Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, is a Tibetan lama who advocates “crazy wisdom” and gets rich off it. His spiritual kingdom is located in the United States--
and centered in Boulder, Colorado, where his Naropa Institute has become a stage for the biggest political controversy to hit the U.S. poetry scene since Ezra Pound became a radio star for Benito Mussolini.
Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman are outspoken devotees of Trungpa. Dozens of other well-known poets have taught and read under Trungpa's auspices. Robert Bly, early a disciple, became an “enemy of the dharma” for his later opposition to Trungpa. W. S. Merwin, National Book Award winning poet, seeking Trungpa's wisdom, found himself rudely violated—insulted and forcibly stripped at a Trungpa seminary. This incident first received national attention in an article by Peter Marin in Harper's titled “Spiritual Obedience, the transcendental game of follow the leader.”
Ed Sanders, using the beam of his “Investigative poetics” to illuminate the Merwin episode, fathered a compilation by his Naropa class of eyewitness accounts called The Party. Ed Dorn distributed mimeograph copies sub rosa. Naropa poets responded by concocting a “Merwin coverup.” Subsequent publication of the account by Sanders' class and an interview with Allen Ginsberg by Tom Clark titled “When the Party's Over” in Boulder Monthly aroused further antagonism from the Naropa poets and Buddhist community in Boulder.
Poets again breathed flame at one another, as in that great age of bardic bad breath, the 18th century.
Do we have Trungpa to thank for a happy renaissance of literary invective? Is this man a charlatan attempting to snatch the fiscal flower of our poetry? Or what?
Tom Clark's The Great Naropa Poetry Wars takes you back to feudal, hieratic Tibet in search of the answers; and brings you up to the present with a lucid chronicle of events, exploring the ethical and cultural implications of this controversy for both poetic and Buddhist communities in America.
Appended to Tom Clark's text is a generous collection of documents pertaining to this controversy including letters by Ed Dorn, Sam Maddox, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Bob Callahan, Peter Marin and Glenn H. Mullin.
The Great Naropa Poetry Wars
by Tom Clark
Designed and printed by Graham Mackintosh
Signed/Limited edition in boards
ISBN 0 932274 07 2
Publication date: November 1979, First edition 1981
87 pages, 5½" x 8½"
ISBN 0 932274 06 4
About the Book
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.’
— Eliot Weinberger, [excerpts from] "Dharma Demonology"
THE NATION, April 19, 1980
The Great Naropa Poetry Wars is a sad, important book and valuable commentary on the corrupting of the so-called ‘counterculture.’
HOME PLANET NEWS, Summer, 1980
How many years is Ginsberg going to have to carry around the suspicion that has now been unfairly planted that he harbors fascistic tendencies?
I don't mean that it is illegitimate to want to enquire into his views of late. The Buddhist church he has joined does exude a fairly medieval odor (the name Naropa itself comes from an 11th century monk). Hierarchy and submission appear to be embedded in the church organization and in the method of instruction Trungpa offers. It is not true his followers regard him as infallible, as Clark says—Ginsberg's own evidence shows that Ginsberg criticizes him on occasion—but the followers do seem to hold the man in lavishly high estimation. To remark this is not necessarily to condemn it: perhaps some aspects of religious life are not easily fit objects for public approval or disapproval.
But the main thing is that anyone expecting Tibetan Buddhism-in-exile to be an expression of Aquarian Age peace-and-light is going to be sorely disappointed (this disappointment accounts for a great deal of the outrage against Trungpa). At the same time, anyone who worries that hierarhical churches may pose a political threat will want to take a closer look. It is not foolish to worry about such threats. Some church hierarchies do make for sticky situations, as Congressman Drinan's constitutents have discovered. But does it follow that everyone who belongs to a hierarchical church is automatically an odious fascist? Please. The woods are full of Catholic anarchists, testifying to the vastness of human diversity.
What, then, is the truth about Ginsberg's philosophical thinking these days, now that he adheres to Turngpa's Buddhist sect? Is there any indication of a drift into fascism or other bizarreria? The answer to this question is so easy to find that Ginsberg's accusers need not even interrupt their brick-throwing to come up with it. With their free hand, let them pick up his recent volumes of poetry. These show that far from rushing into questionable Asiatic mysticisms and fanatical irrationalism, he has lately been retreating somewhat from the mysticism and irrationalism of his youth. His recent poems have a down-to-earth sensibleness that, if not exactly new to him, represents a definite development. A strenuous course in Buddhist meditation and study such as he has undertaken no doubt has different effects on different people. But judging from the poetry, the effect on him has clearly been to calm him down, to give him a more mundane, less exotic orientation. From a literary standpoint, this is all to the good. Most critics have agreed that Ginsberg's poems of the middle and late 1970s, when he came under Trungpa's influence, are more successful than his poems of the Vietnam era.
Then there is the evidence of his current political activity. The people who have been calling him every dirty political name in the language might consider taking a look at this, too. They would discover that a few months ago he addressed an anti draft rally in Boulder and that a photograph of him squatting on a railroad track to block manufacture of nuclear weapons has been circulating around the world (this photograph incidentally reveals a further influence of Trungpa's: Ginsberg now stages his sit-ins with a yogic posture). It is no secret that, for a decade now, Ginsberg has been investigating CIA and FBI subversion and persecution of American literature and journalism. This investigation, under the auspices of the PEN Freedom To Read Committess, has lately been his main political preoccupation. And there is no secret about what political organizations he supports. He takes a keen interest in Carl Oglesby's Assassination Information Bureau. Recently he sent off his check to the War Resisters League, as he does every year. And this year he has contributed to a presidential compaign; Ginsberg's candidate is Dave McReynolds, the pacifist running on the Socialist Party ticket.
How is it that such a man has been called a fascist? This is the real scandal?
On a day that I spoke to Ginsberg he told me that he has been to visit his mother's best friend from the 1930s, whom he calls Aunt Rose. This is not the Aunt Rose of the poem ‘To Aunt Rose,’ but the Rose mentioned in ‘Kaddish’ (‘ . . . calling Police, yelling for her girl-friend Rose to help—’) who is now nearly 90. Rose, a left-winger from way back told Ginsberg she has heard that he's been denounced as a fascist and has become an agent for the FBI.
Aunt Rose, it ain't so. Ginsberg's Buddhism may not be your cup of tea. But if ever a man was not a fascist, not a totalitarian, not a reactionary, not an incipient Nazi, not violent, not an FBI agent, not a threat ot freedom, not any of the terrible things he has been called—it is your old friend Naomi's boy, Allen.
— Paul L. Berman, [excerpts from] “Buddhahgate:The Trashing of Allen Ginsberg”
VILLAGE VOICE, July 23-29, 1980
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