Archived from Naropa University
Summer Writing Institute
On Burroughs and Dharma
June 24, 1999
William Burroughs was not a Buddhist: he never sought or found a "Teacher," he never took Refuge, and he never undertook any Bodhisattva vows. He did not consider himself a Buddhist, nor, for that matter, did he ever declare himself a follower of any one faith or practice. But he did have an awareness of the essentials of Buddhism, and in his own way, he was affected by bodhidharma. Because of this, and because many of his closest friends--such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg--were Buddhists (often considering him as one of their Teachers), Burroughs and his work can be explored within a Buddhist setting.
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Burroughs was ... troubled by philosophical questions about the significance of language; in 1939 he had gone to Chicago to attend a series of lectures by Count Alfred Korzybski, the founder of a school of thought that he called "General Semantics." From these lectures Burroughs took away the insight that a word is not its referent -- the word has no tangible existence -- and that what William called "dualistic," or "either/or" thinking is an intellectual trap. Like Nagarjuna, Korzybski had postulated the solution: "both/and." It was an article of faith with William that the "either/or" concept was completely mistaken, and he very often cited the "both/and" concept in conversations and interviews.
Although William seems to have had an intuitive grasp of the First Noble Truth (in so many words), it was only towards the end of his life that he seemed to embrace the Second Noble Truth: that the cause of suffering is ignorance. That is, William always perceived suffering -- and gross forms of ignorance -- all around him, but his reaction was rooted in a strong sense of self, and self-preservation ... so that whatever natural compassion he may have felt was usually over-balanced by his contempt for the stupidity of Mankind, and his hatred of everything he took as personal oppression or anything threatening his self-control.
Jean-Paul Sartre said, "Hell is other people." The young William Burroughs said. "Other people are different from me and I don't like them."
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Williams really did have, in some ways -- as his friend Lucien Carr put it -- "the morals of a Boy Scout, although he'd never want you to know that." It's just that William's "Boy Scout" was the flipside of Lord Baden-Powell's goody-goody English Scout boy: a "Revised Boy Scout" -- that is to say, a "Wild Boy." As Burroughs wrote: "A wild boy is filthy, dreamy, treacherous, vicious and lustful." This wistful formulation confirms at least the second part of Carr's remark. But Burroughs himself, in person, impressed most people who knew him fairly well as a gentleman: well-mannered and well turned out. He could be wild and crazy in private, like most of us, but his social front was genteel and courtly. And this tension -- between upper-class social manners and a thoroughly democratic, can I say, Whitmanic, impulse within intimate (particularly underclass or "underground") society -- is a defining faultline through all of his life and work, I think.
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In Tangier in the late 1950s Burroughs had sunk into an abject stasis of severe addiction. As he wrote in a 1962 forward to Naked Lunch:
I lived in one room in the Native Quarter of Tangier. I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous grey wooden flesh of terminal addiction. I never cleaned or dusted the room. Empty ampule boxes and garbage piled to the ceiling. Light and water long since turned off for non-payment. I did absolutely nothing. I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours.
I am not trying to minimize the misguidedness of mistaking an opiate stupor for a transcendental state, but it is undeniable that narcosis facilitates detachment, and Burroughs saw a rough equivalence between the cellular apathy of the stoned junky and the transcendental stillness of the meditator. And in a way, he was sort of on target: "emptying the mind," which is a preliminary stage in sitting practice, was the goal he was eternally seeking.
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Burroughs often wrote about his belief in a "magical universe." He studied anthropology and comparative religions at Harvard and at Mexico City College, and he developed a view of the world that was based primarily on Will: nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen. Curses are real, possession is real. This struck him as a better model for human experience and psychology than the neurosis theories of Freud, in the end. But it also fit neatly into his personal experience of "Self and Other." For him, the Other was a deadly challenge to the Self, and never worse than when it manifested as "the Other Half," an Other inside. Eventually, he identified the invading entity as "the Word," and rather than try to explain the rest of that theory, I will just refer you to his books, in particular the cut-up trilogy The Job and The Adding Machine.
As a self-described "Astronaut of Inner Space," Burroughs cannot be considered a purely spiritual seeker. He was busy with the world of imagination, of scenes and characters and voices and action. But he did pursue a lifelong quest for spiritual techniques by which to master his unruly thoughts and feelings, to gain a feeling of safety from oppression and assault from without, and from within. The list of liberational systems that he took up and tried is a long one, including: General Semantics; Freudian psychoanalysis, hypnoanalysis and narcoanalysis; Reich's orgone box and vegetotherapy; Alexander's Posture Method; Scientology; est; Silva Mind Control; Robert Monroe's astral projection; Peter Valentine's Psychic Self-Defense; etc. (Trungpa Rinpoche wrote about "cutting through spiritual materialism," critiquing the American tendency to go on a shopping spree in the supermarket of spirituality, and in some ways this applies to William's quest.)
William Burroughs was an early and longstanding adjunct faculty member with the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. In 1975, at age 61, William was asked by Allen and Anne to come to Naropa and give some classes and readings. William had encountered Trungpa in London in the 1960s, but it was in the summer of 1975 that he became personally acquainted with him. Burroughs had already met a number of advanced spiritual leaders of one kind or another, and I think he already saw himself as one of them, a "holy man" of sorts. So William's stance towards Trungpa was collegial, with the mutual professional respect accorded by one showman to another -- a kind of show-biz comaraderie. And I saw that Trungpa seemed to regard William in a similar light.
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In the mid-1980s William went through a period of deep sadness and depression, reviewing a life's catalog of mistakes and regrets, and this seems to have resulted in a kind of spiritual awakening, because by the end of his life ten years later he really had become enormously sweet and tenderhearted. I don't mean saccharine-sweet -- William was salty and irreverent and funny to the end -- but he was more patient, more kindly, more considerate, more grateful, and more gracious. I would say he was trying to extinguish the Second Fire, ill-will, and to stave off the onset of the Third, mental dullness or boredom. In Western Lands, and even moreso in My Education: A Book of Dreams (which he assembled in the early 1990s), he encounters most of his old friends in the "L.O.D." -- the Land of the Dead, which in turn is coterminous with the world of his dreams, meaning that his view of the afterlife is a life in dreams, or a bardo state, between lives.
As death approached, William was writing in what he knew would be his final journals. In these he wrestled with his anger at man's bottomless ignorance, and seems to have overcome it to a large extent, by the end. I think he never stopped believing that, in the words of Sri Aurobindo, which he often quoted: "This is a War Universe" -- and he always saw himself in the warrior's role. But by some dispensation of his own curious karma, including all the social and historical baggage he was born with, and all the passions he felt and violent actions he took in his life, William Burroughs was given a final decade of old age in which to look back upon that life and study its lessons -- and in this time, with the help of his beloved cats, he attainted a state of ahimsa, compassion for the suffering that is everywhere.
I'd like to close with these lines from The Place of Dead Roads:
Copyright 1999, Naropa Univeristy"Whenever you use this bow I will be there," the Zen archery master tells his students. And he means there quite literally. He lives in his students and achieves a measure of immortality. And the immortality of a writer is to be taken literally. Whenever anyone reads his words the writer is there. He lives in his readers.