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from Rick Levine

on Crowded by Beauty: the Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen
by David Schneider

cuke pages for Rick Levine & David Schneider & Philip Whalen

This missive also linked to in ZC Stories


             This is the third time that I've written you a letter, this one sparked by having just now read John Sheehy's nicely written and sober review of David Schneider's (Reed '73) biography of Phillip Whalen (Reed '51), "Crowded By Beauty" (Reed Magazine, March 2016).  I would like to offer a more enthusiastic perspective.

          The first of my three letters was written in 1972 when I was living at the Tassajara Zen Monastery not long after graduating from Reed with the class of 1970 in "Philosophy & Religion".  For identification purposes, should one of my surviving comrades read this, I was "Ricky Levine" at Reed. Then known as "Rick" for four decades, now "Rickety".  (Recall the riddle of the sphinx?)

          On a cold gray rainy mountain day in the winter of '72 I received the Reed Alumni News at Tassajara and was reflecting with my dharma brothers Phillip Whalen and Patrick McMahon (Reed '69) at the news of illustrious attainments.  Everyone was enjoying great success in business, enrollment in prestigious universities, advanced degrees, impressive titles.  With Phillip's encouragement I sent you our news:  "Rick Levine and Patrick McMahon are sorting rocks as to small, middling, and large for an esoteric fringe group in the California wilderness."

          Despite suffering a life-long "poetical indisposition" (quoth Phillip) Phil had an air of bemused dignity and quiet authority.  In the "tea area" there was a peg-board where everyone kept their coffee/tea mug.  A strip of masking tape served as label to identify the owner.  Mine said "Rick", Patrick's said "Pat".  Phil's said "Phillip G. Whalen, B.A."  (I for one read an allusion to Joyce's Ulysses here--see for example “First Vintage International Edition, June 1990”, infra, page 317).  Philip lived, as we all do, in many worlds.  Literature was prominent among them, and resonant echoes of language, spoken and literary, resounded in his daily life and society.  As Schneider chronicles, Phillip was awarded the B.A. in Literature from Reed College in 1951, not without considerable travail.

    My second letter was composed some few years later.  It was a protest against the disestablishment of Calligraphy at Reed as a central, accredited, and emblematic course offering.  What were you thinking?!  I, like Phillip before me, was a student (disciple even) and advisee of Lloyd J. Reynolds from whom I learned to read books, one after another, and several at the same time.  I learned the history of the alphabet, the Perennial Philosophy, and how to cut & operate a pen using a reed and a pen-knife. (I had the good fortune to study under Bob Palladino as well.) A friend showed to the poet Robert Creeley a letter that I had written her.  He glanced and commented, so she told me, "oh yeah, Reed-writing".  In more ways than one.  A look at last week's NY Times obituary for Reed Professor Father Robert Palladino (March 6, 2016) should be sufficient to ignite a reconsideration of this error, late as it is.

    And now this, my third letter.  "Crowded By Beauty", David Schneider's biography of Phillip G. Whalen, B.A. is brilliantly written, and a life-line he's tossed to save whoever's around to catch it--a rope braided with Phil's personal and poetry histories; the history of "the Beats", both east coast and especially their west coast iterations; with Friendship and friendships; with the Reed Poets’ lineage and their Pacific Northwest background; with Professor Lloyd Reynolds’ influence and the Portland revival of Calligraphy & Handwriting; with Buddhism; with Buddhism in America; with the authoritative self-Secret Oral Teachings of Buddhism; with how to read a poem (and the latter not just for slow-learners and the dim-witted, but a primer for guys just like me, for me!). 

          David has the deep credible expertise to illuminate all these strands, not least because he attended Reed, knows the ground where Phillip’s life as a poet began, and is uniquely situated to have produced this stunning book.  He is an accomplished calligrapher himself, in both Roman alphabets and Siddham script, an Acharya (Teacher) in the Shambhala lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and Shuso-level priest (“Head Monk”) in Zen Buddhism.  He is the author of a previous outstanding biography of the flamboyant cross-dressing Zen adept named Issan Dorsey, titled “Street Zen”, in which Issan’s wild early life is lovingly depicted as well as his founding of a prominent still-flourishing San Francisco AIDS Hospice called “Maitri”, where Issan later died of the disease.  Most of all David was a Boswell to Phillip Whalen’s Samuel Johnson--he had intimate personal contact with Phil over decades.  In the spirit of disclosure I’ll add that Philip was my mentor, dharma friend, patient, role model.  And David Schneider, also my friend, my Kalyanamitra (Buddhist practice ally), has re-animated his creative living presence.

    Finally, since I'm going on and on, I want to convey my good will to the Reed community.  It's no accident that Patrick ("Patroclus") McMahon, and distinguished Evergreen State College Professor Sam Schrager (Reed '70), and I have been meeting regularly for ten years by monthly telephone conference to discuss our reading.  Our salon has gone through Proust, some of Kafka, and now Joyce.  These discussions have roots in the shared vocabulary of our undergraduate humanities conferences.


Richard N. Levine, B.A. (Reed '70), M.D.
Oakland, California

March 15, 2016

posted on 4-08-16

cuke pages for Rick Levine & David Schneider & Philip Whalen