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Buddhadharma : Fall 2015
fall 2015 buDDhaDharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 71 revieWs As a result, while innumerable biog- raphies and volumes of commentary have been churned out about Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Snyder, the Beat spot- light rarely lingers on Whalen, who is typically cast as a kind of benevolently plump supporting character. In Ker- ouac’s The Dharma Bums and Desola- tion Angels, he appears as Ben Fagan, a “quiet respectable booboo... smiling over books,” who patiently sits beside the author in the park for an entire afternoon, sweetly watching over him as he sleeps off one of his alcoholic blackouts. With the publication of David Schnei- der’s biography, Crowded by Beauty: The Life and Zen of Poet Philip Wha- len, however, the original dharma bum finally gets the sustained attention he deserves. It is not only one of the most keenly observed books on the Beats ever published, but it’s also a fascinat- ing exploration of the life and dharma of one of the first American-born Zen teachers. In typically self-effacing fashion, Whalen never assembled a collection of his thoughts on Zen outside of his poetry, and he rarely saw to it that his talks at Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco, where he served as abbot in the early 1990s, were recorded. But without his quietly pervasive influence, Buddhism might never have taken root in American soil so vigorously and spread so prolifically. While they were students living together at Reed College in Oregon, Whalen introduced Snyder and another young poet, Lew Welch, to Asian philosophy and literature that was steeped in Buddhist perceptions, includ- ing the classic haiku collections trans- lated by R.H. Blyth. Kerouac often gets the credit for putting a generation of peripatetic seekers on the cushion, but daily medi- tation practice was never his strong suit. Whalen and Snyder, however, had already committed themselves to Bud- dhism as a physical, embodied activity (rather than just a philosophy) before the Six Gallery reading, discovering in zazen a method for drilling down to deeper strata of consciousness than even poetry was able to reach. They began sitting together in their flat on Mont- gomery Street in the early 1950s. After the reading and the subsequent obscenity trial that thrust “Howl” and the Beats onto the world stage, instead of cultivating his notoriety as a poet, Wha- len followed Snyder to Japan to study Zen in the traditional way. They also kept Ginsberg, who had adopted them as his spiritual advisors, grounded as he toured the globe searching for gurus and holy men who could give him a mystic fix. “Ginsberg sailed out on truly brave explorations of mind and conscious- ness,” Schneider observes, “counting on Whalen and Snyder as the sane Buddhist