Michael Schumacher is one of the major scholars of Allen Ginsberg, and has thus far written the best biography of him, Dharma Lion. First Thought, Michael Schumacher’s collection of Allen Ginsberg interviews, is an excellent companion to Bill Morgan’s recent collection of Ginsberg lectures, Best Minds of My Generation. They both cover very much the same time period, with First Thought‘s exception starting earlier than Best Minds, but still with only 3 interviews conducted in the 60s.
Once again, the interviews that then continue from the mid-70s to the end of his life are dominated by Allen’s involvement with Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, (as one might expect from the title of this collection, the first half of the poetry slogan they concocted together, “First Thought, Best Thought”). One can see Allen’s mind move from shaggy psychedelia to precise professorial succinctness over this period of time, ripening further with Gelek Rinpoche after Trungpa’s death in 1987.
To Schumacher’s credit, even my Beat-jaded eyes have seen virtually none of these interviews before, and many are gems. As for those seen, such as revisiting Gordon Ball’s “Identity Gossip” from Ball’s Allen Verbatim, it has been many years since visiting them and they carry much more meaning in hindsight.
One of the topics Allen struggles with from its introduction is the notion of “original mind.” As best as I can piece together (I actually talked to Trungpa’s main translator before this article — Larry Mermelstein — who was also unsure), Trungpa originated the phrase from the Tibetan tal mal kyi shepa, which can be translated as “ordinary knowing,” but is basically code for “simply knowing,” “knowing without adornment,” or my own gloss — “nothing-fancy knowing.” Western Zen also picked up the phrase, as there is a similar one in Japanese, heijo shin, “familiar mind.” (according to poet and scholar of Japanese Buddhism, Richard Modiano).
Still, these terms do not refer to everyday mind per se, but to its essence. Used by Trungpa and various Zen teachers, there is a koan-like purpose: stop trying to get somewhere else. In particular, Ginsberg was long haunted by his 1948 Harlem auditory experience of seeming to hear Blake, followed by the world lighting up in microscopic detail. He pursued it with drugs and a trip to India. With “The Change” (1963), written on the Kyoto Express, Ginsberg began to seriously question his pursuit of a vision that transcended the body and later under Trungpa’s tutelage, “ordinary mind” would particularly fly in the face of any residual clinging to mystical escape.
Trungpa suggested all his students practice what is basic to all forms of Buddhism throughout the world — being present with the breath — in Sanskrit, known as shamatha, or “calm abiding.” Trungpa emphasized open eyes as opposed to closed, and particular attention to outbreath dissolving into space. This form short-circuited a lot of tripping out and thus, was often excruciatingly boring to the beginner. It also slowed down the mind so that gaps between thoughts would be increasingly evident. The solidity of a self was likened to the spokes of a wagon wheel, which whirling at full speed, appeared to be as impenetrable as a hubcap. But slowing this down reveals to anyone who tries it, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, that what appears to be a self is a series of strobing flashes with no fixed reference point. This is “insight,” vipashyana in Sanskrit.
In these times of the popularity of “mindfulness,” it is important to understand that the Buddha’s underlying purpose is not merely to “Be Here Now,” but to at least impart a glimpse into just “who” is being here now, and that answer is no one at all.
This explanation may seem quite a detour from a book review, but it is the foundation of Ginsberg’s work through the early 70s until his death. Without this background, it becomes nearly impossible to discuss how Allen departs from his psychedelic 60s persona in both discourse and on the page.
However, Trungpa was nearly merciless in his efforts to cut through what he saw as the “spiritual materialism” of the Western culture he found himself in. By this, Trungpa meant the ego’s effort (that seeming solid spoked wagon wheel of consciousness) to continually appropriate spirituality into some sort of unassailable fortress of perpetually feeling good.
So “ordinary mind” neither rejects nor embraces a Blakean vision, an acid trip or religious epiphany. It is the face before you were born, as that famous Zen koan asks. The issue is not what is perceived, but the seemingly solidity of who seems to be perceiving.
Trungpa’s approach was to wear out the perceiver by hours and hours of open-eyed sitting, which Ginsberg submitted to. In 1977, in the included interview “Visions of Ordinary Mind,” Allen has this to say about William Carlos Williams’ famous “red wheelbarrow” poem: “…it may be that this “Vision” is just ordinary consciousness, and people are so daydreamy and neurotic that they’re just not in their bodies, not seeing what’s in front of them most of the time, anyway. So Williams was experiencing it as ordinary [italics in the original text – mo} everyday Rutherford consciousness, while I, for long decades’ time, thought it was special heightened consciousness, even visionary.”
In light of what “ordinary mind” actually means, Ginsberg is half-right, correct from a viewpoint of “calm abiding,” but not of the following “insight” it spontaneously invokes. According to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, “Ordinary mind” is both “calm abiding” and the “insight” into the emptiness of self (as well as the phenomena it perceives) occurring inseparably and without effort. Williams is recording the equivalent of a haiku moment. It is impossible to evaluate Williams’ depth of realization from this, but it does suggest the real truth of things “just so.” Williams’ objectivism, his snapshot poetics, would take on enormous influence once again in Ginsberg’s work from this point forth, even entering into Ginsberg’s speech as we can see from the chronology of interviews in this book.
But in Morgan’s Best Minds of My Generation, we again see Ginsberg’s freshman understanding. Talking about “Kerouac and On the Road” in Chapter 29 (alas, no date is given to the lecture), once more addressing his own 1948 vision, “…I kept thinking I was seeing something special, not realizing I was just seeing what any ordinary drunken Indian sees every five minutes…seeing what the ice carrier gets all the time.” In Trungpa’s emphasis of being no one, going nowhere, of training to be nobody special, Ginsberg took a wrong turn here into noble savage/noble prole. By Trungpa underlining that one could not watch one’s own enlightenment occurring (because that would cut through the solidity of the one who watched), it meant from the viewpoint of self, there was no enlightenment at all. It’s like having a great orgasm. If “you” weren’t blotted out, the orgasm wasn’t great. For some, that means black-out, but for others, a flash of awareness without a reference point. The same is said to happen at death, according to Tibetan Buddhists, and offers the possibility of liberation.
Later interviews with Allen do suggest that he gets all this straight.
Not included in First Minds, but a personal favorite of mine, is the BBC Face To Face interview, 1994. When host Jeremy Isaacs introduces Allen noting his “cleaned-up” persona with coat, tie and trimmed hair and beard, he asks: “Is the real Allen Ginsberg still in there?”
Allen replies: “Well, I’m a Buddhist and the I think Buddhists would say there is no real permanent self, in any case but there are many appearances of self…so I don’t know whether there is a real Allen Ginsberg anymore than there is a real Jeremy Isaacs.”
In the last interview of Schumacher’s collection, (“Allen Ginsberg, an Interview,” 1997, within months of Ginsberg’s death), Allen says “Things are completely real and simultaneously and without any contradiction, they are also completely empty and unreal. Just like a dream…it’s the ability to see both simultaneously that gives life its sort of charisma and glamor and workability.”
It’s a great place to stop, and a characteristically cheerful one for Allen Ginsberg. Michael Schumacher’s collection, First Thought, is far more than just a collection of rare interviews, some previously unpublished or monumentally obscure. It is a very welcome breath of fresh mind in our increasingly troubled and Allen-absent times.