‘Robert Bly on gurus, grounding yourself in the western tradition, and thinking for yourself’ (1976)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

5 minutes

In 1976, American poet Robert Bly gave an interview to Sherman Goldman for the East/West Journal: ‘Robert Bly on Gurus, Grounding Yourself in the Western Tradition, and Thinking For Yourself: An Interview’ (August 1976).

The interview was published after the violent abuse during one of Trungpa’s ‘seminaries,’ but before the scandal became widely known.

At the time, Robert Bly had this to say about Naropa Institute:

“I must say I don’t really like the way Naropa has developed. There is something disturbing about it. I think Jeremy Hayward and the other directors wanted to introduce some of the powerful teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, but they took the typical American route, which is to think of large numbers of students, attract them by hiring celebrities, pull people in who are interested in names, and so “broaden the base.” Gurdjieff calls this pandering to numbers a violation of the teaching.

It’s important that teaching be hard to find. Gurdjieff was never famous in his own lifetime. He said a very strange thing: he said, ‘It’s possible that knowledge is a substance like iron ore or hydrogen: there is only a certain amount of it in the world at any one moment.’ By knowledge, he means knowledge that can raise a human being’s temperature and change his or her life. He says it’s important for that reason to have small groups. Your psyche can be changed only if a lot of knowledge comes toward you at one time. So when you have masses of people who are receiving knowledge, none of them is receiving enough to change his or her life decisively. The knowledge is being dissipated, actually. Everyone feels a little titillated, but ask them how much their life has been changed.

I had that disappointment when I saw the schedule for Naropa. Then in poetry the disappointment deepened tremendously. Allen Ginsberg is a lovely man, but to offer Jack Kerouac’s School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa is absurd. The whole idea has nothing to do with Buddhism at all. They are teaching daydreaming, not poetics. And William Burroughs as a Buddhist? He is as much a Buddhist as my grandmother, The directors of Naropa are degrading Tibetan Buddhism by appealing to the American student’s obsession with celebrities. Everything that I understand about Buddhism—and I don’t understand much about it—is that when a human being develops a tremendous amount under the disciplines brought forward by Buddhism, that person becomes almost invisible. He resembles clear water running over a stream bed. If Naropa wants a teacher of poetry, they should look for someone who is almost invisible, who isn’t a wellknown man or woman. I believe there are poets—not many, but a few—in this country who are living like the new moon, hardly noticed. They are living alone in Oregon somewhere, or in Alabama; they do not appear on the Johnny Carson Show; people who read Grove Press books have never heard of them. When that man or women entered the room at Naropa and a student asked, “What’s the connection between Buddhism and poetry?” he or she could answer the question. The subject can’t be taught by William Burroughs or Allen Ginsberg. Buddhism can’t be taught in the presence of celebrities. And to arrange Naropa that way is a bad thing to do to college students, who are sick of the star system in their own colleges.

We all know of universities where Alfred Kazin or John Gardner makes $35,000 and the head of the English department $25,000, and the best teacher $10,000, and this person is a far better teacher than John Gardner.

Students are sick of that. And then what happens? They want to do something in the summer, and they want to study something that is has done a tremendous amount of egoless. They go to Naropa Institute, and there they are presented with Anne Waldman and the star system.

It’s a mistake. I know there is serious teaching taking place there, too—fine classes in Sanskrit, for example, concept scholarship, and dance. I’m presenting a minority opinion. …

If you want to go on talking about thinking, I’ll tell you another idea that came to me. In April I attended the annual Jung Conference at Notre Dame. It was a fine conference, but I was struck by the amount of received language in the talks. In kindergarten, we describe creativity as an openness to experience. But I have the idea that creativity begins with a refusal. Creativity doesn’t start—at least with adults—by writing a poem saying how marvelous everything is that has happened to you, but with the refusal to accept received language. Jung was a good example. He grounded himself very well. How ornery he was! He refused to accept any of the received language offered him by the psychologists just before him. He learned that from Freud. He evidently worked over hundreds of his own dreams before he made any generalizations about them. Jung kept thinking; he dropped ideas into his own psyche and then checked the color when they came out. Then he invented a number of new phrases: ‘animus possession,’ ‘archetype,’ ‘anima project,’ ‘shadow material,’ ‘the collective unconscious.’

When you talk about Jung’s ideas, it’s important never to say the phrase ‘collective unconscious.’ That’s his phrase. You must make up one for the same experience. Call it ‘the great lake.’ If you’re an earth type, call it ‘the granite magma layer.’ If you’re an air type, call it ‘the beehive of thoughts.’ Ask your own psyche to rise, and slowly eat the phrase, and change it as it wishes.

The problem of your own originality will then arise. If instead of ‘collective consciousness,’ you say ‘beehive of thoughts,’ you’ll notice that the concept you’ve expressed is already different from the concept ‘the collective unconscious.’ Then you are responsible for that difference. You’d better be ready to defend it.

If we all did that, we’d see less of the goo that we constantly see in the spiritual magazines. The word bliss appears again and again. ‘Bliss’ means absolutely nothing. I have never met an American who felt ‘bliss.’ The whole movement is penetrated by catch phrases. ‘I’m blissed out, man.’ ‘I’m experiencing higher consciousness.’ ‘I am getting rid of my ego.’ ‘The underlying nature of phenomenal world is process and interconnectedness.’ The East West Journal should take a vow to stop publishing this language, even in ads. The political movement of the sixties died because people accepted the language without changing it. The Marxists accepted Marx’s language, the students accepted hippie languange, the love generation accepted jazz musicians’ language. The sixties
people—Jerry Rubin is an example—never worked it over, so the underground newspapers were an endless mishmash of received language.

Castro used to say to those people, ‘This is ridiculous. Go home. Stop being romantic guerillas. Get out of Cuba. Go back. Sit in the library for five years and try to figure out what postindustrial capitalism is like.’

Language is important. Language now is the environment for those who don’t go outdoors. If you live in a graduate school, the language spoken there is your environment. If, as in the English department, the language is all received language that the psyche has not absorbed and interpenetrated, then the language is dead. The environment is death.

The spiritual movement in the seventies is disintegrating now under the heavy pressure of spiritual passivity, a strong part of which is passivity toward received ideas and received language. The students at Naropa are too passive toward Trungpa, toward Ginsberg and Burroughs.” (pp. 11-13)

Goldman - Robert Bly on gurus, grounding yourself in the western tradition, and thinking for yourself (East-West Journal August 1976 pp. 10-15)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.