Philip Whalen died in San Francisco on June 26, 2002. Here are a selection of his poems and zen talks:
Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis
I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
splashed picture—bug, leaf,
caricature of Teacher
on paper held together now by little more than ink
& their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.
Walking Beside the Kamogawa, Remembering Nansen and Fudo and Gary’s Poem
Here are two half-grown black cats perched on a
lump of old teakettle brick plastic garbage
ten feet from the west bank of the River.
I won’t save them. Right here Gary sat with dying Nansen,
The broken cat, warped and sick every day of its life,
Puke & drool on the tatami for Gary to wipe up & scold,
“If you get any worse I’m going to have you put away!”
The vet injected an overdose of nemby and for half an hour
Nansen was comfortable.
How can we do this, how can we live and die?
How does anybody choose for somebody else.
How dare we appear in this Hell-mouth weeping tears,
Busting our heads in ten fragments making vows &
Suzuki Roshi said, “If I die, it’s all right. If I should
live, it’s all right. Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha.”
Why do I always fall for that old line?
We don’t treat each other any better. When will I
Stop writing it down.
A Vision of the Bodhisattvas
They pass before me one by one riding on animals
“What are you waiting for,” they want to know
Z —, young as he is (& mad into the bargain) tells me
“Some day you’ll drop everything & become a rishi, you know.”
The forest is there, I’ve lived in it
more certainly than this town? Irrelevant—
What am I waiting for?
A change in customs that will take 1000 years to come about?
Who’s to make the change but me?
“Returning again and again,” Amida says
Why’s that dream so necessary? Walking out of whatever house
Nothing but the clothes on my back, money or no
Down the road to the next place the highway leading to the
From which I absolutely must come back
What business have I to do that?
I know the world and I love it too much and it
Is not the one I’d find outside this door.
Soap cleans itself the way ice does,
Both disappear in the process.
The questions of “Whence” & “Whither” have
no validity here.
Mud is a mixture of earth and water
Imagine WATER as an “Heavenly” element
Samsara and nirvana are one:
Flies in amber, sand in the soap
Dirt and red algae in the ice
Fare thee well, how very delightful to see you
The practice of piety. The practice of music. The practice of calligraphy. These are exemplary pastimes. The practice of re-reading the novels of Jane Austen. The practice of cookery. The practice of drinking coffee. The habit of worrying and of having other strong feelings about money. All these are vices. We must try not to write nonsense, our eyes will fall out.
In answer to all this my head falls off and rolls all messy and smeary across the floor KEEP TALKING squelch slop ooze
Japanese Tea Garden Golden Gate Park in Spring
I come to look at the cherryblossoms
for the last time
Look up through flower branching Deva world
These blossoms will be gone in a week
I’ll be gone long before.
That is to say, the cherry trees will blossom every year but I’ll
disappear for good, one of these days. There. That’s all about the
absolute permanence of the most impossibly fragile delicate and
fleeting objects. By objects, I mean this man who is writing this,
the stars, baked ham, as well as the cherryblossoms. This doesn’t
An Irregular Ode
Once I began to write,
Be ruled by Beauty & her wilfullness
& got no further
Choking and wheezing, subject completely to the selfishness
of my own history
I don’t wonder that you doubt my love
My attention wanders even now, squinting at the moon
bamboo blinds—I should be with you
we’re only blocks apart
The same imaginary beauty splits us up, I keep chasing
the one who invents the mountains and the stars
I’m a fool supposing she’s someone else than you
are moss & ferns in forest light
For Allen, on His 60th Birthday
Having been mellow & wonderful so many years
What’s left but doting & rage?
Yet the balance of birthing & dying
Keeps a level sight: Emptiness, not
Vacancy, has room for all departure &
Arrival; I don’t even know what
Day it is.
One of the most destructive things about Zen is the relationship between teacher and student. First, finding a teacher to work with is difficult, then hanging out with a Zen teacher is complicated and peculiar, like getting radiation burn. I remember the worst thing my teacher Baker Roshi ever said to me. It was at Tassahara, dokusan, and he told me, “You’re mean to people.” He didn’t elaborate.
I was absolutely destroyed. People at different times in my life have told me I’m scary, but it’s in the eye of the beholder. When angry I make myself ridiculous and jump up and down, but not to intentionally scare. Usually I’m frightened and upset so I holler and yell. It’s difficult to get used to one’s own failure to control the temper, but anger is a state of mind that doesn’t last, it goes away, and shouldn’t frighten us.
I got into this industry because I wanted to find out, “What is life about? What does it mean?” And I still don’t know. But the teacher is a good Buddhist friend who helps you see where you’re at and what’s happening. We have to do our own shining, polishing and cleaning, then we need to check it out with someone who sees the process.
You go to your little zafu and all of a sudden the heavens open, ears smoke, eye balls spin, and belly button vibrates—”I got the answer! Been broken free!” You run off to the teacher who says, “Oh that’s nice, now go mow the lawn.” And you can see that we have fits of elation (and anger) and break through the veil, but of course the veil comes back when we look the other way.
In my opinion, the Zen industry is about the teacher-student relationship, about forging a new relationship with the self, and about keeping trying to see what this kensho business is about. Until one finds out “what is” etc., you are not much good to anyone else. People need to sit down, that is my program, sit down and stay there until you find out, “Why born? Why die? What does the predicament of being in the body mean? What does, ‘Beyond the physical body’ mean?” Can’t be “out” until thoroughly “in”—the “inness and outness” thing. And how to do laundry? I got a whole lot of dead underwear waiting in the washer upstairs.
Someone asked me this morning, “What is the answer to it all?” And I said, “Love.” In one of our secret esoteric Zen circles, at the bottom of the whole shebang is Buddha’s compassion—to save all beings. A passionate drive to end the suffering of stars, fish, people and everything.
Life and death. That’s what it’s really about. We live in the midst of dying and die in the midst of living. We go through our lives picking up all kinds of things and calling it “me.” We become very fond of this creation—life and inanimate matter all glued together.
I live at the Hartford Street Zen Center. There is a hospice here for folks living with AIDS. Everyone is perishing slowly. I can understand a little bit about what they are going through—that the end is not far away—because I am not well myself. Guys who are there and terribly ill are alive and know what is happening—that it’s the end of the moving, that if you stop moving you’re dead.
It’s very real when we watch friends fade and perish. Very difficult because we want to keep things as they are. But unless you experience your own death, you are lost. Really get close to it. What we are actually doing is dying all the time. Dying is an action. Ask, “Who is living? Who is dying?” And when you go to the zendo ask, “Why am I here?”
The business of “just sitting” is very difficult. Zen wants you to rip yourself to pieces. We sit down, fold our legs and watch breath. Sit on a cushion being bored stiff. Then our minds start flashing ugly pictures, sad feelings, weird ideas, and our knees hurt. We are attacking the structure of the personality, the casing, so we get distracted from what practice is about.
What are the reasons why we do zazen? The reason is that we are greedy for satori, for enlightenment and for friends to say, “Hey I couldn’t do that!” Keep asking: “What is it I am doing? What am I responding to? How am I acting with others and how do they act with me?” All we know is mush—a gray field where we try to get away or closer. All we may have learned through sitting is to handle our own intolerance or impatience. But in the life of Zen practice you shouldn’t come out alive.
At the end of it all, all we have is this funny Zen Buddhist practice, which is no more than telling you to please sit down over there, put your feet up in your lap, hold your hands in a certain way, keep your back straight and breathe. Then you go on from there. Just things as it is. What we all are. And we are all agreed that we want to sit and I am here to help you however I can—to teach you and do individual interviews with you, and if you want any kind of initiation or ordination, I can do that too.
The thing that I hope is that folks continue with their practice, continue to figure out how to work with it, how to absorb it into their own body and mind, into their own being. This is not a college course, it’s a living proposition, here for you to use, to dive into and soak yourself in. What happens next is your own business, and with any luck at all it is also Buddha’s business. ©
Poems reprinted from Overtime: Selected Poems of Philip Whalen, with permission of Penguin Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. Talk excerpts by Abbot Zenshin Philip Whalen are from the Hartford Street Zen Center newsletter, 1996 and 1997.