Back in 1968, documentary filmmakers, Irving and Elda Hartley, produced a film entitled Buddhism: Man and Nature, narrated by the Zen philosopher and writer, Alan Watts. For the Hartleys, it was an award winning addition to their series on spirituality and religion. For others, particularly those studying or working in natural resource management, ecology and related fields, the film was a compelling prescription for understanding and appreciating our natural world. It is in that context that I encountered it in the early 1970’s as a new employee of the National Park Service. The film never influenced my personal religious convictions but it certainly impacted my understanding of the human perception of the natural world. Alan Watts’s powerful script as well as his transcendent narration motivated me to look deeper into his writings. Over the next decade his books on Zen, Asian philosophy, and human behavior grew to occupy over two feet of shelf space in my library. So who was this man whose portraits seemed to remind me of a clever and mischievous child?
Watts was born in 1915 in Britain where he developed a keen interest in Asian studies. He moved to the U.S. in the late 1930’s and became an Episcopal priest in 1943. After seven years he left the church and returned to the study of Asian philosophy and religion full-time. When he died in November 1973 he left the world over two dozen books, hundreds of pamphlets and briefs, and well over a thousand hours of audiovisual recordings offering his original thoughts on the Western expression of Zen/ Zen Buddhism and Asian thought. For those who are interested I recommend his autobiography - In My Own Way (1972) - very highly as an entertaining read and a memorable glimpse at American culture in the generation following World War II.
By the 1960's he had become rather well-known on the American scene as much for living "in the moment" in alcohol, experimental drugs, and other excesses as for his writings. Classical Zen masters had earlier criticized him for practicing a light version of the religion. Either way, he would say that he was what he did. We can do nothing more or less than accept the full man. Here he is at his best in the fourteen minute film that helped me understand our place and role in natural landscapes. The tape quality is poor but the message remains as rich as ever.
In a matter of days after I first saw this film, I transcribed the script and proceeded to carry it with we for the next 36 years. That original typed copy - tattered and smudged - remains in my briefcase.
By the way, Alan Watts was born 101 years ago on January 6.
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