In chapters 23 and 24 of Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg, Michael Schumacher presents a comprehensive discussion of the so-called ‘Naropa Poetry Wars,’ the violent abuse of William S. Merwin and his partner Dana Naone on the orders of Chögyam Trungpa during a Buddhist ‘seminary’ he led in 1975. Schumacher specifically focuses on Ginsberg’s attempts at damage control during the scandal’s aftermath through the late 1970s. The full book is available here.
“His greatest distraction, however, may have been his worry about Naropa. He and Anne Waldman had done an admirable job in establishing the poetics school and overseeing Naropa’s summer programs, but just as the poetics school seemed to be about to establish itself as one of the more important writing programs in the nation, Naropa was wracked by a scandal that in the long run‐from initial incident to public backlash to resolution‐would take years to overcome. It would expose the poetry community at its utter worst and divide its members in a war of words and principles, aggravated by anger, resentment, petty bickering, and general feelings of hostility and ill will. For Ginsberg, it would be one of his strongest tests of diplomacy and loyalty.
Ironically, Allen was nowhere near Naropa when the initial incident took place, nor was he a visible or vocal figure in its immediate aftermath of events. Poet W.S. Merwin had spent the previous summer (1975) at Naropa as an informal artist in residence. He had delivered a lecture on Dante, given a poetry reading while he was there, and in general become part of the expanding community of poets with ties to Naropa. When he learned of Chögyam Trungpa’s three-month Buddhist seminar to beheld at the end of the summer at the Eldorado Ski Lodge in Snowmass, Colorado, Merwin and his companion, poet Dana Naone, applied.
Trungpa had reservations about admitting them and, in fact, turned down their initial application. These seminars were intended for advanced students already familiar with Trungpa’s teachings and meditation practice. As it was, only a limited number of students could attend the seminar and Trungpa was forced to turn down three out of four applicants. Not only did Merwin and Naone fail to meet Trungpa’s qualifications for potential seminar attendants, but they had also applied too late for consideration for the fall session, at a point when the roster of students had already been filled. Merwin persisted in his requests to attend, and though he was n o t at all pleased about granting preferential treatment to unqualified students while he was rejecting other qualified candidates, Trungpa decided to let Merwin and Naone attend.
There was a potential for problems from the very beginning. ‘I don’t know to what extent they knew what they were getting into,’ Ginsberg said of Merwin and Naone in a 1979 interview with Tom Clark, ‘and to what extent, if they knew, they understood it in their hearts. Or to what extent Trungpa knew what he was getting into. Whether his vanity was appealed to, to have them there—or their vanity was appealed to, to go there.’ The situation, Ginsberg further explained, was risky for all parties concerned. Trungpa risked rejection by a prominent and influential poet, while Merwin and Naone were entering a scenario in which psychological submission was a matter of course and practice. Neither Merwin nor Naone were Tibetan Buddhists, and since they had not attended Trungpa’s classes in Vermont or Boulder, neither was prepared for the demands that Trungpa’s “wild wisdom” practice could make.
Nor were they inclined to embrace some of Trungpa’s teachings and practices once the seminar had begun. They participated in the seminar’s activities, but otherwise tended to stay to themselves. Merwin, a pacifist, objected to some of the Buddhist chants to what Ginsberg described as ‘blood-drinking deities’—the horrific gods symbolic of human passion, aggression, and ignorance—and even though these chants were meant to act as a way of putting the students in touch with their own fears and weaknesses, Merwin could not, in principle, take part in them. He was greatly offended by such lines as ‘You enjoy drinking the hot blood of ego’ and ‘As night falls, you cut the aorta of the perverters of the teachings,’ and he refused to chant these and similarly violent lines with the other students. In addition, he and Naone were not willing to enter into Vajrayana Buddhism—a requirement at the end of the second month of study for all who intended to continue—and they met with Trungpa and told him as much.
The opening of the Vajrayana study was to commence at the beginning of November, and to celebrate the opening of the session, Trungpa called for a Halloween party on the evening of October 31. Merwin and Naone attended an early portion of the festivities, but they had left before Trungpa, drunk and dressed in jeans and a lumberjack shirt, arrived at about 10:30. One of the teachings of Vajrayana was the abandonment of privacy, and Trungpa, noting that the beginning of the group’s Vajrayana study coincided with Halloween, atraditional time of festive masking, decided that he would strip some of the students as a type of lesson, as a form of baring one’s naked self. One of the older students, a woman , was the first to be stripped by Trungpa’s guards. Trungpa then removed his own clothing and was paraded, borne on the shoulders of two students, throughout the hall—the teacher naked and unashamed before his students, a human symbol. After he was assisted back into his clothes, Trungpa ordered his guards to strip others in the room.
Noticing that Merwin and Dana Naone were not present at the party, Trungpa dispatched William McKeever, a student, to summon them to the room. There would be a lecture on Vajrayana, he said. Merwin and Naone returned to the doorway of the hall, but seeing what was going on, they decided against having anything to do with the party. Instead of participating in an event they disapproved of, they planned to leave the seminary for the evening and stay overnight in Aspen. Trungpa insisted upon their attendance and sent McKeever back to their room to get them and escort them to the party. Merwin refused. An ugly scene quickly developed. The telephone line to Merwin’s room was cut and a number of people began to assemble in the hallway and on the balcony outside the room. It was now clear that Merwin and Dana Naone were trapped in their room and unable to leave as planned. Trungpa insisted
that they bebrought to the party, forcibly if that was the only way. People kicked at the door, trying to break it down. Fearing for his and Naone’s safety, Merwin pushed a large chest of drawers against the door and turned off the lights in the room so they could not be seen by people looking in through the glass doors on the balcony.
The assault continued, the people on the balcony trying to break the glass doors, the crowd in the hallway splintering the wooden door to the room. Merwin grabbed a wine bottle and announced that he would hurt whoever came into the room. The door gave in and Merwin lashed out with the bottle, shattering it and cutting people as they entered the room. He reached for another bottle and broke it on his attackers, as well. Behind him, the group on the balcony beat at the glass door until it, too, gave in. Merwin rushed across the room and tried to fend off the people coming in through the broken glass, but he and Naone were surrounded. Naone shouted that someone should call the police, which only drew laughter from the guards and students in the room.
Merwin held the people at bay with broken bottles until he saw blood on the people he had cut. Giving in, he held out the bottles to his attackers and was immediately subdued, as was Naone, who managed to punch a guard before having her arms pinned behind her. As they were being led from the room, Naone again implored that someone call the police, but to no avail. She was insulted by one of the women in the hallway and a man threw wine in her face.
Trungpa was waiting for them in the hall. He told Merwin that he had heard the poet was making a lot of trouble. He was disappointed, he said, that Merwin and Naone had turned down his invitation to the party. Merwin countered that an invitation, by nature, gave a person the right to decline, but Trungpa was hearing none of that argument. They had been the ones who had asked to attend his seminar, he reminded them, and as far as he could see, the only real force used during the confrontation had been Merwin’s use of the broken bottles.
As their discussion dragged on, Trungpa became more combative, insulting the two and tossing a glass of sake in Merwin’s face. He was particularly upset that Dana Naone, a Hawaiian, did not seem to understand his position. She was, he mentioned, of Oriental heritage and should have been smart enough to see why he felt the way he did. ‘The Communists ripped off my country,’ he said in reference to the struggles in Tibet. ‘Only another Oriental can understand that.’ He also hinted that he was disappointed she would be seeing awhite man.
‘You’re a Nazi,’ Dana said in response.
After a while, Trungpa asked Merwin and Naone to take off their clothes and join the festivities. When they refused, he taunted them. Finally, he advised them that he would have them stripped by force if they did not voluntarily remove their clothing. Once again, they refused. Trungpa ordered his guards to do the job. Naone tried to cling to Merwin, but the two were pulled apart. In the ensuing struggle, both tried to get to Trungpa but were blocked by guards, who pinned them to the floor and pulled off their clothes.
‘I could see William struggling a few feet away from me,’ Naone remembered. ‘I fought and called to friends, men and women, whose faces I saw in the crowd, to call the police. No one did. Only one man, Bill King, broke through to where I was lying at Trungpa’s feet, shouting ‘Leave her alone’ and ‘Stop it.’ Trungpa rose above me, from his chair, and knocked Bill King down with a punch, swearing at him and ordering that no one interfere. He was dragged away. … Richard Assally was stripping me, while others held me down. Trungpa began punching Assally in the head, urging him to do it faster. The rest of my clothes were torn off.’
Defeated, the two rose to their feet and stood naked, huddled against each other, before Trungpa and the rest of the partiers. ‘See? It’s not so bad, is it?’ Trungpa said. By Trungpa’s thinking, the disrobing was symbolic of the exposure of one’s neuroses necessary to enter vajra teachings. The sacrifice of ego, even if it involved humiliation, was part of the process. Merwin and Naone, of course, held another view, though both met together with Trungpa the next day and, after much discussion, decided to stay on at the seminary for Trungpa’s Vajrayana lectures.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, no one, including Merwin and Naone, offered public comment about what had occurred at the party. By virtue of their initial request to attend the seminar and their subsequent decision to remain at the seminary after the party, Merwin and Naone were perceived to be voluntary, if at times reluctant, participants in Trungpa’s brand of crazy wisdom, even if some people questioned the wisdom of his actions on that Halloween evening. Since Buddhism and Trungpa’s seminars were of a religious nature, there was also the matter of the separation of church and state to consider—a perplexing issue since Naropa was affiliated, although more asa technicality than as an active association, with the University of Colorado. The confrontation was by no means forgotten, but it was regarded by many as the type of unfortunate incident that could be misinterpreted by those who did not understand Trungpa and his teachings and who were looking for a reason either to persecute the Rinpoche or shut down Naropa. Opponents in the debate lined up, but quietly.
The incident provided plenty of grist for the rumor mill and Allen heard secondhand accounts of it while he was still touring with the Rolling Thunder Revue. The implications and possible repercussions were obvious to him. He considered Merwin a friend and associate, an admirable pacifist in an aggressive world, but he had also accepted Trungpa as his spiritual teacher, a relationship that, in Buddhism, is not regarded lightly. As codirector of Naropa’s poetics school, Allen was caught in an especially awkward position, even if he remained silent about the Snowmass affair. He was both a teacher anda student. If he continued to associate himself with Naropa, his actions would imply endorsement of Trungpa’s behavior and perhaps jeopardize his credibility among poets. If he offered any public sympathy or support for Merwin, he would be indirectly challenging the principle that, as an inheritor of the Dharma, Trungpa was a lifetime teacher and that his actions were teachings, even when he made a mistake, because mistakes were to be learned from.
Further, there was the threat to the poetics school itself. Eastern thought and religion were not readily embraced in the United States—certainly not by those holding the proverbial purse strings and in a position to hand out urgently needed grant money—and the Snowmass affair could only stand to harm public perception of Buddhism, Naropa, and the relationship between the two. It was unlikely that officials would be willing to supply government-issued grants to an institution that had the tiniest hint of totalitarianism—or, worse, fascism—in its general program, and there was no question that outsiders could judge Trungpa’s behavior this way. (In fact, the applied-for grants were rejected in the wake of the Snowmass affair, and one can speculate that the incident had a direct bearing on the rejections.).
Allen, by nature, did not trust secondhand accounts, so he was cautious about voicing any opinions regarding the confrontation until he had spoken directly to Merwin and Trungpa. He had seen Merwin in New York in late 1975 and heard his version of the story, and a short time later he had questioned Trungpa about what had taken place. Still, there were no conclusive answers.
Allen managed to remain loyal to Trungpa without having to take an immediate stand on the incident. For much of the last part of the year, he attended the Vajradhatu seminary in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, where he spent hours in meditation, trying in his solitude to sort through his thoughts. Trungpa had written a book of poems and asked Ginsberg to write its introduction—a request that Allen, as Trungpa’s poetry teacher, was honored to accept. The resulting essay, however, was very weak in comparison to the introductions he had written for his father’s selected poems and for Kerouac’s Visions of Cody. The essay rambled on, lacking clear focus, even as Allen tried to trace and align Trungpa’s spiritual and poetic lineage. There were flashes of verbal pyrotechnics—’On Mt. Ida the Muses look up astonished by this bolt of lightning thru blue cloudless sky’—but Ginsberg, ever the promoter, seemed to be reaching too far in trying to find a way to place Trungpa among the pantheon of great poets. It was one matter to admire Trungpa’s work—and Ginsberg offered fine analysis of Trungpa’s poems, as he had done earlier with his father’s—but to mention him in the same breath as Rimbaud, Shelley, Yeats, Hart Crane, Williams, Eliot, and Kerouac, to mention some of the names dropped throughout the essay, was quite a stretch, especially when Allen admitted in his introduction that Trungpa was a novice at writing poetry. ‘This book,’ wrote Ginsberg, ‘is some evidence of a child Buddha taking first verbal steps age 35, in totally other language direction that he spoke age 10, talking side of mouth slang: redneck, hippie, chamber of commerce, good citizen, Oxfordian aesthete slang, like a dream Bodhisattva with thousand eyes & mouths talking turkey.'” (pp. 612-617).
“Ironically, if he had a viable concern in terms of damaging, negative criticism, it was more connected to the people generally considered to be in his own camp. The Trungpa-Merwin affair would not go away and Allen could no longer stay publicly neutral in his feelings about it. Faced with the prospects of losing desperately needed grant money in the future, Allen found himself engaged in damage control. Both Naropa and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics were grounded in Buddhism, he admitted, but the school was independent of Trungpa’s Buddhist seminaries. Trungpa may have been director of Naropa and his seminaries, but the poetics school had autonomy in its curriculum.
This was true enough in theory and practice, although it hardly excused Allen from the controversy. His position had not changed over the months. As a poet and administrator at the poetics school, he had students, faculty, and other poets to consider; as a student of Trungpa’s, he had to consider questions of loyalty to his teacher. In addition, Allen had devoteda lifetime to rebelling against authoritarianism in political principle, yet the spiritual principles of Buddhism were not necessarily libertarian by nature. Buddhism tended to be authoritarian, and some of Trungpa’s most vocal detractors, including Robert Bly and Kenneth Rexroth, were calling him a fascist. Allen agonized over the situation, vacillating in his sympathy for Merwin and his loyalty to Trungpa. ‘Playing all sides of argument at once,’ he wrote in self-characterization in his journal, ‘[he] doesn’t show his hand, wants to stay out of trouble.’
Talk of the Snowmass confrontation was in the air throughout the summer of 1977, even while Allen was at Naropa teaching a course entitled ‘Literary History of the Beat Generation.’ Ed Sanders was at the school, moderating a course entitled ‘Investigative Poetics,’ and his students had voted to look into the Trungpa-Merwin confrontation as their group project. The Naropa administration could not have been pleased by this decision, but it had little choice but to permit it. Trungpa refused to be interviewed by students trying to recreate the events of that Haloween 1975 evening, but he encouraged others to speak openly and truthfully about what they had witnessed. The class’s lengthy report, The Party: A Chronological Perspective on a Confrontation at a Buddhist Seminary, was an exhaustive, wel-prepared study that adhered to the journalistic standard of objectivity in reporting, though it is likely that most readers—or at least those with little or no knowledge of Buddhist practices would have agreed that Trungpa did not fare well by the time his actions had been documented by the reporters. Fortunately for Trungpa, Naropa, and others involved, the students elected not to publish the report—at least for the moment.” (pp. 618-619, links added).
“The summer 1978 sessions at Naropa featured another noteworthy roster of guest lecturers, including Allen, Peter, Anne Waldman, Daniel Ellsberg, Timothy Leary, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Diane Di Prima, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, and Miguel Pinero. It was a busy time in and out of the classroom. An Italian film crew took footage of many of the lectures and activities for a two-hour television documentary. Poetry readings abounded. Gregory Corso in his constant role of devil’s advocate, entertained and infuriated attendants with his Puckish behavior. Late-night bull sessions found students and teachers discussing political and literary issues, occasionally in spirited debate.” (p. 628, link added).
“Another continuing battle—and one that affected Allen much more directly—was heating up. A year had passed since Ed Sanders’s Investigative Poetics class had filed its report on the Trungpa-Merwin confrontation. True to his word, Sanders had not allowed the report to be published—not that there was any lack of interest in the group’s findings. Photocopies of The Party, prepared with Sanders’s approval, were circulated around Naropa and in national poetry circles, and Sanders was feeling pressure to publish the document. Lawrence Ferlinghetti had expressed interest in issuing it under the City Lights imprint, and the Boulder Monthly had approached Sanders for permission to reprint it in the magazine. Sanders hesitated to grant such permission, even after his class voted in early September to allow its publication. Sanders correctly assumed that there would be terrible fighting in the poetry community, with poets lining up for and against Trungpa and Naropa, if the report was to be widely distributed.
Allen remained loyal to Trungpa in what were becoming very difficult times. The attacks on Trungpa were no longer directed solely against his actions in the Snowmass incident; they were now being aimed at his Buddhist organization, as well. To his critics, Trungpa’s heavy drinking was not exemplary behavior for any kind of religious leader, nor was his houseful of maids and servants or his chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz. The Vajra guard, his group of private bodyguards, had a paramilitary look to them that made some people uncomfortable. Rightfully or otherwise, the word cult slipped into conversations about Trungpa’s Buddhist group.
Allen tried to avoid direct involvement in the controversy. He had the poetics school to look after and keep him busy; as for the mounting criticism against Trungpa, Allen was steadfast in his belief that the bulk of ill will was the result of a long-held misunderstanding of Buddhism, Trungpa, and Eastern thought. Virtually no religion was by nature a democratic institution and Buddhism was no exception. Indeed, Trungpa’s ‘wild wisdom’ might seem unorthodox—perhaps even bizarre—to those unfamiliar with it, but in Allen’s mind, Trungpa may have been a little eccentric but was by no means threatening.
‘Still, he could not keep himself from worrying about Naropa’s fate. True to form, Allen turned much of his anger and despair on himself in an examination of conscience that led him to conclude that for all che respect accorded him and all the good things written or said about him, he was a ‘Fake Saint,’ no different from anyone else, famous or unknown. He was guilty of ignoring the dictum of not clinging to the horrible and he was paying a mental price for it. During his autumn meditation retreat at his Bedrock Mortar Hermitage in the California Sierras, Allen tried to empty his mind of its preoccupations, but if one can judge by his journal entries from the period, filled with statistics about plutonium, FBI surveillance matters, and other political concerns, he was not entirely successful.
His worries about Naropa were compounded by the news coverage of the mass suicides of over nine hundred men, women, and children on November 18 at Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple in Guyana. In the wake of such horror, with religious cults under thorough examination by the press and public alike, Ed Sanders was again faced with the dilemma of what to do with The Party. If he refused to publish the document, it would look as if Naropa had something to hide, regardless of the fact that the Merwin affair was one of the institution’s worst-kept secrets; if he released the report, he would be opening up the school to brutal scrutiny and criticism, which, in the worst-case scenario, could lead to the closing of the poetics school. Besides, in the aftermath of the Jonestown massacre, it was unlikely that the other media would ignore the Naropa controversy. Troubled by the situation, Sanders called for another vote from his class. It voted decisively to publish.” (pp. 633-634, link added).
“For Allen, the awards banquet was a shining moment in otherwise troubled times. The problems at Naropa bothered him as much as ever, to the point that he was now suffering from severe headaches and having nightmares about them. The February issue of Harper’s magazine, on newsstands in January, had featured an account of the Snowmass incident written by Peter Marin, a former teacher at Naropa. In his article, Marin portrayed Chögyam Trungpa as a cult leader who demanded absolute obedience from his students and followers. Marin’s use of the adjective cult was extremely distasteful to those presently at Naropa, but their protests drew very little sympathy. In Boulder, a Daily Camera editorial attempted to strike a balance between its praise for Naropa’s contribution to the community and its concern about Trungpa’s eccentricity, particularly his use of a limousine (‘as wasteful as it is egotistical’), his guards (‘They call up the spectre of the late Nazi Party chief George Lincoln Rockwell’), and his excessive drinking (‘it contains false wisdom’). Buddhism was not necessarily a cult, the editorialist wrote, and the interactions of those individuals at Naropa with the community did not indicate the kind of behavior one expected from members of a cult, who preferred an isolated existence. However, some of Trungpa’s actions could be interpreted asbeing egotistical at the very least or, at the worst, the workings of acult leader. ‘To avoid being called a cult,’ the editor suggested, recognizing the objections of Trungpa’s students, ‘it might help not to act like one.’
The Boulder Monthly had been wanting to publish an article about Naropa and the Merwin incident for some time but had been unable to secure permission to reprint the Sanders document. Tom Clark, a writer for the magazine and a poet himself, had written a reconstruction of the event, using The Party as his main source but employing fictional devices to avoid violation of copyright laws, and the Boulder Monthly considered publishing Clark’s piece in lieu of publishing excerpts of The Party. Sam Maddox, the magazine’s editor, appealed to Sanders’s journalistic instincts in his final attempt to gain permission to publish at least part of the report. The Trungpa-Merwin episode, he wrote Sanders, carried numerous implications, not only to Buddhists but to the American intellectual community as well, and the Snowmass incident was more than a simple case of a drunken party that had gotten out of hand. ‘The seminary violence,’ wrote Maddox, ‘forces us to face the issue of tyranny and abuse within the blind homage of the enlightenment movement.’
Allen would have preferred to avoid involvement in the growing controversy, but it was no longer possible, given Boulder Monthly’s intention of publishing its own account of the affair. Bad press coverage was certain to have a negative impact on Naropa and the poetics school, especially if Trungpa was compared to Jim Jones or his Buddhist following to the people of Jonestown. Although he had n o t been present during the Trungpa-Merwin confrontation and would therefore be delivering a secondhand account of it, Allen agreed to be interviewed by Clark, whom he trusted from his Paris Review interview of 1965 and who he felt would be fair in his reportage.
In retrospect, one can admire Ginsberg’s courage for entering a no-win situation with the hope of defending his teacher and Naropa against impossible odds, but the interview wound up being a disaster that, rather than clarifying public understanding of Trungpa, as Allen intended, served only to add Ginsberg to a nasty stew that would simmer for years to come. Part of the problem can be attributed to his answers to Clark’s questions, in which he attempted to explain complex ideas and beliefs in the byte-sized answers demanded by magazine editors. A portion of the problem could be attributed to the way the interview was edited by Clark, who had very little use for Trungpa and was therefore inclined to be sharper in his editing of Ginsberg’s compliments of Naropa’s leader than of his own negative comments regarding Trungpa. Finally, some of the blame for the interview’s disastrous results could be attributed to a misunderstanding between Ginsberg and Clark. Allen was accustomed to having the opportunity to edit his longer interviews, such as the one he had given Clark for The Paris Review, or the one he had granted Playboy, and he incorrectly assumed that he would be able to go over the one he was giving Boulder Monthly before it was published, even though he demanded no such promise from Clark—nor was he offered such an arrangement as a condition for the interview.
In any event, the interview was not the best move Allen could have made at the time. Like anyone interested in the Naropa situation, Clark wanted Allen’s views on Trungpa, his student/relationship with Trungpa, the Merwin episode, and Trungpa’s ‘wild wisdom’ practices. Such inquiries, while reasonable and warranted, were bound to put an interviewee on the defensive, and though Allen was generally patient and agreeable in the answers he provided to Clark’s questions, there were times during the interview session when he became openly testy, as if he felt caught up in an ambush interview conducted by a friend in the process of betraying him.
Early in the interview, Allen admitted that, for him, reading the Harper’s account was comparable to reading about one’s marriage problems in the papers. Staying with the marriage simile, he likened his relationship to Trungpa to a nuptial arrangement. That relationship, he said, was both private and delicate and he was uncomfortable discussing it in public. ‘You know, you’re talking about my love life,’ he informed Clark. ‘It’s really complicated … shot through with strange emotions, and self questionings, and paranoia, and impulses.’
Clark understood Allen’s position, yet, as he reminded him, their discussion had a larger cultural scope than just the Ginsberg-Trungpa relationship. Besides, if Allen wanted to practice a kind of spiritual submission to his teacher, that was his voluntary decision. But what about Merwin and Naone, who obviously did not want to submit to Trungpa but were forced to do so against their stated wishes?
This, of course, was the conundrum. For months, Allen had been trying to solve this riddle himself, both in private and in discussions with others. From his answers in the interview, it was obvious that he had yet to determine a way of explaining it so it would satisfy both spiritual and humanist concerns. In the context of Tibetan Buddhism and his way of practicing it, Trungpa was well within his bounds to demand submission from those who chose to follow him. He was not, after all, forcing anyone to attend his lectures and seminary, nor were people forced to stay once they had begun to study under him. Even the Merwin episode, in which force had been used, was difficult to interpret, since Merwin and Naone entered the study voluntarily and stayed on after it was over.
Still, the mass suicides at Jonestown—many of which had been forced at gunpoint—raised difficult questions not only about submission to a spiritual master but also of the culpability of those witnessing or encouraging the forced submission of others. At the Snowmass ski resort, Clark mentioned, a large group of people had, by their silence or encouragement of Trungpa, condoned his actions, even when it involved the humiliation of two unwilling subjects, when one was pleading for someone to call the police.
At this point, Allen lost his temper. Throughout the interview, in his careful discussion of Trungpa and his re-creation of the events at the party, Allen had tried to explain that as voluntary students Merwin and Naone were sacrificing some of their privacy and free will to their spiritual teacher. That much was understood by all attending the seminary. Allen had tried to show how church and state were separate in the case of such Buddhist studies, and he had explained that Trungpa’s Halloween party was a tradition in which people were ‘supposed to blow their top[s] and get rid of all constraints … in a tradition that’s conscious making.’ He had allowed that he felt partially responsible for encouraging Merwin and others to become part of a situation that required such submission, and he also admitted that he was not comfortable talking at length about such a delicate issue. Clark’s mention of Jonestown, along with his misunderstanding—or unwillingness to accept—some of the Buddhist precepts, finally set Ginsberg off.
‘In the middle of that scene, to yell ‘call the police’—do you realize how vulgar that was?’ Allen said. ‘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 entering on the Bodhisattva path is totally—you’re saying, ‘I no longer have any privacy ever again.'”
Of all the statements made by Ginsberg during the course of the interview, this one would be the most damaging. In all probability, it would have been stricken or modified had Allen had the opportunity to review the interview transcript prior to its publication. After months of worrying about what position to take in the dispute, after casting both critical and charitable judgment on Trungpa and Merwin individually—even going so far as to wonder, in what he confessed to be his growing paranoia about the incident, whether Trungpa was connected to the CIA and perhaps involved in a brainwashing scheme—Allen had, in one passionate moment, taken his public stand. He would regret a number of his remarks from the interview session, but regret and apology would not spare him the consequences of his statements. Despite his hope of clarifying, or maybe even defusing, the bad feelings toward Trungpa, he had, in fact, supplied more grist for the gossip mill. As a journalist, Clark undoubtedly realized that Allen had given him the kind of material that would all but assure a sellout of the issue of the Boulder Monthly in which the interview appeared.
Rather than soften or back away from his stance, Allen spent the remainder of the interview session trying to explain how, in all the subsequent coverage and criticism of the Snowmass episode, it may have been Trungpa who had been wronged. He said Trungpa may have been guilty of indiscretion, but he had not been wrong in the way he had behaved. Further, Allen resented feeling as if he had to defend Trungpa from his attackers—especially from poets who, by tradition, used their artistic license to write whatever they wanted or behave in whatever fashion they s odesired. At one time, not that long ago, these same poets who were now criticizing Trungpa asa religious dictator or cult leader were railing against the American leaders and system as if they were a poison; many had even looked to Eastern thought and religion for enlightenment.
‘I’m supposed to be like the diplomat poet, defending poetry against those horrible alien gooks with their weird Himalayan practices,’ Allen raged, using the violence of American racist language to drive home his point of the country’s distrust, in the wake of Vietnam, of anything Oriental. ‘And American culture! “How dare you criticize American culture!” Everybody’s been criticizing it for twenty years, prophesizing the doom of America, how rotten America is. … Democracy, nothing! They exploded the atom bomb without asking us. Everybody’s defending American democracy. American democracy’s this thing, this Oothoon. The last civilized refuge of the world—after twenty years of denouncing it as the pits! You know, sonow it’s the 1970’s, everybody wants to go back and say, “Oh, no, we’ve got it comfortable. Here are these people invading us with their mind control.”‘
The great irony of the Ginsberg-Clark interview was that up until that point no one had held Allen accountable for any of the controversy associated with Trungpa or Naropa. His position as codirector of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, along with his visibility as Trungpa’s most famous student, had made people curious about his opinions regarding the furor, but his reputation was untarnished. That would change dramatically with the publication of the interview, when Allen would find himself in the middle of the fray, attacked by friends and associates who felt that he had betrayed the interests of poetry and individual freedom in his defense of Trungpa.
As fate would have it, Allen had to leave for New York, where he was to receive his Gold Medal from the National Arts Club, before he had the opportunity to work with Clark on the interview transcript. In the aftermath of the Harper’s article, Boulder Monthly was eager to present its coverage of the controversy as soon as possible, and Clark, constrained by a tight deadline, could not promise Allen the opportunity to review the transcript before the magazine went to press. Allen had little choice but to trust Clark’s judgment in editing the transcript, though he did ask him to show the revised, edited version to Anne Waldman in his absence.
By the time Allen returned to Boulder, the manuscript had been edited and prepared for publication. Waldman had not seen the final version of the interview, though a copy was delivered to Allen’s door upon his return from New York. After reading the edited version of the conversation, Allen felt that certain revisions were necessary. He was embarrassed by his remarks concerning Merwin and other poets, bothered by inaccuracies in the transcript, and hortified about the prospects of facing the reaction his comments were certain to elicit. He immediately went to work on the manuscript, believing that he still might be able to make some last-minute changes and clarifications before the piece was published. He also hoped to convince Clark and the magazine’s editors to refrain from publishing the interview and accompanying excerpt of the Sanders report until Merwin was advised of their plans.
It was not to be. When Allen returned his own edited version of the interview to the Boulder Monthly offices, he was greeted by the sight of boxes and boxes of the March 1979 issue of the magazine, with Trungpa on its cover, filling the Boulder Monthly offices. Since copies were already being circulated around Boulder, it was too late to halt publication or distribution of the magazine. Tom Clark and Ed Dorn were in the magazine’s office when Allen visited, and both were subjected to an angry Ginsberg. During his tirade, he accused Clark of deliberately betraying his trust and trying to get him in trouble with his friends and with the poetry community in general. In editing the interview, Allen complained, Clark had left in his unflattering remarks about Merwin, Sanders, and others, while his complimentary statements, such as his praise for the way Merwin had handled the Snowmass affair, had been cut from the published version.
Neither Clark nor Dorn was especially impressed by Allen’s display. Like many a public figure who had mouthed off during an interview only to regret his or her words afterward, Allen was not contesting the accuracy of his printed statements as much as he was voicing concern about the effects his words would have on the people he talked about. Allen admitted as much himself: ‘I stopped yelling at Tom whenI realized it was fait-accompli irreversible, and that 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.’
The interview and excerpt were every bit ascontroversial as Allen feared they would be. The magazine was an almost instant sellout. Trungpa’s followers scurried about town, trying to keep the magazine off the racks by purchasing several copies at a time. Others, such as Sanders and Dorn, saw that the magazine was distributed to interested parties throughout the United States. The story became one of the hottest topics of discussion in Boulder and interest was growing elsewhere.
Allen tried with only marginal success to smooth over hurt feelings and minimize any damage his remarks may have caused. Encumbered by embarrassment and shame, he wrote Merwin and Naonea lengthy letter of apology in which he explained the circumstances of the interview and how it came to be published without his text approval. He had hoped to deliver an interview that explained the controversy, he told them, but he had instead exacerbated it, and in the process he had offended a number of people, including Merwin and Naone. He hated the fact that he had said such negative things about Merwin’s poetry in the interview, and he confessed as much to the poet: ‘Please accept my apologies for my objectionable remarks about your writing—ill considered even for private yatter among friends, some kind of vanity got into me there, which is not my whole mind, an irritable and nasty arrogance in me which I can’t disown except to acknowledge it as bad character on my part and ask your forgiveness.’
But this, by his own admission, was not his most offensive transgression. ‘My main shame,’ he continued in the same letter, ‘is in having discussed your situation in public (re: the Seminary conflict) when you’ve had the delicacy to leave the situation ripen on its own without aggression on your part. Of all people, I certainly owed you equal courtesy, and am humiliated to find my own vanity and meanness in print, a situation somewhat of my own making since | did sit down to talk with Tom Clark and Ed Dorn, and knew that Tom wanted the interview for his magazine.’
Allen agonized over the effect the Boulder Monthly article would have—for good reason. Responses were quick in arriving. A series of articles and editorials—including a couple of pieces written by Clark using a pseudonym—appeared in newspapers and magazines, all critical of Trungpa and Naropa. Bob Callahan, publisher of Turtle Island Press, drew up and circulated a petition calling for poets and artists temporarily to suspend participation in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics until a formal explanation of the Merwin episode was offered by Naropa authorities, the Vajra guards were disbanded, all efforts to discourage the press and other parties investigating the incident were halted, and measures were taken to prevent the recurrence of such a fiasco in the future. In no time, he had received about forty signatures on his petition, with poets in the Bay Area evenly divided on the issue. Many of the poets, Callahan reported, agreed with the petition but refused to sign it out of respect for Ginsberg, whose name was now being mentioned in association with Trungpa and Naropa, even though it was generally believed that he was innocent of any wrongdoing in connection with the actual incident.
When they saw the petition, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure rose to Allen’s defense. In separate telephone calls to Callahan, both poets expressed doubts about Trungpa’s behavior, but neither was prepared to see the poetry community boycott the poetics school as a response to the incident. Doing so, they suggested, would be more injurious to Ginsberg than to Trungpa.
‘Those wimps at Naropa are no threat to you,’ McClure told Callahan, adding that he had been trying for years to convince Allen privately to disassociate himself from the school. ‘Still,’ he said, ‘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!’
Snyder took asimilar approach. After talking to McClure, who was presently calling people to dissuade them from signing the petition, Snyder tried to convince Callahan that his response to the incident was not ‘generous enough.’ Even though he had agreed in a previous conversation with Callahan that Trungpa’s behavior at the party was out of line with regard to Buddhist behavior, he now admitted he would have no problem taking off his clothes in a similar situation. ‘It’s a big joke to me,’ he said. ‘Just don’t criticize Allen in public.’
Callahan was surprised and disappointed by some of the responses to his petition. It seemed to him that the reasoning behind signing or not signing had little to do with the incident itself. ‘It was a case of party lines, party loyalty, of not losing gigs or giving up a station,’ he told Tom Clark in an interview. ‘Here were poets showing the kind of block mind militancy you’d never expect from them. … It became a poet’s war—poets at war with one another. … Can’t you say something’s wrong, whatever side you’re on?’
Allen still hoped that a revised version of his interview with Clark might be published elsewhere, but Clark was in no mood to cooperate. He, Dorn, and Sanders had been confronted—and even issued vague threats—by angry Trungpa supporters, and in the face of such reaction, Clark was as convinced as ever that Trungpa was a menace and his followers ‘pods’ who had been brainwashed by his teachings. He seemed determined to do whatever he could to expose Trungpa asa kind of religious charlatan.
As the weeks wore on, Allen was drawn deeper and deeper into the controversy. No matter how vigorously he argued, or what approach he took in trying to defuse the controversy, he was ineffective. Like the. narrator of Poe’s ‘Descent into the Maelstrom,’ Allen was being pulled into the vortex of a maddening storm that would leave him physically and emotionally drained—and, ultimately, wiser for the experience.” (pp. 636-642, links added).