An excerpt from his autobiography, In My Own Way
Now to go on with the theme of loving oneself, and its paradoxes, it is well known
that-for men especially-the forties are a "dangerous" decade, because if they have
been well brought up, it takes them this long to realize that one sometimes owes it
to other people to be selfish.
I have often made the joke about one spouse asking the other, "Darling, do you
really love me? and being answered, Well, Im doing my best to do so.
For dutiful love is invariably, if secretly, resented by both partners to the
arrangement, and children raised in so false an atmosphere are done no service. If
they do not rebel they will emulate the hypocrisy, so that the sin of their fathers will
be visited upon them to the third and fourth generations.
Permanence may fairly be expected of marriages contracted and families raised
under the ancient system of parental arrangement, for then the partners are not
required to feel romantic love for each other.
But modern marriage involves the impossible anomaly, the veritable contradiction in
terms of basing a legal and social contract on the essentially mystical and
spontaneous act of falling in love.
The partners to such folly are sometimes lucky, and that is the best that can be said
for it. They may sometimes become wise in the ways of the human heart by
suffering each other, but such wisdom may also be learned in a concentration camp.
At the age of forty-five I broke out of this wall-to-wall trap, even though it was a
hard shock to myself and to all concerned. But I did it with a will, and thus
discovered who were my real friends.
In due course I became closer to them, and indeed to friends in general, than had
hitherto been possible for me.
For I found myself among people who were not embarrassed to express their
feelings, who were not ashamed to show warmth, exuberance, and earthy joie de
vivre, whereas I had been slipping into the emotional constipation peculiarly
characteristic of genteel academia-the mock modesty, the studied objectivity, the
cautious opinion, and the horror of enthusiasm.
I found, too, that these friends had always considered me a little distant and difficult
to know, and had charitably put it down to British reserve. Thus on my escape from
the suburban dormitory culture I found Roger Somers, Elsa Gidlow, Maud Oakes,
James Broughton, and Charlotte Selver right beside me.
So it was that I found a new self, fleeing to Rogers pad in the Tamalpais hills, where
we could strip to the waist, bang on drums, dance, and chant through most of the
night, or accompanying Charlotte to similar uproars in Charlie Brookss Greenwich
Village loft on Saturday nights after we had worked all day on our joint seminars.
From todays perspective this may not seem any great thing, and, looking back upon
it, one might be tempted to feel like a snake contemplating a former skin, or wife
regarding her wedding dress which, twenty years ago, was a splendid costume. Yet
remember that, at least in those days, college professors and their wives had no
truck with such revels, and confined their musical experiences to listening to classical
records, playing the piano, or participating in chamber music.
I cast no aspersion on these accomplishments, but they make no provision for
spontaneous rapture, and exclude from participation anyone not a good musical
technician. But, as I have said, everyone needs some form of musical utterance,
particularly of the kind which permits one to let go without inhibition.
Once this energy is allowed to flow it can, of course, be channeled and disciplined;
but in these revels we were not attempting to be musical performers-only to enjoy
ourselves-and for me, this sudden return to primitivity was a glorious and important
In all this my companion was the lady I had been watching while I talked in
Charlottes studio, whom I approached rather gently and subtly, and with whom I
went wandering about the streets of the Village, to Chumleys and the Grand Ticino,
and to the diminutive shops of her friends who sold musical instruments, strange
jewelry, and those timeless woolen textiles from Oaxaca and Peru.
Mary Jane (or Jano, as she had called herself from babyhood) was from the
mountains of Wyoming, but was well versed in the urbane ways of the world through
serving as the first woman reporter on the Kansas City Star-reveling in the musical
aspects of the black subculture of that city-and through several years sojourn in
New York spent mostly as chief public-relations lady for Mobil.
The catalyst that brought us together was Korzybskis General Semantics, she being
a director of the New York chapter of this discipline, which had invited me to tell
them about the mysteries of Zen.
Thereafter she was as relentlessly drawn into Chinese nature-mysticism and
Charlottes Western-grown Taoism as I was fascinated by her voice, her gestures,
the humor in her eyes, her knowledge of painting, of music, of colors and textures,
her skill in the art of the love-letter, and her general embodiment of something I had
been looking for all down my ages to be chief traveling companion-though my first
idea was to whisk her off to a lonely shack by the Pacific, where we could sit on
foggy nights by a log fire and talk over a bottle of red wine. Which was just what
Elsa let us have her hill cottage in Fairfax, an out-of-the-way village to the north of
Tamalpais which, in times past, has often served as a congenial retreat for out-of-
In this sanctuary, known only to closest friends, I compiled This Is It, a collection of
essays on Zen and spiritual experience, and wrote both Psychotherapy East and
West and The Joyous Cosmology. Here, where Elsa had left a garden on the hill, and
where the northern sky across the valley glowed green at twilight, the world woke up
Jano has a capacity for aesthetic absorption which reaches into pure ecstasy-in the
convolutions of a leaf, the light in a drop of water, the shadows of a glass in the sun,
patterns of smoke, grain in wood, mottle in polished stone.
Together in this cottage we slowed down time. We watched the sun blazing from a
glass of white wine and watered the garden at sunset, when the slanting light turns
flowers and leaves into bloodstone and jade. We studied the forms of shells and
ferns, crystals and teazels, water-flow, galaxies, radiolaria, and each others eyes,
and looked down through those jewels to the god and the goddess that may be seen
within even when the doubting expression on the face is saying, What, me?
We danced to Bach and Vivaldi, and listened to Ravi Shankar taking hold of the
primordial sound of the universe and rippling it with his fingers into all the shapes,
patterns, and rhythms of nature.
We found a lonely road across the mountain whereby we could reach the knoll in the
valley where Roger and Elsa lived without passing through built-up country, or go on
down to Stinson Beach to watch the sea birds and collect sand-dollars with James
Broughton-a road along lakes, through forests, and over high grassy slopes from
which one could look across the Pacific to the Farallone Islands; where we would stop
and listen to the loneliness and the meadowlarks.
I remember once coming upon Jano, standing alone, and looking through the fence
into Elsas garden like the child who has just discovered a hidden paradise through a
hitherto unnoticed gate in a wall or break in a hedge, though in this oft-repeated
fantasy the child finds that on returning again to the scene, the gate has vanished. I
put my arms around her from behind and whispered, But to this one you shall
In our conventionally scandalous situation we naturally kept unconventional
company, and it was Gavin Arthur who first pointed out how such a style of life
protected one from false friends.
In those days Gavin lived in poverty, but the several humble apartments in which he
lived seemed all the same, since he invariably covered the walls from floor to ceiling
with innumerable photographs of friends-celebrities, relatives, gurus, and
magicians-interspersed with mandalas, colorful astrological charts, and brilliant
Of these friends and associates he would tell lovingly cynical, ribald, and fantastic
anecdotes to keep his guests in stitches, all with a slight lisp in his soft, cultured
For Gavin is a supernexus in the Net through whom thousands of interesting people
have somehow been woven together. Today, though feeble in frame, he has come to
fame and some affluence because of the sudden and even astonishing popularity of
astrology among young people, who now throng to his apartment in San Francisco.
His heroes are Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, and Stewart Edward
White, and he is unpedantically learned in all the byways of
occultism and parapsychology.
He seems to come-both as a libertarian and as an occultist-from the last turn of
the centuries, from the days of H. P. Blavatsky, Annie Besant, W. B. Yeats, George
Russell, Aleister Crowley, Rudolph Steiner, and Algernon Blackwood-and the echoes
of former lives in Atlantis, Egypt, India, and medieval Provence murmur through his
We have had many friendly arguments about astrology and the reincarnation
hypothesis, since I have maintained that he believes in them for the wrong reasons
and that, in any case, their relevance to the way of the mystic is only tangential.
Once, back in 1939 and 1940, I went in heavily for astrology, but found its
mythological aspect far more interesting than its practical application.
Of the latter I have grave doubts, and attribute its successful prognostications more
to the intuition of the individual astrologer than to the science itself. Reincarnation I
find easy to understand, though I am more fascinated by the mysteries of eternity
than those of time, and feel that the former must be found in the present rather than
Reincarnation is, I think, sufficiently explained by the constant repetition of specific
patterns which one finds throughout nature, but which escape our attention when
the rhythm of repetition is extremely slow. Following the Aristotelian idea that the
soul is the form of the body, I think of my soul as pattern rather than substance.
In both senses of the phrase, it is the form that matters; and forms can repeat
themselves in both space and time without any substantial linkage between them, as
the atoms of the hand form the hand without being tied together with strings.
Successive waves that look alike are waves in the single field of water, but they do
not push or cause each other. Closely examined by the physicist, water itself turns
out to be wavicles. We cannot imagine how we would describe any basic substance
of stuff in all these forms, even were we able to detect it.
Now I am writing of the year 1960, and it will be remembered that this was when-in
San Francisco in particular-there were the first signs of an astonishing change of
attitude among young people which, despite its excesses and self-caricatures, had
spread far over the world by the end of the decade.
In a way, it started with the Beat Generation, and though I appear under a
pseudonym in Kerouacs Dharma Bums, Jano and I were in this milieu rather than of
it, and I was somewhat severe with it in my essay Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen
which appeared in the Chicago Review in 1958. But Jack Kerouac, Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, and especially Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, were now among our
Jack-a second Thomas Wolfe-was a warm and affectionate dog who eventually
succumbed to the bottle, but the others were more serious artists and, speaking at
least of Gary and Allen, more disciplined yogis. Allen is a rabbinic sadhu who can at
need transform himself into an astute and hardheaded lawyer, and only this
combination of fearless holiness, blazing compassion, and clear intellect has
prevented him from being jailed or shot long ago.
There was a night in Gavins apartment when we chanted sutras together for hours,
Allen ringing the time with his little Indian finger-cymbals, and through this purely
sonic communion, with the glee that Allen puts into it, we somehow reached each
other more deeply than in verbal exchanges.
There was a time, too, when we chanted the Dharani of the Great Compassionate
One all the way down New Yorks Second Avenue in a Volkswagen bus.
For some reason om and the chanting of om has always struck the press and Middle
Americans as something to be laughed off-like the Islamic prayer rug and the
Tibetan praying wheel-and it may be that the boys in Cairo speak with equal
flippancy of some of their weird brethren who turn Christian and go and get
themselves watered-as if that would do any good.
But when the musical Hair opened in San Francisco I was invited on stage before the
curtain went up to lead the cast in mantra-chanting, and today most of my college
audiences are disappointed if I do not give some time to exercises in meditation and
No one is more astonished at this than I. In my work of interpreting Oriental ways to
the West I was pressing a button in expectation of a buzz, but instead there was an
Others, of course, were pressing buttons on the same circuit, but I could not have
believed-even in 1960-that, say, Richard Hittleman, who studied with us at the
Academy, would be conducting a national television program on yoga, that numerous
colleges would be giving courses on meditation and Oriental philosophy for
undergraduates, that this country would be supporting thriving Zen monasteries and
Hindu ashrams, that the I Ching would be selling in hundreds of thousands, and
that-wonder of wonders-sections of the Episcopal Church would be consulting me
about contemplative retreats and the use of mantras in liturgy.
The power of something so apparently simple-and so seemingly absurd-as mantra-
and om-chanting is that it fosters a relaxed concentration on pure sound, as distinct
from words, ideas, and abstractions, and thus brings attention to bear on reality
Now the ears bring reality to us entirely as process, as flowing vibration, and we
hear this energy emerging from silence in the immediate moment and then echoing
away into memory and the past; just as the world emerges instantly and
spontaneously from space and no-thingness, which is as essential to energy as
negative electricity is to positive.
To the eyes and the fingers the world seems more static, rendering it less easy to
understand that a mountain is actually a vibration.
The Beat Generation was aggressively dowdy and slovenly, and lacked gaieté
desprit. Patrons of the Co-Existence Bagel Shop on Grant Avenue went about in
shaggy blue-jeans with their feet bare and grimy and their hair in pony-tails, and
overuse of marijuana made them withdrawn and morose, even if internally beatific.
(The style appeared again at the end of the decade, after the collapse of Haight-
Ashbury and the dispersion of the Flower Children.)
But in the circles in which we were then moving-in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and
New York-something else was on the way, in religion, in music, in ethics and
sexuality, in our attitudes to nature, and in our whole style of life. We took courage
and began to swing.
For there was an energy in the air that cannot entirely be attributed to the
revelations of LSD, an energy which manifested itself on the surface as color and
imagination in clothing, in a rebirth of poetry, in the rhythms of rock-and-roll and in
fascination for Hindu music, in social gatherings where people were no longer afraid
to touch one another and show affection (so that even men greeted one another with
embraces), and in a general letting down of hair, both figurative and literal.
One by one I watched this change coming over my friends as if they had been
initiated into a mystery and were suddenly in the know about something not
As I saw it subjectively, from my own limited point of view, all this started before the
shrine in Rogers home, in the spacious house which Henry and Virginia Denison had
built on top of the Hollywood hills, in Charlie Brookss loft, and in Jean Vardas
Sausalito studio on the ferryboat S.S. Vallejo, where Jano and I joined him as
shipmates in 1961-taking over the part of the boat which had formerly been the
atelier of Gordon Onslow-Ford.
This was before the founding of Esalen in Big Sur and the proliferation of growth
centers, before the Hippies and the Flower Children and the great days of the San
Francisco Oracle, before Maharishi Mahesh turned on the Beatles to Transcendental
Meditation, before Bob Dylan brought serious poetry back into popular music, and
before Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert scared Harvard and the nation at large with
LSD and the slogan, Turn on, tune in, and drop out. 1
I had, then, the feeling that from these centers, from these environments in which I
felt especially free to be myself, waves were spreading to find response in an
enormous number of people; helped by the fact that something similar was coming
from other centers as well.
And I should add that the energy that came from these centers was as much sucked
out as blown out. Ever since I had dropped out of the formal teaching profession in
1957, invitations came out of the blue to talk about Zen in particular and Oriental
philosophy in general at such places as Columbia, Harvard, Yale Medical School,
Cornell, Chicago, and Rochester as well as at Cambridge and the Jung Institute in
In the United States I found these lectures attended by unexpectedly large student
audiences, and the whole thing snowballed to the point where I began to fear that I
might be accused of corrupting the youth of Athens.
For in this period I was also making a series of programs for National Educational
Television, entitled Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life -which have been rebroadcast
about the country ever since-in the course of which I discovered that it was much
more fun to do television than to watch it.
For with the help of Richard Moore and Robert Hagopian of KQED in San Francisco
and their enthusiastic technicians, we worked out a way of doing these shows
without rehearsal, so that it came to the point where I had no more to do than walk
into the studio and begin.
We also got rid of the tiresome classroom atmosphere of educational television-the
desk, bookshelves, and blackboard-and set the show in a Japanese garden
fabricated from little more than a papier-mâché rock, pebbles strewn on the concrete
floor, and a few bamboos.
I had long felt that formal lectures and classes were less than satisfactory ways of
studying these matters, and therefore borrowed from C. G. Jung the technique of the
informal seminar, in which a relatively small group of students will meet, say, for a
whole weekend, for sessions in which an hours lecture is followed by another hour of
free discussion, affording also opportunity for personal conversation with members of
the group betweentimes.
These lectures are for interpretation rather than information, for it has always
seemed to me that facts are more easily communicated and remembered from books
than from lectures. For this reason I always talk spontaneously, with no other
preparation than my general reading and thinking, and preselection of the themes to
Notes embarrass me, and the reading of papers for subsequent publication I find
abominable. For my writing and my speaking are entirely different techniques.
Writing is slow and careful, at the rate of about two double-spaced typewritten pages
an hour, but with few corrections. I write in spurts with long pauses for a strange
kind of nonverbal pondering which suddenly transforms itself into articulate
But speaking flows easily, though the meaning is expressed, not simply by the
words, but by the pauses, gestures, and inflections of voice which cannot be
reproduced on paper.
This is an art in which I have never had any formal training, and I would be quite at
a loss to teach anyone else how to do it. It simply happens as if I were possessed by
Perhaps what I am talking about in words and thoughts is the interval between
thoughts, just as in music one hears melody not so much from the tones themselves
as from the intervals between them.
For this reason I cannot dictate books, and do not allow my lectures to be
transcribed, but only to be recorded on tape. Transcription is so laborious that I
would rather begin anew and write an article.
However, it was Henry (or Sandy) Jacobs who persuaded me about this time that
tapes would become just as important as books, so that he became keeper of the
archives of my recordings. Now Sandy, like Roger, was from Evanston and equally a
genius-misfit in that suburban middle-class environment.
He resembles a young version of my father, but with long hair, can mimic any kind
of voice, and has a bizarre multilevel sense of humor which may be heard at best in
his record The Wide Weird World of Shorty Petterstein (World Pacific).
With Jordan Belsen, the filmmaker, he invented Vortex, an audiovisual presentation
in a planetarium or other domed auditorium where kaleidoscopic abstractions on the
dome were harmonized with electronic and other forms of music from speakers
surrounding the audience.
Shortly after Sabro Hasegawas death in 1957, Sandy took one look at his exquisite
daughter, Sumire, and promptly married her; and it was thus that Sumire and I
made two records of haiku and other types of Japanese poetry, she doing the Japa-
nese and I the English, with background improvisations by Vincent Delgado on the
koto and shakuhachi.
Sandy records everything and is, in fact, seldom seen without a Nagra slung over his
shoulder. Thereafter he will put weirdly disparate scenes together, such as the
hysterically funny situation of an Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman making his pitch
to a recording of hypnosis induction which he has accidentally dialed on the
In replaying tapes for editing, it is all too easy to confuse what comes after with
what went before, just because you already heard it on the first run, and Sandy can
rework these confusions of sequence into mazes where the sense of time is garbled
beyond all hope, and the participants are involved in a time-trap from which there is
no escape except pulling the cord. In more serious moments he designs and installs
Like myself, Sandy is a Westerner semi-Orientalized, though, with Sumire as his
wife, he has gone further into the material aspect of this process, having a home
with two Japanese bathtubs (one inside and one out), and cuisine that is famous in
that Sumire is an undoubted master, not only of Japanese cooking, but also of
Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, and French.
Furthermore, he has great knowledge of
the ethnic music of Asia and Africa, and through him I came more and more under
the spell of the music of India, with its long flowing and pulsing phrases against the
droning tambura, deep and mysterious for all its monotony; its sense of far-off-
ness which the Japanese call yugen-as when wild geese are seen and lost in the
clouds; and the feeling that I have heard this music long, long ago, somewhere
For all its technical difficulty it is performed in a spirit of relaxed enthusiasm, as
when the drummer and the soloist on sitar or sarod laughingly challenge one another
to variations on ever more complex rhythms. By contrast the Western orchestra is
stiff, serious, and colorlessly and uncomfortably dressed.
Ever since starting work at the Academy in 1951 I had been making visits to Los
Angeles, mostly by car, often stopping on the way at Carmel, Big Sur, Santa
Barbara, and Ojai, since in all these places groups would regularly assemble for
seminars-mostly in private homes.
And what homes! I can still smell the logs burning in Margaret Lials music-haunted
cottage at Coastlands in Big Sur, with the fog closing in at night. And there was Alice
Ervings glass palace in Montecito, where house and garden seemed mysteriously
inseparable, and this generous and scholarly lady (she read classical Greek)
entertained us to thick steaks from the indoor barbecue and fabulous quantities of
And the house which Neutra designed for Jim Moore in Ojai, with its great lily pool
where frogs accompanied my lectures; his Bavarian wife Erica, pleasingly plump and
vivacious, and skilled in many arts of healing; their cat, rejoicing in the name of
Ratzapetz; and Jim himself, to all appearances a retired and conservative
businessman, but beneath, an ardent student of Krishnamurti and a whimsically
There was also Robert Balzers Japanese fantasy, high on the Hollywood hills, with
polished wooden corridors, white carpets, Chinese statuary, and a screen by Sesshu,
where this celebrated gourmet, chef, winemaster, and Buddhist entertained us one
evening to an imitation of Merce Cunningham dancing to the music of John Cage,
prancing to a metrical jig with an unfastened silk kimono trailing behind him, and
darting every so often to the piano to scramble a few notes.
As time went on most of my Los Angeles seminars were conducted in the bookshop
run by Harry Hill and Jack Brown, opposite the Ambassador Hotel, where, in addition
to regular books-of-the-month, they kept a large stock of esoterica.
These two men were my indefatigable helpers and agents in a time when money was
scarce; they put me in touch with more students and friends than I can count, so
that writing about my network of associates in Los Angeles is a technical
impossibility. Everything dissolves into a blur of gliding along freeways to symphonic
music and chattering through parties of colorful people in terraced houses hidden in
But again, as time went on, things centered about the hospitality of Henry Denison,
once a monk of the Vedanta Society, who, with his former wife Virginia, had
constructed that memorable home above the smog, overlooking the pine-bordered
lake which serves as the Hollywood reservoir.
Henry, in style if not in material power, is an undoubted aristocrat: tall, gentle,
courteous, urbane, and literate, but entirely relaxed in acceptance of his wondrously
crazy friends. Yet at the deepest level he has devoted his life to a relentless and
many-pathed quest for ultimate wisdom and enlightenment, so that for some years
now he has virtually vanished into India.
I miss him. I wish I could show him that what he is looking for is not in India but in
himself, and obvious for all to see. But he will not believe me because I am not a
guru, and all gurus represent an endless come-on where veil after veil shall lift, but
there must be Veil upon veil behind-until they bring us by our own desperation to
Virginia I call the Yummy Yogi, because she teaches hatha yoga and her own
physical form is an eloquent testimony to the worth of her discipline. I suspect that
some people have had difficulty in taking so glamorous a woman seriously as a yoga
teacher, but it has struck me that she is one of the few all-out-in-front no-nonsense
gurus that I have met, for she knows her work and does it effectively without
mystification, and is so refreshingly earthy and human about it that her work is not
befuddled with the flattery and adulation of starry-eyed disciples.
Shortly after I met Henry and Virginia they agreed upon an enviably civilized and
amicable parting of the ways, so that she was replaced in his household by his
present wife, Ruth, a very blond fräulein who-after harrowing adventures-escaped
from East Prussia during the Russian occupation.
Rutschen exhibits an imperfect mastery of English to its best possible advantage-die
schönste langwitch-a Germanized English so utterly funny that no one wants to
correct her, all the more so since it goes along with a personality so audaciously
adventurous, sexy, practical, and religious.
Whenever we came to Los Angeles she, or Virginia, or both of them
together, would stage far-into-the-night parties at which the guests might include
Aldous and Laura Huxley, Marlon Brando, John Saxon, Lew Ayres, Anaïs Nin, Zen
master Joshu Sasaki, and a fascinating cast-this is Hollywood-of psychiatrists,
physicians, artists, writers, dancers, and hippies who, in this context, somehow
managed not to bore each other.
Many of us would sleep on cushions on the floor and then continue the party at
breakfast. What we gathered for was simply conversation, and this way of passing an
evening is so much to my liking that I find myself going only rarely to the theater,
the cinema, and the concert hall. In this I am, I suppose, at a cultural disadvantage,
but I find the drama in which I participate more interesting than the drama I merely
Certainly, in gatherings of this kind I like to hold the floor, but only until anyone else
brings up something of greater interest, when I will become a rapt and silent
listener. No one could resist listening to Aldous Huxley, even if only to the elegance
of his voice and his use of language, with that recurrent phrase really most
extraordinary spoken with cultivated and scholarly detachment apropos of some
curious phenomenon of hypnosis, art history, neurology, optics, or exotic religion.
And I will stop and listen any time to Oscar Janiger, psychiatrist and pharmacologist,
who, as a frequent guest of the Denisons, will relate-not without humor-
his latest explorations of the puzzle of the nervous system, or spin fantasies about a
new kind of cocktail bar based on the fact that alcohol is more easily assimilated
through the rectum than by mouth.
Oscar (known to his friends as Oz, being a wizard) is one of those relatively few
psychiatrists who will take on people with real healthy psychoses instead of wasting
all his time piddling around with measly little neurotics, for he has an infectious
enthusiasm for his profession and must do much for his patients just by the
atmosphere of his intense interest in life.
I was one of his mescaline guinea-pigs during his long investigation of psychoactive
drugs, on which he has contributed extensively to the learned journals, and, for all
his learning, he does not use it to impress or pontificate but to sweep you along into
his own delight in his work.
Another doctor in the Denison entourage is the eye surgeon James Macy, who lives
in a houseboat somewhere on the maze of harbors north of Long Beach. As he is one
of my students who graduated into being a close friend, I seek him out on all
possible occasions simply to enjoy his attitude to life.
For Jim has been gloriously preserved, in spite of all the temptations of his
profession, from growing up (I was about to put a period here) into anything
resembling solemn and serious maturity, and has a style of conversation,
embellished with a colorful vocabulary which somehow gives the impression of the
strictly ludicrous side of the shit having just hit the fan.
Without knowing it, he is a born comedian-or whatever it is one calls a player in
farces-and, though his ancestors are Welsh, his appearance suggests origins in
Beirut or Baghdad.
But for no one would I stop talking more readily than Jean Varda. He must have
been sixty-five when I first really got to know him-at the time when Jano and I
moved to the ferryboat Vallejo and into the influence of his sunlit, multicolored,
Aegean-flavored studio, with the dhow Perfidia, lateen-rigged, tied up alongside.
Jean, or Yanko, was a Greek born in Smyrna, but who had lived so long in France,
England, and California that he boasted speaking all his languages with a foreign
His principal art was collage, done with brilliant scraps of cloth on plywood, in
which-according to his own story-he started out to be a charlatan and became an
artist in spite of himself. His passion, in art as in life, was translucent color.
He insisted that black was not to be found in nature, and that shadows must be seen
in color or not at all. He would reproach any woman who came to his studio dressed
He was a visionary who saw the entire universe as a manifestation of light, and
denounced Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt for bringing mud and grime into
painting, though to Yankos eyes ordinary natural mud was a scintillation of minute
In this studio, and aboard the Perfidia when we sailed the Bay on Sundays, Yanko
literally held court, sitting in a great peacock-style wicker chair at the head of a long,
rough table stained with paint and red wine. He worked, as I do, very early in the
morning, and as I sat at my typewriter I would hear him hammering and rustling
about in his studio.
A little after eight I would often light a cigar and wander over for coffee with him, to
be greeted with, My God, Alan, you smoke like a paratrooper. Come now ... tell me,
tell me, what is new? What profundities have you discovered? What mischief have
you perpetrated? What beautiful woman have you seduced?
Even at this hour there would often be others at the table-his current mistress, or
young men helping him with boat construction; and as the day went on a stream of
visitors would be in and out-diplomats, professors, ballerinas, fishermen, pirates,
and models-for hour after hour of multilingual badinage.
By lunchtime there were jugs of wine, Jack cheese, and sourdough bread on the
table, and towards evening Yanko would get together lamb or fish with olives and
peppers, vine leaves and lemons, eggplant and onions, and seemingly toss off Greek
and French dishes, mixing salad in an immense wooden bowl whose original use had
been in the casting of wheels for railroad cars.
He insisted that the lettuce be handled with reverent delicacy, and upbraided Gavin
Arthur for allegedly preparing salads in which the lettuce had first been trampled
All the while he would regale us with anecdotes, real and imaginary, and outrageous
commentaries on art, women, museum curators, nautical adventures, and strange
inventions-such as the Perfect Chair, which some insane craftsman had designed
from plaster casts of the bottoms of senators, stockbrokers, judges, archbishops,
opera singers, duchesses, bootblacks, bookies, and Bulgarians, thus arriving at a
cast of the ideal bottom for a seat which fitted no one.
He would play about with Greek compounds, and assert that an artist must have not
only sympathy and empathy, but also peripathy, catapathy, apopathy, anapathy,
parapathy, metapathy, bathypathy, and apathy.
He especially detested museum curators, whom he accused of a conspiracy to
destroy vision with canvases slurped with tar, asphalt, axle-grease, and bituminous
coal-dust mixed with cow dung.
He told us of a metaphysical machine which he had patented (it became more
complicated every time he talked about it), without ever divulging its operation or
He expatiated on the two schools of contemporary artists, the Bumblepuppies and
the Mumblepuppies, and explained that the perfect formula for the brand-name of
any product was to use obscene terms from foreign languages-for example, the
derivation of Coca-Cola from caca culo.
He talked of the clarity and luminosity of the air in Greece, told ribald tales of the
monks of Mount Athos, excoriated Turks and Bulgarians, related tragic stories of
lives and love-affairs ruined by horoscopy, explained how to make avgolemono soup,
and assured us that he was an absolutely trustworthy fellow except in two very small
matters: words and deeds.
All this came out with passion, exuberance, exaggeration, indignation, childlike
enthusiasm, and mock-malice from this stocky, white-haired unrepentant bohemian
in a bright pink T-shirt, bald on top and so moustached as to look like a benevolent
One sat on benches beside the long table, looking across the water to Angel Island
through clusters of masts, and on the sill of the great window were his sculptural
constructions made from decorative bottles glued atop one another and filled with
The candlesticks were adorned with bright-winged garuda figures from Bali, and on
the kitchen counter stood a huge wooden hare, carved by Oliver Andrews. To one
side was a puppet theater exhibiting a stuffed iguana made into a gold-and-green
dragon. The ceiling lights hung from a monstrous wooden cutout of an amphisbaenic
turtle, and by the stone fireplace (embellished with dark green bottle-bottoms) stood
a formidable and dangerous trident which Yanko would carry on ceremonial
occasions, crowned and robed as the representative of Poseidon.
For nothing pleased him more than riotous costume parties, usually organized by
court poet and master of ceremonies Victor DiSuvero, for which as many as four
hundred people would gather on the boat or on a neighboring beach, and at which
Varda-Poseidon would preside with an entourage of comely handmaidens in
For Yanko-with discrimination-adored women. For many years-almost until I
suggested that he take up the theme of the Celestial City-his collages were entirely
of courtly women, as if the mosaics of Ravenna had gone slightly cubist.
It was, indeed, rumored that society ladies of San Francisco would send their more
beautiful daughters to him for initiation into the arts of love, though when I told him
of this he discounted it-with a sly grin, blushing a little.
On fine Sunday mornings he would gather friends together for-often somewhat
perilous-jaunts on the Perfidia, Yanko being a stubbornly proud sailor who would
permit no motor aboard his boat, so that we were often becalmed or carried away by
Yet Perfidia was the bravest boat on the Bay, with eyes on the prow, a broad band of
vivid red below the gunwales, and a honey-colored lateen sail.
There was room aboard for at least a dozen passengers, often including such notable
beauties as Anne Ryan, Henrietta DiSuvero, Clare Wiles, and Ruth Costello, dressed
in their brightest and supplied with loaves and cold chicken and gallons of wine.
Seeing this craft gliding in full sail by the wooded cliffs of Belvedere, it was
impossible to believe that this was the United States and not the islands of Greece.
There were those, of course, who considered Yanko an impostor and a show-off, but
I think they were merely jealous of him. I cannot understand this dislike of showing
off, especially when-like Yanko-one does it with a certain humorous gaiety and
lack of seriousness.
When people are too modest and self-effacing the color goes out of life, the cities are
drab and the citizenry shabby and morose; and it always strikes me that those who
resent showing off have a peculiarly unrelaxed attitude to their own egos.
I lived alongside Yanko for ten years and absorbed all that I could of his spirit. I
never had the slightest trouble from him. When he could not pay for the utilities, he
would give us a painting, and now I wish we had taken more of them and let the
For he lived, on purpose, close to poverty so that he need keep no records, pay no
taxes, nor possess resources for which anyone could sue him. He was only
disconsolate that the art world virtually ignored his work, which began to get due
recognition only when he was close to death.
A year or so before he died he had a stroke which impaired the peripheral vision of
his left eye. When I saw him the day after, he said, Alan, I am afraid to tell this to
most of my friends because they will think I am crazy.
But I was quite sure I was going to die, even that I was dead. It was astonishing! It
was an apotheosis! I found myself somewhere where I and everything else were
transformed into a warm, golden light, where there were formless presences
welcoming and assuring me, like angels. How can I say it?
All this was much more real than ordinary life, which now seems like a dream, so
that I cant possibly be afraid of death any more. Can you understand that I knew for
sure that this golden light, this divinity which I became, is the real thing? That this
world in which you and I are talking is just a shadow? That we havent anything to
worry about at all-ever?
And my God, how can this have happened to me? Alan, you know I am a scoundrel
and a lecherous man. Tell me, what do you think? Am I nuts? Was I hallucinated? If
they wouldnt think I was quite mad I would recommend everyone to have a stroke.
Several months later he went to La Paz in Baja California to spend the winter in the
sun. In January 1971 he took off for Mexico City, and before leaving, treated a group
of friends to drinks in the bar at the airport.
But when he got off the plane in Mexico City, seven thousand feet above La Paz, the
change of altitude was too much. He dropped dead of a heart attack. Six hundred
people attended his funeral.
We mourned, not for him, but for ourselves that this radiance, this colossal joie de
vivre, had left us. The Gate Five community of the Sausalito waterfront has been
dreary ever since.
The hippies have been replaced by freaks, who look like peasants from a depressed
area of Hungary. Perhaps they are not to be blamed, for the industrial system offers
few jobs that any self-respecting person wants to do, and the intelligent young are
sick to death of a way of life that wastes and squanders material for the production
of baubles and bombs.
But consider that Yanko, too, had no job and nothing to mention in the way of
money. Nevertheless, he has left waves. He did more than anyone else to release me
from pomposity, from submitting to false modesty, and from knuckling under to the
general fear of the colorful and all that it signifies.
To go back. A year after Jano and I moved onto the boat, we and a group of friends
created the Society for Comparative Philosophy to sponsor my own work, and to use
the spacious studio for seminars and for a library to shelter my thousands of books.
Over the years we also raised funds to assist others working along the same lines,
and brought in, to conduct seminars, the Lama Anagarika Govinda, Charlotte Selver,
Krishnamurti, Douglas Harding, and the Lama Chögyam Trungpa.
I have a mild ambition to create something which will carry on, in some respects,
where the Bollingen Foundation left off, since most of the great foundations are
stuffy and unimaginative and do not support weird scholars investigating Amerindian
mysticism or Tibetan iconography.
But this may well change, for the new decade is seeing a remarkable revival of
interest in magic, witchcraft, alchemy, astrology and mythology which is invading
even the universities and creating the suspicion that the worldview of modern
science may itself have been a peculiar form of myth.
Science itself, by investigating alpha-waves, antimatter, holes in space,
psychopharmacology, and the dynamics of waves and cycles, may be hoisted by its
own petard to the confrontation of a universe very different from what we now
imagine, and its pandits may say with the Los Angeles entomologist first hearing of
von Fritschs discovery of bee language, I have the most passionate reluctance in
accepting this evidence.
For it does indeed seem that many scientists have a religious fervor and a vested
interest in demonstrating that nature is only a rather inefficient machine-to which
they must paradoxically ascribe their own boastedly superior intelligences.
My own interest, however, remains with the mystical rather than the occult, for
having seen what we have done with ordinary technology I am troubled by what
black magic we might commit with psychotechnology.
I have said, however, that my ambition for creating a philosophical foundation is
mild, for it has become by strong impression that human institutions and
collectivities, as distinct from individual people, are impervious to grace.
This is no more than a tentative opinion, but I feel that nations, churches, political
parties, classes, and formal associations of almost all kinds operate at the lowest
level of intelligence and moral sensibility.
This is, in part, because they are not organized as an individual is organized. They
act upon rules and verbal communications which, when compared with the organic
nervous system, are of extreme crudity.
It is this which gives us the feeling that most social problems are too complicated,
for, in the same way, the human body would seem too complicated were it not that
the nervous system-as distinct from conscious attention and memory-can handle
an immense number of variables at the same time.
Societies, insofar as they are restricted to linear, strung out, forms of
communication, can handle very few variables. Therefore governments and
corporations, in attempting to keep up with the infinitely varied and multidimensional
process of nature, resort to words on paper-to laws, reports, and other records-
which would take lifetimes for any intelligent being to read, much less assimilate.
Yet for all these mountains of paper covered in small print, only a tiny amount of
natural process has been described, and we do not really know whether what we
select for description are actually the most important features of the process. In
other words, our social organizations are not organic.
As they become more complex and computerized they become less organic, because
their code of communication-however fast and complex-rests on a basic confusion
of symbol with reality, of words and numbers with natural events.
When natural process is represented in words, it appears that there are separable
things and events which may be dealt with individually, one by one. There are not.
In nature each event implies, or goeswith, all other events in varying degrees of
relevance, and we have only the sketchiest notions of how those degrees may be
measured-for how often do the most momentous events arise from the most trivial?
A chance meeting precipitates a marriage, and an accident in a laboratory touches
off a major scientific discovery. I feel, therefore, that we have long been involved in
an unworkable and destructive method of managing both the social order and the
natural environment, and that our main hope of finding something better will be
through study of the nervous system itself-and by some other way than
representing it as a mechanical process.
Until we find some such alternative (and I may be saying that we must learn to
develop our intuitive rather than our intellectual faculties) I have little hope for
constructive, large-scale social changes. Society will remain a swamp redeemed only
by some relatively few individual plants of fruitful beauty.
Yet it is not difficult for me to be in a state of consciousness where all such problems
dissolve. I see that nature makes no real errors; that man and his institutions are as
natural as anything else; and, furthermore, that my complaints about any situation
are as natural as the idea that I have no reason to complain.
Of course this curiously exhilarating feeling implies no specific course of action, and
may therefore be dismissed as worthless philosophy or mysticism. But, on the other
hand, no one has yet come up with a philosophy, a set of general principles or laws,
which does provide adequate rules for action, without first having to be modified into
chaos with exceptions.
And the sharper ones intellect, the faster one finds reason to take exception to any
general principle. Thus we began the study of Greek in school by learning the
conjugation of regular verbs, only to discover that the verbs most commonly used
As a language becomes rich with usage and idiom it strays from grammar, or rather
from description by grammarians, and must be learned by ear. So, too, life must be
played by ear-which is only to say that we must trust, not symbolic rules and linear
principles, but our brains or natures.
Yet this must bring one back to the faith that nature makes no mistake. In such a
universe a decision which results in ones own death is not a mistake: it is simply a
way of dying at the right moment.
But nothing can be right in a universe where nothing can be wrong, and every
perception is an awareness of contrast, of a right/wrong, is/isnt, bright/dark,
hard/soft situation. If this is the very nature of awareness, any and every
circumstance, however fortunate, will have to be experienced as a good/bad or
plus/minus in order to be experienced at all.
By such reflections I think myself into silence and, by writing, help others similarly
spellbound by thoughts and words to come to silence-which is the realization that a
linear code cannot justly represent a nonlinear world. But this intellectual silence is
not failure, defeat, or suicide.
It is a return to that naked awareness, that vision unclouded by commentary, which
we enjoyed as babies in the days when we saw no difference between knower and
known, deed and happening.
This time, however, we are babies reborn-babies who remember all the rules and
tricks of human games and can therefore communicate with other people as if we
were normal adults. We can also feel, as a just-born baby cannot, compassion for
Now, from the standpoint of the wise-baby the confusions of the normal adult world
cannot be straightened out without becoming even more confused. There is no
solution except to regain the babys vision and so realize that the confusions are not
really serious, but only the games whereby adults pass the time and pretend to be
Seen thus, the world becomes immeasurably rich in color and detail because we no
longer ignore aspects of life which adults pass over and screen out in their haste
after serious matters.
As in music, the point of life is its pattern at every stage of its development, and in a
world where there is neither self nor other, the only identity is just This-which is all,
which is energy, which is God by no name.
*Excerpted from In My Own Way. Copyright (c) 2007 by
Alan Watts. Reprinted with permission of New World Library,
or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
order this book from Amazon.com, click here!