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Buddhadharma : Summer 2008
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 8 96 Journeys my unexpected teacher By Ben Howard mikeholmes When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the Buddhist proverb, and for many it may be true. In my case, however, I was neither ready nor expectant. And my first Buddhist teacher was an unlikely candi- date for the position. Allen Ginsberg visited Alfred Univer- sity in October, 1978. It was a relatively tranquil time, especially when contrasted with our present era. Just 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. My first wife and I were living in a rundown farmhouse, companioned by a hundred unused acres and a slow-running stream. And though our marriage stood on the verge of dissolution, with the wel- fare of our two-year-old son hanging in the balance, we hardly knew it at the time. I was already a tenured professor of English, and my first collection of poems was soon to appear. Recently returned from a sabbatical in Cambridge, England, I wore a Harris Tweed jacket and smoked a meerschaum pipe. In personal encoun- ters, I cultivated a decorous reserve. Perhaps Allen Ginsberg sensed as much when I met him at the Elmira air- port. He arrived in the company of Peter Orlovsky, his ruggedly handsome lover. Allen was then in his early fifties, and next to Peter he looked rather sedentary, though comfortable in his casual attire, his purple handbag over his shoulder. “Why did you invite me?” he asked, as we walked to the luggage carousel. “Well, because...I respect your work,” I mumbled, caught off guard by the question. Abrupt though it was, Allen’s question was apt, and though my response must have seemed rather tepid, it was honest enough. As a literary specialist, I appre- ciated the importance of Allen’s poem “Howl” in reshaping the landscape of American poetry, though at the time I pre- ferred the “cooked” (Lowell, Frost, Ran- som) to the “raw” (Corso, Ferlinghetti) in contemporary verse. I admired the lapidary poems of Gary Snyder, but I had little time for the Beat writers or their the- ory of spontaneous composition (“First thought, best thought”). And had I been asked, I would have expressed more tol- erance than enthusiasm for Allen’s cele- brated persona—that of the locquacious, unruly political radical. Yet over the next few days, my narrow perceptions would widen, my prejudices dissolve. During his three-day residency, Allen gave an exuberant reading (where he chanted William Blake’s “The Lamb” and read the entirety of “Howl”), deliv- ered a scholarly lecture on modernist poetics, engaged in freewheeling dia- logues with students, and joined a group of us for dinner at our wood-heated farm- house. 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 views. “What is that bush called?” he asked me, noticing the red-leaved sumac along the road. In one of our conversations the subject of meditation came up, and when a few of us showed an interest, Allen offered to teach us how to sit. We agreed to meet the following morning in the Octagon, a village landmark where a friend and col- league, the painter Daniel Davidson, had set up house. In accordance with the beliefs of its builders, the Octagon contained no right- angled corners where the Devil could hide. Spiders and dustballs, yes, but devils, no. In that improbable setting, Dan and I, together with Peter and a handful of stu- dents, 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 vaca- tion. We sat for perhaps a half hour, after which Allen gave an impromptu talk on the theme 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. Allen left the next day and I never saw him again, though he later sent me two poems that he had written during his stay. Nonetheless, his visit had made an indel- ible and generative impression. For all my innocence of Buddhist meditation, I had felt the groundedness of Allen’s posture and the solidity of his practice, and I had noted the clarity of his thought. In the months to come, I would have urgent need of those qualities as my marriage fell apart, and a sense of security gave way to radical uncertainty. And over the next thirty years, a journey that began in the Octagon would lead to a stint at an ashram, weeklong retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh, and, in November, 2002, to the taking of the jukai precepts at Dai Bosatsu Zendo. For guidance along the way, I have many people to thank, but no one more than my first, unexpected teacher. Ben Howard is a poet and professor emeritus of english at alfred University in alfred, new York. He is a longtime practitioner of Zen and Vipassana.