Richard Baker’s eulogy for Alan Watts

The culmination of the ceremony was the eulogy by Richard Baker. Using the dharma names he’d given Watts and holding Watts’ jangling staff, which he’d inherited from Suzuki, he spoke:

“Alan, Daiyuin Yuzan Myoko, Daizen Jomon, here is your lineage from Buddha through the Buddhas and Patriachs to you. Alan Watts was a philosopher, a poet, a calligrapher, a lover, a friend, a dharma reveller, a revealer, a great founder of the spirit for all of us.

He was the true emptiness of all 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. HOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Go! Go! Great Hermit! Great Founder!”

From David Chadwick in the latest issue of Shambhala Sun.

See also: Alan Watts and Trungpa Rinpoche and Suzuki Roshi on Alan Watts.

Alan Watts and the problem of “self-love”

You often hear the idea being bandied about that

“You cannot begin to love others, until you first love yourself”

I’ve never really given it much thought, but have always been vaguely suspicious of it. I guess I can see some logic in it – like the principle of tending to your own oxygen mask before helping others, but was always troubled by the idea of “loving yourself”, which seems self-indulgent and egotistical.

It also solidifies and centralises the self first and foremost, which perversely is what creates the ‘other’ that we must then choose to love or hate. But if we were to remove the self, we could undo the entire equation. No self = no other.

Alan Watts hit upon this towards the end of “The Wisdom of Insecurity”. The entire book is, like most of his work, a treatise on the Eastern concepts of what is the self, and how a solidified “I” is the cause of much of our suffering (Go read it. Now.) When he is talking about the implications for morality of such a world view he begins to untangle the equation.

The undivided mind is aware of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the whole nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it knows, suggests a state that would usually be called love. For the love that expresses itself in creative action is something much more than an emotion. It is not something which you can “feel” and “know,” remember and define. Love is the organizing and unifying principle which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a community. It is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole.

(By “the undivided mind” or “the mind as whole”, he means when we realise our unity with the present moment and cease trying to fortify an “I” as opposed to reality).

There is no problem of how to love. We love. We are love, and the only problem is the direction of love, whether it is to go straight out like sunlight, or try to turn back on itself like a “candle under a bushel.”

Released from the circle of attempted self-love, the mind of a human draws the whole universe into its own unity as a single dewdrop seems to contain the entire sky.

A mind that is single and sincere is not interested in being good, in conducting relations with other people so as to live up to a rule. Its interest is not in itself, but in the people and problems of which it is aware; there are “itself”.

Everyone has love, but it can only come out when they are convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love themselves.

[..]

It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.

(Edited slightly to make it gender neutral)

To Work for a True Catholicity

I have been trying almost all my life to work for a true catholicity, a fellowship wherein Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Jews and the rest could recognise their common Ground, and worship or meditate together without quarrelling, and yet without abandoning their interesting and colorful differences of method and style. I would not really want to see a Buddha-image on the high altar of St. Peter’s or a crucifix in the Kaaba, but it is being increasingly recognised that at the level of contemplative mysticism (or ‘metaphysic’) there is no essential difference between Zen Buddhists, Sufis, Vedantists, and blessedly silent Trappists. For when one gets into the domain of pure contemplation of the Ground of Being, there is no more talk going on inside the head, and therefore no occasion for disputation. There is simply a consciousness clear as crystal and open to truth, reality, or what is-which, as St. Thomas Aquinas would have said, is what all men call God.

Alan Watts – The Supreme Truth (1972 Preface)

Alan Watts and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

If you’ve read any of my blog you will be aware of my love of the work of Alan Watts, who has been one of the most influential people on my own philosophy and outlook. Interestingly, Alan moved in the same circles as two other teachers who have informed my thinking greatly, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche. I’ve outlined before some of the relationship between Suzuki Roshi and Alan, and David Chadwick’s biography of Suzuki Roshi details it much more. In particular, it brought to light Alan’s relationship with Suzuki in Roshi’s final days before his death.

It was interesting then to learn, that apparently Alan spent his last day and night with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa Rinpoche was a highly influential and revered Tibetan Buddhist lama who came to the West after fleeing the Chinese invasion in 1959. Like Suzuki and Watts he was instrumental in spreading the dharma in the West by helping explain it in ways young Westerners could understand. All three ended up in the United States in the last 60s/early 70s having journeyed from Japan, England and Tibet. And Trungpa, like Alan, was not only a great teacher, but also enjoyed sensual delights, specifically alcohol and women.

Chronicles Radio have a short podcast where they claim that Alan spent his last night alive in the company of Trungpa Rinpoche. Apparently, Watts was one of Rinpoche’s “literary heroes” and he loved reading him. When Trungpa came to America from Britain he was keen to meet Alan. They had their first meeting on Alan’s houseboat where they spent the night drinking and talking.

Afterwards Trungpa remarked that he was “disappointed”, as he was surprised at Alan’s lack of depth about practice. (Alan was definitely a brilliant speaker and ‘translator’ of Eastern ideas but was sometimes criticised for his lack of formal commitment to set practises, particularly meditation). But Trungpa was still keen to meet with Alan and they continued a friendship.

Later, whilst Trungpa Rinpoche was holding his Vajryana Seminary, he went to San Francisco to see Alan, and they spent a day and night together, talking and drinking. Alan went home and passed away in his sleep the next morning.

In an odd footnote, afterwards Trungpa became concerned about Alan, worried that he had become stuck as a ghost at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais where he had a study and library. Rinpoche took some students to his library and told them that Alan was “stuck with his books and his office and couldn’t let go”. He wandered about until he found a spot in the field outside where he though Alan was. He instructed his students that they were going to help Alan by exorcising his ghost. They performed the supplication to the Kagyu gurus and the Heart Sutra. After which Trungpa said “That’s it” and he was happy.

It’s fascinating to note the role these three men had in each others lives, and in each other’s final days. Trungpa himself died years later, in 1987, like Alan with conditions related to excessive drinking.

Chronicles Radio also details Trungpa’s meeting with Suzuki Roshi.

Alan Watts: Rascal guru or inspirational poster boy?

As readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of the late English philosopher Alan Watts. He has been one of, if not the, most formative influences on my way of thinking. As such, I am keen for more people to read him; I think he has a lot to offer humanity, especially at this present time.

Since his hay-day in the 1960s, Watts has had some what of a resurgence thanks mainly to the web. A sub culture has grown around taking speeches and lectures and making multimedia video presentations out of them. This is an activity which is encouraged by his estate, which is managed by his son Mark. Probably the most famous of these is still the seminal series done by the creators of South Park, of which ‘Life and Music’ is still best known. For many this is the first they hear of Watts and is a great example of how his work has been remixed for the modern age; his words enhanced by the visuals.

Since this there has been a cottage industry formed around taking Watts lectures and setting them to music and video. Many of these are done quite well. One of my favourites sets a discussion on death to the sounds of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

It’s not just Watts either, there is a whole culture of taking ‘inspiring’ lectures and treating them such. There was KickStarter recently to help fund some guy to make more of them, many of them Watts based.

I do fear, however, that this is becoming its own clichéd genre. Take a short section of Watts, lay it over some overly emotive music, and then make a montage of various ‘random life’ footage clips. The problem is that this becomes a production-line thoughtless process. The reason the good Watts videos work is that there is a link between his words, the music and the visuals. If this becomes an unthinking process I am concerned that it will transform the meaning and context of Watts work.

Alan Watts’ primary drive in life was to introduce you to a viewpoint that he enjoyed and held. This viewpoint, to paraphrase extremely briefly, was chiefly the viewpoint of Asian religions, namely Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism and seeks to make you see how inseparable you are from your environment, you and the universe are one process, and that not seeing this interdependence was the cause of human suffering. He was not a ‘self-help’ guru, nor did he seek to inspire hope as it were; he sought to help you see as he saw, and from that suffering would be alleviated.

My worry is that Watts becomes relegated to the status of pithy comment source, for the multi-font on a picture of a sunset inspirational quote crowd who seem to fuel Facebook timelines. This fate has befell the Dalai Lama and the Buddha for instance, often with words they never actually said. This would be a misinterpretation of what Alan was about. That said, I am in favour of bite-sized Watts, as he has such a great way with words that I think he can drop tiny ‘aha’ moments into your day. Some Twitter accounts are great at picking out such parts. But the real power and joy of Watts work are where he can expand on his ideas over time. Certainly some of the 3 to 5 minute videos can get some key ideas in, but I think he works best over his hour long lectures, or his essays and his books where he can unveil and build these powerful concepts. My other fear, is that some of these videos are using an aesthetic which is unsuitable. Watts was serious about helping people change their outlook, but he was a playful, mischievous man, never sombre. Some of the music choices, for instance, in these videos set a tone at odds with his actual spirit.

But, if these videos lead people to discovering his work, then I’m all for them. Just as long as they don’t reinvent him as a Facebook wall update quote source.

(I’ve written loads on Alan Watts, all archived here)

Alan Watts on the 1970 Brazil World Cup team

If you happened to witness, in 1970, the World Cup championship of soccer, you would have seen that the winning team from Brazil played soccer in the most extraordinary way. They played it like basketball. They played it dancing. They way we learned soccer when I was at school as a boy was very, very formal and ordinary and we didn’t really enjoy it. But these fellows were bouncing balls off their shoulders, off every muscle, and they had astonishing team play, while at the same time were dancing the game

Alan Watts – Work As Play

Interdependence for Non-Hippies

Disaster Communism

Environmentalism: the question is posed incorrectly from the beginning. There is no external object called “the environment” to which another object called “society” must relate. The question of the environmental crisis cannot be posed separately from that of society, as if it were some alien entity attacking us from the outside. At every point in history, human society is that which we have forged from the transformation of nature, and nature is that on which we depend for our continued existence; nature is part of human society and human society is part of nature.

We exist in a state of profound interdependence with all forms of life – a condition we are unable to transcend, but merely develop in one direction or another. Our relations to one-another are predicated on particular relations to nature. The waged labour relation that is fundamental to capitalism required our estrangement from nature: the violent dispossession and expulsion of peasants from the land, and the enclosure of nature, its constitution as an object to be dominated and exploited was the founding event of capitalist society, a process intimately linked with the suppression and enclosure of women.x

Traditionally, environmentalists have tended to pose the question of how to prevent catastrophe as separate from questions of how humans are to relate to each other. This has tended to mean that environmentalism has confronted us as a rather bleak, desperate and negative discourse:

“’We must act today to save tomorrow’ is the cry of the global greens. Great sacrifices must be made immediately for a reward launched far into the distant future. But such a reward it is! Yes, it may be far away now, but one day, dear friend, you may not be flooded! You may not starve! You might not even suffer more than you do already! Such is the dismal promise of environmentalism.”xi

Indeed, this framing, due to its artificial restriction of the problem to be considered, has often tended to produce a push towards economism and away from the consideration of the intersecting forms of exploitation and domination that produce our social reality, towards compromise with authoritarian forms of organisation, and towards a joyless and debilitating seriousness in the name of urgency. Viewed this way, it seems obvious that all sorts of compromises must be made with systems of domination in order that decisive action be taken to “save the planet”.

The problem is, the question is posed entirely backwards. We cannot think of taking decisive action against the destruction of nature separately from the transformation of the social relations that both arise from and reproduce the domination of nature by humans. The question rather is: what form of society is consistent with the desire to live not merely from nature, but in and with nature? What kinds of subjectivities and forms of social organisation allow us to live not as exploiters of the natural world, nor under the exploitation of others?

What desires and potentials exist in our current world that could form the beginnings of such a world? Clearly, we must have done with the negative environmentalisms that operate on guilt and fear, and that offer nothing but the postponement of death. We must have done also with all the false consolations of magical thinking that keep us invested in a political system that can only fail us.

Clearly, what we need is an anti-capitalism, but it cannot be one that simply takes over production and runs it more democratically. (In any case what system could outmatch modern capitalism in the production of endless junk?)

It’s great to see the interdependence of man and nature (and indeed, the realisation that there is no difference between them) expressed so well in the sphere of radical politics/economics, and not just as Buddhist-influenced, Watts-like ‘hippy’ (ugh) talk. It’s also nothing new, Gary Snyder’s “Buddhist Anarchism” has been with us for some time, but a welcome continuation of the debate.

I’ve written before about how I imagine the practical implementation of a realisation of non-duality/interdependence and I surmised it would be a ‘communist’ system and I think this piece reinforces that thought.