John Giorno on Tiger Hill, Darjeeling, India, October 1971.
John Giorno on Tiger Hill, Darjeeling, India, October 1971.

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                                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
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.

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