In this series for T, Emily Spivack, the author of “Worn Stories,” interviews creative types about their most prized possessions. Here, the artist, poet and activist John Giorno, who spoke to Spivack several days before he died on Friday at 82, describes a Buddhist statue that sits in a shrine in his New York City home on the Bowery, where he had lived since 1962.
At Columbia University in the 1950s, I took classes in philosophy and art within Oriental Studies, a word you would not use today — and that was when I began studying Buddhism. In the mid-60s, one of my first LSD trips was a bad one, and I realized it wasn’t the drug but my mind. I didn’t know what to do, so I meditated, which meant I sat in the posture of a statue I’d seen in Life magazine, closed my eyes, rested my mind and the problems went away. By 1970, I decided to go to India, and it was there that I met Dudjom Rinpoche, who would become my teacher in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism for the next 60 years.
In Tibetan Buddhism, we have different ways of representing the [Buddhist master] Guru Rinpoche and his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal. You’ll see an image that represents the union of wisdom and emptiness, or the union of subject and object. Generally, Tibetan Buddhists never made statues in human form because that’s too explicit. But about 45 years ago, I said, “Why don’t I have a statue made?” Part of meditation is visualization, and this was my visualization. I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, and my teacher said he knew a great statue maker in a small city in the Kathmandu Valley. The man was about 82, the last of the great statue men, and he had never done anything like this before. It took him two years to complete. When the statue was brought to New York, it was consecrated by the great lama Dzogchen Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma lineage.
In the statue, Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal are in a union, a sexual union. When you see it as three-dimensional, it becomes more explicit than when you see it abstracted, flat on wood, in a painting. But it’s symbolic — the male being the realization of emptiness and the female being wisdom, and it’s the union of that. In this specific form, the piece represents the true nature of the mind.
I had been living in a loft upstairs from William Burroughs before he moved to Kansas in ’82. I was well into being a Buddhist, so when he left, I invited lamas to give teachings in his space, and it became a shrine room. I would do my meditation upstairs, but the bunker below became a more formal space for teaching, and it’s where the shrine has always been. William would come to New York twice a year for readings or events and stay in his space. He loved to be surrounded by this even though he was not a Buddhist in any sense other than his profound understanding of the empty nature of the mind.
When my mother died, about 15 years ago, I inherited two two-carat diamonds — one was from her engagement ring and the other had been my grandmother’s. What do I do with them? I’m a gay man. And I’m Italian-American. Unconsciously, I thought of the tradition in Naples of putting jewels in the crown of Madonna. So I put them in Guru Rinpoche’s crown. I thought, “What a good resting place.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
An exhibition of John Giorno’s work, “Do the Undone,” is on view until Oct. 26 at Sperone Westwater gallery in New York City.