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Zen priest, beat poet

Philip Whalen ’51

Phillip Glen Whalen ’51, June 26, 2002, after a long illness, in San Francisco. Born in Portland, famed poet Phillip Whalen spent his early years in The Dalles on the Columbia River, worked at an airplane factory and a shipyard, and served stateside in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He attended Reed on the G.I. Bill, receiving a BA in general literature.

At Reed he roomed with Gary Snyder ’51 and Lew Welch ’50. He credited professor Lloyd Reynolds [English and art 1929–69] with changing the course of his writing and his life. After Reed, he worked as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains, then moved with Snyder to San Francisco, where he met Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Philip Lamantia, and Michael McClure. He was present for the "Six Poets at the Six Gallery" poetry reading in 1955 that launched the San Francisco poetry renaissance. His literary style, wit, personal integrity, and mature perspective were influential in the West Coast Beat circle.

Philip went to Kyoto, Japan, to study Buddhism and became a Zen monk in 1973. As Zenshin Ryufu ("Zen-minded-dragon-wind," his Zen name), he spent two decades at Zen centers in San Francisco and in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was ordained a Zen priest in 1976. His interest in Buddhism began with casual discussions and readings of Eastern thought and literature and bloomed in 1953 when he read a book of essays on Buddhism. "Going through that made me think, gee, this Zen business is really going to suit me because it always included all sorts of painters and poets and lunatics and whatnot and it would be groovy," he said.

In 1991 Phillip became the abbot for the Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco. He wrote more than 20 volumes of poetry, prose, and commentary, receiving the American Academy of Arts and Letters Morton Dauwen Zabel Award for his poetry in 1986. Collections of his manuscripts were given to the Reed library and the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

In his 1965 poem "Japanese Tea Garden Golden Gate Park in Spring," he wrote, "the cherry trees will blossom every year but I’ll disappear for good, one of these days. There. That’s all about the permanence of the most impossibly fragile delicate and fleeting objects."

He is survived by his sister.

Appeared in Reed magazine: November 2002

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