Keith Kumasen Abbott

Nothing Is Forever:
Philip Whalen’s “Kozan-ji” and Kyoto catalysis

From Whalen’s notebook 16:IV: 68:
Walking, looking at blossoming rhododendrons—I thought how much I used to love them, to be turned on by them: I depended upon them, consumed them–& now they are only flowers: I’ve been turned on by Kyoto & depend on that feeling & have that necessity until, I guess, the next great beauty gets in my imagination.

Gary Snyder noted that early during Whalen’s life in Kyoto he thrived on a rich heritage of its literature and history. In his Introduction to Whalen’s Collected Poems Snyder wrote: “Then [Whalen] began to be drawn more and more to the message of the big Buddhist temples, and the lessons of impermanence their vast graveyards out back provide: thousands of little stupas for the priests of the past. Thus moving from the seductive cultural fascinations of old Japan to a deeply realized samsaric awareness. Note well his poetry and prose from the Old Capital.”

My interest was during his last days in Kyoto what event opened such experiences for Whalen? After four summers of research at the UC Bancroft Library archives I spent several spring weeks at the UC Davis Library going through their Gary Snyder archives. Those contained more intimate Whalen materials alongside Snyder’s insights into Whalen’s Kyoto successes. Whalen’s letters to Snyder reported his own discoveries during his last wandering weeks among Kyoto’s cultural riches.

Lew Welch, Snyder, Kerouac and Whalen all sent each other lists about their discoveries, pratfalls, good news and future plans. As usual such exchanges were tests for each other’s advice, experiences, amusement, reactions and potential outcomes. On July 3, 1970 Whalen wrote in his Kyoto notebook a list of wishes / pep talks / reminders about how and why his accomplishments would and/or could appear during his second stay in Kyoto:

“I came back to Kyoto because I need things to keep up my enthusiasm, to keep up my curiosity, to remind me that there’s a vast deal I must learn, viz. the Japanese & Chinese languages, the real scoop about Shugendo, Tendai & Shingon, about Shinto, about Kyoto & music & Noh—in America this information can be obtained from books, but here it can be seen & touched & smelled &c.”

Most readers would regard these as a remarkable display of hubris. Here Whalen mixes in dubious hopes, conflicting emotions along with typical Whalenesque tenuous verbal sprees that resemble an ad hoc script for Marx Brothers’ fractured dialogues. He trusted that all these listed items were within his intellectual and spiritual grasp. And as many of his friends can affirm, Whalen did possess and use his astounding eidetic memory banks. So, for him, complex or stark insights or three other languages were often possible and doable on short notice. He did respectfully admit that the practical odds of his Kyoto wish lists might be regarded as personally marginal when he flashed through his unstable emotional states. His previous achievements for articulating Zen Buddhism often had to deal with a persistent unease that sparked his past history of self-inflicted breakdowns. An example is found among notes in his Kyoto journal of June 1969 where he wrote more admonitions, hopes and cautions about his own limits for experiencing transformations.

“Live long enough to discover autonomy – the governance {& use} of the self: authentic choice and action. Authority in the sense of acting straightforwardly, immediately, spontaneously the experience of actual poetic discovery and invention in other terms: integrated physical and emotional act . . . For the 9th trillionth time: Not Buddhism, but being a bodhisattva— not art but being an artist.”

Whalen’s notebooks list more failures than successes during his last stay in Kyoto even as he indulges in scolding his lack of self-discipline. He tried to be content with practical needs for his cultural ambitions, but became bored, frustrated and/or angry. Often he was prone to launch into what a fellow poet labeled “The Whalen Immaculate Tantrum”. He’d whip himself into passionate whirlwinds by calling up his past grief, failures, rudeness, guilt, and anxieties then abruptly halt, as if a curtain dropped and nothing just happened. Whalen knew that for his anticipated progress he needed to participate in supporting foundations for a composed daily life. Snyder and others in Kyoto had provided him with enough organized domestic and practical setups plus Kyoto maps and guides in his apartment. But he had such social pressures either real or imagined while using these, he often derailed himself. One example is before leaving California he had been alerted about the possibility of losing Snyder’s Kyoto teaching job, as its school was changing courses.

Without a job and paycheck, his passport and work visa would be cancelled, in his case after March 1971. And then, typically he reverted to fretting and waiting until too late, and only then did he plunge into scavenging for teaching jobs, grant money, any official position for him to support his life in Kyoto. Eventually he had to go back to California.

After his first Kyoto tour was over Whalen sailed away, and on the boat he described his situation like this. “The entire affair of suddenly traveling to Japan living there & then leaving still seems impossible or improbably or something. It was something which I had planned to do, or for which I had hoped & schemed & passionately demanded, —it simply turned out all unexpected, strange and magical. I can’t really believe it. Why not.

Throughout his notebooks Whalen reveals hopes for launching himself into abundant connections while exploring more formal stately Buddhism. But usually his erratic self-esteem was linked to his inability to tolerate organizations for any lengths of time. Fulfilling contracts or meeting daily schedules could sabotage his goals.

But to his credit he did finish two literary projects brought over from his recent California past. In 1970 both his selected poems Severance Pay and novel Imaginary Speeches for a Brazen Head were accepted for publication. Whalen felt them to be flawed, especially his novel. Novels were his bête noirs and hopes for royalties. They provided rich angsts about lurking stylistic flubs, weak characterizations, lame scenes etc. Those carousels of anguish added to the truth that he had little talent for promoting his books or writing career. His friends and publishers provided some publicity, future reading and teaching gigs.

But as Whalen stewed over the futures of two new books, his daily walks continued where he recorded details of any discoveries. Each day he usually roamed through three to five temples, museums or shrines. Tourist crowds, mobs of school kids and other intrusions distracted him and his concentration on rich Buddhist culture. But such irritable conditions also sparked off some sharp observations, such as this tranquil poem on the 16th of October 1969.

Praying mantis moored on top of flower stalk
     grooms itself like a cat, preens its
                    two tail feathers
Hammerhead shark face on mantis

This last detail reveals his wry observations that these beautiful delicate insects are voracious killers and ironically their bodies sport fascinating portraits of even a larger predator.

Some of his main breakthroughs arrived via psychedelic experiences. In his earlier first visit Kyoto notebooks he took 20 mg of Psilocybin. When I read this I thought that he brought it from Bolinas. Earlier in his notebook Whalen wrote that in Kyoto there were “lots of goodies to be had”. I assumed he as usual was talking about food delights. But then on the morning of November 6, 1969, before exploring Kozan-ji temple, Whalen wrote down that he had “swallowed a big yellow capsule of mescaline—gift of Roy Kiyooka somewhere in Canada.”

Once inside the Kozan-ji temple grounds its contents seemed to smoothly connect him to both the present and his past. His “Kozan-ji” poem was created and edited from November 6th to the 12th. It appears that he wrote and then edited his “Kozan-ji” poem with its cast of past spirits, charms, horrors, gods, frenzies, anxieties and doubts. The poem blossomed via a gentle integration of Whalen’s physical, spiritual and emotional phantoms.

Later on the 16th of November, he described emerging from his recent adventures and waking up viewing his same old bugaboos but they were met with insouciance. “Wake up nightmare [rejection] ostracism story—memories of army life etc. & headache. Aspirin help temporarily . . . Gloomy gold morning; so 10 a.m. I ingest a giant lump of bhang in strawberry jam, & hot coffee. Things will look better in an hour from now, ok? Shut up.”

Notable in the final draft of his poem Kozan-ji was how he eerily reviewed placid but mixed events of his Oregon past and its working class humiliations, along with those found in his military life, because mescaline continued to give him clean confrontations so that past and present habitual negative reactions continually mutated into wisps of phantoms and illusions. Kozan-ji temple was giving Whalen models for cultivation of a flowing disciplined attention that dissolved his past antagonisms, defeats, anxieties and specters. During the following days Whalen experienced more other equally potent and benign emblems of past events; the ones in his poem Kozan-ji demonstrates how he had calmly observed their coming and going, the same as one regards changes in light.


Absolutely defenseless, completely

Crowds of people are billows of smoke
               Burnt or burning leaves
The silence unbroken idea of purity
                      Cuts down impatience,
                      Grinning mob
               No feet Japanese ghosts, no
                      Fingers, an empty parka
Leaf jewels rave and rage cold flames
                      The blazing wisdom Fudo
As I must look at them they must
               See me, flaming,
Harmless fangs eyes to hell & heaven
Bare feet on squared rocks of Kozan
All absurd, a film of mistaken
               Proprieties, culture of dim Oregon
To burn, to dispose of instantly
If what was never real can be
               Created or destroyed,
Clouds moving over them change their colors
Walking under them changes color
Light changes all,
Spaces colored means something else
Where in all this tight &
Elegant disorder—a thousand-year old
Hoax, frail campy china,
he box it comes in more important than
               the gift.

Throughout this poem were the necessary events for his future Zen Buddhist monk career. In David Schneider’s Whalen biography Crowded By Beauty, the chapter “Japan, Bolinas, Japan, Bolinas” covers how Whalen’s second return to Kyoto provoked ways for him to learn and share his practices. Up to then Philip mostly did solo meditations, chants, but not with others. A crucial turning point was when Whalen asked a friend / translator to set up his first dokusan with a Zen master Daishu-in San, Head Priest of a Kyoto temple.

Philip Whalen, c. 1970
After that experience Whalen confirmed that Daishu-in San was the right teacher but more importantly he witnessed how a Zen Priest accepted a life inside an organization, while remaining as tranquil and useful as a temple. Philip’s following description of his Daishu-in temple experience could serve as a prose version of his previous satoris found in his poem Kozan-ji.

“The temple and the celebrated lake were beautiful, but being with Daishu-in-San the beauty & interest & history all disappear, the man is more important than the place ….all surrounded by those wisdom flames & raging impotent demons, absolute stillness, absolute stillness, absolute self-control in midst of tremendous chaos, turbulence & catastrophe.”

In Kyoto Whalen did not sit with Daishu-in-San for another dokusan or attend services at his temple. In California he moved into San Francisco Zen Center. His Kozan-ji poem and Daishu-in San dokusan were essential for him.

17 January 1971 Whalen wrote:
“Daishu-in San made Zen seem easy. . . . Daishu-in San is more important than the beauty & interest of his temple (Ryoanji). See him as completely secure like a fly on a stone, bird, frog, some autonomous being who don’t need a roof, educations, Kulchur to be great & marvelous . …?

But but but . . . . Daishu-in San’s training had to spring him out of that beautiful complete traditional Japanese Origami / stonework / garden / culture before he could appear as he does now—otherwise he’d be like all the other Japanese I see around me. Contrariwise, he was born & raised & remains completely Japanese.

Light Up And Be Somebody

I just now understood that my head is so packed with contradictory orders & “categorical imperatives” & messages from various power systems that my eyes don’t focus . . . and have fits of anxiety, temper tantrums, depressions, manias, obsessions etc. which are killing me. Did this head-packing job happen by accident or design …part of it is ‘cultural’; part of it is ‘free compulsory educations’ . . . & maybe 9/10ths of it my natural dullness & gullibility.”

Whalen never wrote about his Daishu-in events for publication. Kozan-ji poem was never published or included as part of his collected work.

[Kōzan-ji (高山寺?), officially Toganōsan Kōsan-ji (栂尾山高山寺?), is a Buddhist temple of the Omuro sect of Shingon Buddhism in Umegahata Toganōchō, Ukyō Ward, Kyoto, Japan. Kōzan-ji is also known as Kōsan-ji and Toganō-dera. The temple was founded by the Shingon scholar and monk Myōe (1173 – 1232) and is renowned for its numerous national treasures and important cultural properties. The Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga, a group of ink paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries, are among the most important treasures of Kōzan-ji. The temple celebrates Biyakkōshin, Zenmyōshin and Kasuga Myōjin, as well as the temple’s tutelary Shintō deity. In 1994, it was registered as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”. Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C5%8Dzan-ji, accessed 7/8/17.]

Keith Kumasen Abbott is a poet and calligrapher, and the author of numerous poetry books, novels and short story collections as well as the memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing In America (Astrophil Press, 2009).
(Editor's Note. This essay first appeared in PAROLE, the blog of The New Black Bart Poetry Society, to whom grateful thanks are given for permission to reprint.)
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