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Zen in America

Zen Buddhism has had a huge impact on American poetry…and thus on America life. Today almost every major city has a Zen Buddhist Center and millions of Americans practice Zen meditation or something that looks like it. Even mainline Christian Churches encourage meditation as part of a mature spiritual practice. How did this happen? Asian Buddhism was first brought to the West Coast of the United States by Japanese and Chinese workers in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s but didn’t attract much attention outside of their own communities. Then the clash of Japanese Imperialism and American Democracy in WWII heated up the pot and the stew started to boil over. The Japanese Zen scholar D. T, Suzuki wrote of a modernist Zen that Western Academics could understand and the British born Alan Watts merged Eastern and Western thinking in book after book that eventually captured the popular imagination.

So how did a shy, bookish little boy born in 1923 in Oregon end up an ordained Buddhist Monk and an abbot as well as one of the Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance and a friend of all the West Coast Beats? Thus the next book in my bucket list. “Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Whalen,” by David Schneider, University of California Press, 2015. (My Bucket List is to read as many biographies of poets as I can before I die.)

Like so many young men of his generation, his ticket to the future was the GI Bill for his service in The Great War. He never saw battle. His job in radio maintenance kept him stateside working on communication equipment. Wow, for the first time he had a good job that left him time to read and write. After discharge, he enrolled (on the GI Bill) in Portland’s small but dynamic Reed College where by the magic of the muses he became friends and roommates with Gary Snyder and Lew Welch—lifelong literary buddies all. After Reed, he moved up and down the West Coast centering on San Francisco where the New York Beats had started to show up: Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Neil Cassidy from Colorado. 1955: The now legendary Gallery Six Reading at Ferlinghetti’s legendary book store where Ginsberg read his over-the-edge “Howl” and the Beats became part of popular culture. Gary Snyder got Philip in the lineup. Overnight Philip found himself on the cutting edge of a literary phenomena. But whence the Zen?

Philip’s sister reports her brother had read over half the books in the local library. This reading had led to the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna, and Hinduism as well as all the classics of Western Literature as well as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. This was an alive, active, and vibrant mind. He was ready for Zen. Gary Snyder introduced Philip to the writing of the Japanese Zen Master D.T. Suzuki in the early 1950’s. The balance of spirit, mind and nature…and the stillness and oneness of it all. And the discipline. Philip followed Snyder in working as a Forest Lookout Ranger for three summers in a row—a very Zen job since the work was sitting quiet, alone and still watching the horizon. He somehow saved enough money from random jobs to sail to Japan in 1966 to visit Snyder who was already there. He found a job teaching English at the WMCA in Kyoto. Here he was---in the heartland of Zen…learning, adsorbing, becoming. And he did. He was ordained as a Zen Monk in 1973 and spent the rest of his life in Zen Centers in San Francisco and New Mexico. And in the late 1960’s Coyote Press and others started to publish his work. He was on the map. For those of us who live in a digital world, it is an insight to read the challenges of getting published in a pre-digital world. And for those of us who live in a modern, 21st Century world it is almost a shock to read of the hard edge discipline it takes to live the life of a Zen monk and abbot. This isn’t salad bowl spirituality.

When I think of the Mid-Century Poets, the ones I read and re-read are Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and Frank O’Hara and Sylvia Plath. Philip’s poetry rarely jumps off the page for me. What grabs me about Whalen is he is not an American wanna-be sitting around talking about Buddhist Philosophy and thinking that makes him Buddhist. He did the work. He became Zen…crowded by beauty.

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