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Point and click:
Icons in the window to the ancestral manse
first experience of lysergic acid, in the summer of 1965, conjured an archetypal
vision that illuminated both my past history and my future development.
was twenty, a student at Bennington College in Vermont, and had decided to
travel out West to the now-celebrated Berkeley Poetry Conference. A great number
of poets I refer to as "the outrider tradition"
‑- major visionaries and mavericks, including Charles Olson, Robert
Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Allen Ginsberg ‑- were gathering to hold
panels, present their work in public readings, and interact with students and
passionate readers of poetry. The atmosphere surrounding the event was highly
charged and magical. The Conference was a major congregation for disparate avant
garde literary artists – including the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance,
the New York School, and Black Mountain – to come together and feed off of
each other’s energy. The aggregate voltage of their nexus sent shock waves
through the literary establishment.
who convened at Berkeley were poets and writers in the prophetic tradition, many
of whom were experimenting with psychedelics. There was a legend about the night
when Charles Olson, who’d been head of the Black Mountain College, gave a very
shamanic poetry reading during which he literally came apart on stage. The story
was that he’d taken some psychedelic the week before and it had had this
effect on him. His wife had just died. On acid, as I would soon learn myself,
things come apart and then reforge.
had friends at Harvard who were involved in some of Leary and Alpert's early
acid experiments and turning towards the Dharma. Poetry and Buddhism both
stretched one's sense of relative and absolute reality and challenged the status
quo, as well as one's own habitual patterns. Things were never what they
"seemed." How could they be?
drove out West with my brother and a Bennington friend. The journey itself was
mind expanding, as it was my first American sojourn beyond the confines of the
restrictive intellectual mentality of the East Coast, the sort of elitism that
harks back to Europe as a reference point for everything of consequence. Now I
was headed towards the Orient! It was the proverbial "other" for me:
the wild, unknown, and uncharted, where anything was possible. The landscapes
and the continent’s span were formidable, breathtaking, majestic. I had no
idea how liberating – both metaphysically and symbolically ‑‑ this
venture was to be.
high-school buddy of mine, Jonathan Cott, now a well‑known writer,
provided some hospitality on our arrival and hooked us up with other
like‑minded friends of his. He was attending Berkeley and involved in the
Free Speech Movement and other on-the-edge endeavors. The people we met were
friendly, excited, talkative and expansively open -- and just getting
"into" LSD, which did not yet have the cloud of legal proscription
hanging over it. We were lighthearted, not just soulful and pious, but we
carried along a copy of Leary's book based on The
Tibetan Book of the Dead as a safety measure.
few of us stayed on Nob Hill in the apartment of a well‑heeled friend,
which was spare and elegant and surrounded by an attractive landscaped yard. The
irony of the night we dropped the potion was that we couldn't get across the
bridge back to Berkeley for Allen Ginsberg's poetry reading, which promised to
be one of the high points of the conference. Yet the sense of simultaneity and
concentric worlds was strong. I instantly gravitated toward and bonded with a
new friend, poet Lewis Warsh.
the core of the trip was a very elaborate panoramic vision which inhabits and
informs my genetic makeup still, a vision I return to in Buddhist practice and
in dreams, which provides a kind of mental fortitude against the icy, sterile
void. I visualized, witnessed, and encountered every person I'd ever known, even
some with whom I’d had only remote contact, in a sort of rainbow gathering or
holy convocation that brought the various strands of my own personal world
together. I was the thread through which these folk gathered, which, in turn,
conjured great responsibility for me, of care, attendance and witness. I felt a
duty to these sentient beings I'd been touched by or touched. The vision was not
just a tableau, but interactive. When I looked at all these creatures, they
returned the gaze and communicated in a new way to me.
the lineages I could conjure were present: all the grandparents, siblings,
offspring, extended family members, lovers, friends, teachers, and parents and
relatives of friends. Every contact in my life was there, glowing, yearning, and
empty, looking with curiosity toward the vast unknown void. Everyone I'd known
since birth appeared, even the scoundrels and the family skeletons. I felt older
than my years during this vision, and younger too, as if I'd lived countless
lifetimes before and after relative "birth." There were some
unfamiliar faces that manifested, but they were presences I trusted and somehow,
intrinsically, knew. I underwent a series of brief encounters with other living,
breathing "hairy bags of water" that locked me into a net of
interconnectedness. All these beings were related through their touching my
life, forming a shimmering Indra's Net, an endless web of relationship between
karmas, between people and animals and everything else that moves and breathes
in our pulsing, expansive universe. The Buddhist term for it is pratitya-samutpada.
visions arrived with closed eyes. I knew enough to just sit still throughout the
entire chimera. I needed to be alone for this part of the trip, though some
passages were too powerful, those with a “low ego threshold,” which were
capable of sucking my entire being through their own void. There was some panic when I thought of pain I’d caused to
others. I had overwhelming feelings of guilt towards those with whom I’d had
unfinished business, conversations and tendernesses never actualized. I was
weeping during some of the encounters.
saw my grandfather, a taciturn, soft-spoken man, a glassblower by trade, who’d
died when I was five years old. There he was alive, luminous, sitting in a
wooden lawn-chair with peeling paint, beside Union Lake in south Jersey, asking
me to sit in his lap. Years later, I worked with letters he wrote to my
grandmother in the early decades of the century, incorporating them into my long
epic poem Iovis, which takes on male
energy in its various guises.
was like a computer screen on which you can click on an image or word and it
expands endlessly with infinite associations. I saw each person as an infant and
in all his or her aspects. I felt very tender and open hearted toward them. Each
face prompted a feeling of great love – and also accountability, as though I
might wake up and want to call or write to those I’d fallen out of touch with,
to reconnect, even beyond the grave. All the beings I conjured wanted to be
happy. They all wanted to be liberated from Samsara. In every one of these
instances, especially when there was a high level of power in the relationship,
it led to something, a deeper understanding of our vulnerability. This
pulsating, palpable vision had a sort of archetypal or mythic quality, like the
peaceable kingdom or Noah’s Ark. It was a paradigm for a vow that was
uncannily recapitulated when I first took Tibetan Buddhist "refuge
early Buddhist practice you become a refugee. You've given up all hope of
salvation. Nothing out there but your own mind (which can be anywhere) is going
to save you. You take a vow to perform a certain number of practices, that you
will give your body, speech and mind to the endeavor. You’re also taking a vow
toward egolessness, so it’s not just “you” up against the whole world. You
take the bodhisattva vow that you will work tirelessly for the benefit of all
sentient beings who were once your very own parents. This is beyond "idiot
compassion,” where anything goes. In fact, you must often be fierce with
people, with friends, with family. It's a deep commitment to unsentimental
honesty and work.
Tree of Life is central to this vow. You begin with a visualization of this Tree
to which you make your first prostration, which is really to your own luminous
mind -- not to some external godhead, Buddha or other figure. You, in effect, are
a tree, a part of that which holds every branch of life. You even visualize your
own worst enemy. By necessity, that too must be included in the sacred vow to
liberate all sentient beings.
was as though my acid vision of the Tree was a sort of preliminary training for
this commitment. So many moments of this first trip were like runes or seed
syllables that would come to fruition later. Worlds were dissolving and
reconstituting, moment to moment. The Dharmic axiom was in full sensory flower:
Nothing is solid. You are impermanent. Life is precious. You can't hold on. You
will die. You are connected up with everything that breathes ‑- the trees
and the birds and the fish and so on, not to mention the inanimate beauties.
Thought forms evolve upon thought forms, endless concentric wheels of
aspiration. I was shivering as
the terms of the refugee vow were inscribed in my psyche, because they resonated
so closely to the acid vision, which itself felt revelatory at the time. The
Buddhist vow was a confirmation and gave direction to the molecular thrust of
that initial vision.
my vision played itself out, we all went rambling about in the mythical city of
seven hills until we came to water, a stream in a nearby park. We folded and
crumbled into the earth and into each other’s bodies and minds. We were
speechless and then defending our very existence out on a battlefield of life
and death proportions. Words hung in the air. Time stood still. Infinities
passed. And then a word or thought could take us into a next universe.
believed, in spite of the Holocaust, the war raging in Vietnam, the suffering of
people everywhere, that life was basically good. That belief was unconditional.
It didn't depend on semblances of “good” and “bad.” The darkness was
someone else's evil version of reality, not reality itself. Nothing was that
solid or insurmountable. The destruction was, in nature, organic; in humans,
psychotic -- the underpinning of the lords of materialism, of ego, of greed. We
were changed forever, because we were experiencing these inspiring truths. And
we could laugh at ourselves as well, as we saw through our various ego-trips and
guises. Lewis said I looked like Christ, then saw me mutate through all stages
of human and animal existence, from infancy to old age, howling as an embryo,
then as a babe, and finally wretching as an old crone.
attempted to cross the Bay Bridge to get to the conference, but our bodies were
on another vector, dissolving into currents where the physical barriers were
cumbersome. Why walk when you could fly without a body? On the other hand, one
could be a lowly worm and sink into the ground to get to where one needed to be.
Humble like the dust, exalted through the possession of indomitable powers -- we
flashed through these psychical phases – and all the stations in between -- at
speeds of light.
vision of a great gathering or pow‑wow within my own being had implanted a
root of the divine universal Tree. The most immediate branch I extended was to
the comrades with whom I’d traveled that night. I saw that we were part of an
enormous sinewy archetype, a monstrous rooted and branching phenomenon, the
primordial life force. I could see the buds opening constantly to new existences
and whole colorful worlds. We were in it for the long run, the whole ride.
few weeks later, Lewis and I did some Owsley acid in Mexico. Neither of us were
twenty-one yet, so we had to borrow IDs from people older than us to get over
the border. We had limited resources, staying in a run-down hotel in a red light
district, living off of saltines and peanut butter. The place had cockroaches, a
bare lightbulb and bright, ultramarine walls, which were pulsated wildly.
Suddenly, the place was shaking, I thought, a function of our own minds and this
fabulous drug. We felt we were experiencing the subterranean Aztec, ur-civilization
energy, the volcanic aspirations and violence of primordial Mexico. It was
hilarious to read in the paper the next day that there’d been an earthquake
and people were evacuating town.
and I were later to marry, in 1967, and although the marriage didn't survive,
we’ve remained close friends and artistic collaborators on many projects. Our
offspring ‑- his three and my one -- are warmly acquainted. I would posit
that this intensified connection through LSD at the advent of our relationship
resulted in a permanent bond that has transcended certain
all‑too‑familiar pitfalls of dissolution, neurotic anger, and
I almost always did
psychedelics as a sacred ritual. Once, when Bill Burroughs Jr. was lying in a
coma, a group of us went out and ingested peyote in the mountains as a kind of
healing rite. He did come out of the coma. Not that we had anything to do with
it, but the fact that everyone was working with this intent helped us all.
My perspective now is that my first LSD experience was a partial
blueprint or paradigm for the actions and karma of my life so far. Not that I've
been saintly or holier than anybody else. The inspiration from that first vision
– and its fantastic and historic milieu -- did much to forge my commitment to sangha,
community, both Buddhist and poetic.
has been borne out in my web of folk increasing a thousandfold through the
activities of the St. Mark's Poetry Project, the Kerouac School at Naropa,
through travels to Indonesia, India, Italy, Austria, and other "tours of
duty," and through poetry and political events and convocations all over
the world. That commitment also brought my life intimate with the activities and
life of Allen Ginsberg, dear mentor and friend, also an "activity demon,”
whose historic reading I missed that same fateful night I was summoned to sacred
primordial vision, so seminal to my life and work.