One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck



Showing posts with label Michael Papas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Papas. Show all posts

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Is life over when it’s over?

Photos courtesy of alanwatts.org

Alan Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973)

"Each one of us, not only human beings, but every leaf, every weed, exists in the way it does, only because everything else around it does. The individual and the universe are inseparable". ~Alan Watts Sensei


Are there reasons for living and reasons for dying?


Why should we think that Zen is in trouble simply because there are flawed people who practice and flawed people who teach? Certainly punches and counter punches are distracting, especially in a scandal, but they are not off limits. In my view, idolizing revered teachers also limits the possibilities in practice for anyone who sets foot on the path. This presents its own set of problems which I might explore at another time. Zen is devised for humans, not gods.


Many years ago I went to a meeting with several of Claudio Naranjo’s old Seekers After Truth students on the “Vallejo,” the Sausalito houseboat where Alan Watts talked and drank, womanized and created legends. It is common knowledge that he was an alcoholic, but I have no knowledge of sexual excess.  From both my reading and first hand reports, however, I can say with certainty that he did go on and on. He wrote and published 25 books before his death; 40 more have appeared since. That is the stuff of legend, and an enormous contribution.


I also visited a couple who lived in the rustic cabin in Druid Heights near Muir Woods where Watts died. One report is that he slumped over his desk drunk and died though some say he made it to bed that night. The story is vague as are a lot of stories about alcoholics. We will never know the truth because we don’t really need to know. But his desk was kept in the same condition as it had been when he died as a kind of shrine to assist his passage to the Pureland, or Byzantine Heaven, or some New Age version of Limbo. I asked hesitantly if I could sit in the chair where he sat when he wrote. My host said, “Of course. This way is open to anyone.” I imagined that I heard a faint echo from the Master.


Phil Whalen told me that he loved to listen to Watts on the old Berkeley KPFA. Many of the people who first gathered around Suzuki Roshi did. For some it was their initiation into Zen. Watts read widely and wisely even if at times he speculated wildly.  David Chadwick recounted in his biography of Suzuki, Crooked Cucumber: the Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, [that] when a student of Suzuki's disparaged Watts by saying "we used to think he was profound until we found the real thing", Suzuki fumed with a sudden intensity, saying, "You completely miss the point about Alan Watts! You should notice what he has done. He is a great bodhisattva.” Suzuki did not disparage the ox who tilled the soil even if all the rows were not perfectly lined up. That would come later, and in some cases the insistence on plowing perfectly straight lines got a bit out of hand. 


At dinner in Mandala House I remember a lively conversation with my host's wife who was very close to a dear friend who was also present. The woman's son by another marriage, a bright, handsome guy had driven across the Santa Cruz mountains to be with his mother. Not long after he died in a car wreck on a treacherous part of that same highway. His mother chose to join him. She took a huge number of sleeping pills and never woke up again in the same house, perhaps the same room where Watts died.


I never met Alan Watts, but I met his ghost. I also carry with me the memories of many other men and women who left life with a troubled past. Though I might think I understand some of their reasons for living, I cannot claim to know the reasons for their dying.


____________________


Michael Papas was a guest student at Tassajara during the Summer of 1980. He recalled a talk by Issan that he says was a real downer. “I can’t repeat any of it, and the memories of the specific content are vague, but I didn’t find any good news in it at all!”


Afterwards, he asked Issan, “If things are so bad, why don’t we just kill ourselves ?”

 

Issan's answer came quickly, “Because it wouldn’t help.”

 

My friend is a long-time Zen student. He says, “It was a great answer obviously. It has stayed with me for more than 40 years. I thought of it many times in 2016 when my wife left me and suicide seemed like the only way to stop the pain. But truthfully back then, having children was my main reason for sticking.”


Issan died on September 6, 1990. He was 57 years old. If he were still alive, he would be 88 years old today. Watts was only 58 when he died and his legend spans decades. I might complain that they both died too young with so much left to contribute. I might sing that tired old tune “only the good die young,” but I’d add that sometimes the good die young because they were bad, or at least not as good as we would like to believe.


Michael, thank you for sharing Issan’s kind answer. It still has life.


Sex, death, and food.

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