I met Phil through my husband, the late Robert Winson. We found ourselves in Santa Fe in the 1980’s--Robert and Phil had followed their Buddhist teacher Baker-roshi who had relocated from San Francisco. Phil Whalen did not like New Mexico, an antipathy he did not attempt to hide. It reminded him too much of the eastern Oregon of his youth--dry and boring. He missed the ocean, and once gave a Zen lecture about a “golden paradise to the West,” which turned out not to be some Buddha realm but the city of San Francisco, complete with specific dim sum parlors.
Robert adored Philip and took him grocery shopping, cooked him blini with caviar, and drove him around. I was afraid of him at first--he was enormous, opinionated, and yelled. The first conversation I ever had with him was over folding sheets at the laundromat. He lectured me on Jacobean drama while holding the edge of a sheet. He took dainty dancing steps as he both folded and declaimed.
Once in an Army Navy surplus store a young man came up to Phil, who was attired in a large white T-shirt and a day-glo orange hat and said: “Sir, I don’t know exactly what you do but I know it is SOMETHING and I want to follow you.”
I felt the same way. I was convinced Phil was about to reveal the secret of poetry to me. I’d give him long poems I’d written and he’d mark the lines he hated with little renditions of a skull and crossbones. Once when I was upset by a rejection I was lying down on the carpet when Phil came in the door and stepped over me. “I would not add alcohol to this situation if I were you, Miriam,” he pronounced--perhaps the only professional advice he ever gave me.
Robert Winson and I edited Philip’s Buddhist poems in the volume Canoeing up Cabarga Creek. We copied everything likely and spread the sheets over our kitchen table. The collection jelled almost immediately--Phil, Buddhism, and poetry seemed inseparable. The poems here are selected from that book.
Although I knew Phil in San Francisco and at Tassajara, I became close to him when we both came to New Mexico with our teacher, Richard Baker-roshi. There was a handful of us, our belongings companionably tucked into the same moving van, beginning a new life in circumstantial intimacy.
Following through on his commitment to practice Zen Buddhism with Roshi caused Philip a lot of troubles over his last 30 or so years, to which he gave the same abstracted kindly attention that he gave anyone else’s miseries. He had scarcely held a job in all his life; but having taken on the job of practicing Buddhism with Roshi’s other students, he did it faithfully for several decades.
Thus in the 1980’s these troubles had grown to include living in Roshi’s Santa Fe house which was often swamped with visitors; and practicing meditation in an improvised zendō. He had had to go into exile in the desert of New Mexico, where he expected at any moment we might turn on the water taps and only a trickle of sand would come out. Settled in at the temple on Cerro Gordo Road, he was entirely dependent on other people to go anywhere or get anything he needed. No stepping out the door and onto the Municipal Railway bus system to carry him to--well, but then there were no excellent bookstores or restaurants with any “suption” to them here, no Japantown shops, and no ocean, either; and his friends and peers were 1500 miles away.
Instead he had us. Absent a ride or some company, except for talking to the cat he spent his time down in his room among his books. When Roshi would give koan seminars, the least allusion in the text might send Philip puffing down the stairs to find the book which would elucidate whatever question. Roshi had a hard time keeping us on topic in these seminars, and he would try to tell Philip to stay put and not derail the discussion. But it was always too late, Phil was gone already and then back again, dropping into the armchair, pulling off his glasses and putting his face down onto the book to read aloud what, usually, he had already correctly told us before he left the room. Nobody within a couple of thousand miles knew as much as Philip about Buddhism, Zen, literature, or a lot of other topics.
About practice matters his advice was always impeccable. You had only to watch him; what emerged from behind his wall of entertaining opinion was a single-minded purpose, accurately perceived. The worst thing about Philip’s being dead is that I can never again call him up and find out exactly what would be the right thing, the correct traditional thing to do.
For as long as he lived in New Mexico, the correct traditional thing was to go to that zendō-that-used-to-be-a-Tibetan-shrine every day, and to try to teach us practice pygmies how to take care of it.
I was living in the robing room on the east side of the zendō then. For the first year or so I would call him every day from work to ask if he needed anything. Every day he did. Today he was running out of milk, tomorrow carrots; and I found myself in the supermarket every day. When I’d plan to go for a hike, I would first head up to the house and let Philip know the itinerary. He thought it was part of his job to know where to send help if I didn’t come back safely. When I got home I would check back in with him. That was the only time in all my life that I’ve had someone looking after me in just that way.
Philip’s curmudgeonly compassionate Buddha life ended last year. There are tributes and memorials to Phil all over the Internet. This issue of the Broadside is ours.
The photograph in this issue of the Broadside was taken in January of 1986, during an ordination ceremony in the zendō in the temple on Cerro Gordo Road. The photographer’s name is Chase, and we’ve lost touch with him. I ended up somehow with some prints and even some of the negatives, in a file folder about the ceremony. For his last several years, Philip was very ill, and became skinny and, well, old. A few months after his death in 2002, we were looking at the pictures from that ceremony sixteen years before. “I’d forgotten that he was fat,” said Roshi, who had known Phil across decades and continents... but the Philip Whalen who lived in New Mexico in the ’80s was vigorously and unforgettably “the fat man.”
(Chase, where are you?)