Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen

Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen

by David Schneider

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Philip Whalen was an American poet, Zen Buddhist, and key figure in the literary and artistic scene that unfolded in San Francisco in the 1950s and ’60s.When the Beat writers came West, Whalen became a revered, much-loved member of the group.Erudite, shy, and profoundly spiritual, his presence not only moved his immediate circle of Beat cohorts, but his powerful, startling, innovative work would come to impact American poetry to the present day.

Drawing on Whalen’s journals and personal correspondence—particularly with Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder, Kyger, Welch, and McClure —David Schneider shows how deeply bonded these intimates were, supporting one another in their art and their spiritual paths. Schneider, himself an ordained priest, provides an insider’s view of Whalen’s struggles and breakthroughs in his thirty years as a Zen monk. When Whalen died in 2002 as the retired Abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center, his own teacher referred to him as a patriarch of the Western lineage of Buddhism. Crowded by Beauty chronicles the course of Whalen’s life, focusing on his unique, eccentric, humorous, and literary-religious practice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520247468
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/26/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,179,598
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

David Schneider is the author of Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey. He was ordained as a Zen priest in 1977 and was made an acharya of the Shambhala lineage in 1995.

Read an Excerpt

Crowded by Beauty

The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen

By David Schneider


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96099-2


Reflection in Friends

Philip Whalen generally impressed the people who knew him, either through his writing or personally. His literary voice, consonant to a high degree with his person, was large, restless, learned, demanding, fearless, humorous, singular. Not very many people, however, knew him. He preferred a mostly quiet life, with brief eruptions of wild social activity. He appeared to possess little outward ambition. He was extremely sensitive — to weather, art, literature, other people — to influences of all kinds, yet he knew clearly his own way forward, a way that required solitude. On top of a kind, curious nature, his early upbringing left him fundamentally shy — again, with explosions of theatrical complaint, usually accurate and often hilarious, at least in retrospect.

From a humble background in a remote, beautiful corner of the country, he went on to exert a strong influence on American poetry of the second half of the twentieth century. He did this through his own writing, and through the force of his personality and its influence on his students and more famous friends.

In a similar way, his faithful, observant presence, as much as his erudition, helped establish Zen Buddhism in the West. To look at him you might not think it possible: a large man, a fat man, older, scholarly, practicing a style of Buddhism renowned for its strict exertion (bordering on asceticism) and an athletic, quasi-military approach to the spiritual path. Yet there he was every morning — evenings too, in the monastery — day after day, year after year for three decades, until he could not physically drag himself to the zendo any longer.

He stood by his teacher Richard Baker Roshi through the stormy Zen Center scandals of 1983–84, though this was neither popular nor easy. It required him to pull up stakes at the age of sixty-two and move 1,100 miles to the Southwest, to an unformed and unpromising situation, and to live in close quarters with a skeleton crew of similar refugees in a place he found beautiful but trying, not least because of its distance from the charms of the Pacific Ocean.

Four years later, newly minted as a teacher in his own right, he uprooted himself again and headed off to ... he knew not where. He had the blessings of the lineage but nowhere to live and no source of income, so he wandered in the old-style Zen way: no clear direction forward and no possibility of staying still. He passed the last active period of his life as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center, a small, lively temple in San Francisco's Castro district, where, upon ascending the Mountain Seat, he calmed the fears and soothed the ruffled feathers of that sangha, disturbed as they were by worry that the temple would drift away from its initial and primary function as a practice place for local gay and lesbian practitioners. Approaching seventy, beyond or above the issue of gay versus straight and clearly at ease living in the Castro, Philip guided the temple back toward Zen's more central concerns.

Whatever Philip Whalen's accomplishments, when it came out in ordinary conversation that I was writing his biography, the response was very often a blank look and an uncomfortable silence. To furnish identification, I might say, "poet," then "Zen master," and finally "one of the Beat poets." This inevitably led to a list of three of the most famous: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. For those who don't know Philip Whalen, it seemed initially necessary to name these names, though they constitute a very incomplete list both of Beat poets and of Whalen's friends. Here follows an apology — in the older sense of that word — for parlaying the fame of those three writers, as well as for not using others. I begin with sketches of Whalen's friendships with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Snyder. Two more chapters follow — briefer portraits of relations with close friends who, though not perhaps as famous as the initial three, have, through brilliant writing and venerable longevity, come evermore into public view and deserved honor — Joanne Kyger and Michael McClure.

* * *

Teaching a class at Naropa University in June 1982, Allen Ginsberg said that in the mid-1950s he, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen all lived together in a cottage in Berkeley. Whether this is strictly true, it impressed itself on Ginsberg's mind: he'd told about it six years earlier, also in a Naropa class, linking it then to a study of R. H. Blythe's four-volume set of haiku translations. Ginsberg stressed to his class how fundamental those texts had been for the young poets — a bible, an encyclopedia, a primer in direct perception and use of concrete details, as well as in the mind that was still enough to catch these and the hand that was confident enough to set them down on paper. Barely more than a few minutes after he finished telling the class all this, a student roused himself to ask for the name of the books again. In a somewhat exasperated response, Ginsberg went through the whole thing a second time. "How many have heard of these books, put your hands up. How many have NOT heard of them? OK B-L-Y-T-H-E ..." This time he told how the volumes were divided one per season, how the texts were bilingual, how they were arranged on the page, how the covers looked, and he included the publishing information. He extemporized a rather passionate advertisement for Blythe, linking him to the previous eighty years of American poetry, from the Imagists down to the Beats. Ginsberg then recounted how he and his shackmates had treasured the books, shared them, pored over them, incorporated them into a kind of internal mutual vocabulary, eventually writing haikus of their own. "This was when we were all living in this cottage together, Kerouac, Snyder and me, we ..." This time through, Ginsberg left Whalen off the list.

Perhaps he thought Whalen not famous enough to dent the students' minds; perhaps it was just verbal compaction, spoken in urgency. Whatever the case, Whalen had dropped from sight, mirroring to a certain extent what happened to his public persona in the twenty-seven years since the seminal Six Gallery reading. That event could fairly be seen as a starting point in the poets' careers. It was, for Ginsberg, Whalen, Snyder, and McClure, their first public reading. Kerouac's On the Road was still a couple of years from publication.

In the decades that followed, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Snyder all got internationally famous and enjoyed or suffered fame's effects. Whalen did not; fame never came his way. Despite a number of conflicted efforts to set himself before the public's eye, his relationship to it remained relatively barren. By way of introduction, though, one can place him in the middle of a famous crowd, and this was initially group fame. The whole gang got famously entwined, and they brought a sizable entourage to their tangled relations, such that it seemed from outside as though a school was born entire: the Beats, the West Coast Beats. While Philip was central to the events that pushed the school into the public's attention, he did not catch much of that attention personally.

Part of what made the Beats remarkable was their association with Buddhism. Certainly this was so with Kerouac, Snyder, and Whalen, and soon after also with Ginsberg. Their fame attracted attention, and later also people, to Buddhism. Beyond studying and to varying extents practicing Buddhism, they all told one another about it. And having opened the innermost door of spirituality to one another, they were completely intimate, with little they did not share. These friends passed books and manuscripts back and forth, they typed and retyped one another's work and promoted it tirelessly to publishers and editors. They cared for one another in times of sickness or difficulty, and they lent money back and forth, though this flowed almost exclusively toward Whalen rather than from him — "almost exclusively" because whenever Whalen did have money, he was happy to lend it, and his friends were not shy in applying for it. In crisis, literary or otherwise, they rallied around and gave staunch defense, but they were neither blind to one another's shortcomings nor uncritical: they were real friends.

(It is told that the San Francisco Beats also passed lovers back and forth. It does appear that one or two passed-along girlfriends came Whalen's way, according to poet Joanne Kyger, who explained that "it was under this Beat brotherhood kind of 'My girlfriend is your girlfriend' sort of thing." Kyger began paying attention to that scene in the late 1950s, and she pointed out that "it didn't really work very well, though. It turns out that there were all these little territories involved." In the famed orgies at Ginsberg's Berkeley cottage midfifties — the ones promoted by Ginsberg and Snyder, and chronicled by Kerouac — Whalen was, as Kerouac was, a shy participant, if either involved himself at all. Ginsberg let it be known that when such an event was nearly over, Philip would need encouragement to join.)

Whalen was proud of his friendships but lamented being thought of as only "a friend of the great." He was labeled, possibly burdened, with the moniker "poet's poet," and he allowed this role to come to him through halfhearted efforts at promoting his own work, while at the same time exhibiting a manifest energy and devotion for his friends and their works. Whalen started no family of his own, had no long-term lover or companion, and was not deeply involved with blood kin, apart from a solicitous correspondence with his sister, Velna. Whalen's friends, however, meant a great deal to him. Famously cranky, he was a loyal, loving friend who cultivated a range of comrades, of which Kerouac, Snyder, and Ginsberg are only prominent examples. Whalen counted these three among his best friends, and 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.

These four friends wrote long, detailed, often hilarious letters to one another. The time and energy Whalen gave to writing his friends certainly rivals what he allotted to the composition of poetry and prose, or to keeping a journal. His letters tell of the daily man: the one who suffers or enjoys weather, who has or hasn't money, who must look for a new place to live, who packs to travel or hike, who reports and sometimes gossips about mutual acquaintances, who is reading and thinking about five or six books simultaneously, who is or isn't writing anything interesting, who passes along intelligence of blossoms and landscapes, who has fits of nerves. His letters tell the things he wanted to tell the people he loved.

For these poets, Whalen often played the role of mentor, teacher, elder — and he thought of himself that way. "Not that [Dr.] Johnson was right," Whalen wrote in 1959, "nor that I'm trying to inherit his mantle as a literary dictator, but only the title Doctor, i.e., teacher — who is constantly studying."

Looking back from a remove of five decades, Gary Snyder wrote, "He [Whalen] first showed me the difference between talking about literature and doing it, and pointed the way into Asian philosophy and art."

"Phil taught me Stein," Allen Ginsberg told his Naropa class, "and I'm hoping he's going to teach you Stein."

Jack Kerouac may have been too certain of his own literary ideas to take recommendations — maybe too competitive as well — but he did have something to learn from Whalen. As he wrote to him in 1956, "You have always done everything possible to make me feel good; you are a pillar of strength, and why? Because you never get mad, people can shit all over you and you never get mad. If that isn't being a pillar of strength, the Buddha is a load of the same."

McClure also saw that Philip's character was the real lesson, not his erudition, which he found nonetheless admirable. Whalen's extraordinary ability to open himself to people and ideas and sense experience, and to stay open, particularly impressed McClure. "We were all in awe of him."

In a 1958 letter to Ginsberg, Philip wrote, "Everything he [Kerouac] has told me is true, about himself, about myself ... fantastic. Everything is unbelievable, strange ... that the 4 of us [Kerouac, Snyder, Ginsberg, Whalen] should have met when we did, that we are inextricably involved together & so completely separated. I can go back to the parinirvana happy, no more question now, I've done what I came here to do, all you other bodhisattvas have helped me ... you the Bodhisattva Ever-weeping, Jack the Bodhisattva Manjushri (the Writing Bodhisattva), Gary the Lightningbolt Diamondsplitter." Whalen continues the list with increasing fancy and naughty accuracy, including a Nose-Punching Bodhisattva, two Beer-Pouring Bodhisattvas, a Bodhisattva of Gaga, one of Boredom, countless Bodhisattvas of Indifference, Wrath, and Slobism, not forgetting wrathful Protector Bodhisattvas, Musical Bodhisattvas, and thirty-four Bodhisattvas of Sex. Having surveyed his personal pantheon, Whalen goes one Buddhist step farther. "I've loved it; I turn it loose. to enjoy itself. wild horse rolling in the grass, all four feet curled in the air, spine a curling snake against the dirt (curling joy snake) mane & tail spilled over humped over clumps of grass: PHILIP (phil-hippos, 'horse-lover')."

"He's one of the patriarchs, so to speak, of Western Zen," observed Philip's Zen teacher, Richard Baker Roshi. "My own feeling is that there are more lineages in the West that lead us to practice than there are in Asia: lineages in philosophy, psychology, poetry, painting — all these coming right towards Buddhism. But they're broken lineages, because they don't know what the next step is. Then there are also historical moments ... there are lots of factors. But for me, one of the most important lineages in the West — which Europe doesn't have — is the Beats. Somehow, Allen and Gary and Jack Kerouac and Philip."

Baker then distinguished Philip's role from those of his more famous friends: "These other Beats influenced a lot of people. They had people who wanted to be like them, to imitate them. Philip didn't have people who wanted to be like him or to imitate him. Rather, Philip gave the people he hung out with the feeling ... he made them experience themselves. You experienced Philip, but you also experienced yourself, through being with Philip." Baker went on to compare Whalen with priest, philosopher, and social critic Ivan Illich:

I don't think Philip had the same feeling for mentorship Ivan Illich did, helping people write their PhD theses and so forth, but he did have that same sense of how to just be with people. For Illich, it was "The world is the people I'm in actual contact with. That's the only world I want, and I want to be fully present with them." Philip had that — "Just be with people; that's what the world should be" — and it made him, indirectly and directly, a good teacher. While other people, other Beats, may have been good examples, Philip was a good teacher. To me, Philip was a kind of patriarch of a Western lineage that brought many people closer to Buddhism.


Facing the biographer of an articulate, highly trained Buddhist monk are problems beyond those of describing a purely secular life. Behind the dates and doings, relatives and education, institutions, assignations, accomplishments, teachers, friends, lovers, detractors, decline, and death that every biographer must tell lurks the Buddhist conviction — shared in this case by the biographer — that none of this can be pinned down; that it is all, to use the overworked, underexplained technical term, empty.


Excerpted from Crowded by Beauty by David Schneider. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

Brief Chronology xv

1 Reflection in Friends 1

2 Banjo Eyes: Whalen and Ginsberg 9

3 Buddha Red Ears: Whalen and Kerouac 32

4 Kalyanamitra: Whalen and Snyder 51

5 Your Heart Is Fine: Whalen and Kyger 96

6 Hail Thee Who Play: Whalen and McClure 127

7 Early: 1923-1943 146

8 Forced Association: Army Life, 1943-1946 160

9 Reed's Fine College: 1946-1951 168

10 Solvitur Ambulando: 1959-1971 188

11 Japan, Bolinas, Japan, Bolinas: 1965-1971 205

12 New Years: Whalen and Baker, Zen Center 223

13 An Order to Love: Ordination 237

14 Rope of Sand: Santa Fe and Dkarraa Transmission 254

15 RSVP: Hartford Street, Decline and Death 267

Acknowledgments 287

Notes 291

Primary Sources 313

Index 315

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