A while back, my friend Steve posted a good question on Facebook: “Buddhist friends, fellow practitioners of any path, a line in the late Nanao Sakaki’s collected poems, How to Live on the Planet Earth, has stuck with me as a kind of koan: ‘Sit in the outside of your meditation.’ What does that mean?” I had no idea, but the question stuck with me. Like I said, it was a good question.
A good question is like a big old iron chest dug up unexpectedly while roto-tilling the Vegetable Garden of the Mind. The chest is rusted shut. It can’t be opened but you know it’s full of treasure. So you haul it along till you find some way to pry it open. The thing is, lugging around a weighty item like that is carking hard work. So hard you wind up using words like carking to describe your heroic efforts. Anyhoo, this one weighed on me so much I decided to skip zazen that morning and go for a hike in the Catskill Mountains. I live there, so it’s not as far away as it sounds. Without that bothersome treasure chest, my mind was able to soar. Right up into the clouds of memory.
I got to reminiscing about the time Steve and I visited the ruins of Alan Watts’s library. Watts was a renegade Anglican cleric who wrote a lot of books and did more to popularize Zen Buddhism in America than just about anybody. One of his books was called Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown. It’s my favorite title of all time, and he wrote it in his library. I’m writing this in my library. You could say I have a thing for libraries. No wonder I wanted to visit Alan Watts’s. It was located in a place called Druid Heights, a former bohemian enclave north of San Francisco. I can’t remember exactly where it was or how Steve and I found our way there. I do remember walking a mile or more along an iffy, bay-scented dirt road past ten thousand ticks leering out from the brush. In their eyes we were lunch.
Near the end of the road, we found Alan Watts’s library: a once-marvelous, hand-crafted, circular, wooden structure now coming apart at the seams. Big shreds of fallen eucalyptus bark hung like crepe from the roof. A long-defunct PG&E meter affixed to the side of Alan Watts’s library looked like the forgotten coffin of electric power. Around back we found the moldering remnants of a vintage Marin hot tub and a tired-out statue of Ganesha, “remover of obstacles.” Through a shattered bathroom window we could see an old toilet, busted and begrimed. For some reason this creeped me out more than anything else.
Did I mention that Alan Watts died in his library? Near the front of the building was a small wooden stupa, poking up like a sore thumb from a nest of weeds. A portion of Alan Watts’s ashes are interred beneath it. Another portion sits under a boulder at the end of an overgrown trail at Green Gulch Zen Center. The boulder itself has been devoured by tangling vines of poison-oak. The whereabouts of yet another portion of Watts’s ashes are, well, unknown. They disappeared shortly after his death in 1973, when his widow’s home was burglarized. The thief probably did not know what was inside the pretty urn he was swiping
We dared not go inside the old library. Instead, we peered in through narrow, vertical windows that had not been washed since the Nixon years. Steve looked through one and I walked 180 degrees around the library to look through another. The room was, for the most part, barren. The circular walls were lined with empty bookcases. The only piece of furniture was a small woodstove, painted bright red. It hadn’t been fired up in years. Through the dust motes and ghosts of Alan Watts’s ideas, Steve and I could see each other across the room. We each had a camera and became a couple ghosts taking pictures of one another. Afterwards Steve suggested we sit zazen outside on the rotting deck of Alan Watts’s library. And we did.
Alan Watts’s library.
Holy crap! I think I just pried open that treasure chest.