Philip Whalen on Zen, life, and death

A talk on poetry and Zen from Philip Whalen

Philip Whalen
1 November 2002
Philip Whalen Shambhala Sun - Nov '02 Zen Life Death & Dying
Photo by Elizabeth Jayne

The late poet and Zen teacher, Philip Whalen, on life and death.

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.

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 scarey, 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.

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.

Talk excerpts by Abbot Zenshin Philip Whalen are from the Hartford Street Zen Center newsletter, 1996 and 1997.