Interview With Allen Ginsberg

12-03-14 - Nanao Sakaki and Allen Ginsberg on KGNU Boulder 1982

Elephant in the Room - a poem by Allen Ginsberg

Dharma Lion, Tape-interviewed by DC

[I plan to find the tape for this, get the date of the interview (maybe six months before he died) and put the recording of him chanting the Heart Sutra down here.--DC]

It's chanted by Allen Ginsberg [Rokument page for AG] in the CD-ROM Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties

cuke Heart Sutra page

{I think the dharma name given to him by Trungpa Rinpoche means "Lion of Dharma."  There's also a biography of him called Dharma Lion by Michael and Matthew Schumacher.- JA}

DC: I'm not just working on a biography of Suzuki Roshi, I'm trying to collect the oral history, just get everything down I can that people have to say.

AG: I guess you've talked to Joanne Kyger and Diane DiPrima who studied with him early. I never studied with him sequentially. I did come and sit very early when he was still at the old place. It was a mixed company of the Japanese folk and the Americans coming in and sitting too. I had had a little with Gary at Daitokuji and I had sat elsewhere. That was the first place I sat in America. I don't remember the year. Then in the late sixties -- mid sixties -- I had memorized his translation of the Prajna Paramita Sutra. Slowly I had worked out a melodic intonation for it. I think it was (and he chants, for quite a while) - - -

I made a few changes with Gelek Rinpoche later. No attainment because no non-attainment. Topsy-turvy extremes instead of views. Cause what do you mean? Extremes of nihilism or extremes of mind only. In '68 I was really intrigued by Suzuki-roshi's translation. Sort of like telegraphise, compared to others I'd read. It was so succinct. So I went to him and sang it to him and asked his permission to sing it in public. He said, sure. I was adding a little American melody and flavor there. Using inflections and notes to emphasize: no suffering; no cause of suffering. Very operatic there. (chants again). Also no non-attainment. Which I found emotionally the heart of it, in a way. So I got his permission to do it in public. I didn't know if I was messing around with something I didn't understand and appreciate. Just thought I'd better tell him what I was doing and wouldn't do any brain damage to anybody. He was very nice about it.

GinsbergOur earlier meeting, Gary Snyder could tell you about, or Michael McClure. It was at the Be-In in San Francisco in '67. Suzuki showed up on the platform. He was sitting in meditation most of the afternoon. He's on my left, then me, and Michael, and Gary, and Moretta Greer, my girlfriend at the time who had spent a lot of time in India. Then Leary came up, and others. I always remember Gary saying it was really remarkable that Suzuki came. Because unless he thought it was something serious, or interesting, or signal, he wouldn't have shown up to such a public strange meeting like that.

DC: We had to drag him away from his wife. She thought it was a bit much for him, but he was curious. He felt very positive about the hippie thing. He didn't say much about how he felt about that day. But he didn't say anything against it. I think he was tickled to have been part of such an amazing event.

AG: It sure was amazing. And there was some element of meditation in there. The end of it was great. That kitchen yoga, with me and Gary singing Om Sri Maitreya, the sun setting, and everybody picking up their refuse and leaving the park clean.

DC: I'd forgotten that.

AG: That was the important thing, that we left the park cleaner than when we came. The image was Maitreya, future enlightenment. Prophetic for America. That late afternoon and evening the police had a sweep down Haight Street and arrested everybody with drugs, acid and grass. Within two weeks the place was flooded with heroin and amphetamine. That's historically a simple straight fact. That whole Manson thing rose out of that. Not out of the Be-In or the hippies. It was some really sneaky thing that happened there. The Diggers were part of the scene. I remember Emmett Grogan telling me that some guy coming on as a Vietnam veteran had brought them a contribution of two gallon jars of heroin. One to sell and one for them to use. That was the end of the Diggers.

DC: Peter Coyote told me that when Grogan died on the subway in New York there was a big deal for him. Diane was involved with the Diggers.

AG: I was involved with them. The hero in a strange way was Gregory Corso. Sort of a John Garfield-like thing that Emmett Grogan liked.

But that evening the police swept down Haight Street and busted everybody. Look in the newspapers. You'll see. A nasty reaction to their frustration with the success of the Be-In. I'm sure it must have had something to do with trying to fuck the scene up with drugs.

DC: I got a call from the police department recently trying to enlist my support. I told them they were talking to the worst person in the world. I thought the war on drugs was a crime. And I quoted William Buckley that it's the moral equivalent of the MaiLai massacre. He devoted a whole issue of his right wing magazine to opposing the war on drugs.

AG: I remember in '68 when I went on his program. It was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about it even. He thought I was a little nuts when I said I thought they ought to liberate the whole scene.

DC: He just recently became against the war on drugs. The last 5, 6 years.

Can you remember the first time you met Suzuki, impressions?

AG: The first time I met him was when I went over there to sit. I just sat. Maybe I heard something about what his attitude toward drugs was. And he said as long as you can keep your seat on the zafu he didn't care about anything else.

DC: Later he started saying, please don't take them before you come here. He was very tolerant and open-minded. He didn't like to get into negative things about it.

AG: He had this great relationship with Trungpa Rinpoche. I remember Trungpa talking about him a great deal. And finding him a congenial senior in a way. He admired him a great deal. Suzuki Roshi left a set of oryoki bowls with Trungpa. At the time Trungpa was interested in international tantra. He spoke to Gary about that and mentioned it to me. He was close to Suzuki because Suzuki's Soto practice was not far from Trungpa's Samata Vippassana, which he had given to his students. To a level practically the same as Zen sitting. The Trungpa method was just the outbreath. Not the breath to the belly. For various technical reasons. One that you don't get too hung up on the breath by doing it both ways. That you take a vacation from the breath every half-breath. So you don't get attached to the breath. Also just to open up space for nothing to happen at all. Including no observation of any focal point. More toward the Vajrayana Atti tradition. Or maybe shikantaza. Apparently in shikantaza you're not focused on anything. They had that in common. And they drank in common, apparently. Got drunk together on a few occasions. They loved each other. I heard that when Suzuki died, Trungpa came to visit. He wept and wept. I wasn't there so you have to find somebody that was there to describe that situation.

DC: I was there. I've gotten terribly dependent on hearing other people's descriptions. I don't know what happened to me. He came and laid a white scarf. There was a coffin because all the Japanese who had known him were used to having coffins and the body in state. The Japanese Americans had gotten into that. So we did that. Trungpa went up and laid the white shawl over him. He just howled. Fully expressed his love for Suzuki Roshi. Personally I think he liked Suzuki a lot more than he liked Zen. He tried to read some Dogen. He wasn't that impressed. He and Suzuki Roshi had a very close relationship. It was one of the only examples of Suzuki Roshi being positive about having another teacher come and speak at Zen Center. It blew people's minds. Because Suzuki was so Apollonian. And Trungpa was more Dionysian.

AG: One thing I heard, I think it was from Trungpa, that they had in common the fact that they had turned their backs on their own culture and had given themselves completely to the American students. Not turned their backs, but they had abandoned all hope of return, and had given themselves completely to the American karma. And all their energy to dealing with the Americans, and teaching the Americans, and trying to improve or enlighten America rather than depending on their older companions and monasteries. They both gave themselves to America. They both burned their bridges behind them.

DC: The openness and lack of ethnocentricity they both had exceptionally. When you first came to Sokoji to sit, did you come with somebody?

AG: I think I went by myself. I knew about it from Phillip Whalen and Gary. I was friends with Joanne and everybody. Maybe somebody came with me, but I don't remember.

DC: If you'd gone with Joanne it would have been very early sixties.

AG: Maybe mid-60s. I was away. I might have gone sometime in '63 or '64. I was away in India from 1960 when I went around the world and it took me about three years. I didn't get back till July/August 1963. I went first to Vancouver to the big poetry conference that was going on there. They sent me a ticket to get back from India. But I'd stopped off in Vietnam and Cambodia and then spent 6 weeks with Gary at Sokoji. And had done some sitting there at Ruth Fuller Sasaki's center. It was pretty good. But I don't think I got it yet. The actual way I was supposed to do sitting. I do remember it had an imprint on me. I remember sitting with Gary at a little sesshin. Four hours a day for 4 or 5 days. I hadn't done that much sitting before. But it was okay. Oda Roshi came around. Took a look at me sitting up on the platform. He bent down and he straightened out my shoes. Boy that was a lesson. I straighten out my shoes now. And wipe the dishes before I leave the house. Clean out my breakfast stuff rather than leaving it in the sink. It was a funny little recognition of orderliness. Aesthetics. Mindfulness. You don't leave your shoes one on top of another. Pigeon-toed. That was really nice. The actual sitting I don't think I got until later. Focal point. Why I don't know. I think it was that Gary was always very hesitant to lay a meditation trip on Kerouac or me or anyone else. Thinking that it was sacred practice and therefore you don't force it on people. Don't be overeager until they ask 3 times or something. I always thought that was a little too chary of Gary. If somebody had actually shown me sitting back in the '50s, which Gary knew, and shown Kerouac the formal sitting posture, it would have been a great help. I had to wait another ten years before I meditated.

DC: That's funny because Gary had this Marin Zendo he'd made in the late '50s.

AG: I once asked him why he didn't show Kerouac, for instance, the formal posture and everything, and the practice on the breath. He never mentioned it to me until I got to Japan, and then not too clearly. I don't think I got it until I went to Suzuki's place.

DC: You sat in Japan before you sat at Sokoji with Suzuki, right?

AG: Yes. I was sitting in Japan with Gary and Joanne. Six weeks in '63. Till June. I wrote a poem. Kyoto Tokyo Express. A by-product of that. Then I went to see Olson, Creeley, Duncan and their buddy up in Vancouver when they had this big 1963 Poetry Festival.

DC: Do you remember the poetry event that Dick Baker put on in Berkeley?

AG: Two years later. That was modeled on the Vancouver conference.

DC: Suzuki went to that some. Joanne told me that Bob Creeley got a thing about Suzuki giving him the Evil Eye. Was saying get rid of that Jap he's giving me the Evil Eye. Isn't that weird?

AG: Yeah. Cause Bob is very respectful of Buddhism now.

DC: I spent a week with him in New Mexico in Placitas and we had a great time.

AG: Drinking. In those days he drank. And he'd get a little evil eye himself when he was drunk.

DC: Glass eye. He was an ambulance driver in Burma or something in World War II so maybe he still had some negative feelings about Japanese or something.

(Transcriber: He didn't have a glass eye. He used a patch, remember?)

DC: Did you ever go to Page Street when Suzuki was there?

AG: Yeah. In and out. More when Baker and Philip were there. There was a gay group that began.

DC: That was much later. That was Issan. Issan and I lived together for years.

AG: I think I went to one of the first meetings of that. But I don't remember very clearly. When the Karmapa came I was there. I don't know if Suzuki was still alive then.

DC: No he was gone when all that happened. He died in '71, December. There was no talk about gay stuff. He had a number of gay students. Some of his very early ones were gay. Did you know Bill McNeill? Bob Hense. Paul Alexander. Suzuki didn't worry about such things. He didn't have any trips he laid on people that I remember. But also these sorts of things weren't being talked about yet much.

AG: Who brought it up? Issan?

DC: No. Issan wouldn't have brought it up. He didn't give a shit. It just started coming up in society more. Dick was very open about it and Aiken in Hawaii has been very open about it.

AG: How's Aiken doing?

DC: He's great. I just heard him speak out here and talked to him awhile about Suzuki. He's a little more straight and narrow than people were used to in California. He's a fine upstanding person, led an interesting life.

AG: I ran into Roshi Kapleau recently. He's retired. Lives in Florida. I was up in Rochester giving a reading and they offered to put me up in their house there. I'd visited them years ago in the '60s and done a benefit with them. He was up from Florida. Very old and fragile, but playing his harmonica. He's a good harmonica player. He's unleashed the harmonica on them all and they all sing-along to the songs he plays.

DC: I wanted to get hold of him.

AG: Call Rochester. They'll know.

DC: He spoke at Zen Center in about 1961. I'm surprised at how much you've had to say. I wasn't aware that you'd had the contact you had.

AG: I was always inquisitive. See what was going on. Anything in it for me. Some kind of learning. Then I was really impressed with Kanzeon (and he chants again) . I think I got that from Gary from his Wooden Fish. And then the (chants again) - - - Gary and I took a trip in 1965. We went up north, drove up to Canada and down the eastern slope of the Sierras and Cascades. I learned a lot of that stuff form him then. I heard him first sing Prajna Paramita in Sino-Japanese in Ajanta in India. In the caves. I had never heard any chanting before and it really blew my mind. So I memorized that. One time I think I even knew -- (chants) -- Kan ji zai bo etc., . Those stuck with me. Then when I saw the great translation, with the phonetics, and the original, and the shorthand --

DC: The Oracle published that. Two pages with a naked woman across it.

Can you say anything more about what your impression was of Suzuki?

AG: Quiet, gentle determination. That was the impression I had. Unspoken friendliness. Inclusiveness. I had a little trepidation of going there and sitting in somebody else's territory, but he made me welcome. No fuss at all.

DC: Did you ever come into the zendo and bring any musical instruments? [The story goes that he did one time and was asked to please stop playing music during zazen.-DC]

AG: My next interviewer's calling. Call me back if you have anything specific.

DC: Thank you. I consider you a hero of the dharma.

AG: I'm a dharma slob. A dharma failure.