Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Dancing Pattern Named Alan Watts

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 criticized him for practicing a light version of Buddhism. Many in the youth rebellion of the time latched on to his eccentrism and independent thought as a beacon in what they viewed as a western world in decline.  Either way, he would say that he was what he did. We can do nothing more or less than accept the full man. So who was this man whose portraits seemed to remind me of a clever and mischievous child?

His name was Alan Watts. He was born January 6, 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 Watts 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 further reading I recommend his autobiography, In My Own Way, published in 1972. It is an entertaining book providing readers with a memorable glimpse at American culture and character in the generation following World War II.

And how did I come to know of Watts and his world?  In 1968 documentary filmmakers, Irving and Elda Hartley, produced a fourteen-minute film entitled Buddhism: Man and Nature. Watts wrote the script and provided the narration. 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.

Within days after seeing Buddhism: Man and Nature I transcribed the narration and proceeded to carry it with me for more than 36 years fulfilling my employer's mission to help people appreciate, understand, and preserve some of the finest natural and cultural landscapes throughout the nation.

The film never influenced my personal religious convictions but it certainly impacted my understanding of the human place and role in natural landscapes. Alan Watts’s powerful script writing as well as his transcendent narration motivated me to look deeper into the man and his writings. Over the next decade his books on Zen, Asian philosophy and the West's response, and human behavior grew to occupy well over two feet of shelf space in my library.

The transcript I typed on my trusty Smith-Corona portable typewriter way back when? Well-tattered and coffee stained, it sits enshrined in the household safe.


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