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The Vomit of a Mad Tyger
The Spiritual Autobiography of Allen Ginsberg
The Shambhala Sun presents this exclusive auto-biographical account from the late poet and cultural icon Allen Ginsberg, narrating his spiritual journey from Blake to the Buddha.
We’ll begin at the beginning, because what I’d like to do is trace what spiritual inklings I had that led to interest in Tibetan Buddhism and guru relationship.
I was in love with a high school fellow who went off to Columbia College when he graduated a half-term before me in Central High School in Patterson, New Jersey. So I decided to go to Columbia College instead of Montclair State Teachers College, where all of my family had gone. Out of some kind of devotion I broke away from the traditional pattern of my family but I didn’t have money, so I had to take a scholarship entrance exam. On the ferry between Hoboken and New York I got down on my knees and made a vow that if I were admitted to Columbia, I would do everything I could to save mankind. It was a naive bodhisattva’s vow out of fear of not getting into Columbia.
Around the time I got into school, I ran into William Burroughs and Lucian Carr and Jack Kerouac. We became friends. Our conversation between 1945 and 1948 was recollections of our own childhood inklings, including the big question, “How big was the universe?” I think Kerouac and I had a sense of panoramic awareness of the vastness of space. So the question, how big was the “unborn,” arose. Or, how vast was the space we were in, and what was the mystery of the universe?
That led to a lot of conversations and inquiries with marijuana and wandering around the city considering the look of the buildings and the appearance of the facades of Times Square, particularly. Times Square seen as a stage set with a facade that could vanish at any second. That impression of the apparent material of the universe as “real,” but at the same time “unreal” in some way or other, either because we were high, or because time would dissolve the “seen,” or maybe some trick of the eyeball reveals the “facade” as empty.
So we began talking about what in 1945 we called a New Consciousness, or a New Vision. As most young people probably do, at the age of fifteen to nineteen, whether it’s punk or bohemia or grunge or whatever new vision adolescents have, there is always some kind of striving for understanding and transformation of the universe, according to one’s own subjective, poetic, generational inspiration.
That led to an exploration of the otherwise rejected world of junkies around Times Square and the underworld. The world of drugs—which had a slight effect in transforming consciousness or altering moods and was presumed to be a kind of artistic specimen trial—I found quite harmless and useful as an educational experience, though some of my contemporaries did get hung up, like Burroughs—although the main problem seemed to be alcohol more than any other.
In 1948 I Had some kind of break in the normal modality of my consciousness. While alone living a relatively solitary vegetarian contemplative life, reading St. John of the Cross, Plotinus some, notions of “alone with the Alone,” or “one hand clapping,” or The Cloud of Unknowing, or Plato’s Phaedrus, and William Blake, I had what was, for me, an extraordinary break in the normal nature of my thought when something opened up.
I had finished masturbating, actually, on the sixth floor of a Harlem tenement on 121st Street looking out at the roofs while reading Blake, back and forth, and suddenly had a kind of auditory hallucination, hearing Blake—what I thought was his voice, a very deep, earthen tone, not very far from my own mature tone of voice, so perhaps a projection of my own latent physiology—reciting a poem called “Sunflower,” which I thought expressed some kind of universal longing for union with some infinite nature. The poem goes:
Ah, Sun-flower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done:
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded within snow
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
I can’t interpret it exactly now, but the impression that I had at the time was of some infinite yearning for the infinite, finally realized, and I looked out the window and began to notice the extraordinary detail of intelligent labor that had gone into the making of the rooftop cornices of the Harlem buildings. I suddenly realized that the world was, in a sense, not dead matter but an increment or deposit of living intelligence and action and activity that finally took form—the Italian laborers of 1890 and 1910, making very fine copper work and roofcomb ornament as you find along the older tenement apartment buildings.
As I looked at the sky, I wondered what kind of intelligence had made that vastness, or what was the nature of the intelligence that I was glimpsing, and felt a sense of vastness and of coming home to space I hadn’t realized was there before but which seemed old and infinite, like the Ancient of Days, so to speak. But I had no training in anything but Western notions and didn’t know how to find a vocabulary for the experience. So I thought I had seen “God” or “Light” or some Western notion of a theistic center, or that was the impression at the time.
That got me into lots of trouble, because I tried to explain it to people and nobody could figure out what I was saying. They thought I was nuts, and in a way, I was. Having no background and no preparation, I didn’t know how to ground the experience in any way that either could prolong it or put it in its place, and certainly didn’t know any teachers whom I could have consulted at Columbia University at the time, although D.T. Suzuki was there.
My first experience with Blake was quite heavenly, but the second experience, about a week later, was just the opposite. At the Columbia bookstore looking around and thinking about this and that, suddenly a sense of sea change of my consciousness overtook me again, and I got scared because everyone in the bookstore looked like some sort of wounded, neurotic, pained animal with the “marks of weakness and marks of woe” on their faces that Blake speaks of in “London.”
A night later, wandering around the Columbia campus, it happened again with a poem called “The Sick Rose,” which goes:
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
And I had a sense of the black sky coming down to eat me. It was like meeting Yamantaka without preparation, meeting one of the horrific or wrathful deities without any realization that it was a projection of myself, or my nature, and I tried to shut off the experience because it was too frightening.