In Close Proximity—Part One

In Close Proximity—Part One

excerpts from Side Effect
A Journal of Zen Life with Philip Whalen
by Tensho David Schneider

Tensho David Schneider’s journal, Side Effect came about from the idea that the sayings and doings of Philip WhalenZenshin Ryufu would be of interest to others. The journal takes place over a period of 18 months, towards the end of Whalen’s 12 years living in Zen Center housing, a period he called his “life of elegant retirement.” These months, directly before the scandal of 1983 tore it apart, was a sort of golden age for the San Francisco Zen Center. David Schneider was 29 years old and had been living at Zen Center for nearly a decade when he began this journal. He arrived in 1972, about a month after Philip Whalen took up residence there. The Zen Center was held in high regard in the spiritual imagination, if not the actual spiritual life, of many so inclined Northern California residents as a place where one could practice intensively, study, live in the city or the monastery, and find work in Zen Center associated enterprises, or on the farm. Many interesting and creative and intelligent people passed through its doors, including the great teachers from every Buddhist lineage. It was a real scene, and Philip WhalenZenshin Ryufuwas central to it all.


—6 March 81—

A very lovely day. To prolong the conversation I was having with Philip in the sun and light wind, I said, “I think this must be one of the greatest American novels,” pulling A Farewell to Arms out of my book-bag and holding it up for him.

“Wha..what do you have there dear boy ? Oh. Oh, well, you have to read all the really SERIOUS American arthers before you can say that.”

“Like who?”

“Oh, you know, really SERIOUS types like Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James….”

photo by Barbara Wenger

Philip rarely gives a clear opinion of any author, short of total admiration for him—or her, more usually: Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Murasaki Shikibu, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson. Even if he makes a pronouncement about someone’s work, or some part of it, it’s very likely that next time you talk to him about it, he’ll widen the context of that work or that author so as to throw an entirely different light on it/him/her.

Now he seemed to be putting Hemingway down, but I remember the time he typed up a descriptive passage about a lake in a valley, and didn’t credit the writing on the typed sheet. He posted it an the bulletin board outside the small kitchen. A bunch of us were standing around drinking coffee, getting ready for the day, gazing in our usual vacant way at the bulletin board. Philip appeared behind us and asked, “Do you know who wrote that ?”

We all looked carefully at the passage, stalling. I wanted to say “Hemingway,” but I wasn’t sure and didn’t think I could afford the embarrassment.

Philip said, “It’s from The Green Hills of Africa—isn’t it lovely ?”

“I knew it was Hemingway!”

He chuckled, as we all, including him, read it again. It was a lovely passage, but it was even more lovely to see Philip so thoroughly enraptured by the writing as to risk educating us.

During the course of my re-reading Hemingway this time, Philip has spent hours listening to my questions and opinions, and discussing them with me. One day he came into an office where I was trying to type a long dull list, and delivered a two hour lecture on Hemingway: the superiority of the short stories to the novels (“The novels get a little thin sometimes—you can poke your finger through them,”), the history of the writing of The Snows of Kilamanjaro, and Hemingway’s relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He read aloud from a stack of biographies, and supplemented the stories with his own insights. It was a great lecture, but not at all an uncommon thing for him to do.

Everyone knows of Philip’s devotion to literature, but not everyone can imagine his effort to transmit it. Complicating this is the fact that Philip does not shine as a classroom teacher, or rarely. (A set of lectures on how to read, delivered at Tassajara, was a notable exception.) Mostly, he just doesn’t think classrooms are where you learn. Philip has read, and continues to read all the time everything and is glad to encourage anyone willing to join him for even any part of that. He honestly feels that people have got to find out things for themselves, and this includes developing “chops” as a writer. Here again, though, he is incredibly generous about reading works his acquaintances show him. He can devastate people with his criticism, but he aims to help.

—12 April 81—

Philip asked, “Her name isn’t Somer…Sumer…something is it ?”

Blanche said, “Yes, it is.”

“Oh FUCK , if you’ll excuse the expression. That’s the same lady who’s been writing to me for months, even though I’ve written back and told her I am absolutely not going to tell her anything more than I already have about haiku poetry.”

“She’s this Phd. student from Germany and now she’s arrived here and wants us to go pick her up at the Airporter Terminal. I guess we shouldn’t go too far out of our way. I mean I’ve told her already we couldn’t do it, and even so I’ve been debating with myself about did we have cars and people enough to go get her.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” said Philip

“I’ve told her she can take a bus or taxi,” Blanche went on,  “but she says she is travelling on scholarship and must be very careful about expenses. And so we should spend the money to go get her, right? I mean she doesn’t say that but….”

“It doesn’t matter, I tell you, because she’s got this IDEE FIXE about haiku. See, she belongs to this vast European society of haiku-writers, and they’ve all got this THEORY, you know, this really heavy German THEORY about haiku, to show how they’re all absolutely RIGHT…. And it’s all INSUFFERABLE TWADDLE ! But the point is, she’ll be here.”

“We could tell her we haven’t heard about Philip Whalen, recently…‘Oh, him, well he used to practice here, but….’”

“It won’t work. People like that are maniacal. She’ll find me.”

“Couldn’t you contrive to have a sore throat or something, and be indisposed to talk?”

“She’d wait. These people will track you down no matter what. They’d follow you into the bathroom for Christ sakes and ask you questions while you’re shitting. I can tell you from past experience.”

“And also, she’s got it all confused about where she’s staying. She says when she was in Los Angeles, the Zen Center there just came right out and picked her up.”

“Blanche! Just face it, she’ll be here in no time, operating 500 miles a minute, and she’s probably just wonderful and so we should just cover her in flowers and incense and Buddhas.”

“But we don’t have to go pick her up.”

“Well, if she says you do, you do.”

Hysteria all around. I said, “Philip, what about if when she arrives at your apartment there happens to be this other young Zen monk on hand….”

“That might be useful….”

“ …who, immediately upon seeing her young, German Phd. body, begins….”

“Gently. Gently, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Oh aw, hell!” said  Philip. “I guess I’ll just go over to the store and buy some garlic.”

“What? To wear around your neck?”

“Right.”

—17 April 1981—

I’ve been reading finally I Remain, The Letters of Lew Welch, and talking to Philip about them, though only a little, because I think his feelings about Lew Welch and talking about Lew Welch are complicated. They were “best friends” and Lew’s disappearance or suicide was strange in the extreme.

photo by Barbara Wenger

Philip is usually willing to discuss almost anything, but the stance he’ll take is very unpredictable. He might come on short & irritated, or be very long and rambling; or like today, he might be sympathetic to your interest in finding out about, for example, Lew Welch.

In the section of the book where Welch started getting things published, he wrote many letters about the fine work printer Dave Haselwood did on Wobbly Rock and on pieces by other poets, notably Memoirs From an Inter-Glacial Age, by Philip. I love a beautifully printed book, and I know Philip does too, almost as much as he dislikes an inferior, badly designed, or sloppily executed one. I asked if perhaps he had a copy of the first edition Wobbly Rock and he said he did, nodding his head, anticipating my next request. I therefore went on and asked if sometime I might see this and other specimens of Dave Haselwood’s work.

Before Philip could answer Dan Welch walked in the front door of Zen Center and came over to say hi. Philip and I teased him a bit about Welch’s several letters mentioning Dan—or more accurately, letters in which Dan figures as a kind of hero.

“Aw, it was just one incident…” said Dan, in own defense, but the fact is that Welch had written at least three ecstatic letters about Dan and his older sister. Dan eventually owned up to the fact that well, maybe there was another reference somewhere to some event or another…. Even though Dan was clearly embarrassed by our teasing, he was also not without a pride on the subject.

“I’ll run go get the books,” said Philip, launching himself. “Where are you going to be?”

“Hiding in the Third Office.”

Soon Philip was back with his copies of Wobbly Rock and On Out both old, both lovingly inscribed to him, and both beautifully printed with letter press. I admired them and returned them to Philip, and I remarked that Welch had distinctive, rhythmic handwriting.

“Oh yeah, Lewie made that up himself.”

I went back to work amid the continuous opening & closing of doors, ringing of phones, calling back and forth of all sorts of people. Philip usually watches this with amused detachment, clucking and shaking his head at the amount of complication an outfit like Zen Center, dedicated to silent meditation can manufacture. Today though, he just disappeared. When I got back to my room later, a copy of Welch’s Hermit Poems—an exquisite little book entirely reproduced from Welch’s own handwriting—was sitting in the middle of my desk.

Later that afternoon I formed a plan to get P. to help me on a book design. I was going to have to work in North Beach & wanted him to come along. I fell into step with him as he walked slowly down the Zen Center front hall.

“So what are you doing tomorrow?”

“Lec-tur-ring.” he said as he stopped short and turned to face me.

“Oh yeah? Yeah, great,” I started walking again. “And after that what?”

“Oh, I dunno—nothing I guess.”

“Well I was wondering, if, um….”

“Try to breathe dear boy. Stand up straight.”

“Oh, yeah, anyway. I was wondering if maybe you wanted to have the China lunch, and then maybe walk on up to Peter Bailey’s place and look at those type samples I was telling you about.”

“Yeah, O.K. That sounds O.K.”

“Great. I’ll call Peter.”

“Al-right.”

I went away to call Peter, still thinking about Lew Welch actually, and Philip lecturing, and specifically about the time Philip lectured on Lew Welch. It was a couple or three years ago.

Philip came in, did the bows, seated himself, and began to talk about the Four Unlimited States of Mind, a theme, incidentally, he has taken up again. In this first lecture though, he ran through them all rather rapidly, giving standard definitions, and pointing out that really what counted was if you could put them into practice or not. Everyday. This much of the lecture took about fifteen minutes. Lectures usually run forty minutes to an hour.

Suddenly he said “Now I’m going to tell you what I really want to talk about: Lewie. Lewis Barrett Welch. He was my friend.…”

Philip then gave a close account of Lew’s background, and of their friendship. He discussed Lew’s disappearance in 1971,

“I told him, ‘Lewie, it’s a mistake. You shouldn’t have done that.’” He speculated that perhaps Lew was off in Florida somewhere selling insurance or something and would turn up, but that more probably he was dead. He told a few Lew Welch stories and then very carefully read Welch’s Song of the Turkey Buzzard. Philip read this more beautifully than I’d ever heard him read. The times I had heard him read before, he’d just thrown away lots of it, rushing through his poems in machine-gun style. But this time—in fact every time since this time—he’s read the material very clearly as it’s written, whether it was his own work, or someone else’s. (I especially recall him visibly shaken, reading aloud the last pages of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.)

The Song of the Turkey Buzzard can be seen as Welch’s suicide note, and Philip read it with incredible feeling. We were all riveted to our zafus, and many, like me, were in tears. When he finished, Philips said, “I thought I could read this here, in this Buddha Hall, because it is one man’s truth, his Dharma, and so I felt justified in presenting it to you.”

—29 April 81—

I came in from a particularly exhausting produce-shopping trip, and found breakfast at the Zen Center to be (by now) cold cornmeal cereal, yogurt, some nasty-looking peanuts and raisins. I’d been thinking about a Spanish omelette, hash browns, toast & coffee. I’d eat, sit and write in this journal, away from Zen Center and telephones. As I was standing in the front hall, dreaming of this plan, Philip came shuffling by.

“What are you going to do now?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I was thinking about breakfast, I’m hungry.”

“Well, where are you going to eat it?”

“Nick’s maybe. How are you feeling this morning?”

“Oh, like I’ve been hit by a truck.”

“You ought to go back to bed then, don’t you think?”

“To tell you the truth, I think it’d do me more good to walk around.”

“Well, if you want to come out with me….”

I trailed off. I was tired, this was going to take a long time, and of course, I could hardly write about Philip if I were sitting having breakfast with him.

“If you just wait here, I’ll go get out of this coat, and get a hat.”

“You do want to go then?”

“Yes. I need to walk. And I need a bodyguard.”

We set out. It was a smoggy, hot morning. As we passed the fence where the morning-glories grew, I told him the story about Hammett and Hemingway that Carol had told me. (Carol’s been reading Lillian Hellman) The story was about Hemingway’s bending a spoon in the crook of his arm, then offering Hammett a spoon so he could match the feat. Hammett’s reply, about how when he used to do such things, it was for Pinkerton money and wouldn’t Hemingway like to go roll a hoop in the park?, slew Philip. He stopped, hit his thigh, and howled with delight.

“What’d Hemingway do then? Hit him?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well probably if he was sober enough to hear what Hammett said, he’d have hit him.”

“I understand that Hammett was mad at Hemingway for being patronizing toward Fitzgerald, whom Hammett considered to be the better writer.”

“Kid, you know, I hear that EVERYWHERE. Everybody loves that guy—everyone from Gertrude Stein to…Dashiell Hammett now—thinks that Fitzgerald was just the greatest thing that ever was, and it’s NONSENSE I tell you.”

We stepped off the curb by Larry’s Liquors, and started under the freeway.

“He was a magazine writer for God’s sake, or at least that’s what it sounds like. Gertrude Stein says he wrote naturally in sentences.”

I gazed at the lengths of cement block overhead, idly wandering how they’d come apart in an earthquake. “What does that mean—that his thoughts came out the same length as sentences or something?”

“No—he wrote naturally in sentences. It means she thought it was all wonderful and interesting.”

“Well, they made us read The Great Gatsby in high school. Seems like the end of that wasn’t bad.”

“I know,” he said, “Everybody says so, it just sounds like a magazine to me. I mean, he gets some characters set up, sort of, and then in the middle of that book he gets totally lost. He just lost sight of what he was doing, and flounders around, and by the time you get to the big O’Henry ending—who needs it? And besides, Hemingway already told the whole story in The Sun Also Rises, about how if you’re rich and don’t have enough to do, you end up all…you know….”

“Destructive? Not worth it?”

“Not worth it, yeah. And then that other book, his first one, This Side of Paradise was just incredibly popular. Scribners took it and made it really big, and it somehow caught on. Everybody was reading it and talking about it—but, you know, as writing it was just DRECK. The poor guy was a feeb. Everybody loved him though, so that by the time he actually got to Paris, he was already famous. He and Zelda had already jumped in the fountain, and done all sorts of marvelous and expensive things.”

Philip went on to tell several more stories about Fitzgerald. He seemed to know an awful lot about someone whose writing he didn’t like. We turned off a very hot flat Page St. and onto a heavily trafficked Gough St. I put on my sunglasses and said, “You know, I’ve got this idea about Hemingway. I’ve been reading the short stories and I’ve got this theory. It seems to me he was, well, kind of dumb—kind of stupid, but he had all these stories to tell.”

“That’s what he wanted you to think anyway. That’s what he was trying to sell you.”

“You mean he wasn’t dumb.”

“Yes. I know what you mean, though. To read it you’d think there wasn’t any learning or sensibility at all there, when actually there was all kinds of learning and sensibility. But he wanted you to think he was just this big cock and muscles who told stories about going fishing. Because actually, he thought that the upper classes and intellectuals had ruined the world. And they had, to a certain extent—at least they seemed to have brought on the First World War. So he was coming from this place of being just a good old boy who liked to hunt and fight and lay as many women as possible, because that’s what real people did, and everybody knew that.”

We emerged from some shade we’d found on Gough, and crossed Market.

“But see, he read all the time. That’s what he did. He’d either be drinking or reading, to cool out from the writing. But he could never be like Bill Williams, though. He couldn’t just be a guy who did a job and also wrote. Hemingway had worked in newspapers so long that he had to create this big…big….”

“Story?”

“Big persona about who he was. And eventually it killed him. Ran right up his ass and ate him.”

We turned into Nick’s—a large lunch-counter place, with only a sign saying Broiled Burgers to identify it. We found a table, and my waitress friend came over.

“Good morning David,” she said, looking straight at Philip.

“Hi Sylvia, Going OK?”

“OK, can I get you something?” she said, still looking at Philip.

“Honey,” Philip said, “I’m not feeling too well this morning. Maybe you’d just better bring me some juice.”

“Alright. What kind would you like?”

“Pepsi, a large one.”

I ordered an omelette. While she brought the silverware and Philip’s Pepsi, I tried again.

“What I mean about Hemingway is that he’s kind of straight ahead: very much sort of point-A-to-point-B. You know? And if he does use a literary device of some sort, it’s telegraphed, like a punch. It’s like he says, ‘OK, here comes this device, here it is, there it went.’”

Philip smiled. “Yes, but those stories are GOOD. It’s very hard to do that, you know. Lots of people tried to imitate him and failed. They couldn’t make it go, and he could, and it’s very interesting how he does it.”

Sylvia brought a large omelette, with lots of trimmings, and set it on the table between us.

“There,” Philip said, “that ought to keep you happy, for a little while.”


David Schneider is the author of two biographies—Street Zen (Issan Tommy Dorsey, Shambhala Publications 1993 & 2020) and Crowded by Beauty, The Zen and Life of Poet Philip Whalen, (University of California Press, 2015). He was ordained as a Zen priest in 1977, and he served as an acharya in Shambhala from 1996-2019. His forthcoming book of short stories (Cuke Press) is called Goods.

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