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.”

shapely1

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?

SO WHERE WAS THE RUB? As I was about to take refuge vows (where you give up personal history and attachment and take refuge in the Three Jewels: guru, dharma, and sangha) with the Tibetan lama Chatral Rinpoche shortly after touching Indian soil on our pilgrim-poets’ journey, he said through the translator something to the effect of, Well, you’ll have to surrender your imagination. Imagination! Was I hearing this properly? He was being quite matter-of-fact. Imagination! How could I surrender my imagination, the mainstay of any person’s art? Imagination: my most faithful companion! Imagination was like a lover. It kept me entertained constantly. It was a relationship that fed all aspects of my life. A friend had said to me, “Don’t let Rinpoche and the monks see you reading books. They distrust books!” What had I gotten myself into? Books were my teachers! I wouldn’t be where I am without books! This must be some kind of stupid cultural conditioning, I thought. And I remembered a line from Milarepa, something about reading the whole world as a book. I kept my fingers crossed symbolically as I took the vow. I would not surrender my imagination.But I got serious about Buddhism nonetheless. And the imagination problem was in some ways like the woman problem, something you were expected to put up with.

“It’s a cultural hangover—the feudal oligarchy, you know,” one Western male student explained condescendingly about the Tibetan situation. “There is no difference when it comes to the dharma.” And yet I watched grown women nuns accorded much less status than child monks. The monasteries had stricter rules concerning women. All women had to sit lower, give obeisance and defer to any man at the various ceremonies and initiations I attended. Women never sat on thrones. No reincarnate tulku tradition for women. I reasoned that without an active imagination, things would never change, that one could never really “see” the other person, that no matter how much compassionate practice you did, unless you could really acknowledge the historical and very particular suffering of women you would be stuck in a limited version of reality and enlightenment. Thus, both issues became linked in my mind. They were potent historical issues not to be trivialized.

It was a bit of a shock to discover that Buddhist cultures were no exception when it came to the repression, subjugation, and domestication of women, and that the Tibetan tradition—the tradition I was most curious about—was just as guilty of this kind of ignorance. And it was continuing in this vein, blithely, unconsciously. Yet the importance and dominance of the feminine permeate the tantric teachings. How to explain this? Why were women treated so poorly? It seems that the female—as energy principle, as cosmic cervix, as innate wisdom—could be imagined and exploited (and that was the key) as a visualized form. But respecting and honoring and dealing with the real woman with all her attendant power and energy was simply too threatening to the economy, to the patriarchal political power structure, to the lama “system.” Women were meant to be mothers, nurturers, workers who supported the monolithic monastery structure. However, there were—as is coming to light—important exceptions outside the formal institutions. As one would guess, there did exist very powerful and empowered yoginis who have until recently been unsung. These were often outrageous, “crazy wisdom” practitioners who eschewed the normal paths, who faced inordinate challenges because of their commitment to the austerities of practice, who had to put up with cultural prejudice and male violence. They toppled the hierarchy in their practices. One example would be in the reversal of roles one sees in the tanka paintings depicting the Yab-Yum posture where the male deity dominates, locked in coitus with the much smaller female consort. Imagine, instead, the opposite: a huge female deity straddled by a much diminished male consort. “Yum-Yab” sets the patriarchy on its head.

I was first an artist, but also informed by a strong woman’s body which unleashed, at times, a vivid imagination out of its pulsing cervix. I felt this as both a mystical and physical experience. This female form I inhabited was a sacred vessel and would never be the object of abuse, enslavement, eXploitation, or scorn. And as an artist, my body was every woman’s. My writing seemed inextricably linked to the patternings of my particular female nervous system and the shifts and cycles of female time, not linear, narrative “male” time. As a novice Buddhist I knew this as a truth, and that both my body and my work were to be the “skillful means” to progress along a spiritual path. Thus, as I took those first vows, I decided to read my life and my very particular experiences in India “like a book.” And India was an imagination you could not have imagined yourself, it was so fantastical, chimerical, unreal. How could anybody ever think this place up?

I HAVE BEEN A SNOB most of my life. I do not trust people who do not read books. I will not work with a so-called writing student who thinks he or she is the first person ever to write a line of meaningful poetry, who thinks the classics are old-fashioned and/or “intimidating.” One student had a line in a poem admonishing the listener to “tear up your dictionary.” My dear boy, I cautioned, do not tear up your dictionary. You’ll be an ignoramus the rest of your life! I intensely dislike the notion of poetry as therapy and do not subscribe to the facile idea that “everyone’s a poet.” Poetry is poetry. Do I claim to be a musician because I can crank out “Heart and Soul” on the piano, never having studied musical theory? I am not interested in stilling my mind in order to write nice peaceful friendly haiku. Frankly, I’m sick of cute meaningful haiku! I still my mind to see things as they really are, and they are powerful, vivid, strange, ordinary, heartbreaking, luminous, and basically empty of my projections of them. But for some perverse reason, that gives me energy and a desire to continue to live sanely, not harm others, to write, and perform my own writing to benefit myself and others. It’s the best I can “contribute.” Isn’t that New Agey enough? And it gives me an even greater ongoing commitment to the study and teaching of other writing and world literatures, and to pass on this passion and intensity. To go to Sappho, Mirabai, Euripides, Dante, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Navaho song, and countless other poetries as sacred text. To attend them for the insight, beauty, truths, energy they provide. Reading such writing does not enhance ignorance, aggression, greed, and other vices. On the contrary, such a reading habit awakens, delights, challenges consciousness. It is a wisdom practice. I feel bold in declaring the study and writing of poetry as a complete path.

When we founded the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 1974—the first Buddhist-inspired, contemplative college in the West—(I had been back in the U.S. several months from Asia) Trungpa Rinpoche suggested we think of it as “a hundred-year project, at least.” He wanted meditators to know something about poetry and vice versa. At a meeting (which included John Cage and Gregory Bateson), Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, and I were invited to design a Writing and Poetics Department which we promptly named, after a great night of deliberation and fantastical imaginings, “The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.” Why such an exotic moniker? Kerouac, not only an experimental prose writer, was one of the finest spontaneous “Be-Bop” poets. He had also realized the First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering, had glimpsed satori, and had read intensely in dharma matters and literatures. “Disembodied” was the wild card, a flash-in-the-pan inspiration that stuck. It suggested that although not all the great teachers were alive and present in their bodies, their work was still active and hovering on the hearts and tongues of young contemporaries, and we were still feeding on these elders with a sense of continuing the lineage. Around Buddhist scenes you hear a lot of talk of “lineage.” These concepts, if you will, certainly didn’t sound alien to the poets’ ears. In our founding poetics statement we declared:

Though not all the poetry teachers are Buddhist, nor is it required of the teachers and students in this secular school to follow any specific meditative path, it is the happy accident of this century’s poetic history—especially since Gertrude Stein—that the quality of mind and mindfulness probed by U.S. poetry is related to quality of mind probed by Buddhist practice. There being no party line but mindfulness of thought and language itself, no conflict need rise between “religion” and “poetry,” and the marriage of two disciplines at Naropa is expected to flourish during the next hundred years.

Trungpa, himself an artist and poet, had from the outset given his sanction and provided generous accommodation for us to teach writing and poetics under the auspices of a contemplative school. A college founded on the principles of non-competitiveness and non-aggression was welcome ground for both seasoned old-dog poets and aspiring ones, a group consistently marginalized in society, who needed a haven for work and study. I dubbed “our” particular poetry-teaching lineage “outriders,” in that we were not interested in being “academic” poets—vying for tenure—but wanted to “honor poetry itself’ by having it taught by practicing writers whose primary preoccupation was poeticizing rather than teaching, and to continue a tradition of a national convocation of poets working with open and experimental forms. Don’t take criticism from anyone who has not written a notable work of art, was Ezra Pound’s dictum. Thus we were committed to working outside the academic mainstream. Would you prefer to go to a professor in religious studies to study dharma, or gravitate toward an authentic guru who was active in the practice him- or herself?

shapely2

And yet there seemed a subtle underlying mistrust, and fear of these “outrider” poets by some of the more dyed-in-the-wool Buddhists around the Boulder area as well as students coming to Naropa for other studies, particularly in psychology and Buddhism. A cautious mutual suspicion developed which at first seemed merely a question of language and style. The poets dressed funny, their talk was salty, hyperbolic, witty. The Trungpa Buddhists were dressing up in suits and ties, looked stiff and humorless and used insufferable, vapid buzzwords all the time. They were perceived as clones. The poets were still “tangible” individuals. But they smoked dope, wore their hair long, and were solipsistic, self-involved, politically active. I remember how issues would arise over the effectiveness of demonstrating at the nearby Rocky Flats plutonium plant. The poets (and other local artists) would be out on the front lines, the Buddhists stayed at home.

Vajravarahi, central Asia, 12th Century, gouache on cotton

THE BUDDHISTS FELT it was naive to think you could change the world, you had to change your own mind, work with your own pollution first! The poets didn’t think twice about going to Rocky Flats, exposing themselves to radiation, getting arrested. The projections got stranger and stranger and led to further breaches of friendship and general mistrust all around. The Buddhists saw all poets as “trouble,” and the non-Naropa poets carried on their campaign against the “Yellow Peril!” Meanwhile, there were those of us caught between the two worlds, dwelling in a kind of interstitial nightmare, wanting to get on with the business of writing and teaching and practicing Buddhism as well. And wanting to respect the “vision” of our little fledgling college (the arts program was inspired in part by the now-historic Black Mountain College) and maintain the contemplative backdrop. “Should we pull out our Kerouac school and move it to New Jersey?” I agonized. Those of us “inside” knew there were no evil scenarios afoot, and yet the issues raised were real and presented valid conundrums. Do you throw your “discriminating awareness wisdom”—your prajna—into the fire when you “take refuge?” Do you surrender everything to enter the dharma path? Is your ego supposed to be thoroughly maligned and insulted? Can’t there be any holdout? Do teachers abuse their power? Certainly that’s been proven repeatedly. And Trungpa and other spiritual teachers, in spite of their profound teaching, were no exception. Some of the Eastern teachers were slow to comprehend that they were, as males, perpetuating an exploitative pattern, even in the name of compassion and egolessness. That they were repeating the same victimization and authoritative paradigms that exist in a predominantly patriarchal, consumeristic, theistic Western culture. Arguments were made for the ultimate “meaning” of such power plays—that both men and women were being tested, released, zapped from this deity who had descended from an exotic “above” and was willing to work with our neurosis. It was an “honor” to spend time with the teacher. Every word, every gesture, every nuance, every kiss was a “teaching.” The irresponsible behavior and rampant sexism of many Buddhist teachers were particularly confusing to women. It was hard to stomach at times. One spoke out. One didn’t swallow the Buddhist version with its sexism whole. One had to separate out the real psychological truths of the teachings, get beyond the habitual patterns of ignorant sexist conditioning. Again, imagination was needed. I felt that a poetics school would be a good antidote to the conservative underpinnings of the Tibetan-style enlightened monarchy, and the American Protestant work ethic, which basically mistrusts art. Yet, I wondered, were there unalterable rules to being Buddhist just as there were unspoken rules about being an artist? Who cooked up the vows, anyway? How could an artist—and a female one at that—get into such matters deeply? Were art and dharma really at odds? Where had the misconception intervened? Wasn’t the best writing really free of ownership and ego anyway? Wasn’t that obvious to everyone? Didn’t the imagination cut through personal, confessional indulgence and extend out, empathetically, to others?

I queried some friends on these matters of art versus dharma. One artist said he had originally had more of a conflict between the notion of dharma and Freudian theory than between dharma and poetry. The confusion between the two very distinct meanings of “ego” was at first troubling. Then he realized that the welldeveloped ego in the Freudian sense had the strength to recognize its insubstantiality, its egolessness in the Buddhist sense. “But it was art that essentially drew me into Zen—particularly the poetries of India, Japan, China.” There was no conflict, he stressed. Poet Diane di Prima spoke emphatically of her sense of the imagination in her poetry and her early relationship to the Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi. “My work, my life, is images. This is what I do. When I first began sitting zazen I realized I was clearing my mind. By practicing deeply, the images start to flow. My teacher never contradicted this.” She continued, “Dharma practice and art are two sides of the same coin. Meditation is a rest from the art work. Dogen has described zazen as falling asleep in the arms of your mother.” Another poet also remarked that she engaged in practice to “clear her head for writing,” and how in working with the practice of “capping phrases” and lines like “the rat is at its wit’s end in the monkey tube” in the Zen tradition she was using her “art mind” as well, and how rich that tradition of images was. A student writer remarked that although she was attracted to dharma practice she noticed that many practitioners she met were arrogant and snobbish and became terribly “pious” around dharma matters, needing to whisper all of a sudden as if Vajravarahi, central Asia, twelfth century, gouache on cotton everything were “suddenly too sacred, fragile, precious.” And the Zen master or guru? “That’s personal. You have to check that person out thoroughly, go with your gut feeling. There are some good teachers around.” Amazingly, there have been teachers for centuries and many of them were artists and poets. Milarepa, Hakuin Zenji, to name a few. . .

Don’t you need personal history to write? I do. Don’t you need conflict to give rise to creativity? I do. Wouldn’t it be frightening to have that resolved? No, but. . . I remember William Burroughs abandoning his typewriter but refusing to give up his pen and paper when he went on a meditative retreat (of his own design, it must be said). “What if some fabulous idea, image, story, phrase came up and I didn’t catch it? What if the greatest idea for a novel or story came to me and I didn’t get it? I’d be a damn fool!” For the upwardly mobile meditator you could posit the reverse. What if some amazingly fantastical idea came up and I dwelled on it and I didn’t let it go? I’d be a fool!

IN BALI THERE IS NO WORD for art. Yet syncretic Hindu-Buddhist-Balinese Bali is one of the most artistic and spiritually integrated cultures still extant on the face of the earth. Art is so integrated into everyday life, each gesture of dance and gamelan so refined that one is indeed inside it. There is no neurotic separation, no pious sentimentality separating the mundane and the sacred. Humans there make art to perpetuate the balance of the world and after working in rice paddies during the day become gods and goddesses psychologically as they perform at night. The artists are not named or credited in the ritual performances. There is communal effort to these events. There is little aggression and violence in this culture. People are extremely dignified, open, generous. One’s whole life is practice, is art.

Both, both. And yet in this culture, when you sit you sit. When you make art you make art. When you write you write. Writers are involved in the practice of writing. If you’ve been serious long enough there’s no way back. When you’ve been serious long enough about Buddhist practice there’s no way back. And when you are writing you are not sitting on the tatami mat or meditation cushion, you are generally at a desk which in many ways resembles a shrine. You are plugged in, you are awake, your mind is shapely, your art is shapely. Your cushion is in the corner awaiting its turn. It’s 3 A.M. The poem is done. You’ll light the shrine candles and begin a Red Tara sadhana for your father who has recently died. Imagine this: a beautiful red woman holding a red utpala flower by the stem and within the petals of the flower is a fully drawn bow and arrow made of delicate flowers. She is known as the “open door to bliss and ultimate awareness.”

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.