194th Anniversary of Whitman

In 1819, 194 years ago today, a human being was born in West Hills, New York to somewhat poor Quaker parents, the second of nine children. He became one of America’s greatest poets. His name, Walt Whitman.

whitman-1869Much has been written about the influence of Eastern thought, especially Buddhism, in Whitman’s writings. I think there is little question that he was influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet, I’m not convinced that influence was as significant as some folks maintain. I’ve seen him called a “Buddhist sage,” or “American Buddha.” I’ve even seen descriptions of Whitman’s “meditation practice.” However, I think through his appreciation of living in harmony with the natural rhythm and flow of life, he had more in common with the wandering Taoist sages of China, which he probably knew little about, and I suspect that his mind was too undisciplined to engage in what we would consider meditation practice.

In Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shoei Ando writes, “[The] tendency toward inward reflection and self-conquest did not belong to Whitman, who was indolent, dreamy, fond of calm aesthetic contemplation, and destitute of practical intention for self-purification through discipline.”

Walt Whitman was a natural-born, free-wheeling, mystic poet, who soaked up many influences and wrung them out in his own singular way. His spirituality was born out of an artistic bent, not a religious one. Nonetheless, we can certainly appreciate his nearness to Buddhist thought.

For instance, Ando notes that “Whitman, believing that ‘if anything is sacred the human body is sacred,’ never subordinated the body to the spirit, but strongly insisted upon the equality of both.” In this way, Whitman differed from many of the transcendentalists with whom he is often associated, men like Emerson and Thoreau who were influential in preparing the collective consciousness of America for Eastern thought, but still clung to a rather Christian view of the body as “nothing but a part of those impurities which cloud and obscure the divinity within man.”

Whitman’s view could be compared to the Japanese Buddhist concept of shiki shin funi or “body and spirit are two but not two.” Shin is the Japanese translation of the Chinese character, xin, meaning “heart, mind, spirit, essence.”

Look at these verses from Whitman and then the words of Zen master Dogen:

All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them;
How can the real body ever die and be buried?

Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,
Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and
pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the
moment of death.

“Starting from Paumanok”

Our Body comes from our learning the Way, and what has come from our learning the Way is our body along with our Body. The whole universe in all ten quarters is synonymous with our one real physical body, and the coming and going of birth and death is also synonymous with our real physical body.”

“On Learning the Way Through Body and Mind” (Shinjin Gakudo) 

Both, to me, are asking us to transcend our coarse conceptions about body and mind, and birth and death, to cast off the limitations of our thoughts. And both equate the body, not with impurity, but with spiritual grace and a certain sublime beauty for it, as with the mind, is a microcosm of the vast, unfathomable universe.

Whitman also recognized the oneness of self and nature (esho funi, “life and environment are two but not two”). In “I Sing The Body Electric”, he wrote,

As I see my soul reflected in Nature,
As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible completeness,
sanity, beauty . . .

Sadakichi Hartmann, the German-Japanese critic and playwright who introduced haiku to America, had a number of encounters with Whitman that he recorded in Conversations with Walt Whitman, published in 1895. On one occasion, Hartmann asked him “Do you believe that mankind can be improved by books?”

Whitman replied, “I can hardly say that I had the idea to better mankind. I grew up like a tree — the poems are the fruit. Good literature ought to be the Roman cement; the older it grows — the better it serves its purpose.”

Over a century has passed since Whitman’s last poem was published posthumously in July 1892. His thoughts, his works, his life itself, is like the Roman cement, older, better, and quite unintentionally, if we are to take his humility at face value, still serving a great purpose.

Now, here is something I didn’t know existed. The University of Iowa describes this as the rediscovery of the “tape-recording of what may be an 1889 or 1890 wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading four lines of his late poem ‘America’.” The background story of this recording is rather interesting. You can read about it here, in an article by Ed Folsom for the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Click on the arrow below to listen.


Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love . . .


The King of Bohemia

This post is a day late. I always get discombobulated whenever we switch time.

Sadakichi Hartmann in 1899

Yesterday, November 8, was the birthday of a very interesting guy named Sadakichi Hartmann. He hung out with Walt Whitman, danced with Isadora Duncan, introduced the symbolist poetry music to America (along with haiku and tanka poetry), invented the psychedelic light show, published some of the earliest avant garde magazines, wrote a play called Buddha (and one called Christ), appeared in the Thief of Bagdad with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and was BDB (that’s Best Drinking Buddies) with John Barrymore and W.C. Fields.

Sadakichi Hartman was born in 1867. His Japanese mother died in childbirth, and his father, a German trader, placed him in the care of one of his German uncles. By the 1880’s he was in America, and already having had met Whitman, was an art critic for several Philadelphia newspapers. His accomplishments and projects are too numerous to go into here. Suffice to say that he was a champion of art and artists, uncommon thinking and the free spirit; he protested the rising tide of conformity, and published books on subjects ranging from photography to Shakespeare to Whistler.

In the later decades of his life, the primary role he played was that of the ex-King of Bohemia, and it was also the way he made his living, giving lectures, and when paid appearances were not in the offing, he freeloaded. It led George Santayana to call him an “importunate beggar,” and W.C. Fields to say he was a “bum and a moocher.” They were compliments.

By the 1930’s Hartmann was, as George Knox describes him, “An almost forgotten figure in American art and letters, [living] in a clapboard shack he called ‘Catclaw Sliding’ amid the chaparral of the Morongo Indian Reservation east of town.” The town being, Banning, California.

You can read Knox’s essay “Sadakichi Hartmann’s Life and Career” here. In 2005, the New York Sun did a profile available here.

Perhaps, the best account of Hartmann is in Gene Fowler’s book Minutes of the Last Meeting which also chronicles the misadventures of The Bundy Drive Boys, Hollywood’s original Rat Pack, a group that included the aforementioned Barrymore, Fields, and Fowler, as well as Errol Flynn, John Decker and some other Tinsel Town characters. Sadakichi Hartman was their court jester.

Here are a few fragments from the mind of the man Walt Whitman referred to as “that dammed Japanee”:

Every true artist is a revolutionist by instinct, by special endowments, by necessity. His talents, no matter in what direction they exert and propagate themselves, are always exceptional, this in itself constitutes revolt, as the public, bent on enjoyment without study or meditation, will accept willingly and cheerfully on the conventional and traditional in exchange for monetary recompense. The artist who lives, survives, and ‘does’ is entrenched most of his life; he takes part in many skirmishes, carries the torn flag of beauty and liberty through the firing lines to summits far beyond the fighting crowds.

A great statesman is rarely a great humanitarian. He is occupied with the routine of the existing, and the desire to make a good impression on those he rules.

The trouble is that there are two kinds of morality. One which everyone feels – a man’s conduct towards women, his family, animals, his business associates, community and state interests, which concerns all – and we regulate these actions more by intuition, an inner urge to do right, than anything from outside, while the other morality that clergy and government, religious and political reformers, founders of new creeds and social orders, force upon us (necessary as they may be for mob discipline) is hypochondriac and hypocritical, false and destructive of what it is desirous to being about.

Do something absolutely berserk and you are sure of immortality among men.

Every person one meets bristle with advice like an angry porcupine, and although spines may hurt, people take more readily to bad advice than to reliable directions.

Zen Buddhism in direct opposition to Confucianism raised nature worship almost to a cult, Confucianism was becoming dry and hard, forstering a strict obedience to the letter of the law, not unlike Christianity in the hands of the Calvinists. Zen, on the other hand, held that nature and man (similar to Swedenborg’s doctrine) were two parallel forces running perfect sympathy through universal life.

Slander is like throwing mud at a wall. If it does not stick, it will at least leave a mark.

What can the individual do? I advise myself like this: Do what you like and what you can do best. Try and be more of an individual, influence stagnant crowd-thinking and mass-meeting mentality. Don’t bother too much about others, but give actual personal help when you can. Be sure not to harm anyone directly or indirectly. There is little else that can be done. However, this can be done by everybody.