Alan Watts: Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen, & Fussing

In the San Francisco Bay Area long ago, I used to turn on KQED, Channel 9, and watch Alan Watts discuss Zen Buddhism in the days of black and white television. Dressed in a white juban and white pants, he was adept at Zen calligraphy and with his brush he made skilled strokes of a Japanese pictogram while explaining the character's meaning. I have forgotten much of his program, except that I considered myself very lucky to be learning from The Man Himself. He, I thought, was somebody special, and I would have listened to him on anything, for he was wise, but that was not what he wanted. No fuss. Make no fuss, he said, even about fussing.

He wrote an engaging pamphlet, Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen, which I bought at City Lights Books in San Francisco back when owner and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti worked behind the counter. (I also have a City Lights booklet by Ferlinghetti, Pictures of The Gone World.) In its 25 pages, Watts concludes with this: "The old Chinese Zen Masters were steeped in Taoism. They saw nature in its total interrelatedness and saw that every creature and every experience is in accord with the Tao of nature just as it is. This enabled them to accept themselves as they were, moment by moment, without the least need to justify anything. They didn't do it to defend themselves or to find an excuse for getting away with murder. . . . Their Zen was wu-shih, which means approximately 'nothing special,' or 'no-fuss.' But Zen is 'fuss' when it is mixed with Bohemian affectations and 'fuss' when it is imagined that the only proper way to find it is to run off to a monastery in Japan . . . .

Having said that, I would like to say something for all Zen fussers, beat or square. Fuss is all right, too. . . . . If you really want to spend some years in a Japanese monastery, there is no earthly reason why you shouldn't. Or if you want to spend your time hopping freight cars and digging Charlie Parker, it's a free country."

His monograph was published by City Lights in 1959 and in Watts' sentences I hear the 1960s rushing headlong toward American youth culture. Beatnik would become Hippie. From all over the country, young people moved to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. At the Fillmore Auditorium there, Grace Slick sang White Rabbit with The Jefferson Airplane. At the University of California Berkeley, students rioted against Vietnam. Others rode buses to the South for sit-ins.

Vietnam has been turned into a memorial in Washington, DC, and grey-haired men walk along the black granite wall, looking for the names of teenage buddies long dead. The March on Selma is history. The flower children of Haight-Ashbury became grandparents and the Jefferson Airplane are faces on a quaint collectors' album with a psychedelic cover.

Alan Watts is also gone now, but he left something behind. He had a remarkable ability to explain Buddhism, and he did so with a genius in terms of his insights. I offer these comments as an example:

  • "On Nothingness. The idea of nothing has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western world.We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nuhil fit, which means "out of nothing comes nothing." It has occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions. It lies at the root of all our common sense, not only in the West, but in many parts of the East as well. It manifests in a kind of terror of nothing, a put-down on nothing, and a put-down on everything associated with nothing, such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principles. But to me nothing--the negative, the empty--is exceedingly powerful. I would say, on the contrary, you can't have something without nothing. Imagine nothing but space, going on and on, with nothing in it forever. But there you are imagining it, and you are something in it. The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else at all is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because we always know what we mean by contrast."

    In a sense, then, nothing is something. Or, as Zen has it, form is emptiness, emptiness, form.

    I learned from Alan Watts and it was not just about Buddhism. Although he had not intended it, he taught me that he, himself, was nothing special, nobody to fuss over.

    People might tend to make Zen masters special, as they might with Zen intellectuals such as Watts, and this is due to the halo effect, as it is called in cognitive psychology. If we admire traits in other people, those traits influence our interpretation of the people and our expectations of them. Movie stars are commonly associated with the effect. Attractive and financially successful, they are often seen as having more desirable traits--personality, intelligence, skills--than others have.

    Alan Watts had a halo for me. He was somebody special, although his booklet cautioned me against any fuss. Once while I watched him during his show on KQED, he began to do some arithmetic. It was simple. Let's say it was 8 times 8 equals 64. I really don't remember the calculation but I do recall that he couldn't do it. For me, that was a revelation.

    Then in the early 1970s I opened The San Francisco Chronicle to learn that he had died. An alcoholic, he died in his sleep after his heart finally gave out.

    I don't mention the math problem and the alcoholism to detract from Watts. I mention them because of the halo effect.

    Alan Watts was adept at explaining and expounding on Eastern spirituality, but he was first of all human. Make no fuss about him, he would have said.
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