Out of Your Mind
Essential Listening from the
Alan Watts Audio Workshop
(Sounds True)Back in 1958, radio station KPFA took me on as the volunteer announcer/engineer for Sunday nights since I wasn't doing much else except trying to escape from the graduate school program I had come to despise. I knew to cue up the records, turn the Ampex tape recorder on and off, and how to pronounce "Johann Sebastian Bach" and "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart" and "Sidney Bechet" without making a fool of myself.It was a radio station trying to sound like the BBC for America or at least for the Bay area where we lived. On weekends, no one was around, no doors were locked (no revolutionaries, no pickets, no rage) so it was me alone with 59,000 watts and a possible 25,000 listeners.I did what I was supposed to, tried to study what made this strange operation function, and, since the station was teaching me more than I was learning in my lackluster graduate program at Berkeley --- I dropped out of school, became a full-time bad poet and radio nut. At the same time, I left my wife and past behind me.
I'd get to the station at seven in the evening. On the air, there would be a tape of commentary (Russell Kirk, Robert Schutz, Casper Weinberger, Bill Mandel), short concerts (Pergolesi, Dallapiccolla, D'aquin), an hour or two of drama from the BBC (Hamlet, The Lady's Not for Burning, All That Fall), and finally a longer concert that ran up to midnight at which time I signed off, locked up, went home.
Right smack-dab in the middle of my shift sat Alan Watts. The program was called "Way Beyond the West," and it was aired every Sunday night --- the closest thing to Pacifica's religious program.
Most often it was on tape, a half-hour of musing, very amusing musing, on Zen, Buddhism, psychology, etymology, eastern culture, Christianity, Hinduism, morals, Japanese thought, Indian history, American vagaries, Tibetan lamas, the role of the roshi, the stages of world culture, the meaning (and joining) of divine opposites, the Baghavad-Gita, the Kama Sutra, the Book of the T'ao.
Watts spoke with an elegant accent, seemed to know everything there was to know about Eastern religion and thought. And he loved paradox. "There is a famous koan about a young Buddhist student sitting at Zazen," he would tell his rapt audience (me!): "The roshi comes along and asks the young monk what he is doing.
"'I am meditating so I can become the Buddha."
"The roshi picked up a brick that was lying nearby. 'Can you make a mirror out of this brick?' he asked the student.
"'In the same way, you will never become enlightened by meditating,' said the master.
"This koan is not very popular in present-day Japan," said Watts, smiling, at the microphone (and me, me pretending not to be charmed out of my wits, listening to my new, perfectly spoken master guru).
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Hearing these twelve discs from Sounds True put me back there again, I'll tell you: me an eager student, eager to learn all that I could about these exotic religions which were so contrary to the doughty Episcopalianism I had grown up with. With the Hindus, Watts would tell the audience, you are not born into the world, you are born out of it. You are thus, never a part of of the universe, certainly not apart from it, unless you choose. There are the contraries --- Yin and Yang, the black and the white, two fishes, or the two lovers, tied together, the white with a black eye, the black with a white. Forever tied together, all part of the unity, the head and the tail. Look at a pair of scissors. On one side the cutting edge. On the other side, almost inviting, a pair of women's legs.
The concept of the psychological shadow, he would tell us (what some might call the "black" side of us) was Jung's "greatest creation," for it explained so much of human fears: prejudice, the fear of the dark from within, our own unknown.
Watts would often speak of visiting Jung, watching the swans on Lake Geneva: When a male and female go to make love, he tells us, neither knows which is male, which is female. So they fight, until they can figure out which is which.
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"What is the most important thing in the world?" Watts would ask, offering up the famous koan. Answer: "The head of a dead cat." Are you in charge of your body? What would happen if, when you got up in the morning, you had to turn on your liver and heart and digestive system? "Who is it that beats your heart?" he asks. "Is it not the same as the one who shines the sun?"
To be "holy" is to be whole. But why is there never a laughing Jesus? Kali, yes. In the Hindu play, Kali, the chaotic part of Shiva, finally destroys the world; he turns to leave, and on the back of his head lies the mask, the face of Brahma, the creator. It can be high comedy, those Hindu religious epics.
The stories ... the stories. If we were to transcribe them, I am quite sure we would never be able to make them jell. Watts was not linear, his thoughts ran together: "slippery" was one of his favorite words. There always seemed to be a perfect wholeness in what he said, but one could never find a center --- that Judeo-Christian point of supposed Truth that we western religionists had learned too early to grasp onto, holding on for dear life.
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Mostly it was tapes that he had made earlier in the week, but every now and then Watts came in to do the program in person. He would come up the back stairs and in the back door, would sit for awhile in the control room, behind me, me with all the lights and dials and tapes and discs, he with his bad teeth and big cigar, sitting there behind me. By the time I first met him I could hardly be expected to make conversation with him for he was my new radio god, a man who could take the confusion of the divine and divinities and somehow, in thirty minutes, make it all parse.
In the studio, behind the glass, at eight on the dot I would put him on the air ... no notes, just his stinky cigar in the ash tray, Watts in front of the great silver RCA microphone, alone in the beige soundless studio, me responsible for sending his words out to the night, all 59,000 watts of Watts speaking the mystery, speaking it so beautifully, his words mixing so beautifully with the aether, explaining the unexplainable: if you want to find it, you won't find it; if you don't care, it will probably come; if you don't reach out, it will probably be there, waiting for you, what you have been seeking, all along ... the divine within and without, what you were seeking before you started seeking.
And then at exactly 8:29:30, he would utter one last pregnant aphorism, perhaps capped with his hoarse, cigar-smoker's laugh, then he would nod at me. I'd turn off his microphone, turn mine on, say, "That was Alan Watts with 'Way Beyond the West.'" By the time I was done with my announcements, he would be gone.--- L. W. Milam