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



Showing posts with label Philip Zenshin Whalen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philip Zenshin Whalen. Show all posts

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


This morning the Google 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. 


1966-67 was the year that Phil would have been in Kyoto so it is possible that he had returned to San Francisco when the Summer of Love erupted, but I think it highly unlikely that he 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, nor does it dislodge him from a pre-eminent place among the Beats.


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 a sparse zendo, recorded his talks, got yelled at, went to sesshin, sewed a rakusu and took lay precepts under him. 


Buddhist Phil could be incredibly dull. He once taught a class on the Heart Sutra, and my head didn’t burst with 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 and the end of 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 true genius. 


Morning is fading and the clouds have completely 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, his eyesight had failed to the point where, if I can weigh his words and match them with what I can recall of his gait and gaze, he could only see vague cloud-like formations. That was all that was left. Misdiagnosed glaucoma took 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 every day. 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 would 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 of a few clauses, then read it again. We put some back to where they had been. I read the passage again. And then again. Finally in what sounded almost like a sigh he said softly, “Too many words. Too many words.” That was the point where work began in earnest. 


Sunday, March 6, 2022

Lord Kirshna comes to tea.

I knew that Allen was in town when there was a knock at the front door at 3:30 exactly. A young man, 21 but not a month more, clean shaven, holding a book, asked, “Is this the Philip Whalen Zendo?” I invited him into the living room where he sat down and quietly continued his reading. I knew that Allen would be at the door shortly; I could hear Phil beginning to make his way up the stairs. He and Allen shared years of friendship. They were punctual. I began to prepare tea.


I loved when Phil’s friends came to visit. Phil was on his best behavior. Not that he was normally badly behaved though in private moments he could be angry, even insulting. Despite being one of the foremost leaders of a movement that questioned the very roots of believing and behaving that my parents taught me, when he was proper, he was extremely proper. But there was another quality to the conversations with his poet friends. Their language was careful and measured. It was literate. I was always looking for any innuendos, and I loved their laughter. It was poking fun without the slightest hint of slighting someone.


Phil of course knew Allen’s long time companion, Peter Orlovsky, and talked openly about Peter’s drug addiction. Phil joked to me about Allen being a follower of “the Cult of Boys,” and this was the first time that Allen had brought a young lover with him. Phil was not very interested in sex himself, reinforced or dictated by his isolated personal habits, but I knew I would be looking for Phil’s reaction. How would he treat a young lover?


The young man and I sat a short distance from Phil and Allen. There were barely pauses in their conversation. It doesn’t matter what it was about. It could have been Buddhism, Trungpa, Diane de Prima or other poets who passed through the Disembodied School at RMDC, or even where to get the best Chinese food in San Francisco. They were friends, and though we weren’t excluded, we were not included. What was clear is that his young companion admired Allen. He hung on every word, carefully listening to each line, laughing when it was appropriate. Allen for his part was attentive to the young man. Not condescending or at all lecherous, he was careful that his friend was treated like an invited guest, not a hired boy. 


Yes I admit that I entertained the possibility that there was some kind of coercion behind the young man’s presence. The age gap was enormous, and there have always been rumors about Allen’s sexual exploits. I also had a distasteful experience of being manipulated by an older man. But at least that afternoon, I was not sitting with a boy-toy but a bright young man who genuinely liked older men. 


I’d been reading Christopher Isherwood’s tribute to his guru, Swami Prabhavananda, My Guru and His Disciple. Isherwood asked the Swami a hesitant question about a new relationship with a young man. Isherwood confessed that, given his experience in the stiff Victorian world of English Catholicism, he was expecting a censorious pronouncement. Prabhavananda told him to treat his lover like Lord Krishna.


Then it hit me. I’d been to tea with Lord Krishna.


A year later I was sitting with Phil when Allen called to tell him that he was dying. Phil cried. 



Sunday, February 27, 2022

I didn’t shout but I’m still a big phoney.

Blue Cliff Record Case 10

Let me begin with a snippet from the few introductory lines that Hsueh Tou calls the pointer: “If on the other hand, you neither face upwards or downwards, how will you deal with it? If there is a principle, go by the principle. If there is no principle, go by the example.”

The koan

After Mu Chou’s formula introductory question, “Where are you from,” in a reversal of roles, the shouting teacher gets shouted at.
Then Mu Chou said, "After three or four shouts, then what?"
The student had nothing to say.
Mu Chou hit him and said: You thieving phon[e]y.


It was sometime in the Fall of 1993. If Mu Chou asked me where I’d come from, I would have said “Hartford Street Zen Center,” but he would not have recognized our lives there. A small temple in the heart San Francisco’s gay ghetto, it had never been your typical Zen Center even before AIDS. After I moved in 1989, more than 80 men and one woman died in its 13 bedrooms. Our everyday life was centered around doctor’s appointments, dispensing medications, talking with friends and family about wills and funerals, performing funerals, cooking food as well as two periods of zazen every day plus a pretty standard Soto ritual. We tried to organize some of the more formal Buddhist study typical in Western Zen centers, but the grief support groups had more attendees. I have to add that my daily ritual usually ended with a bout of heavy drinking in a local bar a block away. It was more than a full time job.

The concern of our zendo was the pain and fragility of life. It was inescapable. You could try to run away, and we all did from time to time in our own way. But now Issan was dead; Steve Allen had resigned as abbot, and left for Crestone. And it was the end of Maitri Hospice being part of the Temple. Phil told me to get rid of it. It was Issan’s project, and he had other ideas about Zen masters’ dying. In retrospect I think that he hated trying to live his life with everyone dropping dead around him. He might have accepted Issan’s invitation to move in because they were old friends; they had been in Santa Fe together, and they were Dick’s first real dharma heirs. But actually I really think that one of his main motivations was that he was homeless and had nowhere else to go. He had set himself to master Zen, and though he had done his work deeply and thoroughly, he was still a human, and a frail old man.

We had been sitting all day, and I went into Phil’s room just before the closing bell. I remember quite clearly what transpired. It could be fairly labeled passive-aggressive. From time to time, I have been less than proud of my behavior although I let myself off the hook with the recognition that I am also human.

I forget the exact reason I was so pissed off, but I was. Of course I was burned out and disappointed, perhaps something about the changes at Hartford Street, perhaps Phil’s brushing me off, but we all were a bit “reactive,” Phil included. That is the way with anger’s confusion--whatever remains, the angry mind latches onto like a life raft in a raging sea. With all that experience of dying, anger turned out to have been a clever student and strategized its survival with the cunning of a fox.

I remember that I’d determined beforehand that in this dokusan I would not say anything. Just sit like a fat lump and keep my mouth shut. If I felt even the slightest inkling of the beginnings of a word, much less the formulation of a question, I would shut it down. I would kill an errant thought before it even showed its face. I would not recommend this strategy for inching towards happiness, but on occasion it is interesting to test if it is even possible. Perhaps yelling the nonsensical “Katz” has some salvific result as it involves more of the spontaneous, emotive parts of the psyche, but my Mother had taught me that shouting was always bad manners. Despite the fact that we learn that great Zen teachers favored this theatrical gesture as a pedagogy, I still believe my mother. Western teachers have tried to polish this skill, but when I hear them affecting a Katz shout, it feels contrived. Or embarrassing. It is still better than cutting off fingers and other outlandish external “shoves” designed to facilitate the dropping off of body and mind. Shouting is not a principle in Zen, nor is it really an example of anything but the coordination of breath and vocal cords.

So for whatever reasons I could never be a shouting student, and I sat. It would be an exaggeration to say that I was shouting inside, though I did feel a few interior bumps. And once in a while Phil began to look up and begin to say something, but then he stopped too. And so on for a very uncomfortable span of time.

Then Phil faintly smiled and said, “Let’s go back down to the zendo and join the others.” I remember or imagined a feeling of disappointment in his voice. That was it. He didn’t call me a phony. Do you spell it with an “e”? Did he see through to my anger? It makes no difference. All things considered, he was very generous.

I said in the beginning that Mu Chou would not have recognized our lives at Hartford Street Zen Center. Perhaps I’m selling him short.

"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...