Whalen half-pretends not to know just why so many of the Beats took to Buddhism. But reflecting on Kerouac's Catholic roots and Ginsberg's communist childhood, he says, "These guys all had this religious impulse and the feeling about how they wanted to have more richness, or more thickness, to life than just the ordinary grind of making money and collecting things, having stuff and cars and TV sets. Anyhow there was a rejection of that kind of world and finding out that there were other possibilities, like Buddhism.
"And it all goes madly on from there. I don't know what the connection is except that we all had some mutual respect and mutual understanding and mutual agreement about how mainline culture was boring and there was no fun to it. So we had to make something up." Then, with a wink toward the Buddhist principle of impermanence that so often imbues his poetry, he adds: "So something else got made up and now it's slowly being forgotten." Again and again he comes back to an amused sense of the waxing and waning of life. In a 1965 poem, "Japanese Tea Garden Golden Gate Park in Spring," Whalen writes of a visit to see the cherry blossoms: Some commentary on Whalen suggests that since being ordained a Zen priest in 1973, his poetry has become a part of his Buddhist practice--a "writing of the mind." And his Buddhist teacher Zenatsu Richard Baker says that he had asked Whalen to keep a poetry journal between 1979 and 1980. But Whalen says his poetry isn't really part of his Zen practices. "There was this historical thing I had about how it would be possible to do Zen Buddhism and still be a poet," he says--watery blue eyes twinkling as he grins in what appears to be a laugh at his own naivete. "It's not impossible, it's just very hard," he adds. "When you're doing Zen training you're not supposed to be doing anything else, but as a matter of habit things leak out but you try not to be involved with that," he says.
These days Whalen writes very little. He lives at the Hartford Street Zen Center, where he was made abbot in 1991. We met at the center--one of a dozen elegant Victorian houses in a row on a quiet, tree-lined street in the Castro, San Francisco's gay district. Glaucoma has clouded most of Whalen's vision, but he knows just where he's going and leads the way, providing me with an amusing tour of the city I, too, call home.
With a cane he points out "the local resort"--a sidewalk cafe overflowing with buff boys worshipping the sun. We carry on slowly, three blocks to an Italian restaurant, and take a seat in the very back.
Whalen speaks somewhat guardedly about his life and impersonates Ginsberg's description of him as "shy, grumpy, and endearing." He shows flashes of subtle irritation when his memory won't hand over some detail of the past, but his whole being lights up when he contemplates his pals--a whole pack of Beats, turned Buddhists.