The following is an excerpt from Jacob Rabinowitz’s new book, Blame it on Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr which can be purchased now on Amazon.
Allen made a profoundly original hybrid of American Modernism and the great pessimistic Asian faith. I will explain it as simply as I can, but this I can do only to a point, for the matter itself is not simple.
Allen’s Buddhism didn’t register with me as religious, since he himself presented it as a non-theistic philosophy. Here Allen was well bamboozled. Buddhism has been a proselytizing religion for a millennium and a half. These highly practiced exporters of their faith easily arrived at the best way to present their creed to secularized westerners. Even in its most austere Theravada form, Buddhism is still a Hindu heresy with a metaphysical back-story which is richly mythological. How it was that Allen ended up buying into, then pushing, with a proselyte’s zeal, a sanitized, simplified and considerably less than candid version of Buddhism, is worth a short excursus.
In 1893, Chicago held the first World’s Fair, which included a World Parliament of Religions, the brainchild of Charles C. Brown, an Illinois judge and ardent Swedenborgian. This idealistic prototype of all succeeding global interfaith dialogues included luminaries on the order of Swami Vivekananda (for Hinduism) and Mary Baker Eddy the founder of Christian Science. Most momentously present was Soyen Shoku, a Japanese Zen master, whose disciple, D. T. Suzuki, became the foremost popularizer of Zen in America.
America has always been a welcoming refuge and tolerant home for new and peculiar religions. To be frank, Americans find spiritual and philosophical fads irresistible, always have. Walt Whitman, who was (and meant to be) the archetypal American, embraced every kook ideology available, from Phrenology to Spiritism. Some of his most striking word choices are simply crackpot-science technical terms, the precise meaning of which has been forgotten, e.g., the word “electric” in I Sing the Body Electric refers to Mesmeric animal magnetism.
When the exponents of Mahayana Buddhism, with more than a millennium of sophisticated sales technique to their credit, arrived in America, they immediately grasped that we Yanks were, as Burroughs would have put it, “live ones.” Suzuki pioneered the presentation of Buddhism as a bare meditation practice, a sort of mental hygiene, rational, scientific and psychological. Tell an American something promotes health and he reaches for his wallet. The metaphysics were left implicit, never stressed and rarely mentioned. Ethnic tradition was limited to a little low-key dress-up. Americans have always enjoyed running around in robes.
Thus this ancient and complex religion presents itself, very disingenuously, as a modern, practical discipline, a neutral mental exercise. Once the neophyte has taken the bait, the religious ideology is steadily and stealthily funneled in. Allen had gotten on board long before I knew him, and he himself played a major role in popularizing Buddhism to its hippy-era apogee. Though I hadn’t then my present awareness of American Buddhist history, I was plenty suspicious of what I saw.
The day we met, Allen taught me how to sit with straight spine and crossed legs, focusing on my breath, disengaging as far as I could from the flow of my thoughts. He was far more interested in sitting me down than in bending me over. His sincere belief, which in retrospect appears laudable, struck me at the time as downright creepy.
I might have liked it better had it been presented as religion. But he claimed it was just an intelligent, skillful way of enhancing one’s awareness. Which left me pretty cold. The dispassionate observation of “ordinary mind” as Allen liked to call it, seemed like a lot of effort to attain nothing special.
Allen had created his own Buddhist aesthetic. Now the whole idea of a Buddhist aesthetic is a little problematic, since Buddhism sees the creation of art as merely another intrinsically meaningless activity. But let’s not be too fussy about the terms. Cultures that have been heavily influenced by Buddhism have an aesthetic that shows the influence of Buddhism. A commonplace example is the Japanese mono no aware, the sense that the very transience of beautiful things makes the experience of them more poignant.
Allen thought that a Buddhist mind-set was compatible with and validated by the vivid, ultra-precise observation of physical details, such as we see in the Imagist poems of William Carlos Williams. Allen felt that such uncluttered clarity of observation was the product of an “empty mind,” that is, a mind that saw what was really before it, not distracted from the real by its own inner monologue. Allen also believed that the uncensored stream-of-consciousness style that is characteristic of so much modern writing, and which Allen felt Kerouac exemplified, made art out of the intrinsically Buddhist experience of observing one’s mind generating thoughts. Such self-scrutiny is especially well learned through meditation, which is not concerned with the impossible task of stopping thought—it is the nature of the mind to produce thoughts. Meditation teaches one to simply observe one’s thoughts arising, without getting caught up in their flow. It is an exercise that can be very revealing of how the mind works, and is in some ways not unlike the psychological technique of free association.
Now I hadn’t figured all this out when I was seventeen. All I got then was that Allen felt that vivid description and psychological awareness were important ingredients of poetry. It seemed to me that naturalistic, psychologically insightful novels such as Flaubert wrote achieved exactly these goals consistently and interestingly. Why go to the trouble of practicing Buddhism; why not just read Flaubert?
And, though it didn’t occur to me then, Allen’s conception of “spontaneous mind” as intrinsically wondrous, which he expressed in the slogan “first thought, best thought,” with its implicit dismissal of the unconscious, is a bit naive. But I wasn’t engaging Allen’s Buddhism on this level. I responded to it as my reading had prepared me to: like a nineteenth century Frenchman. If Buddhism were to be pitched to me successfully, it would have to be on the level of Orientalism.
Accordingly, what interested me were the incense and the tankas, which truly tipped the hand of Tibetan Buddhism American-style. How was this not religion, and popish religion at that?
I demanded of Allen, “Do you think it’s real progress that you’ve learned to bow down before graven images?
. . . silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not . . .?”
—giving him the most standard Hebrew critique of polytheism, taken directly from The Book of Psalms.
He could have held his ground and maybe even have won me over, had he just said “Yup, crude Paganism, that’s what I like!”
But instead he claimed that the images he prostrated himself before in the little shrine corner of his bedroom were just the pictorial form of philosophical abstractions. He supported his point by explaining to me in detail a painting that hung over his bed: the Wheel of Life or Bhavachakra, a symbolic representation of the cycle of existence (samsara).
The Wheel of Life is the standard icon of Tibetan Buddhism, sort of their Crucifixion. It shows the various levels of deluded existence, from the lowest hells of fire and ice up to the highest heaven of paradisal bliss—a vision of the afterlife that would have held few surprises for Dante. Allen explained all this in metaphorical and psychological terms. The inhabitants of the god realm represented millionaires and rockstars who imagined that their possessions and pleasures constituted real happiness. The hells represented neurotic suffering, the undue amplification of life’s actual pain by foolish delusions and arrogant assumptions.
All of this was intensely inauthentic from the point of view of traditional Buddhism, which believes the gods and devils and suffering ghosts in hell all exist literally as depicted. I was a little impressed to find that even the gods were viewed as imprisoned in the wheel of existence, through which all beings cycled through all the realms in turn, but it makes sense when you bear in mind that Buddhism considers suffering to be the very essence of existence. The gods themselves are viewed as unhappy because the pessimism of Buddhism is limitlessly audacious.
It was rather less of a surprise to learn that in Buddhism, as in Christianity and Islam, the burning and freezing hells are reserved for the atonement of truly terrible sins—like homosexuality. This last point was one which Allen tended to pass over.
According to authentic Buddhism, the endless, aimless cycle of rebirths, punctuated by time-outs in the afterworlds shown in the Wheel of Life, demonstrates the endless misery of existence. The goal of spiritual practice was to opt out by choosing self-extinction (nirvana). To paraphrase a statement frequently repeated in the Pali canon,
What do you want, O Buddha?
I want to go where fire goes when it goes out.
Allen blithely ignored the punitive medievalism and sick pessimism, which are very real, very dark aspects of Buddhism. He could do so because he’d been encouraged in his extraordinary and creative interpretations by his guru, Trungpa, who was chary of contradicting this extremely valuable celebrity disciple. Trungpa assured Allen that his intuitions about the deepest nature of Buddhism were entirely valid, though quite esoteric.
Now it’s not really fair to subject Allen’s religiosity to the kind of critique I have just offered. He was a poet, not a theologian. My purpose here is only to show that my disquiet about his Buddhism had some intellectual basis, even if I couldn’t then articulate it.
It would be many many years before I came to understand what was really interesting about Allen’s Buddhism: its originality and creativity. I can perhaps be forgiven this failure of awareness, since it was shared by Allen himself, and, so far as I know, this particular veil has not yet been lifted by any of his biographers.
Allen was of course a Jewish Buddhist, and to some extent he Judaized the Buddhism he adopted. This may be seen from two characteristic emphases in Allen’s thinking.
First, there is Allen’s sense that the most profound level of reality is revealed through the transience of physical things — Allen’s major poems, Kaddish, an extended epitaph, makes exactly this point through its explicit content, as it does by its Hebrew title, which just means “holy.” The impermanent is the visible face of the eternal, for Judaism as it is for Buddhism (though the two faiths arrive at this conclusion by very different paths).
Secondly, there is Allen’s moral warmth, which comes to the Jews through from the prophets, and which found so ready an echo in the Buddhist virtue of compassion. This underwent a grandiose a development in Mahayana theology.
The kaddish (declaration of holiness) pronounced on impermanence, and the prophetic tradition of active compassion (most familiar to the general reader from the late-antique Jewish prophet Jesus), are structural elements of Allen’s Buddhism, and define it as a Jewish-Buddhist collage. Which I admire. I have always been a fan of monstrous hybrids and impossible orchids of thought. Considered on the basis of its strengths, Allen’s Buddhism was a remarkable innovation that joined his own areas of greatest sensitivity to authentic aspects of Buddhism. Allen created a new Buddhist poetics, a promethean and successful synthesis which enabled him to break new ground in poetry to the end of his days.