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Lions Roar : March 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2009 69 For 30 Years the Best of Buddhism in America: Memoir save mankind. It was a naive bodhisattva’s vow out of fear of not getting into Columbia. Around the time I got into school, I ran into William Bur- roughs and Lucian Carr and Jack Kerouac. We became friends. Our conversation between 1945 and 1948 was recollections of our own childhood inklings, including the big question, “How big was the universe?” I think Kerouac and I had a sense of panoramic awareness of the vastness of space. So the question, how big was the “unborn,” arose. Or, how vast was the space we were in, and what was the mystery of the universe? That led to a lot of conversations and inquiries with mari- juana and wandering around the city considering the look of the buildings and the appearance of the facades of Times Square, particularly. Times Square seen as a stage set with a facade that could vanish at any second. That impression of the apparent ma- terial of the universe as “real,” but at the same time “unreal” in some way or other, either because we were high, or because time would dissolve the “seen,” or maybe some trick of the eyeball re- veals the “facade” as empty. So we began talking about what in 1945 we called a New Con- sciousness, or a New Vision. As most young people probably do, at the age of fifteen to nineteen, whether it’s punk or bohemia or grunge or whatever new vision adolescents have, there is always some kind of striving for understanding and transformation of the universe, according to one’s own subjective, poetic, genera- tional inspiration. That led to an exploration of the otherwise rejected world of junkies around Times Square and the underworld. The world of drugs—which had a slight effect in transforming conscious- ness or altering moods and was presumed to be a kind of artistic specimen trial—I found quite harmless and useful as an educa- tional experience, though some of my contemporaries did get hung up, like Burroughs—although the main problem seemed to be alcohol more than any other. IN 1948 I HAd some kind of break in the normal modality of my consciousness. While alone living a relatively solitary vege- tarian contemplative life, reading St. John of the Cross, Plotinus, some notions of “alone with the Alone,” or “one hand clapping,” or The Cloud of Unknowing, or Plato’s Phaedrus, and William Blake, I had what was, for me, an extraordinary break in the nor- mal nature of my thought when something opened up. I had finished masturbating, actually, on the sixth floor of a Harlem tenement on 121st Street looking out at the roofs while reading Blake, back and forth, and suddenly had a kind of audi- tory hallucination, hearing Blake—what I thought was his voice, very deep, earthen tone, not very far from my own mature tone of voice, so perhaps a projection of my own latent physiology— reciting a poem called “Sunflower,” which I thought expressed some kind of universal longing for union with some infinite na- ture. The poem goes: Ah, Sun-flower, weary of time, Who countest the steps of the Sun, Seeking after that sweet golden clime Where the traveller’s journey is done: Where the Youth pined away with desire, And the pale Virgin shrouded within snow Arise from their graves, and aspire Where my Sun-flower wishes to go. I can’t interpret it exactly now, but the impression that I had at the time was of some infinite yearning for the infinite, finally realized, and I looked out the window and began to notice the extraordinary detail of intelligent labor that had gone into the making of the rooftop cornices of the Harlem buildings. I sud- denly realized that the world was, in a sense, not dead matter but an increment or deposit of living intelligence and action and activity that finally took form—the Italian laborers of 1890 and 1910, making very fine copper work and roofcomb ornament as you find along the older tenement apartment buildings. As I looked at the sky, I wondered what kind of intelligence had made that vastness, or what was the nature of the intelli- gence that I was glimpsing, and felt a sense of vastness and of coming home to space I hadn’t realized was there before but which seemed old and infinite, like the Ancient of days, so to speak. But I had no training in anything but Western notions and didn’t know how to find a vocabulary for the experience. So I thought I had seen “God” or “Light” or some Western notion of a theistic center, or that was the impression at the time. That got me into lots of trouble, because I tried to explain it to people and nobody could figure out what I was saying. They thought I was nuts, and in a way, I was. Having no background and no preparation, I didn’t know how to ground the experience in any way that either could prolong it or put it in its place, and