By the end of the 1960s, Alan Watts had become one of the gurus of the counterculture. Though he was not really a Zen Buddhist, he was many a person’s gateway into the religion due to The Way of Zen published in 1958. His was a philosophical and populist approach to Eastern religion, an antecedent to the Eckhart Tolles of our time.
This short film, Now and Zen, was directed by Elda and Irving Hartley, shot in the gardens at their residence, and features Watts encouraging the viewer to go beyond the material world, especially as we understand it through language and our cultural viewpoint. Instead, he says, “This world is a multidimensional network of all kinds of vibrations” which infants understand better than us adults. The film then transitions into a guided sitting meditation of sorts, and ends with the sounds of nature. (Plus, there’s ducks.)
“Hence the importance of meditation in zen,” he continues, “which is, from time to time, to stop thinking altogether, and simply be aware of what is. This may be done very, very simply. By becoming aware of the play of light and color upon your eyes. Don’t name anything you see. Just let the light and the shadow, the shape and the color, play with your eyes, and allow the sound to play with your ears.”
Elda Hartley, working with her husband Irving, used this film to launch the Hartley Film Foundation, its mission to produce documentaries on world religions and spirituality. (It still exists as a non-profit). Zen as a subject came first, because Elda had been on a trip to Japan with Alan Watts, and when she proposed the film, he agreed to narrate. She would later make films with Margaret Mead, Joseph Campbell, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and others.
There are several other films on archive.org’s Hartley Productions page, and another Watts-narrated one: The Flow of Zen. (Warning: this is the opposite of meditative, and its harsh atonal electronic sounds very far removed from any mediation CD you might have kicking around.)
Better still: Open Culture also has plenty of Alan Watts in the archive.
Finally, as someone who spent many an undergrad night listening to his late-night lectures on KPFK and at the time not understanding a whit, it was edifying to hear Watts say in the above film:
As you listen to my voice, don’t try to make any sense of what I am saying. Just be aware of the tones and your brain will automatically take care of the sense.
I can vouch that he was right about that…eventually. But only after reading many, many books on Buddhism.
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.