Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

When Hippies Battle: the Great W. S. Merwin/Allen Ginsberg Beef of 1975

By Levi Asher on Thursday, November 17, 2005 08:33 am


When I heard that W. S. Merwin had received the 2005 National Book Award for Poetry for his book Migrations, I couldn’t help but think back to the first time I’d heard his name. We don’t often hear stories about distinguished nature poets that involve fist fights, broken bottles and nudity, but W. S. Merwin was the center of an astonishing incident at a Tibetan Buddhist seminar that descended into just such debauchery. The controversy that followed has been largely forgotten, but it occupied the poetry community for several years in the late 70's, pulling the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, Kenneth Rexroth, Ed Sanders, Ed Dorn and Tom Clark into its vortex.

It all went down at a seminary associated with the Naropa Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist outpost in Boulder, Colorado, which hosts the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. The head of the Naropa Institute in 1975 was the charismatic teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whose most famous disciple was Allen Ginsberg. Because of Trungpa's exalted reputation, there was a waiting list for his interactive lectures and training sessions, and apparently W. S. Merwin pulled some strings (he was already at that time a well-connected poet) to get an invitation for himself and his girlfriend, Dana Naone.

It seems their desire for special treatment annoyed Trungpa (who had a reputation for unpredictable and impulsive behavior). Trungpa also seemed to bristle when Merwin and Naone expressed strong opinions about the content of the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist source materials, objecting especially to the bloody war imagery in some of the traditional Tibetan Vajrayana chants. Trungpa did not believe a trainee should talk back to a guru, even if the trainee was a celebrated poet.

The Naropa group threw a wild Halloween party, and Trungpa presented a twist: the poets, trainees and other attendants would celebrate Halloween not by putting on costumes but by being stripped of them. The guru, apparently drunk on some sort of spiritual libation that probably did not come from Tibet, walked around the party floor pointing at partygoers, and when he pointed at somebody his assistants would pounce on that person and strip off their clothing. “Chop them up,” he would say.

However, Merwin and Naone, having scoped out the scene, made the strategic decision to hide in their room. Trungpa noticed this and sent for them, but they refused to join. Trungpa then sent a larger contingent to retrieve them, this time with the message that they were ordered to join the party. Merwin and Naone, again, refused. At this point Trungpa declared to his faithful attendants that they must use whatever force was necessary to retrieve the wayward guests.

It may be difficult to picture a mob of half-naked, half-costumed hippie Buddhist poets forcing their way into another poet's private room by breaking windows and smashing down doors, but I urge you to picture this, because sources state this is exactly what happened. Apparently Merwin tried to pull a Clint Eastwood move by breaking a bottle and using the jagged remains as a weapon, and all accounts state that several of the scufflers ended up with bloody limbs (though, thankfully, there were no life-threatening injuries).

Finally, Merwin and Naone were dragged screaming and crying into the party, where Trungpa yelled at them, strangely singling out Naone, a Hawaiian, for failing to respect her Asian heritage by following his direction. At his command, the mob descended upon Merwin and Naone and removed their clothing, leaving them naked and sobbing in each other's arms in the middle of the room.

The story ends at this point, and the controversy begins. Naone had shouted for somebody to call the police during the horrific incident, but for some strange reason Merwin and Naone did not immediately leave the seminary grounds, choosing instead to stay several more days for Trungpa’s remaining lectures (which indicates that they were probably traumatized and humiliated beyond their better judgement at the time).

Slowly, other poets began to shout for justice, among them Robert Bly and Kenneth Rexroth, who called Trungpa an obscene fraud. The Naropa Institute's funding from several non-profit sources, including the USA's National Endowment for the Arts, was threatened. Allen Ginsberg had not been at the party, but as the spokesman for Naropa's poetry school, a well-known follower of Trungpa and everybody's good friend, he quickly became a central figure in the controversy.

Ginsberg was asked to repudiate Trungpa, his guru, and he would not do so. In various interviews, he repeatedly tried to find the words to defend his teacher's actions, and continued for years to try to walk the line between both sides in this difficult battle.

Trungpa's reputation never fully recovered from this debacle, though he remained active as a religious teacher and activist for Tibetan independence until his death in 1987. Dana Noane continued to write poetry, and edited a volume of modern Hawaiian poetry, Malama, in 1985.

Although the strange incident between Trungpa, Merwin and Naone was covered in Harper’s Magazine and The Paris Review and is discussed in Barry Miles' biography of Allen Ginsberg, the story has slipped from notice in recent years, despite W. S. Merwin’s rising stature as a major voice in American poetry has continued unabated.

Certainly both law and rationality side with Merwin and Naone in this battle, but it's a story that makes nobody look good. Merwin comes across as a Buddhist dilettante, pulling for special favors at a religious retreat, refusing to follow the teacher’s commands, and then failing to stand up to the teacher after the horrific treatment at the Halloween party. He made one public statement about the controversy in 1977:

My feelings about Trungpa have been mixed from the start. Admiration, throughout, for his remarkable gifts; and reservations, which developed into profound misgivings, concerning some of his uses of them. I imagine, at least, that I've learned some things from him (though maybe not all of them were the things I was 'supposed' to learn) and some through him, and I'm grateful to him for those. I wouldn't encourage anyone to become a student of his. I wish him well.

Merwin’s National Book Award honor in Manhattan came almost exactly thirty years after the Naropa bash that went out of control. According to all reports from the award ceremony, everyone’s clothes stayed on.
30 Responses to "When Hippies Battle: the Great W. S. Merwin/Allen Ginsberg Beef of 1975"

by Billectric on

my, my . . .Whoooooha, what a story!When will LitKicks have a similar jamboree?

by stevadore on

Bubble BoyThat was a fascinating account. I had never heard of it before - evidence of the bubble I live in!Funny, that if such a thing happened in 2005, nobody would even blink an eye.Just from reading your account one can see that the guru was a fraud -imagine a Buddhist using violence and coercion because he felt insulted! Whatever happened to self-control?

by Billectric on

Rocky Horror was that same yearThese events are not unlike the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was, in fact released in 1975. There must of been something in the air that year. I wonder if one event influenced the other.I also wonder is William S. Burroughs was present. I can just hear his deep, distinctive, drawl, "For heaven's sa-a-a-ake, W.S., just take off your pants and be done with it!"

by Rubiao on

FascinatingI lived in Boulder for 5 years, drove past the Naropa Institute often, but never heard that story. It is just a building on Arapahoe street not quite deserving of a stoplight, but with a conciliatory flashing yellow light suggesting caution. Boulder is a complete anomaly to small town life in that really strange things go on there with alarming frequency.

by deminizer on

ok....Here's an image I may never erase from the old membrane cache:"It may be slightly hard to picture a mob of half-naked, half-costumed hippie Buddhist poets forcing their way into another poet's private room by breaking windows and smashing down doors"Not like I had a shortage of disturbing images in there anyway, but thanks nonetheless...

by firecracker on

Ah, HippiesIt's like I can almost smell them now.

by montana on

MerwinTom Clark wrote a book, if i remember correctly, about this. It was an excellent account. I worked at Naropa a few years back. The few people who were around in '75 dismissed the controversy surrounding this night as a fight over funding and said it was overblown. Trungpa had a bad reputation in Boulder as unpredictable, often intoxicated and sometimes violent.

by brooklyn on

Well, I'm not going to try to justify Trungpa's actions, but I think the reasoning was along the lines of: "they wanted to be here, but they refused to surrender themselves to the experience. They needed to be rid of their inhibitions and petty objections." I think this might be why Allen Ginsberg and others didn't want to condemn the teacher's behavior -- they believed he was trying to deliver his teachings through these actions, and Merwin and Naone *had* come to receive his teachings.But, yeah, in the end, Stevadore, I agree with you and I think most Buddhists would as well. I think this guru had an off day.

by brooklyn on

Ha, funny ... (the Burroughs bit).I think one big difference between this incident and Rocky Horror Picture Show, though, is that in the end two aliens didn't come and shoot people with lasers and blast the whole place up into outer space.

by brooklyn on

... and this incident probably didn't help that reputation much!

by Billectric on

Reminds me of the Beatles' disillusionment with the Maharishi...

by Billectric on

that scene will haunt my dreams ...

by Billectric on

it's not like you've never been known to freak out the bourgeois, FC.

by Billectric on

probably had a head full of acid and a point to make...

by thsmiths on

GinsbergSounds like a genuine fiasco. This story reminded me of why I don't enjoy reading Ginsberg as much as I used to. I remember reading Howl and thinking, wow...i mean what can you say about Howl...its life changing. So I went out and bought the Big Red Book with like...every poem he ever jotted down in it pretty much, and ok...it was also very impressive. Although this is when I started liking big Al a little less...I knew he was gay, but some of his poems just seem written to offend the readers delicate "sensibilities" or whatever, which I resent a little, I mean, I just don't care how many cocks he sucked...anyway its pretty hard to turn the actual act of intercourse (gay or straight)into good poetry...in fact its damn near impossible. So anyhow while reading a book of his collected essays (still a big fan mind you)I stumbled onto a short essay in which he defends...outright defends...get ready...NAMBLA. I'm sure you all know what this is...the north american man/boy love association...a cozy little club for child pornographers and worse. So I was pretty taken aback by that, disappointed I guess. Anyhow it doesn't surprise me that Ginsberg wouldn't repudiate the actions of his mentor, even though what happened at that party seems pretty obviously morally wrong. I know Ginsberg was a man who truly did not believe in the traditional in any sense, but still some things are wrong, and for all his good intentions Ginsberg definitely had a couple blind spots. Maybe it was the drugs. Oh...sorry gotta go, my 8 year old dealer is here...maybe he wants some candy? Just kidding.

by judih. on

A Story for the TellingIt's one of those days where legends bump heads like crash cards in the night.Meanwhile, a quote from a brilliant blogger accompanies me through this article.Quote: "I've just come from the planet Ginsberg in the galaxy Shalom"Vaxen(blog location: Cyber-deck 13 the Planet Ginsberg where peace is the aim, no matter how many detours through the star warred bombardments.Duck, for the lightning bolts are ripping towards us as we speak.Thanks, Levi, for the story.

by Rubiao on

Call me innocent, but I thought NAMBLA was a joke made up by the creators of South Park. Ya learn something new every day...

by Billectric on

I know what you mean. I was making light of this story yesterday because, well, it seemed funny when I read it. But, yes, of course it was morally wrong to force people to disrobe if they didn't want to. Also, I've heard about Ginsberg defending NAMBLA before, and I didn't want to believe it, but apparently it's true. Someone on these boards suggested that Ginsberg was getting old and batty when he wrote that, but I don't know. He may have thought that sex is only harmful because of guilt, and if there were no guilt, then no one could be harmed from sex, not even children. I can't go along with that. To me, there just has to be an age below which a minor isn't mature enough to make the decision to have sex. Now the question is, where to draw the line? Sixteen? Eighteen? Fifteen? Is it different in different states? I'm just asking. I have no interest in having sex with anyone but my wife. Oh, but there was a time ... but nevermind.

by jamelah on

So then you almost smell patchouli?

by Billectric on

Ahhhh, patchouli - frankincense of freaks...earth mother mist...dope dog distractor...

by dealia on

We pretty much prefer Nag Champa now...better adjust your nasal cavities.

by Arcadia on

TrungpaI heard weird stories about Trungpa and also read his books. I like his books but I doubt I could stand him as a living teacher. I hate heavy jokes. I never read Merwin.

by Billectric on

Song of India

by Mark O. on

I have always wondered why Chogyam Trungpa was not a larger figure in Buddhism in general and literature in particular. See, his books are brilliant, they really are, his way of writing is astonishing, his Shambhala Warrior book and Meditation in Action and his translation and commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead are all incredibly lucid. From the account I just read I'd say that Trungpa was applying the aspect of 'wrath' to the situation. If you are familiar with Tibetan Buddhism you will understand that even the Buddha, the lord of compassion, has a wrathful aspect. That wrathful aspect is often called for in situations in which ego is at its strongest. To quote his translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the commentary anyway:"When you are involved in ego-manufactured situations of any kind, the actual reality of the nakedness of mind and the colorful aspect of emotions will wake you up, possibly in a very violent way, as a sudden accident or sudden chaos." I can see Merwin's behavior in that situation as being interpreted as 'ego-manufactured'. Wherever your emotional reaction to a situation is strongest there you will find ego exerting itself with the greatest force. Now, Trungpa and Buddhists in general, don't really believe in 'trauma' the way Westerners brought up in the Freudian tradition do. Since the ego is only a projection there is really nothing there to be traumatized -- that is the meaning of 'emptiness' that is ego lacks an 'independent being' and is therefore 'empty'. Being 'empty' the so-called trauma is really only the shocking experience of the ego's own figurative 'death'. But since something that is only a projection can't really 'die' there is nothing to mourn, no death to mourn. You are then suffering what the Dalai Lama has called the 'suffering of change' if not 'conditioned suffering' that is that your so-called traumatic suffering arises from your ego-conditioning, you know, 'If I am embarrassed like that I will just die!" The Dalai Lama wrote: "You are bound to find it (the emptiness of the phenomenal world) if you practice sincerely in your daily life, and particularly when you encounter a certain object that creates a strong emotion such as attachment or hatred, and is the face of strong ego."I think both parties suffered from strong ego in this situation, Trungpa resorting to wrath against practitioners who were most likely not sincere and Merwin who was obviously very afraid and had strong attachment to his ego position in literature. Chogyam Trungpa was one of many Tibetan Buddhist who we know only because of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. The monks and nuns in Tibet suffered terribly at the hands of the Chinese and so, here you are having survived and escaped a very violent situation you come to America where you come across all of these, what he calls 'Spiritual Materialists' who follow the spiritual path for gain in status and position and who use status and position for gain and access in spiritual and literary institutions. (See his book 'Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.) I'm sorry, but imagine yourself in that position -- what would you think of someone who cowered in their rooms to escape nakedness and slight embarrassment when you have just had to escape from the Chinese?

by Billectric on

Mark, this is good info. It adds another dimension to the subject, and it is interesting. Thanks.

by Arcadia on

thanks Mark.O for your post.I read the books you mentioned and I agree with you.I also read about crazy wisdom and ego thing.Interesting what you said about western conception of "trauma" and buddhism. All is illusion but there are bigger illusions than others a zen master once said ... It

by B. on

Mark,While I agree with most of what you stated in your comment, your last sentence contradicted almost the whole point of it:"I'm sorry, but imagine yourself in that position -- what would you think of someone who cowered in their rooms to escape nakedness and slight embarrassment when you have just had to escape from the Chinese?" Fundamental Buddhism teaches compassion and never does it force its enlightenment on others at its pace. One must come to it freely and on their own terms.That being said, I can imagine how pissed Trungpa must have been to have been insulted in that manner.

by Leung Shu Ren on

This is a fascinating incident and discussion. And, I am not a Buddhist. However, I lived for 9 years in Japan, and not all Zen schools and Buddhist sects are peaceful.The Soka Gakai buddhists practice a militant form of Rinzai Zen, and are quite rascist in their membership and often violent in their political proclamations. It is the Rinzai Zen philosophy which supported the Imperial Japanese Military in WWII.So I am not surprised by the actions of the Monk, but I am a little surprised that all the guests went along and broke the doors and windows, etc.Not quite Woodstock, eh?

by Mark O. on

B. -- I believe the paragraph above the one you quote, where I emphasize that both were having bouts with Ego, was meant to imply that Trungpa was perhaps in a situation that got out of his control. So the last paragraph is meant to possibly explain that. It was a very complicated situation. I can't say how I would have handled it. I think Trungpa might have been applying wrath to the situation and then it got out of hand. Here though, I think the point is that Merwin and anyone attending this event was supposed to be a practicing Buddhist of, I would imagine, Trungpa's lineage, the Kagyu Lineage. Pema Chodron, one of Trungpa's most well known students, wrote in her book Awakening Loving Kindness that in the Kagyu lineage there is a history of teachers behaving badly:"The Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, in which students of Chogyam Trungpa are trained, is sometimes called the 'mishap lineage' because of the ways in which the wise and venerated teachers of this lineage blew it time after time. First there was Tilopa, who was a madman, completely wild. His main student was Naropa who took ... twelve years of being put through all kinds of trials to wake up...His main student was Marpa, who was famous for his intensely bad temper. He used to fly into rages, beat people and yell at them. He was also a drunk...His student was Milarepa. Milarepa was a murderer! ... [H]e was afraid he would go to Hell for having murdered people -- that scared him."She goes on to write: "We could all take heart. These are the wise ones who sit in front of us, to whom we prostrate when we do prostrations. We can prostrate to them as an example of our own wisdom mind of enlightened beings, but perhaps it's also good to prostrate to them as confused, mixed-up people with a lot of 'neurosis', like ourselves. They are good examples of people who never gave up on themselves and were not afraid to be themselves, who therefore found their own genuine quality and their own true nature."Reading Trungpa you get the feeling that that's what he's after, that genuine quality of going with the flow of the situation and allowing your true nature to come to the fore -- or at least some aspect of it.

by Mark Szpakowski on

Just to clarify some of the details and context in this story... This event did not take place at Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO, but at the 3rd Vajradhatu Seminary in Snowmass, CO, in fall of 1975. This was a special 3-month period of intensive meditation practice and study of the 3 yanas of the Tibetan Buddhist path, to which you had to apply, and which required completion of a dathun (4 weeks of sitting practice all day long) and several years of connection with Trungpa Rinpoche and the community. When Merwin arrived at Naropa Institute that summer he was told by Allen Ginsberg that Seminary was where the real goods were. Though he had done none of the prep, Merwin immediately focussed on pulling all possible strings to get into Seminary, which he did, along with his girlfriend (no small feat considering that only a quarter of applicants were accepted).

The Halloween party was between the Mahayana and Vajrayana sections. You had to explicitly request to attend the Vajrayana portion, which is all about "samaya", devotion to the guru and to "things as they are", as Trungpa called it.

The party scene was nighmarishly intense, but also some kind of big symbol. Trungpa was one of the first to be stripped of his clothes. People were either in costume or naked, dancing to rock music, or watching something unfold.

The sufi saying about the elephant tamer comes to mind: if you invite him to your home, be sure to have room for the elephant.

"Love minus zero, no limit." Watch out!