Watts Not Lost

Alan Watts, who was born on this day in 1915, once described himself as a “genuine fake.” Whatever he was, he introduced countless numbers of people to Eastern philosophy.

The Way of Zen was the first book I read on Buddhism, and even though Zen was the central theme, there was a good bit of Taoism he threw in. I should say the it was first book I tried to read, because I didn’t get much of it. Unfortunately for me, Buddhism for Dummies hadn’t been published yet.

After a few other books and a number of experiences, I was able to go back to Watts’ book and make some sense of it.

Like the philosophies it details, and like the author, The Way of Zen is full of paradoxes, contradictions. For instance, the first sentence in the section on “Mahayana Buddhism” reads:

Because the teaching of the Buddha was a way of liberation, it had no other object than the experience of nirvana.”

But just a few pages earlier, Watts had written,

It is impossible to desire nirvana, or to intend to reach it, for anything desirable or conceivable as an object of action is, by definition, not nirvana. Nirvana can only arise unintentionally, spontaneously, when the impossibility of self-grasping has been thoroughly perceived.”

Upon my first reading, as a young high school student, it was difficult for me to wrap my mind around how, on one hand, nirvana could be a object or goal, and on the other, be impossible to define, to reach, or even conceive as any kind of object.

It took some learning about non-duality, and even then, it was not until I started to study the teachings of Nagarjuna in earnest that I came to understand how sufferings are nirvana, which is the ultimate answer to the riddle of nirvana.

And about which Watts wrote:

[If] there is no nirvana that can be attained, and if, there are no individual entities, it will follow that our bondage in the [world of suffering] is merely apparent, and that in fact we are already in nirvana – so that to seek nirvana is the folly of looking for what one has never lost.”

I sometimes wonder if Bob Dylan, who in the Sixties studied Eastern Philosophy, had been reading Watts when he wrote this line in “I’ll Keep It with Mine”:

You will search, babe
At any cost
But how long, babe
Can you search for what’s not lost?

In my humble opinion, the version below by Fairport Convention is the definitive version of that song. The lead vocalist is the late Sandy Denny, who was also born on January 6 in 1947:


“What is born is of the nature of death”

My cousin was 57 years old and lived with her husband in Northern California where they had raised three children, all adults now. Several years ago, she had breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. At that time, she appeared to be cancer free. Just a couple of months ago she had some tests done and again, it looked as though she was in the clear.

Over the Fourth of July weekend she emailed, writing that she was worried about how her stomach was swollen. She’d had a blood test and was going for a CT scan early the next week. It didn’t sound good to me. It sounded like ascites, where the abdomen becomes very swollen and distended. I’d seen that a lot at the liver clinic. People with ascites look like they are pregnant, and it is painful.

On Sunday, July 7, we talked on the phone. She was afraid the cancer had spread throughout her entire body. She cried. I didn’t say much. I just listened. Even though there was nearly 400 miles of distance between us, I tried to there for her, present in body and mind. I did remind her that fear was her worse enemy . . .

Cancer had spread through her body and ravaged it with a vengeance. Her kidney was more tumor than organ, I am told. She died this past Monday, July 21.

With cancer, you can never say never.

We corresponded via email frequently, sometimes as often as two or three times a week. Besides the bond of family, we had that special bond formed by our experience with the Big C. We both battled cancer and we also battled fear, and we would encourage one another to stay strong and fight the fight. In one of our last email exchanges, later the same day we talked on the phone, she wrote, “Fear sucks our life away.” I believe she understood that the greatest tragedy is not physical death but rather when a negative emotion like fear destroys what lives within us. I hope the realization helped her touch some peace in that final skirmish.

Sufferings and peace are both of the nature of the mind.
It is fortunate to have made the resolution to liberate oneself from sufferings
While understanding that all sufferings in the world and the peace called Nirvana are mingled into one,
Without having imperfect views and without taking the phenomenal world to be real.
It is fortunate to remember from one’s heart
Meditations on the transcendence of birth and death,
Knowing that what is born is of the nature of death
And not unchangeable as we imagine.

from Gyu-thog’s Hymn of Wisdom



Sufferings are Nirvana

Sufferings are nirvana is what the Heart Sutra means when it says, “Within emptiness there is . . . no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering . . .”

The Heart Sutra is emptiness from the Bodhisattva point of view. At times, I think it is easier to see things from the point of view of Buddha, for it is relatively undemanding to learn emptiness as the oneness of all beings. The Bodhisattva view is harder because you must grasp emptiness in terms of the liberation of all beings.

In the phrase sufferings are nirvana, “sufferings” stands for this world we live in, or samsara, the world of suffering. We all know that it is impossible to go through life without the experience of suffering, so Buddha’s first teaching was “Life is suffering.” What he meant was “Life is peace, nirvana.”

Mu Soeng, in his book on the Diamond Sutra*, writes,

[Although] the bodhisattva chooses to stay in samsara, she or he is not seduced by the things of samsara and thus dwell in nirvana, free from any kind of clinging.”

Clinging is a root cause of suffering; it can be clinging to the false sense of self, clinging to the relative as absolute, or clinging to sense-pleasures or possessions. Sometimes we can cling to suffering and see nothing but suffering.

By practicing non-clinging a bodhisattva cultivates the transcendent wisdom (prajna-paramita) that brings to light the universal emptiness and enables all beings to realize the kind of liberation in which all things are nirvana.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Mu Soeng, The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Wisdom Publications, 2011, 110


A Sense of Joy

It’s been a hard week, processing the recent deaths of several friends, a mentor, and then Tuesday night, the death of my sister-in-law’s brother from liver cancer, the same disease I have. As the old blues song goes, death don’t have no mercy in this land.

Since my mother died 25 years ago, there has been a phrase that I’ve used to help me deal with death: “Sufferings are nirvana only when one realizes that the entity of human life throughout its cycle of birth and death is neither created nor destroyed.” Even with this understanding, one naturally feels some sadness with the passing of a life.

On top of this, I am dealing with something I have haven’t really experienced before: fear. I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly apprehensive person. Foolhardy, perhaps. Fearful, no.

Jack’s death hits so close to home. I am better off than he was, though. He couldn’t be transplanted because the cancer had spread too far. I can. I have a chance he didn’t have. Yet, this offering of hope does not completely allay my fears about what I will soon undergo.

I was encouraged by a video clip on YouTube of a recent memorial concert for musician Lou Reed who died in October from liver cancer after receiving a transplant. His doctor related how at one point when Lou was sick in the Cleveland hospital and practically begging to be allowed to go home to New York, a liver suddenly materialized. Lou’s doctor went into the room and told him and Lou was like “Are you shitting me? Let’s go!” The doctor said, “Not a fear in his eyes. Nothing. And off we went . . .”

Lou was a practitioner of Tai Chi and studied Buddhist philosophy, although he was not a Buddhist (“I’d like to be” he said.) I wonder if he was familiar with the quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy.” As I face the same situation he did, I think that should be my mantra.

The Buddhist texts make it clear that the experience of joy in life is one of the primary goals of Buddhist practice. For instance, the Dharmasangiti Sutra says that the inner peace that comes from the practice of mindfulness “has as its real meaning the defeat of pain (such as infinite suffering) and the full attainment of joy in this world” and that “one must cherish enthusiasm through a eagerness for it; even as a man shut up in a burning house longs for cool water.”

So there is more to this thing we call mindfulness than merely having a calm mind, reducing stress, improving attention, being in the present moment and so on. It’s also very much about the enjoyment of being alive. And it is something we must be keen for, and work at. Joyous living is not a gift but rather a hard-won prize, obtained through the daily battle against suffering.

Nagarjuna listed priti, the sense of joy, as one of the seven factors of enlightenment, and further equated nirvana with infinite joy, just as he proclaimed that sufferings are nirvana and “the Buddha is like the sky and all beings have that nature.”

Joy is possible. I know it must be because I am surrounded by it. I live in a section of Los Angeles called Loz Feliz. I live in The Joy. And when you think about it deeply, you realize we all do.


Living in the Mountain

Saigyo Hoshi (1118 – 1190) was a Japanese Shingon priest who at times lived in temples on Mt. Koya and Mt. Yoshino, as well as many other locations, but spent much of his life as a wandering ascetic. He was also an accomplished poet. His name, Saigyo, was actually a penname, meaning “Western Journey.”

He approached both traveling and poetry as “a way of religious devotion.” And even though he lived much of his life “on the road,” he nonetheless lived deeply wherever he happened to be, in communion with nature, involved with the people he met. He seems to have been a friendly man, with a carefree and humble spirit, drawn to a solitary existence while often longing for companionship.

Saigyo painted by Hiroshige*

A word that occurs frequently in Saigyo’s poetry is awaré, meaning “sorrow from change,” “the pathos of things”, or “an empathy toward things”:

Yama fukaku   sa koso kokoro wa   kayou to mo
sumade aware  o  shiran mono ka wa

While you may travel back and forth
from deep in the heart of the mountain
unless you actually live here
you can’t know its sorrow.

Saigyo isn’t talking about physical space here. In this simple verse, the mountain represents the world and life. Often in Buddhism, we speak of living a life of detachment as a means to overcome the sufferings of the world. But there’s a caveat to that. To be detached, you must first be engaged. If we never take time to be engaged in the world, we can never understand its sufferings, and that lack of understanding, that lack of awareness, keeps us ignorant, and ignorance is not really bliss.

Nirvana is bliss, because nirvana means to have awareness of suffering. That’s why we also say sufferings are nirvana. It is only when we become aware of our sorrows that we can learn to work through them. And it is only when we are involved in the world and engaged in the sorrows of others that we can have true empathy.

The Fourth Precept of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing reads:

Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.”

In other words, we must live in the mountain to know its sorrows.

*from Edward F. Strange’s book, ‘The Colour-Prints of Hiroshige’, first published in 1925 by Cassell & Company, London