Off-beat Zen

How I found my way out of depression, thanks to the writings of the English priest who brought Buddhism to the West

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Alan Watts: 'Half monk and half racecourse operator.' Illustration by Stephen Collins

Alan Watts: 'Half monk and half racecourse operator.' Illustration by Stephen Collins

Tim Lott is the author of The Scent of Dried Roses (Penguin Modern Classics) and Under the Same Stars (Simon and Schuster).

Ever since I was a child, I have been acutely sensitive to the idea — in the way that other people seem to feel only after bereavement or some shocking unexpected event — that the human intellect is unable, finally, to make sense of the world: everything is contradiction and paradox, and no one really knows much for sure, however loudly they profess to the contrary.

It is an uncomfortable mindset, and as a result I have always felt the need to build a conceptual box in my mind big enough to fit the world into. Most people seem to have a talent for denying or ignoring life’s contradictions, as the demands of work and life take them over. Or they fall for an ideology, perhaps religious or political, that appears to render the world a comprehensible place.

I have never been able to support either strategy. A sense of encroaching mental chaos was always skulking at the edges of my life. Which is perhaps why I fell into an acute depression at the age of 27, and didn’t recover for several years.

The consequence of this was my first book, a memoir called The Scent of Dried Roses (1996). While I was researching it, I read the work of the psychologist Dorothy Rowe, a quiet, almost secret, follower of Buddhist philosophy. Secret, because Rowe knew what the term ‘Buddhist’ implied to the popular imagination (as it did to me) — magical thinking, Tibetan bell-ringing, and sticking gold flakes on statues of the Buddha.

Truth is not to be found by picking everything to pieces like a spoilt child

It was through Rowe’s writing that I first came across Alan Watts, and he sounded like an unlikely philosopher. His name evoked the image of a paper goods sales rep on a small regional industrial estate. But through Watts and his writing, I was exposed directly to the ideas of Zen Buddhism. I was suspicious at first, perceiving Zen Buddhism to be a religion rather than a philosophy. I wasn’t interested in the Four Noble Truths, or the Eightfold Path, and I certainly didn’t believe in karma or reincarnation.

All the same, I read a couple of Watts’s books. They made a significant impact on me. The Meaning of Happiness (1940) and The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951) are striking primers to his work, and they underlined what Rowe was already teaching me: that life had no intrinsic meaning, any more than a piece of music had an intrinsic ‘point’. Life was, in Zen parlance, yugen — a kind of elevated purposelessness.

Watts, like Rowe, showed me how we construct our own meanings about life. That nothing is a given and, since everything is uncertain, we must put together a world view that might fit roughly with the facts, but is never anything other than a guess — a working fiction. This, too, is a typical Zen understanding — that life cannot be described, only experienced. Trying to see all of life is like trying to explore a vast cave with a box of matches.

Impressed though I was, I more or less forgot about Watts after I finished his books, and pursued my career as a fiction writer. I was weary of introspection. Then, years later, a bad spell in my life propelled me back into a chasm. In 2004, three close friends died in sudden succession. One died in front of my eyes. Another was murdered. A third succumbed to cancer. My depression — and that original sense of meaninglessness — resurfaced. I turned to Watts again. This time, it was as if I was reading for dear life.

No time for received wisdom: a young Alan Watts (L) and friends reading haiku poems written for a contest. Photo by Nat Farbman/Time Life Pictures/Getty

Alan Watts had been prolific in his 58 years. He died in 1973, after producing not only 27 books but also scores of lectures, all of which were available online. They had intriguing titles such as ‘On Being Vague’, ‘Death’, ‘Nothingness’ and ‘Omnipotence’. I stopped writing novels and worked my way through every one of them instead.

I found a DVD of an animation of Watts by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of South Park fame). I discovered that Van Morrison had written a song about him, and that Johnny Depp was a follower. But he remained largely unknown in Britain, even though he was English, albeit an expatriate.

Watts was born in 1915 in Chislehurst, Kent. His father had been a sales rep for the Michelin tyre company and his mother was a housewife whose father had been a missionary. In later life, Watts wrote of mystical visions he’d had after suffering fever as a child. During school holidays — while he was a scholar at King’s School in Cambridge — he went on trips with the Buddhism enthusiast Francis Croshaw, who first developed his interest in Eastern religion.

With penetrating eyes like Aleister Crowley’s, he described himself as a ‘spiritual entertainer’

By the age of 16, Watts was the secretary of the London Buddhist Lodge, which was run by the barrister Christmas Humphreys. But Watts spoiled his chances of a scholarship to Oxford because one examination essay was judged ‘presumptuous and capricious’. And, despite his obviously brilliant mind, Watts never achieved a British university degree. This, perhaps, is another of his qualities that chimes with my own spirit — I too left school with only two A-levels, and am, like Watts, an autodidact.

As a young man, Watts worked in a printing house and then a bank. During this time, he hooked up with the Serbian ‘rascal guru’ Dimitrije Mitrinović — a follower of the Armenian spiritual teacher GI Gurdjieff and the Russian esotericist PD Ouspensky — who became a major influence on his thinking.

At the age of 21, in 1936, he attended the World Congress of Faiths at the University of London. There, he heard the renowned Zen scholar DT Suzuki speak, and was introduced to him. Later that year, Watts published his first book The Spirit of Zen.

That same year, he met the American heiress Eleanor Everett, whose mother was involved with a traditional Zen Buddhist circle in New York. He married Eleanor in 1938 and they moved to America, where he trained as an Episcopal priest, before leaving the ministry in 1950, thus separating once and for all from his Christian roots. From then on he concentrated on the study and communication of Eastern philosophical ideas to Western audiences.

I felt powerfully attracted to Alan Watts. Not only to his ideas, but to him, personally. Watts was no dry, academic philosopher. With eyes hooded and penetrating like Aleister Crowley’s, he was a jester as well as a thinker, describing himself as a ‘spiritual entertainer’. Aldous Huxley described him as ‘a curious man. Half monk and half racecourse operator.’ Watts wholeheartedly agreed with Huxley’s characterisation. He carried a silver cane ‘for pure swank’, he hung out with Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac (he is even parodied in On the Road as Arthur Whale). His English public school-educated voice was rich and deep, like a prophet’s, and his laugh juicy and contagious.

But it was his thinking that most excited me. He was, if not the earliest, then certainly the foremost translator of Eastern philosophical ideas to the West. In some ways, his interpretations were radical — for instance, he dismissed the core Zen idea of zazen (which meant spending hours seated in contemplative meditation) as unnecessary. ‘A cat sits until it is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away,’ was his forgiving interpretation of zazen. Slightly less forgiving was his comment on Western Zen enthusiasts, whom he mocked as ‘The uptight school … who seem to believe that Zen is essentially sitting on your ass for interminable hours.’ It was a great relief to read this for someone like me, who found the idea of excessive meditation as unhealthy as the idea of excessive masturbation.

Watts also rejected the conventional ideas of reincarnation and the popular understanding of karma as a system of rewards and punishments carried out, lifetime after lifetime. It was this radical approach that made his ideas so fresh — he had no time for received wisdom, even from those who claimed to know Zen inside out.

The idea of walking around with a metaphorical stick to whack yourself with is foreign to a Zen master

Many Zen ideas have become debased into ‘new age’ philosophy, basely transmuted into wishful thinking, quasi-religious mumbo jumbo and the narcissistic fantasies of the ‘me generation’. But before the beatniks and the hippies got hold of it, Zen philosophy, as described by Watts, was hard-edged, practical, logical and, in some ways, oddly English in tone, as it had deep strands of scepticism and humour. (You’ll never see Christian saints laughing. But most of the great sages of Zen have smiles on their faces, as does Buddha.)

Zen and Taoism are more akin to psychotherapy than to religion, as Watts explained in his book Psychotherapy East and West (1961). They are about finding a way to maintain a healthy personality in a culture that tends to tangle you up in a lot of unconscious logical binds. On the one hand, you are told to be ‘free’ and, on the other, that you should follow the demands of the community. Another example is the instruction that you must be spontaneous.

These kinds of snags, or double binds, according to Zen writings, produce inner tension, frustration, and neurosis — what Buddhism calls dukkha. Watts saw his job, via Zen philosophy, to teach you to think clearly, so that you could see through conventional thinking to a place where your mind could be at peace inside a culture that could have been designed to generate anxiety.

But, although he was an entertaining writer who presented his ideas with a brilliant clarity, Watts had a difficult job on his hands — mainly because Zen and Taoism are so fundamentally counter-intuitive to the Western mind. Western philosophers and laymen find Eastern thinkers frustrating because Buddhist sages don’t have the same emphasis on the power of language, reason and logic to transform the self or to ‘know’, in the way Westerners think of the word.

The riddles, or koans, that Zen thinkers speak in are intended to trip you up and make you realise how inadequate words — either spoken or inner dialogue — are in making sense. Zen emphasises intuition and mushin, that is, an empty mind, over planning and thought. The ideal is that your mind can be unblocked from maya (which means both illusion and play) and thus acquire a kind of resonance or instant reflection, or munen, which translates awkwardly as now/mind/heart.

This makes it alien to Western philosophical traditions, which tend to distrust spontaneity, since it supposedly clears the way for the dominance of brute animal instincts and dangerous passions. But the idea of walking around with a metaphorical big stick with which to whack yourself if you make a mistake, or get carried away by your emotions, is foreign to a Zen master.

Zen, after all, was used by the Samurai warriors, who had to strike immediately without reflection or die. Intuition, in a healthy soul, is more important than conscious reflection. Millions of years of evolution have made the human unconscious wise, not reckless. You can find similar ideas in modern books such as Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, which emphasises the value of gut reactions.

Zen started as a reaction against the highly conventionalised and ritualised Japanese society from which it emerged. This must have struck a chord with Watts, who grew up at a time when British society — hidebound, introverted and conventional — was not so different from the self-controlled, ‘uptight’ world of the Japanese. In such a society, spontaneous behaviour becomes impossible.

The word Zen is a Japanese way of pronouncing chan, which is the Chinese way of pronouncing the Indian Sanskrit dhyana or sunya, meaning emptiness or void. This is the basis of Zen itself — that all life and existence is based on a kind of dynamic emptiness (a view now supported by modern science, which sees phenomena at a subatomic level popping in and out of existence in a ‘quantum froth’).

In this view, there is no ‘stuff’, no difference between matter and energy. Look at anything closely enough — even a rock or a table — and you will see that it is an event, not a thing. Every ‘thing’ is, in truth, happening. This too, accords with modern scientific knowledge. Furthermore, there is not a ‘multiplicity of events’. There is just one event, with multiple aspects, unfolding. We are not just separate egos locked in bags of skin. We come out of the world, not into it. We are each expressions of the world, not strangers in a strange land, flukes of consciousness in a blind, stupid universe, as evolutionary science teaches us.

The emphasis on the present moment is perhaps Zen’s most distinctive characteristic. In our Western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.

It tries to have you understand, without arguing the point, that there is no purpose in getting anywhere if, when you get there, all you do is think about getting to some other future moment. Life exists in the present or nowhere at all, and if you cannot grasp that, you are simply living a fantasy.

For all Zen writers life is, as it was for Shakespeare, akin to a dream — transitory and insubstantial. There is no ‘rock of ages cleft for thee’. There is no security. Looking for security, Watts said, is like jumping off a cliff while holding on to a rock for safety — an absurd illusion. Everything passes and you must die. Don’t waste your time thinking otherwise. Neither Buddha nor his Zen followers had time for any notion of an afterlife. The doctrine of reincarnation can be more accurately thought about as a constant rebirth, of death throughout life, and the continual coming and going of universal energy, of which we are all part, before and after death.

Another challenge for Western thinkers when struggling with Zen is that, unlike Western religion and philosophy, it has no particular moral code. The Noble Truths are not moral teachings. Zen (unlike Mahayana Buddhism with its ‘Eightfold Path’) makes no judgment about good or bad, except to say that they are both necessary to make the universe dynamic.

Like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, there is no idea of ‘good’ out to destroy ‘evil’, or vice versa. Evil cannot be destroyed, any more than good can, because they are polar opposites of the same thing, like poles of a magnet. Destruction is as necessary as creation. Chaos must exist if we are to know what order is. Both aspects of reality, in tension with one another, are necessary to keep the whole game going: the unity of opposites.

This can lead to some fairly shocking moral reasoning. When the American composer and Zen follower John Cage was asked, ‘Don’t you think there’s too much suffering in the world?’, he answered, ‘I think there’s just the right amount.’ This encapsulates, and yet somewhat satirises the Zen world view — that the dark and the light, the negative and the positive, the yin and the yang, are all necessary parts of the overall whole.

Behind this thinking is the idea that, for the accomplished follower of Zen, moralists are dangerous because they will destroy everything in pursuit of their vision of ‘the good’. Straightforward greed might result in the destruction of the local village to get their wealth and their women — but that won’t be too bad because it will preserve the wealth and the women.

A ‘cutting-up’ attitude to life gives us dead knowledge, not live knowledge

However, if you are on a moral crusade, you will destroy everything in your wake. And who can deny that the history of the 20th century bears out this view, with Nazi and Communist ideologies causing such havoc? After all, Hitler was an idealist, too. So Confucius — who was not, admittedly, part of the Zen tradition, though he influenced it — puts the greatest value not on absolute good, but on ‘human-heartedness’, or jen. If you are human-hearted, you are unlikely to want to do any great ill, even without a great moral vision to guide you. And, even if you do, the damage you cause will be limited by your own self-interest.

This lack of a clear moral code is perhaps why Zen is not a philosophy wholly appropriate for the young or immature mind. In the 1950s, Watts critiqued the Beatnik appropriation of Zen in his book Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen (1959). The apparent fatalism of Zen seemed to open the door for an individual to do ‘whatever they like’. Watts thought the Beats were childish, although he did suggest that their behaviour also revealed a clever paradox: that absolute fatalism implies absolute freedom. Again, you can look at it both ways.

In fact, Zen isn’t fatalistic. Rather, it accepts something that Western philosophy finds hard to grasp — that two contradictory truths are possible at the same time. It just depends on which way you look at it. The world is not a logically consistent one, but a profoundly paradoxical one. Again, this is illustrated in science, which shows that two things can be one at the same time — light, for instance, acts as both a particle and a wave. The Zen masters say the same thing about human life. Perhaps you are doing ‘it’. Perhaps ‘it’ is doing you. There is no way of knowing which is which. It is like a formal dance so deft that you cannot tell who is leading, and who is following.

While it is refreshing that Zen philosophy is supported in many ways by present scientific knowledge, it is also a critique of scientific thought. The scientific tradition requires things up to be cut up — both mentally and physically — into smaller and small pieces to investigate them. It suggests that the only kind of knowledge is empirical and that the rigid laws of scientific method are the only kind that are valid.

Zen implies that this is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater — scientific thinking might be immensely useful, but it also does violence to a meaningful conception of life. It tends to screen out the essential connectedness of things. We live in an imprecise world. Nature is extraordinarily vague. Science promotes the idea of hard, clear ‘brute facts’ — but some facts are soft. A ‘cutting-up’ attitude to life gives us dead knowledge, not live knowledge.

The fundamental nature of the world is not something you can get too precise about. The basis of one’s life and thought must always remain undefined. Some ideas — such as the Tao, the ‘way of things’ — come to us, we can’t just go out and get them. They are mysterious and unknown.

This kind of thinking is anathema to the modern scientist who thinks that everything can be known and finally will be known. But, Watts argued, it is impossible to appreciate the universe unless you know when to stop investigating. Truth is not to be found by picking everything to pieces like a spoilt child.

It is impossible, of course, to summarise Zen in a few thousand words. In fact it doesn’t ask to be summarised. The first principle of Zen, voiced by the philosopher Lao Tzu, is ‘Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.’ Zen is not proselytising, quite the reverse. It asks you to come to it, in supplication, and to tease it out. Another Zen saying is, ‘He who seeks to persuade does not convince.’

But it convinced me. After spending nearly two years studying Zen, Taoism and the works of Alan Watts, I think I genuinely achieved a sort of satori — a freedom from the inner weights and contradictions of ordinary life. When a student asked Watts what enlightenment felt like, he said if felt very ordinary — but like walking slightly in the air, an inch above the ground. And that is exactly how I felt — every day.

I don’t know how long the experience lasted. Perhaps as long as a year, perhaps even longer. All that time, Watts and the Zen idea were there in my head, informing my thoughts and actions. The background noise, the static of worry and gabble that informed my old life had disappeared. My head was clear. The philosophy entirely permeated me. My life was truly more joyful than it had ever been. Nothing bothered me. I felt full of energy and optimism.

Then one day, I lost the vision. I don’t know how it happened. A period of stress and clinical depression took me under and, when I surfaced again, Watts and the Tao had left my thoughts. I was alone again, puzzled and conflicted. I knew the words, but I couldn’t hear the music anymore. The old thoughts and habits I had been conditioned into since birth reasserted themselves. Once more, I worried about things pointlessly, and got lost in the past and the future instead of existing in the dynamic present.

But then, I shouldn’t have been surprised. What Alan Watts taught, above all else, is that everything is transitory. Everything comes and goes. Watts himself did not exist in a perpetual state of spiritual bliss. He died an alcoholic. He had been a lifelong heavy drinker. His later life was not easy — in the last years, he cut a Dickensian figure, working desperately to support his seven children and, presumably, his two ex-wives (by the time he died he was on a third). But he was by no accounts an ‘unhappy’ drunk. He never expressed guilt or regret about his drinking and smoking, and never missed a lecture or a writing deadline.

If Watts’s own example is to be taken into account, being ‘enlightened’ doesn’t always make you happy. Yet it is still something worth attaining. It brings clarity and peace, even if it doesn’t protect you from all of life’s vicissitudes.

My personal ‘enlightenment’ came and went — but I hope it might return. Perhaps this article will be the first step in that direction. It feels like it is. It might be in my hands or it might not. But if I can find the path again, then I will stay on it — until I lose it. And, as the Zen saying instructs, if I see the Buddha, I will kill him. Because the moment you start thinking of yourself as ‘enlightened’, you are not.

twitter@timlottwriter

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Comments

  • http://alasdairgf.myopenid.com/ AlasdairGF

    Though AW might have dismissed it as 'Square Zen', the transmission to the West is alive & well in the UK through groups like StoneWater Zen Sangha (disclosure: my own tradition!), IZAUK, the OBC, Dogen Sangha, etc etc. A map of UK Zen groups at http://bit.ly/ZenMapUK shows how things have moved on since the days of AW's pioneering!

    • craigbhill

      'Square zen' was merely his appellation for one of many states of how the realization of zen was reached, not that he ever "dismissed" zen as square per se. He venerated every tradition that allows realization, including that of surrender, which the Japanese call "tariki" and which allows the fiction that there is a being superior to you who you surrender to, and the superior way that bypasses the middleman supposedly "outside" you, famously, as he put it, breaking the taboo against knowing who you really are: IT, primitively aka 'God", the universe, or more accurately your universe, the whole works..

      Unknown to most follower-practitioners especially of zen, there are many yogas, or ways to enlightenment, some attained quicker, 'zenner', than others. My own practice is a mental mantra called vinana yoga, which poses a koan to be deciphered at one's leisure over a longish period of time, or fully realized, felt or grasped, even as undecipherable, that hits you with a wallop, and the next thing you know you can't feel the ground, your senses are freed from the subduing control of your mind and the whole of you becomes blissfully intense and acutely aware of a greater range of your senses than you have ever experienced as a whole and at once, sometimes for days, sometimes longer, sometimes less, comme satori. One of many ways of liberation Watts introduced to Westerners, well worth attaining.

  • Peter Hiett

    But cannot you also say, that you always are enlightened, though you may not realize it? (The message of the Christian incarnation, which Watts handles very nicely in his books on Christinaity such as 'Myth and Ritual in Christinaity', 'Behold the Spirit' and 'The Supreme Identity'). FWIW, I found the books by Douglas Harding a very good complement to Watts, sort of like the practice to go with the theory.

    • craigbhill

      Watts likened the difference to being in shoes so comfortable you don't realize they're on your feet, versus KNOWING they were so comfortable you couldn't remember you had therm on, the latter being even better.

      People are enlightened all the time without knowing it as enlightenment. Satori give each of us momentary awareness that pervades our beings and gives us the relief that is the deep sigh and the elimination of the stress that is satori, but because we don't know what we just experienced, we don't realize that it is a state of being we can enter and remain in for longer and longer stretches, if we go about the right way. It's that realization that enlightnment IS periodically ongoing that makes it a practice.

      • Ras

        Ras
        Very nice read, I have learned a few more details of Watts life.
        I stumbled on Alan Watts in1972 while listening to a radio talk show in Vancouver and my life changed dramatically . I followed up attending a small seminar for 3 days with him on a small island near Vancouver.
        The technical details debated here in these comments are interesting but please do not let them be distracting from the essence of Watts message.
        One of Watts sayings that I always remember is"once you have received the message hang up the phone and get on with your life" the WOW moment like all things must pass, the message can be kept forever.
        Alan Watts was the real deal, no saint,no desire for followers, loved to have fun and talk,talk, talk.
        Ras

        • http://profiles.google.com/craigbhill craig hill

          Yeah, Watts told the story of a huge gathering of Buddhist masters in China over a millenia ago, in a face-off of sorts, wherein the master who best replied to a koan would be honored. The winner was the only one who said nothing, and who had no followers (everyone he influenced having become their own individual) .

        • zen

          Reminds me a Joseph Campbell, knows a little about many things, a lot about nothing.

  • craigbhill

    I would add, at the end, that the moment you forget you thought you were enlightened, you are as enlightened as the moment before you thought you were.

    Thoughts are concepts, and so not real. Monkey-mind at work!

    Does the writer know the Watts talk above is truncated to stop at 6:01?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=527965524 Nick Jankel

    lovely piece and beautifully candid and crafted. the last few paragraphs elegantly illustrate the dangers of spiritual work without the accompanied processing of 'shadow' - our trauma-inspired defenses (of which alcoholism is of course a band aid and depression a signpost). just because we are enlightened, as the teacher said, doesnt mean our neuroses go away. the 'work' is to unravel our pain-based psychological patterns as we unfold our profoundest reality as one with with the universe whether as void or absolute. everything or no-thing. the two are powerful when woven together and dangerous (or futile or both) when explored alone.

  • drokhole

    Thank you so much. I can't even express how close this hit to home. I was 25, and Alan Watts did the same for me. I came across him through Robert Anton Wilson. Thanks, again - I'm speechless.

  • http://twitter.com/rubot Ruairí

    Really nice stuff about Watts, very well accounted, but I would question some of the statements about Zen. For instance, to talk about Zen in opposition to Mahayana Buddhism makes no sense, since Zen is a branch of the Mahayana, but furthermore to suggest that Zen has the Four Noble Truths, but not the Eightfold Path is nonsensical:

    "The Noble Truths are not moral teachings. Zen (unlike Mahayana Buddhism with its ‘Eightfold Path’) makes no judgment about good or bad"

    The fourth noble truth IS the Eightfold Path, so you cannot have one without the other?

  • Dan

    Very nice piece, have you heard about Stoicism? I recently read "A Guide to the Good Life - The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" by William B. Irvine and many of the themes highlighted in the practice of Zen Buddhism can also be found in the writings of those old Greek sages.

  • Dave Rockwell

    "enlightenment" - an object of desire, a bone for the mind to chew on. If you seek it, desire it, it is instantly out there far from you, by your own definition. Forget it. Let the world in, relax, perceive, swim. Let "enlightenment" go, or it will just chain you down. "Soften the glare."

  • http://twitter.com/anni103 anne corr

    I love this piece of writing. It resonates with me on so many levels!! The thing I like most about is recognising the inpenetrable nature of existence and seeing that no one has yet come up with the answers we all are looking for . I suffer from trying to 'see' the reality of things( see my blog http://amonikabyanyuvva.wordpress.com/

  • http://www.livinginthehereandnow.co.za/ beachcomber

    If I may be allowed to make some perhaps pedantic comments to your excellent article.

    ** "Zen, after all, was used by the Samurai warriors, who had to strike immediately without reflection or die. Intuition, in a healthy soul, is more important than conscious reflection. ..... You can find similar ideas in modern books such as Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, which emphasises the value of gut reactions."

    This ability is the result of endless hours of training, as Gladwell illustrates in his 10,000 hours concept and yes, our Western mind seems to think, arrogantly and ignorantly, that after seeing a Bruce Lee movie, you can take on the mafia. This next paragraph puts it nicely:

    "Watts critiqued the Beatnik appropriation of Zen .... The apparent fatalism of Zen seemed to open the door for an individual to do ‘whatever they like’. Watts thought the Beats were childish, although he did suggest that their behaviour also revealed a clever paradox: that absolute fatalism implies absolute freedom."

    ** "In this view, there is no ‘stuff’, no difference between matter and energy." In my view, everything IS "stuff" in various degrees of its quantum of potential, probability and volatility.

    ** "Furthermore, there is not a ‘multiplicity of events’. There is just one event, with multiple aspects, unfolding." Yes, everything constantly emerging from the void into the now.

    ** "that two contradictory truths are possible at the same time...." Again yes, which is being explored as quantum entanglement. Ref: Alain Aspect experiment.

    ** "This kind of thinking is anathema to the modern scientist who thinks that everything can be known and finally will be known ..." not really, reference "Fuzzy Thinking" by Bart Kosko.

    ** "being ‘enlightened’ doesn’t always make you happy" .... they say that happiness is overrated while acceptance of the possibility of happiness is contentment.

    • zenmama

      Upvote for the "Fuzzy Thinking" reference :). Great book. On point.

  • dave

    Great article. I have recently been listening to some Alan Watts on you tube and audio podcasts. His speaking carries so much more meaning, and conveys so much more compassion and delight in the comedy of the human dilemma than Zen, which too often laughs at you, not with you and which often comes across as hard and dry, and rather abusive. I find in his work many tantra concepts; very lucid pictures of what a world would look like that wasn't so destructively dualistic. His explanations of the origins of the unconscious mythology we all carry adds to the depth and richness I get from listening to the content, and to much self understand and understanding of our Western culture, so that the mind can be appreciated, and the laughter that we get from being human is less mocking, and more sweet. Too often, in mindfulness, and the meditation communities, we allow others to belittle our thoughts. I was inspired by your article to keep reading and listening to him. Perhaps to listen to him as I go hiking.

  • dave

    I also resonated with his references to Magritte, who I also see as the great awakener. Not a surrealist at all in the same vein as Dali, Magritte in his work, by also possessing great technical skills, (like Watts had in his humanitarian training as a priest, for example), was able to convey layers and levels of deep truth in a simple way that I haven't seen since.

  • John-Paul Flintoff

    Hey Tim I really enjoyed this. So much to think about...

  • Vikas Dan

    Thank you Tim for the beautiful article, it really inspired me so much and in some way connects me with Alan Watts.

    • Eric

      Unfortunately this is a superficial reading of authentic zen practice. Reading about zen and living it are two different things. To give the impression that 'ethical living' or morality isnt important is contrary to zen teaching. Soto zen for example gives great priority to preceptual living, causing as little harm to oneself and others, - this of course is at the heart of all schools of Buddhism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robbo0 Rob Clark

    fucking gold.

  • NonCompassionateLiberal

    "My personal ‘enlightenment’ came and went — but I hope it might return."
    Once you "know," you know. You might lose the exhilarating feeling that was attached to your realization, but you should always remember what you "learned."
    We all live in the Monday-morning reality, as Watts described it. But it helps (and maybe only a little) that you also understand the Ultimate.

    • Srinath

      not really. One shouldn't try to remember or not remember.

      • NonCompassionateLiberal

        You're right too:
        "When you try, you fail."
        And really, it doesn't matter if one does or doesn't remember (but I'm glad I occasionally do).

  • Tom de Toys

    "The fundamental nature ... is not something ... too
    precise. The basis ... must remain
    undefined." / First i just wanted to say THANK YOU FOR YOUR LOVELY
    ARTICLE, because it touches my heart and makes me happy! but then, after
    a while, all the sentences started working in my brains (bsss bsss
    bsss... sOMe electric noise to listen) and suddenly i was able to catch
    what made me "nervous". i guess i understood what you mean, but just to
    be even MORE "precise" i would like to add that the misunderstanding is
    maybe NOT only that sciences traditionally like to be "overprecise" but
    moreover that they do not allow MYSTICAL "FEELINGS" IN AWARE MOMENTS OF
    TOTAL EMPTINESS & FULLNESS (i love to call this crazy events
    "zerONEss") to BE precise! i mean: let's enjoy OUR wisdom that IS
    precise in terms of "inner" (k)nowledge - it is even NOT paradoxal at
    all but absolutely clear and funny and shocking all at once. if we use
    the wrong terms of the scientists we cannot show the TRUE WORTH of such enlightended experiences. for me personally THE relaxing aspect of such big mOMents
    IS that all questions fade away ALTHOUGH i do not understand more than
    "before", and this beeing free from questions is enough to make me
    happy, soooooo happy, after years of depressing confusion in the youth
    :-) by the way: i wished i knew watts in my youth, he would have helped
    me a lot. but to say it in his way: good luck everybody can find out himself by time :-) my very best greetings from germany @ ZenToGo.de

  • Mark O.

    Thank you very much Tim for that very well-written article--it has introduced to a new figure in Zen Buddhism: Alan Watts. I am in the midst of a Zen-phase of my own and shamed to say that I have not read any of this apparently highly influential teacher. I especially took attention to the Eastern-Western comparative thought--as the Buddha and Heraclitus both subscribed to the notion that 'all things are in flux'.

  • perry collins

    thank you for bringing me back to what was slipping as i slide, remaining a snowflake, in a raging inferno, maintaining... some sort of "balance" ? you dance too... keep dancing...

  • David P. Barash

    Although I found much in this article to admire, I was disappointed - even distressed - by several things. For one, Zen is not opposed to Mahayana Buddhism, but rather, an offshoot of it, such that it does not "accept" the Four Noble Truths while disdaining the Eightfold Path - since the latter is the 4th of those Noble Truths!

    Second, I found myself almost physically ill reading the approving reference to John Cage responding to the question "Don’t you think there’s too much suffering in the world?’, with the answer; ‘I think there’s just the right amount." This is precisely the kind of hurtful, self-satisfied, profoundly selfish attitude toward the pain of others that gives Buddhism a bad reputation, of being quietistic in the face of misery - and is what "engaged Buddhism" seeks to rectify. I find few things more absurd than the image of a Buddhist wannabe, having convinced him- or herself that by meditating regularly, he or she is seriously contributing toward ameliorating global warming, infant mortality in Third World countries, socio-economic inequity, nuclear weapons, and so forth. It may well be that changing the world begins with "me," but it sure as hell doesn't end there!

    And finally, the author's assertion that science is necessarily about "cutting up," is simply untrue. Ecology in particular is "all about" networks and interconnections, as is evolutionary biology, neurobiology, etc. On the other hand, my memory of Alan Watts - who I met in 1961 - corresponds quite well with the account presented here ... including not only his good humor and wisdom, but also his drinking and chain-smoking!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gregg-Davis/100000298699488 Gregg Davis

      Thanks very much for these comments. I'd like to incorporate Zen Buddhism into my life, but I could never have an attitude like this toward suffering and evil, whatever the cause. Also, I love science and rational thinking and I am turned off by the notion that there is a point where we should "stop investigating." We can never know too much about the natural world. Two men I admire most in the world are the departed Carl Sagan and the physicist Stephen Hawking. That anyone can watch "Cosmos" or listen to Hawking and think that science is all about "cutting up" and leaving things "dead" really saddens me.Carl Sagan in particular exuded such peace, joy, childlike wonder, curiousity and excitement, and love and compassion for humanity and nature that imo he would put many of the most "enlightened" Zen Buddhist monks to shame.

      • smallbuddhythoughts

        I'd also point out that these ideas about science aren't contradictory.

        Science gives you cool models. Sometimes those models are beautiful and they can transform how you perceive the world around you.

        But in the same way that you get caught in a bad workflow it's possible to get lost in ideas and not to appreciate your raw experience - this definitely seems to be common to the experience of many scientists I've met.

        Studies also show that medical students lose empathy the longer they're in medical school, which is likely related to the dehumanizing perspective they build up about the human body.

        You can (and should!) find the wonder of Sagan, Hawking, and Feynman in the natural world in your scientific view, but I feel like you have to honestly put some effort in... find the joy and wonder of discovery inside yourself to keep things luminous and beautiful or there *is* a real risk of some tree/forest dissonance...

    • smallbuddhythoughts

      Interesting!

      I feel like I read Cage's comment differently (both as used in the article and as an answer to the question). I think the point he wanted to indicate was more like (a) it's a dumb question, of course we want less suffering in the world - Buddhism is largely about reducing suffering right down to the 4 Noble Truths. Also (b) you can't imagine taking "suffering" out of a context and just reducing it - you solve problems in the world by helping people get material and emotional resources they need... there's no "universal suffering dial" that we could turn down without changing our whole world in the process.

  • Philip

    Wonderful. I run an Alan Watts Facebook page, and am always blown away by the varied and world wide impression he still creates. The most intelligent, articulate people come and visit, and as such I get to constantly revisit his works, both written and oral, and some video, which I find delightful. I have been a reader of his since I was very young, and to say he helped me shape my life.by refusing to ride the spiritual merry-go-round can't be understated. Thank you for an insightful article.

  • CB

    You studied zen for 2 years and became enlightened, without meditating? Give me a break!

    • Greg

      It seems his experience doesn't correlate to your expectations of 'enlightenment' is and how long one 'has to' work towards it.

  • Nun Yerbizness

    Alan Watts "brought Buddhism to the West"?

    just a wee bit of an exaggeration that Watts would never have accepted for a second

    approached by a noted Buddhist saying to Watts "Well you've written a number of books, you are quite the big deal."

    Watts replied "I haven't said a thing."

  • Srinath

    actually, it might help to not hope that the enlightened state will return. Any experience of zen automatically gives rise to beliefs, hope and all sorts of concepts and form. Let go and allow it to return to you. best wishes.

    • zen

      What enlightened state?

  • River Chen

    I'm glad someone write his feeling about Alan Watts! thank you so much. and here i just want to point out one thing... "Happy" just a feeling, "Enlightenment"is a name we call a certain status, is nothing to do with "Happy". Maybe we just didn't hear Buddha & other teacher/guru or Alan Watts clear enough, maybe most of us just mixed up with the "feeling/thought" of our own brain; we thought" Enlightenment is Happiness, should have a Happy Feeling." ~~ which is not wrong, but not right either.

  • http://twitter.com/EcoHustler EcoHustler

    Great stuff!

  • http://twitter.com/DeedsNotSeeds the contradictionary

    Depression and anxiety kill brain cells and shrink the hippocampus in particular, leading to loss of long-term memories. Perhaps this explains why you lost the experience: the new neuropathways you'd developed were destroyed, leaving you with the older, more established ones.

    Have you tried systematic Buddhist practices to get back the awakening experience? Zazen, koan meditation, vipassana etc. I love Alan's explanations of why koans, instructions to "stop trying" and mindful, equanamous meditation practice induce the experience, i.e. that by eventually noticing the impossibility of doing them "right", you prove experientially the truths of annata, annica and interconnectedness.

    That while there's demonstrably (to yourself) no free will, there's also no self to be a perpetual victim of the lack of free will, so it's not actually a distressing realisation and i have found that in moments of direct awareness of that truth, suicidal thoughts don't appeal, because the "you" (experience) of now will die instantly anyway, so the death of the body in the future would essentially be no different than the death of conscious experience that happens every moment.

    If "I" (the pattern of form blah blah blah, you'll know what I mean) were to move to kill myself in those moments it would be motivated by altruism, to prevent suffering that "I" will know nothing about anyway as it's a different person, instead of desperation. This makes suicide much less likely because the lack of desperation driven by the sense of selfhood allows for equal consideration to be given to the suffering prevented by NOT doing it (that of other people) and because the moments of consciousness associated with this body that will be suffering are decreased in number and intensity by the fact that awareness of the same comforting truths is likely to recur a lot.

  • djmileski2

    See the Buddha, kill the buddha- see enlightnement kill enlithgenment.... in other words, kill the idea of emlightent-aka your past enlightenment which is now olny an idea

    • zen

      Everything else has to die first though.

  • ryan mccleery

    Hi Tim, I wonder if this will help you (It helped me, and came from Alan as well). When we get jammed up like this, and leave the feeling of bliss or satori....(and enter 'worry,' thinking and so on), we have only forgotten who we are. We are God. Alan joked about this once and a light really came on when he said it. You are God. And so,...feeling 'down' or upset about losing satori, or blaming yourself with regret or worry is the sin: false modesty. When you know you're God, there is nothing else left to do. Like the Cat that is done stretching, gets up and walks away. It's that simple. But we forget, because the ego makes us forget. The ego seeks control. It wants to know where satori is, how come it's gone.....where did it go, and so on. Perhaps this is your old self vying for it's role again. Keep in mind, a great book is out there called, "Breaking the habit of being yourself." Subconsciously, we can find ways to 'get back' to our old self (and sabotage) because those 'feelings' released massive chemicals in our body, that the body actually gets addicted to. Anyhow..... Also, I read this in one of Robert Johnson's books, where 3 fish are having a discussion. The one (wisdom seeking) fish says to his two buddies: "I've heard of this thing called water.....it is all around us apparently! And delivers all the health and bliss life could ever need. I will go find this water!" So off goes the fish and leaves his two pals. Years later....the fish returns to his little village and meets his friends. They rush up to him, excited and thrilled upon his return! They say: "Did you find water....did you find it??!!" And the old fish says yes.....I found it, but you wouldn't believe what else i encountered. And swam slowly away." Johnson also quotes in his book: He who searches for God, insults God. (why search for God when it's right there. Right here. All around us. We are God.) It's that emptiness of Zen you discuss: When we learn there is no search, we find what we're searching for. More paradox. But in that emptiness is the zen. The bliss. Thanks for your post, I found it very interesting. I hope my little rant here can help you 'know' yourself again. Peace, Ryan Vancouver B.C.

    • Trishia Jacobs-Carney

      Can you tell me the title of the Robert Johnson book you got these excerpts from? thanks!

  • Roy Austin

    Cannot think of oneself as enlightened if one is?
    One simply has no self save the true self which is unborn/archetype eh? A heart warming accurate account of Alan. Very well done.

  • William Blackburn

    awesome article man...I really enjoyed it

  • Miles

    awesome post!

  • Greg

    It was only the enlightenment of form and it is not true enlightenment.

  • amos

    Excellent read here. I learned about Watts in college soc class and was sucked right in, then forgot about it, and then returned after PtSD and trauma/depression. It makes way too much sense.

  • Ariel Demian

    "If Watts’s own example is to be taken into account, being ‘enlightened’ doesn’t always make you happy. Yet it is still something worth attaining. It brings clarity and peace, even if it doesn’t protect you from all of life’s vicissitudes."
    A true master is someone to whom you can truly abandon yourself to. Someone who has gone beyond pleasure and pain, and can guide someone who is lost. Alan Watts' writings can be inspiring but they serve as a small push towards understanding. If you take his entire life into account you'll see that maybe his mind was far from "enlightened", whatever it might mean.

  • Martin ♕

    Only just found this; your experiences resonates with mine - Having grown utterly confused by the manifested world, I too am seeking something in Zen , spirituality as well as western philosophy.
    Have you looked at any western philosophers with similar questions on life Tim? If so, have you found any similarities between Zen and Western philosophy such as Existentialism and the work of Nietzsche? Are many of Zen's ideas not re-worded, re-interpreted in these works?

    Thanks - I really enjoyed this essay.

  • Jon Nixon

    For the weeping brain
    Broken from too much thinking
    Prozac is my balm

  • http://www.dionnekasianlew.com/ Dionne Kasian-Lew

    Lovely piece.

    I think you would enjoy the work of Robert Kurzban if you haven't already come across it - he talks about the brain as a series of modules in his wonderful book Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite (hence ability to hold contradictory ideas at the same time) rather than having a direct, central controller "I" - http://www.amazon.com/Why-Everyone-Else-Hypocrite-Evolution/dp/0691154392 - reinforcing much of what you say above.

    Even if we tackle our shadow side - which was a comment made below that I agree with - another emerges We have to give up trying to "fix" ourselves in a way that is static or with an aim to achieving perfection. We seem to be geared to it.