The Zen of Philip Whalen ’51

Students of zen meditation are famous for their cultivation of the arts of haiku, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. Presence. Simplicity. The qualities that emerge on the cushion appear in every aspect of one’s life.

The cross-currents of zen, poetry, and calligraphy, have a rich history at Reed as well. “Loosen Up. Festoon.” by John Sheehy ’82 (Reed Magazine, March 2016) explores the currents sailed by Reed poet and zen master, Philip Whalen ’51 (Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen by David Schneider ’73).

According to Sheehy, Whalen ’51 was famous for his “voluminous” reading habits, his Beat poetry, for sharing a dorm room at Reed with two famous classmates and Beat poets (Lew Welch ’50 and Gary Snyder ’51), and his spiritual journey as a zen monk, teacher (roshi), and abbot. We learn about Whalen the poet (“he takes to a poem like a brilliant jazz artist, riffing on almost any relation of form passing through his mind and perception”), and Whalen the serious zen student taking ordination as a monk at the San Francisco Zen Center. But life was never entirely serious it seems. Sheehy writes,

Yet, within the reserved, Japanese-styled mannerisms of the monastery, he [Whalen] remains ever the disruptor, talking theatrically, humming, scat-singing, dancing on tiptoes through the silent meditation hall, “fat where most everyone else was trim, loud where everyone else was quiet . . . older, crazier, funnier.”

Another telling of the Whalen story can be found in “Philip Whalen and the Wild Fox Slobber of Zen” (A. Schelling, Tricycle, Fall 2016). This article quotes several of Whalen’s poems, closing with the haiku-like “Something Nice About Myself,”

Lots of people who no longer love each other
Keep on loving me
& I

I make myself rarely available.