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DC on Alan Watts

Here's the first Draft for the article on Alan Watts for the September 1st, 2015 issue of Shambhal Sun available August 1st. Submitted on May 15th, 2015. Some notes thrown in within [brackets] July/August 2015 and have made other changes.

Below is the intro from off the Shambhala Sun website page for this issue. I would have written "acquaintance" rather than "friend" - though Watts related to everyone as his friend. In the article. Changes to the article by Shambhala editors at the bottom.


David Chadwick remembers his friend Alan Watts, the unconventional mystic who introduced a generation of Americans to Zen.

This—the immediate, every-day, and present experience—is IT, the entire and ultimate point for the existence of a universe. – Alan Watts

Alan Watts gave a talk at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco on March 29, 1967 as one of his benefits for the fundraising drive to pay for our baby monastery, Tassajara, Zen Mountain Center. I’d come in from Tassajara just to hear it  [and to help with the event]. Watched Shunryu Suzuki greet him - they were familiar and warm. Watts turned the talk into a guided meditation. He likened our unobstructed mind to sky and took us flying with him. Suzuki who almost never was at any lecture but his own, flew along with us like a new student. Later Suzuki remarked in a lecture at the SF Zen Center,

If you realize the difference between listening as students and as an audience member, you will know how to study Buddhism. Mr. Watts did a good job at his lecture. In an ordinary public lecture situation it is very difficult to speak of Buddha Nature.

A year and a half ago, my mate Katrinka and I saw Mark Watts' film about his father Alan, Why Not Now? [At a private screening at the old Record Plant studio in Sausalito where I'd spent some time in the early eighties. Thus it was nostaligic for me to be there and to see and hear Watts on the screen] Mark gave a short talk beforehand in which he said that he’d spent a lot of time writing narration for the film [sixty-five pages]. Then he realized that every word he spoke would have to replace one of his father’s. He ended up using none of what he'd written and letting Alan speak for himself. There's very little history or glorification. The only book I recall it mentioning was The Book: on the Taboo on Knowing Who You Are. We loved the film. Let me glorify him. I was reminded of how brilliant Alan Watts was and how clearly and interestingly he expressed his understanding of the core spiritual wisdom found in the world’s religions. He had such a wonderful way with words and an instinct to look beyond them. He had a lifelong drive to know what he was at heart, what we all are, what it all is, and to share his investigation widely. He delighted in the multiplicity of the phenomenal and marveled at what he sensed as the oneness and immediacy of reality beyond grasping, imagining, or conceiving. He was a deep thinker who looked at the nature of thought itself and gave the perennial philosophy new life, his gift to so many of us and so many to come. One phrase of his from the film that stuck with me: 

Thinking is a good servant and a bad master.

I apologize for not following Mark’s example and urge the reader to go to the source – to read, listen, and watch him online at home, or in a library. Maybe you’ll hear him say:

We can't understand the nature of the universe through talk - only through awareness.

He knew that words were just pointing but that we need words. Watts quoted Lao Tsu’s “He who speaks does not know. He who knows does not speak,” then added,  "And he spoke that."

This January, the English born Watts would have been a hundred years old. Forty-two years ago, when he stepped out of this realm, he left a deep footprint in Western minds. He’s best known for his role in popularizing Zen, but he was no sectarian. He wrote and spoke of the perennial philosophy, the unifying core of religion and profound inquiry from all quarters and eras. His approach to wisdom was curious and inclusive, embracing a wide spectrum of humanity’s endeavors. He included psychology, the natural sciences, art, music, dance, humor, and enjoyment of nature, of sex, of life.

He was early attracted to nature and the oriental artifacts and art of his mother had collected from missionary friends. and got interested in Buddhism about the time he hit puberty. Born to study and communicate. He did well at Kings School, but rather than go to college, he pursued an independent and no less rigorous education. At sixteen he became the secretary of the London Buddhist Association, founded by his early mentor Christmas Humphreys.

It’s often noted his The Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work and Art in the Far East was published when he was twenty-one, the year he first heard and met DT Suzuki, but in his seventeenth year he had put together a pamphlet, An Outline of Zen Buddhism. Getting even closer to the Zen world, he married Eleanor and the daughter of Ruth Fuller (not yet) Sasaki, the pioneering Zen adept. After publishing The Legacy of Asia and Western Man, Watts moved to New York with Eleanor in 1938 at twenty-three. There he had a close relationship with the First Zen Institute’s original teacher, Sokei-san Sasaki, continuing his gravitation toward the way beyond words and letters.

Religion not to be understood - it passes understanding.

Most of the forties were spent in Evanston Illinois where he attended the Seabury Western Theological Seminary and became an Episcopalian priest and chaplain of Northwestern University. There students who joined him in spirited discussions learned about Christian mysticism and the wisdom of the orient. During that time Watts wrote three books on Christian mysticism which continued to be a subject in future books, though he left the priesthood in 1950.

I am most impressed that he published a book in 1944 about the Mystical Theology of Dionysius, introduced to me as the Heart Sutra of Christianity at a spiritual bookstore [by Jim Wilson at Many Rivers Books and Tea in Sebastopol, CA].

Faith is the openness to reality whatever it happens to be.

Claude Dalenberg was a student at Northwestern University who in 1949 got interested in the get-togethers hosted by Watts. He’d been an Episcopalian minister for five years. To me it seems not only an essential part of Watts’ inclusive path, but a practical move. There weren’t a lot of jobs for self-educated Buddhists and the British draft would leave him alone. Through Watts, not only was Dalenberg introduced to Eastern thought, but to a Zen priest whom Watts was close with in Chicago, Sohaku Ogata, who published two early books on Zen. A Guide to Zen Practice in 1923 and Zen for the West in 1959. Dalenberg wrote:

Watts had] an adventuresome spirit. This is fun. Ogata had that spirit too. He was Rinzai. Also kind of infectious in the sense that Alan conveyed and Ogata conveyed…: You can do it. You don't have to be Japanese. It's fun. It's easy. Why not. Let's do it -  which was not the gloomy scenario you might get if you went to Japan with people betting that you can't do it.

From A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism - Christmas Humphreys

[Ananda Claude Dalenberg's mention of Ogata is the only source for that connection which could be as important as Watt's earlier and at times continuing connecton to Sokei-an Sasaki. Watts might also have had some contact with Soyu Matsuoka, a Soto priest who established the Chicago Buddhist Temple in 1949. I emailed a Matsuoka dharma heir, Michael Elliston about that and he responded maybe they'd find something in the research they're doing now.]

Dalenberg followed Watts to San Francisco and became a janitor at the American Academy of Asian Studies (AAAS) where Watts taught and was director. Gary Snyder was one of the academy’s early students. Richard Price and Michael Murphy attended talks there, especially including those of Watts who was one of their inspirations in the founding of a home for the human potential movement, Esalen Institute, where Watts led the first workshop.

Kazumitsu Kato [name misspelled as Kazemitsu in article] had been a paid assistant to Watts while he was writing The Way of Zen, he a Soto Zen priest who assisted Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the SFZC, in his earliest days in the US. Right off Kato introduced Suzuki to Watts (who'd already left as director) and the AAAS where Suzuki met some of his first students. One of these, Della Goertz, used to drive Suzuki to visit Alan Watts. When people would ask Watts if there was a Zen Master in America he often suggested Suzuki.

Marian Derby (Mountain), who created the first draft of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, relates that she once asked Suzuki what he thought of Watts and Suzuki said that he respected Watts but didn’t understand him. She arranged for him to attend a Watts seminar in Los Altos after which she reported, “That worked.”

I don’t find it so difficult to perceive the Buddha Nature in mountains and trees, but when it came to London taxicabs, that’s something else again. [- Al Huang - "He would add that it was his lifelong ambition to perceive the Buddha Nature of a London taxicab." ]

Richard Baker, Suzuki’s American dharma heir and successor, first heard about Suzuki and his temple, Sokoji, at a workshop led by sensory awareness pioneer Charlotte Selver and Alan Watts. He’d seen the flier for that workshop at Don Allen’s apartment. Don was the editor at Grove Press who got them to publish Watts. Baker said that Watts' connections (in addition to his contribution from some talks and workshops) were invaluable in fundraising for the purchase of Tassajara Zen Mt. Center. Baker said that within a few sentences Watts could make someone unfamiliar with Buddhism feel comfortable about it. [Baker on Watts]

Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.

Watts got people at the Zen Center to stop calling Suzuki reverend and sensei and instead to use the honorific roshi which Suzuki had been called some though it had not yet taken hold. When Suzuki was told this he laughed and laughed - and acquiesced.

I was most fortunate to meet Watts when I first came to Zen Center in 1966. I was living with Loring Palmer on Buchanan street in Japantown. A famous astrologer named Gavin Arthur lived in an apartment next to Loring. Gavin had a salon and one night there were some intriguing guests like Neville Warwick [later called Ajari-san], a character who seemed to me out of Vonnegut, the head of the Kailas Shugendo, the tantric Shingon yogis who had a yearly meditation walk around Marin’s Mt. Tamalpais. Alan Watts and his wife Jano arrived and they were both so friendly and funny. No pretention. Seemed just as happy to be talking to little ole me as to Sufi Sam. I told him what books of his I could remember I’d read, that The Way of Zen was the first and I’d seen it so many places and heard it mentioned to much that he must have made a fortune off of it. He said, “Yes, I get a penny a copy.” Jano said she'd read a book called Nature, Man, and Woman [by Watts] and said she thought, "I'd sure like to make love with the guy who wrote that book."

During Alan and his third wife Jano’s visit to Tassajara, Bob Halpern pointed to Watts in a toga with his staff with jangling rings on top, and said to Suzuki, “We used to think he was the real thing till we met you.” Suzuki was instantly furious telling Bob he didn’t understand Watts at all, that he’d brought thousands to practice. Suzuki called Watts a great bodhisattva.

Alan and Jano visited Suzuki before he died and his acupuncturist, Zen priest Ryuho Yamada recalled how from the hall outside he listened to their constant laughter.

At his last public appearance, the installation of Richard Baker as the new abbot of the Zen Center, a weak and dying Suzuki slowly and gathering all his strength, entered and departed the Buddha Hall, jangling this staff Watts had given him at Tassajara.

Recently departed Green Gulch priest Daigan David Lueck was attending an Alan Watts seminar on the Vallejo houseboat when Watts “came in with tears in his eyes and said, ‘Suzuki Roshi just passed away.’” 

The pain of losing a loved one is something we all wish to never have to experience, yet it is a part of human nature, it is the life pulse and cycle of birth and death.

[Vallejo houseboat - was given to the SFZC for a while and, as work leader at Green Gulch Farm, I remember having to go out there to Sausalito to do things. It was too much for us. Think we gave it back to the Alan Watts Society for Comparitive Philosophy headed by Robert Shapiro. That organization did not last long.]

SF Zen Center friend and advisor, analyst Dr. Sterling Bunnell is credited by Watts with guiding him on his first mystical experience with LSD, something he had not thought was possible. He found the visions of his experience more Hindu than Buddhist but reflecting the core teaching of all religion. Watts went on to spend two years at Harvard working closely with psychedelic astronauts Leary, Alpert, and Metzner while writing two books on Christianity.

It is not too much to predict that the next great step in Christianity will be due, in part, to the absorption of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and, perhaps, Mohammedan Sufism, all of which are profoundly mystical religions.

In Watts I often get a hit of Advaita Vedanta, an influence from Ramana who taught one could find ultimate truth in pondering Who am I? – that the sense of I is the great self, the one and only. Listening to a talk of Watts, I hear him fluidly explain that all beings have the sense of I and what is that, he points out, but a perception of being at the center of experience. He said we're all in the same place, that we all have a higher and lower and are always in the middle. It's the I that gets reincarnated. All creatures share this I. In Tiruvannamalai where Ramana settled, I’d heard Mooji say the same thing and wondered how he knew about what all creatures experience. I’d say now that Mooji and Watts experienced that not as a theory, but as obvious at the heart of ultimate truth. Ramana often used the word self instead of god or reality and Shunryu Suzuki taught that the small self is just the big self misunderstood. I think Watts was born gurgling perennial philosophy. His aim was true.

Ken Wilber, another autodidact and leading writer on the perennial philosophy, humanistic psychology, and much else like Watts, says he learned to write by hand-copying fourteen of Watts’ books.

Muddy water is best made clear by leaving it alone.

Watt's didn't like the restrictions of institutions and discipline, didn't hang around the SF Zen Center or any center, though he was an essential element in its formation and, like our own Pied Piper, led so many to be swallowed up by more formal practice. In the thousands of conversations and interviews I've had over the years with people who came to practice Zen, a countless number of them said their first interest came from reading or listening to Watts on the radio or seeing him on TV. I have an image of a girl racing home from school on her bike to make the show.

To be free of karma stop defining yourself by the past like a dog chasing its own tail.

He’s often criticized for not meditating. In my opinion Watts did have a constant spiritual practice going way back to the womb, and he did do sitting meditation, had a spot for it at Druid Heights and at the Vallejo houseboat. Watts though poo-pooed depending on meditation, doing lots and lots of it alone or in groups with rules and regulations. But he also spoke and wrote positively about it and often led guided meditations. He just didn’t want his practice and meditation to be jumping through other peoples’ hoops or being put in their boxes. And really all that is unknowable and in a way, not our business. There’s an old saying in India that one should live two valleys away from their guru. He made it clear that he’s no guru, but in considering his legacy, I suggest we stay two valleys away from speculation about his states of mind and what he did and didn't do as he breathed in and out, and with his thoughts and the gaps between thoughts. He gave us words with passion – in sound and print. That’s where his moxie shines and that’s all we have of him.

You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are.

Alan Watts focused on freeing us from the greatest addiction, clinging to self, and I think he saw that more clearly than his tobacco and especially alcohol habits, the latter of which he made flimsy excuses for like “I’m an ecstatic alcoholic,” “I don’t like myself when I’m sober,” or his more to the point, “I can’t quit.” People sometimes harp on this which to me misses the point. The common addiction to judging and condemning others is to me of lower order. I do wish he’d stopped and stayed stopped at some point like the brilliant Samuel Johnson did, but there are many great and wonderful people such as Chogyam Trungpa who died much younger than we wanted due to their commitment to tobacco and alcohol. But it sure made Alan easy to get along with. I used to be a drinker and several times drank with Alan and his wife Jano – and smoked pot. That did make for convivial relating. Though later while living at Green Gulch, Jano would express regret about her role in their being what she called “co-dependent alcoholics.”

At the ridgepole celebration of Richard and Virginia Baker’s Shoboan restored tea house from Japan, the Japanese and American carpenters, some friend, and Zennies, and Watts, drank, smoked pot, and partied around a bon fire at night. Immediate neighbor Gary Snyder and Baker sat on the side not indulging but enjoying the antics of some of us, none more lively than Alan who got dancing to Bob and Ray's Harlem Shuffle and war-whooping it up to a now esteemed sociologist’s Song of Hiawatha scat until Watts fell into the fire to be quickly pulled out. [Said sociologist reminded me of this. He was the singer there. I was there too but had forgotten till he reminded me.]

The past doesn’t lead to the present any more than the wake leads a ship.   

Sam Bercholz, founder of Shambhala Publications, reports that Chogyam Trungpa had a long, enjoyable visit with Watts shortly before Watts died. He said that Trungpa loved Watts' books, that Watts was one of Trungpa’s heroes, and thought Watts must be enlightened - till he met him. Still Trungpa, like Suzuki, always had great respect and affection for Watts but Trungpa liked drinking with him.==

Put that fellow high enough in your estimation and you can’t reach him. This is a way of kicking him upstairs so he won’t bother you. So, with this attitude of God, we have lost the sense of God as the immediate magic: the absolute inside of everything.

Alan came to Green Gulch to meet with Richard Baker in 1973 when I was Baker’s attendant. It was early in the day and he seemed to be in good health. But what he came to talk about was his funeral. I had a good time listening to them though I found it a little strange that he’d be going on with all these details about his funeral as if it were around the corner. Turns out it was. He died, in his sleep, of heart failure it was said, at Druid Heights where he had a home in a little community walking distance from the entrance to Muir Woods which is close to Green Gulch. I thought wow, he predicted his own death just like the Zen masters in the stories.

Who gave you the idea that it’s a gas to go on and on and on?

Al Huang, Tai Chi master who often taught alongside Watts, worked with Watts on and wrote the introduction to Watt’s last book, Tao: The Watercourse Way. Huang wrote, “I spoke with him on the phone on his last evening to find him drained in energy [having just returned from Europe] but euphoric during a gathering of friends in his Mandala house (reconstructed from a circular wine vat). ‘Wish you could join us dancing Tai Ji tonight … we are playing with helium balloons… . I feel my spirit is flying up with them,’ were his last words to me.”

Claude Dalenberg, who’d been ordained as a priest by Suzuki in 1966 and later taken the name Ananda, joined Richard Baker and Zen priest Kobun Chino in officiating at Watts’ funeral at Green Gulch farm. At the culmination of the ceremony, holding Watts’ jangling staff that he’d inherited from Suzuki, Baker spoke, using the Dharma names he’d just given Watts:

Alan, Daiyuin Yuzan Myoko, Daizen Jomon, Here is your lineage from Buddha through the Buddhas and Patriarchs to you. Alan Watts was a philosopher, a poet, a calligrapher, a lover, a friend, a Dharma reveler, a revealer, a great founder of the spirit for all of us. He saw the true emptiness of al! things. He taught us to be free. To see through the multiplicities and absurdities to the Great Universal Personality and Play. He gave us the Dharma Eye of a new age. Our blessings go with You now. Wide Mind, Joyous Mind, Careful Loving Mind. For the true life is beyond life and death, origination and extinction. We are with you in the many paths you opened for us. HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Go! Go! Great Hermit! Great Founder! ==whole

From Michael Murphy’s eulogy:

He taught us by who he was. We learned from his infectious, outrageous laughter, from his virtues and his faults, from his sense of play and his eye for the binds we would get ourselves into. He was our gentlest and most joyous teacher.

Issue #29 of Ananda’s Cloud Hidden Friends and Zen Freethinker newsletter’s – thirty-six issues from 1982 to 1991 - was dedicated to Alan Watts and his name comes up in a number of others. In that issue Ananda writes that the funeral was half Christian. I don't see that anywhere else but he was an officiator - maybe it had a Christian element. Ananda saw to it that the SFZC transferred the Alan Watts and Govinda libraries to a better home at the California Institute for Integral Studies which grew out of the AAAS.

Life is like music for its own sake. We are living in an eternal now, and when we listen to music we are not listening to the past, we are not listening to the future, we are listening to an expanded present

Alan Watts brought a new and timely take on the good news with goodwill toward all. As his catholic priest confidant, Dom Alraed Graham [author of Zen Catholicism], wrote, “I never heard him speak harshly of anyone.”

Watts reputation and influence have not waned since his death forty-two years ago. There have been other documentaries about and including Watts. I recall seeing him in James Broughton's fun short film, The Bed, at the Surf Theater in San Francisco in 1968. Recently he was revived as a disembodied wise voice by artificial intelligence to play a key role in the imaginative movie, Her [I wondered with all the voice impersonators out there, why they didn't do a better job with that] ==. But his real voice is in the excellent vignettes on Alan Watts Theater created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame.  This May an EP vinyl record called Face the Facts with Watts’ voice and the music of Jas Walton will be released by Figure & Ground records. And there’s a video of the same name to go with it on Vimeo. [which I can't see there cause Vimeo is accidentally cencored in Indonesia - but a snippit of it is pirated here now on Youtube] Mark Watts is currently building The Alan Watts Mountain Center north of San Francisco that promises to be a nexus for Watts’ archives, for study, meetings, lodging, creativity – and what a creation it is conceptually, architecturally, ecologically, artistically.

We may admit frankly that we have no scientific grounds for belief in God, in personal immortality, or in any absolutes. We may refrain altogether from trying to believe, taking life as it is, and no more. From this point of departure there is yet another way of life that requires neither myth nor despair. But it requires a complete revolution in our ordinary, habitual ways of thinking and feeling.

Watts appears anonymously blended into the background of much current serious spiritual and intellectual inquiry. Of the many books that look at Watts’ messages and impact, one published in May of 2012 seems to be of particular significance: Alan Watts--Here and Now: Contributions to Psychology, Philosophy, and Religion (S U N Y Series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology). It’s a scholarly yet quite readable collection of essays by eminent scholars about Watts’ influence not limited to the realm indicated by the series name. The lead chapter by Ralph W. Hood Jr. is titled “Alan Watts’ Anticipation of Four Major Debates in the Psychology of Religion.” That and subsequent chapters nail Watts’ critical influence in the now seriously studied areas of the perennial philosophy as rooted in mystical experience, the relationship of the latter with psychedelics and eroticism, and study of spirituality rather than just religion. That book also explores Watts’ creative and game changing influence in other areas of psychology, science and technology which “can lead to extinction if not balanced by other types of intelligence.” Also in the neuroscience of transcendence and eco-feminism where Watts suggested a connection between the treatment of the environment and the inferior status of women.

Are we going to foul our own nest as a result of technology?

It’s impossible to narrow down Watts spheres of influence. His approach was holistic and ever-expanding. When he founded the Society for Comparative Philosophy he stated that the word philosophy was to be taken in its pre-modern meaning of natural philosophy including the sciences. While people who maybe should be spanked speculate on Watts’ practice, personal habits, degree of enlightenment, and depth of his understanding, his fresh air spirit is in their thoughts and aspirations. It’s in the strata and the substrata. Much gratitude to this, as he called himself, fake, rascal, philosophical entertainer, ego inside a bag of skin, Alan Watts, our own renaissance man.


When Watts and Jano were at Tassajara, Suzuki gave a talk and afterwards invited Watts and Jano to his cabin, and then wisely suggested maybe better to meet in your place by the creek. Watts did almost all the talking and kept excusing himself to have “more of your marvelous spring water.” The next day I spent time talking to Jano because so many students wanted to meet and talk with her husband. We stood off watching him. He was holding court. In his element. What a showman with his toga and staff. Jano shook her head and sighed. “Hey,” I said, “if not for him, would any of us be here?” He glanced up at us. I gave him a little wave and he winked. 

Between the greatest height of spirituality and the most ordinary things of the world there is no division. – published when he was twenty-one years old.

This photo surely taken at Druid Heights near Muir Woods. That's Jano Watts near the middle with glasses.

Changes made by Shambhala Editors

After some back and forth Shambhal published a version that of course reads much better than what I'd submitted.

They asked me to start with meeting him, add more early bio material and more on his books and some other stuff and I did and then together we cut it in half. Here are a few bits that they added.

What good fortune it was to know Alan Watts. [I said "to have met." I'd say I was an acquaintance and wouldn't have used the word know but they didn't want any changes at that point so I let it go. I knew Jano better, mainly after Alan's death.]

I told Alan that I'd read his book The Way of Zen, and that I’d seen it in so many places he must have made a fortune off it. “Yes," he said dryly, "I get a penny a copy.” [They added "dryly." Sounds right.]

was authentic yet contemporary and accessible. [I think that's right but I wouldn't have felt qualified to use the word authentic.]

His own voice is heard in the excellent “Alan Watts Theater” videos created by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and on 2014 hard-rock albums by the bands Yob and Cynic. [Had never heard of the later and welcomed the addition.]