over to 16th Street and the Tibetans would laugh at me. I told them I did it for my work.” Whenever Dudjom returned to the city, which was often, Giorno essentially moved in, becoming especially close to Dudjom’s wife and two daughters—Nyingmapa teachings emphasize the presence of consorts and female energies. Giorno also drifted naturally into the East Village punk and New Wave music scene, in much the same way that other artists did—partially in reaction to the boredom and corruption of the art and poetry worlds. Giorno’s book Shit, Piss, Blood, Pus and Brains (Painted Bride Press, 1977) made its own connections with punk, but his new fascination with “street rock” also represented an integration of what he had always been: both cutting-edge extremist and popular communicator.
Giorno played a key role in the creation of the Nova Convention, a historic high point of punk/New Wave that brought together academics, art world figures, and entertainment stars for a three-day-long “gathering of the tribes” in early December 1978, celebrating Burroughs’ growing eminence across genres and generations. The Nova Convention capped the decade of the seventies, attracting extensive media coverage and standing-room-only crowds, but Burroughs was entering his seventies and slowing down; in 1981 he left the Bunker for Lawrence, Kansas—the same year that Dudjom Rinpoche’s health began to decline, prompting his retirement from teaching at Yeshe Nyingpo, as the 16th Street center was called. With His Holiness rarely on the scene, and internal politics and money squabbles growing increasingly acrimonious, Giorno chose to withdraw from active participation at the center, leaving behind a competent director, Jon Pfaudler. Friends suspect that Giorno’s mixed experience at Yeshe Nyingpo was the major factor influencing the form of his current, more casual, nonsectarian center at 222 Bowery.
No longer the devoted adept following the lead of a magician-mentor, Giorno at age 45 was on his own, increasingly in demand, nationally and internationally, as a performance poet. The worldwide ascendance of punk and New Wave had opened a wealth of musical possibilities for poets, inspiring Giorno to assemble a consortium of art-rock heavy-weights to record an album, “I’m Rock Hard” in the spring of 1982, then to front a touring group to clubs in Toronto, Montreal, Miami, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Detroit over the next 5 or 6 years. Keeping the John Giorno Band proved difficult financially, and it folded in 1988. At the same time a new cultural threat had emerged in part as an aftershock of the previous decade—the first in human history in which people did more or less everything they wanted to do sexually, as Edmund White has argued.
“In the late seventies and up until about 1980, I was virtually the king of promiscuity, and there is no way I did not come into contact with the AIDS virus,” says Giorno, who practiced unsafe sex as late as the summer of 1982, in one instance with graffiti artist Keith Haring in the men’s room at the Prince Street subway station, when Haring already knew he was HIV-positive. “But for whatever reason, it’s never manifested,” Giorno claims. “That’s my karma, my luck—and that’s rare these days.” With his fellow practitioner and longtime companion, the classical pianist Paul Alberts, Giorno founded his AIDS Treatment Project in 1984, a year before he himself tested negative:
My intention is to treat a complete stranger as a lover or close friend. My way is to give money personally and directly, with strong emotional support—by bringing it to the hospital, or to the person’s apartment, or by the person coming to my home. Indiscriminate compassion, not making distinctions between people—not “I’ll help this one, but not that one, because I don’t know him.”
By mid-1994, Giorno’s one-man operation (which he administers out of his own pocket) had given away $460,732, including a $50,000 grant to the University of Miami Medical School for a research chair in neurological AIDS. He has also provided spiritual support through ten-day phowa retreats at the Bunker. Giorno explains:
Phowa is a specialty of Ayang Rinpoche, who travels around the world giving teachings and retreats on what happens at the moment of death, and how you can eject your consciousness from your heart center through the crown of your head into a buddha field. It’s a little similar to gymnastics. If you practice this and perfect it in your life, then at the moment of death it will be like a habit, and you’ll do it. Dudjom Rinpoche said that if you’re not a perfected Dzogchen master who can dissolve your mind at the moment of death, and you’re not a perfected Vajrayana master who can dissolve your consciousness to primordial wisdom at the moment of death, then you essentially better get your ass going and perfect phowa, because if you don’t, at the moment of death you are really in trouble, because your mind will be at the mercy of its own terror.
Giorno devotes seven days a week to his AIDS project, but tries to limit administrative work sessions to only an hour or two. Poetry remains his great passion—even if he tends to dismiss his writing as not worth talking about much, preferring his live performances. Not everyone agrees: his publisher Lita Hornick described Grasping at Emptiness (Kulchur Press, 1985) as “a unified commentary on both our civilization and man’s fate,” while Burroughs calls Giorno’s newest book, you got to burn to shine (High Risk, 1994), “litanies from the underworld of the mind [which] reverberate in your head and ventriloquize your own thoughts.” In conversation Giorno can be terrific company—a funny impressionist, still a lover of gossip, and reportedly an excellent chef—but above all else a Buddhist, devoted to the pursuit of enlightenment. In contrast to Giorno the avant-garde, over-the-edge, try-anything, gay radical poet, Giorno the Buddhist embraces an orthodoxy rare among American converts—unquestioning faith in his gurus, in the empowerment of his lineage, and, more than anything else, in the supreme efficacy of devotion and practice. “His lifeblood is really Buddhism,” says Kurz, who arranged the Bunker talk by Kyentse Jigme Rinpoche. Quietly but fiercely Nyingmapa, Giorno has welcomed other Tibetan orders to his shrineroom as well, but Gelugpa monks have yet to request the space; Giorno alludes to their “problems” with women, marriage, and sexuality generally, as well as their belief that non-monks cannot be enlightened—although he understands that the Dalai Lama, who heads the Gelugpa order, is somewhat more broad-minded on this issue. Giorno’s current activities surely exemplify the Dalai Lama’s recent re-emphasis on the true purpose of religion: “to bring about inner transformation by helping others.”
Tricycle: Have you experienced homophobia among the Tibetans?
Giorno: Not personally, no. They’re very funny that way. Because they have to be traditional Buddhists—the Vinaya, or monk’s vows, and the Lower Vehicles are very much against homosexual activity. His Holiness Druk Chen, head of the Drugpa Kagyus, who’s a good friend of mine—he was five years old when I met him in Darjeeling in 1971 and now he comes and stays in the Bunker when he’s here—His Holiness said to me (and this was a very personal thought of his) that when the Buddha gave teachings 2,500 years ago, he didn’t do it in a vacuum and he didn’t do it to an enlightened audience. He gave teachings in a very primitive culture in which homosexuality was a taboo. So the Buddha reflected that in the teachings. That early Vedic culture 2,500 years ago was also very patriarchal and very demeaning to women. And the Buddha reflected that view of women, just so that he would be taken seriously. You don’t start out teaching by alienating everyone in the room. And so these views of sex and gender became the basis for the first level, the Vinaya: to include the morality of the day. As the Buddha worked up in the higher vehicles, those concepts fell away.
Tricycle: Are the Nyingma perhaps more tolerant of sexuality generally, given the fact that marriage is permitted?
Giorno: The Nyingmas have a great veneration for women, and their way of dealing with this is marriage—or having a girlfriend, and doing heterosexual practice that way. The monastic traditions in the Nyingma are no different than other traditions, they’re very strict, but inside everyone there are all these emotions…I remember once one of Dudjom Rinpoche’s disciples talking about how, if you’re going to do this sexual practice, tab lam, you do that practice with a woman. In most countries, these yogic practices are done with a woman. Then I said, “Why not with a man? That’s being homophobic and discriminatory against women!” And I said, “I have one wish, and that is that Padma Sambhava will bring forth as a terma [a hidden teachingJ—because presumably it’s always there—a practice enabling gay men and lesbian women to have some kind of practice to reach enlightenment. I don’t want it in my lifetime, and I don’t ask for my own personal gain, but for the benefit of all gay men and lesbian women who have suffered for all these many millennia!” I told this to a disciple of Dudjom Rinpoche, and he actually shook his head, as if he was displeased with my attachment to being gay. I saw that, and so I went through it one more time, just so he would hear all these things that we’ve been talking about here in America, starting with civil rights and going into women’s rights and feminism and then into gay rights. It isn’t about being attached to gay sexuality—it’s the idea that one should use sexuality as a means to become enlightened. In the Vajrayana you use
everything to become enlightened—you only become enlightened by your own phenomena! And if you’re a gay man, or a lesbian, you should be able to use that, and not be conditioned by the Tibetan culture, or small-minded traditions going back to Vedic times. Gay and lesbian Buddhists have been victims of discrimination for millennia, and I want to change that.
Tricycle: Have you encountered people in the sangha who feel that somehow your poetry and your gayness are too extreme?
Giorno: No one has ever said that to me.
Tricycle: But do you sense a growing cultural conservatism among American Buddhists?
Giorno: Yes, and I’m appalled by it. To be a practitioner and a householder is probably what’s best for most of the world, but when it’s put forward as a view or moral code that cannot be violated, and other alternatives are seen somehow as not acceptable—it’s a problem. There are certain elements within the various Buddhist traditions, Tibetan and Zen and otherwise, which are by their nature—and this is my personal view now—puritanical. The recent conference in Dharamsala about Buddhist morality and the morality of Buddhist teachers, over which the Dalai Lama presided, became a kind of—and I’m exaggerating now—a great fundamentalist movement arising inside of Buddhism. I don’t think that it arose because Tibetan lamas in India decided that they needed to purify the Western teachings. I think it arose here, among Westerners who have these ideas, perhaps politically motivated, and made what I think is a rather unpleasant situation. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, they’re unaware of what they’re doing, but in some of these people, a lot of it arose out of anger! And that’s a nightmare. You can’t tell a teacher what to do. You’re talking about what some teachers may do personally with their disciples, especially sexually—and you cannot tell a teacher, a guru, a buddha, that he shouldn’t do something—or anything! It just doesn’t work at the Vajrayana or tantric level. And it’s a big problem!
Tricycle: Some years ago you said, “Drugs let me see the nature of mind. ” What are your feelings about that today?
Giorno: I was explaining what happened in the sixties when a lot of us took LSD trips. What I meant is that drugs allow us to see not the nature of mind but the display of mind…Drugs and alcohol numb the central nervous system, and allow the natural clarity of the mind to flow free—that blissful state that is always inside all phenomena. I don’t take drugs anymore, but drugs are sacred substances, and I think it’s disrespectful to discriminate against them. In the seventies, LSD and the rest became sexual drugs: you took drugs and made it with one or more people for endless hours, although of course inside of a drug experience one never stopped watching the nature of one’s mind. But what happens with all drugs—and I’m not talking now just about heroin or cocaine or speed, but also about drugs that are not physically addictive, like marijuana and LSD—is that once you have a successful experience, you don’t get that kind of experience again outside of drugs, unless you’re a completely realized being. So you go back to the drugs because you’re not going to get those experiences again by just being your normal self. If your intentions are to get those kinds of experiences in meditation, drugs aren’t such a great thing to take. They can block all progress.
Tricycle: So drugs are not something recommended for practitioners who want to embark on a Buddhist path.
Giorno: No, obviously not. It’s not the way you create a foundation for your practice to come to completion. But among the many people out there who are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, there’s a new resurgence of taking LSD. And I always think of them, those people, suffering at the mercy of their minds, as people like myself, who will hopefully see an indication of the nature of his or her mind, and which will start them on the path to complete enlightenment.
Tricycle: I’m quoting now from Literary Outlaw, Ted Morgan’s biography of William Burroughs: “As a Buddhist, Giorno had a theory that in the use of those sex drugs they had transgressed certain other realms, whose attendants had become angry, with a lethal anger from the spirit world.”
Giorno: That was just one of my dumb concepts. In the mid-eighties I had this idea that back when we took all those great drugs one indeed entered into other realms. There are a hundred million heavens, and as many naga or spirit realms. And when protectors of the god realms become angry, they’re very powerful. That was my thought. Whether it’s true or not, I’ve no idea. But it’s a possibility. That’s how bad things sometimes happen. In the canon of all religions, there are curses from deities who become angry: pestilence, epidemics, this or that. This was one possible subtle cause for the AIDS epidemic, along with the possibility that it’s a man-made virus, but they’ve completely covered their tracks, and we’ll never know. Dudjom Rinpoche prophesied that in the age of the Kali-Yuga [the degenerate agel, which we’re at the beginning of now, there will be eighty-two new diseases that have never been heard of before, for which there will be no cure. He thought AIDS was one of those diseases.
Tricycle: You have described your work as what arises in your mind: “My poisons transformed or not transformed.” What do you mean by this?
Giorno: I write about the five poisons—desire, anger, ignorance, jealousy, and pride—and their luminous empty nature. Whatever it is, anger or desire or whatever, at the moment that thought or emotion arises it is very pure. It becomes a poison one instant later, when you attach to it, when you want to hold on and not let go. And depending on one’s “graspiness,” it becomes a huge poison, or a deadly poison, or whatever. Dudjom Rinpoche had a great teaching for this: the metaphor is a tree. In the Hinayana you try to cut it down, cut out all the roots, but the stupid thing keeps growing back! Then on the Mahayana level, you burn the tree or poison it. And of course it still grows back because the roots are there. The Vajrayana is even more complicated—chemicals transform it. But on the very highest Vajrayana level is the practitioner who is described as a peacock, who eats the poison leaves and is not killed by them—and they make his feathers more beautiful.
LIFE IS A KILLER
what they do
and money is
it can be
they need me
I need them,
you guys from,
into the night
When I was
15 years old,
and now that
it was true.
I got dragged
by my foot,
if I wasn’t so
I would have
if I wasn’t so tired
I’d have a good time
if I wasn’t so tired I’d have
a good time.
cause there’s a nest of wasps
coursing through your
If you think
it have come
if you think about it
how could it have come to this,
down the road,
and it’s there
and it’s there
and it’s there.
being inside you
that’s what I want
being inside you
that’s what I want being
and you hope
How are you
how are you
you feeling good
how are you feeling
how are you feeling
on a zafu
How the hell
did I end
for a job?
I can’t say
I don’t need
cause I need
I can say
Everyone is at
you’re being taken
at La Cote Basque
and you’re eating
they are taking
I’m not going
I ripped up
I ripped up my
and keep me
crank me up
and keep me open,
crank me up and keep me
it will seem
and it doesn’t matter
everything you think
everything you think is
is a killer.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.