By accident, I was in India at the time of the Hindu festival Kumbh Mehla. Kumbh Mehla is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest gathering of people in the world. Every three years, around 20 million people go to bathe in the River Ganges on one of three auspicious dates. At first, I thought the combination of Indian crowds and bad sanitation would make Kumbh Mehla the last place I ever wanted to go. Finally, sick of the Tibetan Buddhist circus, I decided to check it out.
The festival turned out to be well managed and orderly, despite its vast numbers. It was a joyful, almost Biblical, spectacle. I stayed in Rishikesh, a holy city of pastel-colored ashrams, the place where the Beatles went in the ’60s to study Transcendental Meditation with The Maharishi. Rishikesh was idyllic and vegetarian. Clans of Hindus dressed in bright colors and flowing robes paraded cheerfully through the narrow, car-less streets. Kumbh Mehla also attracts saddhus from all over India; these yellow-robed, trident-carrying
followers of Shiva range from sincere devotees to smirking shysters eager to extract donations, pick up chicks, or sell ganga to tourists. I stayed at a rundown ashram for Westerners, run by a laidback bald guru in his nineties. The ashram cost $1 a night, including breakfast, and for another dollar you could attend yoga and meditation classes spaced throughout the day. Hinduism seemed sloppier, more open than Tibetan Buddhism. Hanging out on the banks of the Ganges—clean to swim in because of its proximity to its source in the Himalayas—old holy men in long grey beards would come up to converse with me in broken English about the nearness of God. Wild monkeys chattered in the trees. A pilgrim in the streets stopped to tell me, sincerely, that he was sure we had known each other in an earlier life.
Kumbh Mehla marks a mythological event. Long ago, the Gods were fighting over a vial containing the nectar of immortality. Four drops of this nectar fell into the Ganges at the four spots where Kumbh Mehla is held every three years, on certain dates that have astrological significance. If you bathe in the Ganges during the right moment of the festival, you wipe away the bad karma, like a psychic crust, accumulated over all of your past lives.
The actual festival was held, that year, in the nearby and equally festive town of Haridwar. On the auspicious mornings, hordes of devotees clustered for miles up and down the riverbanks. On the first festival day, I did not go in the water myself, but I witnessed a riot of the Naga Babas. The Naga Babas are the most extreme and ascetic clan of Saddhus. Most of them live in caves high in the Himalayas, coming down for the festival once every three years. They parade—naked, carrying weapons, covered in grey ash—through the town before entering the water. They are followed by gurus from across India, on chariots, surrounded by their disciples. Among the Nagas, self- mortification is de rigeur. As they paraded, I saw that some of them had cut the tendons in their penises to prevent erections. Others had one arm raised in the air—they had stayed like that for years, until the appendage was thin and shriveled. By tradition, the Nagas entered the water first, to be followed by the Hindu hordes. I never understood why they were rioting—it had something to do with the exact order in which they would enter the water— but I watched as those emaciated mystics picked up large rocks from the street and hurled them into the crowds. They charged around, menacing the police with their weapons. I cowered in a restaurant, watching the melee through the metal grate that the proprietors had quickly pulled down.
I was so fascinated by the spectacle surrounding Kumbh Mehla that I put off my return flight. I spent several more weeks in Rishikesh, trying to learn yoga. On the next auspicious morning, I found myself luckily wedged into the center of Haridwar right across from the Nagas. This time, at the right instant, I joined the joyful multitudes bobbing up and down in the clear blue Ganges water.
The Naga Babas are the most extreme and ascetic clan of Saddhus. Most of them live in caves high in the Himalayas, coming down for the festival once every three years. Among the Nagas, self-mortification is de rigeur. As they paraded, I saw that some of them had cut the tendons in their penises to prevent erections.
Of course, at that point, I did not believe in karma.
Although he was an esoteric Christian, Steiner believed, along with Hindus and Buddhists, that human beings pass through many incarnations (84,000 is the average, according to the Hindus). Health problems and personal crises that manifest along the way are actually the residues of one’s actions, the karma accrued in past lives. He also thought that, through spiritual training, it is possible to remember your past incarnations—as the Buddha did when he achieved enlightenment, recollecting all of his lives up to that instant.
“It is often asked why we do not know anything of our experiences before birth and after death,” Steiner wrote. “This is the wrong question. Rather, we should ask how we can attain such knowledge.” At the moment my provisional belief—stitched together from Buddhism, Western mysticism, quantum physics and psychedelic shamanism—is that what we experience as the “self” is actually a kind of vibration or frequency emitted from an invisible whole that exists in a higher dimension. Buddhists see this reality as somehow a manifestation of our consciousness, our karma. If that is the case, then the only way to change the world is to transform our consciousness.
Accepting Steiner’s ideas for a moment, my actions over the last years, however much they seemed self-willed and haphazard, began to reveal a certain order to them, from an esoteric perspective. After Kumbh Mehla, I went, due to the “lucky draw” of a magazine assignment, through the Bwiti initiation in Africa, then I drank ayahuasca with Don Caesario and the Secoya. After DPT, I was forced to revise my thoughts yet again. I began to
comprehend the ambiguous reality and power of occult realms. The DPT trip and its aftermath seemed strange, yet eerily familiar—I felt, I still feel, as though I had activated some circuit of Nietzschean “eternal recurrence,” entering some realm I had inhabited before.
According to Steiner, along with the self that we perceive in daily life, the intractable “I,” there is another self, a hidden spiritual being, which is the individual’s guide and guardian. This higher self “does not make itself known through thoughts or inner words. It acts through deeds, processes, and events. It is this “other self” that leads the soul through the details of its life destiny and evokes its capacities, tendencies, and talents.” The direction of our life is set out by that other self, a permanent being which continues from life to life. “This inspiration works in such a way that the destiny of one earthly life is the consequence of the previous lives.” The pull of these far-flung archaic rites in India, Gabon, and the Amazon had exerted something like a magnetic attraction, and seeking out these experiences, perhaps I was prodded along by some hidden, higher aspect of my being.
“Inside the village the thatched houses crouch low in their gardens to hide in the deep cactus lined lanes. You come through their maze to the broad village green where the pipes are piping; 50 raitas banked against a crumbling wall blow sheet lightning to shatter the sky. Fifty wild flutes blow up a storm in front of them, while a platoon of small boys in long belted white robes and brown wool turbans drum like young thunder. All the villagers dressed in best white, swirl in great coils and circles around one wildman in skins.” (Gysin from sleeve notes of Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka, Rolling Stones Records, 1972).
Brion Gysin was born in Taplow, Bucks (England) on January 19th, 1916. He later commented on this: “Certain traumatic events have led me to conclude that at the moment of birth I was delivered to the wrong address.” After an education in Canada and the UK, he moved to Paris in 1934 to study at the Sorbonne. As a young painter he associated with many important literary and artistic figures, on the look-out, as always for something worth exploring and it was not long before he was introduced to and later joined the Surrealist movement. Gysin was a lot younger than most of the others involved and was therefore an outsider from the start. He was soon in conflict with Andre Breton, and when he arrived at the opening of his first group exhibition, he found Paul Eluard taking down one of his pictures, a depiction of a calf’s head wearing a perraque, which bore a striking resemblance to Breton himself. After a few months Gysin was expelled from the Surrealist circle. He learnt from this the dangers of being too fixed in one’s ideas.
“I too am not a theoretician and don’t hold any particularly strong views about anything, in fact my own past experience of literary and painting groups has always been that this is bad news—it’s better not to have such views.”
After this period in Paris, Gysin visited Greece and then Algeria, his first contact with the Sahara and Arab culture. He returned to Paris briefly and at the age of 23 had his first one-man show to critical acclaim. It was 1939 and the approaching war forced him to take refuge in New York, associating there with other exiled Surrealists, including Max Ernst, Roberto Matta and Renne Crevelle. Whilst in New York he worked as assistant to Irene Sharaff on seven Broadway musicals and became friendly with composer John Latouche. Latouche’s secretary at the time was married to William Burroughs, although Gysin and Burroughs did not meet until years later. Also through Latouche, he met the medium Eileen Garrett, who was quite a celebrity. This was one of his first magical contacts and there is no doubt that it aroused his interest in such things.
Gysin was averse to Burroughs’ heroin addiction. It was not until 1958 that Gysin ran into Burroughs again in Paris. Burroughs’ first words were “Wanna score?”
Brion Gysin with hand scratched permutation poem of the elemental
linguistic source of creation in the universe “I AM THAT I AM.” These slides were projected onto Gysin’s body during multi-media performances with the “Domain Poetique” in Paris during the 1960s. From the collection of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Gysin gave up his Broadway job to become a welder in the Bayonne shipyards, New Jersey, until he was drafted into the Canadian army. He was still painting and his travels between Miami and Havana inspired some abstract visions and aerial landscapes of Florida bathing in the Gulf Stream. In the army a short time, he was chosen to learn Japanese for Intelligence purposes. “This,” he said, “was the most important thing, it had a great deal of influence on my attitude towards surface, attacks of ink onto paper and brushwork, which has very much applied to my painting ever since.”
In 1946, at the end of his army career, his first book was published by Eileen Garrett, To Master A Long Goodnight, which won Gysin a Fulbright Fellowship to research in France and Spain.
It was on a trip to Morocco with the writer Paul Bowles that he first encountered the magic and mystery of the indigenous culture. He was entranced and lived there on and off for the next 23 years. On a rainy day in Tangier, during an exhibition of his paintings:
“Burroughs wheeled into the exhibition, arms and legs flailing, talking a mile a minute. We found he looked very Occidental, more private-eye than Inspector Lee; he trailed long vines of Bannisteria Caapi from the upper Amazon after him and old bullfight posters fluttered out from under his old trench coat instead of a shirt. An odd blue light flashed around the rim of his hat. All he wanted to talk about was his trip to the Amazon in search of Yage, the hallucinogenic drug. It was said to make you telepathic. I felt right away that he didn’t need too much of that stuff and I may well have launched into my story of how the “Telephone Arabe” works in Tangier but I’m sure he didn’t want to listen at the time. Our exchange of ideas came many years later in Paris.”
Although they both lived in Tangier at the time, Burroughs often eating in Gysin’s restaurant The 1001 Nights, they kept a wide berth; Gysin was averse to Burroughs’ heroin addiction. It was not until 1958 that Gysin ran into
Burroughs again in Paris. Burroughs’ first words were “Wanna score?” This chance meeting led to four years of collaboration creating what they called “The Third Mind,” discovering “Cut-ups,” inventing the Dream Machine with Ian Sommerville, and making several films with Antony Balch. They were resident at the legendary “Beat Hotel” on the Rue Git-le-Coeur, and made frequent trips to London.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Gysin involved himself in many projects. He made two recordings of his “Machine Poetry” for BBC radio and was associated with Jean Clarence Lambert’s “Domaine Poetique.” There were exhibitions of his work in Europe, Scandinavia, Morocco, USA, Mexico and Japan. He wrote several more books and collections of stories. In 1969 he took Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones to Jajouka to record the music from the Pipes of Pan ritual, and published his most important book, The Process.
During the early 1980s he was still active and made an appearance at the Final Academy series of events in London 1982, giving readings from his books. He died on July 13th, 1986 in Paris after a long illness.
After leaving North Africa Gysin went first to London where he sold some paintings of the Sahara and then back to Paris where he “ran into a grey- green Burroughs in the Place St. Michel. Wanna score? For the first time in all the years I had known him, I really scored with him.” This chance meeting with Burroughs led to four years of collaboration on many projects. One of the most important of these projects was the Dream Machine.
Gysin’s first experience of the phenomenon that led to the discovery of the Dream Machine came when he was riding down an avenue of trees at sunset. He wrote in his journal:
“Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in a bus going down to Marseille. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colors exploded behind my eyelids; a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was in a world of infinite number the vision stopped abruptly as we left the tree.” 21.12.58.