The Authentic Joy of Philip Whalen

I have often thought of doing a book called The Laughter of Buddha. In the Mahayana and Hinayana Sutras together there are about ten places where Buddha laughs. At the most subtly trivial circumstance or at — the same thing — the revelation of ultimate reality. A disciple picks a flower along the road and smells its perfume, or a vision is revealed of the infinitudes of infinities of the universes, each with its Buddha, and The Enlightened One laughs with enlightenment. Baron von Hügel loved to point out that an abiding joy, the habitude of good humor, was considered by the Vatican in the canonization proceedings that authorize the veneration of a blessed or a saint as one of the essential characteristics of beatitude.

This is what Philip Whalen’s On Bear’s Head is all about. For Philip, being is joy. He has no epistemological problems because for him ontology is not just joyful; it’s funny. In a transcendental sense? Yes, but in a mundane one, too.

Soap cleans itself the way ice does,
Both disappear in the process.
The questions of “Whence” & “Whither” have no validity here.

Mud is a mixture of earth and water
Imagine WATER as an “Heavenly” element
Samsara and nirvana are one:

Flies in amber, sand in the soap
Dirt and red algae in the ice
Fare thee well, how very delightful to see you here again!

Nowadays Buddhism is like the weather. Everybody’s talking about it, but how many people are doing anything? Some people are born authentic, some people achieve it, some have it thrust upon them. As poet and person Philip Whalen simply is. He is about as thoroughly authentic an individual as human physiology is capable of producing. D.T. Suzuki, Christmas Humphries, Alan Watts, even Gary Snyder, many modern Japanese view askance. When Philip Whalen, in his red whiskers, looking like a happy Ainu bear-god, walks down Omiya-dori in Kyoto’s weavers’ quarter, every face lights up with that old-time Buddhist joy, even though most of the inhabitants are Left Communists, militant atheists, Koreans and Untouchables. He is the kind of person Japanese wish all Westerners were, the good Japanese, that is. There’s plenty that like Organization Men. I have in fact seen Philip ambling past the market stalls and running into a march of demonstrating strikers, and everyone smiled and waved and he waved back. That’s the way you feel when you read his poems. You want to smile and wave back. Gary Snyder, who in fact the people in the same neighborhood do accept as a scholarly yamabushi, a wild hermit monk come down from the mountains, has written a poem called “Smokey the Bear Sutra.” It is more like his friend Whalen’s poetry than anything else he has written, and in a sense it’s about Philip.

Don’t get the idea that Philip Whalen is some kind of clown and that his poems are just jokes. He is a greatly learned man, more in the mainstream of international avant-garde literature than almost anybody else of his generation, a man of profound insights and the most delicate discriminations. It all seems so effortless, you never notice it, as you never notice until it has stolen up and captivated you, the highly wrought music of his verse. It all sounds so casual and conversational, just as a lot of Mozart sounds like a country boy whistling along his way to the swimming hole.

How intimate his poetry is, and how closely and deeply connected with place. He is as intensely Northwestern as the painters Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. This abides. Yet each place he goes envelops the poems of that place with a luster of specificity like the nimbus around the picture of a Buddha or a Christian saint. San Francisco, the mountains and sea of the West, Japan. Each poem occupies its own poetic world and the reader finds that world risen about him. This is a very Chinese theory of poetics — that each poem should present an inescapable poetic situation. “The banana leaves tear in the rain.” It is the south in the monsoon season. “Heavy incense smoke lowers under the gilded ceiling.” A palace. “The painted lute lies by the pearl curtains.” A concubine. “Nothing is left in the candlestick but a thread of ash and tears of wax.” They are exhausted with too much sex. This is a formula anybody can learn. Philip Whalen doesn’t work by formula. He works by total realization, very simply.

Reading On Bear’s Head, this big book full of beautiful poems, some of them in Whalen’s own inimitable calligraphy, it is easy to understand why a poetry like his plays the enormously important role it does in the alternative society, the new world that is being born from the womb of the old. Whether on the printed page, in poetry readings, in rock lyrics or the songs of folk and protest singers, or in the cafés chantants, a new moral universe is coming into being, growing up like the lotus from the mud out of the old savage world of the twentieth century, that soon a better day will call the age of pre-historic man, or there will be no soon, and no day at all. What distinguishes Philip Whalen is what distinguishes a very few of the singers — Joni Mitchell or Anne Sylvestre. He doesn’t seem to have to struggle up from the mud. He just blossoms naturally. I doubt if he calls himself a Buddhist. He doesn’t have to shout or take off his clothes or smoke marijuana on television or even ring little cymbals. He just walks along Omiya-dori saying good morning to the people selling grilled eel or sushi rice rolls or pickled fern tips. Two blocks away the bush warblers sing and make love in the transcendental rock and gravel gardens of Daitokuji, the great complex of Zen monasteries.



This review of On Bear’s Head (Philip Whalen’s collected poems as of 1967) originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (1969) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1969. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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