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Remembering Alan Watts…on his 107th Birthday

I wrote this piece 13 years ago and am posting it again today in honor of Alan Watts’ birthday. (January 6, 1915 – November 16, 1973)

Searching for Alan Watts (2009)

I remember reading once that some guru or monk or hustler of the ancient past set forth a plan for living the perfect life. He said the first third of one’s life should be for learning and studying; the second third should be for establishing one’s life with career, marriage, and family; and the final third should be dedicated to spiritual exploration. 

I didn’t set out to follow that plan, but looking back, it now seems that timeline wasn’t far off for me.

Right on schedule, as I stumbled into middle age, I found myself thinking less about the “things” in my life and more about larger matters…like, what does it all mean? …what’s life all about?… and who’s in charge here?

Not having any answers, I figured it was a good time in my life to look for some. I decided to revisit the interest in Zen Buddhism I first had as a college student. I figured I would start where I had left off then: with Alan Watts.

 “He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned.” Kris Kristofferson said he wrote that line in the song Pilgrim 33 about Johnny Cash. He could have as easily been talking about Alan Watts. Watts was indeed a pilgrim, a seeker of the big answers, of the truth. But his pilgrimage was a mixture of the serious and the humorous, the sacred and the frivolous.

Watts embraced philosophies of both east and west while living a life that was at once deeply spiritual and outrageously hedonistic. Ordained as an Anglican priest, he found truth in Buddhism and Taoism. He lectured and wrote on the impermanence of “reality” while indulging in good food, great art, the companionship of attractive women, and the taste of fine liquors (the latter often to excess).

Watts was a contradiction–a religious scholar who disdained academia and religion. He was a guru who entertained and a philosopher who took LSD. He was a wild man. He was a riddle. He was fun.

Being Introduced to Alan

I first heard of Alan Watts during the 1960s from a self-taught Buddhist/merchant seaman/heroin addict known as Big Mike. This strange adventurer would alternate between being too stoned to move and trying to take the world in a loving hug.

Mike would do things like leave his keys in the ignition when he parked his beat-up old car, almost inviting a thief to steal it. “Someone might need that car more than I do,” he would say. When I asked where these crazy ideas came from he answered, “Alan Watts.”

Intrigued, I went out and bought my first book by Watts. At the time, I didn’t understand much of what he wrote. I almost instinctively knew there was something of value in those pages but was just too young to grasp it, I guess.

I ran into Watts again a decade later during one winter in the mid-seventies. While a student in law school, I delivered Sunday morning newspapers in a farming community to earn a little extra money. Each Sunday, when few were awake, a local university’s student-run radio station played tapes of Watts’ lectures. It was their way of meeting the state’s requirement for religious broadcasting. I think Watts would have been delighted and amused at that.

All that winter, as I drove through beautiful snow-covered lanes at sunrise, scattering the occasional herd of deer, Watts’ melodious English accent would fill the car with admonitions to simply “let go.”

I was fascinated by this strange man’s views and wanted to know more of whatever it was he was talking about. However, life got in the way and the great mysteries had to wait, at least until I grew a little older.

In my late fifties, after thirty years of being a trial lawyer, after marriage, raising a son, divorce, marriage anew, losing my parents, and experiencing so many other joys and sorrows of life, I ended up living in Mexico. There, sitting by the Caribbean Sea, I once again picked up a book by Alan Watts and rediscovered his wonderful laughter at the hilarity of the cosmic game.

Rediscovering Alan Later in Life

Watts’ books started me down the path–or up the mountain, if you will. His writings led me to the poetry of his student and friend Gary Snyder, which in turn enriched my life and changed my vision. Together their writings took me to the lectures of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center.

Eventually, Watts and company led me right up to the front gate of the Green Gulch Zen Center in northern California, where I asked to meet with the Senior Dharma teacher, Reb Anderson. Here I was, almost sixty years old, and ready to be a student again.

Tenshin Roshi, to use his Buddhist name and title, welcomed me in. Upon meeting him, I explained how I had arrived there. He smiled and noted I was not alone. Alan Watts, he said, had been a Dharma gate–a pathway–for many people. He said I was not the first and would not be the last to be inspired by Alan Watts.

As I started Zen practice under Tenshin Roshi’s gentle guidance, I continued to read books by and about Watts. It was then I discovered that after Watts died in his sleep at the incredibly young age of 58, some of his ashes were ceremoniously interred beneath a stone in the hills above Green Gulch.

I decided then that I would find that grave and pay my respects, to honor a teacher I had never met, and to close the circle. However, when I asked at the Zen Center, no one remembered exactly where the ashes had been buried some 36 years before.

I wrote to Mark Watts, Alan’s son, who graciously gave me directions to the path to his father’s resting place. Mark warned me the trail was long unused and overgrown. He also invited me to visit the Alan Watts Center in Marin where some of his father’s ashes were also placed by the library (which I later did on several occasions.) However, I decided that I would first look for Alan Watts in the hills above the Zen Center where his writings had taken me.

The Final Search

I visited the Green Gulch Zendo on a bright Sunday summer morning. On that particular day, the parking lot was full, as Tenshin Roshi was giving a lecture. My much-beloved teacher draws quite a crowd, as many folks, Buddhist or not, come to hear him speak of universal love and compassion.

By early afternoon, things had quieted down in the valley. The guests were mostly gone, the parking lot empty. The great bronze green dragon temple bell used to call people to meditation in the morning swung silently in the breeze. Even the fog that earlier blanketed the valley had retreated out to sea. It was then I went searching for Alan Watts.

The path leading up into the hills didn’t look too imposing when standing in the Zen Center parking lot. (They never do at the beginning.) But as I walked a few feet up the worn dirt trail and into the surrounding brush, I quickly realized this would not be as easy as I thought.

Stems of poison oak plants weighted by heavy clusters of leaves criss crossed over the trail. Low hanging branches of small trees whipped at my face, as large bushes of thorn-covered weeds poked through my clothes. The growth was so thick in places it created a green wall that I had to push through. If this was indeed the way to Alan Watts’ final resting place, he had not had any visitors in quite a while.

I kept climbing. When I encountered brief openings in the brush, I caught glimpses of a panoramic view around me. There were no houses or roads to be seen, only the golden grass of the rolling hills mixed with the green shadows of the bushes and trees that grew around them.

As the trail’s incline sharpened, the dirt beneath my feet became less solid and occasionally would crumble and move, carrying me back a foot or two, or even sending me falling to the ground in some undignified pile.

Finally, when it seemed I could get no sweatier or dirtier, the trail leveled off and came to a small clearing where the shadow of a giant and ancient tree had kept the grasses and weeds from growing very tall.

As I surveyed the area from beneath the tree, I saw up the hill a cluster of boulders and rocks that I thought might be the place described to me as where Watts’ ashes had been buried. I circled around, looking for some marker or sign that this was indeed Watt’s grave, but I saw nothing.

The rocks were overgrown with vegetation, buried beneath fallen leaves and covered with thick furry green blankets of moss. I felt great disappointment. I had come looking for Alan Watts and now was left wondering if he was even here. It seemed my journey was in vain.

Tired from the hike, I decided to rest awhile in the shadow of the nearby tree that dominated the small clearing. Many years before, this giant had divided near its base, perhaps splitting under its own weight.

Buddhists refer to the “ten directions” of all existence, being the four major directions of the compass, the four intermediate points of the compass, and up and down. This tree seemed to encompass that idea, with thick branches reaching every which way.

I climbed into the crotch of the trunk and settled myself comfortably. On one side was the little clearing I had discovered and on the other the tree stretched out over a gully that had been carved out of the hill by a stream, which even in mid-summer trickled over the rocks.

I had brought some books with me and took them out of my pack. I had intended to read them at Watts’ graveside, but now thought Why not here? I began to read aloud to the silent forest.

First was “For Alan Watts on his Death” by Gary Snyder:

“He blazed out a new path for all of us
And came back and made it clear.
Explored the side canyons and deer trails
And investigated cliffs and thickets.
Many guides would have us travel
Single file, like mules in a pack-train;
And never leave the trail.
Alan taught us to move forward like the breeze;
Tasting the berries-greeting the bluejays-
Learning and loving the whole terrain.”

I then read the hauntingly beautiful words of Buddhism’s “Diamond Sutra” which ends with:

“Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.”

Finally, I read some of Watts’ own words:

 “The point is to know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that “I” and all other “things” now present will vanish, until this knowledge compels you to release them — to know it now as surely as if you had just fallen off the rim of the Grand Canyon. Indeed, you were kicked off the edge of a precipice when you were born, and it’s no help clinging to the rocks falling with you. And then comes the hitherto unbelievable surprise: you don’t die because you were never born. You had just forgotten who you are.”

When I finished the readings, I sat thinking. At first, I wondered again where Watts might be. Was he hidden beneath those rocks? Then I wondered about how late it was getting and whether or not the scratches on my hands and face might be poison oak. I thought about how hungry I was. How my back hurt from the climb. But after a while, the afternoon seemed to take control, and my monkey mind began to calm down.

The silence of no people and no traffic, which was a bit unnerving at first, gave way to a warm hum that mixed the buzz of insects, the rustle of leaves, the scraping of branches, and the drip drop of the creek’s water on stones. I watched the flickering shadows as sunlight tried to pierce the constantly moving canopy overhead. When I looked up, the sun seemed to be divided like a night sky of stars as the dark shuttering leaves offered pinprick moments of light between them.

I felt the heat of the summer afternoon and the brush of breezes that blew up the hillside from the valley below. Flies, gnats, and mosquitoes buzzed around me, and a trail of black ants, determined in their path, walked the tree trunk next to me.

Below me, on the mud of the shrinking creek bed, wasps touched down to drink and carry away building material. Birds called and flew among the swaying limbs of the trees. Even the darkness of the deeper brush seemed alive.

As I sat quietly, a doe stepped out of a shadow and stopped briefly in the sunlight before fixing me with a dark eye and leaping into a new hiding place. After a while, it became impossible to see where one creature’s movement ended and another’s began. Everything moved together. I stayed there for a long time.

As the afternoon grew to a close, I climbed down from my perch. I had brought a small bouquet of white flowers with me that I placed on an old fence post wrapped in rusting barbed wire. Placing my hands in gassho position as I had learned at the Zen Center, I bowed low, to the tree, the hill, the valley, the sky, Watts, me, and you.

As I headed back down the hill I decided I had found Alan Watts after all.

I asked the boy beneath the pines
He said, “The master’s gone alone
Herb-picking somewhere on the mount,
Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.”

Searching For the Hermit In Vain
~Chia Tao (777-841)

~ from the front piece of Alan Watts’ book Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal (1968)

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