He was a hipster darling to reference on college campuses in the late 50s of the last century. Then again, many new students were made aware of Gregory Corso through his teaching at Naropa (then Institute, now University) in the 1970s at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics

Gregory certainly did not align himself overtly with the Buddhism that was also being taught there. If anything, he was a very public gadfly, heckling the lectures of Chogyam Trungpa and tossing firecrackers into the meditation hall. (To Trungpa’s credit, he gave as good as he got, and never had Corso barred by security. I heard one student tell me that Trungpa laughed so long and hard at Corso’s antics that his entire body shook on the stage.). When I arrived in 1978, the first thing I saw was Gregory vomiting from the balcony of his apartment. Yet it was obvious to anyone with discernment that Gregory’s trickster genius had more than a touch of Zen. How about this slogan of Heraclitus reworked into “koan” by Corso? “You can’t step in the same river once.”

Allen Ginsberg felt that genius in art required a mindful ground from which a spontaneous insight arose. An example would be Charlie Parker, who, when in the zone, seemed to disappear to the point where the horn was playing him, or there was no one playing at all. In this way, artistic genius is analogous to the Buddhist meditation of shamatha/vipashyana: calm abiding/insight. Of course, the issue for the artist is that there is no real technique to call on, especially on one’s deathbed. As said, this final resting place is very much on Corso’s mind in his posthumously published The Golden Dot.

“Gregory Cross has a lot of prajna but very little skillful means,” Allen once said. Trungpa also felt Gregory had a lot of prajna, discerning wisdom which in its perfection is transcendent knowledge. No one was saying that Gregory had achieved that perfection (or “paramita”), however. As to Gregory’s lack of skillful means, he was eventually dismissed from Naropa, apparently urinating on the curtains of his guest apartment as a final farewell. 

In the excellent 1986 documentary What Happened to Kerouac?, Gregory himself explained what he saw as the stages of discerning wisdom in writing: You got your talent, you got your genius, and you got the Divine. Kerouac, genius. Shelley, Divine.

Allen once showed me a “Romantic” collage Corso had done of the Buddha, complete with lightning bolts. Gregory was also drawn to Egyptian and Greek deities, obviously not as entities, but more as archetypes or manifestations of mind. Olympic gods reference the sky. Chthonic gods are related to agriculture and the Underworld as well.  Titling another collection of his work, Herald of the Auto-Chthonic Spirit, Gregory claimed himself that “Herald.”

That 1981 volume includes “The Whole Mess…Almost,” wherein Gregory provides a deconstruction of phenomena reminiscent of both Nagarjuna and Jacques Derrida. He begins to toss everything out the window – Truth, God, Love, “Faith Hope Charity/ all three clinging together,” Beauty, and Death (there was no Money to give away). Finally only Humor remains. “All I could do with Humor was to say: / “Out the window with the window!”

In what seems to be an earlier working of the same notion, “I gave the sky away,” Corso gives away a catalog of everything that swims, flies, or crawls, and when the gods object, “…I gave the gods away.” This appears in the rare San Francisco zine, Birthstone #4, “Special Naropa Issue,” 1978.

The title The Golden Dot obviously struck Gregory Corso enough to hold onto it. According to Raymond Foye, the book went through quite a few versions over about 30 years. “There are many good unpublished poems in earlier versions.” The final one has recently been published by Lithic Press, and in some grim joke of stupidity, was rejected by New Directions and City Lights, both having made some real money off Gregory in the past.

It is a remarkable text, and likely its rejection involved both Corso being too out of fashion to make enough money for these now-bigger corporations, exacerbated by the fact that this is a very different Corso in many ways, unexpectedly vulnerable and far from “penguin dust” or “fried shoes,” the hilarious surrealism that made him a hip commodity to quote on those late 50s campuses. The word “hubris” appears again and again as Corso wrestles with his self-perceived arrogance now in the face of death, much like Ezra Pound’s “pull down thy vanity…” in “Canto LXXXI.” There are Corso’s metaphysical speculations and ambiguous nostalgias for Catholicism.

In a very strange coincidence, The Golden Dot: The Epic of the Lha was written in Tibetan in the late 1960s by Chogryam Trungpa.[1] Some of the beginning stanzas were translated by Trungpa into English in 1972, though they don’t seem to be available. From what I understand, the text is related to the shamanic tradition of Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet prior to so-called Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana. The likelihood of Gregory Corso knowing this, let alone Allen Ginsberg, seems pretty slim though not impossible. Yet the coincidence is enough to cue the Twilight Zone theme.

Trungpa talked of meeting the First Nation medicine man Gerald Red Elk. Both men had profound respect for each other and it may help in understanding how a variety of traditions can be regarded as embracing an open boundless space of wakefulness. In his Shambhala teachings, Trungpa also talked of the Primordial Dot, which is analogous to the “first thought/best thought” that he and Allen coined. Ginsberg later clarified: “First thought, no thought, then see what comes up.” In other words, there are gaps between thoughts, and rather than sit like a cat ready to pounce, there is awareness of what rises in the mind. As Trungpa said, “A cold shower is a cold shower. A hot shower is a hot shower. Where did it come from? It’s very direct. Unconditional goodness, the primordial dot, is free from any neurosis. It’s 200 percent truth.”

Extending that further, the artist also can have some intuitive understanding of this as well. (Still, Gregory did not always go with the first draft by any means.) From Ginsberg’s perspective, genius can’t exist without it. From Gregory Corso’s perspective, it is the Divine.

[1] This text is referenced in the recent Lute of Unceasing Sound-Emptiness (Nalanda Publications 2020) in a newly annotated essay “The Bon Way of Life” by Trungpa Rinpoche.