- Shunryu Suzuki Index  - WHAT'S NEW - table of contents

People Index or link pages - for more people, see Interviews, Brief Memories, Suzuki Stories, LinksComments, CukeSanghaNews, and a few other places for some stragglers.

Alan Watts

some Alan Watts links below

Watts in Crooked Cucumber

12-07-13 - Last week Katrinka and I saw screening of Mark Watts' film Why Not Now? about his father, Alan. Mark said he started off writing a voice over for the film which reached sixty pages. Then he realized that every word he spoke would have to replace one of his fathers'. He ended up using none of what he'd written and letting Alan speak for himself. There's very little history. No mention of Watts' first book on Zen he wrote when he was twenty-one or of the highly infulential Way of Zen (which Watts told me he made a penny a copy on). We loved the film. I was reminded of how brilliant Alan Watts was and how clearly and interestingly he expressed his understanding of the perennial philosophy. One phrase that stuck in my memory: Thinking is a good servant and a bad master.

Sam Bercholz, founder of Shambhala Publications, told me that Watts was with Trungpa on the day before he died early in the morning. He said that Trungpa loved Watts' books and thought he must be enlightened till he met him. Still Trungpa, like Suzuki, had great respect for Watts. This in contrast to the opinion of many of their students whose attitude was represented in Crooked Cucumber in this exchange.

Watt's didn't like the restrictions of institutions and discipline, didn't hang around the Zen Center, but he was an essential element in its formation and a good friend. Claude Dalenberg always revered Watts whom he'd followed to San Francisco from Chicago when Watts came to be head of the American Academy of Asian Studies. Dick Baker said that Watts' East Coast connections were invaluable in fundraising for the purchase of Tassajara. He said that within a few sentences Watts could make someone unfamiliar with Buddhism feel comfortable, positive about it. In the thousands of conversations and interviews I've had over the years with people who came to practice Zen, a great number of them said their first interest came from listening to Watts on the radio or seeing him on TV. I have an image of a girl racing home from school on her bike to make the show.

I was most fortunate to meet Watts when I first came to Zen Center. I was living with Loring Palmer on Buchanan street in Japantown. A famous astrologer named Gavin Arthur lived in an apartment next to Loring. Alan and his wife Jano arrived at the party and they were both so friendly and funny. Jano said she'd read a book called Nature, Man, and Woman and said she thought, "I'd sure like to make love with the guy who wrote that book."


Alan Watts dot org

Mark Watts YouTube page

Mark Watts interviewed on People Speak Radio

Sam Bercholz on Trungpa and Watts

Alan Watts in Crooked Cucumber


The first small groups to study and meditate gathered with Shigetsu Sasaki on the  East Coast and Nyogen Senzaki on the west. Books informed by Buddhism by  Hermann Hesse, Ezra Pound, and the Beat writers were discussed in the  coffeehouses of New York and San Francisco and by college kids in Ohio and  Texas. Alan Watts, the brilliant communicator, further enthused and informed a  generation that hungered for new directions.

172 - 175

Suzuki had arrived at the height of what Kato called the "Alan Watts Zen boom." His early students came to him from the loose subculture of artists, nonconformists, and beatniks in the Bay Area, where interest in Asian thought was high. They heard about Suzuki at the American Academy of Asian Studies (the Academy), at the San Francisco Art Institute, where Bill McNeil studied, and in the coffeehouses of North Beach and Berkeley.


     Kato had been associated with the Academy from the mid-fifties, ever since the former director, Alan Watts, had asked him to join the faculty. The staff included distinguished teachers from India, China, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, and Tibet, who imparted first-hand instruction in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sanskrit and other languages, and the arts and histories of Asia.


     D. T. Suzuki lectured at the Academy when traveling between Japan and the East Coast. The highly respected avant-garde sumi artist and printmaker Saburo Hasegawa taught calligraphy and tea ceremony there and had been a sort of informal resident therapist, encouraging Watts to slow down and smell the powdered green tea, which he called "the froth of jade." Tobase, Suzuki's predecessor at Sokoji, had taught calligraphy at the Academy and at Sokoji as well, and was well loved by his students.


     It was at the American Academy of Asian Studies, earlier in the decade, that the poet Gary Snyder and the whole student body had been captivated by Ruth Fuller Sasaki's formal exposition of the Rinzai Zen method of working with koans. The matriarch of American Zen, she had married Shigetsu Sasaki, her Zen teacher and the teacher of the First Zen Institute in New York City. After his death she had moved to Kyoto to study and help foreigners who wanted to study Zen. She subsequently helped Snyder get a grant to go to Japan to study Rinzai Zen and work with her translation team.


     The three-story Victorian East-West House was near Sokoji on California Street. An early attempt at communal living organized by poets, artists, and students of Asian studies, it was set up after Alan Watts was asked to leave the Academy because of philosophical conflicts with the administration, and because they objected to his libertine lifestyle. The East-West House was so popular that in 1958 the Hyphen House was started a few blocks away, a big grey building informally named for the hyphen between East and West. Many of the best-known characters from the San Francisco Beat scene lived in or visited these houses, including the poets Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Lew Welch, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Philip Whalen.


     Whalen was about to publish his first book of poetry. He'd caught the Zen bug and was aware of Suzuki, having seen him walk by on the street wearing his priest's cap. He later met him at a wedding Suzuki performed. Whalen thought he was a delightful person, but was on his way to Japan to study the real thing, Rinzai Zen.


     Everyone seemed to be going to Japan or wishing they could. Watts criticized the old-fashioned Japanese monastic way as "square Zen." He also put down "Beat Zen" and made a case for what he dubbed "Zen Zen." Whalen called Beat Zen a hallucination but wondered if there could be any Zen Zen without checking out the "squares" in Japan. Just before he left for Japan he ran into McNeil and his wife. McNeil said he'd see Whalen over there before long, but he loved studying with Suzuki and was going to continue that for a while until Suzuki thought he was ready to go.


     There was definitely a buzz about the new priest at Sokoji. A few of the hip crowd, like McNeil and Joanne Kyger, had joined the morning zazen. But it seemed awfully early in the morning to most of them.


     Suzuki was surprised by all this interest in Zen. He had never experienced anything like it in Japan. He enjoyed the lively, hip, intellectual milieu, but he didn't venture out much into its world; he just tended to his temple. When people asked about Zen he always said, "I sit at 5:45 in the morning. Please join me." It was his calling card. There didn't seem to be any hook. But to the few who were joining in and getting to know him, Suzuki himself was the hook.


Seeking for something in the dark is not like usual activity, which is based on an idea of gaining something.

Kato invited Suzuki to join his class on Buddhism at the Academy. It was located in a fine old rambling mansion in the fashionable Pacific Heights section of San Francisco. Twelve students sat at a round oak table. Among them were three women in their forties: Betty Warren, Della Goertz, and Jean Ross. Kato introduced the class to "Reverend Suzuki." Suzuki was reserved and they were shy with him, as he was surely a Zen master and therefore enlightened—something they'd all been reading a lot about in the books of Alan Watts and D. T. Suzuki. A Zen master was said to be someone who had had satori—a flash of insight that changed one's life forever. There didn't seem to be any satori that night, but there was a lot of smiling between Kato's students and Suzuki, who was comfortable being quiet and listening. In the latter part of the class Kato asked Suzuki if he'd like to say something.

     "Let's do zazen," he replied.

     The little zazen that had been taught by Japanese priests in America had been done in chairs, but Suzuki suggested they get down on the floor and face the wall. It was awkward, because there were no cushions. Suzuki's English was a bit garbled, but soon he had everyone sitting on the floor, where they remained for twenty minutes.


     Before they parted Suzuki told them he sat zazen for forty minutes every morning except for days with the numbers four or nine in the dates (the traditional days for an abbreviated schedule and doing personal chores in Zen monasteries). "Please come join me if you wish."


Betty Warren and Della Goertz were both native Californians who came to the Bay Area in the thirties to go to college and become teachers. After taking a college semantics class with the noted linguist S. I. Hayakawa, Della saw things in a new light, took some comparative religion classes, and began studying at the Academy in the early fifties. After hearing Alan Watts on KPFA radio, Betty decided to take a course on Zen Buddhism at the Academy. Betty, Della, and Jean Ross met each other in Kato's class, and for many years their spiritual paths would run parallel.


     Della was accustomed to coming by in the afternoons when her kindergarten class was over to see if she could be of use. She drove Suzuki to visit Alan Watts and to the homes of Japanese-Americans so he could perform memorial services for their departed ancestors.


     Walking up Pine Street toward Van Ness Avenue, Kwong passed a store called the Bazaar which was offering a free poster, a photo of the Kamakura Buddha seated in meditation. He took it home, tacked it to the wall, and told Laura his disappointing experience at Sokoji. He liked Alan Watts's inspiring talks on the radio, but all this guy Suzuki seemed to have was a hall for ceremonies and meditation. Kwong was not into that old stuff. He was into liberation and seeing that this was it, as Watts said. That wasn't it. Kwong was listening to the hippest people, and nobody was talking about meditation. But he kept looking at that buddha on the wall. Then he met Bill McNeil at the Art Institute and was taken with McNeil's confident energy. McNeil talked about sitting zazen with Suzuki as if it were pretty cool. Kwong went home and the buddha on the wall was still looking at him, so he decided to go back to Sokoji and try zazen.


Alan Watts was giving one of his freewheeling talks at the Berkeley Buddhist Church on a Tuesday evening in May, piecing together Zen, Taoism, psychoanalysis, and Christian mysticism into a fascinating mosaic. Attending the lecture were Watts and Suzuki's colleague Wako Kato, a man named Iru Price, and a formally dressed young couple, Grahame and Pauline Petchey. Over refreshments, Price presented his card, listing numerous positions and ordinations with Buddhist groups in Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, and America.


     Later Richard [Baker] attended a seminar held by Alan Watts and Charlotte Selver, a German woman who taught sensory awareness. Richard already knew Watts and was especially delighted to meet Selver. When Selver left town, he sought out Suzuki again. Though Richard had been to a couple of Suzuki's lectures, he realized for the first time that there was some sort of community around Suzuki. He was definitely interested in this master but thought he himself wasn't up to the meditation.


Claude Dalenberg was a quiet, serious man with a dislike of religious pomp and ceremony, true to his Dutch Reform roots. He had been pursuing Buddhist studies since 1949 after hearing a talk in Chicago by Alan Watts. Claude had come to San Francisco in the early fifties. At the American Academy of Asian Studies, he met D. T. Suzuki, Wako Kato, Gary Snyder, and a whole raft of Asian scholars, poets, and philosophers of the Beat generation.


     Richard knew many people outside Zen Center, and he knew how to spark their interest. He went into overdrive to give Suzuki a secluded, natural setting to establish his way. A brochure was developed, and more benefits were planned. Among those who lent their enthusiastic support early on were a number of philosophers and writers who knew Buddhism well, including Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, Huston Smith, Nancy Wilson Ross, Paul Wienpahl, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Campbell, and Michael Murphy from nearby Esalen Institute.


When Suzuki returned from Japan, almost everyone was addressing him as Suzuki-roshi. Alan Watts had sent a donation for the purchase of the Horse Pasture and included a letter suggesting that it was time to stop calling Suzuki "reverend." Watts said it was not an appropriate title, and they were using it incorrectly anyway. He advised against calling him "sensei" as well. They should say "Suzuki-roshi" and use "sensei" for assistants like Katagiri.

     Richard and some of the others had been calling him "roshi" for years, but the community had not made up its mind how to address Suzuki till then. In the Wind Bells of the time one could find references to Shunryu Suzuki, Rev. or Reverend Suzuki, Suzuki Sensei, Sensei, Roshi Shunryu Suzuki, Suzuki-roshi, Master Suzuki, and Master of Sokoji.

     Watts's suggestion came from his familiarity with Rinzai Zen, in which the title "roshi" really does mean something close to "Zen master." In Soto Zen, "roshi" is used as a term of respect by priests to address older priests.

     Suzuki asked why people were calling him roshi. When they told him about Alan Watts's letter, he became convulsed with laughter. His older students talked to him about it in a meeting. He protested but, after discussing it with Katagiri, finally gave in, and from then on he was Suzuki-roshi.


     So many people had helped. There were a number of benefits and a "zenefit," where the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Quicksilver Messenger Service played at Chet Helms's Avalon Ballroom. Ali Akbar Khan gave a concert. Charlotte Selver and Charles Brooks offered a body/mind awareness workshop. Alan Watts gave a talk. Gary Snyder and many other poets, artists, and musicians donated time, readings, performances, and works. Suzuki showed up at the zenefit and waved to the crowd, who cheered him.


Alan Watts, Richard De Martino, and Erich Fromm, among others, had written about Zen and psychoanalysis.


Alan Watts came to Tassajara for the first time that summer with his wife, Jano. He had been a great help to Suzuki from the first, sending him students and introducing him to colleagues in the San Francisco Asian studies scene. Several of Zen Center's major
donors at the time of the purchase of Tassajara had come through Watts and his East Coast connections. Though he loved rituals, Watts had scorned discipline, zazen, and the institutions that reminded him of the stuffiness of British boarding schools. He had interpreted Zen to millions and helped to open the minds of a generation, yet Suzuki's simple presence could make him feel off balance.

     Watts was a heavy drinker. He had ended a long dry period that summer on the drive down to Tassajara. Suzuki sat with him and Jano that night on the back porch of a century-old stone room overlooking the creek. Niels, attending Suzuki, joined them. Watts, usually so confident, able to improvise lucid spiels on live radio when he couldn't even walk straight to the mike, had lost his cool and was chattering nervously. Suzuki was being terribly quiet, which just made Watts talk more. Jano was being quiet, too. Watts kept getting up to "have some of your marvelous water," and he'd come back smelling more of alcohol each time. Niels, unable to take it any longer, started talking with Watts and kept a running patter going for an hour while Suzuki and Jano sat silently.

     The next day, as Niels helped Suzuki in his garden, they could hear Watts on the bridge expounding his understanding of all-that-is to some dazzled guests. He had regained his composure and was standing tall with a toga and a staff. Niels expressed regret at having talked so much the night before, saying he'd been a very bad student.

     Suzuki said, "Oh no, you were a very good student last night. Thank you very much."

     *"Well, we used to think he was profound until we found the real thing," Niels said.

     "You completely miss the point about Alan Watts!" Suzuki fumed with a sudden intensity. "You should notice what he has done. He is a great bodhisattva."

*DC note: This final exchange from the asterisk was actually with Bob Halpern.

394 [A final visit with Suzuki shortly before he died]

     Ryuho stood by and listened as Alan Watts and Jano paid their respects. He couldn't understand what they were saying, but it was a lively meeting, considering Suzuki's condition. Watts was in fine form. Jano teased her husband, and Ryuho worried that Suzuki would die on the spot, he was laughing so hard.

402 [At Richard Baker's Mt. Seat Ceremony, Suzuki's last public appearance]

The assembled crowd was utterly hushed when the spine-chilling sound of intermittent thuds and jangling bells jolted everyone to attention. Suzuki was walking with the staff Alan Watts had given him.