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Philip Whalen

About Writing and Meditation

Philip Whalen was born in Portland, Oregon, and educated at Reed College. He has written a number of works, including On Bear's Head, The Diamond Noodle, Enough Said: Poems, 1974-1979, and Grey Fox. He is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

Reprinted from Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry, edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich, Shambhala, 1991. (Thanks to Kent Johnson for suppying this piece. -J.T.)


I thought that I'd write books and make money enough from them to travel abroad and to have a private life of reading and study and music. I developed a habit of writing and I've written a great deal, but I've got very little money for it.

With meditation I supposed that one could acquire magical powers. Then I learned that it would produce enlightenment. Much later, I found out that Dogen is somewhere on the right track when he tells us that the practice of zazen is the practice of enlightenment. Certainly there's no money in it. Now I have a meditation habit.

Jack Kerouac said that writing is a habit like taking dope. It's a pleasure to write. I usually write everything in longhand. I like the feel of the pen working on the paper.

In my experience these two habits are at once mutually destructive and yet similar in kind. I write for the excitement of doing it. I don't think of an audience; I think of the words that I'm using, trying to select the right ones. In zazen I sit to satisfy my sitting habit. It does no more than that. But while sitting, I don't grab onto ideas or memories or verbal phrases. I simply watch them all go by. They don't get written; they don't (or anyway, very seldom) trip the relay on my writing machinery. Considering that I've spent more days in the past fifteen years sitting zazen than I have spent in writing, it's little wonder that I've produced few books during that time.

Whalen Book Cover I became a poet by accident. I never intended to be a poet. I still don't know what it's all about. If I wrote poetry at all, it's because I could finish it at the end of the page. Maybe it would run halfway down the next page, but it would come to a stop. What I wanted to do with writing was to write novels and make money like anybody else. And now I find myself in this ridiculous industry of writing these incomprehensible doodles, and why anybody's reading them I can't understand.


As far as meditation is concerned I'm a professional. I've been a professional since 1973. And that's my job. I find it very difficult to sell. And that's interesting; that's another job I have, to sell you on this idea that it's good to sit. Maybe that's where the poetry comes into all this, that it has to be an articulation of my practice and an encouragement to you to enter into Buddhist practice. To get yourselves trapped into it I hope. And then try to figure out how to get out of it. It's harder to get out of Buddhist practice than it is to get out of writing poetry.

I write very little nowadays. There is a journal in which I write things like "the sun is shining" or "Michael McClure was in town and we had a nice time" or "the flowers are blooming." And so I don't have much to say because I talk all the time. I have to give lectures, I participate in seminars, and I have not much chance to wander up and down a hillside picking flowers and picking my nose and scratching my balls and what-not. And thinking of hearing, having a chance to hear what's going on around me, or hearing people in restaurants or on a bus. There are no restaurants in Santa Fe worth sitting in, there are no buses at all. So I don't hear anymore, hardly at all, unless I travel. I was recently in New York and around, and now I'm here at Green Gulch Farm, and it's interesting to hear what's going on outside. While somebody was talking there was a robin outside raising hell. But that doesn't mean anything. I mean I'm not about to write a poem on the subject of so-and-so talking, while a robin outside was raising hell.

And so I'm here under false pretences. You must deal with that however you can. I'm quite willing to talk to people and explain things to them if they have questions. Or I might be sitting doltishly looking out the window. So it will be necessary for you, if you want something from me, to try to get it by asking questions. I'm not about to offer anything, I don't have anything to offer. I'm sorry - that's the "emptiness" part.

I think there's a great deal of misunderstanding about what emptiness is, the idea that emptiness is something that happens under a bell jar when you exhaust all the air from it. That's not quite where it's at as far as I understand it. The emptiness is the thing we're full of, and everything that you're seeing here is empty. Literally the word is shunya, something that's swollen up; it's not, as often translated, "void." It's packed, it's full of everything. Just as in Shingon Buddhism, the theory that everything we see and experience is Mahavairochana Buddha, the great unmanifest is what we're actually living and seeing in. Wallace Stevens said, "We live in an old chaos of the sun." Well we're living in a live chaos of Mahavairochana Buddha. What are you gonna do with it? How are you gonna handle that?

My Buddhist name is Zenshin Ryufu, which is very impressive. The reason that you have a name like that is that you keep forgetting it and it makes you wonder about why you got it and why it's for you, because it's a very exalted idea. Zenshin means "meditation mind" and it's also a Japanese pun. It means something like "complete mind." There's also a zenshin essay by Dogen. Ryufu is two Chinese characters that literally mean "dragon wind," but in Chinese literature I found out it means "imperial influence" (the dragon stands for the Chinese emperor). It's pretty complicated, and you wonder, well, what does that have to do with me? Four words - Zen- Mind- Dragon- Wind. What in the world, what connection does that have with this individual who has received this name and is ordained as a monk? So that is a problem that becomes more or less clear as you continue being a monk - what your name is. And of course names and poetry all come together. Gertrude Stein says poetry is calling the name of something. That's what we do all the time, actually - call ourselves. There's the story of the Zen master who every day would call his own name. He'd say, "Zuigan!" And he'd say, "Yes!" "Zuigan! Don't be misled by other people!" Of course the other people were Zuigin too.

I like the idea somebody mentioned of erratic practice. It immediately reminded me of rocks that were left around when the glaciers receded. A lot of times setting out in a field there are no other rocks. It's a very strange appearance. You can't account for the rock's position unless you remember the glacier that carried the rock there and then went away. Zazen is slow but leaves erratic boulders.

I have a number of fancy titles at the Dharmasangha (Zen Brotherhood) in Santa Fe. But when push comes to shove it means that I'm the person who goes down and does the opening ceremony in the zendo (meditation hall) every morning and sits two periods. And then I go down again at 5:30 in the evening and sit again with whoever shows up. And the rest of the time I study. We have two seminars a week with Baker Roshi on the koans in the Shoyoruko as translated by Thomas Cleary. I've also been studying with Baker Roshi closely for the last three years with the intention at last of trying to become a Buddhist teacher, to help get this show on the road, which is still very precarious in this country. The chances as I see it of Buddhism simply becoming something that people do on Sunday just like Methodism or Catholicism are very strong. But I hope that there will continue to be centers in the country like Tassajara, or Shasta Abbey, or Mt. Baldy. There will be these hidden spots around the country where people can hide out and do more serious, concentrated practice, to keep the door open for everybody to get the chance to try it out, find out what it's like to not do anything except follow a particular schedule and do a lot of sitting and a lot of physical work. This is something that I think is necessary in order for human beings to go on being human beings. So far all we've been able to invent in the United States is the business of building small cabins in the woods and going there to hide out, then come back and write a book about it.

That practice, that sort of individual, hermit, erratic practice, is something that's really important. The danger of Zen Centers or monasteries is that people will take them seriously as being real. We should find our own practice; we might start out in an official place, but we should discover somehow that we don't need official institutions. It's exactly like Lew Welch says in his poem about the rock out there, the Wobbly Rock, "Somebody showed it to me and I found it myself." The quote isn't exact. Lew was in erratic Zen practitioner who was a great poet.

The real tension, I think, is between official poetry, the kind that we're taught in school and is kept in libraries, and the kind we really believe in - what we are writing and what our friends write. The same thing holds for meditation: what we discover for ourselves and learn. At some point you can forget it and go off and make a pot of spaghetti. We used to do go down to Muir Beach years ago to gather mussels off the rocks. We'd build a bonfire, put seaweed on the fire to steam the mussels. We'd eat them, then jump up and down in the waves and have fun. That was enough. Probably enough. Or too much. Oh, I guess Blake said it, "Enough, or too much." That's all.


J A C K E T  # 11 
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