Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Zenshin Philip Whalen on Writing and Meditation

The poetry and life of Zenshin Philip Whalen is probably one of the big signposts along the trail that led me to become a Zen practitioner. His poems cleaned up all the intellectual mumbo jumbo along the way and helped me realize that it's okay just to sit down on a round cushion (aka zafu) and stare at a wall. I started reading Whalen's work in the mid-60s. First he pushed my own poetry along. In the 80s, when I first got down to some "erratic practice," his poetry was there waiting for me with some goofy advice. Just recently, because of some correspondence with a friend, I pulled out his collected poems. Perfect timing. His advice, goofy as it is, has always been a nice antidote to my psyche when the damn thing takes over and starts SERIOUSLY driving down the road like it's in charge. Here's some quotes I copied from my journal. They rang some bell for me. Ding. 
--Bobby Kankin Byrd
by Philip Whalen
(Pages 840 and 843, The Collect Poems of Philip Whalen

I thought I’d write books and make money enough from them to travel abroad and have a private life of reading and study and music. I developed a habit of writing and I’ve written a great deal, but I’ve got little money from it.
With meditation I supposed that one could acquire magical powers. Then I learned that it would produce enlightenment. Much later, I found out that Dogen is somewhere on the right track when he tells us that the practice of zazen is the practice of enlightenment. Certainly there’s no money in it. Now I have a meditation habit.
I like the idea somebody mentioned of erratic practice. It immediately reminded me of rocks that were left around when the glaciers receded. A lot of times setting out in a field there are no other rocks. It’s a very strange appearance. You can’t account for the rock’s position unless you remember the glacier that carried the rock there and then went away. Zazen is slow but leaves erratic boulders.
So far all we’ve been able to invent in the United States is the business of building small cabins in the woods and going there to hide out, then come back and write a book about it. That practice, that sort of individual, hermit, erratic practice is something that’s really important. The danger of Zen Centers or monasteries is that people will take them seriously as being real. We should find our own practice; we might start out in an official place, but we should discover somehow that we don’t need official institutions. It’s exactly like Lew Welch says in his poem about the rock out there, the Wobbly Rock, “Somebody showed it to me and I found it for myself.” The quote isn’t exact. Lew was an erratic Zen practitioner who was a great poet.
--Zenshin Philip Whalen