Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder were leading lights in 20th-century American poetry and in the establishment of Zen Buddhism in the West. This article, adapted from David Schneider’s upcoming biography of Whalen, tells of how their lifelong friendship, like other famous literary and dharma friendships, helped shape them both, as well as countless others whose lives they touched.
Philip Whalen had no better friend than Gary Snyder. Whalen’s life would have run a vastly different course had the 17-year-old Snyder not first seen him from offstage at Reed College’s theater, directing players in a student production, and been impressed with him. Whalen might have taken much longer to run across Zen writings, for example—Snyder brought D. T. Suzuki’s books home to their apartment when they were living together in San Francisco. Philip might never have found work in the mountains: sitting in that same Telegraph Hill apartment in the hot summer of 1952, Whalen read one of Gary’s regular letters, this one from a Forest Service lookout on Crater Mountain in the North Cascades of Washington State. Provoked by it, and by working (“bad anytime, but especially nasty in summer in the city”), Whalen wrote back to declare, “By God, next summer, I’m going to have a mountain of my own!” This he did; then got another mountain the following year, and spent a third summer as a forest lookout the year after that, making this by far his steadiest, most satisfying job until many years later, when he became a “professional” man of the cloth—that is, a Zen priest. Whalen would never have read in the historic Six Gallery reading had not Snyder put Philip’s name and poems literally in front of Allen Ginsberg’s face. Philip certainly would have floundered longer with unemployment and flirted more dangerously with outright homelessness had Gary not taken care of him whenever the two were in the same town at the same time.
They roomed together in San Francisco off and on from 1952 to 1954 in a flat on Montgomery Street, above the city’s North Beach district, to which they descended together nearly nightly for beer at Vesuvio and other drinking establishments. Thus Philip and Gary came to know the writers, players, merchants, philosophers, painters, filmmakers, musicians, and scholars circling around the Bay Area in the gestation phase of the San Francisco Renaissance. During this same period, Snyder and Whalen began going together to the American Academy of Asian Studies (now the California Institute of Integral Studies), where they heard and met Alan Watts, and later also D. T. Suzuki. From among the audiences there, they got to know Claude (Ananda) Dahlenberg, who cofounded the East-West House and later became an ordained Zen priest under Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. And from connections there, they began attending the regular Friday evening literary gatherings held at his home by the poet Kenneth Rexroth.
Other Friday evenings found Whalen and Snyder in Berkeley for the study group with Rev. Kanmo Imamura and Jane Imamura at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple. Together the Imamuras were descended from the most important old families of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, yet they welcomed the young men, going so far in the subsequent years as to turn their little church publication—the Berkeley Bussei—over to the artist Will Petersen for a time. Snyder, Whalen, Ginsberg, and Kerouac all published early poems in its pages. The benevolent Imamura family gave both Snyder and Whalen their first contact with people actually practicing Buddhism instead of purely discussing its philosophies and traditions.
Whalen might have made his way out to the Academy or over to the study group without Snyder’s impetus, but Philip was much given, even then, to the sedentary life. As long as he could, he spent hours each day reading, writing, drawing, playing music, doodling, staring into space—wondering from time to time where and how he could find a job that wouldn’t drive him crazy. He ventured out when he needed to—for cigarettes or food or for fresh air—but he had nothing like the get-up-and-go Gary had. It is, in fact, difficult to think of anyone with the drive and sense of adventure the young Snyder had. These qualities propelled him up mountains, up trees, down the hole of tankers, out into deserts, back into libraries, into universities, into monasteries, across the country, out of the country, across oceans; they armored him against the many outer and inner obstacles an un-moneyed young man might encounter in such travels; they sustained him as he went where he needed to go, saw what he wanted to see, studied what, and with whom, he needed to study, worked as he had to, and cut loose when he could.
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