Crazy Love

The reverent, and irreverent, poetry of Zen priest Philip Whalen.

by Travis Nichols
Poetry Media Service

In his book Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New Directions, 1968), Thomas Merton compares the true Zen artist’s mind to a mirror, a reflective surface that does not strive for meaning or poetic beauty. He quotes Zenkei Shibayama:

The mirror is thoroughly egoless and mindless. If a flower comes it reflects a flower, if a bird comes it reflects a bird. It shows a beautiful object as beautiful, an ugly object as ugly. Everything is revealed as it is. There is no discriminating mind or self-consciousness on the part of the mirror. . . . Such non-attachment, the state of no-mind, or the truly free working of a mirror is compared here to the pure and lucid wisdom of Buddha.

Merton suggests that such faithful recording requires intense concentration and heightened consciousness rather than just a free artistic spirit. And while both Japanese Zen poetry and American poetry in the Objectivist tradition purport to show the world in this manner–without superfluous adjectival or analytical baggage–the poetry of American Zen poet Philip Whalen takes the artist-as-mirror idea to beautiful extremes.

Whalen’s poetry reflects not just objects as they are, but his own mind as it is too. And what a mind! A drug-fueled Beat-scholar’s mind, an epicurean mind, a mind comically but earnestly wrestling with nonattachment, a mind passing through the phenomenal world. In “Haiku, for Gary Snyder,” Whalen describes what he sees, but the object is soon obliterated:

Here’s a dragonfly
( T O T A L L Y )
Where it was,

that place no longer exists.

Rather than trying to pin down the dragonfly, Whalen describes how his perception shifts as the dragonfly shifts, flux reflecting flux.

Whalen’s poetic mind is often analogous to a mind in the beginning stages of zazen, the term for Zen-Buddhist meditation. Buddhist beginners are encouraged, as they settle into meditation, to let the pieces of the world appear in the mind and disappear without attachment. Instead of letting the chatter of the world float away, as those entering into zazen are encouraged to do, Whalen catalogs it. From his poem “For Albert Saijo”:

Fireweed now–
Burnt mountain day
Sunny crackle silence bracken
Huckleberry silver logs bears
bees and people busy.

Or from “International Date Line, Monday/Monday 27:XI:67”:

Here it comes again, imagination of myself
Someplace in Oregon woods I sit on short
Wide unpainted wooden cabin steps
Bare feet wiggle toes in dirt and moss and duff
The sun shines on me, I’m thinking about all of us
How we have and haven’t survived but curiously famous
Alive or dead. . . .

These zazen moments, gleaned from the outside as well as the inside world, “shift,” as Whalen describes them in an early poem, “from opacity to brilliance.” Passages of dense interiority–bursts of intensely private language, rich in sonic play and vivid imagery but nearly nonsensical–level out into moments of profound insight and clarity. And while his poetry may not seem like Merton’s “pure and lucid wisdom of Buddha,” it shows an authentic struggle to get there.

In his professional life, Philip Whalen was a Zen priest. He was ordained so in a 1987 transmission ceremony performed by Roshi Richard Baker, who himself was ordained in 1971 by Roshi Shunryu Suzuki, one of the most important figures in American Buddhism. Whalen’s transmission was part of the soto Zen tradition that began 800 years ago with the poet and monk Dogen Zenji, and which has followed “warm hand to warm hand,” from elder to elder to the present day.

Here’s another example, from one of Whalen’s most famous poems, “A Vision of the Bodhisattvas,” that shows progress toward, rather than attainment of, enlightenment:

They pass before me one by one riding on animals
“What are you waiting for,” they want to know

Z–, young as he is (& mad into the bargain) tells me
“Some day you’ll drop everything & become a rishi, you know.”

I know
The forest is there, I’ve lived in it
more certainly than this town? Irrelevant–

What am I waiting for?

This Bodhisattva search for enlightenment within both the phenomenal world and one’s own mind has a long tradition in soto Zen poetry. It has traditionally been expressed in Japanese poetics through the aesthetic of wabi. Scholars see Japanese haiku master Basho, through his life and poetry, as the best historical example of a man of wabi, because of his single-minded devotion to its underlying aesthetics and ethics.

Sometimes translated as “poverty” and other times as “poetic truthfulness,” wabi (and its offshoot, shiqori) is described by Toshiko Izutsu and Toyo Izutsu as the “verbal crystallization of what naturally effuses from the mind as man looks upon things of Nature and human affairs with the emotion of commiseration.”

As Whalen says in his poem “Historical Disquisitions”:

Hello, hello, what I wanted to tell you was
The world’s invisible
You see only yourself, that’s not the world
although you are of it

In other words, Whalen’s poetry does not explain itself or offer explanation after the experience of reading its disjunctions. Instead, it holds up its observation and waits for the careful reader to smile in acknowledgment, thus securing a mind-to-mind transmission in the radically lyric tradition of the Buddha.

Travis Nichols is a poet and novelist living in Seattle. This article originally appeared on Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Philip Whalen, and his poetry, at

© 2008 by Travis Nichols. All rights reserved.


~ by ericedits on October 14, 2008.

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