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 aserendipitous 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 spontaneousdohas (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?
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