Zentatsu Richard Baker on Alan Watts
[Sent to DC in the spring of 2015]
Before I moved to California, I never thought much about Alan Watts. He was just the other D.T. Suzuki, who wrote convincingly and at length about Zen and Japanese culture.
In a November, when I was 24, I took a Greyhound Bus from NYC’s Port Authority Terminal to San Francisco. I think the fare was $80. A friend bought the ticket. I had $32 when I first arrived. Because someone knew of a vacancy, I found a place to stay. And right away on Monday, I found a job in a book warehouse.
Sometime in the Spring, I saw a bulletin board announcement of a seminar to be offered by Alan Watts and Charlotte Selver (whom I had never heard of). I decided to attend. It was my first non-university weekend seminar.
Charlotte and Alan were pleasant and impressive. There were about 25 persons in a living room of a house I remember as being on Broadway. I sat in the first row and did what they said.
On Saturday afternoon, Charlotte said, “Please close your eyes.” And I did. Shortly she said “blue”. “Blue” proceeded from her lips across the room as a viscous thickening of the air – hitting me, spreading, penetrating, flowing past. Completely a bodily experience and a spectrum of components beyond the bare information of hearing. Ever since, although never to the same degree, words have a physical presence.
Alan gave a talk that was extremely intelligent and insightful. He repeated an old Zen question about to how to get a goose out of a bottle without breaking the glass. I said, “Don’t put it in there in the first place.” Although, I thought: it’s already out anyway. Alan chided me a little about not taking the problem as illustrating real world problems.
I also wrote a little poem on the Sunday morning of that weekend, which Diane di Prima later published.
What I didn’t recognize until much later was that I was in the living presence of two enlightened persons, Charlotte, who emphasized practice, and Alan, who emphasized insight.
It was their presence together which located me in the physicality of ‘blue’, which helped me to write a poem, and which helped give me permission to enter a life with Suzuki Roshi.
Decades later, Alan asked me to perform his funeral ceremony. He said he wanted a funeral ceremony for a Zen Abbot. I said of course, a hundred years from now. It was in about two months. He knew how to get out of the bottle.
Charlotte, I sat beside when she was a hundred and one, and said, “You know Charlotte through you, I had several small enlightenment experiences.” She drew herself up, put both fists on her hips and said, “What do you mean small!?”
Charlotte died in Muir Beach. Alan was cremated on Muir Beach.