Objectivist Doha: Riding Awareness-Breath’s Mindful Image & Spontaneous Insight. ~ Marc Olmsted

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on Feb 28, 2013
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Ordinary objects are manifestations of the most profound truth of ultimate reality itself.

Ineffable [blank]

Doha is Tibetan for spontaneous song

of realization

(which I have none—)

Gap between thoughts

Crack between worlds

space where you fall asleep

moon in the oil slick

dark tarry water

bardo: an inter state

dream of clear light

void of form

form is void

long deep black

hole baby

at the bottom

of the wheel well

Japanese ghost movie

red tails, lights receding

inky trees

cut out the stars

~ Marc Olmsted

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche requested the establishment of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and helped present a general curriculum at Naropa University that included Tibetan Buddhist doha or spontaneous songs of realization (such as those of eighth century ACE meditation master Milarepa) along with Beat poetry and its Objectivist roots, most directly William Carlos Williams. (“Objective” meaning like a snapshot, no relation to Ayn Rand’s “rationalist” philosophy.)

Dohas are still sung to this day, and as reliable as one might consider an oral tradition centuries old, they are shown to have melodies that predated the particular songs themselves, i.e., words were improvised within a traditional structure not unlike American blues.

In line with Buddhism’s First Noble Truth that suffering is everpresent, the blues are mostly sad. Milarepa, on the other hand, found the subject of liberation well worth rejoicing about, in a gospel sort of way.

In Jim Scott’s translation of Milarepa’s “Song of Mahamudra sung in reply to the challenge raised by three scholars,” we can see how this could lend itself to melody.

I rest relaxed in a free-from-wandering space

I rest in a clarity-cradled-in-emptiness space

I rest in awareness and this is blissful space

I rest unruffled in a non-conceptual space…

(Milarepa, 1993, 11)

Milarepa was known for meditating in caves wearing only a cotton shawl—as you can imagine these caves were pretty cold.

Mahamudra is Sanskrit for “Great Seal”—the stamp of Ultimate Truth. Milarepa was not just philosophizing, he embodied his poetry and his view of the world. But as Kerouac said in Big Sur, “… (and I’m no Milarepa who could also sit naked in the snow and was seen flying on one occasion).”(Kerouac, 1963, 99)

Not only was Milarepa regarded as a great saint, he was known as a great spontaneous poet who sang whatever came to mind.

Eventually, over the centuries, dohas were directly written down by the poet, referred to as songs, but the equivalent of lyrics.

An excellent mastery of these Tibetan “whisper transmissions” of the Karma Kagyu School can be found all the way to Trungpa himself.

Ginsberg describes his teacher Trungpa’s poetry in his introduction to Trungpa’s First Thought, Best Thought:

“The author is a reincarnated Tibetan Lama trained from age 2 in various ancient practices aimed at concentrating attention, focusing perception, minding thought-forms to transparency, profounding awareness, vasting consciousness, annihilating ego, & immolating ego-mind in phenomena: a wizard in control of day-dream, conscious visualization & thought projection, vocal sound vibration, outward application of insight, practice of natural virtues, and a very admiral of oceanic scholarship thereof.” (Trungpa, 2001, xii-xiii)

Besides teaching without translator, Trungpa as poet also wrote in English, creating a synthesis grounded in meditation practice, itself a lens for re-examining Beat poetry.

Ginsberg continues in his intro to Trungpa: “There follows a series of portraits-‘characters’ as T.S. Eliot termed certain of W.C. Williams’ poems on persons-thumbnail sketches of his students, their natures exposed to X-ray humorous advice—‘If you’re going to tickle me, be gentle… But titillating enough to stimulate my system with your feminine healthy shining well-trimmed nail just so …’” (Trungpa, 2001, xvi)

Here is an example of Trungpa’s English poetry.


Dragons thunder

Steeds gallop

Trees bow

Dharmic mind flashes.

In this world of awakened milk ocean

We enjoy the play of indestructible vajra dance.

Unshakeable throne

Gentle smile

Tender touch.

We accomplish the disciplines of the three yanas.

Welcome, welcome.

(Trungpa, 1979, unpublished)

An easy attempt at doha in American form is found in Allen Ginsberg himself, who began improvising with melodies just as Trungpa now was writing free verse.


Born in this world

You got to suffer

Everything changes

You got no soul

(Ginsberg, 2006, 649)

Ginsberg’s intro says: “…precise American style “red wheelbarrow” snapshots. “Skiing in a red & blue outfit, drinking cold beer,” etc. Thru these we see ordinary mind of the poet, whose specialty as Eastern Teacher is Ordinary Mind.” (Trungpa, 2001, xv)

Blow Your Mind

This phrase “ordinary mind” is tossed around frequently in Western Buddhism. But what does it mean?

“Ordinary mind” is a specifically Tibetan Buddhist phrase Trungpa popularized (tal mal, “ordinary”, sometimes translated as “simply”).(Mipham, 1993, 2)

The introductory style of meditation Trungpa recommended was very close to classical zazen sitting. The open-eyed, in the body stillness of that practice, was at times brutally boring, and, well, ordinary. It insists on acceptance of where one is, though the realization of “ordinary mind” is not classically regarded as boring or mundane, just uncontrived or unadorned.

Trungpa (and through him, Ginsberg and Anne Waldman) encouraged the simple observance of breath, mindfulness or shamatha (literally “calm abiding”) with open eyes, presenting the tools for mindful attention in writing (as in Williams’ dictum “no ideas but in things”). (Williams, 1991, 264) Amazingly, shamatha seems already there in Williams’ work.


I have had my dream—like others—

and it has come to nothing, so that

I remain now carelessly

with feet planted on the ground

and look up at the sky—

feeling my clothes about me,

the weight of my body in my shoes,

the rim of my hat, air passing in and out

at my nose—and decide to dream no more.

(Williams, 1991, 157)

The concurrent letting go of shamatha’s eventual raising of insight into the “transparency” or “emptiness” of a fixed reference point (“self”) suggest the spontaneity of Allen Ginsberg’s “surprise mind” and “first thought, best thought” slogans (the latter derived with Trungpa). (Gach, 1998, 197-198)

This calm abiding/insight (shamatha-vipashyana) is the ground for Kerouac’s dictum “Mind is shapely, art is shapely.” (Kerouac, 1992, ii)

Attention to the outbreath dissolving into space as well as the song origins of the doha also call new attention to Ginsberg’s notions of breath in relation to the origin, composition and recitation of poetry, his own “Whitmanic/Melvillean” breath, as well as his investigations into singing William Blake and blues-improvisation under tutelage of Postbeat minstrel Bob Dylan (his own work a self-regeneration of Beat themes).

Chogyam Trungpa himself put it, “Generally in the Buddhist tradition the first step is working with the breathing—not concentrating, not contemplating, but identifying with the breath. You are the technique; there is no difference between you and the technique at all…By doing that, at a certain stage the technique just falls away, becomes irrelevant. At that point, your practice of meditation is much more open to meditation in action, everyday situations.” (Trungpa, 2005, 54)

There is a very specific shift in Ginsberg’s approach once under Trungpa’s tutelage. There is no longer a pursuit of spiritual materialism, or using mystic exercises for ego’s reinforcing pleasure.

Specifically, Gordon Ball quotes Ginsberg later in 1988 about his famous Hindu-style chanting of “Om,” at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention protest police riots: “My guru, Tibetan Lama Chogyam Trungpa, suggested I try a different one…’Ah!’ Which is appreciation of the spaciousness around us. Chanting Om so aggressively didn’t intrigue people to enter that space, but probably just mystified them.” (Ball, 2011, 442)

In line with this appreciation of spaciousness, Trungpa Rinpoche suggested the standard breath meditation practice of “calm abiding” as a method to eventually slow down the strobing of thoughts to the point that the gap between them spontaneously stood out and revealed that there were “thoughts without a thinker,” as Mark Epstein titled his book on the practice, i.e., that there is no solid entity having these thoughts, which is the core illusion that causes suffering, the First Nobel Truth of Buddhism.

Chogyam Trungpa with Allen Ginsberg and his father, Louis GinsbergIn Ginsberg’s poetry, the formal training of “calm abiding” breath awareness—that he would later undertake with Trungpa Rinpoche—is presaged in the following passage from “From Haiku” written in 1955: “Lying on my side / in the void: / the breath in my nose. . . . (Ginsberg, 2006, 137)

It’s likely that Ginsberg recalled this expression from a December 1954 letter he received from Kerouac.

He quotes “Kerouac, Catholicism, Buddhism”: “… then you think, ‘there is breathing in, there is breathing out,’ and soon essential mind will begin to shine…” Ginsberg remarks further that when he later re-examined this letter, “I hadn’t realized but he [Kerouac] apparently has some idea of sitting, probably from reading.” (Waldman, 2009, 94)

Towards the end of his life, Ginsberg amassed a collection of simple slogans such as the previously mentioned “first thought, best thought,” following the tradition of a particular branch of mind training that Trungpa encouraged, where slogans such as, “Drive all blames into one” (i.e. ego) were memorized as one handy method to disentangle confused mind. (Trungpa, 1993, 76)

Ginsberg published “Mind Writing Slogans” in Gary Gach’s What Book?! (Gach, ibid)—the only primary text where they appear. Ginsberg organized these slogans according to a traditional exposition of meditation. Ground, Path, and Fruit—or Basis, Method and Accomplishment.

“Mind Writing Slogans” examined the original intuitions of writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg, as well as Williams himself. They also provided a means, besides sitting practice itself, to teach his poetry students.

Using these slogans in the context of meditation practice, Ginsberg taught and generated a tradition of PostBeat, instructing both Beat and doha, and ways in which the two mingled in the later poetic work of Trungpa and Ginsberg.

“Observe what’s vivid.” ~ Allen Ginsberg

“Don’t think of words when you stop but to see the picture better.” ~ Jack Kerouac

“Spiritus = Breathing = Inspiration = Unobstructed Breath” ~ Allen Ginsberg

“The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is his most famous poem. To some, it is quite cryptic. But the description itself is known as a great example of the Objectivist school of poetry that Williams belonged to—once again, objective because it presented things in an almost journalistic sparseness.

Everything depends on Williams’ “red wheel barrow” because nothing depends on it. The ordinary moments contains infinity because it is so profoundly, perfectly what it is—a Blakean visionary moment. Ginsberg mentioned a phrase of Gustave Flaubert, “The ordinary is the extraordinary,” in the context of Williams’ “red wheel barrow.” (Ginsberg, 2000, 269) But the presentation of this as a poet is the difference between genius and a Hallmark card.

There are some guidelines, though, and most of them revolve around the specifics of what is seen, heard, or felt. As Blake put it, “Labor well the minute particulars, take care of the little ones.” (Gach, ibid) In other words, minute particulars are the details of the image.

“Things are symbols of themselves,” said Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In some ways, this echoes Ezra Pound who said, “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.” Both are in the “Mind-Writing Slogans.”

As already mentioned, the highest teachings of the Kagyu school were called “mahamudra,” which can be translated as the Great Symbol. According to scholar Reginald Ray, the name refers to the way one who has realized mahamudra (that is, one who has succeeded in the practices of mahamudra) experiences reality: “mudra” refers to the fact that each phenomenon appears vividly, and “maha” refers to the fact that it is beyond concept, imagination, and projection.

So ordinary objects are manifestations of the most profound truth of ultimate reality itself. They are apparent but non-existent.

Henry Miller described the sacredness of a matchstick in the gutter, or Ginsberg said everything is holy at the end of “Howl,” including the derelict and the butthole he shits through. The Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, one of the most famous sutras (or teachings of the Buddha) in Mahayana Buddhism, puts forth simply: “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.” (Hanh, 2009,1)

It is said that reversing these nouns is more than poetic. It suggests that form is no less significant than Ultimate Reality itself. They are in fact inseparable.

Present and future PostBeat directions are still clearly influenced by that original Naropa Institute East/West dialectic even as the University itself grapples and morphs with the passing of most of those message-bearers. As Ginsberg sums up in his introduction to Trungpa’s poetry:

“…idiom as it’s been charmed into being by Williams, Kerouac, Creeley and others, a frankness of person & accuracy to thought-forms & speech that may’ve been unheard of in other cultures, a freestyle stick-your-neck-out mortal humor of the “Far West.” When the Great East enters this body speech & mind there is a ravishing combination of Total Anarchy & Total Discipline. Well, has the transition been made, by this poet, from Absolute Truth expressed thru symbols (“riding on the white horse of Dharmata”) to Relative Truth nail’d down in devotional commitment to the American Ground he’s set out to transvalue & conquer? In the drama of this book, yes, the author Ch6gyam, with all his Vajra Perfections, is the drunk poet on his throne in the Rockies proclaiming “Ch6gyie is yours.” What will Walt Whitman’s expansive children do faced with such a Person?” (Trungpa, 2001, xviii)


Works Cited

Ball, Gordon, 2011. East Hill Farm: Seasons with Allen Ginsberg, Berkeley: Counterpoint.

Gach, Gary. 1998. What Book!?: Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Ginsberg, Allen. 2000. Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995. New York: HarperCollins.

——. 2006. Collected Poems. New York: HarperCollins.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. 2009. The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Kerouac, Jack. 1963. Big Sur. New York: Bantam Books (paperback).

——. 1992. Pomes All Sizes. San Francisco: City Lights.

Milarepa. 1993. Ten of Milarepa’s Greatest Hits (translated and arranged by Jim Scott). Marpa Translation Committee, Singapore: International Press.

Mipham, Jamgon. 1993. Shower of Blessings (translated by Richard Barron). Corralitos, Calif: Vajrayana Foundation.

Trungpa, Chogyam. 1979.”Dragons Thunder,” Unpublished poem from Carolyn Gimian, custodian of Shambhala Archives, 2012, Halifax, NS

——. 1993. Training the Mind: And Cultivating Loving-Kindness. Boulder: Shambhala.

——. 2001. First Thought, Best Thought, (introduction by Allen Ginsberg). Boulder: Shambhala.

——. 2005. Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation. Boulder: Shambhala.

——. 2005. The Sanity We’re Born With. Boulder: Shambhala.

——. 2012. “The Teacher-Student Relationship,” Shambhala Sun, 20(5):73.

Waldman, Anne, Wright, Laura eds. 2009. Beats at Naropa. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.

Williams, William Carlos. 1991. Collected Poems: Vol. 1: 1909-1939. New York: New Directions.


Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 1.55.06 PMAllen Ginsberg said “MARC OLMSTED inherited Burroughs’ scientific nerve & Kerouac’s movie-minded line nailed down with gold eyebeam in San Francisco.” Olmsted teaches the on-line course “WRITING KEROUAC/SITTING BUDDHA: Spontaneous Poetics & Big Mind” at Writers.com. His book, WHAT USE AM I A HUNGRY GHOST? – POEMS FROM 3-YEAR RETREAT (VCP Press, 2001), has an introduction by Ginsberg. For more of his work, see http://www.marcolmsted.com

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Ed: Brianna Bemel
Assist: Sara Crolick



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One Response to “Objectivist Doha: Riding Awareness-Breath’s Mindful Image & Spontaneous Insight. ~ Marc Olmsted”

  1. Marc Olmsted says:

    Erratum: Milarepa is 11th Century ACE, I had Padmasambhava on the brain. – mo