That nothing is a given and, since everything is uncertain, we must put together a world view that might fit roughly with the facts, but is never anything other than a guess — a working fiction. This, too, is a typical Zen understanding — that life cannot be described, only experienced. Trying to see all of life is like trying to explore a vast cave with a box of matches. Impressed though I was, I more or less forgot about Watts after I finished his books, and pursued my career as a fiction writer. I was weary of introspection. Then, years later, a bad spell in my life propelled me back into a chasm.
In , three close friends died in sudden succession. One died in front of my eyes.
Another was murdered. A third succumbed to cancer. My depression — and that original sense of meaninglessness — resurfaced. I turned to Watts again. This time, it was as if I was reading for dear life. A lan Watts had been prolific in his 58 years. He died in , after producing not only 27 books but also scores of lectures, all of which were available online.
I stopped writing novels and worked my way through every one of them instead. I discovered that Van Morrison had written a song about him, and that Johnny Depp was a follower.
Lesson Plans | The Buddha | PBS
But he remained largely unknown in Britain, even though he was English, albeit an expatriate. Watts was born in in Chislehurst, Kent. His father had been a sales rep for the Michelin tyre company and his mother was a housewife whose father had been a missionary. By the age of 16, Watts was the secretary of the London Buddhist Lodge, which was run by the barrister Christmas Humphreys. And, despite his obviously brilliant mind, Watts never achieved a British university degree. This, perhaps, is another of his qualities that chimes with my own spirit — I too left school with only two A-levels, and am, like Watts, an autodidact.
As a young man, Watts worked in a printing house and then a bank. There, he heard the renowned Zen scholar DT Suzuki speak, and was introduced to him. Later that year, Watts published his first book The Spirit of Zen. That same year, he met the American heiress Eleanor Everett, whose mother was involved with a traditional Zen Buddhist circle in New York. He married Eleanor in and they moved to America, where he trained as an Episcopal priest, before leaving the ministry in , thus separating once and for all from his Christian roots.
From then on he concentrated on the study and communication of Eastern philosophical ideas to Western audiences. I felt powerfully attracted to Alan Watts. Not only to his ideas, but to him, personally. Watts was no dry, academic philosopher. Half monk and half racecourse operator. But it was his thinking that most excited me. He was, if not the earliest, then certainly the foremost translator of Eastern philosophical ideas to the West. In some ways, his interpretations were radical — for instance, he dismissed the core Zen idea of zazen which meant spending hours seated in contemplative meditation as unnecessary.
Watts also rejected the conventional ideas of reincarnation and the popular understanding of karma as a system of rewards and punishments carried out, lifetime after lifetime. It was this radical approach that made his ideas so fresh — he had no time for received wisdom, even from those who claimed to know Zen inside out. The idea of walking around with a metaphorical stick to whack yourself with is foreign to a Zen master.
But before the beatniks and the hippies got hold of it, Zen philosophy, as described by Watts, was hard-edged, practical, logical and, in some ways, oddly English in tone, as it had deep strands of scepticism and humour. But most of the great sages of Zen have smiles on their faces, as does Buddha. Zen and Taoism are more akin to psychotherapy than to religion, as Watts explained in his book Psychotherapy East and West They are about finding a way to maintain a healthy personality in a culture that tends to tangle you up in a lot of unconscious logical binds. Another example is the instruction that you must be spontaneous.
These kinds of snags, or double binds, according to Zen writings, produce inner tension, frustration, and neurosis — what Buddhism calls dukkha. Watts saw his job, via Zen philosophy, to teach you to think clearly, so that you could see through conventional thinking to a place where your mind could be at peace inside a culture that could have been designed to generate anxiety.
But, although he was an entertaining writer who presented his ideas with a brilliant clarity, Watts had a difficult job on his hands — mainly because Zen and Taoism are so fundamentally counter-intuitive to the Western mind. The riddles, or koans , that Zen thinkers speak in are intended to trip you up and make you realise how inadequate words — either spoken or inner dialogue — are in making sense. Zen emphasises intuition and mushin , that is, an empty mind, over planning and thought.
This makes it alien to Western philosophical traditions, which tend to distrust spontaneity, since it supposedly clears the way for the dominance of brute animal instincts and dangerous passions. But the idea of walking around with a metaphorical big stick with which to whack yourself if you make a mistake, or get carried away by your emotions, is foreign to a Zen master.
Zen, after all, was used by the Samurai warriors, who had to strike immediately without reflection or die. Intuition, in a healthy soul, is more important than conscious reflection. Millions of years of evolution have made the human unconscious wise, not reckless.
You can find similar ideas in modern books such as Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, which emphasises the value of gut reactions. Z en started as a reaction against the highly conventionalised and ritualised Japanese society from which it emerged. In such a society, spontaneous behaviour becomes impossible. The word Zen is a Japanese way of pronouncing chan , which is the Chinese way of pronouncing the Indian Sanskrit dhyana or sunya , meaning emptiness or void.
Of all the activities and teachings offered at this temple, this is the one that he would like his guests to experience the most. So I set my alarm for a painfully early time and, puffy-eyed, tiptoe outside in the semi-darkness.
Meeting Your Thoughts At a Resting Place
Walking past quiet streams and incredibly tall trees, I let the forest whisper to me the story of this place. I start exploring the temple grounds: the main gate, the meditation hall, the smaller temples, everything feels deeply connected with the nature around it. Meditation hall. The temple grounds. Look at the moss and lichens on this Buddha statue.
I'm not sure if this place assimilated the nature over time or if it is the other way round. While I ponder this, Strange whistle sounds are coming from the forest above me. I look up, curious, and a sudden rustling sound fills the air. My watchers scatter at once.
Six Senses Thimphu “Palace in the Sky”
All but one. The sun is about to rise behind the meditation hall. At sunrise, I finally understand why this is called Taiyoji, the 'temple of the sun'. The main hall is placed in a strategic position so the first rays of light bathe the old wood in gleaming gold. We welcome, breathless, the warmth and the beauty of the morning.
Our monk emerges from the sliding doors with a smile and a steaming pot of coffee. After an early morning sutra chanting, we move to the big meditation hall.