Allen Ginsberg was an undergraduate at Columbia University in the early 1940s when he met Jack Kerouac. Together they became charter members of what would become known as the Beat Generation.

In 1972, he began studying with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and continues practicing in the Shambhala tradition, as well as practicing with Gelek Rimpoche.

Tricycle interviewed Mr. Ginsberg in his apartment in New York City in the Spring of 1995.

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Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki. Courtesy Mark Watt

Can you talk about Alan Watts’s doubts about early “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” and the enormous influence of the Beat generation on literature, as well as on Buddhism in this country? I don’t think Watts realized that he himself would be leaving behind his implements and his priestly ornaments to Gary Snyder, hoping that Gary would take up his lineage or carry on for him or that Philip Whalen would become a Zen sensei in Suzuki Roshi’s lineage, or that there would be a Buddhist college like Naropa founded by other Beat poets. Watts was critical of the hippie-dippie version of Beat Zen.

Critics of the Beat generation as well as of the transcendentalists tended to think of both groups as sort of religious flakes. Well, I am a flaky Buddhist, I don’t meditate that much. I don’t mind being a flaky Buddhist. Why not? Someone has to be a flaky Buddhist. But we’ve all taken on teachers and worked with their teachings for a long time, we’ve done what we could within our capacities. Even Burroughs, who’s decidedly not a Buddhist, has such a Buddhist flavor in images of transitoriness with a kind of courage, spiritual adventurousness and recognition of emptiness at the same time as compassion, it’s quite amazing. But the flavor of American poetry definitely’s changed to have a distinctly Buddhist flavor permeating it now.

What does Buddhist flavor in contemporary poetry mean? Awareness of a meditation practice, awareness of the parallel between aesthetic artistic dharma practice and mindfulness in poetics. Interest in the spontaneous intelligence. Interest in the subject matter as subtly being the mind itself rather than purely materialistic and external. Maybe some of the dharmic doctrine like transitoriness and “making friends with your ego,” rather than the Marxist, Catholic, puritanical previous version of persecuting and murdering your ego, cutting off your ear or burning your manuscripts like Gogol. Or hiding your gayness like Henry James. I think it’s the idea of “making your neurosis your path,” or “making your neurosis your pet” through awareness, transforming waste to treasure, rather than persecuting it, as other ideologies in this century have done.

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Allen Ginsberg in New York City, 1953, taken by William S. Burrough

Buddhism liberated contemporary poetry from any solidified ideological fixation in the elegant sense that T. S. Eliot indicated when he spoke of Henry James as “having a mind so refined that no idea could violate it.” And I would say the same thing of me [“laughs”], and Burroughs. I mean Burroughs has a million ideas but he doesn’t solidify any of them permanently. You might find some European theoretician fixated on an idea, Marxist, Catholic or nationalistic. I don’t think you could say that of many lamas. At best they have minds so refined, no idea could violate them or solidify in their awareness, get them stuck. Like the idea of ego versus non-ego, or form versus emptiness: coemergent wisdom rather than polarization.

Zen has a similar style: contradictoriness, crazy wisdom, based on the fact that things both exist and don’t exist at the same time—relative and absolute truths. You don’t need to drill a hole in your head in order to get enlightened. You can hold several ideas in your mind that are contradictory without freaking out, Keats’s negative capability. Sure, you can reach out to “fact and reason,” as long as it isn’t an aggressive insistence, irritability motivating the reaching for fact. That’s my opinion. But historically there’s been some kind of respect for Buddhist tradition, Buddhist imagery, calm and contemplation, Buddhist brooding or Buddhist implacability, Buddhist stillness in US literature from the Transcendentalists to Sherwood Anderson, Marsden Hartley, the Americanists. In the bohemian lineage, there has always been a little Buddhism.

How do you understand the spaciousness of America and the dharmakaya—the all-encompassing skylike space of Big Mind? One thing I always noticed about Kerouac’s writing—maybe all good “transcendental” or mystical writing—is that it does include a sense of vastness of space. And Kerouac’s work possesses panoramic awareness, a theme he refers to in book after book. There’s a fantastic chapter towards the end of The Town and the City: a view of a football game, a scene on the field, a scene in the stands, and a scene in the radio boxes way up high in the stands, then a scene from above the stands, and the clouds above the stadium, the vast sky, and the camera recedes until the stadium is very small way down in the distance. It’s like a grain of sand in space, as Trungpa would call it, so that sense of all surrounding space or accommodating space or panoramic vastness, or spaciousness (another favorite word of Trungpa’s) is recurrent in Kerouac’s work. In “Dharma Bums” he has it a lot, the intensification of nostalgia, recognition of mortality and transitoriness, compassion for the hero and a take from way above looking down on the scene, as in a dream. I always thought that Trungpa’s identification of space itself and spaciousness with ordinary mind was a genius work of translation, from one concept to another, from“dharmakaya”to space itself, and that turned me on to recognizing how often Kerouac’s touchstone, or reference point, is in the few spots of time whereat everything opens out into that space and there’s that panorama of the world hanging in that space. He portrayed that in his series of novels, which are like “mountains and rivers without end.”

When you talk about this lineage of bohemia in terms of the Beat Generation, what makes it American? The pragmatic aspect. Also the natural development of spontaneity in poetry and painting and movies. Also, rather than dwelling at a distance abstractly on texts where no teacher was, we actually went out and got some teachers. I went to India consciously to look for a teacher.

That was the trip in ’62? Yeah. I found a lot of them actually, but I didn’t find any that I worked with then. But my intention was to find a teacher and to find out the “secrets of the East.” It was as simple as that. And I met teachers I worked with later in USA.

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Allen Ginsberg with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Boulder, Colorado, 1972

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.

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Philip Whalen in Bolinas, California, 1969, taken by John Do

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.

Sakyamuni Coming Out from the Mountain
                                                               Liang Kai, Southern Sung

He drags his bare feet
                              out of a cave
                                                         under a tree,

eyebrows
                              grown long with weeping
                                                         and hooknosed woe,
in ragged soft robes
                              wearing a fine beard,
                                                         unhappy hands
clasped to his naked breast –
                              humility is beatness
                                                         humility is beatness –
faltering
                              into the bushes by a stream
                                                         all things inanimate
but his intelligence –
                              stands upright there
                                                         tho trembling:
Arhat
                              who sought Heaven
                                                         under a mountain of stone,
sat thinking
                              till he realized
                                                         the land of blessedness exists
in the imagination –
                              the flash come:
                                                         empty mirror –
how painful to be born again
                              wearing a fine beard,
                                                         reentering the world
a bitter wreck of a sage:
                              earth before him his only path.
                                                         We can see his soul,
he knows nothing
                              like a god:
                                                         shaken
meek wretch –
                              humility is beatness
                                                         before the absolute World.

                                                    ♦

From Collected Poems, by Allen Ginsberg. Copyright © 1994 by Allen Ginsberg. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

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