‘The Party’ (1979)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

6 minutes

In 1975, Chögyam Trungpa turned a ‘Vajradhatu Seminary’ into a violent bacchanal in the nude. Two years later, the Investigative Poetry Group investigated the matter and published a 110 pages long report, The Party: A Chronological Perspective on a Confrontation at a Buddhist Seminary (1979).

The researchers were students of the Investigative Poetry Class at the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, led by Ed Sanders. Their report provides a chronological account and extensive testimonies on the assault, molestation and abuse of William Merwin and his partner Dana Naone on Trungpa’s orders.

Sanders, who had previously published a biography of cult-leader Charles Manson and his ‘Family,’ was invited to teach a course at the school in June-July 1977. In his foreword, Sanders wrote:

“Prior to arrival at Naropa Institute I had never heard of the stripping incident at Snowmass, Colorado. Better to fill one’s mind with the Galactic Land-Fill than the gossip of bard-babble. At an early meeting of the Investigative Poetry class, there was a general discussion on what sort of bardic sleuthery to undertake. To my surprise the class decided overwhelmingly to take alook at the circumstances of the Halloween party. Robert Bly had recently read in Boulder, and had delivered an energetic stage rendition of the stripping, which had created quite a stir. Wherever one went on the Boulder literary scene that summer, the matter was dancing on many lips, yet few seemed certain asto what actually had transpired at Snowmass.

The National Endowment for the Arts had recently turned down a grant request from the Kerouac School, in part, it was thought, because of gossip about the Merwin-Naone-Trungpa matter spreading in literary circles. The case, as they say, was hot.

It seemed like a matter fit for careful elucidation.I agreed to procede, serving as project coordinator, with “Not to assume facts not in evidence” to be the guiding principle of the investigation. The main ground rules were that everyone participating should prepare detailed question lists, or Q-Lists, prior to interviews, and to try to tape record interviews, where possible, and to write detailed reports and transcripts of interviews.

The Investigative Poetry Group was extremely eager to work, and the walls of my apartment at Naropa faculty housing grew fairly filled with large “flow charts” tracing in chronological detail what was known about the stripping incident at that time. My apartment became the “Squad Room.” The work was ceaseless. Investigators arrived early in the morning, to prepare Q-Lists, to work on the flow charts, to prepare transcripts of interviews. Sometimes there were five typewriters being used at once in the living room. A couple of times the work lasted till dawn.

The bulk of the 179-page report was finished in less than a month. Only the inspired dedication of the 24 people in the Investigative Poetry Group made it possible. Anyone who has spent time at Naropa will know the distractions—the rounds of dinners, the readings, the lectures, the lure of the mountains, the parties, the logging of thrill-units.

It would beproper to say that Naropa was less than eager for the report to be written, but on the other hand at no time, then or now, did anyone try to suppress the investigation, or to harass anyone who was preparing it. In addition, the Kerouac School in myopinion has been an important and unique institution of poetics in America. It bubbles with creativity; with the exchange of ideas on an elevated plateau. It has brought a vast spectrum of poets to Boulder from many different poetic and metaphysical perspectives.

On the other hand, the incident at Snowmass was an encroachment that should not be allowed to be repeated. One sure way to prevent such encroachments among sane people is through relentless, ethical investigations such as the one that produced The Party.

Regarding publication of The Party, The Investigative Poetry Group proceded democratically. During the summer of 1977 the group voted to delay any decision on publication for a few months. In October-November of 1978 a vote was conducted by mail, with the result being 14-4 to publish.” (pp. v-vi)

The report also provides a transcript of American poet Robert Bly’s version of the events during a lecture in Boulder on May 16, 1977:

“I just mention this one detail, you know, this terrible brutality that happened to Merwin and his girlfriend. And do you all know that thing? Well, it was very ugly. Merwin and his girlfriend went up to meditate. Up with Trungpa, up in the mountain thing. And they meditated, like 20 or 30 of them together for a month. It got to be New Year’s Eve and they had a party. Trungpa says take off your clothes. Clothes are evil. Merwin and his girlfriend says NO! They were not interested in taking off their clothes. He had (been?) with her for two years.They went upstairs.Trungpa went up and brought them down! Started to argue with them. Merwin told me this. He said: I had the feeling that an argument was going on, and I was winning and Trungpa threw tea in my face. So I went back upstairs. Then about eight guys came and we could hear them talking outside. They’re going to break down the window or the door and bring them down. So Merwin said, ‘Listen, we are not coming down. We are not doing it. Now don’t do it! I’ve got beer bottles in here and I’m gonna get everyone of them to you. Don’t do it.’ So they broke down the door, carted Dana and Merwin downstairs, sat on them and tore off their clothes. And I said to Merwin, Didn’t one person help you? ‘Not one, yes, one boy came out to help Dana and Trungpa hit him in the mouth and called him a “son of a bitch”. And they got their clothes off. And I said, What did you do then? ‘We went upstairs.’

Now, that is a very depressing story, and the reason I’m telling it to you is because it’s all a part of this whole thing. Allen came to see me the other day. Ginsberg, in Minnesota, we’re old friends. Allen says to me, ‘I want you to do me a favor for me.’ And I said What is it? He said, ‘We applied for 4,000 dollars from Len Randolph for the Naropa Institute for the poetry section, and we didn’t get it. Randolph says the reason was the brutality to Merwin.’ I’m not interested in that. And Allen says, ‘We can handle that somewhat because it took place up there, it didn’t take place at Naropa.’ So he said, ‘We can handle that,’ but Len says there’s a story that the Vajra guards here at Naropa attacked you (Bly) with a bottle. And Naropa (he probably meant to say ‘Len’ instead of ‘Naropa’) says these Vajra guards were supposed to have attacked Robert Bly with a bottle and unless that’s settled then no one…’ So Allen says ‘Would you call Len Randolph and tell him it didn’t take place a t …’ I said, Certainly! It didn’t take place. I’ve never been attacked at Naropa by a bottle! (audience laughter). It’s weird how we are such a violent nation that I could’ve said how Naropa slightly in a newspaper article and it could’ve been visualized as their attacking me with a bottle. Wow.

But I started to think about the whole thing and I said to Allen, Did you do anything for Merwin? He said, ‘Well, I did tell Trungpa that he should apologize.’ And I said to him, Unless you apologize to Merwin publicly and tell Trungpa I’ll never talk to you again as long as you live. He said, ‘well, (inaudible whisper here, by Bly)…’ So I said to him, So what is this community of poets I was talking to you about? What is this big community of poets, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics? What happened to that? (audience applause). So I think my way in my own feeling this, this Kerouac School is doomed, it’s doomed. It’s doomed if not for that brutality, it’s doomed for their refusal to to to have anything to do have anything, really, to defend Merwin, to have anything to do with the community of poets. You’re sacrificing that, for what? That teacher; you can’t sacrifice human beings and, and poets you’ve been associated with your whole life. I don’t believe that’s not teaching. And I said, that brutality, you can’t tell me that that’s going on in anyplace in Asia, and so, Allen said, it wasn’t too traditional. (slight pause, audience laughs) Traditional bullshit! So Merwin uses the term: Buddhist fascism, and he uses it simply and clearly. But, when I think of it in terms of what we’re talking of today, is that it’s necessary for us to work with our lead; it’s necessary for us to work with our suffering and depression, and if you have a guru coming in who starts to skin off the top, or something, and sends you up into the light sofar, you know what happens? The dark comes upfrom underneath. When ya don’t notice it comin’. Follow me?It’s a metaphor.Ya don’t face it and WHAMMO, AAGH. So I think that detail is a very important moment in the history of America, especially in the history of the teaching of Buddhism and of the Eastern things. It’s a crucial crossroads that we just passed. And what it knows—I—what it means I don’t know.” (pp. 105-107).

The Party was copyrighted in 1977 and published in 1979. This booklet has been out of print for decades. As far as I’m aware the original publisher, Poetry, Crime & Culture Press, no longer exists. Original copies of this report are exceedingly hard to find, but I posses a mint copy which I will bequeath to the Dutch Buddhist Archive, an independent foundation in the Netherlands. A scanned copy is available on 14 day loan at Archive.org.

Sanders et al - The Party-A Chronological Perspective on a Confrontation at a Buddhist Seminary (1979)

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.