by David Schneider


Facing the biographer of an articulate, highly trained Buddhist monk are problems beyond those of describing a purely secular life. Behind the dates and doings, relatives and education, institutions, assignations, accomplishments, teachers, friends, lovers, detractors, decline and death which every biographer must tell, lurks the Buddhist conviction — shared in this case by the biographer — that none of this can be pinned down; that these are all, to use the overworked, under-explained, technical term, empty.

"This seat is empty. There is no one sitting here," is how Philip Whalen put it from the High Seat, having just assumed the abbacy of the Hartford St. Zen Center. "Please take care of yourself," he continued his talk. And ended it.

There is no denial of existence implied by Buddhist emptiness; that would be a logical fault as grievous as flat out accepting existence, and would as well fly in the face of experience. But how things exist interests the Buddhist, who must summon a language of impermanence to talk about it. He or she needs a language of transciency, of split-second causal conjunction, and inextricable interconnection, because the Buddhist sees everything pulling on everything else, changing it, ceaselessly and in accord with the laws of karma.

Whalen often saw his life in these terms, and described it so. When he said, "There is no one sitting here," it was not an admission of ignorance. He'd looked. The question of identity fairly obsessed him — he wrestled with it in public for decades, long before becoming a Buddhist. He knew there was no one home, but very definite things kept happening to him. Hunger, for one.

One way to handle this paradox, inherent to Buddhist biography, is to write, as Tibetans have regularly done, more than one history of the same person. In the namthar (spiritual biographies) from Tibet, it is not uncommon to read the same story told on three levels: outer, inner and secret. These levels move from observable facts of daily life to progressively more sublime visions, realizations and teachings — many of these invisible to the fleshly eye of readers. Such texts can mostly be classified as hagiography, and as such are beyond the goals of this work. While this book does indeed aim to inspire, it will not attempt to do so through idealizing its subject; and although Philip Whalen did many strange, even inexplicable things in his life, no real suspension of disbelief will be asked of the reader — only a certain looseness, or spaciousness, a flexibility of mind: no more than is asked of anyone reading poetry.

Another tool — another three-part division — Buddhists use to get at a person, is to section them into body, speech and mind. These correspond roughly, though inexactly, to outer inner and secret. "Body" clearly means the body, but it extends as well to anything connect to form: the literal stuff of a person's life. "Speech" comprises all acts of communication, including how someone talks, which language, how loud, their gestures, manner of dress, attention to grooming, and how they move. "Mind" concerns itself with a person's education, their faith, prejudices, perspectives and conceptual habits. Or the absence of these.

This scheme allows a picture to be made at any point in a person's life, without slipping into the fallacy of saying "This is who they actually ARE." Who they are emerges, almost magically, from the collection of bits. It may shimmer for a quick minute, and then devolve back to pieces. Buddhists say this is how we all exist, the assembly and disassembly taking place constantly, many times per second.

Every tool mentioned here above will be brought to bear on Philip Whalen, in hopes of resuscitating him. If he does manage to rise from the page, it will be no more true or false than the apparition who walked around for 78 years. That one gave delight, wisdom, beauty, and spiritual guidance to the world. The hope is that this shadow of him might offer a taste of the same.