As a Roman Catholic priest and a Zen dharma holder, I feel impelled to respond to questions raised in two of the reviews in the Fall 2007 issue.
The first is the probing assessment by Dean Sluyter of the film Into Great Silence (“Inaction Film”) about the Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse in France. I had the privilege of living in this monastery for seven years and in the Carthusian Order for twenty-two. As such, I was astonished and impressed by Sluyter’s pointed question: “Are these monks getting the juice?” The short answer is no. Their “austerity” does not “correlate directly with spiritual progress,” and can be “an indulgence, a false refuge, as much as sensuality.” In the Order, fidelity is often measured strictly in terms of conformity to the twelfth-century Rule, which thus becomes unskillful means when taken as the end itself with all potential challenges sacrificed at its altar. The General of the Order during my time admitted as much in writing, sorrowfully noting that few monks had become beacons of wisdom, joy, and peace for themselves or others. To be sure, the monks’ lives are not a “sterile struggle,” as Sluyter wonders. Many of the brethren are endearing, and all exhibit much goodwill; but that only renders their lack of skillful means all the more distressing.
In another review (“God Cannot be Great”), Andrew Goodwin gleefully glides along with the facile attacks on Christianity he finds in Christopher Hitchens’s book God Is Not Great. I could only smile, therefore, when Goodwin realizes—on the basis of his own personal stake in Buddhist practice—that Hitchens’s critiques of Buddhism are shallow and juvenile. Goodwin’s honesty compels him to ask the “interesting question” of whether Hitchens’s research is “this poor throughout the book.” The short answer is yes. Apart from professing no interest in the Christian experience, neither Goodwin nor Hitchens seems to have made even an elementary commitment to exploring the wealth of modern theological reflection. For both of them to claim in all seriousness, for example, that the absence of the mention of dinosaurs in the Book of Genesis “is in itself sufficient” to reject the notion of divine authorship leaves me aghast and agape in disbelief at a theological naiveté as discomfiting as that of the literalists.
I imagine that sympathetic personal involvement provides the key not only to these two questions but also to most of life’s critical challenges. Judging from the inside is better.
Michael K. Holleran
New York, NY
DAUGHTER KNOWS BEST
I’m always fascinated by the information that materializes when anyone writes about my father, Alan Watts. There is always something I didn’t know before. Mira Tweti’s article is very interesting, and its title, “The Sensualist,” (Fall 2007) very aptly describes my father and his view of himself (as in being aware through all one’s senses). While Tweti’s article portrays him well, I would like to add some clarification as follows:
My mother’s maiden name was Eleanor Everett. Her mother was Ruth Fuller (Everett) Sasaki. It was through my grandmother’s interest in Buddhism that my father and grandmother met in England and my father met my mother. It was my grandmother, not my mother, who attended Sokei-an’s “temple” in New York City with my father.
When my mother and father split up in 1949, I was sent off to an Anglican boarding school in Kentucky and my mother went to live at her mother’s brownstone in New York City with my younger sister and infant brother, not “their two young daughters.” Subsequently, my sister and I spent the summer in Millbrook, New York, with our father and stepmother. That fall I was sent to live with my father’s parents in England. My sister continued to live with our father and stepmother in New York. They eventually moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I joined them a year later.
Alan always claimed to be a negligent father, but my memories of him when he was around are of a lively, loving, and playful person. I met so many interesting people with whom he was involved. My father, to my knowledge, never offered his children LSD at the age of eighteen, as Tweti suggests. I had my first “trip” in 1968 at age thirty at my request and with his supervision. Contrary to the beliefs of some, my father always regarded the use of LSD as a religious experience, a form of sacrament to be used in a controlled environment and not as a recreational activity. As for the reference to Alan having to support seven children in 1957, from 1955 onward I was not financially supported by my father.
I am surprised to see that Houston Smith introduced Alan and Aldous Huxley in 1960. I attended Happy Valley School in Ojai, California from 1951 to 1955. Huxley and my father frequently spoke to the students there, and Huxley’s niece was my best friend.
The night Alan died, a self-styled Buddhist monk named Ajari showed up at Alan’s mountain retreat saying he knew Alan had died. (No phone call!) Alan was cremated at a regular crematorium at a funeral home in Mill Valley under Ajari’s supervision. He and his followers whisked Alan away before any of us (other than his wife, Jano) even knew of his death. We never saw his body.
Mira Tweti did a good job of reviewing the life and times of Alan Watts without being too judgmental. But really, while he and others of that era were perceived at that time to be opening new doors to new ways of thinking and spirituality, it was clear to many of us who lived through those same times that Watts (and many others like him) never really found anything meaningful in their search, and ended their lives in pitiful ruin. They also used many others unfairly in the process, which is contemptible. They should not have been revered at that time, nor should they be now. He may have been a trailblazer, as summarized in Gary Synder’s poem at the end of the article, and that deserves recognition from a historical perspective. But in the end, it is painfully clear that Watts was simply another lost soul who strayed too far from the Eightfold Path and was consumed by egoism, pride, power, and the misdirected adulation of others—in addition to drug and alcohol addiction.
BRINGING THEM HOME
I wish to commend the fine work performed by the Coming Home Project for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as described in “Coming Home” (Fall 2007), but I do take issue with one of the speakers quoted in the article. Brian Turner, a veteran himself of the Vietnam War, compared the current crop of returning vets and the veterans of Vietnam by saying, “But at least they are not getting spat on when they come home.”
According to Jerry Lembcke’s 1998 book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, there was never a documented case of peace activists spitting on returning Vietnam veterans. He was, however, able to find examples of prowar people spitting on antiwar protesters. In addition, Jack Shafer of Slate.com has written four articles debunking the spitting myth. If Mr. Turner or anyone else knows of any documented cases of returning Vietnam veterans being spat upon, please contact Mr. Shafer firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Buddha urged us to take the right view and avoid delusion. The spitting myth is one delusion we could do without, so as not to interfere with the right view of the Coming Home Project.
Joey B. King
Veterans for Peace Chapter 89
Buddhist Peace Fellowship of Middle Tennessee
THE ART OF INVENTION
I was surprised—shocked, actually—to see that you included a full-blown, apparently serious, tribute to Carlos Castaneda in your most recent issue (“The Art of Reality”). Maybe next you can find a Scientologist—Tom Cruise, perhaps?—to write a tribute to L. Ron Hubbard. He and Castaneda were both pretty good fiction writers . . . if that’s what you want your subscribers to be reading about.
Hood River, OR
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