Within the all-pervasive expanse of the sky of great emptiness, without center or circumference,
The shadowless sun of luminosity naturally arises, without emanating or dissolving,
Thus the dense darkness of innate and conceptual ignorance simultaneously vanishes,
And the gateway of the great illumination of clear primordial wisdom freely opens,
Which is the vast expanse of the original primordial ground, free from restrictions and partiality.
— Lama Tharchin Rinpoche
All I wanted to do was write an earnest book full of the energy those poets sought to transfer to us.
— Max Orsini
Max Orsini has succeeded in writing a heartfelt book, true to the spirit if not always the letter of its intent. Clearly someone who practices some form of Zen sitting, Orsini manages to navigate the rivers and tributaries of Buddhist philosophy admirably well. So what exactly are we calling “Buddhist Beat poetics?” Orsini intuits rather than explains this. For our purposes, all forms of Buddhism contain meditation divided into two aspects, “calm abiding” and “insight.” (shamatha/vipashyana in Sanskrit) “Calm abiding” is the “mindfulness” we hear so much about today – the “Be Here Now” of the equation. The “insight” that arises (sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly as they say in 12 Step) is often overlooked in such current discussions – that there is no ‘there’ there, no solid self of any kind, and mental processes are Thoughts Without a Thinker, to use the great title of Mark Epstein’s book.
Zen master Dogen put it like this: “To study Zen is to study the self/To study the self is to forget the self.” Stabilizing that glimpse is known as realization (of which, I caution the reader, I have none). So, Buddhist Beat poetics would contain both the grounded quality of calmly abiding and the spontaneous aspect of letting go. (Letting go into what? Welcome to Buddhism.) Buddhist Beat poetics share what Philip Whalen would call “a graph of the mind moving” which includes the jazz-like spontaneity that comes out of that kind of attention. Both these aspects were also noted and perfected by Jack Kerouac and can be found in a great deal of Beat writing, much of which was influenced by Buddhism.
Max is in luck here, because both Diane di Prima and Lenore Kandel have a very traceable history to San Francisco Zen master, Shunryū Suzuki Roshi (not to be confused with the famous scholar, D.T. Suzuki). Shunryū Suzuki actually appeared on stage with Kandel at her most famous gig — the San Francisco Human Be-In of 1967 — an event considered the springboard into the Summer of Love. In Zen fashion, Suzuki said nothing.
Max is less lucky, however, since di Prima has only published her first volume of memoirs, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years, and Kandel has virtually no biographical data available at all. Where this becomes problematic is when both poets enter into Tantric Buddhism, also known as Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle), though Orsini has difficulty seeing how these are all the same thing.
The first problem is the limitations of primary source material in both these poets’ cases. When did they start? Who did they study with? Did they study with anyone? We know that di Prima began a relationship with Chogyam Trungpa, Tibetan lama, within a matter of a few years after Suzuki’s death in 1971. She is quoted as saying that she formally became his student in 1983, but they also had a long relationship before then. Less known is that she began studying with Lama Tharchin in 1991, and later with Orgyen Chowang (author of Our Pristine Mind). Kandel, by her timing, is book-smart, but since Tibetan Buddhism was not really directly available in the U.S. in the 1960s, her 1970 motorcycle accident may have made any real further connection a huge obstacle.
When Max later refers to Beat meditation/poetic praxis in the context of being “primordially ground(ed),” we may run into some philosophical issues within Buddhism, in the way that Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics are contained within math. We can only talk about being grounded from the starting point of someone practicing to be grounded. From the view of Lama Tharchin’s opening quote, the Primordial Ground is a base that does not actually exist — in fact, it is simultaneously groundless and equated with the sky. So from the viewpoint of basic Buddhism, one becomes grounded to calmly abide, from which insight arises. From the highest view, calm abiding and insight are not separated. Mindfulness already naturally exists and has always existed, as has the insight into its empty nature. Meditation becomes resting in this. Houston, we have a paradox.
The second problem is that Orsini tosses these various phrases around in a way that suggests different things to him (and to the reader). “Tantra” is a Sanskrit word for “continuity.” In this way, it echoes Dogen again in his Shobogenzo where, paraphrased, he said that there is no secular world. Allen Ginsberg gets this in his “Footnote to Howl” where everything is holy, even though it was written the same year he quarreled (as “Alvah Goldbrook”) with Kerouac about Buddhism in Jack’s novel, Dharma Bums. There are both Buddhist and Hindu Tantras, both sharing similar iconography, and according to academic history, rising in India around the same time. Orsini applies this in the book as a kind of sensualist sacred approach — which is more a partial understanding than out-and-out wrong.
I also studied with di Prima’s Lama Tharchin, and he once asked me why Westerners seemed to equate the word “Tantra” with sex. Of course, there are the images themselves — the sexual union of “deities” (manifestations of primordial awareness rather than entities or a creator-god in Buddhist Tantra). I think the spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh may have popularized the notion of Tantra (unidentified as Buddhist or Hindu) — what we now see in New Age couples’ workshops that add to an already confusing landscape and have no real lineage. Yes, there are adepts of sexual meditation in Tantric Buddhism, but baldly put — they don’t advertise. (And again, I am not one of them.)
One word that distinguishes Tantric Buddhism is “luminosity” — it has no equivalent in Zen. Orsini loves the word “luminous” and repeats it often throughout his text. Again, he has intuited truth. In Tantric Buddhism, “luminosity” is related to the appearance/emptiness of “deity” and phenomenon itself. Simply stated, it is the “how” of how emptiness displays as appearance. The phrase is repeated in even the highest Buddhist teachings, as we see in the opening quote of this rambling review from the far more succinct Lama Tharchin. Discussion of how this Clear Light is without a projector or even a solid perceiver are far beyond my pay grade.
Or, let us take a look at what the Padmasambhava, founder of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet, has to say:
Emptiness and luminosity are not two separate things, but rather the nature of emptiness is luminosity, and the nature of luminosity is emptiness. This indivisible emptiness-luminosity, the naked mind, free of everything, dwells in the uncreated state.
What needs to be remembered about Tantric Buddhism is that it still has the foundation of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths (Hinayana, “small” as in “basic” Buddhism) as well as the Bodhisattva Vow (Mahayana, “great” (as in “big picture”) Buddhism.
From Diane di Prima’s poem, “I Fail As a Drama Teacher”:
I don’t imagine I’ll manage to express Sunyata
in a way that all my students will know & love,
or to present the Four Noble Truths so they look delicious
& tempting as Easter candy…
present the Eightfold Path like the ultimate roadmap
at all the gas stations in samsara
But, oh, my lamas, do I want to
how I want to!
just to see your eyes shine in this Kaliyuga
stars going out around us like birthday candles
your Empty Clear Luminous and Unobstructed
swimming in and through us like transparent fish.
[Olmsted’s notes: Sunyata — emptiness; samsara — illusion, ignorance; Kaliyuga — degenerate age. For greater understanding, read The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path.]
When we come to one of Kandel’s greatest poems, “Small Prayers for Fallen Angels,” Kandel appears to petition Kali:
Kali-Ma, Kali-Mother, Kali-Ma, Kali-Mother
too many of my friends are running out of blood,
are collapsing it takes them half an hour to get a hit
their blood whispers through their bodies, singing its
own death chant
in a voice of fire, in a voice of glaciers, in a voice of sand
the ash blows
Kali is a Hindu figure hardly limited to the subset of Tantric Hinduism, and petitioned, prayed and sacrificed to in as many ways as there are types of worship in the world. There is a correspondent Tantric Buddhist figure, a wrathful blue-black “dakini,” Troma Nakmo, but it would be a mistake to say Troma is the equivalent of Kali and leave it at that. “Dakini” is a phrase that occurs in both di Prima’s and Kendel’s poetry (“khandro” in Tibetan, “sky-goer”), and Orsini goes so far as to refer to these two poets as the “Beat Blue-Light Dakinis,” riffing on a line of Kandel’s.
Max again navigates this territory surprisingly well – no easy feat for someone juggling so many of these concepts. Again, to put it very simply, the “dakini” is a principle of enlightened activity that frequently has the visionary appearance of a naked, dancing female. To consider the dakini as some sort of Ultimate Creator (there are none in Buddhism – “mind alone/introduced the bone” said J. Kerouac, in a less Catholic moment), or a figure separate from one’s own true nature – let alone a figure to petition for what one wants – would be heretical.
Yet anyone exposed to the liturgy of Tantric Buddhism will read much that seems quite the opposite of this. This becomes the Super Koan of Tibetan Buddhism and ultimately can only be understood in the unspoken view of the practitioner. My brother once asked Tibetan master Chagdud Tulku if the invoked “wisdom deity” was real or not. “Yes and no,” said the old lama. An example, in my opinion, of such a view may come from a surprising source, Aleister Crowley, the occultist who died just around the time all the primary Beats were first meeting. Here, he is addressing the Egyptian sky goddess in his Book of the Law:
O Nuit, continuous one of Heaven, let it be ever thus; that men speak not of Thee as One but as None; and let them speak not of thee at all, since thou art continuous!”
Continuity! That word again! It is no surprise that both di Prima and Kandel were extremely familiar with Crowley. Di Prima has frequently celebrated the annual 3-day feast of the Book of the Law‘s “channeling,” and Kandel hung out with and appears in the Kenneth Anger film Invocation of my Demon Brother. Anger himself was introduced to Crowleanity (or as the initiates say, “Thelema,” Greek for Will) by that witch woman of the Beats, artist Cameron (aka Cameron Parsons aka Majorie Cameron).
A further interesting thread that Max explores is the distinct possibility that Kandel saw and was inspired by artist Bod Branaman’s image in the San Francisco Oracle in 1967, an underground newspaper she also published in. Allen Ginsberg called Branaman “one of the most exquisite visionary artists in America.” Branaman’s Kali is itself a departure, a human female that looks more of alchemical than Eastern style holding what Max calls “a shield.” To me, it appears to recall the disk that Yama the Lord of Death holds depicting the 6 realms of illusion, a classic Buddhist image — although Branaman’s version shows mostly copulating humans bodies — no surprise if one is familiar with Bob’s own erotic themes. Branaman still very much thrives as an artist and is an active Tibetan Buddhist himself.
None the less, it should be remembered that any real understanding of Tantric Buddhism in 1960s Haight-Ashbury was sorely lacking, even if imported by world travelers such as Ginsberg — whose own Buddhism was still mixed up with Hare Krishna and acid. The texts that were available, besides art books, were mostly by Alexandra David-Neel (plagiarized in the phony “T. Lapsang Rampa” paperbacks) and Walter Evans-Wentz, himself heavily influenced by Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy. Both were exemplary in their way, ground-breaking in fact, but fueled some of the more wild ideas that could also be found in the dope-popular Dr. Strange comics of the era.
In short, any Tantric Buddhist clarity that di Prima or Kandel had before the 70s would have risen intuitively from their Zen sitting, let alone past lives, which is certainly not to be dismissed. We see it echoed in Orsini’s own scholarly efforts. Diane di Prima went on to study vigorously and receive formal initiation from more than one authentic Tibetan master. We know much less about Lenore Kandel, but we can assume that she stuck with her Zen sitting, and her work shows that she seemed to definitely have a sense of phenomena as Primordial Sky-goer, the display of a visionary naked, dancing female.
Much gratitude to Max Orsini! All hail the “Beat Blue-Light Dakinis!” These wisdom women help shine the way for all poets and practitioners! Read this book and may all beings benefit!