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

by Max Ritvo

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 limitless 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 Whalen’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 of Tibet, 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. He 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.

The effectiveness of comedy as an inducer of the great doubt is something to which I can personally attest. I happen to be a stand-up comedian and a sketch comic, as well as a very poor practitioner of Zen. What first drew me to koans was their comedy: These riddles, exchanges, and vignettes span the comic register from ironic repartee and winking esoteric allusion to violent slapstick and fart jokes.1 As I spent more time with them, I noticed a comic voice in my head helping me take a more playful approach to the great doubt. Comedy wasn’t the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of paradox go down, it was sweet medicine itself. Give me the invigorating comic kick of a koan over a Zen master’s toe any day.

No koan is more side-splitting, or head-splitting, than the celebrated Wild Fox Koan, which appears in the thirteenth-century collection The Gateless Gate. It tells of an old man who approaches the Zen master Baizhang after a lecture and flatly declares, “I am not actually a human being.” He goes on to explain that he used to be a monk until one of his students asked him if meditation could free a person from cause and effect. Pompously, he replied that a proper meditator (such as himself) would indeed no longer fall into cause and effect. “Because I said this,” he tells Baizhang, “I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes.” He asks Baizhang to “please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body,” and then poses to Baizhang the same question his student once asked him: “Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?” “One cannot ignore cause and effect,” Baizhang says. The old man has a “great realization” and declares “I am now free from the body of a fox.” Later, a fox corpse is discovered behind the temple, and Baizhang orders that it be given a monk’s funeral.

Thus far the koan has been surreal—how can a fox appear as an old man?—and its image of a fox cremation attended by praying monks is both uncanny and silly. Then, after the funeral, comes this:

That evening during his lecture in the dharma hall Baizhang talked about what had happened that day. Huangbo [his student] asked him, “A teacher of old gave a wrong answer and became a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. What if he hadn’t given a wrong answer?” Baizhang said, “Come closer and I will tell you.” Huangbo went closer and slapped Baizhang’s face. Laughing, Baizhang clapped his hands and said, “I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!”

This exchange seems to me to turn the moral assertions of the koan topsy-turvy. The wise Baizhang presumably plans to slap Huangbo when he calls him up (Zen masters are much given to slapping). Yet the slap “caused” by his student’s impertinent question comes from the student’s hand rather than his own, and lands squarely on Baizhang’s face—not the “effect” he was expecting! Thus Baizhang’s own relationship with cause and effect is shown to be imperfect. He was so egotistically caught up in his own cause-and-effect soap opera that he forgot his student had a mind of his own.

We can’t ignore cause and effect entirely, as Baizhang and the fox show in their different ways. Not falling into it, however, is equally important. If you want to be ethical, you need to be aware of how it induces you to judge and blame: You caused this, therefore I blame you. There are real moral stakes involved in what may seem to be a ponderously metaphysical question. Master Wumen, the compiler of The Gateless Gate, wrote a poem about the Wild Fox Koan and cause and effect. It tells us that we should seek a state of “not falling, not ignoring.” So how can we both “not fall” and “not ignore”? By laughing in the manner of Baizhang, I think.

Laughter is exceptionally good at blurring the boundary between mind and body. When you laugh, your body loses its sense of limits in the physical world. When you feel pain, you can ask yourself, “Where does it hurt?” But you can’t really ask, “Where is it funny?” any more than you can ask, “Where is my mind?” At the same time, when you laugh your thoughts become somatic. A thought will manifest directly as a shake in the gut, the heart, the throat. The distinction between mind and body collapses. Laughter, in its both-at-once-ness, helps us embrace the paradox of perception.

Baizhang laughs out loud when he’s slapped. We too must laugh to “get” the koan. So just in case we aren’t already laughing, the koan ends thus: “I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!” This exclamation brings to the fore an important question, one that has perhaps been on our minds throughout the koan: “What the hell?” When we expect Baizhang to vituperate, or at least pontificate, he instead remarks on his student’s facial hair. It’s a complete non sequitur. The narrative stream of the koan—already made to murmur by the comic alluvium texturing its bottom—goes over a precipice and roars with white-water laughter. And this is how it teaches: not through allegory, conceit, or narrative development but through comedy, which depends on incomprehension snapping into recognition and recognition snapping back into incomprehension. When my mind plays with this baffling ending, I can’t become too attached to any one interpretation. I succumb to great doubt about myself as a reader, about the ways I expect to receive knowledge from a koan, or from any story, aphorism, scrap of dialogue, or poem.

Whalen called his poetry a “graph of the mind’s movement.” I see it as a written record of shikantaza, the kind of meditation practiced by Whalen’s Soto Zen sect. Shikantaza consists of simply paying attention to what arises in your mind and body at every moment, and of treating it with equanimity and acceptance. But Whalen’s poems are by no means sloppy, logorrheic pieces of automatic writing. He tried to delineate his thought streams and to portray them succinctly. To that end, he sometimes incorporated diagrams into his poems, along with a range of scripts. Let’s take a look at one of them. Dating from 1963, “One Page Poem” shows Whalen at his most original, funny, and Zen:

One Page PoemAt first glance, this looks less like a poem than a page from one of Leonardo’s notebooks. Text crawls up and down the page, organizing itself into clouds. The typography permits multiple voices to chatter simultaneously and wrestle in a verbal hierarchy. In the center, a prism refracts words that pass through it. The following phrases enter from the left:

“the idea of freedom”
“the feeling of freedom”
“thinking freely”
“acting freely”

They come out the other side as:

“the idea of freedom”
“thinking free”
“the feeling of freedom”
“acting free”

Anyone who has taken fifth-grade science will immediately notice that this is a very odd prism: Leaving the positions of the top and bottom phrases fixed, it flips the middle two and saws the ends off the two adverbs, turning them into adjectives.

I know from other Whalen poems that the prism is one of his favorite metaphors for a meditating mind. In my own mind, I see a cartoon of the following. Whalen sits and meditates, reciting the phrases on the left as a mantra. The phrases appear over his left shoulder; get sucked into his left ear; pass through a prism in his brain, causing dazzling purple glitter to squirt from his head; and pop out in a new order over his right shoulder as he begins to murmur the new mantra.

The drawing represents an instantaneous click of insight—a perspectival rejiggering much like the one that koans attempt to induce. But the prism blatantly flouts the laws of optics, tangling textual “light” instead of sorting it: The wavelength of “feeling of freedom” bends under the wavelength of “thinking free.” It pokes fun at the notions of “illuminating” text and “crystalline” mind. This is a kind of epistemological mirth. Meditation is an awful lot of work, and the drawing suggests that the only payoff is a slightly different order of phrases and the trimming of some adverbs. Whalen is poking fun at himself, and at the self-indulgence that shadows his meditation practice. But a change in mantra, at least for me, can lead to a very different meditation experience. Consider a hamburger, or, if you prefer, a veggie burger: If the ketchup is on the bottom bun, it makes less contact with your taste buds than if it is on the top. A mantra consists of a few words that one spends lots of time chewing and tasting. And it is all you’ll be tasting for a long time, if your meditation practice is serious.

In the text that proliferates outward from this central nugget, we find even more mirthful complication. The prism is surrounded by Whalen’s heckling self-deprecation. To read it we have to tilt the page, which is a joke Whalen plays on us.2 To the left of the prism is this:

HOPELESS FUCKUP BEATNIK COCKSUCK MOTHERFUCKER
NOGOOD BASTARD EAT SHIT RAW RABBITS
AND BARK AT THE MOON

Rotating the book a hundred and eighty degrees, we read this:

. . . DELINQUENT BY MEANS
OF BEING BUGGERED, I.E.
FUCKED UP THE ASS UN-
TILL SLEEP INTERVENED
BETWIXT THEM & THEIR UN-
HOLY PLEASURES . . .

Whalen’s sideways tirades remind us that we are hearing an entire mind, and this includes what a caps-lock McCarthyite bigot would say about his gentle Zen poetry. He presumably doesn’t take this voice seriously, but it has made its way into his head. Further, the sudden vault in diction that occurs between “buggered” and “betwixt” seems a bit too artful for some scotch-fueled Sixties dad who just wants his deadbeat poet son to stop barking at the moon. This is Whalen’s voice fusing into that of the character in his mind. Aren’t all voices in our mental life, even those we reject, in some way part of us?

In the upper right corner of “One Page Poem” we find the following:

Hardboiled egg suspended in a magnetic field
production of morbid secretions in the
prefrontal & maxillary sinuses, 11:25
A.M., (altitude 24 degrees {of San Francisco})

The description is rife with parody. In “Projective Verse,” Charles Olson says that ideal poetry emanates from an electromagnetic field. By contrast, Whalen’s “field” is the quivering mucus that holds the yolk of his brain. This little piece of text is like a placard for a specimen in a museum of science. The parodic geotagging and time-stamping of this brain is a playful poke at meditation’s maxim that we “observe the mind in the present.” Those “morbid secretions” and “prefrontal & maxillary sinuses” have a jargony and jocular ring to them. (They put me in mind of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song”: In short they sound ironical, abominable, parodical, they are the very model of a brain bibliomaniacal.) Whalen mocks both the book-learning of his yolky brain and the meditation-learning of his prismatic mind, and teases out the tension between the two.

In the poem as a whole, multiple voices, each of them Whalen’s and yet each distinct, cohabit and contaminate each other. And just as the mind doesn’t have one clear voice, it doesn’t function with a linear understanding of time. An instantaneous insight like the one captured by the prism is accompanied by a meandering commentary that seems to take ages. All of this provokes perspectival friction, metaphysical mirth. All of this illustrates a mind as a thing in which the great doubt, far from needing to be provoked, arises whenever the sensitive observer becomes aware.

Whalen’s diagrams, typography, and breaks in language illustrate a deep mind, a mind that meditation has made aware of its own conventions, patterns, and neuroses—though it doesn’t presume to have liberated itself from them.

When I speak, write, or think, I have filters in place that limit my language. My mind has a shtick: repetitive delusions, fantasies, and aversions. Effect follows cause, time sustains a steady pace, the same idioms and metaphors mediate between me and the world. When I’m not actively thinking about what my thoughts are like, I take so much for granted. Whalen’s painstakingly built-up recreations of mental activity make me laugh at the conventional silliness of how my mind works. The comedy in “One Page Poem” is observational in the way meditation teaches us to be. “What’s the deal with consciousness?” the poem would ask if it were Jerry Seinfeld. The mental life it illustrates is at once strange and familiar—it’s like seeing all the marshmallows and oats in a bowl of Lucky Charms laid out flat on a table.

Even Whalen’s more conventional poems make use of various text sizes, capitalized words or phrases as headings or ejaculations, typewriter-straining section breaks, and marginal doodles. Sometimes chatty, sometimes esoteric, they comment on themselves so often that it’s impossible to know what is comment and what is poem.

Consider “Scenes of Life at the Capital,” a sixty-page whopper dedicated to Allen Ginsberg. It is a fond homage to the barbers and tempura of Kyoto, a fierce critique of the WASP view of war and sex, an ambivalent musing on classical civilization, and a manic recollection of its own creation. It is, at times, a slog. But you get to see Whalen deploy his full resources as a comic, a Buddhist, and a Buddhist comic. He mocks the writerly aspects of his mind, as well as the tense relationship Buddhist practice has with any writing—even writing as demonstrably Buddhist as his own.

Let’s zoom in on a moment in the poem. Shortly after a high-falutin’ Coleridge passage on beauty and contemplation, Whalen punches out a heading in all caps, “DISTRACTION,” and then swerves into a comic account of making soup in his kitchen. But things don’t go so well:

Distracted, Whalen goes on a dictionary excursion. His beans go “up in smoke,” and he exclaims “喝”! This Japanese interjection, “Katsu!,” is used by Zen teachers to scold their students for poor attention. Whalen chastises himself for not attending to what is right in front of him. Though Buddhism teaches nonattachment to worldly possessions, he can’t help mentioning that those beans cost ninety yen. But when life hands you lemons, make spiritual lemonade: It occurs to Whalen that he can put the incident into a poem as a cautionary tale about absent-mindedness. He offers it up to us as “Minestrone / For all sentient beings.” (That “minestrone” literally means “big soup” in Italian makes it the mot juste.) This passage, with its playful chiding and mock-enshrinement of imaginary soup, is both comic and possessed of a Buddhist self-awareness. But the idea of offering something up in a poem has a lot in common with the kind of musing that dragged Whalen away from his beans in the fi rst place; it’s another defl ection from the (now burnt) reality in front of him. He therefore scolds himself again with “錯,”meaning “mistake.”

This problem is a familiar one to Buddhists—discussion of enlightenment is often at odds with enlightenment itself. (Remember that Master Ma-tsu preferred kicking to lecturing as a teaching method.) Later in “Scenes,” Whalen toys with the tension between knowledge of Buddhism and Buddhist practice through a wry comparison of owls to an ornithologist named Slotkin:

There’s not an owl in the world who thinks or knows
“I am an owl.” Not one who knows there’s a man called
Slotkin who knows more about owls and the owl trade
Than any owl. I wonder though,
Can Professor-Doktor Slotkin eat mice and fly.

This puts me in mind of another koan, quoted here in full:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Just as abundance of knowledge prevents one’s cup from being empty and receptive, Slotkin knows all there is to know about owls but will never eat mice or fly. Meditation is a practice, not something to be grasped by the intellect, and describing it is like trying to give someone a sense of what it feels like to fly by describing flight. It’s one of those “You just had to be there” things—there being right here.

All of this makes the writing of a Buddhist poem seem like a pretty doomed enterprise. And yet “Scenes” is unmistakably a Buddhist poem. If we go along with Williams and think of poems as machines, then Whalen has made one that calls to mind the “suicide machines” of the artist Thijs Rijker (my favorite is a contraption whose gearbox powers a saw that slices the gearbox in half). The poem is ebulliently self-defeating: It destroys itself and leaves emptiness in its place, and that emptiness is Zen.

Master Whalen has kicked me, and I have not stopped laughing. His poems, which at moments resemble some hallucinogenic cocktail of Mallarmé, T. S. Eliot, Leonardo, Woody Allen, and Bashō, are made intimate and approachable by their quirky yet penetrating approach to consciousness and self-awareness. I find them sublimely insightful, and very funny. They allow me to conceive of my own brain as a paranormal prism tangling up the rainbow of my mantras, and to laugh at myself. When I reflect on my relationship to them, I always think of a moment in Whalen’s early poem “Small Tantric Sermon”:

Impossible gibberish no one
Can understand, let alone believe;
Still, I try, I insist I can
Say it and persuade you
That the knowledge is there that the revelation
Is yours.

Whalen’s “gibberish” stems from a koan-like affinity for paradox. It’s infectious, like a laugh. His poetry immerses me in the great and mirthful doubt deep in his head—his revelations feel like my own. I feel that Whalen is saying, “Here: You have written eight hundred pages of my collected poems.” And what a beautiful gift it is, from the poet, from the comic, from the Buddhist, from the gentle heart.

 

  1. Garma C Chang’s “The Practice of Zen” tells the tale of Fo-ying and Sung Dongpo. While waiting for the Chinese Zen master Fo-ying to return to his temple, the poet Sung Dongpo wrote some verses on scrap paper, signed them “Su Dongpo, the great Buddhist who cannot be moved even by the combined forces of the mighty Eight Worldly Winds (gain, loss, defamation, eulogy, praise, ridicule, sorrow, and joy),” and left them behind. When Fo-ying came across them, he added, after the poet’s signature, “Rubbish! What you have said is not better than breaking wind!” Then he sent the verses to Su Dongpo, who hurried back across the Yangtze River to the temple, grabbed Fo-ying, and shouted, “What right have you to denounce me in such language? Am I not a devout Buddhist who cares only for the Dharma? Are you so blind after knowing me for so long?” Fo-ying replied, “Ah, Su Dongpo, the great Buddhist who claims that the combined forces of the Eight Winds can hardly move him an inch, is now carried all the way to the other side of the Yangtze River by a single puff of wind from the colon!”
  2.  Once, while reading Whalen’s eight-hundred-page Collected Poems on the subway, I noticed a comely straphanger ogling my opus. When I got to “One Page Poem,” I rotated the book ninety degrees, and I could see Comely wondering whether I actually knew how to read.

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