Crazy Wisdom or Institutions and Intuitions: The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics

Kate Linhardt March 3, 2008 American Culture Senior Project Supplementary Paper


Table of Contents:

Part I: Why I Made the Film . . . 3

Part II: Origins . . . 12

Part III: The Incident . . . 20

Part IV: A New Generation . . . 25


Part I: Why I Made the Film Perhaps it would be best to start out by asking myself the question I usually opened my interviews with: what drew you to Naropa? The summer of 2005 I shipped myself off to Boulder, Colorado for a week to attend an intensive prose writing workshop and attend lectures and panel discussions by some of the worlds most preeminent writers, literary scholars, and intellectuals. I had poured over the catalogue in the weeks beforehand, eyes agog at the mosaic of peripherally recognizable names, esoteric course descriptions, and the school’s overarching, experimental “counter-poetic” mission statement. The schedule was punctuated by morning yoga, meditation workshops, and panels about the radical media. I suppose I came for solidarity, the prospect of artistic validation, and what was later frequently termed “self-healing.” Mostly I was there because of a deep-seated need for professional evaluation; some way of gauging where I stood in relation to the writers they were eagerly endorsing as the most revered and diverse group of internationally renowned contemporary poets.1 I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I spent the week in a dazed state of perpetual fascination, awe, and nervousness. It was saturation. Each week of the month long program has a different theme. Mine, week two, was called “Lineages of the Impossible American Dream and Beyond,” and was intended as an exploration and

The instructor roster in the Summer of 2005 included Mary Burger, Norma Cole, Mark DuCharme, Albert Glover, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Jack Hirschman, Vincent Katz, Jena Osman, Michael Rothenberg, Sonia Sanchez, Juliana Spahr, Lewis Warsh, and Julia Seko (printer). I came to be quite impressed by all of them at readings and panel discussions, but without the money to buy their books beforehand, I had taken the catalogue’s claims about their talent and prestige at face value. Upcoming artists for the 2008 Summer session included Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, Joanna Howard, Carol Moldaw, Sue Salinger, Rani Singh, Arthur Sze, Richard Tuttle, in addition to Naropa’s permanent faculty. 3

celebration of the lineage of the “New American Poets” as classified and identified by Donald Allen in his now authoritative anthology, The New American Poets (1960). The intensive workshop I enrolled in with the brooding poet Lewis Warsh, “Fiction and Memory,” was a non-fiction prose class based on the work of Jack Kerouac, Marguerite Duras, Peter Handke, and Lydia Davis. We would read each other our observations about the world, share sob stories, and wonder aloud at the volatility and malleability of memory. Nobody ever questioned the fact that we were all strangers; that was irrelevant. In answer to my timid, probably ill-phrased question about whether or not the crucible of the Summer Writing Program which the Jack Kerouac School was founded around was really the most effective way of learning and improving as a writer, Steven Taylor, Allen Ginsberg’s former teaching assistant and a current teacher replied matterof-factly, Nah, I think its life-changing. It’s like a total immersion. Total immersion in literary culture. It’s like becoming a part of the world of writing, at the global level, for a month, day and night. I think people mature. People burn out, people revive, people get a second wind and it’s just life changing. Every year, “outrider” poets, fiction writers, scholars, translators, performance artists, Buddhist teachers, printers, editors, activists, and editors host and attend a continual stream of readings, lectures, panel discussions, and performances, discussing their disciplines and ideas with one another “outside the corporate cultural mainstream” ( The school’s unofficial motto, or mantra, is: “writers teaching writers,” and while there are inevitably boundaries between “teacher” and “student,” they are supposedly more fluid distinctions than might be found in a more traditional academic setting (


Founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in January,1974, Naropa Institute was originally conceived as an almost utopian haven for artists, spiritual seekers, and intellectuals. It became the third of three organizations established under Trungpa’s Nalanda Foundation, which was inspired by Nalanda University, an Indian Mahayana Buddhist academy from the 5th-12th centuries.2 Nalanda University’s abbot in the 11th century was named Naropa, and he had been “particularly renowned for bringing together scholarly wisdom with meditative insight” ( Upon arriving in the United States as an exile of Tibet, Trungpa purportedly asked, “where are the poets? Take me to your poets!” After an adventitious encounter with Allen Ginsberg in a New York City taxi, Ginsberg had become Rinpoche’s student, and decided to accompany him to Boulder for the Naropa Institute’s first session in June, 1974. Naropa Institute was primarily funded by a different Buddhist meditation center, Karma Dzong, which Trungpa had founded in Boulder in 1971 separately from the Nalanda Foundation.3 Naropa was much more than just a writing school; there were departments in religion, somatic psychology, Indo-Tibetan languages, and music. Yet, the writing school cultivated the most interest from the press due to its unparalleled all-star celebrity staff. The original faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics consisted of co-founders Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, John Cage, Diane Di Prima, Jackson Mac Low, Timothy Leary, and countless


The two other divisions of the Nalanda Foundation were the Maitri Project, a mental health training program, and Mudra Theater, an experimental theater group (Lloyd).

Charles Wartts, former director of Journalism at Webster College, recalled how in the early 1970s, the Buddhists in Boulder would travel around in a red van together to “recruit people in Pizza Parlors and Beer Halls [. . .] People started testifying like in the Baptist Church about what Buddhism had done for them” (Reed 10). 5

others.4 Expecting between three and five hundred people to participate, organizers scrambled to accommodate the 1,300 students who arrived that first summer of 1974; The East-West Journal reported that year on the “astonishing assortment of college students, dropouts, scholars, scientists, artists, therapists, dancers, heads of departments, musicians, housewives,” who suddenly showed up, not knowing what to expect (qtd. at As Reed Bye, a current writing instructor explained, it had “hit a little nerve, or pulse at that time that was calling for people to get together.” 5 Though it had, retrospectively, felt to me like some bizarre conflation of a rapid weight loss program and a strange metaphysical trade fair, the Summer Writing Program


Waldman and Ginsberg were roommates that summer and stayed up late one night discussing the writing school they would establish. Trungpa had envisioned it as “a way of teaching meditators about the golden mouth and educating poets about the golden mind.” Waldman later explained their rationale behind the name: “Disembodied, because so many of our faculty would be peripatetic, and also our inspiration was from many writers long gone. Moreover, at the time we had no buildings, no desks, no blackboards, no filing cabinets, no grades, no money … only our mental commitment, our voices, our scholarship, our practice. So in the beginning, the school was truly disembodied!” (qtd. at

Naropa’s inception coincided with a much more wide-reaching shift in what might be termed “liberal education.” The tumult of the 1960s had “[collapsed] the university’s claims to moral and intellectual legitimacy,” but students’ subsequent demand for “more ‘relevant’ courses often boiled down to a desire for an intellectually undemanding curriculum, in which students could win academic credits for political activism, selfexpression, [and] transcendental meditation” (Lasch 257-258). In The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch goes on to criticize any number of other hollow liberal platitudes and behaviors, which he feels contributed to the deterioration of American society under the guise of an emerging, narcissistic radicalism. Eschewing the dogmatic, reductive binary of “conservative=bad” and “liberal=good,” Lasch was troubled by the consistent failure of liberals to enact real change: “cultural radicalism has become so fashionable, and so pernicious in the support it unwittingly provides for the status quo, that any criticism of contemporary society that hopes to get beneath the surface has to criticize, at the same time, much of what currently goes on under the name of radicalism” (Lasch 22-23).


was a phenomenon to reckon with. Granted, when I participated, my relative isolation from my peers there, (who were uniformly much older or else low-residency graduate students required to attend summer classes to fulfill their degree requirements), lent everything the dramatized, cinematic veneer of a sociological experiment. The perennial “conversation” that they all seemed to be having was about how to change the world; how to expand minds and start believing in reality and creativity and personal agency again. I took copious notes. At lectures and readings I watched all the creative people around me listening and found great comfort in the knowledge that we were all listening together. The first conceit was that we were all “hurting” as human beings; we were all struggling with our egos and our ideas and our feelings about society. At Naropa, it was easy to acknowledge how fragile we all were, and talk about it unselfconsciously in rational, constructive terms. Arriving a little early to Mary Burger, Sonia Sanchez, and Norma Cole’s poetry reading, I took a seat in the front row and was leafing through my new copy of The Angelhair Anthology, (a massive collection of short zines and writing from the St. Mark’s school of the 1960s), when Anne Waldman took the seat next to me. The woman sitting on the other side of me nudged me encouragingly – “nice work,” she seemed to say. Realizing that Waldman had co-edited the anthology with her ex-husband, my instructor Lewis Warsh, I awkwardly shoved the book under my chair. She sat youthfully, crosslegged on the foldout chair, rocking her head and bopping her toes to the words, (by far the most enthusiastic audience member), and for the entire performance I struggled to maintain normal-sounding breathing patterns. It was only that night that I realized that my infatuation with these people had only grown deeper since I’d physically been on the


campus. I suddenly began to question my motivation for coming there. I felt so ashamed sometimes…had I come here for myself, or for them? Exactly how narcissistic and privileged and indulgent was it of me to seek enlightenment or personal growth at this obscure, countercultural mecca? What had convinced me? What had convinced everyone else? What were we expecting, and what good would or ever had come of it? It takes an incredible amount of trust – faith, even – to think that you can pay someone to teach you how to be innovative or free. The Beats had paved their own way – that’s what made them so tantalizing. They had broken away from the New Critics literary dictatorship in the 1950s, developed new forms and styles, betrayed conformity, gender norms, and literary conventions. Above all, beyond any stylistic innovations they pioneered, it was their role in the context of a very specific moment in American history which fueled their credibility. But that moment could never be recreated, not even by the Beats themselves, let alone a bunch of crooning fans devoting themselves to what they fancied a reasonable facsimile of that time called “Naropa.” By accepting Ginsberg and Waldman as a new authoritative elite, and defining myself in relation to them, I was only perpetuating a familiar cycle: innovation leads to canonization leads to emulation. My experience there suddenly seemed tainted by this contradictory notion – that regardless of our lifestyles or our intentions, the Summer Program students had all quite willingly enlisted, not to mention paid for, the institutionalization of feelings and desires we felt we could not reconcile on our own; we were paying for an induction into a strange counterfeit coterie made up of disembodied beatniks and strangers, all under the esoteric aegis of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s


confusing notion of “crazy wisdom.” These were the kinds of thoughts that made it hard for me to concentrate on my breath. Philip Slater posits that there are three human desires that are “deeply and uniquely frustrated by American culture”: community, engagement, and dependence. He defines the desire for community as “the wish to live in trust, cooperation, and friendship with those around one,” the desire for engagement as “the wish to come directly to grips with one’s social and physical environment,” and the desire for dependence as “the wish to share responsibility for the control of one’s impulses and the direction of one’s life.” In each case, we are consistently foiled by ourselves and the structures that we “have voluntarily created, and voluntarily maintain” (Slater 9). There is an irreconcilable inconsistency in our simultaneous desires for dependence and independence: the popular pursuit of individualism produces uniformity. When we become disillusioned by the loud creaking of America’s social machinery, as we often do, blaming it for all our unhappiness or unrest, we act as if institutions and bureaucracies “had nothing to do with us as people – as if we didn’t support them with our own wishes, motives, and actions” (Slater 2). The truth is that we crave submission to something bigger than ourselves, be it God or the registrar’s office, and, ironically, in the struggle to understand the origin of that impulse, we end up seeking even more professional guidance. Peter Marin, an instructor at Naropa in 1979, describes the white, middle-class audience of a lecture about meditation in his essay, “Spiritual Obedience.” He is generous towards his subjects in as far as he concedes that “they were in all probability politically, psychologically exhausted.” However, he goes on to assert that the audience’s real plight was that


they had been raised in various institutional settings that had simultaneously taught them to be both responsible for their own behavior and to the expectations of others and had also demanded from them (if they were to succeed) an almost total submission to authority. As a result [. . .] their desire for spiritual submission and thereby salvation, may have revealed less of a spiritual yearning than a capacity for submission in general, or a yearning for anything that might relieve them of their discomfort and locate them in the world (Marin 52). The discomfort his describes is difficult to define, especially for me, as someone personally embedded within it, but I’m interested in it as a tendency that bridges generations. From the 1970s to today, the exact same kind of spiritual submission has been occurring at Naropa. The “hope of transcending a consciousness defined solely by class” lives on, but it is still unresolved because the only methods and institutions that could possibly deal with those issues are uniformly inadequate (Marin 81). Naropa is too deliberately detached from reality, favoring instead abstract concepts of “presence” and “elegant thought process,” to deal with critical considerations of its own position in society as just one more elitist capitalist institution. The desire for community and engagement is hardly “American.” What differentiates us from most other cultures is our love of “bigness, mostly because [we] feel so small.” By actively choosing to be subsumed by a pre-existing establishment or ideal, we want to feel big, but in practice that bigness “rips away [our] sense of connectedness and place and makes [us] feel small. A vicious cycle” (Slater 11). Naropa University considers itself to be one of the biggest literary destinations in the second half of the 20th century, and with a total enrollment of roughly 1000 students, the curriculum is centered around the collective individualism of its participants. Slater’s desires are epitomized at the Jack Kerouac School, where students seek to “find” themselves by integrating and depending on a community of engaged, like-minded artists. From my own


observation and through informal conversations with writing students, though, it seemed to me that many of them felt more isolated as writers than they had been before they’d enrolled; working off of a pre-existing template had helped them to get started, but they needed a new destination. Granted, one week at a school’s summer program couldn’t possibly provide more than a superficial understanding of the their history, their educational philosophy, or their administrative system, but for better or for worse, Naropa left an impression on me. To its credit, it made me think deeply about my social class, my long-term goals, and my fundamental conceptions of self and community. Since Naropa’s inception, the potency of that first impression – some mixture of novelty, hipness, mysticism, and spirituality – has often been assimilated and embraced by students without a thorough consideration of the implications of those ingredients. What each one symbolizes is symptomatic of a wider-reaching cultural phenomenon. The intersections between Naropa’s writing program, its westernization of Buddhism, and its experimental, experiential, now canonical Beatnik faculty are in some respects a microcosmic synecdoche for the deterioration of contemporary “liberal” values. Founded on an exciting drama of power struggles, politics, conspiracy, bureaucracy, spirituality, and art, Naropa was, and continues to be, a living experiment in the institutionalization of personal salvation.


Part II: Origins “A writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave their mark even on the smallest details of his work.” – George Orwell Today Naropa University has, due to innumerable cultural and economic shifts, inevitably metamorphosed into something that is in many ways quite foreign to the raucous fledgling that had been Naropa Institute until 1986, but most people still seem to take considerable pride in the history of the school. Thus, an investigation into the circumstances which propelled the founding and development of The Jack Kerouac School seems as relevant to its existence today as an examination of the Civil War would be in a comprehensive understanding of the history of the United States. Trungpa Rinpoche’s monastical, genealogical, and intellectual qualifications were hardly bourgeois fabrications. In 1938, the year of his birth, he was proclaimed the eleventh incarnation of Trungpa Tulku in the Kagyupa and Karmapa orders, and was brought up in the Sumang monasteries of Eastern Tibet to be the Supreme Abbot. In 1959, due to the political unrest of the Chinese takeover, he emigrated to India, and eventually Oxford to study psychology (Weinberger 28). A common defense of Naropa, as well as Trungpa’s other Buddhist schools, was that the form of Tibetan Buddhism Trungpa had brought and established under his larger organization, Vajhadratu, was in itself a hierarchical, traditionally devout practice that Americans simply could not understand – an “experiment in monarchy,” as Allen Ginsberg put it (qtd. in Weinberger 40). Its detractors’ disgust and immediate rejection of this paradigm of faith was only testament to the notorious, irresolvable schism between Eastern and Western ideas of


rationality and spirituality. Trungpa had his reservations about even attempting to bring his “two hundred percent potent” Himalayan wisdom to the West (Trungpa 3). At the end of the first summer program in 1974, Chögyam Trungpa clarified at a panel discussion that the philosophy of the Naropa Institute was not to bring diverging methodology and practices together “like a spoon of sugar in your lemonade so that it becomes more drinkable.” It was a philosophy of explosive union, “more like a firework,” not in its destructiveness but in its urgency and intensity. “All of them are valid but at the same time there is a meeting point which takes place in a spark,” he elaborated (Fields 308). But occasionally this beautiful balance of Eastern and Western dispositions and educational models could turn on itself and end up collapsing into a corruption of both. In fact, nearly all of the critical scholarly and even journalistic writings about Naropa that I’ve found, most of which were written in the mid-70s, have had some fairly harsh words for the “authenticity” and the role of morality within the institution as a spiritual and intellectual destination. By the time the Naropa Institute was up and running in 1974, Trungpa had already started colonies of Vajradhatu meditation centers in Scotland, Vermont, Colorado, and a number of other states, amassing a small multi-million dollar empire. In recruiting Ginsberg as the poster-child of his spiritual reformation, he monopolized the entire alternative artistic community for which Ginsberg had already been serving as a kind of guru.6 In Marin’s somewhat drastic opinion, “Trungpa’s early connections with the hippie or fringe community appear in retrospect to have been simply the easiest or

Quincy Troupe, a member of the “New Black Poetry” school remarked of Naropa that Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg’s “guruism” was due their “huge egos”: “‘poets fall into a guru complex,’ Troupe said, because their traditional role in some cultures has been that of ‘mediator between heaven and earth’” (Reed 10). 13

only available way to build a foundation for his aristocratic program” (Marin 60). Publicity was key; David Meltzer, the author of The Two-Way Mirror, accused Trungpa of “adopting the slick merchandising techniques of a modern corporation” with his catalogue advertising campaign, which sold the experimentations of the writing program’s celebrity faculty like in sweaters in the Sears Roebuck (Reed 8). When writer Bob Callahan, asked Rinpoche how he could charge $50 for a ticket to a poetry reading, Rinpoche replied that “they had to operate Buddhism like an American business” (Reed 8). Rinpoche was probably right to a certain extent – Naropa had enough financial problems as it was, and while providing free arts and entertainment to the Boulder community would have been ideal, it was probably unfeasible at that point. Furthermore, nothing could be further from [Vajrayana Buddhists’] sensibilities than the notion of a free community of equals of a just society or the common good. In their eyes justice is merely another delusion, and interest in it only proof of personal confusion (Marin 59). The exoticized western conception of eastern philosophy led many to naively conflate Buddhism with communism or “free-love,” which was actually the furthest thing from the truth. Tibetan Buddhism is literally a feudal system, which had been “transplanted to a modern capitalist setting” through Trungpa’s entrepreneurial savvy and Ginsberg’s tireless self-promotion (Marin 58). Ginsberg had been interested in Buddhism since the mid-1950s as a kind of peripheral hobby, encouraged and substantiated by Kerouac’s more devout philosophy. The two became acquainted with Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder at “The Six Gallery” readings held in San Francisco and immediately entered into a dialogue about spirituality and Buddhism with them. Kerouac once wrote that he and Ginsberg were “two strange


dissimilar monks on the same path” – Kerouac was hung up on the First Noble Truth of Suffering, whereas Ginsberg “resented and resisted the nothingness,” and found himself more attracted to the intellectual realm of Snyder’s Mahayana Zen (qtd. in Fields 215). A troubled, “schizophrenic attitude” towards Eastern Spirituality or “Zen” had been under skeptical scrutiny for many years by people like Alan Watts (Trungpa 3). In 1959, Ruth Fuller Sasaki, the mother of Watt’s wife Eleanor Everett, observed that Zen had become “the magic password at smart cocktail parties and bohemian get-togethers alike,” used to substantiate and broaden any discussion of the latest psychology, music, or art (qtd. in Fields 205). “Beat Zen” as practiced by Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder, and others during the San Francisco Renaissance, was more a prevalent attitude than a “religion.” Coining the term “Beat Zen” in his essay, “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” Watts explored the rocky, sometimes contradictory terrain of these contemporary appropriations of Taoism and Buddhism. Watts defined this “Beat Zen” as revolt that does not aspire to change the pre-existing “American Way of Life,” but “simply turns away from it to find the significance of life in subjective experience rather than objective achievement” (Watts). “Square Zen” was about “a quest for the right spiritual experience [. . .] There will even be certificates to hang on the wall” (Watts). But he was troubled by the potential of both forms to encourage “a lazy and self-serving reading of the classic texts [. . .] to justify ‘a very self-defensive Bohemianism’” (Heath & Potter, 263). These already loose approximations, later coupled with the emergence of psychedelic drug use in the 1960s, (championed by Timothy Leary as an abridged path to enlightenment), proved how easily Zen could fall into the trappings of “adolescentization [. . .] devolv[ing] into just teenage surliness backed up with Asian exotic credibility”


(Heath & Potter, 264). In 1965 Timothy Leary translated Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching from English to “psychedelic” in the form of a book called “Psychedelic Prayers” which conformed more neatly to his own, and the vaster counter-culture’s “social creed of ‘do your own thing’ or ‘anything goes’” (Heath and Potter 264). If “Beat Zen” was adolescence, Ginsberg’s spiritual adulthood came to be defined by Chögyam Trungpa’s Vajradhatu Tibetan Buddhism, which, for all its unconventional westernizations, still entailed a great deal more structure and discipline. Trungpa believed he had an absolute understanding of the entire Zen/Beatnik phenomenon, which he attempted to relay to his charges with varying degrees of success. In a series of lectures he gave in 1972 about the life and teachings of Naropa, he quite openly shared his misgivings about a tendency endemic in aspiring American Buddhists to exoticize and distort his teachings into some kind of “real live pop art” (Trungpa vii, 18).7 Trungpa


Chogyam Trungpa used the tale of Naropa, an Indian of the eleventh century and a well-known figure in Tibetan Buddhism, as a foundational parable in his own teachings. Trungpa’s lectures regarding Naropa stray considerably from the formal mahamudra and tantric teachings which also don his name, namely the six Dharmas of Naropa teachings (Tib. naro chödrunk), but his descriptions of Naropa’s psychic journey are said to “catch each [dharma] by its experiential essence, conveying in a few simple words an insight that students might well seek in vain elsewhere through hundreds of pages of text or many hours of oral teaching” (Trungpa ix). While the story, in its entirety, is rather complex, and chronicles Naropa’s transmissions with his spiritual guru, Tilopa, a brief synopsis seems apt. The royal prince Naropa leaves his wife of eight years to pursue his lifelong dream of joining a monastery. He excels at the university of Nalanda (which is, incidentally, also the name of the North campus in Boulder), and hurtles to the front of his class, becoming as sought after and celebrated as the very best contemporary teachers of Buddhism. But his intellect is called into question by a horrible “vision of a very ugly woman,” who accuses him of understanding words and not their meanings: “do you understand the words or the sense?” she asks. The only way for him to receive a real, truthful education was by seeking out her brother, Tilopa, as his guru. Shaken, and to the astonishment and protestations of Nalanda University, Naropa does just that: he goes to seek a guru. (cont.) 16

prefaced the account of Naropa’s journey with his guru Tilopa with the disclaimer that “there is a problem in communicating [with] late-twentieth-century Americans. We have an enormous problem there” (Trungpa 17). Students were invested in his teachings as an “outlandish,” fashionable way of engaging with the “hipness” of Tibetan Buddhist works of art. “Everything is regarded as fabulous, a fantastic display. ‘It is so fantastic! It matches what I saw in my acid trip!’” Trungpa chided his audience. “‘At last I am able to relate with those beautiful, colorful, groovy things that are in the Tibetan thankas [. . .] I’m becoming part of them’” (Trungpa 17-18). Unlike the somber, black turtleneck clad beatniks of yore, the counterculture had evolved into a swarm of colorful idealists, and the posters for popular rock bands and events, “with their lush color and wavy flowing lines, were right at home next to popular religious Hindu posters of blue-hued baby Krishna standing on a glowing white lotus” (Fields 249). But for any redemption to be found in his critique of the “adolescentization” of Beat Zen, it was Trungpa who incited the most vehement outrage and disappointment in

But in his quest to find Tilopa, Naropa instead encounters eleven hideous visions, which so unravel and distress him that he is prepared to kill himself out of desperation and defeat when the benevolent Tilopa arrives, and finally accepts him as his student. Tilopa then proceeds to sit, motionless, for years at a time. Each year, Naropa finally becomes so impatient that he ventures to ask for a teaching, and in response Tilopa requires of him increasingly preposterous and grotesque displays of devotional acts. Naropa is made to jump from the roof of a tall temple, shattering his body; he is heavily beaten, drained by bloodsucking leeches, told to throw himself into a fire, etc. – but after each suffering, or “act of repentance,” Tilopa restores his health with the slightest touch and rewards him with one of the six dharmas. It is Naropa’s utter abandonment of his ego and worldly attachments, as exhibited through his total submission to Tilopa, which ultimately releases him from the tyranny of his own pride. Trungpa likened the “tour of Naropa’s agony” that he lead students on to Disneyland: “you go through some tunnel, and you come out [. . .] You see exciting things and you come out on the other end. But in this case, it is related to psychological problems” (Trungpa 7).


Naropa’s early critics.8 His counter-cultural followers’ (or “warriors”) fanatical, ecstatic allegiance to him as an infallible, almost holy deity, lent itself to many serious accusations that Naropa was a fascist, monarchical cult, operating on several levels of exploitation (Weinberger 27). Trungpa was a patently ridiculous personage at the height of his popularity in Boulder; he cruised through its sleepy streets in a Mercedes limo, wearing a business suit and “always accompanied by a retinue of guards,” who called him “Your Highness” (Weinberger 27). He encouraged alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, and competitive devotion in his followers. His controversial, unapologetic vices – drinking and smoking - could not be challenged, even by his closest friends, because “whatever [he] did or said became part of the path.” When confronted about his drinking and smoking he replied that he felt it was important for people to see because it demonstrated that “no one could escape spiritual practice by thinking that they had to become ‘pure’ before they could begin’” (Fields 311). His students were very conflicted people, who were being taught difficult and often contradictory lessons. Many were emulating Ginsberg, who was trying to emulate Trungpa – the political revolution of the 1960s had dwindled down to a sharp point and it must have felt, to Ginsberg as well as his followers, that the hippies’ stated mission to overhaul conformity and conventional consciousness had to happen soon if it was going to at all. People reached out to Buddhism or “enlightenment” as a way of learning to turn inward and confront themselves – to direct their own pent up energy and bewilderment – before they could feel ready to truly confront humanity. But everything was tangled up in

Rexroth once said that he felt Chögyam Trungpa had “unquestionably done more harm to Buddhism in the United States than any man living,” and recommended deportation. He joked that “one Aleister Crowley was enough for the twentieth century” (qtd. in Weinberger 38). 18

a different, more pernicious kind of countercultural conformity, riddled with good intentions and unrealistic spiritual expectations. This priority shift from activism to spirituality was a departure from radical 60s politics, but it also followed a very logical trajectory given that even the radicalism of the sixties served, for many of those who embraced it for personal rather than political reasons, not as a substitute religion but as a form of therapy. Radical politics filled empty lives, provided a sense of meaning and purpose (Lasch 33).9 Trungpa stressed in his teachings that “meditative absorption is not the real truth…When we try to get into something, we expect a lot [. . .] an answer, reassurance, clarity. We expect all kinds of things. By expecting clarity, we are confusing the whole issue; we are producing confusion” (Trungpa 18-19). “Enlightenment” or “wisdom” was derived from an understanding that confusion and uncertainty are necessary constants, which can never be overcome. When Trungpa would venture to discuss politics, “it was always to devalue it, to set it aside,” the rationale supposedly being that politics were a distraction from the experiential reality that could be embodied through meditative practice (Marin 60). Due to his insistence on collective disengagement from society, and his inculcation of paranoia and a profound skepticism and distrust of capitalistic infrastructures, his students ultimately succeeded only in evading the world, not disassembling it.


Marin makes a similar point, but adds that though “the forms of rebellion in the sixties were raw and often childish [. . .] we must remember, it was often not generated from within, but was itself called forth by the behavior of adults” (Marin 79).


Part III: The Incident The most infamous and now legendary instance of Trungpa’s supposedly anarchical, cruel, dictatorship lies in the story of the “W.S. Merwin Incident.” Written about and obsessed over ad nauseum as a real-life parable for the hideous underbelly of Naropa and the wider “new-age” movement, the story was crippling to the school, and more importantly, to Trungpa’s reputation. In its condensed form, the story goes something like this: in the fall of 1975, Trungpa held a session at his Vajradhatu Seminary in Snowmass, Colorado. The poet W.S. Merwin, who had been teaching at the summer program that year asked Trungpa if he and his girlfriend, a Hawaiian poet named Dana Naone, could attend, even though they had just begun their Buddhist studies. The most advanced students struggled to gain admittance to this particular Seminary session but probably due, at least in part, to Merwin’s celebrity, Trungpa granted them admission. Though the couple attended all the teachings and activities, they tended to isolate themselves from the other participants in the evenings, “a source of resentment in a community devoted to the dissolution of self” (Weinberger 30). The night before they were all going to embark upon the “powerful stuff” (tantric teachings), Trungpa decided to throw a Halloween party. The festivities were not unlike most of the other mad celebrations that had been occurring during the Summer Writing Program at Naropa; Trungpa got belligerently drunk, molested several female students, “[left] teeth marks” on a disciple’s cheek, and proceeded to command his guards to assist him in humiliating his pupils in various ways.10


Even the most diligent students, who had no desire to participate in these shenanigans, were generally coerced. After leading a sitting meditation for an entire day, Trungpa would eagerly instigate wild parties. Still, there was an understanding that “no matter 20

Upon noticing that Merwin and Doane were conspicuously absent, Trungpa demanded that they be retrieved from their room and brought before him. His guards obediently went off to the couple’s room to obey him, but Merwin had locked the door and refused to be summoned in such a barbaric fashion. Apparently, whatever the guards were doing was threatening enough that Merwin and Doane were compelled to barricade their door with furniture, but undeterred, the guards snuck around a balcony and broke through the sliding glass door. Merwin waved a broken beer bottle at them frantically, badly injuring some of his attackers, but after much resistance they were eventually dragged before Trungpa. He demanded that they be stripped naked and made several racist remarks toward Doane. They screamed for help or even sympathy from the hundreds of onlookers, (including Ginsberg), but only one man stepped forward to try to help them. Trungpa swiftly punched him in the face and had him removed from the premises (Weisberger 31). The story itself was shocking, almost fantastical, and seemed to validate any and all reservations one might potentially have had about the school at that time, but it “is more emblematic than definitive, and the response to it far more interesting than the episode itself” (Marin 30). Ginsberg, Waldman, and many others fought vigilantly to try to prevent a local Boulder paper from printing an exposé. Reactions were uniformly inflammatory, but it took over three years for the general public to catch wind of what had happened. The first widely read circulation of the event came in Marin’s 1979 essay “Spiritual Obedience” for Harper’s Magazine, followed by a compilation book of eyehow outrageously some nights might end, the next morning everyone woke to the sound of the conch, and it was back to the meditation hall, back to ‘square one,’ as Trungpa put it, ‘the place where you actually were the morning after and not where you thought or imagined you ought to be’” (Fields 310). 21

witness accounts called The Party put together by Ed Sanders “Investigative Poetics” class as a means of systematically unpacking the details and contradictions of the incident from within Naropa. The Party was distributed clandestinely by Ed Dorn, and it was later revised and augmented by further analysis and criticisms in Tom Clark’s The Great Naropa Poetry Wars. When an excerpt of Clark’s book was published in Boulder Monthly, the hysterical “Naropans” were said to have “formed squads and bought up every copy” (Weinberger 35). While it would be terribly redundant and perhaps even counter-productive to harp on the details and implications of something that has already undergone such excruciating documentation, suffice to say, something was stirred. For some, the most disturbing element in the whole unsavory affair was Ginsberg’s tireless and fervent defense of Trungpa. Marin called Ginsberg’s justifications for Trungpa’s behavior in his interview with Clark “the most depressing transcript in American letters” (40). 11 Ginsberg and Trungpa shared many common traits and interests, but more than anything they were kindred souls as celebrities. Ginsberg had as much power over a veritable army of aspiring poets and Beatniks as Trungpa had over any of his spiritual seekers – maybe more. In Weinberger’s estimation, Trungpa must have felt “on the one


The Dalai Lama’s assessment of the Buddhist situation in America emphasized that students simply needed to start becoming more discerning about what guru they chose: “I recommend never adopting the attitude toward one’s spiritual master of seeing his or her every action as divine or noble,” he said. “Too much obedience, devotion, and blind acceptance spoils a teacher.” The more significant point seemed to be that many of these American spiritual masters, including Trungpa, “lack[ed] the integrity to be immune to that kind of vulnerability,” and needed to start apologizing and accepting criticism for their inappropriate behavior (370 Fields). On the Dalai Lama’s first visit to the United States in 1979, he cancelled a scheduled stop to Boulder at the last minute, probably due to rumors circulating throughout the lama circuit about Trungpa’s alcoholism (Weinberger 34). 22

hand, elation at having the all-stars on his team; on the other, what insiders would call his scorn of the artist’s self-involvement, and outsiders might see as envy or fear of eclipse” (29). Yet, his control over Ginsberg, who perhaps actively sought to be controlled, must have been some consolation. They were a power duo of epic proportions, using their respective celebrity to sell a life-style, a philosophy, and the promise of community, healing, and direction to thousands of eager lost youths. Beyond a desire to share the ancient teachings of his people with Westerners, Trungpa was capitalizing on, and effectively mass-marketing the “Zen” bug that had already been floating around for over two decades. According to Weinberger, Marin, and Merwin, “it is at this point that fascism comes into question” (Weinberger 37). It’s difficult, and perhaps above all extremely troubling to try to imagine how the writing school’s namesake, Jack Kerouac, might have felt about this community. He had always been “horrified” by hippies, and as the flower children and far-out freaks of the 1960s began to dominate the social scene in San Francisco, he had recoiled and retreated. Even his own fame terrified and confused him – he was uneasy about being a role model or a literary icon for a demented subculture he felt no kinship with. He slammed his mother’s door in the faces of a group of young people who showed up unexpectedly with jackets that had Dharma Bums printed across the back. The sensitive, solitary cowboy persona he had adopted as the narrator in his novels had become an archetype of cool he no longer believed in. Ginsberg, on the other hand, had dived into fame head first, and while it seems fair to say that Kerouac did not necessarily begrudge him for that, he himself could not participate in good conscience. Big Sur (1962), was an account of his last trip to San Francisco, and told “the story of a nervous collapse, of a man looking into


the abyss of his success and seeing his friends poisoning the water in the stream he was drinking from” (Fields 248). Trungpa and Ginsberg’s conception of Tibetan spirituality, community, and exhibitionism seems to me completely at odds with Kerouac’s unique personal philosophy, making his titular involvement with the poetic school unfortunate if not all together inappropriate.


Part IV: A New Generation In a recent New York Times article, Claire Dederer observed that hearing about Naropa’s conceptual philosophy of giving students “a critical perspective on their inner lives” is very different from seeing it in action. The article gently pokes fun at the school’s “reputation in Boulder as expensively flakey,” and the surprising “seriousness” with which the “Naropans” conduct their wacky Buddhist curriculum. But ultimately she applauds the school for being one of very few nondenominational, spiritual alternatives. “The university calls itself Buddhist-inspired rather than Buddhist; its goal from the very beginning was to bring together elements of Eastern and Western philosophy [. . .] [Chögyam Trungpa] used to use say, ‘Let East meet West and watch the sparks fly’” (Dederer). This brand of colorful, punchy rhetoric has always imbued all Naropa’s catalogues and literature. Indeed, the school has certainly received its fair share of playful scrutiny, not to mention outright derision from those with uptight, utilitarian oriented “Western” sensibilities. In the scheme of Newsweek or US News’ lists of the top 10 colleges, Naropa is a novel prospect at best. Yet it is the alternative, relatively unassuming character of Naropa that makes it so appealing; for 95% of the students it is their top choice. Junior Burke, the program director of the Jack Kerouac School, told me that although the University is evolving in many different directions, whatever happens he hopes that “it remains an alternative. Because I think there’s just precious few of those right now.” Today, for $20,738 a year, this now accredited university directly inducts its students into a lineage of some of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers and personalities through a blend of writing workshops and “contemplative education”. Conveniently


enough, Naropa’s online catalogue provides a very useful key with which to identify the diverse personalities that “flourish” there: The Artist, the Spiritual Seeker, The Activist, The Caregiver, The Bookworm, the Environmentalist, and of course, The Poet. “Editor of the literary magazine in high school, he carries a small notebook in his back pocket so he can jot down notes on life as it happens,” reads the token Poet’s bio. “He finds meaning in words wherever they appear and envisions rearranging words on billboards to turn corporate taglines into poetic ultimatums” ( These cute, supposedly relatable personalities are testament to Naropa’s categorization of individuality; they would make an amazing satire if they weren’t so real. As advertising techniques, these extremely specific, arbitrarily gendered profiles – “The Activist: A whiz with a protest sign and encyclopedic in her knowledge of injustice in daily life…The Artist: She’s been studying music since she got a guitar for her tenth birthday…The Caregiver: His empathy knows no bounds.” – all flatter the potential student’s sense of self-reliance. Rather than simply identifying with the aforementioned personalities, they actually strive to become them. The Naropa Catalogue, both paper and online incarnations, has traditionally been a huge selling point. Tom Peters describes pouring over his catalogue “the way old people used to look at cruise ship catalogues,” imagining the classes that would be taught to him by Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, and Anne Waldman. Marissa Gerson describes a similar experience, having received a “really cheesy brochure, with, like, butterflies all over it, about changing the world” in the mail after finishing her undergraduate degree at Washington University and thinking, “now’s my chance to go to the, like, hippie school!” Instead of beats, she was excited by a butterfly, and the implicit,


(perhaps explicit) promise of safety, diversity, and sensitivity. Whereas catalogues in the past relied on the appeal of their celebrity faculty, the marketing department’s new strategy is to appeal to the student’s own personality. The beat legacy, not to mention the ghostly specter of Trungpa, are acknowledged in passing, but the school seems to be making a conscious effort to divert their (until now) unflagging attention to these icons and move on to newer models. What is potentially radical about the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, is that they are still ostensibly teaching in an experimental, “counterpoetic” style – in the vein of Kerouac’s spontaneous poetics and the inflammatory, hysterical obscenity of Ginsberg’s “Howl” or Burrough’s Naked Lunch. The contradiction is, of course, that in institutionalizing rebellion, you effectively normalize it. Even in the early years, wasn’t Corso, Ginsberg, and Waldman’s so-called authoritative stance about what constituted “good writing” contingent, consciously or not, upon how closely they felt it was modeled it is after their own work? Even before Naropa had begun in 1974, the Beats’ experiments had already been appropriated “by everything from big-time television to Schrafft’s Ice Cream” (Reed 8). Added to the longstanding paradox of simply teaching creative writing, is the enterprise of teaching, or sustaining, a “Beatnik” lineage that also sustains innovation. And while that is a gross simplification of the program’s structure and ambitions, it seems safe to assume that some, if not many of the writing student body enrolled with a conscious or unconscious expectation that they would somehow be inducted into this club – what Bobbie Louise Hawkins described to me as “the Poetry Mafia.”


Almost every writing teacher I interviewed had had no formal training in creative writing – their credibility came from their involvement with the artistic scene in the 1970s, or, for younger faculty, from the quality of their own published writings. Certainly the fact that few of these teachers have had any formal training makes their knowledge more elusive and uncanny. Obviously these writers had the innate sense to pursue their passion head on, designing their own contemporary communities without the need for the psychological validation a degree might offer. During the production of Crazy Wisdom, I went through an enormous spectrum of opinions about Naropa. Sometimes I thought everyone there was insane, other times I respected them profoundly, and still other times I truly believed that they had reached another psychic level from the rest of society, and I envied them for that. There is so much value to what they do and discuss with one another, but depending on what context you decide to filter those discussions through, they can sound either ingenious or preposterous. It would be grossly unfair to judge the students that attend the school today by the actions of Trunga Rinpoche or Allen Ginsberg – many of them knew next to nothing about what had happened in the 1970s, which, though it often troubled me a little bit, only proved how little that history has to do with Naropa as it exists today. I could probably recite, verbatim, all of the interviews I conducted, and as a result I can honestly say that I’ve thought very deeply about the things that were said to me – maybe a little too much. It’s still incredible to me that they were so willing to discuss their lives and answer my intrusive and probably somewhat accusatory question about their supposed institutionalization of creativity. Their eloquence, hospitality, and spontaneity were enough to show me that for me to make overarching judgments and draw conclusions


about current students’ and teachers’ lifestyles and beliefs based on some arbitrary cultural critic’s contempt for Trungpa Rinpoche is not only ingenuous; it’s tactless. Naropa continues to evolve and grow as current students and faculty are build a new legacy for themselves. “You have to write your own history,” Steven Taylor recalled Allen Ginsberg saying to him: “no one’s gonna do it for you.”


Bibliography/Work Cited Dederer, Claire. “The Inner Scholar.” November 4, 2007. The New York Times. January 10, 2008. < 200&en=ba37b09a760380c7&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink>. Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Third Edition. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1981. Glass, Loren. Authors Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880-1980. New York: New York University Press, 2004. Johnson, Ronna C. and Nancy M. Grace, eds. Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002. Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: Warner Books, 1979. Marin, Peter. “Spiritual Disobedience.” 1979. Freedom and its Discontents: Reflections on Four Decades of American Moral Experience. New York: Steerforth Press, 1995. Naropa University Website. 2008. February 15, 2008. <>. Lloyd, Simon. “Naropa Institute Fonds.” The Shambhala Archives. <>. Reed, Ishmael. “American Poetry: A Buddhist Take-over?” Black American Literature Forum 12:1 (Spring 1978): 3-11. Siegel, Ben, ed. The American Writer and the University. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989. Slater, Philip. The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. Second Edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976. Trungpa, Chögyam. Chödzin, Sherah, ed. Illusion’s Game: The Life and Teachings of Naropa. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1994. Watts, Alan. “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen.” 1967. Chicago Review. Vol. 42, No. 3-4, 1996. 49-56. <>. Weinberger, Eliot. “The News from Naropa.” Works on Paper: Essays by Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions Books, 1986: 27-40.


Weinreich, Regina. The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.


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