The Invention of the Letter: A Beastly Morality by Philip Whalen

Introduction: Poet and Zen teacher Philip Whalen was born in Portland, Oregon in 1923. After serving in the Army in World War II, he attended Reed College on the GI Bill. There he met fellow poets Gary Snyder and Lew Welch, studied calligraphy with Lloyd Reynolds, and eventually migrated to the Bay Area. Along with Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and Philip Lamantia, Whalen was one of the featured poets in a reading at San Francisco's Six Gallery on October 7, 1955 that -- along with their depiction in Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road -- introduced the "Beat Generation" writers to the world. Whalen would appear in a number of Kerouac's books under such pseudonyms as Warren Coughlin and Ben Fagin, "a quiet, bespectacled booboo, smiling over books."

Whalen was also one of the first Americans to study Buddhism in Japan. When he returned to America, he became a student of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi's dharma heir Zentatsu Richard Baker, and in the early 1990s, served as the head teacher at Hartford Street Zen Center in San Francisco. Though never as widely known as the other Beats, Whalen was one of the sharpest writers in the group. His writing is subtle, warm, humane, wry, learned, and often hilariously funny, while exhibiting a seasoned understanding of Buddhist concepts and practice that goes beyond that of his peers. A collection in the Penguin Poets series, Overtime, edited by Michael Rothenberg, offers an excellent selection of his poems.

The real thing is always an imitation
Consider new plum blossoms behind the zendo

       "Dharmakaya," 20:i:81

Whalen practicing calligraphy

The Invention of the Letter: A Beastly Morality was written in Kyoto in 1966 at the request of Irving Rosenthal, a pioneering communalist who published several of the Beats for the first time in a Chicago journal called Big Table. In keeping with Rosenthal's philosophy that art should be free ("hors de commerce"), the hand-drawn, limited-edition The Invention of the Letter, printed by Rosenthal's Carp & Whitefish Press, was handed out at no cost at a Whalen reading at the Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco on June 14, 1968. Rosenthal summarized the plot of the book thusly: "Adam (of Adam and Eve) was lonely, wanted to correspond with someone, took the advice of a lion buddy and a bird, and started inventing the letters of the alphabet. Then God took pity on him and created Eve from his body, so that he would have someone to correspond with. Soon after, Adam and Eve fell in love and went to sleep in their cozy cave together with the lion, a lioness and their 'splendid family of cubs.' Even the bird got himself a family. The last illustration shows Adam and Eve holding hands, taking a walk in their garden along with the lion family."

The Invention of the Letter was never republished and has since become extremely scarce. In the spirit of Whalen and Rosenthal's original offering, it is my pleasure to make this book available again for curious scholars and Beat fellow travelers on the Internet.

I was Whalen's personal assistant at Hartford Street Zen Center in 1993. By then his eyesight was failing, and it was my job to take him shopping, handle his correspondence, frequent Chinese noodle parlors, and most of all, read to him from a broad range of texts including the Lotus Sutra, Red Pine's Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, and William Gibson's Neuromancer. Whalen would often reminisce about Kerouac, Ginsberg, and his other celebrated friends, and to preserve his observations, I kept a journal called Thanks for Asking, which has never been published, but can be downloaded by clicking here. I much enjoyed our time together.

A hearty gassho to Whalen, Rosenthal, and Reynolds, and to Derek Powazek for designing this webpage. To navigate back to the index page on any individual page of The Invention of the Letter, just click on the title.

Please enjoy this book. Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.

Steve Silberman
San Francisco, 2008

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