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4-07-16 - BOOK REVIEW/LETTER TO REED MAGAZINE from Rick Levine on Crowded by Beauty: the Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen by David Schneider

Tensho David Schneider was with the SFZC for years. He wrote Street Zen about Issan Dorsey and is currently (2002) the head of Shambala in Europe or something like that. This is an introduction to his journal on Philip.- DC

This journal rose from the premise that the sayings and doings of Philip Whalen - Zenshin Ryufu - would be of interest to others. I wrote it for them, but I also wrote it because I wanted to write - just that simple. I wanted to be putting pen to paper, and here was this amazing subject - a person I knew and loved and practically lived with - a literary person, a "famous" person, one of the original Beat poets, a zen master, my pal.

But this is no biography, nor can I can claim objectivity. The reader is stuck with me I'm afraid, in that it's a personal record. I can't explain why the desire to write this suddenly overpowered the innumerable obstacles to writing anything. Nor can I provide reasons why 18 months later, the journal sputters to an end. At the time it felt definite, as if a frame were being laid over a picture: this edge, the beginning, that edge, the end.

The entire book takes place during a golden age of the San Francisco Zen Center. All the events recorded here happened before the big, and increasingly famous schism of 1983, a schism that eventually forced abbot Richard Baker Roshi, to leave both his position and his city. In the years leading up to this split however, Zen Center held a place of no small importance in the spiritual imagination, if not the actual spiritual life of many San Francisco Bay Area residents. Artistic, economic, and even political influence radiated from this.

The story of the thriving businesses, famous visitors, conferences, secret meetings and hanky-panky that orbited in and around Zen Center's practice places has been told a number of times, and continues to be rewritten. It is certainly not the subject of this journal, but plays a role as the literal background to what Philip called his "life of elegant retirement." He did not work in the businesses, and performed extremely rarely, if at all, as a poet for the Zen Center. He lived there to practice zen, and to train with his teacher. Philip's take on temple life, based also upon his years in Japan, provided a healthy, sometimes irreverent corrective to the daily experiences of many of his fellow zen students.

On the other hand, Zenshin did show himself to be a very learned poet, with a grasp of all classical and most popular writing in English. This counts, because zen takes place in a literary atmosphere. The meditation is silent, true, and periods of severely restricted speech are inflicted on practitioners with regularity, but it is simply not the case that one sits in non-thought, works, eats and sleeps in that same condition, preparing thereby for illuminating encounters with the master and the big bang boom of enlightenment.

A zen student's day is suffused with literature, poetry specifically: ancient rhymes are chanted each early morning; lyrics accompany meals and acts of personal hygiene; ceremonies, ordinations, and transmissions fairly burst with verse. The basic instruments of teaching in zen - the lineage wisdom of the koans - are couched in poems. The masters' sophisticated repartee is capped and shaped and turned upon the student with poetry. Poetry is not enough to crack their code, but it is often the shape the key takes. Officially, zen is a "transmission outside words and scripture;" unofficially, it's OK to fall in love with poetry, possibly even necessary to do so. This is not a contradiction. I fell in love with poetry - many of us did - and most of the living poets whose work we admired, admired Philip's work. ___

When this journal began I was 29 years old and had been living at Zen Center for nearly a decade. I worked in the Green Gulch Greengrocer - a corner market across the street from the City Center- and at Wheelwright Press, Zen Center's brief, early foray into publishing. I was expected to show up for quite a lot of things on time, but my schedule was relatively flexible. Three mornings a week I drove a truck and shopped at the San Francisco Produce Terminal instead of attending morning meditation. I also holed up in different offices during the day, writing letters for Wheelwright Press, writing articles for the Wind Bell, or working things out on the telephone. I was less easy to find and pin down than many colleagues. This good luck afforded a bit of time for writing, and for traipsing around with Philip. My girlfriend at the time - Carol Gallup, herself a lovely poet - took great interest in what Philip was about generally, so time spent with him, or chronicling same, was not regarded by her as time stolen from our relationship. Carol supported this project, and listened patiently to many of the entries immediately upon their completion. More good luck.

The reader will soon see that I kept this writing secret from Philip himself. Only years later did I confess it to him:

"So, some years ago, I kept a journal,"

"Uh huh,"

"And this journal well, was, kind of like focused on you. I mean on things you and I did together."

"Uh huh."

"And like, now, it's become this sort of thing. At least for me. Maybe one day I'll publish it..."

"Uh huh...."

Long, long silence.

"Well, Dave, there isn't really anything I can do about it NOW, is there?"

He growled, but I felt he was secretly pleased. Some years after that I mentioned it to him again, but he waved it off, as if it were already understood. Fait accompli.

I carried the notebooks around for many years, looking for the right time to work on them. Then a year ago I had one of those very clear dreams: Philip and I were talking about something, and he said, "You know, I'm afraid we're going to lose all those texts we worked on together. You remember those?"

I woke up in a sweat. I hauled the notebooks down to the office, photocopied them and kept originals and copies in separate places. I worked away at typing it up. When it was finished, I went back through once and cleaned it up a bit.


It appears to be possible to write about Zen Center life of the 1970's and early 1980's in very harsh, condemning terms. Given a professional, non-participatory stance, given several decades remove, given an extreme and skillfully applied vocabulary, it appears possible to make that time sound practically criminal. We did work hard and long hours; there were problems with "authority;" I don't know where in the story of zen buddhism one would read about the training being otherwise. This is not offered as an excuse. It is clear that the problems Baker Roshi and his disciples got into then have not been solved in the Occidental Buddhist community. The rough edges between a traditional, hierarchical, Asian, heritage with royal patronage, and a materialistic, entertainment-oriented society with politics of the lowest common denominator, have not been smoothed out. That will take time, lots of it. Zen Center of the 1970's and early 1980's was also a great place to be. You could practice intensively, you could study, you could live in the city or in the monastery, you could find work in the businesses, or in the gardens...all kinds of interesting and creative and intelligent people were always around. The great teachers from every lineage passed through. It was a real scene, and Philip Whalen - Zenshin Ryufu - was a linch-pin in it. I hope the glimpse of him presented here conveys even a little of what he meant.

David Schneider, Cologne, May, 2002

Philip Journal, Introduction (c) Tensho David Schneider


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