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Lions Roar : September 2015
Yet he was no sectarian. Watts wrote of the perennial phi- losophy—the unifying core of religion and profound inquiry in all quarters and eras. His approach to wisdom was curious and inclusive, embracing psychology, the natural sciences, art, music, dance, humor, and the enjoyment of nature, of sex, of life. Watts was attracted early on to the Asian art his mother collected from missionary friends, and he declared himself a Buddhist about the time he hit puberty. At sixteen he became the secretary of the London Buddhist Association, founded by his early mentor, Christmas Humphreys. By his seventeenth year, Watts had already put together a pamphlet entitled An Outline of Zen Buddhism, and he pub- lished The Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East when he was twenty-one, the year he met D.T. Suzuki. He married Eleanor, the daughter of American Zen pioneer Ruth Fuller, and they moved to New York together when Watts was twenty-three. There he had a close relationship with the First Zen Institute’s original teacher, Sokei-an Sasaki. 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 joined him in spirited discussions about Christian mysticism and the wisdom of the East. Dur- ing this time, Watts wrote three books on Christian mysticism, which continued to be a subject in future books though he left the priesthood in 1950. In 1951, Watts moved to San Francisco, where he became director of the American Academy of Asian Studies (AAAS). Gary Snyder was one of the academy’s early students. Kazemitsu Kato, a Soto Zen priest who taught at the academy, was a paid assistant to Watts while he was writing The Way of Zen. When Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, arrived in America, Kato introduced him to Watts. Suzuki met some of his first students at the AAAS, although by that time Watts had left as director, his last attachment to any institution. Marian Derby, who put together the first draft of Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, once asked Suzuki what he thought of Watts. Suzuki said that he respected Watts but didn’t under- stand him. She arranged for Suzuki to attend a Watts seminar in Los Altos, after which she reported, “That worked.” Suzuki now saw Watts in a new light. In 1967, Watts gave a talk at the Avalon Ballroom in San Fran- cisco, one of his benefits for our baby monastery, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He turned the talk into a guided meditation, likening our unobstructed mind to the endless sky and taking us flying with him. Suzuki, who almost never attended lectures other than his own, flew along with us like a new student. Later he would call Watts “a great bodhisattva.” At his last public appearance—the installation of Richard Baker as the new abbot of Zen Center—a weak and dying Suzuki, gathering all his strength, slowly entered and departed the buddha hall, jangling the staff Watts had given him. ALAN WATTS FOCUSED on freeing us from our greatest addiction—clinging to self. I think he saw that more clearly than his tobacco and alcohol habits. He made flimsy excuses like, “I’m an ecstatic alcoholic,” “I don’t like myself when I’m sober,” or more to the point, “I can’t change.” But the common addiction to judging and condemning others is to me of a lower order. I do wish Alan had stopped at some point, and stayed stopped. But it sure made him easy to get along with. I used to be a drinker, and several times drank and smoked pot with Alan and Jano. That did make for convivial relating. Later, though, while living at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Jano would express regret about their roles as what she called “codependent alcoholics.” Watts is often criticized for not meditating. In my opinion, he did have a constant spiritual practice going way back to the womb, and he did do sitting meditation. But he poo-pooed depending on meditation. He spoke and wrote positively about meditation and often led guided meditations. He just didn’t want his practice to be about In New York, Watts couldn’t find the kind of spirited philosophical community he’d enjoyed in London and so joined the Episcopal Church, hoping to lead a revival of mystical Christianity. SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2015 66