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Philip Whalen (1923-2002)
禅心龍風 Zenshin Ryūfū (Zen Heart / Dragon Wind)
|Philip Whalen haikui
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Haiku and Haiku-esque Poems
Some major works:
PDF: The Zen of Anarchy: Japanese Exceptionalism and the Anarchist Roots of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance
PDF: On bread & poetry. A Panel Discussion With Gary Snyder, Lew Welch & Philip Whalen
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958)
Jack Kerouac, Big Sur (1962)
Zenshin Philip Whalen (October 20, 1923—June 26, 2002) was an American poet and Soto Zen priest, a member of the Six Gallery reading of 1955 where the Beat movement famously began. Best known as a member of the Beat Generation, Whalen was also a key figure of the San Francisco Renaissance. Whalen received dharma transmission from Zentatsu Richard Baker in 1987, with whom he had followed from the San Francisco Zen Center to help establish Dharma Sangha in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Philip Whalen was born October 20, 1923 in Portland, Oregon to Glenn and Phyllis Whalen. He belonged to a working class family and grew up in The Dalles, a small town on the Columbia River. Shortly after graduating high school he joined the United States Air Force, serving from 1943 to 1946.Following his service, he returned to college under the GI Bill, receiving his BA from Reed College in 1951 (his thesis a book of poems), where he met Gary Snyder and Lew Welch and also William Carlos Williams, who acknowledged Whalen as a poet while at Reed on a literary tour. He was also first introduced to Zen Buddhism at this time. He did odd jobs during this period, working part-time at the post office and also as a fire spotter at designated locations in area national parks during the summer.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he traveled frequently up and down the West Coast, spending a good portion of that time in San Francisco. He participated in the Six Gallery poetry reading in 1955, meeting Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Michael McClure.
1960 was a big year for Whalen, his first two books of poetry (Like I Say and Memoirs of an Interglacial Age) being published. His poetry was also featured in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, 1945—1960, one of the most successful anthologies of the post-WWII era with more than 100,000 copies sold.
At the suggestion of his friend and fellow poet Gary Snyder, Whalen spent 1966 and 1967 in Kyoto, Japan on grant money from the American Academy of Arts and Letters while teaching English. In Japan he began studying Zen Buddhism with more regularity. During this period of 1966 to 1967 in Japan, Whalen composed Imaginary Speeches For A Brazen Head (published in 1972), his second novel. Whalen continued living in Japan off and on until 1971, when he returned to the United States and, under the invitation of Zentatsu Richard Baker, began sitting at the San Francisco Zen Center (ordaining in 1973).
Following the scandal of 1984 at the San Francisco Zen Center, Whalen followed his teacher Zentatsu Richard Baker to Santa Fe, New Mexico and helped him establish Dharma Sangha. In 1987 Whalen received dharma transmission from Baker roshi, making him an independent Zen teacher within the Shunryu Suzuki lineage. In 1991 he returned to San Francisco and resumed practice at the San Francisco Zen Center, shortly after being installed as abbot at the Hartford Street Zen Center (HSZC) that same year.
Whalen served as abbot at the Hartford Street Zen Center from 1991 to 1996, the year of his retirement from that position due to health concerns. He did, however, remain a resident teacher at Hartford Street until his death on June 26, 2002 at age 78. He also continued to write and have his work published while functioning as a Soto priest, though with lesser frequency. David Chadwick wrote at his website, cuke.com, “Philip’s time of death was June 26 at 5:50 a.m. I’m not sure what he died of and I don’t know if anyone is. It may be some sort of blood disease but he seemed to be dying of old age for years – with various complications. Anyway, he remained kind, thoughtful, and whimsical throughout these last years of illness and blindness.”
Whalen & Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco, August 1971
Philip Whalen (full name Philip Glenn Whalen) was an American poet, Zen Buddhist, and one of founders of the West Coast Beats, who played an important role in the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat generation. While at Reed College, he met Gary Snyder and Lew Welch. After graduation Welch left for advertising industry and Whalen and Snyder joined Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia for the historic Six Gallery reading. Young poets, most of who had never met before, took the West Coast by storm and soon became celebrities. Whalen's poetry was soon published in the "Evergreen Review" and in the 1959 Grove Press anthology, "New American Poetry." Like others in the group, he rejected structured, academic writing and explored different forms. Eventually, he became known for his ironic, dry and witty humour and realistic portrayal of life. His topics are full of details depicting annoyances, joys and sudden wake-up calls.
In 1973, soon after his travel to Japan, he converted to Zen Buddhism, took a name Zenshin Ryufu "Zen-mind-dragon-wind" and became a Zen Buddhist monk. As a head monk of the Santa Fe, New Mexico order in 1984 and a leader of the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco, he undertook several tasks, including caring for AIDS patients in San Francisco. Whalen was inspiration for two characters in Jack Kerouac's novels: Ben Fagan in "Big Sur" and Warren Coughlin in "Dharma Bums."
Philip Whalen at Hartford Street Zen Center, October 1977
About Writing and Meditation
Reprinted from Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich, Shambhala, 1991.
I thought that I'd write books and make money enough from them to travel abroad and to have a private life of reading and study and music. I developed a habit of writing and I've written a great deal, but I've got very little money for it.
With meditation I supposed that one could acquire magical powers. Then I learned that it would produce enlightenment. Much later, I found out that Dogen is somewhere on the right track when he tells us that the practice of zazen is the practice of enlightenment. Certainly there's no money in it. Now I have a meditation habit.
Jack Kerouac said that writing is a habit like taking dope. It's a pleasure to write. I usually write everything in longhand. I like the feel of the pen working on the paper.
In my experience these two habits are at once mutually destructive and yet similar in kind. I write for the excitement of doing it. I don't think of an audience; I think of the words that I'm using, trying to select the right ones. In zazen I sit to satisfy my sitting habit. It does no more than that. But while sitting, I don't grab onto ideas or memories or verbal phrases. I simply watch them all go by. They don't get written; they don't (or anyway, very seldom) trip the relay on my writing machinery. Considering that I've spent more days in the past fifteen years sitting zazen than I have spent in writing, it's little wonder that I've produced few books during that time.
I became a poet by accident. I never intended to be a poet. I still don't know what it's all about. If I wrote poetry at all, it's because I could finish it at the end of the page. Maybe it would run halfway down the next page, but it would come to a stop. What I wanted to do with writing was to write novels and make money like anybody else. And now I find myself in this ridiculous industry of writing these incomprehensible doodles, and why anybody's reading them I can't understand.
As far as meditation is concerned I'm a professional. I've been a professional since 1973. And that's my job. I find it very difficult to sell. And that's interesting; that's another job I have, to sell you on this idea that it's good to sit. Maybe that's where the poetry comes into all this, that it has to be an articulation of my practice and an encouragement to you to enter into Buddhist practice. To get yourselves trapped into it I hope. And then try to figure out how to get out of it. It's harder to get out of Buddhist practice than it is to get out of writing poetry.
I write very little nowadays. There is a journal in which I write things like "the sun is shining" or "Michael McClure was in town and we had a nice time" or "the flowers are blooming." And so I don't have much to say because I talk all the time. I have to give lectures, I participate in seminars, and I have not much chance to wander up and down a hillside picking flowers and picking my nose and scratching my balls and what-not. And thinking of hearing, having a chance to hear what's going on around me, or hearing people in restaurants or on a bus. There are no restaurants in Santa Fe worth sitting in, there are no buses at all. So I don't hear anymore, hardly at all, unless I travel. I was recently in New York and around, and now I'm here at Green Gulch Farm, and it's interesting to hear what's going on outside. While somebody was talking there was a robin outside raising hell. But that doesn't mean anything. I mean I'm not about to write a poem on the subject of so-and-so talking, while a robin outside was raising hell.
And so I'm here under false pretences. You must deal with that however you can. I'm quite willing to talk to people and explain things to them if they have questions. Or I might be sitting doltishly looking out the window. So it will be necessary for you, if you want something from me, to try to get it by asking questions. I'm not about to offer anything, I don't have anything to offer. I'm sorry - that's the "emptiness" part.
I think there's a great deal of misunderstanding about what emptiness is, the idea that emptiness is something that happens under a bell jar when you exhaust all the air from it. That's not quite where it's at as far as I understand it. The emptiness is the thing we're full of, and everything that you're seeing here is empty. Literally the word is shunya , something that's swollen up; it's not, as often translated, "void." It's packed, it's full of everything. Just as in Shingon Buddhism, the theory that everything we see and experience is Mahavairochana Buddha, the great unmanifest is what we're actually living and seeing in. Wallace Stevens said, "We live in an old chaos of the sun." Well we're living in a live chaos of Mahavairochana Buddha. What are you gonna do with it? How are you gonna handle that?
My Buddhist name is Zenshin Ryufu, which is very impressive. The reason that you have a name like that is that you keep forgetting it and it makes you wonder about why you got it and why it's for you, because it's a very exalted idea. Zenshin means "meditation mind" and it's also a Japanese pun. It means something like "complete mind." There's also a zenshin essay by Dogen. Ryufu is two Chinese characters that literally mean "dragon wind," but in Chinese literature I found out it means "imperial influence" (the dragon stands for the Chinese emperor). It's pretty complicated, and you wonder, well, what does that have to do with me? Four words - Zen- Mind- Dragon- Wind. What in the world, what connection does that have with this individual who has received this name and is ordained as a monk? So that is a problem that becomes more or less clear as you continue being a monk - what your name is. And of course names and poetry all come together. Gertrude Stein says poetry is calling the name of something. That's what we do all the time, actually - call ourselves. There's the story of the Zen master who every day would call his own name. He'd say, "Zuigan!" And he'd say, "Yes!" "Zuigan! Don't be misled by other people!" Of course the other people were Zuigin too.
I like the idea somebody mentioned of erratic practice. It immediately reminded me of rocks that were left around when the glaciers receded. A lot of times setting out in a field there are no other rocks. It's a very strange appearance. You can't account for the rock's position unless you remember the glacier that carried the rock there and then went away. Zazen is slow but leaves erratic boulders.
I have a number of fancy titles at the Dharmasangha (Zen Brotherhood) in Santa Fe. But when push comes to shove it means that I'm the person who goes down and does the opening ceremony in the zendo (meditation hall) every morning and sits two periods. And then I go down again at 5:30 in the evening and sit again with whoever shows up. And the rest of the time I study. We have two seminars a week with Baker Roshi on the koans in the Shoyoruko as translated by Thomas Cleary. I've also been studying with Baker Roshi closely for the last three years with the intention at last of trying to become a Buddhist teacher, to help get this show on the road, which is still very precarious in this country. The chances as I see it of Buddhism simply becoming something that people do on Sunday just like Methodism or Catholicism are very strong. But I hope that there will continue to be centers in the country like Tassajara, or Shasta Abbey, or Mt. Baldy. There will be these hidden spots around the country where people can hide out and do more serious, concentrated practice, to keep the door open for everybody to get the chance to try it out, find out what it's like to not do anything except follow a particular schedule and do a lot of sitting and a lot of physical work. This is something that I think is necessary in order for human beings to go on being human beings. So far all we've been able to invent in the United States is the business of building small cabins in the woods and going there to hide out, then come back and write a book about it.
That practice, that sort of individual, hermit, erratic practice, is something that's really important. The danger of Zen Centers or monasteries is that people will take them seriously as being real. We should find our own practice; we might start out in an official place, but we should discover somehow that we don't need official institutions. It's exactly like Lew Welch says in his poem about the rock out there, the Wobbly Rock, "Somebody showed it to me and I found it myself." The quote isn't exact. Lew was in erratic Zen practitioner who was a great poet.
The real tension, I think, is between official poetry, the kind that we're taught in school and is kept in libraries, and the kind we really believe in - what we are writing and what our friends write. The same thing holds for meditation: what we discover for ourselves and learn. At some point you can forget it and go off and make a pot of spaghetti. We used to do go down to Muir Beach years ago to gather mussels off the rocks. We'd build a bonfire, put seaweed on the fire to steam the mussels. We'd eat them, then jump up and down in the waves and have fun. That was enough. Probably enough. Or too much. Oh, I guess Blake said it, "Enough, or too much." That's all.
Finger Pointing at the Moon: Zen and the Poetry of Philip Whalen
by Jane Falk
In: The emergence of Buddhist American literature, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 2009, pp. 103-122.
Philip Whalen holds a unique place in modern American poetry. Best
known as one of the original members of the Beat Movement, as a Zen
Buddhist he also enacted the traditional role of poet-priest. However, even
before Whalen entered formal practice in the 1970s, he had been linked
to Zen by fellow poets and critics. Allen Ginsberg, for example, describes
Whalen in 1955 at the seminal Six Gallery poetry reading in San Francisco
as “a strange fat young man from Oregon—in appearance a Zen Buddhist
bodhisattva,” who read poetry “written in rare post-Poundian assemblages
of blocks of hard images set in juxtapositions, like haikus.”1 Whalen was
also included in the summer 1958 Zen issue of the Chicago Review with
Gary Snyder, D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Jack Kerouac, among others.
Unlike fellow poet Gary Snyder, however, he did not participate in traditional
Zen practice under a teacher at this time, but gained his understanding
of Zen from books and friends. How did Zen inform Whalen’s poetry,
and how did his use of Zen change over time?
IN SEARCH OF “REAL SELF”
Whalen’s early interest in Zen can be seen as proof of his avant-garde status
and as a way of distancing himself from identities available to mainstream
American writers in the 1950s, as well as a means by which to access what he
called “Real self.” One might even contend that Whalen’s allusions to Zen in
his early poetry were appropriative, during a time when Zen was a popular
force in American culture especially among avant-garde artists and poets. A
shift occurs both in purpose and emphasis in Whalen’s poetry from the 1950s
to the 1970s, however, when his formal practice begins, and he is ordained
as a monk at the San Francisco Zen Center. Poetry becomes for Whalen an
expression of his practice and a way to encourage others (implying the Buddhist
concept of upaya or skillful means by which bodhisattvas or enlightened
ones strive to use all possible means to bring others to enlightenment).2
This shift is paralleled by a second one in emphasis and content, from more
direct allusions to Zen in earlier poems to more subtle and less specific allusions
later: poetry as practice versus practice as poetry.
Explicating the title of one of his early poems, “The Slop Barrel: Slices
of the Paideuma for All Sentient Beings,” is a way to understand Zen as part
of his avant-garde project. Ostensibly this poem is about growing up and
gaining knowledge; however, the way the title juxtaposes several kinds of
language (colloquial, Greek, and Buddhist) demonstrates a new vocabulary
for poetry. The poem also includes allusions to the Zen kōan and is
a way to wake readers up to a “new comprehension” in the United States
post–World War II when Eastern cultural values were gaining interest.3
A pertinent discussion of Whalen’s interest in Buddhism occurs in a letter
of July 26, 1960, to Allen Ginsberg where he describes what the examples
of Buddha, bodhisattvas, and Zen practitioners mean to him and that the
real question for a Buddhist is Waht [sic] am I doing? The answer is to “eat
that old, imaginary self each one of us imagines we ‘have’” in order to make
way for the “Real self,” “our true identity,” which will act as an alternative to
identities available to Americans in the 1950s. He hypothesizes that Ginsberg
may not like the terms he is using, noting that he wants to find “new
ones, make new stories, poems, metaphors of all this which you & anybody
else WILL dig, so’s you can get started on the way to figuring out for yourself
what you are, what is Heaven (or Enlightenment, or Real, or whatever).”4
Whalen’s method in writing poetry expressive of the “Real” also puts
Western philosophical issues of perception, identity, consciousness, and
language (what might be considered epistemological questions for a Eurocentric
writer) into a Buddhist context using tenets, practices, scriptures,
and literature associated with Zen.5 As Whalen put it in a 1975 interview with
Lee Bartlett, the ideas about Zen “began to find their way into the poetry.”6
He often organizes his early poems around such questions, which also act
as his personal kōan problems. Zen kōan practice usually involves a teacher
giving a kōan or problem to a student to solve. The student must then provide
an individual response found while meditating, as well as a capping
verse, which demonstrates the solution to the problem and the student’s
level of understanding.7 In the process of writing the poem, Whalen works
out an answer or response to his questions while simultaneously involving
readers, his intent being to change perceptions about the nature of reality.
Whalen’s statement of poetics in Donald Allen’s New American Poetry
Anthology that describes poetry as a “picture or graph of a mind moving”
also recalls Zen and its practice of seated meditation: the practitioner sits
silently, following the breath, aware of the mind’s movement.8 As Whalen
adapts this practice to poetry, the content of the poem is the content
of Whalen’s mind or vice versa, recorded as he observes it, including the
sounds and activities of the world around him as he writes. These reality
bits might be considered the found text and found sound of his poems. His
statement of poetics also demonstrates the Buddhist concept of pratitya
samutpada, or “conditioned arising,” the mutual conditioning of all things.
This is best expressed in the Avatamsaka Sutra’s teaching of interdependence
and is symbolized by the Net of Indra in which each object in the
universe is able to reflect and connect with all others.9 In this way Whalen
seeks to resolve the tensions he feels between inner and outer worlds, the
investigation of which is a common thread in his poems and a way of presenting
and understanding the “Real.”
THE REED CONNECTION AND ZEN ROLE MODELS
To better gauge Whalen’s early understanding of Zen, it is useful to look at
his first encounters with Buddhism beginning in the 1940s and 1950s and
the models he used as inspiration. His was a working-class background.
Raised as a Christian Scientist in The Dalles, a small town in Oregon,
Whalen went into the Army from 1943–1946, afterward attending Reed
College on the GI Bill. There he met Gary Snyder who shared his discovery
of R.H. Blyth’s four-volume study of haiku and the writings of D.T. Suzuki
with Whalen and fellow Reed student and poet, Lew Welch.10 Once in the
Bay Area after the Six Gallery reading, Whalen followed up his earlier interest
in Zen by meeting Alan Watts and Albert Saijo. Although Whalen had
already started the practice of sitting meditation on his own, Saijo taught
Whalen and others how to sit with proper form and for longer periods of
time at the informal zendo, Marin-an.11 In addition, Whalen gained much
information about Zen, its literature, practice, and the use of Zen accoutrements
from correspondence with Snyder during the latter’s stay in Japan
1956–1958 and again 1959–1964.
At this time, Whalen also modeled himself after the related roles of
Chinese poet-scholar and poet-priest. The T’ang and Sung poets he chose
to emulate, such as Li Po, Po Chu-I, or Su Tung-po, were not only renowned
poets, but were also interested in Daoism (the former) and Buddhism (the
two latter), specifically Ch’an or Zen Buddhism. In addition, the lifestyle
of Chinese poets would have appealed to Whalen with their fondness for
drinking wine, reciting poetry with fellow poets, and appreciating nature.
As Whalen put it in a 1991 interview, part of Zen’s attraction was the fact
that it “allowed people to be poets and painters—or at least I thought it
did—these were acceptable creatures to be Buddhist practitioners. . . . You
could be crazy and still be a Buddhist of some stripe or other.”12
An example of Whalen’s feeling of kinship with such poets occurs in a
letter from Whalen to Snyder of August 7, 1954, in which he hypothesizes
about his proposed stay in Newport, Oregon: “So maybe I shall be Marshal
of Sui, or whatever it was Mr. Po did in the Provinces.”13 This probably
alludes to Po Chu-I who was exiled because of poems written critical of the
political regime of his day. By making this comparison, Whalen indirectly
demonstrates his feeling of exile from American society by both his lifestyle’s
implicit and his poetry’s explicit critique of middle-class attitudes
toward work and money in the 1950s.
Whalen’s poem of 1958, “Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis,” translated as
“Hymn to the Chinese Forefather,” pays homage to and expresses his feelings
of kinship with “ancient Chinamen”:
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
splashed picture. . . . (2–5)
Here Whalen suggests the irrepressible nature of such poets with their
cheering as the world “whizzed by,” going to “hell in a handbasket,” eventually
“conked out” among cherry blossoms and winejars. The carefree attitude
of these poets is echoed in the poem’s free-verse form, the casualness
of its off-rhyme, and its colloquial tone. With the poem’s last line, “Happy to
have saved us all,” Whalen suggests a double meaning. Either poets as priests
or bodhisattvas wrote poetry to express and transmit their Buddhist understanding
or lay Buddhists wrote life-enhancing poetry for readers. The line
implies that poets, themselves, can save people, although its playful tone suggests
that readers should not take this easy platitude too seriously.
POETRY AS PRACTICE
“Sourdough Mountain Lookout” is a poem that more directly associates
Whalen with Zen for his 1950 audience through its publication in
the Chicago Review Zen issue and its Buddhist references. Whalen incorporates
Zen philosophy and Buddhist scriptures in the poem as a way
to understand relations between the speaker’s inner and outer worlds,
especially the way in which all entities interpenetrate in a world paradoxically
both full and empty, expressed as one past-present-future-memorymoment.
The poem presents a fire lookout’s experiences on Sourdough
Mountain, similar to Whalen’s own experience during the summers of
1953–1955 in Washington’s Mt. Baker National Forest. It begins as the
speaker (understood as a kind of Buddhist hermit poet) climbs up the
mountain and describes his mountaintop world in company of bear,
mice, flies, mountains, and stars. What to one contemporary critic was
the speaker’s passivity, from a Buddhist point of view could be considered
mental action: observation of surroundings juxtaposed with the speaker’s
memories, including voices from the past and quotes from books the
speaker is reading.14
Toward the end of the poem, the speaker’s reflections become more
focused on Buddhist tenets, as he quotes the Buddha and compares the
encircling mountains to the circle of beads of a Buddhist rosary, in the
empty center, the meditator. Attention then shifts to the next morning
and a description of a souvenir rock of granite and crystal brought back
from a walk:
A shift from opacity to brilliance
(The Zenbos say, ‘Lightning-flash & flint-spark’) (158–159).
This phrase, familiar to Zen practitioners, suggests the experience of
enlightenment.15 The image’s power is to suggest the sudden change in
quality of life from unenlightened to enlightened, although physically the
practitioner (like the rock) is the same. The speaker then presents another
shift or turning point in the next stanza’s statement of both the essential
fullness and emptiness of the world:
What we see of the world is the mind’s
Invention and the mind
Though stained by it, becoming
Rivers, sun, mule-dung, flies–
Can shift instantly (161–165).
These shifts are followed by a five-line refrain, which both expresses
the speaker’s situation in American slang and is Whalen’s translation of the
concluding mantram of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, one of the most important
scriptures of the Zen tradition, providing in concise form the teaching
of form in relation to emptiness:
Into the cool
O MAMA! (167–171)16
The view from the lookout is full of objects, thoughts, and memories, but
from the point of view of the sutra and Zen, all are equally empty or “gone.”
However, even without the Buddhist association, these five lines could logically
refer to departure from the lookout at the end of summer. The colloquialism,
gone, is slang for “the most, the farthest out . . . ‘out of this world.’”17
For Whalen, slang with its spontaneity and immediacy is adequate or even
better to express this Buddhist realization. Going out of one’s mind and
losing normal consciousness is equivalent to the sutra’s meaning.
However, a more evolved understanding of emptiness for D.T. Suzuki
includes seeing things as they are.18 Whalen includes this understanding,
too, as the speaker closes the lookout:
Thick ice on the shutters
Coyote almost whistling on a nearby ridge
The mountain is THERE (between two lakes) (150–152).
Here the capitalized adverb is a simple and matter-of-fact place marker.
More importantly, through the variety of levels and kinds of language play
here, Whalen also narrows the gap between spirituality and ordinary life,
one of Zen’s goals.
Whalen’s rather enigmatic closing lines for the poem hint at a Zen
Like they say, ‘Four times up,
Three times down.’ I’m still on the mountain. (172–173)
The couplet could mean that though he’s coming down from the mountain,
his mind will still be on the peak, informed by insights gained there
or that he is always in a mountain state of mind. The couplet also acts as a
kind of capping verse to the speaker’s experience on the mountain and his
attempt to understand the relationship between inner and outer worlds and
the seeming opposites of form and emptiness, the poem’s kōan problem.
These lines also demonstrate Whalen’s adaptation of haiku in his work,
a poetic form associated with Zen. Although Whalen creates some short
poems, which he titles haiku, more often he incorporates haiku-like stanzas
into longer poems often as a way to conclude with some turn or double
meaning as in “Sourdough Mountain Lookout.”19 Haiku often contain
such turning points, especially between second and third lines. Whalen’s
use of haiku may owe much to the ideas of R.H. Blyth who relates haiku and
the Zenrinkushu, the Zen anthology of capping verses. For Blyth, haiku can
express temporary enlightenment as can kōan practice. D.T. Suzuki also
connects Zen and haiku with the idea that haiku are expressions of “inner
feeling absolutely devoid of the sense of ego,” a similar kind of response to
the world required in solving a kōan.20
However, the kōan would prove more compelling for Whalen at this
time. Other poems of this period have even stronger allusions to kōan
practice in the way Whalen organizes them around kōan-like questions
of perception and identity, the poem, itself, becoming a way Whalen, and
by extension his readers, work out specific problems of life through art.
“Metaphysical Insomnia Jazz. Mumonkan xxix,” of 1958, demonstrates
this method, its title referring to the 29th kōan of the Mumonkan or Gateless
Gate, one of the most important kōan collections in Zen literature.21 The
poem juxtaposes the speaker’s musings and memories in a free associative
manner with phrases from the kōan printed in capital letters to contrast
with the rest of the poem’s lowercase type, further sectioning and differentiating
between points of view with thick, black lines for a jazzy effect.
In this kōan two monks argue about a flag moving in the wind. One claims
that it is the flag moving, the other that it is the wind. The Sixth patriarch,
Hui-neng, passing by, overhears the argument and comments that it is mind
not wind or flag that moves; the kōan thereby demonstrates the relation of
mind and phenomena.
Whalen begins his poem with an insomniac speaker, a cat, and a little
ditty about a love named Kitty, followed by allusion to prayer-flags near
Nanga Parbat, a mountain in the Himalayas. These flags bring to mind the
wind moving and the 29th kōan, which the speaker may have been contemplating.
Next the speaker recalls a driver hypnotized by windshield wipers
(representing the flag moving). The speaker’s free association in the poem
also enacts mind’s movement (Hui-Neng’s response) concluding with a
couplet which also acts as a capping verse:
& now I’m in my bed alone
Wide awake as any stone (20–21)
The singsong rhythm here belies a serious tone, while simultaneously
conveying the paradoxical aspect characteristic of kōans. The fact that
the speaker is as wide awake as a stone is from the Western view irrational
because stones are not sentient. However, from the Zen point of
view, stones are equally part of the interpenetrating lifeworld. Considered
as a capping phrase, this couplet is also spontaneous and grounded
in the moment enough to qualify as the speaker’s own response to the
Original face is perhaps the most important kōan for Whalen in regard
to the questions of perception and consciousness he posits in his early
poetry, necessitating a search for the real as opposed to the illusory in
regard to the self or “I.”22
The question of “’what was your original face, before you were conceived,’”
is asked directly in “I Return to San Francisco,” a poem in which
the speaker returns to the city from his isolation in Oregon. Although these
are questions any human being faced by an identity crisis might ask, they
also relate to kōan practice. Indeed according to some commentaries on the
kōan, such personal questions are legitimate ones on which to meditate.
The most structurally exciting of these identity poems is “Self-Portrait,
from Another Direction,” a poem about a somewhat ordinary day in the life
of the poem’s speaker. Here the search for original face leads to self-portraiture,
perhaps a contradiction in terms for a poet with Buddhist aspirations
because for Buddhists the ego or ”I” is illusory. This interest may also
demonstrate, however, Whalen’s appropriation of Buddhist tenets without
the backing of formal Buddhist practice at this time. The poem begins with
the speaker in bed as he wakes up and simultaneously contemplates and
remembers taking a trip downtown. Future and past meet in present. The
body of the poem not only describes these trips, but shows how easily the
mind can travel with or without the body. In the poem’s dynamic movement
from inside to outside, mind to world, and room to town, the poet
seeks to re-create the dynamics of interpenetrating space and time.
The poem ends with the speaker contemplating his face in the mirror
(a self-portrait), which provides closure by returning the reader to the
poem’s beginning: “Into the mirror (NOW showing many men) all of
them ‘I.’” This circularity also illustrates the Buddhist concept of pratityasamutpada
or “conditioned arising,” which explains how individual beings
are caught in karmic cycles of existence. It is visualized as a chain of twelve
links, beginning with ignorance, leading through desire and death with
subsequent rebirth to a new round unless enlightenment takes place and
the chain is broken. The poem in following the speaker’s thought process,
emphasized by line breaks and indentations, is also similar to the way a
Buddhist practitioner watches his or her thoughts go by without attachment
in meditation, recalling Whalen’s statement of poetics. From this
perspective, the poem may be read as a kind of Buddhist meditation on the
way thought becomes present on the page.
In regard to this poem, Snyder comments in a 1960 letter to Whalen
that he found it to be an “excellent rephrasing of the Lankavatara [Sutra]
(with Kegon undertones, especially the end).” The comment on Kegon
“undertones” may relate to this Mahayana Buddhist school’s interest in the
constitution and perception of reality, demonstrated by its privileging of
the Avatamsaka Sutra that teaches the “mutually unobstructed interpenetration”
of all things and “that buddha, mind, and all sentient beings and
things are one and the same.”23
In addition, the speaker’s aim is to truly record the minute particulars of
his days, “NOW,” as he phrases it in the poem’s last line. Such effort is similar
to the poet’s difficulty in writing such a realistic poem and of literally enacting
in words the “mutually unobstructed interpenetration” of all aspects of
the speaker’s reality as separate, yet simultaneous with mind. This difficulty
with writing and the physical toll it takes may relate not only to writer’s block
or issues of originality, but to the ideas of the Lankavatara Sutra that words
are not or can never be the truth. They can only point to it like a finger pointing
toward the moon. The dilemma is that the translation of experience into
words removes the poet-practitioner from the present moment in which he or
she (as “Real self”) is ideally to live if truly enlightened.
The shift in Whalen’s work to poems truly grounded in Zen practice may
be demonstrated in later poetry, especially as he began to spend more time
as Zen practitioner than as poet. An interim period for this is Whalen’s stay
in Japan in the late 1960s where, as he states in a 1999 interview with David
Meltzer, he began to sit “seriously.”24 Some poems from his Kyoto days
seem written from the perspective of a sightseer or an outsider looking in at
a fascinating spiritual and aesthetically pleasing culture. Often the speaker
of such poems walks and observes ceremonies and the beauty of Buddhist
temples or sits and observes himself and others in the coffeehouse milieu.
Other poems address Buddhist concerns more directly.
One of Whalen’s most important poems from this period and one that
seems at first glance to be primarily political, is “The War Poem for Diane
di Prima,” written as a protest of the Vietnam War, which was going on
while Whalen was living in Japan. Much of this poem condemns the war
and the United States government for sending young men to die in Vietnam
for money and power, emphasized in the poem’s last lines:
Nobody wants the war only the money
fights on, alone. (168–169)
The poem’s second section, however, titled, “The Real War,” describes a
war fought at all times by all humans. The section begins as the speaker
watches water dropping down a rain-chain, which he free-associates with
the twelve links in the Buddhist chain of causation. These stages are capitalized
in the poem for emphasis and presented in list form moving from
ignorance through desire to old age and death. The speaker privileges revolution
over war, calling for a change in consciousness (recalling Whalen’s
interest in poetry as a valid and important way to make that change).
Other shorter poems provide more direct meditations on the nature
of reality, while also bringing the speaker of the poem to new levels of
awareness, an example being, “Walking beside the Kamogawa, Remembering
Nansen and Fudo and Gary’s Poem.” The sight of stray cats along
the river brings to the speaker’s mind Gary Snyder’s dying cat and the
meaning of life and death, as well as the words of the Soto Zen teacher of
San Francisco Zen Center:
Suzuki Roshi said, ’If I die, it’s all right. If I should
live, it’s all right. Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha.’ (15–16)
Here, Suzuki Roshi alludes to the 3rd kōan from the Hekigan roku, another
famous Zen kōan collection.25 This kōan forces the student to confront
duality and to question the making of dualistic distinctions. The poem
ends with a two-line capping phrase:
We don’t treat each other any better. When will I
Stop writing it down. (18–19)
This last line break foregrounds the speaker’s query become admonishment
(“stop writing it down”), implying that practice is more important
than writing. The speaker’s response also involves the realization that
acceptance of the nonduality of life and death is not something that can be
understood intellectually or even expressed in words. The poem ends with
a postscript and the word, hojo, the Japanese term for a monk’s cell, suggestive
of Whalen’s future path.
In this regard, Whalen’s failure to begin formal practice during his stay
in Japan is hinted at in several poems from this period. For example, “The
Dharma Youth League” equates the failure of “several thousand gold buddhas”
to do no more than sit during World War II with that of the Buddha’s
and Whalen’s own, ending,
Does Buddha fail. Do I.
Some day I guess I’ll never learn. (6–7)
Here, the way declarative statements also ask questions and the last line
juxtaposes optimism with failure creates a paradoxical ending that calls the
concept of failure, itself, into question.
PRACTICE AS POETRY: THE 1970S AND BEYOND
In the 1970s, Whalen formally became a Zen practitioner at the San
Francisco Zen Center, and his role began to shift from poet to priest. He
was given dharma transmission by Richard Baker Roshi in 1987 and was
invested as Abbot of Hartford Street Zen Center in 1991. One consequence
of his increased commitment was a decrease in poetic output in the 1980s,
due to concerns and obligations to spend more time in meditation and
teaching. This is especially true in the 1990s when his deteriorating health
and failing eyesight became additional hindrances to writing.26 Thus some
might consider Zen’s influence on Whalen as poet to be a negative one,
especially in regard to the long poem as a form that seems to drop from
his practice. However, Whalen continued to write short poems, often of
a commemorative and occasional nature, most notably poems of the late
1970s and 1980s collected in Some of These Days, 1999. In addition, he
became involved in new poetic endeavors as one of the co-translators for
Kazuaki Tanahashi’s project to translate the teachings of Soto Zen master
Dōgen.27 Significantly, Whalen’s shorter, tighter, yet expressive poetry
might be considered more in keeping with Dōgen’s work and that of the
Zen and Japanese poetic traditions in general, bearing out the contention
that from a Zen perspective less is more.
Although Whalen never actually claimed the role of Zen poet, as a
Zen priest he did make several statements about how his poetry might
be understood in relation to Zen teachings. In a 1991 interview after his
investiture as abbot of Hartford Street Zen Center, Whalen was asked by
Schelling he ever thought of his poems as “Dharma teachings.” Whalen’s
response was “In a way, yeah . . . Maybe it’s possible that somebody who
is already practicing might get the point as it were. And other people who
weren’t practicing might say, ‘What is this practice thing about, what
is Zen about?’” (“PW:ZI” 231). Later in the interview Schelling asks
whether Whalen’s poetry comes out of contemplative states or whether
they are in the tradition of sutra or kōan material, and Whalen responds
that much of what he has written was because he “saw things or heard
things immediately” or that “something caught my attention,” to which
Anne Waldman adds that attention, itself, can be considered a contemplative
state (“PW:ZI” 232–233).
A number of poems that express such a state, heightened by meditation,
come from Whalen’s Tassajara period collected in Enough Said.28 For
example, “’Back to Normalcy’” begins as the speaker’s ear “stretches out
across limitless space and time” (1) to hear even a fly walking while his eye
catches the cat’s eye. The rest of the poem is made up of ambient sounds
and sights: wind chimes, generator noise, snatches of conversation, and
sunshine. The poem ends with an observation reminiscent of the way earlier
poems close with a capping phrase while the rhythm of the lines adds
emphasis and echoes meaning:
Brown dumb leaves fall on bright ferns
New and thick since the fire (13–14)
The suggestion here is that everyday life equates with normalcy experienced
as process and change; eventually the ferns will grow back after the
fire, the fire in question being the great fire at Tassajara of 1977. The poet
presents this flow and interpenetration of life on various levels (plant, animal,
and human), all interacting in the poem through the speaker’s consciousness.
However, the fact that the poem’s title is in quotations, a scrap
of conversation overheard by Whalen, perhaps, draws attention to and
questions accustomed language use. Is there a state of normalcy, or is each
moment unique? This is another way of questioning dualistic thinking
with the understanding that life is neither and both simultaneously.
Another poem from this period, “What’s New?” also builds on the
speaker’s observations moving from outer to inner worlds, as he notes his
reactions to happenings of daily life. Again the juxtaposition of objects,
sensations, memories, and associations demonstrate and follow the mind
in movement, part of the way Whalen’s poetry can model a Buddhist perspective
for both practitioners and nonpractitioners. The poem begins as
a kimono falls from a hanger seen by the speaker not as a cause for anger,
but as visual excitement: “Falling timelessly (if I say so) to the closet floor”
(8). A few weeks later a similar experience when rug buckles and table falls
causes an opposite reaction of chaos and the speaker’s impulse to “(furious)
grab, rush” (11). This is followed by another shift:
Fill in the blanks later, unexpected brilliant excursions
And back again to the central trunk or channel, (15–16).
Here, Whalen refers to the practice of meditation in which wandering attention
and thoughts are brought back to the center attached to stable spinal
column or “central trunk.” The poem ends with more mind excursions, as
the falling kimono recalls waterfalls, first that of a PG & E station in San
Francisco and then the waterfall that Buddhist monk, Morito Shonin, sat
under in penance to Myo’o Fudo after killing his love. This anecdote may
also relate to the Tassajara fire because Fudo is the god associated with fire.
Later poems of the 1980s, however, become even more spare and
seemingly matter of fact, yet layered with meaning. For example, the 1986
poem, “On the Way to the Zendo,” describes Whalen’s life in New Mexico
at Cerro Gordo Temple and South Ridge Zendo where he followed Richard
Baker Roshi in 1984.29 This short poem of five lines has a haiku-like form
juxtaposing the speaker’s outer and inner worlds. It begins with physical
sensations of the outside world, wind blowing leaves and ducks quacking,
and then moves inward in its concluding lines:
SOME VERSIONS OF THE PASTORAL whistle in one ear,
out the other.
Christopher Robin, Pooh and Piglet
Stomping through the Hundred Acre Wood. (4–7)
The capitalized phrase may refer to Some Versions of Pastoral, a literary
study by William Empson about the pastoral, a genre that treats of an idyllic
rustic life where city folk write poems as country folk, a possible reference
to the speaker’s situation.30 The inclusion of THE in the capitalized phrase
also allows for more general associations, the whistling of Beethoven’s Pastoral
Symphony, for example. However, the speaker may have intentionally
misquoted Empson’s title with an implicit dismissal of too academic a
treatment of a state better expressed by the humorous and charming image
of the speaker “stomping” through the wood along with Milne’s characters,
Christopher Robin, Pooh, and Piglet. Thus a seemingly straightforward
poem about a walk to the Zendo demonstrates not only the complexity of
everyday life as outer and inner worlds meet in the poet-practitioner, but
also suggests a critique.
CONCLUSION: BACK TO BEGINNINGS AND COMMON THREADS
This brief survey suggests that Whalen’s body of work and poetics can be
understood as continuously evolving over time in relation to his evolving
Buddhist consciousness. Even his 1959 statement of poetics (that “poetry is
a picture or graph of a mind moving”) becomes modified in later years. In a
statement from 1987 entitled, “About Writing and Meditation,” he differentiates
between his two habits of meditation and writing: “In my experience
these two habits are at once mutually destructive and yet similar in kind.”31
In other words, poetry does not get written during meditation practice,
but from a state of mind which develops from meditation. The practice of
awareness is also one that does not make distinctions. In Zen terms this
might be considered big mind.32
In early poems it seems to be writing, not necessarily Buddhist practice
that can change consciousness and access the “Real self.” This may also be
because Whalen lacks formal Zen training in the 1950s and 1960s, when
most of his understanding of Zen comes either from books or from other
practitioners. His commitment is more to the Beat avant-garde impulse to
change American culture, evidenced partly by his intent to use a different
language with which to write poetry, one inflected with Zen Buddhist terminology
along with other levels and layers of discourse such as slang.
Eventually, as Whalen became a practitioner under the tutelage of
Richard Baker Roshi and the Zen poet-priest on whom he had perhaps
modeled himself from the 1950s, the focus of his later poems shifts to an
emphasis on practice having the power to change the self and others with
poetry understood more in Buddhist terms of skillful means. In “About
Writing and Meditation,” Whalen suggests a way that poetry and Zen connect:
“Maybe that’s where the poetry comes into all this, that it has to be an
articulation of my practice and an encouragement to you to enter into Buddhist
practice” (“AWM” 329).
Thus the purpose behind Whalen’s use of Zen changes as does the
emphasis on Zen in his poetry. There are fewer direct allusions to Zen
tenets, sutras, or practices and more attention to how phenomena of ordinary
life and mind interpenetrate. Burton Watson, a scholar of Chinese
and Japanese poetry, characterizes Zen poetry in a way that expresses the
essence of Whalen’s poetry project: “Zen poetry usually eschews specifically
religious or philosophical terminology in favor of everyday language,
seeking to express insight in terms of the imagery and verse forms current
in the secular culture of the period.”33
This shift is especially true in regard to how Whalen references kōans
in poems. Whalen comments on the kōan and poetry in an oblique way in
his 1991 interview with Schelling and Waldman when the question arises
of how meditation practice informs poetry. Whalen admits that although
poems or “certain phrases” don’t come to him in sitting meditation, “kōan
practice is an activity where you do repeat, where you do come back always
to a certain phrase,” hinting that he might include such phrases in poems
(“PW:ZI” 233). However, at this point in the interview Whalen abruptly
changes the subject, calling Schelling and Waldman’s questions about
poetry’s relation to meditation or kōan practice bogus. In keeping with this
attitude, although allusions to kōans continue to thread their way through
later poems, they are presented more subtly. “UPON THE POET’S PHOTOGRAPH,”
for example, the second section in “Epigrams and Imitations”
of 1981, recalls the earlier concern with original face:
This printed face doesn’t see
A curious looking in;
Big map of nothing. (5–7)
The first two lines of this haiku present the meeting of two faces with
the turn of the third line and the idea that both image and onlooker are
“nothing.”34 These three short lines more effectively question identity than
Whalen’s rhetorical questions of the 1950s.
This brief overview of Whalen’s poetry has shown that despite shifts in
his poetry from early to late, his basic concerns remain constant over time.
These can be understood as an interest in using Buddhist, especially Zen,
philosophy, psychology, and aesthetics, as the basis for his poetics and his
poems and a way to access the “Real self.” One such interest is his exploration
of the relation between what is inside the poet-speaker’s mind and what
is going on in the outside world. From this interface, the poem grows. The
poem is this interface. There is no distinction between the two. Whalen
addresses this issue explicitly in an interview with Leslie Scalapino as he
discusses how he puts his poems together, stating of “inside” and “outside”
that “it has some connection also with the way Buddhist psychology looks
at things; how you eventually find out the outside is really inside . . . You
can’t say there’s something out there. It’s all inside.”35 Thus, Whalen’s references
to Zen Buddhist tenets and practice in his poetry, first as poet, then
as poet-priest, is a constant throughout his writing career, and one when
used as a lens to look at his body of work, brings it all, momentarily, into
focus, a finger pointing at the moon.
1. Allen Ginsberg, “The Six Gallery Reading,” in Deliberate Prose, 240. Ginsberg’s
statement about this event, which brought East Coast Beats together with
West Coast Renaissance poets was originally made in 1957 and titled, “The Literary
Revolution in America.”
2. Definitions of Buddhist terms are from Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Franz-
Karl Ehrhard, and Michael S. Diener, The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and
Zen, trans. Michael H. Kohn (Boston: Shambhala, 1991).
3. Unless otherwise stated, the early poetry of Whalen from the 1950s and
1960s is quoted from On Bear’s Head (New York: Harcourt, Brace, World, Inc.
and Coyote, 1969). Later poetry from the 1970s through the 1990s is quoted from
Canoeing Up Cabarga Creek (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1996). Hereafter these
books will be cited in the text respectively as OBH and CUCC. Sentient beings is a
Buddhist term. Whalen’s Greek term recalls Pound’s “New Paideuma,” described in
Culture. Borrowing the term from Frobenius, Pound uses it to refer to “‘New Learning’”
or “whatever men of my generation can offer our successors as means to the
new comprehension” (58). A letter from Whalen to Snyder of June 10, 1957, complains
of the way “kritics” have misrepresented the Beat Generation and states that
“the trouble is none of us has published anything like a manifesto.” He concludes
that whatever any of the group may write within the year “could present Slices of
the New Paideuma,” implying that this poem could be such a manifesto.
4. This letter is from the Ginsberg Papers, Courtesy of Department of Special
Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries. Note that
all of Whalen’s letters are quoted by permission of the Estate of Philip Whalen.
5. I am indebted to Gary Snyder for this characterization used in a letter to
Whalen of January 13, 1960, to describe Whalen’s concerns in “Self-Portrait from
Another Direction.” This letter is from Whalen’s archive at Reed College.
6. Philip Whalen, “Interview with Lee Bartlett,” in Off the Wall, 71.
7. In her study of the kōan with Miura Isshu, Ruth Fuller Sasaki explains that
the Japanese student must find the appropriate “‘capping phrase’” for the kōan
assigned; then he presents “it to his teacher as the final step in his study of the
kōan” (Zen Kōan 80). These phrases are usually drawn from the Zen anthology,
8. Philip Whalen, “Statement of Poetics,” New American Poetry Anthology,
ed. Donald Allen (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1960): 420. Note that this statement
first appears titled, “Since You Ask Me,” as the conclusion to Memoirs of an
Interglacial Age and was created as a press release for a reading tour Whalen and
Michael McClure went on in 1959.
9. Heinrich Dumoulin explains this image as a net of pearls hanging over
Indra’s palace, whereby “each reflects the others . . . in looking at one pearl one
sees them all” (47).
10. Both Blyth and Suzuki make connections between Zen and poetry,
Blyth especially connecting Zen and haiku. In Suzuki’s series of essays on Zen
Buddhism, he not only alludes to haiku, but frequently quotes the verses of Zen
figures and Chinese and Japanese poets, their poems demonstrating enlightenment
experiences and moments of awareness. Suzuki also discusses Zen’s claims
regarding the limitations of more discursive and rational language. Whalen would
also have been familiar with Snyder’s translations of the poems of Ch’an hermit
poet, Han Shan.
11. Albert Saijo had studied Zen with Nyogen Senzaki in Los Angeles. For
more on this period see interviews with Whalen collected in Off the Wall. For
more on Snyder’s introduction to Zen see Suiter’s Poets on the Peaks. The Marin
County zendo was organized by Gary Snyder.
12. Philip Whalen, “Philip Whalen: Zen Interview,” in Disembodied Poetics,
225. Hereafter quotes from this interview will be cited in the text with the abbreviation,
13. Note that all letters from Whalen to Snyder are quoted permission of
Snyder’s archive at the University of California, Davis, Davis, California and by
permission of the estate of Philip Whalen.
14. See Thurley for Buddhism as passive; see Davidson for a more positive
presentation of Buddhism and Whalen’s work.
15. D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, 3rd series glosses this: “The idea
is to show immediateness of action, an uninterrupted movement of life-energy”
16. D.T. Suzuki, Manual of Zen Buddhism provides the Sanskrit and its translation:
“Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha,”or in English: “O Bodhi, gone
gone gone to the other shore, landed at the other shore, Svaha!” (27).
17. Lawrence Lipton, 316.
18. D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, 3rd series, 238.
19. Philip Whalen interview with the author, San Francisco, California, July
2000. On his use of haiku, Whalen noted the difficulty of writing haiku in English,
stating that the Japanese language was needed for true haiku. “The Slop Barrel”
also ends with a haiku-like stanza as do other poems from this period.
20. R.H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol 1, 24 and D.T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture
225. At times Whalen uses a series of shorter haiku-like stanzas to make longer
poems, “Opening the Mountain, Tamalpais: 22:x:65,” 1965, being an example.
This poem, a record of the circumambulation of Mt. Tam by Whalen, Snyder, and
Ginsberg, is made up of short sections in which natural images are juxtaposed
with moments of realization, memories, or quotes from the day usually with a turn
before the last line in haiku-like fashion.
21. According to the interview with the author in summer, 2000, Whalen was
familiar with the collection of kōan compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki,
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones; this kōan appears on pages 143–144 of this volume. The title
of this poem as it originally appeared in Memoirs of an Interglacial Age did not reference
the 29th kōan, whereas the title thereafter does. Leaving out this information
makes the poem more problematic, forcing readers to make the connection
themselves. “All About Art and Life,” another poem of this period, asks kōan-like
questions, too: “WHAT IS IT I’M SEEING?” and “WHO’S LOOKING?”
22. According to Alan Watts in The Way of Zen, the usual first kōans given
to students are Hui-Neng’s “Original Face,” Chao-Chou’s “Wu,” or Hakuin’s “One
23. Both sutras are important texts for Zen Buddhists. Whalen expresses his
own understanding of the Lankavatara Sutra to Ginsberg in a letter of September
11, 1958, stating that this sutra “explains how the mind is constituted & how it manufactures
illusion.” This sutra also addresses the problems with language familiar to
practitioners of Zen, that words are not the truth but only able to point to it.
24. Philip Whalen, “Philip Whalen,” in San Francisco Beat, ed. David Meltzer,
25. This is Basō’s kōan, “Sun-faced Buddhas, Moon-faced Buddhas.” Suzuki
Roshi not only established San Francisco Zen Center, but also gave Whalen’s
teacher, Richard Baker Roshi, dharma transmission.
26. Regarding his poetic output and its publication, Enough Said, 1980, was his
last major original collection, aside from Some of These Days, 1999. The title of the
1980 volume may be Whalen’s self-criticism on the writing of poetry from a Zen
Perspective. Thanks to Michael Rothenberg for a discussion of this idea. Regarding
Whalen as teacher, the didactic role has been a congenial one for him and part of his
poetic agenda from the 1950s as evidenced in “Since You Ask Me,” where he claims
that he has inherited Dr. Johnson’s title of teacher.
27. Whalen’s translations appear in two out of three of the Dōgen volumes
(Moon in a Dewdrop and Enlightenment Unfolds) while the third volume, Beyond
Thinking, is dedicated to him. San Francisco Zen Center under the direction of Richard
Baker Roshi was the original sponsor of Tanahasi’s project beginning in 1977.
28. For more on this period, see the Preface to this volume.
29. Richard Baker Roshi resigned as head of San Francisco Zen Center in
1983 over a scandal that began with exposure of his sexual indiscretions and was
later compounded by what some considered his authoritarian leadership style.
Whalen, loyal to his teacher, followed Baker Roshi to the new Zen center he
established in New Mexico, spending several years there. Whalen subsequently
received dharma transmission from Baker Roshi. For more on this period see
Downing’s Shoes Outside the Door.
30. Thanks to Eric Birdsall for an enlightening discussion of William Empson
and this poem.
31. Philip Whalen, “About Writing and Meditation,” in Beneath a Single
Moon, ed. Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich, 328. Hereafter quotes from
this statement will be cited in the text using the abbreviation, “AWM.” This
statement was originally made at a conference entitled, “The Poetics of Emptiness,”
at Green Gulch Farm in April 1987 and was reprinted in Beneath a Single
32. “Big mind” is a term used by the Soto Zen teacher and founder of the San
Francisco Zen Center Shunryu Suzuki in his talks collected in the volume, Zen
Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Of big mind he states that it is “something to express, but
it is not something to figure out. Big mind is something you have, not something
to seek for” (92). In another lecture he explains that the essence of mind is “that
everything is included within your mind” (35).
33. Burton Watson, “Zen Poetry,” in Zen: Tradition and Transition, ed. Kenneth
34. In an unpublished typescript, “Notions About Teaching Classes Dealing
With The Zen Lineage,” in Whalen’s archive at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, he
comments that kōans and stories in kōan books had “one kind of meaning” before
“intensive zazen” and “another meaning” after practicing at Zen Center. He concludes
that book learning needs to be “measured against one’s own experience and
judgment” (7–8). This is quoted by permission of the Bancroft Library and the
Estate of Philip Whalen.
35. Leslie Scalapino, “How Phenomena Appear to Unfold.” This is a quote
from an interview Leslie Scalapino had with Whalen in the 1980s included in a
talk with this title given at Naropa in 1989.
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Paul Knitter. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1994.
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