Born in Great Britain in 1915, Alan Watts moved to the U.S. as a young man and is best known for helping to popularize Eastern philosophy in the West through his writing. Watts said true Zen is not the life of the “solemn and sexless ascetic,” but rather the liberation of the mind from traditional thought forms. Married three times and father to seven children, he described himself as an “unrepentant sensualist . . . an immoderate lover of women and the delights of sexuality,” as well as of fine food, drink, tobacco, clothes, books, and nature — sentiments that made him popular with members of the Beat movement of the 1950s and the hippie counterculture of the 1960s. He died in 1973. The following excerpt is from In My Own Way, copyright © 1972 by Alan Watts. Reprinted by permission of Russell & Volkening as agents for the author.
This is all there is; the path comes to an end among the parsley.
Perhaps I can express this Buddhist fascination for the mystery of nothingness in another way. If we get rid of all wishful thinking and dubious metaphysical speculations, we can hardly doubt that — at a time not too distant — each one of us will simply cease to be. It won’t be like going into darkness forever, for there will be neither darkness, nor time, nor sense of futility, nor anyone to feel anything about it. Try as best you can to imagine this, and keep at it. The universe will, supposedly, be going on as usual, but for each individual it will be as if it had never happened at all; and even that is saying too much, because there won’t be anyone for whom it never happened. Make this prospect as real as possible: the one total certainty. You will be as if you had never existed, which was, however, the way you were before you did exist — and not only you but everything else. Nevertheless, with such an improbable past, here we are. We begin from nothing and end in nothing. You can say that again. Think it over and over, trying to conceive the fact of coming to never having existed. After a while you will begin to feel rather weird, as if this very apparent something that you are is at the same time nothing at all. Indeed, you seem to be rather firmly and certainly grounded in nothingness, much as your sight seems to emerge from that total blankness behind your eyes. The weird feeling goes with the fact that you are being introduced to a new common sense, a new logic, in which you are beginning to realize the identity of ku and shiki, void and form. All of a sudden it will strike you that this nothingness is the most potent, magical, basic, and reliable thing you ever thought of, and that the reason you can’t form the slightest idea of it is that it’s yourself. But not the self you thought you were.