A couple of decades ago, toward the end of the last century, 1994 saw the release of Talking Zen, a small collection of transcribed lectures given over 40 years earlier by Alan Watts (1915–73) pertaining to the nuts and bolts of Zen, or Ch’an, Buddhism. Here in 2022, we have a new, expanded version skillfully edited by Alan’s son Mark, who has worked tirelessly to ensure that we can still benefit from his father’s intellect and vision.
And it does not disappoint: “Zen Bones” is the last chapter of Talking Zen—a lecture we can readily find online, hear Alan’s own delivery, and note how honestly penned the transcript is, with modest tweaks for a more flowing read.
Recordings of many of Alan’s talks can be found online today, which means we can still delight in his delivery and, if you are someone akin to myself, savor his voice, pace, passion, intensity, and humor while reading his words in print. And reading these words, genuinely reading them and rereading them, letting their meanings penetrate profoundly and with purpose, is the gift of this book. And then, with joy, we can read and include the pauses where we know Alan would have laughed, and hear him chuckle in our mind.
Talking Zen starts wisely with an early talk of Alan’s discussing how we must dissolve all of our concepts—our “frames” by which we measure pretty much everything. We have even framed the Buddha and his teachings as something measurable; something categorized—rules, rituals, and forms to which we adhere. Yet this is also the trick and fallacy by which we fail. Mark opens this collection of Alan’s engaging talks on living Zen by blowing our mundane formulas, all our matter and measurements, out of the water. Once we have been duly reminded to “be here now” with no grasping for nor to anything outside of this moment of energetic existence, we are, at the very least, in a mental state with which to proceed, moment by moment, further into the book.
At times, as I read his words, I heard Alan’s voice (in my head) and recalled those occasions when he delivered his lectures. Each time these thoughts arose, my heart saddened a little. What has happened to the trajectory of us humans as a species and as a society since those days? The trajectory that once led us to such thinking as the Fundamental Fysiks Group (founded in San Francisco in 1975), Fritjof Capra’s book The Tao of Physics, and a continuous stream of deep thoughts shared in the hope that we would learn our lessons and ensure a wiser, more compassionate, and more enlightened global community. Sure, each person has their turn in contributing to the learning of the next chapter of human civilization, yet I’m left pondering today’s gaping dichotomies, such as increased knowledge and widespread vapidity; our increased understanding of metaphysics and the growth in ignorant consumerism; the momentum toward safer environments and our striving toward war. Again and again.
On the one hand, so many of Alan’s societal reflections sound contemporary. Could he deliver them today, his commentaries on global events, politics, and human existence would still sound pertinent. That said, I think there was an air of optimism back in those days that has not been manifested in our contemporary reality. By the same token, however, we have seen leaps in our understanding of quantum physics, astronomy, technology, the brain, mythology, and more, and I can’t help but wonder what that extraordinary mind of Alan’s would make of it all. Of course, he was around long enough to witness some of these technological shifts and even to predict its future, yet I would argue that the first thing he may remind us is that it’s all simply “Zen.” The dichotomies are as much an illusion as reflections in the water, like gaps in the clouds, leaves on wooden branches, right hand and left, two faces of a coin. Everything simply “is.”
One field that has exploded over the last few years is that of mindfulness and related phenomena and practices. Today, if I were to use the term “in the zone,” you would immediately infer my meaning. And that would be that. Alan, on the other hand, wouldn’t use those three words and leave the audience to assume their intent; instead, he expounds, elucidates, penetrates, integrates, disintegrates, explains, re-explains, turns it on its head, makes you laugh, makes you enquire more deeply, takes you on journeys, sidesteps into anecdotes, and helps you see things that were previously shrouded in confusion.
Yes, I am a long-time fan of Mr. Alan Watts’s mind. And what a mind! Every rare once-in-a-while, someone’s own personal interests and knowledge take on a life of their own, and something extraordinary outlives their short time on this Earth.
You don’t even need to be particularly interested Asian philosophies or religions to derive insights from the breadth and depth of Alan’s wisdom. One will walk away from this book having learned something new, something unexpected.
I fully admit my personal bias and that I jumped at the opportunity to read and review this new compendium. I did not expect to be disappointed, but it’s always possible, especially when one has high expectations. But, as it is, I did not feel let down in the slightest.
Mark’s selection of Alan’s talks flow wonderfully, and were carefully selected to get to the crux of living Zen. Each talk is a chapter beautifully sized to sink into and remain a little while, before re-emerging feeling like your brain has just had a jolly good and thorough sponge bath.
Watts, Alan. 2022. Talking Zen: Reflections on Mind, Myth, and the Magic of Life. Edited by Mark Watts. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.