February 23, 2013

Chickpeas with Alan Watts.


We meet in Manhattan, of course, Upper West Side, at Henry’s, 105th and Broadway.

Everything but the hummus sucks, so we share a plate of that. He doesn’t eat much. It’s worth the food sucking, Henry’s is the perfect New York place. Maroon everything, old school wooden bar, staff friendly as hell without slipping over the line. Just the kind of place Alan would get.

We don’t screw around, or make small talk. Alan is busy. He’s dead, for one thing, and that fills a dance card up pretty much right to the max. To the interview like two cops to the free donut table.

KS: Alan, you had a massive huge unsmall influence on Western interpretations of Eastern philosophy. I’m seeing meditation more in mainstream conversation. Not the practice of it, but the word “meditation.” As in “I’m all for meditation. People should.” Would you change the form of your contribution to us? Now, four decades later, what do you make of what we’ve made of it?

AW: You are this universe and you are creating it in every moment. Because you see, it starts now, it didn’t begin in the past, there was no past. See, if the universe began in the past when that happened it was now; see, but it’s still now—and the universe is still beginning now, and it’s trailing off like the wake of a ship from now, and as that wake fades out so does the past. You can look back there to explain things, but the explanation disappears. You’ll never find it there… Things are not explained by the past, they are explained by what happens now. That creates the past, and it begins here… That’s the birth of responsibility.

KS: Hm. Irresponsible question, given that. So okay, I retract it. Now is the thing, I think Eckhart Tolle might have really taken you up on that, by the way. But if I am creating this universe every moment, where is my huge salary and my Tesla S Model, and why is the book taking so much effort to write? For that matter, why did we break up? She’s a perfectly cool lady. As God, why am I calling so few of the shots?

AW: Everybody is fundamentally the ultimate reality. Not God in a politically kingly sense, but God in the sense of being the self, the deep-down basic whatever there is.

KS:  Okay, so God but without the power implied in being God. Oy. Dude I am hurting here. I’m getting over what I’m pretty sure is a breakup, probably a long term breakup, and you know it’s a cold world.

AW:  When you get free from certain fixed concepts of the way the world is, you find it is far more subtle, and far more miraculous, than you thought it was.

KS: Fair enough but miraculous nature notwithstanding, I’m lousy at change.

AW: The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.

KS: I would love to! But I feel seriously guilty.

AW: No work or love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.

KS:  I used to think that Love was my religion. But love keeps falling apart on me.

AW: Religion is always falling apart.

KS: Fair enough. So can love still be my religion?  Because I’m Buddhist. I mean, I took refuge, I have a teacher, but I am so not doing most of the daily practices. I think it might be like being a pseudo Buddhist, or a lame practitioner. (See what I did there?) I’m afraid my commitment is deep as a mud puddle. I accuse me of a shallow approach. I’m afraid that I only love the culture of Buddhism.

AW: Buddhism is not a culture, but a critique of culture, an enduring nonviolent revolution or “loyal opposition” to the culture in which it is involved.

KS: Oh. So I just love the inherent lack of culture in Buddhism, I guess. I don’t know, all I know is it goes far far away when I’m in normal life, then when I stay at monasteries, I love it. I drink from it like a tiny goat at a mountain stream. Grateful, thirsty, cloven-hoofed, smelly and bearded.

AW: This is the real secret of life—to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.

KS:  You mean right now right now? because I’m writing. I mean kind of. I’m writing and I’m sitting at your feet as an aspiring writer. It’s like “Writing Lite.”

AW:  Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.

KS:  No! I have to! I know I have to! I write constantly, and by that I mean two hours a day, which is the same as infinity. What you said was beautiful. My deepest darkest secret is I shorted my little brother once when I sold him a bag of weed; I was addicted at the time. And I made my sister cry once when she was doing something in the bathroom (I still don’t know what) and I kept banging on the door and she came out in a towel and she was mortified. And once my dog, Cowgirl—are you sure you want to hear this? Those secrets don’t matter. My biggest secret is she told me I never loved her. And I think I did but what if I didn’t, and I just can’t see it?

AW: When a man no longer confuses himself with the definition of himself that others have given him, he is at once universal and unique.

KS: Oh for Christ’s sake, I open up my heart to you and I get that pablum? I mean, you’re right of course, but Jesus, it rings a little hollow here. I mean, I’m talking to you about two bundles of self doubt coming together and compounding each other, and you hand me an overarching truth like that?

AW: Karl, you’re choosing the quotes, for God’s sake.

KS: That’s hardly the point. Now I feel like I’m back in the ex-girlfriend argument cycle. Why do I keep trafficking in pain? As far as I can tell, I don’t want to hurt anybody.

AW: The greater part of human activity is designed to make permanent those experiences and joys which are only lovable because they are changing.

KS: But she wanted me to stay. I wanted to leave. I left.

AW: It must be obvious that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.

KS: Do I take that to mean that instead of shallow, uncaring and lacking backbone, I’m off the hook, no bad?

AW: What you are basically, deep, deep down, far, far in, is simply the fabric and structure of existence itself.

Photo: Shinan Ahmad

KS: Okay, let’s say you’re right. Then how is it I lose interest? Why not, if I’m the life of life itself, just love and continue to be loved? It’s not like I want to be a perennial asshole.

AW: There is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love. It cannot be copied. You cannot talk yourself into it or rouse it by straining at the emotions or by dedicating yourself solemnly to the service of mankind.

KS: You a mind reader, too? Do you even know how many times I’ve prostrated myself asking to be of service, asking to be of benefit, wanting to somehow make a difference? I’m kind of over it, to tell you the truth.

AW: You see, many of the troubles going on in the world right now are being supervised by people with very good intentions whose attempts are to keep things in order, to clean things up, to forbid this, and to prevent that. The more we try to put everything to rights, the more we make fantastic messes.

KS: Do I ever. Ho!  Have you been reading the rants I’ve created on animal cruelty? Did Waylon put you up to this? I know its tedious, but animal cruelty just crushes my bones. It’s a steamroller carrying rocks, books and free weights. People do not get me on this. In my eyes, there’s no difference in worth between a human and say, a wolf.

AW: Wonder, and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important things which seem to distinguish men from other animals, and intelligent and sensitive people from morons.

KS: Ha! I like that. I make art.  All the time. In fact though I think a typical wolf superior to most folks. Not you and me, lesser people.

AW: You are an aperture through which the universe is looking at and exploring itself.

KS: (blushes.) Alan!  But here’s the thing

AW: The basic problem is to understand that there are no such things as things; that is to say separate things, separate events. That is only a way of talking. What do you mean by a thing? A thing is a noun. A noun isn’t a part of nature it’s a part of speech. There are no nouns in the physical world. There are no separate things in the physical world either.

KS: Have you ever considered that interrupting someone is a subtle form of violence?

I just spent some time in New York, people interrupt each other there pre-emptively. Seriously, like holding forth before the other one even starts talking, lest they bust in. It was nuts! I mean, did we come into this world to interrupt each other?

AW: We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

KS: I would be pissed that you seem to have an answer for everything, except the answers you have are so damn good. You are awesome, Alan. Simple as that.

AW: So then, the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.

KS: You love me! Admit it! Even though I’m just a broken, unfeeling callous shallow guy of a man.

AW: How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself anything less than a god.

KS: What the hell is an arabesque?

AW: The point is that God is what nobody admits to being, and everybody really is.

KS: Alan, you rock it so hard. Listen, I’ve read a few of your books. I stand behind The Book as my numero uno. What would be the one book of yours you would want elephant readers to check out, as a start?

AW:  I had a discussion with a great master in Japan… and we were talking about the various people who are working to translate the Zen books into English, and he said,

“That’s a waste of time. If you really understand Zen… you can use any book. You could use The Bible. You could use Alice in Wonderland. You could use the dictionary, because… the sound of the rain needs no translation.”


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Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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