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from the sangha-e! newsletter of 


June 26, 2002 (San Francisco, CA)

"When you become you, Buddha becomes Buddha." --Shunryu Suzuki

Zenshin Philip Whalen, an enduring presence in the communities of poets, Zen Buddhists, and free spirits, died on the morning of June 26, at the age of 78 in San Francisco.

Born October 20, 1923 in Portland, Oregon, Whalen wrote more than 20 books of poetry and two novels. His work humanized the vast cultural, philosophical, spiritual, and historical resources he knew so intimately. Along with many friends and contemporaries (among them Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, Joanne Kyger, and Robert Duncan), he made a distinctive and important contribution to the contemporary literary canon. His unmistakable voice was at once whimsical and essential, elegant and guileless, reflective and wholly embodied. "Philip stories" that have emerged since his death attest to his singular character. Theres the time he had a friend sing the lunch menu to him in a restaurant; how he would sit alone in the dark drinking tea and playing Scarlatti on a 5-octave Casio keyboard; and his evident joy coming up a hill with an ice cream cone or sitting down to a bowl of noodles.

In 1973, he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in the Soto tradition, and received Dharma transmission in the lineage of Suzuki-roshi in 1987. In 1991, he succeeded Issan Dorsey as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center. His ability to touch people as a Dharma teacher came from a knack for being himself. Philip was crusty, full of contrasts, unpredictably wise. He never tried to hide himself, no matter what his mood was. He engendered trust, but not complacency. He was unconventional, but also an old school gentleman. Philip knew people intuitively. He combined acceptance with his instinct to be challenging. He encouraged right practice as a matter of how we do what we do, right here in everyday life. And he never offered easy answers. He once concluded a Dharma talk by saying "I wish I could help you, but I can't. Oh well. I wish you luck in your career in Hollywood."

Farewell, Zenshin. Your tenderness continues to touch the world, carried now in the hearts of those who were touched so tenderly by you. You are well loved because you loved so well.

I destroy myself, the universe (an egg)
And time-to get an answer:
There are a smiler, a sleeper and a dancer
We repeat our conversation in the glittering dark
Floating beside the sleeper.
The child remarks, "You knew it all the time."
I: "I keep forgetting that the smiler is
Sleeping; the sleeper, dancing."

A Memorial Service for Zenshin Philip Whalen is scheduled for September 1, at 2:30 p.m., at Green Gulch Farm. Please call (415) 863-3136 for details.

Back to Whalen Link Page

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