Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

"Since the Day I Was Kicked by Master Ma, I Have Not Stopped Laughing": Buddhism and Comedy in Philip Whalen

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

"Since the Day I Was Kicked by Master Ma, I Have Not Stopped Laughing": Buddhism and Comedy in Philip Whalen

Article excerpt

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A student on the verge of enlightenment approaches his master with a question; the master smacks the student on the head, or kicks him, until he is enlightened. Of the student s possible reactions, the one I find most compelling is laughter. Perhaps my favorite example is from the record of the Tang dynasty Zen master Ma-tsu. A dialogue in the record tells of a student who is kicked to the ground after asking a question about the nature of Zen. The student laughs, claps, and exclaims, "Wonderful! Wonderful! The source of myriad samadhis [states of meditative consciousness] and limidess subtle meanings can all be realized on the tip of a single hair." Later he remarks, "Since the day I was kicked by Master Ma, I have not stopped laughing." He went on to become a Zen master himself.

This kind of Buddhist comedy, which can be both strange-funny and laugh-out-loud funny, has a life beyond the records of medieval monks. We find it reincarnated in the poems of Philip Whalen, where it takes on some beatnik loquacity. I want to explore another historical example of Buddhist comedy, in the form of a koan, and then look at several of WTialen's poems. First, though, a few words about the man himself. According to his friend and fellow monk David Chadwick, Whalen enjoyed a bit of gossip before delving into Zen discussion.

If you know one thing about Whalen, it's probably that he took part in the celebrated Six Gallery reading in 1955, which sent Allen Ginsberg howling onto the public stage for the first time and brought together some of the key figures of the San Francisco Renaissance. Kenneth Rexroth emceed, and Philip Lamantina, Michael McClure, and Gary Snyder rounded out the roster. As for Whalen, he read "Plus Ça Change," a sort of benignly autistic bedroom exchange with surreal digressions, intended as a dig at the sexual repression of the Fifties: "We'll just pretend we're used to it. (Watch out with that goddamned tail!) / Pull the shades down. Turn off the lights / Shut your eyes." In Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, which contains a fictionalized account of the reading, Whalen is described as the "big fat bespectacled quiet booboo."

Born in Portland, Oregon in 1923, Whalen evinced an interest in Eastern thought even as a high school student. At Reed College he became friends with Snyder, who shared his interests. When, a year after graduation, Whalen found himself frustrated by the (in his words) "unnecessarily complicated" nature of Tibetan Buddhism, Snyder handed him several books by D. T. Suzuki. These were a key out of the ornate, Technicolor temples ofTibet, and into the empty room where the Zen monk meditates. Whalen spent two years in Japan in the mid 1960s on grants from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, became a monk in 1973, and in 1991 became the abbot of Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco. Despite his monastic commitments, he wrote prolifically throughout his life, churning out poems, letters, and even novels. He was also a confidant of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and much of the Beat crew. In Kaddish, he is described as being curled up "in his peaceful chair" in Ginsberg's apartment when Ginsberg gets the phone call announcing his mother's death. Whalen brokered a détente between Rexroth and Robert Creeley, whose affair with Rexroth's wife had driven Rexroth to suicide threats and plots to kidnap his own children. Whalen lived a long time and made lots of jokes about being overweight. He seems, by all accounts, to have been great fun, and his blend of sagacity and likeability comes through strongly in his poetry.

In the Zen tradition, a koan is a story, dialogue, or question designed for study and meditation. It is meant to unsettle our notions of cause and effect, past/present/future, and other habitual ways of framing the world. Some Zen teachers refer to this destabilization as the "great doubt," and one means of facilitating it is comedy. …

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