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A comment in
3/22/02 - from Brian Unger
In Celebration of Zenshin Philip Whalen:
[entry in 'Two Rivers' magazine.]
Phil Whalen to this day celebrates the absurdity of the Zen practice enterprise. When I arrived as a youngster at San Francisco Zen Center Philip presided over an arch coterie of wits and writers like David Schneider, John Bailes, Neil Rubenking, Michael Wenger and David Chadwick. They were loyal to Richard Baker, but also deftly & humorously critical of the more egregious excesses of the period. Tongue firmly in cheek, Phil would answer the main switchboard on Page Street, "Zen Central!" Humor, not deep spirituality, was the most admired attribute of Phil's crowd. David Chadwick rated rave reviews for his antics. Studiously gauche, Chadwick would suck down a Lucky Strike on the way to zazen in the morning, shocking the purists. At Greens Restaurant, a linchpin of haute cuisine in San Francisco, Chadwick would guide the city's self-conscious mandarins to their tables attired just awfully in clothes that looked like they had spent the night crumpled in a ball on his bedroom floor, which they had. To the shrill dismay of Deborah Madison, David would trot around the dining room and kitchen at Greens in bare feet, sneaking an illegal glass of wine and a smoke in the dark corners of the cappuccino bar.
Phil took it all in with aplomb and a sense of humor. He poked fun without taking anyone down. He showed deference and respect to the most humble, lost, socially inept Zen students -- when others simply ignored them or turned up their noses. Last time I visited Phil he received a few of us from our little sangha in New Jersey in the outer sitting room of the Hartford Street zendo. I had been warned to let the new folks know that Phil "doesn't suffer fools gladly" and not to bore him. But it wasn't a problem. He mainly tracked sincerity, not sophistication. While we were sitting there chatting energetically about some arcane Chinese texts, a paranoid schizophrenic stopped by who liked to visit Phil when he wasn't in jail or the psycho ward at San Francisco General. Phil welcomed him into our conversation respectfully, even deferentially, not rushing him out, even after forty-five minutes of rambling discourse on the State Department's South Asian policy. We named our little zendo in suburban New Jersey after Phil - Zenshin Ryufu-an -- and brought him photographs of Kaz Tanahashi's calligraphy in the doorway. He was delighted and gently joked that New Jersey's endless suburbs were unlikely a place as any for the Dharma, but that at least N.J. had managed to produce Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams. Not bad. I told him New Jersey was like L.A., but with bad weather. He roared. Phil donated an old stone engraving of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva to Ryufu-an, a spectacular piece he picked up at an ancient temple in Japan in the 1950s or early 60s. She's strikingly sensuous, suggestive, even sexual. Never the philistine, Phil likes that about her. --Brian Unger
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