"On a Confrontation at a Buddhist Seminary": Naropa, Guru Devotion, and a Poetics of Resistance

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I. "You go against the grain for the benefit of others"

Radical individualism, autonomy, candor, and populism are crucial to Naropa University's experimental tradition and to its influence on Beat Generation literature. Naropa, of course, offered for Beat writers a site of resistance from which experiments in subjectivity and avant-garde writing could be practiced. Yet Naropa's influence on Beat poetics draws from two contradictory categories of understanding: the neo-Romanticist urgency of the unfettered imagination and, in contrast, the obedience and containment required by guru devotion, one of the core doctrinal principles of Vajrayana Buddhism, the mode of Buddhism that was taught and practiced by Naropa's founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whose students included Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, co-founders of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Beat writing is, as Waldman has often described Naropa's lineage, an "outrider" practice. "The Outrider," she writes, "rides the edge-parallel to the mainstream, is the shadow to the mainstream, is the consciousness or soul of the mainstream, whether it recognizes its existence or not. It cannot be co-opted, it cannot be bought" ('"Premises'" 185). Waldman sketches a conception of the outrider in her 1994 poem "Oppositional Poetics" that is indebted to Vajrayana Buddhist teachings on altruism: she maintains that oppositional poetics is a "spiritual poetics" [emphasis Waldman]; the poet-prophet writes "against the grain for the benefit of others," and the result is poetry that documents "history's revision from a people's point of view" (Kill or Cure 109). As the first accredited Buddhist academic institution in the United States, Naropa is a significant institutional site for this spiritualized outrider practice. For nearly four decades, Naropa has provided an institutional location for experimental practice while actively working to avoid the cooptation of such practice by the literary marketplace.

Yet, as this essay will discuss, Beat oppositional poetics associated with Naropa struggled to evade cooptation by the same Vajrayana Buddhist ideals that authorized it. Erica Hunt emphasizes the internal pressures of literary cooptation in her essay "Notes on An Oppositional Poetics" from Charles Bernstein's important anthology, The Politics of Poetic Form, arguing that "literature in this culture appears a fragmented professional specialty; oppositional writing tends to be the object of the practices it protests, its social demands illegible in print" (203). Hunt's definition of "oppositional" in her essay encompasses what Naropa's outrider tradition embraces, especially, as she describes it, "dissident cultures," and "'marginalized' cultures cutting across class, race, and gender" (198). Our conventional understanding of Naropa's history suggests, rightly so, that it is an institution where the "fragmented professional specialty" of a university-based creative writing program nevertheless makes oppositional writing legible and, hence, relevant. Still, this essay lingers on a contradiction at the heart of Naropa's influence as a Buddhist institution on Beat writing: the potential for the Vajrayana doctrine of guru devotion to make "illegible," as Hunt might phrase it, the "social demands" of Beat oppositional poetics.

Pointing up a potential contradiction between theory and practice-in this case, between the Beat outrider tradition and the practice of guru devotion-is not new to the study of poetics, of course. I do not frame my argument with this contradiction in order to suggest that poetry demands consistent application of poetics. Indeed, taking a closer look at the relationship between poetry and poetics, quite the opposite is true-contradiction is the norm. From Plato's richly metaphoric exiling of poets for their practice of metaphor, through Wordsworth's defense of common language in elevated diction, through Eliot's embrace of an expansive tradition that, after all, is only Western and male, poetics is a field of study that almost seems predicated on contradiction. …