My Journey from NAROPA to NARO
A short memoir and tribute to Allen Ginsberg
by Tench Phillips
In the winter of 1975 I moved to Boulder, Colorado and enrolled in Naropa University
to study Buddhist philosophy. I had read one of the popular books of the time "Be Here
Now" and had heard the charismatic author Baba Ram Dass speak at the New Age Yoga
Center in Va Beach in the early seventies. Ram Dass spoke of a new school founded by
the Tibetan monk Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who was forced to abandon his homeland
of Tibet by the Chinese invasion. Trungpa attended Oxford University in England before
migrating first to Nova Scotia, Canada and then to the U.S. His books included "Cutting
Through Spiritual Materialism" and they influenced academics, students, artists, hippies,
and seekers who were looking for Eastern alternatives to orthodox western religion.
The practice of Zen, yoga, and meditation were all gaining popularity for a sixties
generation who had experimented with mind expanding plants and chemicals. The act
of "dropping out and turning on" was a much easier option since the cost of living was
not so oppressive as it is nowadays and the conforming forces of technology and social
networking in that era were minimally invasive.
The summer of 1975 inaugurated The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets
at Naropa. Such renowned writers and poets as Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Anne
Waldman, and Allen Ginsberg came to town and gave readings and taught workshops.
Although I never officially registered, I sat in on a six-week poetry class taught by
Ginsberg. His class covered primarily the work of his mentor William Carlos Williams
but also included the work of other poets like Walt Whitman. He told stories about
the beat poets and about his friends William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, Ram Dass,
Aldous Huxley, Bob Dylan and other troubadours and musicians. Ginsberg read from
his own poems including Howl. He was always authentic, impassioned, and caring -
and never put on any air of superiority over his younger students. His class teachings
were at times like enigmatic prose and he broached wildly eclectic subjects in a running
stream of consciousness. Politics, sexuality, art, popular culture, media, philosophy,
civil disobedience against the military establishment - all were fair game for his class
discussions. And I was an attentive student, much more than I had been as an undergrad
studying systems engineering.
I returned to Ghent within the year and inspired by the free-wheeling energy of an
expanded human potential movement, I pursued my own unique path within an ever
more conforming mass culture. In 1977 I was able to obtain a lease on the shuttered Naro
Cinema and along with business partner Thom Vourlas, we set our sights on bringing a
creative art and intellectual movement to the area through film and cinema events. This
movement has grown and it has changed - and there's still much to be done. But there's
a lineage at work here and as we stand on the shoulders of those courageous, ground
breaking souls who were identified as the beats and the hippies and also the writers and
the artists of prior generations, perhaps we can gain some needed insights to help us get
through our own dark night of American culture.
Only recently did I realize the joyful serendipity of the wordplay exemplified in my own
life's arc - from Naropa to Naro.