David Schneider, a longtime Tricycle contributor, is the author of Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen, published by University of California Press last July. The biography draws on Whalen’s journals and personal correspondence to show how key figures of the literary and artistic scenes of 1950s and ’60s San Francisco supported one another in their art and their spiritual paths. In 2011, Tricycle adapted an excerpt, “Lives Well Shared,” which tells of the friendship between Whalen and the poet Gary Snyder, from an early version of the manuscript.
Schneider and Whalen studied together as priests at San Francisco Zen Center in the ’80s, during which time Schneider kept a journal of their conversations on literature, Buddhism, and all manner of things. The article below, originally published by Tricycle as a web exclusive in 2007, is from that journal, with an introduction by the author.
In March 1981, while a student at the San Francisco Zen Center, I began keeping a journal of the sayings and doings of Zenshin Philip Whalen. I wanted to be putting pen to paper, and here was an amazing subject—a person I knew and loved and practically lived with—a literary person, a “famous” person, one of the original Beat poets, a Zen master, a friend to Kerouac, Snyder, Ginsberg, McClure et alia, and my pal too.
The entire journal takes place during a golden age of the San Francisco Zen Center, before the big schism of 1983. At the time, Zen Center held a place of no small importance in the spiritual lives of many Californians. Artistic, economic, and even political influence radiated from this.
Philip called his a “life of elegant retirement.” He did not work in the businesses, and he performed extremely rarely as a poet for the Zen Center. He lived there to practice Zen, and to train with his teacher, Richard Baker Roshi. Philip’s take on temple life, based also upon his years in Japan, provided a healthy, sometimes irreverent corrective to the daily experiences of many of his fellow Zen students.
On the other hand, Zenshin did show himself to be a very learned poet, with a grasp of all classical and most popular writing in English. This counts, because Zen takes place in a literary atmosphere. The meditation is silent, true, and periods of severely restricted speech are inflicted on practitioners with regularity, but it is simply not the case that one sits in non-thought, works, eats and sleeps in that same condition, preparing thereby for illuminating encounters with the master and the big bang boom of enlightenment.
A Zen student’s day is suffused with literature, poetry specifically: ancient verses are chanted early each morning; lyrics accompany meals and acts of personal hygiene; ceremonies, ordinations, and transmissions fairly burst with poetry. The basic instruments of teaching in Zen—the lineage wisdom of the koans—are couched in poems. The masters’ sophisticated repartee is capped and shaped and turned upon the student with poetry. Poetry is not enough to crack their code, but it is often the shape the key takes. Officially, Zen is a “transmission outside words and scripture;” unofficially, it’s OK, possibly even necessary, to fall in love with poetry. This is not a contradiction. I fell in love with poetry—many of us did—and most of the living poets whose work we admired, admired Philip’s work.
Baker Roshi’s invitation to Philip to live at Zen Center was based not only on personal affection between the two men but also on Baker’s recognition that there were lineages in Western literature that had helped prepare the ground for Buddhist practice, that had softened opinions and opened minds to Zen’s approach. Whalen’s presence as a living holder of those lineages, the visits he regularly received from other literati, and the teachings that flowed from him, both formally and informally, made American Zen’s debt to literature inescapably clear.
I kept this journal secret from Philip himself. Only years later did I confess it to him:
“So, some years ago, I kept a journal,”
“And this journal well, was, kind of like focussed on you. I mean on things you and I did together.”
“And like, now, it’s become this sort of thing. At least for me. Maybe one day I’ll publish it . . .”
“Uh huh . . .”
Long, long silence.
“Well, Dave, there isn’t really anything I can do about it NOW, is there?”
He growled, but I felt he was secretly pleased. Some years after that I mentioned it to him again, but he waved it off, as if it were already understood. Fait accompli.
March 6, 1981
A very lovely fall day. To prolong the conversation I was having with Philip in the sun and light wind, I said, “I think this must be one of the greatest American novels,” pulling A Farewell to Arms out of my book-bag and holding it up for him.
“Wha.. what do you have there dear boy? Oh. Oh, well, you have to read all the really SERIOUS American authors before you can say that.”
“Oh, you know, really SERIOUS types like Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James . . .”
Philip rarely gives a clear opinion of any author, short of total admiration for him—or her, more usually: Jane Austen, Emily Dickenson, Murasaki Shikibu, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson. Even if he makes a pronouncement about someone’s work, or some part of it, it’s very likely that time next time you talk to him about it, he’ll widen the context of that work or that author so as to throw an entirely different light on it/him/her.
Now he seemed to be putting Hemingway down, but I remember the time he typed up a descriptive passage about a lake in a valley, and didn’t credit the writing on the typed sheet. He posted it an the bulletin board outside the small kitchen. A bunch of us were standing around drinking coffee, getting ready for the day, gazing in our usual vacant way at the bulletin board. Philip appeared behind us and asked, “Do you know who wrote that?”
“Hemingway” flashed through my mind, but this was several years after my first Hemingway binge, and several years before this latest. We all looked carefully at the passage, stalling. I wanted to say “Hemingway,” but I wasn’t sure and didn’t think I could afford the embarrassment.
Philip said, “It’s from The Green Hills of Africa—isn’t it lovely?”
“I knew it was Hemingway!”
He chuckled, as we all, including him, read it again. It was a lovely passage, but it was even more lovely to see Philip so thoroughly enraptured by the writing as to risk educating us.
During the course of my re-reading Hemingway this time, Philip has spent hours listening to my questions and opinions, and discussing them with me. One day he came into an office where I was trying to type a long dull list, and delivered a two-hour lecture on Hemingway: the superiority of the short stories to the novels (“The novels get a little thin sometimes—you can poke your finger through them”), the history of the writing of The Snows of Kilamanjaro, and Hemingway’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He read aloud from a stack of biographies, and supplemented the stories with his own insights. It was a great lecture, but not at all an uncommon thing for him to do.
Everyone knows of Philip’s devotion to literature, but not everyone can imagine his effort to transmit it. Complicating this is the fact that Philip does not often shine as a classroom teacher. (A set of lectures on how to read, delivered at Tassajara, was a notable exception.) Mostly, he just doesn’t think classrooms are where you learn. Philip has read, and continues to read, everything all the time and is glad to encourage anyone willing to join him for any part of that. He honestly feels that people have got to find out things for themselves, and this includes developing “chops” as a writer. Here again, though, he is incredibly generous about reading works his acquaintances show him. He can devastate people with his criticism, but he aims to help.
April 8, 1981
We’d been in the library most of the afternoon, working. I’d been still hunting for a reference to a Buddhist worthy named Assaji. At the same time, intermittently Philip and I had been trying to decide which one-volume Shakespeare Zen Center’s bookstore should carry.
We narrowed the Shakespeare question down to two or three, and turned our attention to Assaji. It seemed Philip was into it from a combination of natural curiosity and a simple wish to be helpful. We’d read aloud any little snatches of text that sounded interesting—actually sometimes we’d read as much as a paragraph.
Assaji turns out to be one of the Buddha’s first five disciples, a person of many merits, and known to have been extremely shy. The fun of reading aloud with Philip from Buddhist texts prompted me to open Interviews with the Dalai Lama and blurt out the first thing I saw, which was the question (being put to the Dalai Lama) “Can you describe what the mind of a Buddha is like?”
I was preparing to read the half page or so the Dalai Lama took to respond, very interested personally in what he had to say. I never did read it though, because Philip suddenly hunkered down in his chair, pushed his legs out in front of him, rolled his big eyes and said in a gravelly voice, “Man! . . . It’s ineffable, baby.”
April 29, 1981
I ran into Philip in the hallway, and since we both had a bit of free time, we set out for a walk. It was a smoggy, hot morning. As we passed the fence where the morning-glories grew, I told him the story about Hammett and Hemingway that Carol had read in Lillian Hellman’s memoir. The story was about Hemingway’s bending a spoon in the crook of his arm, then offering Hammett a spoon so he could match the feat. Hammett’s reply—about how when he used to do such things, it was for Pinkerton money and wouldn’t Hemingway like to go roll a hoop in the park?—slew Philip. He stopped, hit his thigh, and howled with delight.
“What’d Hemingway do then? Hit him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well probably if he was sober enough to hear what Hammett said, he’d have hit him.”
“I understand that Hammett was mad at Hemingway for being patronizing toward Fitzgerald, whom Hammett considered to be the better writer.”
“Kid, you know, I hear that EVERYWHERE. Everybody loves that guy—everyone from Gertrude Stein to . . . Dashiell Hammett now—thinks that Fitzgerald was just the greatest thing that ever was, and it’s NONSENSE I tell you.”
Philip went on to discuss Fitzgerald’s life and work at some length. He seemed to know an awful lot about someone whose writing he didn’t like. When we turned off Page Street onto Gough, I put on my sunglasses and said, “You know, I’ve got this idea about Hemingway. I’ve been reading the short stories and I’ve got this theory. It seems to me he was, well, kind of dumb—kind of stupid, but he had all these stories to tell.”
“That’s what he wanted you to think anyway. That’s what he was trying to sell you.”
“You mean he wasn’t dumb?”
“Yes. I know what you mean, though. To read it you’d think there wasn’t any learning or sensibility at all there, when actually there was all kinds of learning and sensibility. But he wanted you to think he was just this big cock and muscles who told stories about going fishing. Because actually, he thought that the upper classes and intellectuals had ruined the world. And they had, to a certain extent—at least they seemed to have brought on the First World War. So he was coming from this place of being just a good old boy who liked to hunt and fight and lay as many women as possible, because that’s what real people did, and everybody knew that.”
We emerged from some shade we’d found on Gough, and crossed Market.
“But see, he read all the time. That’s what he did. He’d either be drinking or reading, to cool out from the writing. But he could never be like Bill Williams, though. He couldn’t just be a guy who did a job and also wrote. Hemingway had worked in newspapers so long that he had to create this big . . . big . . .”
“Big persona about who he was. And eventually it killed him. Ran right up his ass and ate him.”
We turned into Nick’s—a large lunch-counter place, and found a table. “What I mean about Hemingway,” I said, trying again, “is that he’s kind of straight ahead: very much sort of point-A-to-point-B. You know? And if he does use a literary device of some sort, it’s telegraphed, like a punch. It’s like he says, ‘OK, here comes this device, here it is, there it went.’”
Philip smiled. “Yes, but those stories are GOOD. It’s very hard to do that, you know. Lots of people tried to imitate him and failed. They couldn’t make it go, and he could, and it’s very interesting how he does it.”
June 5, 1981
Some literary things happening in my life right now, none of it very interesting to Philip. I had never sent off any poems to a magazine before, nor any writing to anywhere, but I noticed The World was doing a translation issue. Kaz Tanahashi and I had been working on Han Shan translations, so we sent them 8 poems and they printed 4.
The magazine came the other day, and there we were on page 7, right next to a big beautiful Frank O’Hara translation. I got very excited. When I saw Philip coming down the back stairs from Zen Center’s roof, I said, “Hey, The World came. You want to come see? It’s got Kaz and my translations in it. Come on . . .”
When Philip comes to your room, he studies everything regardless of what he came in to see. He squints, walks over to look closely at objects, makes little comments. He dismisses most things, except what you’d never be able to predict: a rock paperweight, for example. It feels like having a cross between a genius, a bumblebee, and a 2-year-old in your room.
Finally he sat on the floor and took The World #35 in hand. He read aloud the names of all the poets being translated, in a vastly overdone accent reflecting the nationality of each one. He couldn’t find our poems. Then he found them and read them—silently and intensely. Then he went on to the title of the O’Hara translation, and said, “Isn’t that nice?”
I eventually asked him if he thought that the translations of Han Shan were OK. “Yes, yes, very nice,” he said. I think he meant it—he’s not too polite to tell you if he doesn’t like something—but it certainly seemed no big deal to him.
The other literary thing is that I’m reading Jack Kerouac for the first time—The Dharma Bums. Philip rolls his eyes in measured boredom at the very mention of The Dharma Bums. It seems he’s been hit up too much about Kerouac. He did condescend to correct me when I suggested that Gary Synder comes across as speedy in that book.
“NO, NO, NO,” he said loudly, frowning. “He was just very organized is all. He would sit and study for hours on end, and take notes on 3×5 cards, and put them in his little 3×5 card file. Then at an hour given, he would shut the books, stand up, and be ready for something else. He was VERY serious. He’d come back, sometimes even after a party, and study some more. He was even worse at Reed, because he had to be. He was getting government money. But he sure could go out and tear up the town.”
August 31, 1981
Driving Philip home from a lecture he’d given that night, I risked a Kerouac remark. Philip had told me earlier that yes, everyone in The Subterraneans was someone, just like in The Dharma Bums. After a few times of questioning him like this, I’d bought Jack’s Book, remaindered at $1.98, and had used the key in the back to follow up, rather than continue to pester Philip. So tonight I told him that I thought that book wasn’t so bad, and that the key in the back was useful.
“Yeah, but . . . you know . . .”
“What? It isn’t accurate?”
“Oh I guess it’s accurate. It just doesn’t matter, is all, because all of those characters are fictional. People will never believe that those books aren’t the God’s own truth. But see, he made them. That’s the thing, see. It’s exactly why Kerouac is a greater writer than anyone knows: he made something, some shape that didn’t exist before in nature. Everybody just thinks he wrote down whatever was happening, but actually it was all a lot bigger and looser and faster and crazier that that. He did manage to get down some parts of what was going on, and to arrange things in an interesting way, but really, it’s fiction.”
November 29, 1981
BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM
BAM BAM BAM “OPEN UP IN THERE!”
RAP RAP RAP RAP “LANDLORD HERE, Hello?!?!”
I opened the door.
“Hello sir,” he said. “How are you?”
“Fine, won’t you . . .” He was already in. He’d come I learned to change into his robes for lecture. He was going to be the lecturer. As usual he went around my room scrutinizing everything. With his nearsightedness and his getting up close to objects he reminded me this time of a dog sniffing out the scene. We talked just a little. I had to finish a sign, I was writing or the ink would dry in the nib. I sort of mumbled with half an ear and half a mind. Changing into his robes, probably thinking about his lecture, he did the same. Then he picked up some books off my desk.
“You know,” I said. “I thought about it yesterday when you were raging about having lent out too many books, that I not only have your Thomas Wolfe, but I also have this Boswell book. The one you got from Gib.”
He sniffed at it.
“I’m sorry for having kept it so long, but I read in it sometimes, and I can only do a little at a time.”
“I know,” he said greasily. “It’s too rich.”
“That and also if I read that stuff I find myself making up these incredibly long convoluted sentences, you know, just shamelessly imitating.”
“Yes it’s very bad for your character to read Boswell.”
“I don’t really mind that part. I kind of dig making up long sentences, but it doesn’t go very well like in the Wind Bell [Zen Center’s seasonal journal] I’m supposed to be working on, or anything else.”
I scribbled on the sign in silence for a few moments, while he fussed with his robes.
“I guess that nobody does those funny sentences like that anymore, do they?”
“Well, I suppose the only people who really have fun with language anymore, are black folks.”
“What about the Language Poets?”
“They’re not having fun for God’s sake, they’re having a theory. They have to do all this writing to fill up a theory. Well, I gotta go take the pee,” he said, cinching his belt.
“See you in church then.”
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