Philip Glenn Whalen

(20 October 1923 – 26 June 2002 / Portland, Oregon)

Biography of Philip Glenn Whalen

Philip Glenn Whalen (20 October 1923 – 26 June 2002) was an American poet, Zen Buddhist, and a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and close to the Beat generation.

Born in Portland, Oregon, Whalen grew up in The Dalles from age four until he returned to Portland in 1941. He served in the US Army Air Forces during World War II. He attended Reed College on the GI Bill. There, he met Gary Snyder and Lew Welch, and graduated with a BA in 1951. He read at the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955 that marked the launch of the West Coast Beats into the public eye. He appears, in barely fictionalized form, as the character "Warren Coughlin" in Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, which includes an account of that reading. In Big Sur he is called "Ben Fagan". Whalen's poetry was featured in Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960.

Whalen's first interest in Eastern religions centered on Vedanta. Upon release from the army in 1946, he visited the Vedanta Society in Portland, but did not pursue this very far, because of the expense of attending their countryside ashram. Tibetan Buddhism also attracted him, but he found it "unnecessarily complicated." In 1952, Gary Snyder lent him books on Zen by D. T. Suzuki. With Snyder, Whalen attended a study group at the Jōdo Shinshū Berkley Buddhist Church. Ultimately, Zen became his chosen path.

Whalen spent 1966 and 1967 in Kyoto, Japan, assisted by a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a job teaching English. There, he practiced zazen daily, and wrote some forty poems and a second novel.

He moved into the San Francisco Zen Center and became a student of Zentatsu Richard Baker in 1972. The following year, he became a monk. He became head monk of Dharma Sangha, in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1984. In 1987, he received transmission from Baker, and in 1991, he returned to San Francisco to lead the Hartford Street Zen Center until ill health forced him to retire.

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