Another Beat goes down: Philip Whalen


Public reading in San Francisco on Friday, August 30, 2002 to celebrate Philip Whalen

Zenshin Philip Whalen

One of the nation’s leading poets, Philip Whalen, who was both a legend of the Beat era and a prominent figure for many years in the Eureka Valley/Castro neighborhood as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center, will be memorialized in a public reading this Friday, August 30, to be attended by many of the most celebrated poets and writers of our time.

The free public reading by such eminences of the poetry scene as Michael McClure, Diane DiPrima, and Leslie Scalapino will take place Friday from 7 – 10 p.m. at Presentation Theater (formerly the Gershwin Theater), at 2350 Turk St. (near Masonic). Hundreds of Whalen’s friends and admirers are expected to attend.

In addition, a Zen Buddhist memorial service will be held for Zenshin Philip Whalen (his formal title as abbot) at Green Gulch Farms and Zen Center, located at 1601 Shoreline Hwy. (Highway 1), just south of Muir Beach, on Sunday, September 1 at 2:30 p.m., with Richard Baker Roshi officiating.

Whalen, who passed away on June 26, 2002 at the age of 78, was one of the original Beat poets along with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch and others (he roomed with Snyder and Welch at Reed College). He was born October 20, 1923 in Portland, Oregon, and wrote more than 20 books of poetry and two novels. He was ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest in 1973, and in 1991 he succeeded Issan Dorsey as abbot of the Hartford Street Zen Center, a small Buddhist center in the Soto Zen tradition founded in 1981 by a group of gay and lesbian Buddhists for the neighborhood and community. The center continues to open its Zendo daily to the community for formal meditations.

In a memoriam prepared by his friends, Whalen is described as “crusty, full of contrasts, unpredictably wise. He never tried to hide himself, no matter what his mood was. He engendered trust, but not complacency. He was unconventional, but also an old school gentleman.”

“He never gay identified, but he was a mystery sexually to everybody,” said fellow poet Rick London, a member of the board of Hartford Street Zen Center, who was with Whalen when he passed on. London is helping to organize Friday’s public reading, along with the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University and others.

“He was open to everybody and treated everybody the same, which is to say fairly,” added London.

In one of several websites devoted to Whalen’s memory,, Michael Rothenberg writes: “The degree of respect and admiration the Beats had for Whalen is remarkable. He was adored by Kerouac, who found him easy to be with and confide in. . . Ginsberg considered Whalen the only Zen Master Poet practicing in America.”

At another tribute site,, close friend Zoketsu Norman Fischer writes: “Philip was a notorious and elegant complainer, but he bore his decline with a lot of dignity. He had no truck with the ‘death and dying’ movement. He just wanted to keep on living as long as possible with as much enjoyment as he could find in daily living – which he did do.”

For more information, visit the Hartford Street Zen Center website at

This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.