The Metaphysical Dilemma of Lew Welch

Muhammad leading Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer, Unknown author (Medieval Persian manuscript).

Beat Generation poet Lew Welch was my poetic mentor and my first spiritual teacher; he ended his life in an alcoholic suicide. We could always say that his fate was due to things like a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, a mother complex, an addictive personality, bipolar disorder, the mores and folkways of American Bohemia, the post WWII booze-binge, etc., etc. But his real dilemma was metaphysical; his death at 44 resulted from a metaphysical problem, a problem he couldn’t solve. And both because he failed to solve it, and because he initiated me into the quest for that solution, I inherited it.

The terms of this problem appear most clearly in his poem “The Entire Sermon by the Red Monk” [from Ring of Bone: Collected Poems]:

    We invent ourselves. 
    We invent ourselves out of ingredients we didn’t 
    choose, by a process we cannot control. 
    The Female Impersonator, and the Sadistic Marine can 
    each trace himself back to the same stern, or weak, father. 
    Usually it’s less dramatic. He was only indifferently 
    a basketball player. Now he is selling cars.  
    The baby on the floor cannot be traced, forward, 
    to anything. 
    It’s all your own fault then. 
    On all kinds of baby purpose, you invented whoever 
    you think you are. Out of ingredients you couldn’t 
    choose, by a process you can’t control. 
    All you really say is, “Love me for myself alone.” 
    It’s also possible to uninvent yourself. By a process 
    You can’t control. 
    But you invented Leo.     Forget it.

The last line of this sermon seems to express the most shallow and most easily-refuted solution to Lew’s (and our) dilemma: the notion that we simply haven’t invented the right self yet; as soon as we do, our existential angst will end; the First Noble Truth of the Buddha, “all life is (or entails) suffering” will no longer apply. Nonetheless, it’s also possible to understand “Forget it” as “Forget the self you invented.”

In an earlier version of the Sermon, which appears in I Remain: The Letters of Lew Welch & the Correspondence of His Friends, Volume One, the last line is different:

I call my uninvention: Leo

Leo was Lew’s poetic persona. Pretty soon, however, he must’ve realized that “Leo” was not really the uninvention of himself, but just another self: bigger, more “archetypal”, with more room to breathe (at least to begin with), available to wider realms of insight, but ultimately reducible to the same little “me”—that rootless invented being who suffers, complains, seeks relief by dramatizing itself, stoically endures, but is not yet liberated from the Wheel of Birth and Death. “Forget it” is more honest, but—in recommending amnesia as a solution (one form of amnesia being alcohol)—it heralds all the disasters that were to come. In any case, the goal that destiny set for Lew Welch was, precisely, self-uninvention, self-transcendence, ego-death, Enlightenment—a dilemma he expressed elsewhere as:

How can I learn to get out of my way?


The question only a German could ask: “How can I try not to try?”

Lew defined and expressed this universal metaphysical and existential dilemma perfectly—a dilemma that, in its own terms, on its own level, is perfectly insoluble. In Volume Two of I Remain, Lew gives us his deepest and most revealing picture of this struggle for self-uninvention, in a draft of a letter to fellow-poet Robert Duncan, a letter he never sent. In that letter he defines his metaphysical dilemma in terms of opening and closing. He says:

After the radiant vision of openness, yesterday, I saw myself a ring of bone in the clear stream, and vowed never, ever, to close myself again.

….[earlier] at Ferlinghetti’s Big Sur cabin….I got the most radiant vision of openness. I saw how this was all meaning. That I was only a mess of gates. That having Human Being is to have many many gates, that it all all flow through.
That it was right, too, that we have a Self. That it all be transformed. Different on the way out.

Magnificent! But then he says:

And all of this was so powerful my penis came erect, with no sex to it, as the old saying goes “putting your prick through the window, and fucking the world” with helpless love!
What is this? Some black satori?
For I cannot stay open to it. It hurts too much. But what is it that hurts?

For whatever it is that hurts. Whatever it is that needs to rest from time to time. Whatever it is that can be opened to the flow of it, or closed from pain.
This must be killed again and again!
The really tragic thing about the drowning and gunshots and the irreclaimable madnesses [i.e., the breakdowns and suicides of so many poets] is this:
They, Poets all of them, missed the truth by a quarter of an inch.
You do not have to do it with a gun. You really do not do it with a gun.

Though, lately, I begin to wonder how many more times I can kill this thing. Is he always going to grow? Will he always be that same shape? Is there some error to the way I keep doing it. Perhaps I try to come back from it, instead of resting on it, when I’m through with it….

Ultimately Lew did miss the truth, by even less than a quarter of an inch. He missed it by exactly twenty-two one-hundredths of an inch: the width of a .22 caliber bullet.


Is it possible to state the essence of Lew Welch’s fatal dilemma? I believe it is. The essence of his dilemma, and ours, is that I—the ego—cannot uninvent itself, transcend itself, kill itself, since it must assert itself and maintain itself in the very act of trying to do away with itself. “How can I learn to get out of my way?” You can’t. “How can I try not to try?” You can’t. You can’t kill the thing that closes and denies itself, or opens so wide it hurts, no matter how many times you try, no matter how many lifetimes you end with a single gunshot to the temple.

Why can’t you kill the ego? There are two ways to say it, which come down to the same thing: 1) because the ego, in the act of claiming the right and the duty to kill itself, affirms itself, and 2) because the ego does not exist. As the Cha’an Buddhists say it, “all beings are Enlightened from the beginning; from the beginning, not a thing is.” This is the dark contradiction, the Black Satori, hidden in the Buddha’s teaching, “work out your own salvation with diligence”—because if the you who is to work out its own salvation is the ego, that salvation will never come.

The Zen people speak of two approaches to Samyak Sambodhi, Perfect Total Enlightenment: jiriki, “self-power” and tariki, “other power”. Obviously Zen, both the Soto school (just sit) and the Rinzai school (try to answer a question that can’t be answered), as well as Theravada Buddhism, emphasize jiriki, while the Pure Land or Shin schools emphasize the Grace of the Buddha, tariki. (Absolutely the best treatment of tariki is Marco Pallis’ chapter “Is there Room for Grace in Buddhism?” from his book A Buddhist Spectrum. Buy it. Read it. Ponder it.) Christianity too relies on tariki: “Christ, by His suffering, death and resurrection, has paid our whole (karmic) debt.” Too often, however, the Christians forget the jiriki part of it: “Pray without ceasing; take up your cross and follow Me.”

Lew Welch’s one gesture toward tariki is his poem “He Asks for Guidance”: 

Avalokiteshvara, Buddha of Compassion,
Original Bodhisattva, Who spoke the
Prajñaparamita Sutra of the heart,

Kannon in Japan, Kwan-Yin in China, Chenrezig in
Tibet, No God, but Guide, O
Countless thousands of returning men and women
of every place and time,

as Virgil for Dante, through Dante’s Hell,

please guide me through samsara.

So: What is the way beyond the dilemma of “I can’t annihilate myself without being there to do it?” The way beyond is tariki. Jiriki itself is nothing more than a vow to live not by the power of the ego but by the power of the Other, of Something other than the ego, of the pre-existent truth that all things possess the Buddha-nature—all things except the ego, that is, and the ego does not exist. As the Zen people say: “Before you become Enlightened, first you have to be Enlightened.”

The pre-existence of Enlightenment before one “becomes Enlightened” is the essence of tariki in Buddhist terms. The essence of tariki, of Other-power, in Christian and Sufi terms (Sufism being my own Path), is God.

We all know what a problem God as a concept can become; what many of us fail to realize, however, is just how useful a belief in God can be—as long as we don’t make an idol out of it by turning it into another aspect of the ego. Take the dilemma of “We invent ourselves, out of ingredients we didn’t choose, by a process we can’t control.” Can we really say that “we” invent ourselves if we neither choose the ingredients nor control the process? Obviously not. But if we simply say, in the words of the old Baltimore Catechism, “Who made me? God made me”, then the whole problem of “how in ruddy hell was I able to create myself if I neither chose the materials nor did the work?” simply disappears. If you created yourself, then, in Lew’s words, “It’s all your own fault,” and there’s no way that this fault can be healed or forgiven, seeing that a faulty being cannot perfect himself by his own faulty methods. If “your own fault” means “your own responsibility to deal with this mess, the mess that has now become you”, then fine—not only fine, but necessary. But how are you going to deal with it? How are you ever going to uninvent yourself, if you can’t control the process of uninvention either? The only way you can deal with it—and it remains your own responsibility and no-one else’s to so deal—is by invoking tariki, Other-power: “Jesus paid my whole debt.” “God forgives the sins of anyone who sincerely repents.” “Whoever merely recites the Lotus Sutra is saved by the compassion of Avalokiteshvara.” Luckily, the universal dilemma, the mess that “I” have made of myself, doesn’t really exist, it’s all an illusion— and the fact that it’s all an illusion, the Truth that Enlightenment already exists, that it is already perfectly available, calls to me. It calls to me because it is the true nature of things, and the true nature of things is unavoidable; all I have to do is answer its call (the correct answer being “yes”), and keep on answering it and answering it until the question “how can I try not to try?” is totally played out. But those who resist the intuition that something already exists beyond the kingdom of the ego, something called Reality that is alive where the ego is dead, intelligent where the ego is deluded, compassionate where the ego is selfish, will never be freed from the prison of that ego—and a prejudice against the notion of “God”, usually because one’s picture of God is vague or childish or culturally decadent, is one of the most common forms of this resistance.

When Lew saw the illusory ego, the thing that was killing him, as “whatever it is that can be opened to the flow of it, or closed from pain”, he was very close to the truth. The Sufis would call “opening to the flow of it” the state of Expansion, and “closing from pain” the state of Contraction. According to Sufi doctrine, both spiritual states are given by God, just as I myself am given, along with everything else; when my ego is annihilated, all spiritual states come to an end because they have lost their point of reference. In Expansion I am present to the Reality of God, Who is manifested by all things (all things being His Acts, the revelations of His Attributes), to that Reality in the face of which I can see that the ego is an illusion, and gratefully allow it to be annihilated, in Him. In Contraction, I encounter all the struggles and mis-steps and attachments and illusions the ego is made up of, in the most concrete and objective terms, precisely so I can repent of them, so I can let them go. You can’t just repent in general terms by saying “no to all that” once and for all. You have to know exactly what you are saying no to, exactly what you are holding on to, and precisely how and why you are holding on to it—and then, carefully and deliberately, you need to open your hand and let it fall from your grasp. This is the true path of self-uninvention, the exact place of personal responsibility on the spiritual Path. And yet it is still true, as Lew says, that you can’t control that process, because both the state of Expansion, where the ego is nothing but a negligible irritation that can be gratefully discarded, and the state of Contraction, where the actual intent to be this ego is clearly seen, are both sent by God; they obviously cannot be contrived by the ego itself. This is why the states that we invent for ourselves, through drugs, through booze, through extravagant acts of generosity and self-sacrifice, through hard self-willed meditation, through repeatedly risking our lives at the cliff’s edge, simply won’t work. Elsewhere in his letter to Duncan, Lew describes how the Poet must “sniff the vapors of his oracular cave—or otherwise drastically wrench himself open that the whole river flow through”. Unfortunately, this kind of drastic wrenching does not get us out of our own way, does not teach us how not to try on the basis of self-will, does not accomplish the act of self-uninvention. Instead it only leads (in Lew’s words) to “the worst thing: the deliberate closing of myself (again).” My generation, the Baby Boomers, is well known for having tried every drastic method it could think of to “wrench itself open”, and has consequently ended up closed in many ways—emotionally, intellectually, culturally and spiritually. And we have passed much of this cultural shell-shock, the counterculture PTSD we contracted from the 60’s and their aftermath, to succeeding generations.

But if God is real, if He is really present—if, in Lew’s words, Reality “goes on whether I look at it or not”, which is another way of saying that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”—then the pain of opening, God willing, can ultimately dissolve in the love and relief and gratitude of “no longer (thank God) having to be myself any more!” Likewise the shameful self-betrayal of closing to life and love and Reality can become instead a confrontation with the very Darkness that God is commanding us to eliminate, while at the same time giving us the concrete power to eliminate it, as if He were actually wrenching it from our grasp.

It won’t happen overnight. Many Expansions and Contractions, many openings and closings still remain on the Path ahead. But if we can say “Thank You for showing me the power and the beauty of Something that is absolutely beyond myself, in the face of which ‘myself’ is nothing”, and “Thank You for showing me exactly what I have to get rid of and exactly how to do it,” then those closings will not be a despairing flight from Reality but a simple act of housecleaning, and those openings, not (ultimately) the pain of Omnipotent Reality shaming and tormenting our contracted, self-willed unreality, but the Great Metanoia, the turn from illusion to Reality, from the agony of self-torture to Love and Compassion—a turn that only God can accomplish. “Love is like the lion’s tooth” said W.B. Yeats. “Into Thy Hands I commend my spirit; it is finished” said Christ on the cross. And if we’re going to say “thank-you”, we will need Someone to thank.

So Lew’s main error, outside of the idea that he had to do it all by himself, all by his little struggling ego alone, is the idea that one side of the polarity is bondage and illusion, and the other side is freedom and Reality—that opening is the opening to Reality Itself—except that it hurts too much to maintain for any length of time—and closing the denial of that Reality, or else that closing is the necessary annihilation of the “thing that must be killed”—except that it never stays dead, it always come back to life again—and opening the endless, maddening return of the false self we thought we’d done away with long ago. Neither opening nor closing is the final Way Out because the thing that causes the opening to be painful, and the thing that prevents the closing from being the final end of that pain, is the identical enemy: the ego. Opening cannot be the ultimate Goal if the true Goal is the annihilation of that which both opens and closes. An opening to greater Life, to a Life in the face of which our own little self-conceived ego that thinks it has the power to live or die on its own terms is faced with its own inevitable annihilation, can only increase our suffering if it is the ego that wills the opening, thus defeating its own purpose—or rather the purpose it dishonestly claims to be pursuing. And closing cannot be the ultimate Goal either, even if we present it to ourselves as a kind of radical humility and self-annihilation, since a self-willed closing is nothing but a holding on to life as it is, a shrinking and cringing away from self-annihilation, a hopeless attempt to keep possession of our shrunken, lifeless, suffering little selves, under the protective cover of darkness, so that (we mistakenly believe) we will never have to open again. The closing that Lew describes would be a real approach to humility, except for the fact that true humility, true spiritual poverty, is not attachment to Contraction as opposed to Expansion, but a freedom from attachment to either state. This is why you can’t simply “rest on it” after your fall from Expansion, why you can’t take refuge in a state of Contraction and think that the ego has finally been killed, any more than you can embrace the state of Expansion in the belief that the ego has finally been transcended.  It hasn’t been killed, it hasn’t been transcended; it will always come back to life again, only to die again—because the ego, being an invented illusion, can never either truly live or truly die: only God Himself is true Life and true Death. “He who seeks to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life, for My sake, will find it” said Jesus Christ.

The fact is that, no matter how burned out we may become, we will eventually have to open again. Not even death can save us from an opening like that, because death is the Big Opening, the real opening, the opening to the Clear Light of the Void—thrilling, blissful, radiant— which, if we have entered death precisely so as to flee from that Light—as every suicide must enter it—is simply Too Much, causing us to bolt like scared rabbits, run, hide, dive for shelter into the first convenient random womb that presents itself, and so start the whole process over again.

So “God” is necessary to the whole drama, the whole process of Enlightenment. Without God, without Absolute Reality—whether we conceive of It in theistic or non-theistic terms—all our “spiritual” states and insights will be states of the ego, not states of the Truth. As Gautama said in one Theravadin text, “If it were not for what is Unborn, Unmade, Uncompounded, there would be no escape from what is born, what is made, what is compounded.” William Blake likewise wrote in his Jerusalem, addressing himself to the Reality that lies beyond the illusory ego:

Annihilate the Selfhood in me, be Thou all my life!
Guide Thou my hand, which trembles exceedingly
upon the Rock of Ages.

And if we can’t, or won’t, call this Reality “God”, then by all means let us call it the Buddha-nature inherent in all things, whose essence is prajña and karuna, Wisdom and Compassion—the Compassion that, in our suffering, offers us Wisdom, because finally nothing else will do—the Wisdom that has absolute Compassion for us by demonstrating, absolutely, that no-one is really suffering, thereby bringing all suffering to an end.

That was Gautama’s goal: to bring suffering to an end. When, however, we pose the final question: “but what’s the purpose of it all, all this suffering, all this ending of suffering?”—the true fly in the ointment, the great Fool Question that ruins everything, which was why it was among the questions that Gautama considered as “tending not to edification”—then everything has to be re-envisioned and re-understood. And Lew had an answer to that one too, when he said:

I saw….that it was alright, too, that we have a Self. That it all be transformed. Different on the way out.

Yes, that question, and the answer to it, definitely ruins everything—because what, after it’s asked, becomes of the Path of self-uninvention? Why embark on that Path in the first place if it’s alright to have a Self? Wouldn’t that mean that it’s OK just to invent Leo (or whoever), rest on our laurels and forget the whole awkward, inconvenient self-uninvention thing?

It would definitely be OK—except for the suffering. And as anyone who has consciously struggled with suffering, not just resorted to various forms of distraction or sedation, will have discovered, for us to see meaning in our suffering makes it easier to bear. One of the problems with an immature and poorly-formed notion of God, in the face of suffering, is: “You created me, knowing I would suffer, and now you’ve ended my suffering by ending me. You may have amused Yourself by directing and watching the whole spectacle, but as far as I’m concerned it would be better if I had never been born.” It is this sort of unnecessary dilemma that has discouraged many from conceiving of the Absolute Reality in personal terms—and, in actual fact, God is not a person such as we usually conceive a person to be: He is Personhood Itself; as Lew put it: “WE’RE ALL THE SAME PERSON.”

The notion of a personal God leads us to what is called theodicy, to the question of: “If God is both Omnipotent and All-Good, then how could He, or why would He, have created a world full of suffering?” The Christians answer: “Because He wanted to see free will in operation, and free will is the last thing that the sufferer will agree to let go of, no matter how much he suffers— so it must be pretty important to him too.” The Muslims answer: “I [God] was a Hidden Treasure and I longed to be known, so I created the world that I might be known”—and (from the Qur‘an),“‘Am I not your Lord?’ [the question God posed to the potentials of all things before they came into existence], and they answered ‘Yea!’ [thus agreeing to be created]”—and (also from the Qur‘an), “God offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the hills, but they were afraid of it, and fled from it. Then Man took it—Lo! he hath proved himself a tyrant and a fool.” And the Buddhists, even though they do not employ the concept of a personal God as one of their upayas, their “skillful means”, cannot avoid the need to explain the existence of suffering; consequently they explain it in impersonal terms as the action of the 12-linked Chain of Causation based on ignorance and craving.

The Muslims, however, see great significance in the fact that, before Humanity even existed, we wanted to exist—which is why we agreed to be created, and why, later on, we assumed the Trust. Our desire to exist and God’s desire to be known are thus two sides of the same coin, which means that our basic reason for existing is to know God—or, in Lew Welch’s words, “that it All might flow through.” And, yes, that flowing of Infinity through our narrow contracted selves causes suffering. But, as both Lew and the Muslims teach us, that suffering is ultimately worth it—or, remembering Gautama’s Fourth Noble Truth, it is worth it as long as there is a Way to end that suffering. Certainly God wants to be known, but He doesn’t simply want to be suffered; what He really wants, more than anything else, is to be enjoyed.

And after the All flows through the Self—in suffering, in ecstasy, in gratitude, in annihilation—the fact that it is now “different on the way out” is the whole meaning of what the Muslims call the Amana, the Trust. And what is the Trust? It is the fact that only the Human Eye (in the center of the Human Heart) can see the universe whole—can see it, precisely, as a universe, not just a set of biological imperatives or a random collection of stuff—and furthermore, only that Eye can see the essence of the universe as God—see it, in Buddhist terms, as possessing shunyata (thus being void of self-nature) and tathata (thus being exactly what it seems). All the meanings, opening into the Ultimate Meaning—as when Lew, down at Ferlinghetti’s cabin, saw how this was all meaning—converge on This: that Reality “wants” to be known, and—through us—It makes Itself known.

But how is Reality changed thereby? How are things “different on the way out?” Isn’t God already everything? Doesn’t He already know everything? How can we empty little bone-rings add anything to the nature of Reality itself? Certainly things are changed from our own standpoint. Things enter this Ring of Bone, this Self-Empty-of-Self, either as a chaos of random impressions or as a collection of material and/or psychic objects interacting with each other under the control of material and psychological forces—and they come out again as Absolute Reality. And God, the personal Face that Absolute Reality turns to us, given that we are persons, loves to watch the process. He loves to know that we love Him so deeply that, even at the expense of great suffering, we want everything to be Him—even ourselves. Because the last thing to pass through the Emptiness in the middle of the Ring of Bone is that very Emptiness, the very Ring itself—which means that, in Reality, there is no transformation, no entry-and-exist, no passage. “From the beginning, not a thing is.”

It is right that we have a Self because that Self is not “me”, not an ego—in Reality it is, precisely, God. “My truest ‘I’ is God” said Meister Eckhart. It is God already, even before the “great transformation” takes place. Considered as the Origin of the personhood we experience ourselves as being, and see all around us, God wants to be known in the same way, and for the same reason, that He loves to hide—to hide as the fish, as the rocks, as the trees, as the stars, as our very own selves and the selves of every other person we meet, until we finally wake up to the fact that WE’RE ALL THE SAME PERSON. Like the Hindus say, God is the Atman, the Indwelling Universal Witness, the One Self at the Center of All. And like the Muslims say, when they recite the Qur‘an: “I [God] will show you My signs on the horizons [the outer world] and in yourselves until you know that this is the Truth. Isn’t this enough for you, that I am Witness over all things?”  Certainly it’s enough; if that Knowledge didn’t annihilate us the moment it appeared, it would be entirely Too Much. And when it finally does appear, then there is no “opening”, no “closing”, no “suffering” no “end of suffering”, no “horizons” and no “ourselves”.

But the Question remains: “Why? Why this drama? Why this suffering? Why does God, or Maya, or the 12-linked Chain of Causation, need to put us through all this apparently unnecessary delusion and enlightenment and warfare? Why did it all have to happen in the first place?” There are many answers to this question, but my favorite of all is the answer of the great Hindu saint of modern times, Sri Ramakrishna. When a disciple asked him why there is evil in the universe, his answer was: “To thicken the plot!” This is the kind of answer that what is usually called “intelligence” cannot accept; only Love can understand and accept an answer like that: not in heroic endurance or in beaten resignation, but in full gratitude for the glory of the Divine Self Manifestation. To be born to witness It, to die so as to become one with It—these two being essentially the same thing—together constitute the unique privilege of the human state.