Ellen Pearlman is currently working on a history Buddhism’s influence on the American avant garde & her lunch with Mihoko is a result of some of that research as well as of course her own curiosity.
The following article originally appeared in American Buddhism as a Way of Life, recently published by SUNY Press.
Allen Ginsberg lay in a coma, dying. An oxygen tube laced across his nose as he tossed and turned against his portable hospital bed. Sitting beside him that early April night, I held his cool, surprisingly delicate hand and meditated with him despite his coma. I breathed in, and he breathed in then breathed out. Both of us became one breath of bare attention. Suddenly, as if distracted by a thought, he tossed and turned, like a balloon trying to break its tether. His bed in his East Village apartment was placed to face the traffic below. Buses swooshed by, horns blasted, and the soft tching tching of delivery boys’ bicycle bells clanged as they wove their way through traffic. Friends, relatives, and former lovers — some famous, some not — came and went. Off to one side of the room sat Gelek Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama, with three other monks performing pujas and prayers. I served them tea, then sat down among them to practice.
Two hours later Allen was dead of a massive heart attack.
It seemed as if a linchpin of the universe had been removed, and the firmament shifted. An ancestor, a keeper of the flame of knowledge — at least for me and others of my generation — was extinguished. It wasn’t only Allen who had died. It was also the first wave of those who had discovered and engraved Buddhism into the New York avant garde. John Cage had died a few years previously; William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Jackson Mac Low, Nam June Paik, and others would soon follow.
As I grieved, I thought about how Allen and I, both agnostic Jews from Eastern Europe, became Buddhists. What forces had shaped our commitment? In my 20’s I was part of, depending how you looked at it, a second wave of Buddhist transmission to America: Allen had been one of the first who went to the East to study with revered Buddhist masters. In New York, I knew increasing numbers of artists developing Buddhist inclinations. In Boston, I had walked into Memorial Church at Harvard University and was engulfed by a Philip Glass’s opera, Einstein on the Beach. The music’s repetitive, pounding, varied tempo was a representation of exactly what I had experienced during meditation retreats. I found this same sensibility in the work of other artists, in readings by the poets Anne Waldman and Patti Smith, and at John Cage concerts at the Museum of Modern Art. But to most people in the art world, Buddhism was just a buzz word. I interviewed many people in the New York creative world and practically all roads, without exception, led back to the Japanese scholar, Dr. D.T. Suzuki. Everyone, it seemed, had read him, especially in the l940s and 1950s, before ordained Buddhist teachers were readily available in the West.