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Philip Whalen main page

Just Enough Survives - PW to DC, 1972

5-06-08 - A few comments by dc written after the Celebration of Philip Whalen at the 5-03-08 SF Public Library event.

Philip moved across the hall from me in the SFZC's City Center at 300 Page Street in early 1972 soon after Suzuki Roshi died and Richard Baker had become abbot. He had a little organ in his room that he would play Bach on while listening with headphones. I was writing a lot of songs at that time and I'd play them for him at times but I didn't seem to be able to impress him. I remember being disappointed that he didn't like As Time Goes By. I think it was too romantic. He didn't expose much sentimentality. He was a little cynical. And humorous. Great choice of words and an entertaining delivery. When it was time to stop talking and go to the zendo he might say, "Time to go to church."

Sometimes there was a bit of exasperation in his voice. He could get fed up with stupidity rather quickly. People who'd known him longer indicated that he had been more caustic in his disdain when he was younger. Disdain for what? For idiocy, for unexamined opinion for slovenly thinking and speech. It was an education knowing Philip - like having a professor across the hall.

The May 3, 2008 event honoring Philip focused on him as a poet and I loved his poetry, but I knew him as a Zen student and Zen priest and a regular guy who hung out in the flop room at the City Center or around the coffee machine at Tassajara and talked amicably with anyone who was around. He did not discriminate. He was open to all and everyone's friend. He was the most educated person in the whole community I'd say, classically educated, and was always witty and insightful.

He poo-pooed the whole concept of Beat anything, but he is known as a Beat poet and he knew the whole Beat crowd.

Diane di Prima (who couldn't make the library event for Philip) lived across the street and she was an old friend of Philip's. Allen Ginsberg would drop by to see him. Gary Snyder and Philip kept up with each other to some extent. Don Allen came by a few times and Joanne Kyger. Later I got to know them in Bolinas. More recently I've come to be friends with Phiip's first publisher, Dave Haselwood. I remember walking across town with Philip, Alan, and Diane and youngly (27) and in-awely listening intently for their wisdom which usually consisted of gossip about their pals and abbreviated stories about their past just like when I get together with old friends from Zen or Texas or Japan and so forth.

Sometimes Philip and I would go over to Diane's house but mainly they seemed to meet outside the house. I think that for him there was too much rock n roll there and pot and this new speedy, rather compelling white powder. I kept going back though. What a scene.

Alan Marlowe, Diane di Prima's ex-husband and still close friend, would come by to talk. Boy were they opposite. Philip was modest and tended to understate and Alan would regale us with stories of his latest bi-sexual orgy or an announcement that he was the Avatar of the age and would be the next abbot of the ZC. Philip would make tiny humorous comments puncturing Alan's grandiosity which didn't slow down Alan at all.

Jeanne (I think that's the correct spelling), Diane's teenage daughter was coming by to visit me a lot and we'd hang out with Philip and go places together. He kept warning me that I could get in trouble for that but I didn't listen to him. Only he and Richard Baker were concerned. Later I realized I should have listened to my elder.

One day Reb Anderson came up to me in the City Center hall and said that he'd seen a marvelous Buddha statue in the back of a store. He wanted to tell Baker Roshi about it but first he wanted Philip's opinion. Reb was also a well-read, well-educated student, and especially well-read in Buddhism and he knew Buddhist art and iconography better than maybe anyone except Philip. So he asked me if I'd take Philip over there and I obliged. It was over on Union Street near the Marina. Can it be we walked that far? We did sometimes. As I remember it we did that day - and with Jeanne. She was interested because it was something to do but also because the name of the store was Katmandu and they had beautiful clothing, jewelry, and Buddhist artifacts.

Everything happened almost exactly as Reb had described it - that's why I didn't describe what he'd said. The owner was hopping around his small shop frenetically, but this time he wasn't singing, "Things go better with coke," as Reb said he'd been doing the day before. We looked around and admired the contents of Katmandu. Philip appreciated some of the little Buddha statues and malas. Jeanne looked at Nepalese dresses and an Afghan lap robe. I struck up conversation with the proprietor. He was friendly. I told him that a Zen monk friend of mine had mentioned a very fine Buddhist statue, possibly one not in full view. The man's eyes lit up. He motioned for us to follow him to the back storage area. There he led us to a closet and opened the door which revealed a line of hanging dresses. He pushed them to each side and beckoned us to come hither. There on cushions rested a magnificent stone Buddha in lotus posture with features distinctly Western. Philip stepped up to it and gasped. "Museum quality," he said in hushed astonishment.

That wasn't long after Baker had become abbot and I can't remember the order, but this one of one thing after another that he took on not long after taking over the ZC as chief priest - acquiring Green Gulch Farm, starting the Work Company. The ZC bought not only that Gandhara statue (so--called) for the City Center's Buddha Hall altar, but another similar one for Tassajara. Both bore the obvious influence of Greek artisans in style and Western features. Original Buddhism had no statues and what I've heard is that the sculptor descendents of Alexander the Great's occupying army introduced graven images to Buddhism. And Philip was the one who gave it the OK at ZC.

Philip was loyal to Richard Baker and unconcerned about forbidden "noodling" and when Baker went to Santa Fe, Philip joined him. I thought it was interesting that the two most popular monks at the SFZC, Philip and Issan Tommy Dorsey, went with Baker. He received dharma transmission from Baker and eventually became abbot of the Hartford Street Zendo in the Castro in San Francisco. It was said that the members there were pleased to have Philip come because of all his fine qualities but also because he was gay and the previous head priest and successor of Issan, Steve Allen, hadn't been.

Oh yes, Philip was gay. That's not something that one would notice by being around him - in my experience. He didn't seem to have any gay identity and didn't talk about it. I know he loved Joanne Kyger and was hoping long ago that she'd marry him instead of Gary Snyder - right? So I'd say he was bi. But whatever sex was in his life was hidden and unspoken and as far as I knew was behind him. But come to think of it he did make little homoerotic doodles at times - so there. Ah yes - and I remember a little book he did which featured such sketches.

Philip had some remorse. He would at times say he could kick himself for not having studied with Suzuki Roshi. He'd put himself down for having run around in circles with this and that "which was all a bunch of nonsense" and for traveling afar when the teacher he should have studied with, according to him, was right here at his doorstep. He said he would see Suzuki in Japan town, and he'd heard him speak and been to some ceremonies at Sokoji, but he'd just think of him as a nice little Japanese priest. I'd downplay the importance of having met Suzuki to Philip, reminding him of what doofuses those of us who did study with Suzuki were.

Once he was lamenting the fact that he'd wasted so much of his life and what had he accomplished and how all it had come to was that he was fat and deluded, when I reminded him that he'd written many wonderful books of poetry and he agreed, yes, that was something and seemed to be satisfied with that. I think he'd published something like nineteen books at that point. And then he remembered that we were practicing Zen which was based on realizing that one couldn't depend on phenomenal stuff like books or accomplishments and that doing a whole lot of nothing together day after month after year after decade was the ultimate in our line of business.

He got way too overweight and took on some grueling diets wherein he'd loose tons of weight. But he'd tend to get it back. And the blindness that overcame him in his later years did make old age a sad chore for him. For a man of letters not to be able to read was awful. Lots of people read to him though like Lou Hartman and Del Carlson.

Philip had a thing about being old - even before he was old. People would joke about it saying Philip was the youngest old man they knew. And he'd talk about how he was afraid of death. I remember a couple of question and answer ceremonies him starting off by tearfully stating he was going to die. But contrary to his expectations he lived to the good age of almost 79 - with his fear and trembling long gone.

He did take a long time to die too. I visited him in hospices for years. Of course he had a hospice right there at the Hartford Street Zen Center so he had a lot of practice. But he was in the Zen Hospice as well. I think in Laguna Honda too. People would come in and die but Philip was outliving the staff. One day he said to me, "David, I'm dying." 

"Philip," I said, "You've been dying ever since I met you."

"I know, I know," he said, "But this time I'm really dying."

And he did die finally not long after that.

My favorite memory of Philip I've mentioned here on cuke a few times I believe. It is actually the motto of the archiving work I do. I had been reading about the destruction of the University of Nalanda and a lot more than that - read all about it - thousands of monks massacred and beautiful statues and art destroyed by anti-Buddhist Huns and Moslems. Talking to Philip I bemoaned this devastation saying, "So much lost forever. It's terrible." Philip shook his head and said with a sigh, "Oh David, just enough survives."

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