Alan Watts doing Chinese calligraphy, 1958. Photo by Ken Kay.
Alan Watts doing Chinese calligraphy, 1958. Photo by Ken Kay.

At the meditation center where I used to practice, my teacher told a story about a time when he had lived in Korea and studied with a Zen monk. One of the nuns in the community had died, and at her funeral the monk wept uncontrollably and hysterically, in a way that was almost embarrassing. My teacher, relatively new to the practice, was surprised that the man hadn’t shown more equanimity, and brought the matter up at an interview. The monk burst into laughter. That nun had been a dear friend of his, he said. They had joined the community at the same time, and he was sad she was gone. He had expressed his grief when he felt it, and now could go on. Liberation wasn’t a matter of acting some particular way, but feeling how you felt, whatever the situation.

My teacher ended with a punchline. “I think I’d been reading too much Alan Watts.” The class roared with laughter.

That remark seemed to express a common view of Alan Watts, that he hadn’t been quite authentic, hadn’t known Zen from the inside. He had learned his Buddhism from books, and his view of liberation was facile, didn’t acknowledge the real work that was a part of it. He had been a sixties character, an alcoholic and a womanizer, one of the early experimenters with psychedelics. He had gotten people started on the path, but they soon moved beyond him.

Ah yes, that laughter seemed to say. I remember when I was young and foolish.

By some coincidence, I had happened across the following quotation that week in The Way of Zen.

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