When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the Zen proverb, and for many it may be true. In my case, however, I was neither ready nor expectant. And my first guide on the path of meditation was an unlikely candidate for the position.
Allen Ginsberg visited Alfred University in October 1978. It was a relatively tranquil time, especially when contrasted with our present era. A few weeks earlier, the Camp David Accords had been signed under the watchful eye of President Jimmy Carter. In Western New York the fall colors were at their peak.
In my personal life, a kindred stability prevailed, however illusory it would prove to be. I was then a young associate professor of English, newly tenured and recently returned from a sabbatical in Cambridge, England. A budding Anglophile, I sported a Harris tweed jacket and smoked a meerschaum pipe (though I did not inhale). In matters personal as well as professional, I cultivated a decorous reserve.
Perhaps Allen Ginsberg sensed as much when I met him at the Elmira airport. He arrived in the company of Peter Orlovsky, his ruggedly handsome companion. Ginsberg was then in his early fifties, and next to the athletic Orlovsky he looked rather sedentary, though comfortable in his casual attire, a purple handbag over his shoulder. He wore thick glasses and a salt-and-pepper beard.
“Why did you invite me?” he asked, as we walked to the luggage carousel.
The question caught me off-guard. “Well, because . . . I respect your work,” I replied.
That was hardly the warmest response I might have mustered, but at least it was honest. As a literary specialist, I appreciated the importance of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” in reshaping the landscape of American poetry. And as the director of the university’s Visiting Writers series, I had indeed invited Ginsberg to our community. But at the time I gravitated toward the traditional rather than the avant-garde in contemporary verse, and though I admired the lapidary poems of Gary Snyder, I had little time for the Beat writers or their theory of spontaneous composition (“First thought, best thought”). And had I been asked, I would have expressed more tolerance than enthusiasm for Ginsberg’s celebrated persona—that of the disruptive, unruly political radical.
Yet, over the next three days, my narrow perceptions would widen, my prejudices dissolve. During his three-day residency, Ginsberg gave an exuberant reading (where he recited the entirety of “Howl”), delivered a scholarly lecture on modernist poetics, engaged in lively conversations with students, and joined my first wife and me for dinner at our wood-heated farmhouse. A generous, sweet-tempered man, he treated everyone with courtesy and respect, and he seemed more interested in looking and listening than in expounding his opinions. “What is that bush called?” he asked me, noticing the red-leaved sumac along Elm Valley Road. “A work of art,” he remarked while viewing our fuel supply: twenty face cords of firewood, split and neatly stacked.
In one of our conversations, the subject of meditation came up, and when a few of us expressed an interest, Ginsberg offered to teach us how to sit. We agreed to meet the following morning in the Octagon (c. 1850), a village landmark, where a colleague had set up house.
In accordance with beliefs current at the time of its construction, the Octagon contained no square corners where the Devil could hide. Spiders and dust balls, yes, but devils, no. In that improbable setting, we novices received basic instruction in sitting meditation. Keep your eyes half-open. Let your breath go out to the objects in the room. On your in-breath, take a vacation. We sat for perhaps a half hour, after which our teacher gave an impromptu talk on the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness. Picture a bare branch against the sky, he told us. See it in its suchness, void of any meanings we might attach to it.
Ginsberg left the next day, and I never saw him again, though he later sent me the typescripts of two poems written during his visit. Nonetheless, that visit had made an indelible impression. For all my innocence of Buddhist meditation, I had felt the groundedness of Ginsberg’s posture, the solidity of his practice, and the uncommon clarity of his thought. In the months to come I would have need of those qualities, as long-standing marital issues came to a head and precipitated an emotional crisis. And over the next two decades, a journey that began in the Octagon would lead to annual retreats with the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, residencies at meditative centers in England, Ireland, and North America, and, in November 2002, to the taking of vows and precepts at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, confirming my commitment to Zen practice. For guidance along the way, I have many people to thank, but no one more than my first, unexpected teacher.
An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Buddhadharma (Summer 2008).
Photo of Allen Ginsberg by Elsa Dorfman.