One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck

Thursday, July 14, 2022

"Too Many Words"

What I learned from Phil Whalen about writing.

It's a matter of some reassurance

That we are physically indistinguishable from other men.

When introspection shows us

That we have different degrees of intelligence

Varying capacities for knowing morality

We lose something of our complacency

    --Scenes of Life at the Capital

One morning in July of 2022, Google’s algorithm decided that I needed to hear James Dalessandro, bestselling novelist, journalist and filmmaker, tell me about ”The Beat Poets and the Summer of Love.” Or to do justice to the algorithm’s intrinsic value, I was to pay 25 dollars to listen to Mr. Dalessandro’s wise words. When I read the blurb, he told me that Lawrence and Allen and Jack would spill light on the short lived revolution. 

In 1967 more than 100,000 young people descended into the Haight-Ashbury, donned tye-dyed tee shirts or just stripped off their clothes, took lots of drugs, had lots of sex and proclaimed a new age. The Summer of Love was also the end of Phil's sojourn in Kyoto, so it is possible that he had returned to San Francisco. But Jack had already departed the scene, renounced a lot of the Beat philosophy which he thought just gave people permission to be spiteful. I think it highly unlikely that Phil would have shared his friend Allen’s enthusiasm for a revolution. Phil’s hedonism was more restrained. Very much more actually but that didn’t stop him from loving Allen. 

Still I find it abhorrent that the Road Scholar Scholar didn’t include Phil; perhaps the platform insists that their experts focus on hot money makers. 25 bucks is 25 bucks.

I lived with Phil for about 4 years after he’d received dharma transmission from his teacher. I sat with him in sparse zendo, recorded his talks, got yelled at, went to sesshin, sewed a rakusu, listened to his gab, went with him to Walgreens and took lay precepts under him. I was as close to Phil as most of zen friends, except for the very few he really allowed into his life, Allen for one, and I know that he was in love with Lew Welsh, but aside from that, Phil was a lone wolf. We could be friends, but when I got to a place where real intimacy might have been possible, he ended it abruptly. I know others who had the same experience. He wrote “When introspection shows us/ That we have different degrees of intelligence,” and he thought of himself on the high end of that scale.

And despite his remarkable intelligence and way with words, Buddhist Phil could be incredibly dull. He once taught a class on the Heart Sutra and my head didn’t burst with the astounding insight into the interplay of form and no-form, full and empty, thinking and the end of thinking. I had to fight off sleep. Phil preferred his Buddhism boring. He could be as doctrinaire as any squawking human being, and then some. Today however, as the clouds drift down from the mountains, and internally I begin to count between the thunder and the faint flash to locate where it has struck, I am reading his verse with joy and gratitude. He was a genius. 

Morning is fading and the clouds have covered Moon Peak. I can only see as far as my closest neighbor, a small Indian hotel called “Heaven’s View,” 25 meters to the East. Monsoon is closing in. When I knew Phil and was his student, his eyesight had failed to the point where, if I can weigh his words and match it with what I can recall of his gait and gaze, he could only see vague cloud-like formations, and that had to be enough. Misdiagnosed glaucoma would take away the joy of seeing words dance on the page. He was not resentful, or if he was, he didn’t show it. The more immediate concern was how words, which had been the center of his life, the real source of his joy, would continue to nourish a voracious appetite for clarity. It was also an inventive appetite, so we experimented. I was enlisted into a small army of amanuenses. 

We would read to him. I could see him concentration latch onto a passage and hang there. Sometimes there would be a request to return to the beginning of a passage. We could not stop until instructed or we heard the han for zazen. 

Once in while there would be a request from some recondite journal which Phil could never turn down. It usually meant reworking an older prose piece. There would be no more poems. He would find a short piece that came from years back--one that I remember was about dancing around a bonfire on the beach near Bolinas. I read it once. Phil had me shift the order a few clauses, then I read it again. We put some back into their original order. I read the passage again. And then again. Finally in what sounded almost like a sigh, “Too many words. Too many words.” That was the point where work began in earnest. 


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