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Buddhism and the San Francisco Beats

Buddhism and the San Francisco Beats

“Crowded By Beauty” (University of California Press, 2015) is the poetic title of the most recent biography of Philip Whalen. Who was Philip Whalen? As the author David Schneider describes him:

“Poet, then Zen master, and finally one of the Beat poets, he exerted a strong influence on American poetry of the second half of the twentieth century and helped establish Zen Buddhism in the West. He did this through his own writing, and through the force of his own personality and its influence on his students and more famous friends such as Kerouac, Snyder, McClure and Ginsberg. They all, in turn, loved him and admired him. Philip was someone they wanted to talk to, write to, read, dine with, stay with, hike or hang out with; one who gave delight, wisdom, beauty, and spiritual guidance to the world.”

During my own residence in San Francisco during the 1970s, I came to know and work with Philip Whalen on a couple public poetry event projects and lived for a time with one of the bhikkhus (students) who studied under him at the San Francisco Zen Center during those years. So, I was familiar with him through his writing (poetry) as well as from a nearby distance and from people whom I knew and who knew him intimately. One of the most interesting features of  this brilliantly conceived biography is that it features the correspondence of Whalen with chapters organized between himself and the four now famous men mentioned above — their friendships and their foibles — giving the reader a letter by letter, year by year seat in the house of Whalen’s life. 

“Whalen’s close literary friends pressured and jostled each other very hard. Allen (Ginsberg) and Jack (Kerouac) both were pushy and domineering; Philip was opinionated and explosive: Gary (Snyder) could come on as arrogant and didactic. They were each constantly telling the other what he should be doing, but respecting and loving one another just enough to hold the circle together. Beyond their literary friendships, though mixed up with it, they recognized spiritual capacity in one another alongside strong influences of Native Amrerican, Japanese and Chinese populations.”

It is hard, if not impossible, to separate Whalen’s personal life from his study and practice of Zen Buddhism. As Schneider puts it in “Crowded By Beauty”: 

“Whalen — by meditation, long solitary hikes in the mountains, a decided bachelor’s preference for staying put, for reading, for the quiet life — was somehow able to cobble together an acceptance of all he saw and felt. In the 1950s, Whalen responded to letters from Gary Snyder from a Forest Service lookout in Washington State, saying: ‘By God, next summer, I’m going to have a mountain of my own!’ And this he did, spending three successive summers as a forest lookout, making this by far his steadiest, most satisfying job until many years later, when he became a ‘professional’ man of the cloth.” 

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Later in the section of the friendship between Whalen and Snyder, Schneider writes: “In Philip he found someone older, familiar, strange, and friendly who’d been studying classics of all kinds for much longer than he had, and who was undeniably already a poet. ‘He first showed me the difference between talking about literature and doing it,’ Snyder writes.” And in Snyder’s eulogy to Whalen at his funeral ceremony he says: “Philip was always the purest, the highest, the most dry, and oddly cosmic, of the Dharma poets we’ve known — we are all greatly karmically lucky to have known him.”

In a section devoted to Lew Welch, Schneider takes the reader deeper into the backgrounds of Whalen’s friends and the psychological essence of what poetry meant to the Beat cadre and to their generation. “Lew and Philip are often grouped with Gary Snyder as the Northwest branch of the Beats or of the San Francisco Renaissance. Lew’s and Philip’s work reads differently, but their literary education, the music they listened to, paintings they looked at, contemporaries with whom they bantered — these were very similar,” he writes. Or more specifically, “Lew stated as clearly (and passionately) as anyone that the job of the poet was to express mind: ‘We want the exact transmission of Mind.’” In general, as Schneider states, “Lew, Philip, and Gary were all profoundly unhappy with the military-religio-materialist thinking that ran America in the early part of their lives and declared openly and intelligently against the contemporary lack of support for poets.” 

In the end, “Crowded By Beauty” focuses on Whalen’s life as an ordained Zen Buddhist monk and his residencies in Zen Centers in Japan, San Francisco, Bolinas and Sante Fe. Philip’s mentor and friend Baker Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center said of him: “When the title of Roshi is given, it means this realization has matured and flowered in practice. Philip understood all of this. He was never really anything but loyal and grateful. I can also remember times in zazen and meditation with Philip sitting there, a tear streaming down his cheek and often saying ‘I’ll never be a bodhisattva’ (a person who is able to reach nirvana, but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings).” In June of 2002 and in a hospice facility, Philip slipped into a coma and died soon thereafter. Two months later, a large crowd gathered for a giant Philip Whalen Memorial Reading. As Schneider explains it: “Organizers scheduled at least three hours for the event and involved twenty-five readers — among them Anne Waldman, the McClures, Jane Hirshfield, David Meltzer, Diane di Prima, Leslie Scalapino, and Michael Rothenberg, with Norman Fischer asserting that Philip was ‘the best writer of his generation.’”

(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributer to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the historical memoir “Starting From San Francisco: The Baby Beat Generation and the Second San Francisco Renaissance.”)                                         

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