‘The Lion of Dharma’ (1989)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

27 minutes

Barry Miles’ voluminous Ginsberg: A Biography (1989) contains an extensive discussion of the violent incident during one of Chögyam Trungpa’s first seminaries in the United States of America. The entire book can be found here. Allen Ginsberg was not present during the event itself, but as Naropa Institute’s codirector he was directly involved afterwards:

“Allen first met the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, on the street in New York in late summer 1970. Allen was with his father, who was feeling weak from the heat. Trungpa had just hailed a cab, and Allen asked, ‘Can I steal your vehicle?’ explaining that his father was sick. Trungpa’s assistant, Kunga Dawa, recognized him, and addresses were exchanged. Ginsberg saluted Trungpa Indian style and recited the common Padma Sambhava mantra: ‘Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddi Hum.’ Trungpa later told Ginsberg that he wondered if the poet knew its full significance. Not long afterward, Trungpa invited him to critique his poetic Buddhist ritual text, the Sadhana of Mahamudra, which Dawa had translated into English.

In the spring of 1971, Ginsberg moved to Berkeley to supervise the final stages of the assembly of a sixteen-hour tape of his best recorded readings. That May, Chögyam Trungpa arrived in Berkeley and Allen visited him. Trungpa had already been to the bar across the street from his hotel and was drunk. Helped back to his room by two of his students, he had fallen on the stairs and torn his pants. When he bent over his son, his wife yelled at him for breathing vodka all over the baby. ‘Aren’t you drinking too much?’ Allen asked.

Down in the hotel restaurant, Trungpa looked at Allen. ‘Why do you wear a beard?’ he challenged. ‘You’re attached to your beard, aren’t you? I want to see your face!’ Allen sped to the hotel pharmacy and then into the men’s room with a new pair of scissors. He reappeared five minutes later at the cocktail table where Trungpa was sipping his third Bloody Mary. ‘You didn’t shave it! All you did was cut it off two inches!’ Trungpa teased.
‘It’s eight o’clock, and you’ve got a lecture to give at eight-thirty,’ said Allen. ‘I’ll shave there.’
‘They know me,’ said Trungpa. ‘They expect me to be late. You can shave now. Order another drink.’ But Allen insisted they go.

Backstage at the lecture hall, halfway through shaving, Allen realized that he was free of his familiar bearded media image and could now walk anonymously down Telegraph Avenue. He appeared from the men’s room clean-shaven, and Trungpa exclaimed, ‘He took off his mask!’

Allen was staying at a commune on Woolsey Street in Berkeley, and when he returned, for a moment no one recognized him. He enjoyed his new invisibility. In an interview with Irving Rosenthal at the time, he said: ‘Several nights later I closed the Capri invisible and went to the Basket dressed in my Salvation Army $3.50 Montgomery Street suit and porkpie hat, white shirt and tie and close-cropped hair. I stood around watching everybody dance all night, got beat for a buck by a halfdrunk speedfreak kid I picked up in front of Finocchio’s, and wound up taxiing alone to Pam‐Pam’s at 6A.M. Great gathering of beautiful varied lads and queens at table, so I walked up hat in hand and said, ‘Can I sit with you? I’m lonely.’ They said, ‘No! No room here, we’re expecting more people.’ And suddenly I was on the outside of gay hippie culture looking in and realized I’d stumbled on a new karmayoga treasure: anonymity.’

During his talk with Trungpa at the hotel, Allen had complained that he was fatigued by his endless cross-country poetry readings and the extended air travel. ‘That’s because you don’t like your poetry,’ said Trungpa.

‘What do y o u know about poetry?’ exclaimed Allen, struck but amused.

‘Why do you need to depend on a piece of paper when you recite your poetry?’ continued Trungpa. ‘Don’t you trust your own mind? Why don’t you do like the great poets, like Milarepa—improvise spontaneously on the spot.’

That evening, at Trungpa’s lecture, Allen improvised a silly ditty, rhyming ‘moon’ and ‘June,’ ‘beer’ and ‘dear’; it was surprisingly easy. His father’s example and all Allen’s youthful years of writing rhymed couplets came to fruition. The next night, at a benefit for Tarthang Tulku’s Tibetan Buddhist meditation center in Berkeley, Ginsberg tested Trungpa’s suggestion; he took no books or texts onstage. He chanted Tarthang Tulku’s melody for the Padma Sambhava mantra for more than an hour, then, using the same two harmonium chords, he made the transition to a twenty-minute bittersweet improvised lament, beginning, ‘How sweet to be born here in America.

‘Tt was the first time I ever got onstage without a text,’ he said, ‘and had to improvise it out of the whole cloth of what I was thinking at the moment. And it was really awkward and unfinished, but it was so profound … and so liberating when I realized I didn’t have to worry if I lost a poem anymore, because I was the poet, I could just makeit up.’

Allen was deeply impressed by Trungpa, who, by quiet suggestion over the short time he had known him, had inspired changes in his approach to poetry and his appearance. He began to realize that in Trungpa he had found his teacher.” (p. 440-442).

“Trungpa asked Allen to come and stay at his house in Boulder for a week, to appear with Gary Snyder and Robert Bly at a poetry reading to raise money for Vajradhatu, Trungpa’s religious organization. Allen already regarded Trungpa as his teacher, but now he took the formal vows of Buddhism. On May 6, 1972, he underwent the traditional Buddhist Three Refuges ceremony at Dharmadhatu meditation center, with Gary Snyder in the congregation. Allen committed himself: to take refuge in the Buddha (either the historical Buddha or simply a state of ‘awakened mind’); to take refuge in the dharma (the teachings, the cumulative body of Buddhist knowledge); to take refuge in the sangha (the Buddhist community or congregation; all sentient beings). Allen repeated the vows three times and accepted as his refuge name Lion of Dharma. Trungpa had already given him a new mantra for meditation.

Although not required to, he also took the Bodhisattva Vows. ‘I was doing Trungpa’s instruction so it seemed natural,’ he said, ‘but the Bodhisattva was the one which was most interesting.’ The four vows began: ‘Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to liberate them all,’ which Allen interpreted as meaning: ‘Enlighten all, help all or get on with, which is the same thing I took on the Columbia ferry boat. I felt Iwas already on my road and this was merely like a formulation, in classical terms, of what was already my intuitive desire.’ The vows continued: ‘Obstacles are inexhaustible. I vow to cut through them,’ explained as: ‘One’s own aggression is inexhaustible, yet one vows to relate to it, to acknowledge it and work on it.’ The third vow was: ‘The gates of the Dharma are countless. I vow to enter every gate,’ which Allen described as: ‘The notion of relating to any situation and not boycotting any situations. Not avoiding, but trying to alchemize every situation, by skillful means to turn it to advantage … To turn it from shit to roses.’ The final vow was: ‘The Buddha Path (of awakened mind) is endless. I vow to follow through.’

It is easy to see why Ginsberg should be attracted to the Bodhisattva ideal, since one of his great strengths was always his willingness to take a difficult or painful situation and try to salvage something from it, whether it was dealing with his mother’s madness, becoming involved with the lepers and dying beggars in India, or talking amiably with street people and bag ladies. He would intervene in street arguments, talk to belligerent drunks and spaced-out junkies. If someone had a bad skin condition or disfigurement, Ginsberg would immediately ask about it rather than pretend it was not there. His enormous inquisitiveness and almost complete lack of embarrassment sometimes led him to quiz complete strangers about their income or sex life and volunteer the same, uncalled for information about himself.

For two years, Allen had been devoting more and more of his time onstage to singing lengthy versions of the Om Ah Hum and Om Mani Padme Hum mantras, often to the irritation of those members of the audience who had paid their money to hear him read poetry. Although most of the audience was prepared to go along with it, many were clearly bored, others were puzzled, and some simply regarded the whole thing as a massive ego trip. Trungpa suggested that he stop using the mantras at his readings. ‘It was rousing an expectation in the audience, getting them high,’ said Ginsberg, ‘but I had no further instruction to give. So it was just a trip, a buzz, which it was, but what good would it do unless I was aiming to provide something further. I can’t deliver a teaching.’ Allen’s friends were much relieved.” (pp. 446-447).

Allen saw the poet W.S. Merwin in New York and got a firsthand report of the incident at Trungpa’s Vajrayana seminary the previous fall that had become an exciting source of gossip in Buddhist and poetry circles. The event occurred at the three-month intensive seminar that Trungpa organized each year. Allen had attended the first one in 1973 and subsequently went to several more with Peter [Orlovsky]. In 1975, the seminar had been held at the Eldorado Ski Lodge in Snowmass, Colorado, which Vajradhatu had taken over completely from the beginning of September until Thanksgiving; sessions cost $550.

Merwin had given a lecture on Dante anda poetry reading at Naropa and was spending the summer there with Dana Naone. He asked Trungpa if they could attend the seminary. At first, Trungpa refused his request. Only a quarter of those who applied had been accepted, and the enrollment was complete. The usual requirement was that the applicant had previously sat a dathun (a thirty-day sitting period) and taken various preseminar training courses in Boulder or Vermont. Merwin and Naone were not students of Trungpa’s and had no retreat experience, though they were long familiar with Zen sitting practice. Merwin strongly wanted to attend, and Trungpa finally agreed. They were told to say nothing about it to anyone until they got to the seminary, because they had been given preference over a long waiting list.

The curriculum was rigorous. Approximately one month a piece was devoted to Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana study, each involving two weeks of lectures and courses with examinations, followed by two weeks of intensive sitting. Attendance at each of the six daily sitting sessions was posted at the shrine room door, recording how many hours each person sat. Merwin’s background was intellectual, monastic, contemplative, and peaceful, and as a pacifist, he refused to participate in the chants dedicated to ‘Wrathful Deities’ (defined by Ginsberg as deities ‘which represent insight into human passion, aggression and ignorance, the traditional “three poisons”‘). At lines such as ‘You enjoy drinking the hot blood of ego’ or ‘As night falls, you cut the aorta of the perverters of the teachings,’ Merwin put down his chant sheet, which was in English translated from the Tibetan, and kept silent until the passage was over. The ‘bloodthirsty’ references in the chants made Merwin and Naone less and less keen to take vows with Trungpa, and they told him so in a private meeting. They were not prepared to surrender to the guru and were uncomfortable with the outer forms of Tibetan Buddhism as well.

October 31 occurred in the middle of a period of sitting, and Trungpa declared a Halloween party to celebrate the start of the Vajrayana teaching. At the party, Merwin and Dana danced to records for an hour or so with the other students. Trungpa arrived drunk at about ten-thirty, held up by the attendants who usually assisted him to his seat, his left side having been paralyzed in the auto crash seven years earlier. They had already caught him twice as he fell entering the shrine room. Earlier that evening, he told one of the older women students that he intended to take off people’s clothes as a form of Halloween demasking. She was the first one he had stripped. She went along with it but afterward said she felt ‘trashed out.’ Then Trungpa himself stripped, and when he was naked, two students, one of them also naked, lifted him onto their shoulders and paraded him around the room. Dressed again, Trungpa pointed from one person to another, instructing his guards to ‘Chop’em up’—strip off their clothing.

Trungpa announced a lecture on Vajrayana. Learning that Merwin and Dana had left the shrine room before he arrived, Trungpa sent a student, William McKeever, to get them. They dressed and came to the dining room door, but not approving of the atmosphere at the party, they decided to drive into Aspen for the night. As they were preparing to leave, McKeever came to their room with a command from Trungpa that they attend. They explained they had already been back once and were not going again.

According to Merwin’s account, he saw heads peering around the end of the corridor and locked the door as a precaution. When McKeever returned yet again, he had orders from Trungpa to escort them to the party. Merwin reiterated their refusal and locked the large glass door on the balcony against the people outside. A threatening crowd had now gathered in the hall, the telephone line had been cut, and someone tried to use the passkey to get in. As the mob began kicking the door, Merwin pusheda large chest of drawers against it. He turned off the lights so that it was harder for the people on the balcony to see inside.

Then someone announced, with great satisfaction, that Trungpa had sent an ultimatum that they be brought down ‘at any cost.’ Hearing that Merwin had barricaded the door, Trungpa had suggested smashing the window. His guards planned a simultaneous attack on door and window. As they began breaking down the door, Merwin warned that he would hurt the first ones in.

The door gave way and Merwin struck out with a bottle in the darkness as his attackers came pushing through the splinters. The bottle broke and several people were cut. Grabbing another bottle, he hit out again; that bottle broke too. Merwin described what happened next: ‘At that point Dana shrieked and there was a loud crashing as the big glass balcony door was smashed by McKeever. … I crossed the room and started to beat the remnants of the glass door outward onto the balcony, pushing with broken bottles, but meantime the crowd forced its way into the room behind us from the hall. Dana was shouting, ‘Police! Why doesn’t somebody call the police?’ but they laughed at her, women too, and Trungpa later mocked her, for that, in one of his lectures.’

Merwin and Dana were surrounded. She was backed into a corner and he was keeping the mob away with broken bottles. Then he saw blood streaming down the face of his friend Loring Palmer and put his arms out to let them take the bottles. The guards immediately jumped on him and pinned his arms back. Dana managed to give one guard a black eye before she, too, was subdued. The hallway was crowded with onlookers, and Dana again pleaded, ‘Why doesn’t someone call the police?’ One of the women insulted her, and a man threw a glass of wine in her face.

Trungpa was sitting in a chair surrounded by his disciples, who sat in a ring on the floor. Merwin’s account continued: ‘Trungpa called us to come over in front of him, looked up at me, and said, ‘I hear you’ve been making a lot of trouble.’ Grabbed my free hand to try and force me down, saying, ‘Sit down.’ (The other hand had been bleeding a lot and was wrapped in a towel.) When he let go, we sat down on the floor. He said we hadn’t accepted his invitation. I said that if we had to accept, it wasn’t an invitation. An invitation, I said, allowed the other person the privilege of declining. We pushed that around a bit. The way he saw it, no force seemed to have been used, except by us. I reminded him that we never promised to obey him. He said, ‘Ah, but you asked to come.’ Then, dramatically, ‘Into the lion’s mouth.’ I said that they’d developed big corkscrews, now, for forcing coyotes out of their burrows, and that maybe he ought to get one, to do his job more easily.’

During one of their exchanges, Trungpa threw a glass of wine in Merwin’s face. ‘That’s sake,’ Trungpa told him, then turned to Dana Naone. ‘You’re Oriental,’ he said, ‘you’re smarter than this. You might be playing slave to this white man, but you and I know where it’s at. We’re both Oriental … we know where it’s at.’ He began talking about ‘my country being ripped out from under me, and it was the Chinese Communists who did it. … If there’s one thing I want to see in my lifetime, it’s to see my country back. Only one Oriental to another can understand that.’ According to Jack Niland, one of Trungpa’s students, ‘He kept doing this superracist thing … very cutting, and her only response was, “You’re a Nazi, you’re a Nazi” and “Someone call the police.” She was completely freaking out.’ Then Trungpa asked them to join in the dance and celebration and take their clothes off. They both refused.

‘Why not?’ asked Trungpa. ‘What’s your secret? Why don’t you want to undress?’ and to Dana he said, ‘Are you afraid to show your pubic hair?’ Trungpa said that if they wouldn’t undress, they would be stripped. Merwin described the stripping: ‘He ordered his guards to do the job. They dragged us apart, and it was then that Dana started screaming. Several of them on each of us, holding us down. Only two men, Dennis White and Bill King, both of whom were married, with small children there at the seminary, said a word to try and stop it, on Dana’s behalf. Trungpa stood up and punched Bill King in the face, called hima son of a bitch, and told him not to interfere. The guards grabbed Bill King and got him out of there. One of the guards, who’d stayed out of it, went out and vomited, as we heard later. When I was let go I got up and lunged at Trungpa. But there were three guards in between, and all I could swing at him through the crowd was a left, which was wrapped in the towel and scarcely reached his mouth. It didn’t amount to much, and I was dragged off, of course.’

As the guards reached for Dana, she tried to hang on to Merwin; they were pulled apart. She tried to get at Trungpa, but he was too well protected. ‘Guards dragged me off and pinned me to the floor,’ she wrote in her account of the incident. ‘I could see William struggling a few feet away from me. I fought and called to friends, men and women whose faces I saw in the crowd, to call the police. No one did. … Richard Assaly was stripping me while others held me down. Trungpa was punching Assaly in the head, urging him to do it faster. The rest of my clothes were torn off.’

‘See?’ said Trungpa. ‘It’s not so bad, is it?’ Merwin and Dana stood naked, holding each other, Dana sobbing. After meeting with Trungpa the next day for tea, Merwin and Naone elected to stay on at the seminary to attend Trungpa’s climactic Vajrayana lectures, which took place as scheduled for the next two weeks. They made no public statements about their humiliating experiences, but rumor and gossip soon spread throughout the Buddhist and poetry communities. Many Buddhists felt misgivings about Trungpa’s methods, while Merwin’s friends, outraged at the treatment he and Naone had received, felt an apology, at least, was in order. None came, and the affair tarnished Trungpa’s reputation, particularly among critics suspicious of or hostile to Tibetan Buddhism. To supporters of the Chinese revolution, it was further proof that change in Tibet was long overdue.” (pp. 466-470)

“As winter began, Allen still worried continuously about the Merwin-Trungpa conflict. A journal entry for November 28, in his habitual ‘worst case’ stylization of transient anxieties, noted that he felt ‘trapped like smoke going down bamboo tube’ between poesy and Dharma, Merwin and Trungpa, in their ghost war. Hypocrite, I take rides with each. I haven’t pursued my prostrations, I push and preach Dharma and poetry in public. I can’t face Merwin, I get angry at my boyfriends and students, I ama hairy loss.’ He spent much of January 1978 on the farm with Peter, then fitted in a short reading tour before returning to Naropa in March to teach his students William Blake’s Urizen—a project that became a four term course, a line-by-line discussion of Blake’s works from early poems through the prophetic books to the Seventh Night of ‘Vala, or the Four Zoas.’

Among the administrative problems facing him as codirector of the Jack Kerouac School was the rejection of two grant applications by the National Endowment for the Arts, which had learned about Merwin’s treatment by the president of Naropa. Allen’s argument was that ‘while the Naropa Institute and its Poetics Department was certainly Buddhist-oriented, in its secular interface to the public, the school was independent of the traditional procedures of a formal and specialized Vajrayana seminary attended by old and close practitioners.’ Although the Poetics Department did have complete independence in its teaching, it was still criticized by some for being a department of the institute of which Trungpa was chief director. Naropa also had a $35,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to protect.

Naropa grew chronically short of funds; in 1977, many of the teaching staff did not receive their salaries on time. Allen donated most of his salary to Naropa, as did many of the staff who could afford to, and raised money with many benefit readings.

Members of the poetry community began to align themselves for or against Trungpa, but it was not until the spring of 1977 that Allen was first involved in the controversy on a personal level. Among the most vocal in his outrage at the treatment of Merwin and Naone was the poet Robert Bly, who was using the term ‘Buddhist fascism’ to describe Trungpa’s behavior. This was a serious criticism, because Bly had been a student of Trungpa’s and had even helped him edit his first book, Meditation in Action.

As Bly interpreted the situation, Allen, despite beingin charge of the poetry school that had presented Merwin’s lecture and reading, had sided with his teacher against the poetry community that he was supposed to be encouraging and protecting, poets he had devoted his whole life to promoting and nurturing. ‘So what is this community of poets I was talking to you about?’ he asked Allen. ‘What happened to that? … You’re sacrificing that, for what? That teacher? You can’t sacrifice human beings and poets you’ve been associated with your whole life!’ It was this basic charge that Allen had to consider seriously, particularly when the Merwin affair resurfaced at Naropa that summer.

Ed Sanders had been invited to teach a course on ‘Investigative Poetics’ and had expected his students to choose a subject such as the strike against compulsory lie detector tests at the nearby Coors Brewery or an investigation into the local Rocky Flats plutonium factory, south of Boulder. To his surprise, the class voted overwhelmingly to investigate the circumstances of the infamous Halloween party at the Vajradhatu seminary. Twenty-four students worked on the project, sometimes until dawn, intending to interview everyone even remotely connected with the incident and to reconstruct the events leading to the final stripping. Trungpa was the only person who declined to be interviewed, though he urged those who assented to speak freely but without sensationalism. The 179-page report was finished in less than a month, but to the relief of the Poetics Department and the Naropa administration, the students voted not to publish their findings for the time being, considering the controversy a private matter.

Trungpa’s style had gradually changed, prompted by the visit in 1974 of the karmapa, the head of his lineage; he now advocated short hair and neat dress as a secular form of monks’ robes among his followers. Suits and ties slowly supplanted the casual hippie outfits of many of his original followers, and alcohol became the drug of choice. Trungpa was chauffeured around in an old blue Mercedes-Benz, purchased for him by one of his students, and his home was staffed by students dressed as English butlers and maids; they were required to call Trungpa and his wife ‘Sir’ and ‘Lady Diana.’ He was protected by bodyguards known as the Vajra Guard, who wore blue blazers and received specialized training that included haiku composition and flower arranging. On one occasion, to test a student guard’s alertness, Trungpa hurled himself from a staircase, expecting to be caught. The guard was inattentive, and Trungpa landed on his head, requiring a brief visit to the hospital.”

(pp. 473-475).

“Throughout the summer, a frequent subject of conversation was the Merwin affair. Of particular concern was whether Trungpa could do no wrong, since as lineage holder of the Dharma, his every action was a teaching and could be learned from. ‘If you make a mistake, you learn from it, therefore there are no mistakes,’ said Ginsberg, referring to Trungpa’s position as a member of the ‘Mishap Lineage.’ The opposing view was that Trungpa had been an alcoholic ever since the late sixties and was certainly capable of making mistakes. It appeared, particularly to outsiders, that Trungpa was intent on recreating the situation he had in Kham. The apparent drift of his teachings was toward the ‘mandala-concept’ of the Kingdom of Shambala, a nondemocratic kingdom using terms drawn in part from the Tibetan secular epic Gesar of Ling, and his inner circle became more and more like a court, complete with court intrigue and rivalry.

Though Ed Sanders’s investigative poetics team had voted not to publish their report on the Merwin incident, photocopies were circulating in the poetry community. Sanders had given poet Ed Dorn permission to distribute copies as he saw fit, and Dorn had mailed out fifty of them, mostly to other poets. There was widespread interest in the report, and Ferlinghetti asked Allen for a copy so that he could consider it for publication by City Lights; Allen refused. Poet Tom Clark, now the senior writer on the local Boulder Monthly, also asked Sanders for permission to publish the report, since he thought that Boulder residents should be better informed of the activities of the large Buddhist community in their midst. Sanders told Clark that the poetry class had been canvassed earlier that year and still voted against publication.

On September 13, Ed Sanders informed Dorn that a majority of the class were now in favor of publication. He added: ‘Report came in yesterday that the Vajra Guards were recently training wearing Canadian mountie uniforms and that the word ‘democracy’ is now being used apparently at Naropa as a catch-all word for the ills of the world.’ Still, Ed was hesitant to publish, because it would mean a ‘sure or probable break’ with many of his old poet colleagues.

All this changed when the news broke of the events of November 18, 1978, when the Reverend Jim Jones led a mass suicide of 911 members of his People’s Temple in Guyana. Horrific photographs of bloated bodies heaped in the temple compound filled the press and television screens, and religious cults became a national topic of conversation. Ed Sanders’s investigative poetics group immediately voted overwhelmingly to publish their report.

Inevitably comparisons were made: Jones, like Trungpa, had forced men and women to strip in public and had sex with many of his female followers. When he ordered the mass suicide, not all of his followers had acquiesced, and it was his armed guards who forced many of them to drink the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Trungpa’s students did not consider that a Jonestown was a possibility in Boulder or at a seminary, but people further removed from Tibetan Buddhist studies and meditation practice were less sure. Allen realized that fear of Vajradhatu stemmed largely from the traditionally hermetic nature of such teachings, and he began to wonder if the inner workings of Vajradhatu ought not to be made public. Ten days after the Jonestown massacre, he wrote: ‘Also I had in mind the question of the worth of secrecy of Vajrayana practice and guru-disciple wedding and vows and samya (or wedding vows), with the news of mass suicides by members of the church of a disaffected priest / teacher / revolutionary, Mr. Jones, in Guyana.’ Allen still gave Trungpa his general support, considering the real heat of the controversy to be an aspect of cultural xenophobia.

The first articles about the Merwin affair began appearing in the press, with the publication in the February 1979 Harper’s of ‘Spiritual Obedience’ by Peter Marin, a writer who had taught two courses in literature at Naropa in 1977. The local newspaper, the Daily Camera, asked at Vajradhatu for any comment on the Harper’s article and ran a piece about Trungpa. In a follow-up, the Camera carried an editorial headlined: ‘To Avoid the Name, Shed the Disguise,’ which commented on the Harper’s piece and briefly described the Merwin incident. Regarding the charge that Trungpa was operating a Jim Jones type cult, the Camera mentioned the guards, the limousine, and the drinking, and suggested: ‘To avoid being called a cult, it might help not to act like one.’

Tom Clark asked if he could interview Allen about the affair for Boulder Monthly. Allen had reservations about the magazine and about talking about the incident, since he had not been there. Though he knew Clark regarded Oriental meditation practice as a cultural anachronism and disapproved of Trungpa, he was confident of Clark’s good intentions because their Paris Review interview in 1965 had worked out so well. As codirector of the poetry school, Allen agreed, assuming he would have a chance to edit his interview as he had done for the Paris Review.

The interview took place on January 12, 1979, with Ed Dorn and a student present. The first question put by Clark regarded the effect on Allen and the Buddhist community of Peter Marin’s article. ‘Universal paranoia, I think,’ said Allen. ‘Also some clarification of complexities that everybody feels within the Buddhist community. It brings to the surface a lot of thoughts that people have had anyway and discussed among themselves, but just didn’t discuss publicly: fear of Buddhist fascism, paranoia about submission to a guru, the apparent incomprehensibility of the Merwin thing … It’s like reading your marriage troubles in the newspaper.’

Tom Clark was a skilled interviewer, and he almost immediately steered Allen to the heart of the matter: the political implications of the submissive relationship between disciple and guru. Allen demurred. ‘You know you’re talking about my love life,’ he said. ‘My extremely delicate love life. My relations with my teacher.’ Clark pointed out that people were interested in the subject more for its implications than just regarding the rights or wrongs of the Merwin incident itself. ‘If you turn this around and say it takes two to make a master,’ stated Clark, ‘you’re not necessarily saying that one or the other’s culpable.’

I feel culpable,’ said Ginsberg. ‘ It’s my paranoia that I’m expressing.’

‘I don’t think that you personally were ever accused by anybody of anything in this regard,’ said Clark.

‘I accuse myself, all the time, of seducing the entire poetry scene and Merwin into this impossible submission to some spiritual dictatorship which they’ll never get out of again, and which will ruin American culture forever. Anything might happen,” Allen joked. ‘We might get taken over and eaten by the Tibetan monsters. All the monsters of the Tibetan Book of the Dead might come out and get everybody to take LSD! … The Pandora’s Box of the Bardo Thodol has been opened by the arrival in America of one of the masters of the secrets of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.’

Allen said he trusted and had faith in Trungpa’s intelligence and thought that there had been no sexual motive in Trungpa’s approach to Dana Naone. Clark pointed out that it was only natural, in the light of Jonestown, to be concerned whena large group of people appeared to condone the assault on two others by not helping, even when one of them was pleading with them to call the police. At this Allen grew passionate: ‘In the middle of that scene, to yell “Call the police”—do you realize how vulgar that was? The Wisdom of the East was being unveiled, and she’s going “Call the police!” I mean, shit! Fuck that shit! Strip’em naked, break down the door! Anything—symbolically, I mentioned privacy before—the entrance into Vajrayana is the abandonment of all privacy. And the entry onto the Bodhisattva path is totally—You’re saying, “I no longer have any privacy ever again.”‘

Clark pointed out, ‘You only make that sacrifice if you want to.’

‘Only if you want to,’ Allen agreed.

‘What if they didn’t want to?’

‘Then what were they doing at this Vajrayana seminary?’

To Allen, much of this seemed hypocritical. He complained that all poets demanded poetic license, the divine ‘right to shit on anybody they want to … Burroughs commits murder, Gregory Corso borrows money from everybody and shoots up drugs for twenty years but he’s ‘divine Gregory’ but poor old Trungpa, who’s been suffering since he was two years old to teach the dharma, isn’t allowed to wave his frankfurter! And if he does, the poets get real mad that their territory is being invaded!’

The interview with Tom Clark was ill-advised in every way. Until that point, as Clark said, no one had blamed Allen for the Merwin affair, or even for encouraging members of the poetry community to get mixed up with Tibetan Buddhism and learn to meditate. Allen asked to see a copy of the transcript to approve the editing and accuracy of it. Clark had a deadline to meet, and as Allen was about to fly to New York to receive a poetry prize, he decided to trust Clark’s editorial judgment. He asked him to show the edited transcript to Anne Waldman instead. Allen had regarded the interview as a chance to present his ideas on this much discussed subject to Dorn and Clark, two literate and sophisticated friends from the poetry world. He did not suspect that his interview was designed by Clark to be used as part of a highly critical attack on Trungpa and the Buddhist community. When he returned from New York in February, Tom Clark dropped off a copy of the complete transcript. Allen read it through and wrote Clark: ‘My intemperate comments on Merwin’s poetry should not be printed as they were only abusive inaccurate and would only escalate enmity and not bring reconciliation.’

Clark had edited the transcript prejudicially to retain all of Allen’s most critical references to Merwin and to leave out his major compliments—particularly Trungpa’s comment that he thought Merwin had behaved, all in all, in gentlemanly fashion in maintaining the privacy of the episode. Meanwhile, Allen corrected the transcript himself. ‘For my opinion,’ he wrote in the covering letter to Clark, ‘I was more interested in talking to you and Ed [Dorn] as friend poets than publishing my thoughts lest I escalate mis-understanding and continue foolish gossip trend. What Merwin had left alone I should & you should, so I’d rather this not be printed. However use your own best judgement.’ It was too late. When he and Peter arrived at the offices of Boulder Monthly to give Clark the revised version of the transcript, they were horrified to find the office piled high with cartons of the March 1979 issue, waiting to be shipped out. It contained Allen’s interview, a section of the Sanders report, and an extremely unflattering flash photo of Trungpa on the cover. Allen was enraged. He complained about the secrecy of editing his interview to deliberately offend Merwin and exacerbate the controversy. Ed Dorn, who was in the Boulder Monthly office, replied laconically that Merwin deserved to be attacked for his overpraised poetic stature and that Allen was to be congratulated for doing so.

Meanwhile, all over town, the magazine was selling out, as Buddhists bought four or five copies at a time. Sanders flew in from California and picked up a bundle of the magazine to distribute, and Dorn happily sent copies to poet friends around the country.

The article provoked some strong reactions, including one from Bob Callahan, the publisher of Turtle Island Press, who was so concerned that he circulated a petition requesting the members of the poetry community to suspend any participation in the activities of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics until the Vajra Guards had been disbanded and efforts made to guarantee that such a thing could not occur again. It demanded that the ‘rights of individuals to dissent according to conscience be at all times respected.’ Callahan received between forty and forty-five signatures, with the Bay Area poets split roughly down the middle. Those not already connected to Naropa were usually happy to sign. Native American poets such as Jim Pepper, Leslie Silko, and Simon Ortiz all signed, as did black or third world poets, such as Ishmael Reed, Victor Hernandez Cruz, and Allen’s friend David Henderson. Many of the poets with Buddhist connections agreed in private with Callahan but were not prepared to put their name on anything in public. Michael McClure telephoned Callahan and told him, ‘Those wimps at Naropa are no threat to you. I’ve told Allen for years, privately, to get out of that scene. Still, Allen believes in it. It’s his family. You can’t attack him for it. You’re trying to ruin Allen Ginsberg. You can’t do that!’ McClure then began a telephone campaign to stop people from signing the petition

Gary Snyder telephoned Callahan and said, ‘Your response isn’t generous enough.’ Two weeks previously, Snyder had told Callahan that he had ‘grave doubts’ about Trungpa’s behavior, but now he said, ‘Take off my clothes? Sure, I’d do it. It’s a big joke to me. Just don’t criticize Allen in public.’ One of the strongest attacks on Trungpa came from Kenneth Rexroth, a longtime student of Buddhism and translator from the Chinese and Japanese, who said, ‘Many believe Chögyam Trungpa has unquestionably done more harm to Buddhism in the United States than any man living.’ Few defended Trungpa, but few would criticize Allen or the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which had, after all, engendered the original Sanders Class Report.

Allen was, as usual, his own severest critic. In an apologetic letter he later wrote to Merwin, he described his reaction when he learned that the unauthorized version of his interview had been printed: ‘I was freaked out and yelled at Tom, thinking he had betrayed my trust and purposely got me into hot water. My main worry was that indiscreet put downs of your poetry, hyperbolic fantasies of Buddhist fascism, low grade gossipy opinions about scenes where I wasn’t present, distorted paraphrases of conversations with Trungpa … would not only reveal my own basic hypocrisy, but also confuse the public issue (if there was one) with my un-edited, private, and hysteric or irritable conversation with friends. I’d thought I’d have a chance to correct the interview or Clark have the friendly common sense to edit and clean up my solecisms.

‘I stopped yelling at Tom when I realized it was a fait-accompli irreversible,’ Allen continued, ‘and he thought he was doing it (aside from pressure from the magazine) as the rare bold action of an honest reporter, and that my yelling was only making the situation worse by solidifying my own and Tom’s self-righteousness. I also breathed a sigh of relief, that I had hit bottom and my own hypocrisies were unmasked to fellow poets and fellow Buddhists, and that was almost a service rather than a stumbling block.'”(pp. 476-482).

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.