When I was 19, I took a course in the history of the Beat Generation from Allen Ginsberg at Naropa, a school in Colorado founded by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. One day Allen asked the class, "How many people have taken meditation instruction?" Only a few students raised their hands. "Aww," he groaned to those who hadn't, "you're all amateurs in a professional universe!"
Allen's notion of being a professional in a professional universe had nothing to do with accomplishments, fame, or credentials. By the time I met him, he had already written most of his major poems ("Howl" and "Kaddish" were two decades behind him, the magnificent sad poems of White Shroud were still ahead), and he was weary of his own public schtick, though still appreciative of how being famous could inspire sweet, bright young men to share his bed with him. What I think Allen meant was more like learning what's really at stake in being alive, and then taking responsibility for your own role in creating—or helping to relieve—the suffering of your fellow sentient beings. No flake-outs, no neurotic freakouts, no excuses. Own your own shit, your own fraud—and then work hard. "And what's the Work?" he once asked in a poem. "To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumbshow."
Professionals know the rules, and in this universe, the first rule (the "first noble truth" of Buddhism) is that life hurts. Your herculean labors come to nada, your former friend tells you to fuck off, you get cancer—at the least, you catch yourself in the mirror and realize that you look like every other old person you've ever seen. So what do you do? You realize that everyone is in the same boat, and then start rowing. But what if it's hopeless? No "what if"—it's hopeless. Gradually or suddenly, you will lose the things, people, and places you love most. And then you row anyway, because in some profound way, all these "others" are you.
Allen got sweeter in his last decade in part because he grew to accept the inevitability of death, both through his Buddhist practice and through close observation of particulars, as the world he grew up in disappeared. The way that famous Allen Ginsberg matured to become more kind (even behind the scenes) was another huge lesson for me. Death is very good at what it does, so we have to be equally good at what we do. I'd say that I miss Allen, and I do, but the gift he gave us is everywhere, right now. Are you breathing? There's still time.
-- Steve Silberman
Visit pattismith.net, where this was originally commissioned as part of Patti's Souvenance series.