The tale of the Spiritual Leader and his Organization may be the most familiar story of the last decade, but the version presented . . . is unique and disturbing. For the leader here is Chogyam Trungpa; his chief apologist is Allen Ginsberg; his followers, and those who have taught under his auspices at the Naropa Institute . . . include many of the best writers, artists, composers and academics in the land. Whereas intellectuals could shrug off Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon and the whole crackpot pantheon as cults appealing only to dopes and the doped, the parallel takes of Trungpa and Ginsberg cannot be ignored. What may be happening in Boulder, though still in embryonic form, is an Oriental redecoration of home-grown American demagogy: the Dharma Bums playing It Can't Happen Here.
Through Ginsberg, Bly and others, Trungpa had become the pet guru of many poets. (He was, after all, Oxford trained and something of a poet himself.) In 1974, taking advantage of his literary conquests, he founded the Naropa Institute, a parochial but eclectic college whose best-known department was the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, under the leadership of Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. Their aim was a reincarnation in the lineage of Black Mountain and the Bauhaus, and Naropa attracted a galaxy of art bigwigs—Ashbery, Burroughs, Creeley, Cage, Don Cherry, Baraka, Duncan, Merwin, Rothenberg, Joni Mitchell, among others—many of whom were Ginsberg connections rather than Trungpa disciples.
Hangovers from the party continued through 1979. In February, Harper's published “Spiritual Obedience” (the title tells it all) by Peter Marin, a diary of a summer at Naropa, and the first national account of the Merwin story, though without any names.
Flak flew throughout the year, culminating in the publication of the Clark book under review here. The first published history of the controversy, the book is essentially a long magazine article (some thirty pages) followed by forty pages of appendices: letters, documents, newspaper editorials, and most important of all, the Ginsberg interview.
But Trungpa is not a wise man in the Rockies with a few students. He has taken an ancient tradition and—having swiftly mastered the Way of America—mass marketed it. It is at this point that the possibility of using the word fascism arises.
A fine line should be drawn here between Trungpa and Buddhism: to discuss Buddhist fascism is to explore Trungpa's exploitation of the teachings, rather than the teachings themselves. It is because of this confusion that Kenneth Rexroth, America's greatest Buddhist poet, has remarked that ‘Trungpa has unquestionably done more harm to Buddhism in the United States than any man living.’ (He goes on to advise immediate deportation: ‘One Aleister Crowley was enough for the twentieth century.’) The question then remains: why, of the hundreds of Buddhist masters now in the United States, has Trungpa alone so successfully captured some of the best minds of the generation?
One answer is surely apocalyptic yearning: a willful submission to a personal apocalypse as the only response possible to the involuntary submission to global destruction. Many of Trungpa's disciples happily describe him as a monster. Ginsberg, in the interview, typically carries it further: ‘Anything might happen. We might get taken over and eaten by the Tibetan monsters. All the monsters of the Tibetan Book of the Dead might come out and get everybody to take LSD! Actually that's what's happening . . . The Pandora's Box of the Bardo Thodol has been opened by the arrival in America of one of the masters of the secrets of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.’ It is a return to Nietzsche and Spengler: violence as the only catalyst for the restoration of proper order. You can't make a Dharma omelette without cracking an egghead.
It is the open secret of modern American literature that much of our best writing has been written by fascists and anti-Semites and a few outsiders (Jews, blacks, women, homosexuals). But the ‘postwar’ generations could always dismiss the politics of our immediate literary ancestors as misguided and naive—we of course knew better. And of course we didn't: some of the outward trappings are different, but the old models have held. All of the old nightmares are back in the Ginsberg interview.
For twenty-five years Allen Ginsberg has been the best-known poet in the country, a national emblem, our representative. As Bob Callahan found out from his petition, though many will disagree on specifics with Ginsberg, almost no poet is willing to discredit him. He has stood for the bardic tradition, for vision, for song and for resistance to authority. If Pound and Eliot and the rest are our shameful past, Ginsberg stood for an exemplary and enlightened present. In retrospect, however, he may be seen to be carrying on the aristocratic tradition, for Ginsberg's main activity has been the creation and promotion of elite groups and the condemnation of the masses. ‘Beat’ vs. ‘square’; ‘heads’ vs. ‘straights’; ‘peaceniks’ vs. ‘hard hats’ and to a certain extent, ‘gay’ vs. ‘straight’—all of these groups, no matter how worthy the cause, depended on a code of behaviour and a system of beliefs as rigid as that of their despised counterparts. Now Ginsberg's enemy has become what he calls ‘the barbarous Western mind,’ and his need for a ruling elite has found its object in Tibetan theocracy: ‘So all of a sudden poets are now confronted by the guys who've got the secrets of the Himalayas! . . . this kind of wisdom was always supposed to be secret. Nobody was supposed to know about it except the gurus and masters of the world, who were ruling everything from the top of the Himalayas . . . And now it's all right here.’
The masters of the world, ruling everything, knew that all along there has been a secret political order to the world, Those of us who had hoped that the romance of fascism and poetry was over had believed, perhaps rightly, that intellectuals would be skeptical of any proclamation of a New Order, of the kind of bizarre utopianism Pound and the others found in Mussolini and Hitler. Instead, fascism has come from the other direction: not the future but the past. An Ancient Order to the world that we never knew existed, and now it's ours!
Ginsberg speaks today of Naropa and Vajradhatu as an ‘experiment in monarchy,’ He believes that Trungpa is infallible, that the Merwin incident was not a mistake but a lesson, the meaning of which he has not deciphered. The Ginsberg interview, along with the recently published Pound radio speeches, is surely the most depressing transcript in American letters.
Swiss cheese or yak butter, it's unfortunately impossible to leave Trungpa, Ginsberg and the rest fiddling the dials of the planetary spiritual control center, for the Naropa Institute is still with us, now more than ever.
As for Ginsberg, let George Orwell say it: ‘A writer's political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave their mark even on the smallest detail of his work.’ As for Trungpa, let Merwin have the last word: ‘I wouldn't encourage anyone to become a student of his. I wish him well.’