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Tensho David Schneider

Looking things up with Philip Whalen

12 March, 1981


Zen Center began operating a retail bookstore a little while ago, and Baker-roshi, via one of his assistants, asked me to stock a poetry section with "the uppest of the innest." That took a while, but as soon as it got done, everyone complained that there was no 'classical' poetry. I asked how many titles they would like, and they told me "Twenty?" I drew up a preliminary list and went over to Philip's to confer. I thought it would be a quick session, but he spent hours climbing around in his bookshelves pulling things down and recommending this edition for its annotation, and that one because it included the personal letters. He did a lot of very high-class extemporaneous literary criticism, also some back-biting gossip - an altogether educational afternoon. Shakespeare we left for another day.

Philip Whhalen
Today though, I was trying to find out which form of Avalokiteshvara is considered "the Granter of Asylum." This morning Philip told me, "If you'll just hold on for a second, and not be in such a swivet, I'll take you over to my place and you can look it up." But I did in fact get carried far afield by my swivet, and didn't get back to Philip's till late afternoon. I rang his buzzer around 4:30, and waited. We live in a rather dangerous section of San Francisco, and the landlady of his building has made it impossible for any of the occupants to 'buzz' someone in. The person has got to come down to the door to open it. Soon I heard him coming. It's a terrible drag to call on him because he lives on the third floor (no elevator), and of course he has no telephone for anyone to check whether it's a good time or not. You just have to risk it. Mostly he doesn't seem to mind, but if you do choose a bad time, you sincerely regret it.


He came crashing down the stairs with his arms held out like sagging wings, his mouth and eyes open wide, and his tongue hanging out. He took short shuffling steps and shook his considerable bulk with each one. He was wearing a torn undershirt, pants, and rubber flip-flops. I don't know what he would have done if I had been someone fancy and marvellous at the door - probably nothing at all different. He has these very formal manners - partly they seem Japanese - and no mater how he clowns or appears, you feel as if he's being polite to you.

"Were you sleeping - I'm sorry."
"No, it's alright, I had to get up to work anyway."
I remembered a line from something he'd written where God warns Eve "not to let that boy sleep in the afternoon."
"I didn't think I'd find you sleeping in the afternoon."
"Aw, you know, I'm just beat is all."
Philip is a firm believer in 'looking it up.' He'll often spend an entire morning or afternoon on an esoteric detail hunt, and manage to be entertained all the way along. His library is extensive, so mostly he doesn't have to go far to check something. If you don't try to borrow books from him ("I need them!") you can look stuff up too. He showed me to the books I needed - he'd already laid them out - and we kept up a kind of chatter as I researched my question. He made great groans, yawns and wails during any lapse in the talk.

His apartment feels the same, any place he lives: spacious, because he hates furniture, clean, elegant and interesting. At Tassajara, there were no chairs. Here there are two. There is always a portable low table, for writing, reading, eating, etc. His altar attracts me, because he owns many different kinds of Buddha images, and he has things arranged in what seems like an official way. Only a few figures are out at any given time, not all of them on the altar, but all of them always well-placed and well-looked-after. Some of the gods and goddesses are quite stunning, and if you keep coming around long enough, you get to see most of them. The same is true with his collection of kakemono, which are hung, along with other pictures, in some sort of rotation. Scattered everywhere on sills, shelves, tables, and books are lapidary specimens. Philip loves these cut and polished rocks and he keeps himself surrounded with them. Some he drills, strings, and wears.

The book I needed this afternoon was called Gods of Northern Buddhism, by Alice B. Getty, and I hadn't been able to find it in the Zen Center library, on reference shelves, or ANYWHERE. Even though it is out of date, the book has still got a version of a Buddhist pantheon clearly explained and illustrated. But Alice advances some pretty strange ideas, too. For instance - and I could not resist reading this out loud to a yawning, squirming Philip - she says that the five figures, seen as emanations, one from each finger of Padmapani, are actually representational of Germanic gnomes.

Philip Whalen

"NAAAAAAAAARGH," Philip said when I read this to him. Then he climbed onto his piano bench (I forgot - he has a piano - ), and turned on his stereo radio. Hampton Hawes came through in an early 50's piece called "For Real". Instead of climbing back down to the seat with many grunts and exclamations, Philip stayed perched on the piano bench and started to sing scat. "Deedle de deedle de BAP BAP. (Hand slams on the piano). Ooo oOo scoobi doobi o yeah. Baby baby oo oo Dig baby o yeah." He really got going, turned the radio way up, and began doing something like a go-go girl number: one foot in air, hands gyrating in different but exact rythms, shaking his big belly and pelvis and still singing like mad.

I don't describe this for the humour, or outrageousness necessarily, but because it was beautiful: a really large guy on a piano bench at five o'clock in the afternoon, shaking it. Philip Whalen has rhythm.

Tensho David Schneider is a Buddhist monk who runs Shambala Publishing's European Operation.


J A C K E T  # 11 
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