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By 1950 or 1951, because of those experiences, I was curious about the Tibetan thangka paintings that had the wrathful deities, but I had no idea what their functions were. I also began experimenting more with peyote and other psychedelics—mescaline and later LSD—to see if I could approximate the natural experience I’d had. My experience with them was very similar, although the natural experience was much more ample and left a deeper imprint on my nature, and it certainly turned me around at the age of 22.
By 1956 There was some poetry and fame. The impulse of my own poetry, Burroughs’, and Kerouac’s was still based on some kind of examination of the texture of consciousness. That was probably the key to why we were of interest to others. Kerouac, in spontaneous prose, trying to track his mind and give some imprint to the actual sequence of thought forms as they rose during the time of writing. Burroughs, similarly interested in alternative modes of consciousness, getting away from stereotyped mentality, experimenting a great deal with drugs, with psychoanalysis, with hypno-analysis, with writing, and finally arriving at a kind of writing that was like the nature of his own mind, primarily visual.
I remember when talking with Burroughs once, I asked him what he was thinking of. He had his hands over his typewriter, hovering, ready to write something. “What are you thinking of?” And he said, “Hands pulling in nets from the sea in the dark.” I said, “That’s a very Blakean image of God the Fisher, or something.” He explained that it was just the visual memory of fishermen on the beach at Tangiers, pulling in their nets at dawn. Burroughs’ thought forms were primarily visual, whereas mine were more verbal, auditory, rhythmic. We were interested in the texture of consciousness and how to notate it on the page, preoccupations that go through to the present for everyone alive of that group.
By 1950 Kerouac had begun reading Buddhist texts, in reaction to our friend Neal Cassady, who was involved with Edgar Cayce, a sort of “channeling” specialist somewhat famous in those years. Kerouac thought this was a crude provincial American “Billy Sunday in a suit,” so maybe go back to the original text relating to metempsychosis and reincarnation. Kerouac began reading Goddard’s Buddhist Bible, which had samples of Hinayana and Maha-yana texts, including the Diamond Sutra, and some Vajrayana texts, at least relating to Milarepa and others. And he laid that trip on me.
Now as an ex-Communist Jewish intellectual, I thought his pronouncement of the first noble truth, that existence was suffering, was some sort of insult to my left-wing background, since I was a progressive looking forward to the universal improvement of matters, if only through spiritual advancement. Kerouac’s insistence was that existence contained suffering. I thought he was trying to insult me, for some reason or other. It took me about two years to get it through my head that he was just telling me a very simple fact.
I still remember the first real dharma instruction I got from Kerouac, which was consistent with Burroughs’ laconic cynicism and critique of “all apparent phenomena”: “All conceptions as to the existence of the self, as well as all conceptions as to the non-existence of the self, as well as all conceptions as to the existence of a Supreme Self, as well as all conceptions as to the nonexistence of a Supreme Self, are equally arbitrary, being only conceptions.” That made quite a bit of sense, since Burroughs had already presented me with Western semantics, Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity, which had some similar insight.
The first time I heard the refuge vows was from Kerouac also, crooned like Frank Sinatra in a beautiful way. That it imprinted itself on me, and I began going to the New York Public Library and looking at Chinese paintings of the Sung Dynasty, interested in the vastness of the landscape scrolls, as correlating with the sense of vastness that I had already experienced.
In 1962, after a trip to Europe, I went to India, primarily to look for a teacher, because I realized I would have to get a teacher, or wanted one, or intuited that I needed one, or wasn’t quite sure.
By then I was quite well-known as a poet, and I figured that the proper move, being now famous, would be to disappear into India for a couple of years and look for some wisdom, and also experience a different culture than the Western culture, which I thought from the viewpoint of Spengler, the decline of the West, was perhaps exhausted of inspiration and it was time for a second religiousness, and so I went to look for a teacher. I went in company with Gary Snyder, who four years earlier had gone to Kyoto to study at the First Zen Institute at Daitoku-ji Monastery and had begun helping translate Zen Dust, a handbook of koans.
We went on a Buddhist pilgrimage to Sarnath, Sanchi, Ajanta, Ellora. In a cave at Ellora, Gary sat himself down and chanted the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Sino-Japanese, with echoes of the cave around, and that blew my mind. It was such an extended, long, and obviously spiritual breath, vocalized, that I got really interested and asked him about what it meant, and why he was doing it in Japanese, and what was the history of it.
In the course of our trip we went to visit the Dalai Lama, and I was interested in what he thought of LSD. He asked me if with LSD I could see what was inside of a briefcase. And I said yes, because it is empty. And Gary said, “Oh, stop quibbling, Ginsberg. Give him an answer.”
I went to Sikkim, just sightseeing, and wound up in Rumtek Monastery. I met the Karmapa and saw the Black Hat ceremony, which came to mean a great deal to me much later on. We also visited the Lamas’ Home School at Dalhousie, where my later teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was the director. Although I didn’t have much conversation with him, Gary Snyder took a picture showing Peter Orlovsky leaning over, me looking on, and Trungpa Rinpoche showing us a text that was on the altar.
I went on to Kalimpong to visit Dudjom Rincpoche, the head of the Nyingma school, and I brought him my problems with LSD, because I had had a lot of bum trips. Every time I took acid or psychedelia, I would come back to “The Sick Rose,” like some kind of monster coming to eat me from an outside space. He did give me a very good pith instruction, which I never forgot. It turned my mind around and made the world safe for my democratic thoughts: “If you see something horrible, don’t cling to it, and if you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it.” That cut the Gordian knot that I’d inherited from too rash and untutored experiments with psychedelics.
On my way home I went to Japan and visited Gary. I sat at Temple Daitoku-ji, and actually did a short sesshin, but didn’t learn anything because I didn’t get any real instructions. The problem I had in India was that I didn’t know what to ask for. I went there looking for a teacher and I saw many swamis, but I didn’t know enough to ask them for a meditation practice. Which was the simplest way in? What kind of meditation do you do, and can you suggest a practice? I was too dumb to ask that. I remember asking Dudjom Rinpoche for initiations, wang, as if I were trained enough or prepared for it, but I didn’t ask him what kind of meditation should I practice meanwhile.