The Greatest Hits of Alan Watts: Stream a Carefully-Curated Collection of Alan Watts Wisdom

“My name, ‘Alan,’ means ‘harmony’ in Celtic and ‘hound’ in Anglo-Saxon. Accordingly, my existence is, and has been, a paradox, or better, a coincidence of opposites.”

Zen Buddhism is full of paradoxes: practical, yet mystical; seriously formal, yet shot through with jokes and plays on words; stressing intricate ceremonial rules and communal practices, yet just as often brought to life by “wild fox” masters who flout all convention. Such a Zen master was Alan Watts, the teacher, writer, philosopher, priest, and calligrapher who embraced contradiction and paradox in all its forms.

Watts was a natural contrarian, becoming a Buddhist at 15 — at least partly in opposition to the fundamentalist Protestantism of his mother — then, in the 1940s, ordaining as an Episcopal priest. Though he left the priesthood in 1950, he would continue to write and teach on both Buddhism and Christianity, seeking to reconcile the traditions and succeeding in ways that offended leaders of neither religion. His book of theology, Behold the Spirit, “was widely hailed in Christian circles,” David Guy writes at Tricycle magazine. “One Episcopal reviewer said it would ‘prove to be one of the half dozen most significant books on religion in the twentieth century.'”

As a Buddhist, Watts has come in for criticism for his use of psychedelics, addiction to alcohol, and unorthodox practices. Yet his wisdom received the stamp of approval from Shunryu Suzuki, the Japanese Zen teacher often credited with bringing formal Japanese Zen practice to American students. Suzuki called Watts “a great bodhisattva” and died with a staff Watts had given him in hand. Watts didn’t stay long in any institution because he “just didn’t want his practice to be about jumping through other people’s hoops or being put in their boxes,” writes a friend, David Chadwick, in a recent tribute. Nonetheless, he remained a powerful catalyst for others who discovered spiritual practices that spoke to them more authentically than anything they’d known.

Watts, a self-described trickster, “saw the true emptiness of all things,” said Suzuki’s American successor Richard Baker in a eulogy — “the multiplicities and absurdities to the Great Universal Personality and Play.” It was his contrarian streak that made him the ideal interpreter of esoteric Indian, Chinese, and Japanese religious ideas for young Americans in the 1950s and 60s who were questioning the dogmas of their parents but lacked the language with which to do so. Watts was a serious scholar, though he never finished a university degree, and he built bridges between East and West with wit, erudition, irreverence, and awe.

Many of Watts’ first devotees got their introduction to him through his volunteer radio broadcasts on Berkeley’s KPFA. You can hear several of those talks at KPFA’s site, which currently hosts a “Greatest Hits Collection” of Watts’ talks. In addition to his 1957 book The Way of Zen, these wonderfully meandering lectures helped introduce the emerging counterculture to Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, forgotten mystical aspects of Christianity, and the Jungian ideas that often tied them all together.

No matter the tradition Watts found himself discussing on his broadcasts, listeners found him turning back to paradox. Hear him do so in talks on the “Fundamentals of Buddhism” (top), and other talks like the “Spiritual Odyssey of Aldous Huxley,” the “Reconciliation of Opposites” and a talk entitled “Way Beyond the West,” also the name of his lecture series, more of which you can find at KPFA’s “Greatest Hits” collection here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Italian Advice on How to Live the Good Life: Cigarettes, Tomatoes, and Other Picturesque Small Pleasures

“I guess everybody’s got a dream and we’re all hoping to see it come true,” muses Giovanni Mimmo Mancusou, a philosophical native of Calabria, the lovely, sun-drenched region forming the toe of Italy’s boot, above. “A dream coming true is better than just a dream.”

Filmmakers Jan Vrhovnik and Ana Kerin were scouting for subjects to embody “the very essence of nostalgia” when they chanced upon Mancusou in a corner shop.

A lucky encounter! Not every non-actor – or for that matter, actor – is as comfortable on film as the laidback Mancusou.

(Vrhovnik has said that he invariably serves as his own camera operator when working with non-actors, because of the potential for intimacy and intuitive approach that such proximity affords.)

Mancusou, an advocate for simple pleasures, also appears to be quite fit, which makes us wonder why the film’s description on NOWNESS doubles down on adjectives like “aging”, “older” and most confusingly, “wisened.”

Merriam-Webster defines “wizened” with a z as “dry, shrunken, and wrinkled often as a result of aging or of failing vitality” … and “wisened” not at all.

Perhaps NOWNESS meant wise?

We find ourselves craving a lot more context.

Mancusou has clearly cultivated an ability to savor the hell out of a ripe tomato, his picturesque surroundings, and his ciggies.

“Serenity, joy, ecstasy” is embroidered across the back of his ball cap.

His manner of expressing himself does lend itself to a “poetic thought piece”, as the filmmakers note, but might that not be a symptom of struggling to communicate abstract thoughts in a foreign tongue?

We really would love to know more about this charming guy… his family situation, what he does to make ends meet, his actual age.

Home movies accompany his nostalgic reverie, but did he provide this footage to his new friends?

Did they hunt it down on ebay? It definitely fits the vibe, but is the man with the eyebrows Mancusou at an earlier age?

Our star pulls up to a small petrol station, declares, “All right, here we go,” and the next frame shows him wearing a headlamp and magnifier as he peers into the workings of a pocket watch:

Time out of mechanical. It’s magic.

Is this a hobby? A profession? Does he repair watches in a darkened gas station?

The filmmakers aren’t saying and the blurred background offers no clues either. Curse you, depth of field!

We’re not even given his home coordinates.

The film, part of the NOWNESS series Portrait of a Place, is titled Paradiso, and there is indeed a village so named adjacent to the town of Belvedere Marittimo, but according to census data we found on line, it has only 14 residents, 7 male.

If that’s where Mancusou lives, he’s either 45-49, 65-69, 70-74, or one of two fellows over age 74…and now we’re really curious about his neighbors, too.

No shade to Signor Mancuso, but we’re glad to know we’re not the only viewers left unsatisfied by this portrait’s lack of depth.

One commenter who chafed at the lack of specificity (“this video is a random portrait of basically anyone in the world that is happy with the little he has”) suggested the omissions contribute to an Italian stereotype familiar from pasta sauce commercials:

People in Italy actually work and have ambitions you know? And often are very well-educated and hard-working. The perspective of Italy that you have comes from the American media and Italian post-war neorealism. Indeed, Oscar-winning Italian people complained about the fact that what the media wants is seeing Italians wearing tank tops doing nothing if not mafia or smelling the roses.

Watch more entries in the NOWNESS Portrait of a Place series here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.


Haruki Murakami Jazz Mixes: Hear Playlists of Jazz Pieces Namechecked in Norwegian Wood and 1Q84

Haruki Murakami has long since broken with the traditional model of the novelist, not least in that his books have their own soundtracks. You can’t go out and buy the accompanying album for a Murakami novel as you would for a movie, granted, but today you can even more easily find online playlists of the music mentioned in them. A die-hard music lover, Murakami, has been name-checking not just musicians but specific songs in his work ever since his first novel, 1979’s Hear the Wind Sing. Eighteen years later, he titled a whole book after a Beatles number; the tale of yearning and disaffection in 1960s Tokyo that is Norwegian Wood would become his breakout bestseller around the world.

When Norwegian Wood first came out in Korea, where I live, it did so as The Age of Loss (상실의 시대). That title is still referenced in the video above, an hourlong mix of songs from the novel posted by the Korean Youtube channel Jazz Is Everywhere. (This doesn’t surprise me: here–where Murakami’s many avid fans in Korea refer to him simply as “Haruki”–more of his work has been translated into Korean than ever will be into English.)

Selections include the Bill Evans Trio’s “Waltz for Debby,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado,” Thelonious Monk’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” and Miles Davis’ “So What.” More recently, Jazz Is Everywhere put up a mix of songs from Murakami’s 2011 novel 1Q84, featuring the likes of Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington.

These mixes focus on jazz, one of Murakami’s most beloved genres; as is well known, he even ran his own jazz bar in Tokyo before turning novelist. (Its name, Peter Cat, now adorns a book café here in Seoul.) But the 1Q84 mix ends with Leoš Janáček’s decidedly un-jazzy Sinfonietta, a somewhat jarring orchestral piece that became an unlikely hit in Japan soon after 1Q84‘s publication. This only hints at the variety of Western music of which Murakami has made literary use, much as he has transposed the techniques of the Western novel (a translator from English in his spare time, he has also produced a Japanese version of The Great Gatsby) into his native language. An eclectic, improvisational, and often understated style of storytelling has resulted — which, much like jazz, has proven to know no cultural boundaries.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How Did Cartographers Create World Maps before Airplanes and Satellites? An Introduction

Regular readers of Open Culture know a thing or two about maps if they’ve paid attention to our posts on the history of cartography, the evolution of world maps (and why they are all wrong), and the many digital collections of historical maps from all over the world. What does the seven and a half-minute video above bring to this compendium of online cartographic knowledge? A very quick survey of world map history, for one thing, with stops at many of the major historical intersections from Greek antiquity to the creation of the Catalan Atlas, an astonishing mapmaking achievement from 1375.

The upshot is an answer to the very reasonable question, “how were (sometimes) accurate world maps created before air travel or satellites?” The explanation? A lot of history — meaning, a lot of time. Unlike innovations today, which we expect to solve problems near-immediately, the innovations in mapping technology took many centuries and required the work of thousands of travelers, geographers, cartographers, mathematicians, historians, and other scholars who built upon the work that came before. It started with speculation, myth, and pure fantasy, which is what we find in most geographies of the ancient world.

Then came the Greek Anaximander, “the first person to publish a detailed description of the world.” He knew of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Libya (or North Africa). They fit together in a circular Earth, surrounded by a ring of ocean. “Even this,” says Jeremy Shuback, “was an incredible accomplishment, roughed out by who knows how many explorers.” Sandwiched in-between the continents are some known large bodies of water: the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Phasis (modern-day Rioni) and Nile Rivers. Eventually Eratosthenes discovered the Earth was spherical, but maps of a flat Earth persisted. Greek and Roman geographers consistently improved their world maps over succeeding centuries as conquerers expanded the boundaries of their empires.

Some key moments in mapping history involve the 2nd century AD geographer and mathematician Marines of Tyre, who pioneered “equirectangular projection and invented latitude and longitude lines and mathematical geography.” This paved the way for Claudius Ptolemy’s hugely influential Geographia and the Ptolemaic maps that would eventually follow. Later Islamic cartographers “fact checked” Ptolemy, and reversed his preference for orienting North at the top in their own mappa mundi. The video quotes historian of science Sonja Brenthes in noting how Muhammad al-Idrisi’s 1154 map “served as a major tool for Italian, Dutch, and French mapmakers from the sixteenth century to the mid-eighteenth century.”

The invention of the compass was another leap forward in mapping technology, and rendered previous maps obsolete for navigation. Thus cartographers created the portolan, a nautical map mounted horizontally and meant to be viewed from any angle, with wind rose lines extending outward from a center hub. These developments bring us back to the Catalan Atlas, its extraordinary accuracy, for its time, and its extraordinary level of geographical detail: an artifact that has been called “the most complete picture of geographical knowledge as it stood in the later Middle Ages.”

Created for Charles V of France as both a portolan and mappa mundi, its contours and points of reference were not only compiled from centuries of geographic knowledge, but also from knowledge spread around the world from the diasporic Jewish community to which the creators of the Atlas belonged. The map was most likely made by Abraham Cresques and his son Jahuda, members of the highly respected Majorcan Cartographic School, who worked under the patronage of the Portuguese. During this period (before massacres and forced conversions devastated the Jewish community of Majorca in 1391), Jewish doctors, scholars, and scribes bridged the Christian and Islamic worlds and formed networks that disseminated information through both.

In its depiction of North Africa, for example, the Catalan Atlas shows images and descriptions of Malian ruler Mansa Musa, the Berber people, and specific cities and oases rather than the usual dragons and monsters found in other Medieval European maps — despite the cartographers’ use of the works like the Travels of John Mandeville, which contains no shortage of bizarre fiction about the region. While it might seem miraculous that humans could create increasingly accurate views of the Earth from above without flight, they did so over centuries of trial and error (and thousands of lost ships), building on the work of countless others, correcting the mistakes of the past with superior measurements, and crowdsourcing as much knowledge as they could.

To learn more about the fascinating Catalan Atlas, see the Flash Point History video above and the scholarly description found here. Find translations of the map’s legends here at The Cresque Project.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

“Oye Como Va” Played by Carlos Santana & Musicians Around the World

By now, you’re familiar with “Playing for Change,” a multimedia music project that brings together musicians and singers from across the globe–some well known, many others not. Their latest video features Carlos Santana playing “Oye Como Va,” a song he made famous in 1970. He’s joined by Cindy Blackman, Tito Puente, Jr. (whose father wrote the song in 1963), bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, Rubén Rada and musicians from Colombia, Panama, Uruguay, the Congo, Brazil, and beyond. For more Playing for Change videos, see the Relateds below. The one featuring John Paul Jones performing “When The Levee Breaks” is a personal favorite.

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Great Mixtapes of 1970s Japanese Jazz: 4 Hours of Funky, Groovy, Fusion-y Music

Like American jazz, Japanese jazz started with earlier styles like foxtrot and ragtime. Jazz was an international music, spreading across the Atlantic to London, Paris, and Berlin and across the Pacific to Shanghai, Manilla, and Tokyo. Luxury liners crossed the ocean and their house bands ferried new styles of dance music with them. “There was precious little improvisation,” in early Japanese jazz, “but that wasn’t as big a deal, as you know, in American jazz of the 1910s or ’20s,” historian E. Taylor Atkins tells NPR.

Japan even had its own jazz age. The word first entered the country in a 1929 “popular song attached to a movie called Tokyo March,” says Atkins. “The lyrics refer to jazz, and … that’s sort of where it came into mass consciousness. It was associated with dance halls, it was associated with ‘modern girls’ and ‘modern boys’ — the Japanese version of flappers and dandies — and the urban leisure classes: excess, and dogs and cats sleeping together, and all those sorts of portents of future calamity.”

When calamity came in the form of World War II, jazz was banned in Japan as the music of the enemy. On August 15, 1945, when the Emperor went on the radio to announce Japan’s surrender, Hattori Ryoichi, “Japan’s premier jazz composer and arranger,” found himself stuck in Shanghai, “the city that since the late 1920s had served as the jazz Mecca of Asia,” Michael Bourdaghs writes in a history of Japanese pop music. “From now on,” Ryoichi supposedly toasted his fellow musicians upon hearing the news, “we can carry out our musical activities in freedom.”

How little Ryoichi could have predicted the kind of musical freedom Japanese jazz would find. But first there was a period of imitation. “In the early postwar years, Japanese musicians were essentially copying the Americans they admired,” notes Dean Van Nguyen at The Guardian. Some of the most popular bands on TV and film were comic acts like Frankie Sakai and the City Slickers, a big band formed in 1953 in imitation of Spike Jones & The City Slickers. Another popular jazz comedy act, Hajime Hana & The Crazy Cats “are significant,” writes Atkins, “for capitalizing and purveying an image of jazz musicians as clownish, slang-singing ne’er-do-wells.”

Pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi was “the first Japanese artist to break away from simply copying American artists and develop a distinctive sound and identity that incorporated Japanese harmonies and instruments,” Van Nguyen writes. By the later 60s and 70s, economic development led to a “renaissance” of Japanese jazz, writes the Sabukaru Guide to 1970’s Japanese Jazz. “The unique creative landscape in the jazz community, along with Japanese music as a whole becoming simultaneously more experimental and mainstream, led to an abundance of excellent Japanese jazz music in the 1970s.”

In the four playlists here, you can hear hours of this groundbreaking music from some of the greatest names you’ve probably never heard in Japanese jazz. These include trombonist Hiroshi Suzuki, “one of the most-revered Japanese jazz artists,” notes the blog Pink Wafer Club, “even if most listers are only familiar with his work thanks to the number of times his music has been sampled.” Suzuki’s 1975 album Cat is one of the funkiest jazz albums from any country released in the decade.

These playlists also include fusion keyboardist Mikio Masuda, saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, and other musicians who, like Akiyoshi, helped spur “young artists to evolve away from Blue Note mimicry towards free jazz, fusion, funk, spiritual, modal and bebop,” writes Van Nguyen. “These daring virtuosos implanted rock and electronic elements, or took influences from Afrobeat and flamenco music.” Their international influences reflected 1970s jazz experiments around the globe. The music also benefitted from the excellent recording quality of Japanese studios and the rise of smaller labels, which allowed for more experimental artists to record and release albums.

Find out above why “many young Japanese musicians cite the jazz innovators from this era as influences,” Sabukaru writes. Read about ten of the best 1970s Japanese jazz records here. See a huge guide to Japanese jazz from all eras at Rate Your Music, and find tracklists with timestamps for each of the playlists above at their YouTube page.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Bach Played Beautifully on the Baroque Lute, by Preeminent Lutenist Evangelina Mascardi

In the two videos here, see Argentine lutenist Evangelina Mascardi play passionate renditions of J.S. Bach compositions on the rich, resonant Baroque lute. In Bach’s time, lutenists were some of the most widely-admired instrumental players, and it’s easy to see why. The Baroque lute is not an easy instrument to play. Much less so were the theorbo and chitarrone, instruments like it but with longer necks for longer bass strings. We see Mascardi concentrate with utmost intensity on every note, a virtuoso on an instrument that Bach himself could not master.

Indeed, there has been significant debate over whether Bach actually composed his four pieces for solo lute for that instrument and not another. For one thing, he seems to have had a “weak grasp” of the instrument, guitarist and lutenist Cameron O’Connor writes in an examination of the evidence.

“The lute may have been an intimidating subject even for Bach.” There are several problems with authenticating existing copies of the music, and “none of the pieces in staff notation is playable on the standard Baroque lute without some transposition of the basses and changes in chord positions.”

Classical guitarist Clive Titmuss notes, “as student guitarists, we learned that J.S. Bach wrote four suites and a number of miscellaneous pieces for the lute, now played on the guitar.” However, recent scholarship seems to show that Bach, that most revered of Baroque composers, “did not write any music specifically intended for solo lute.” As O’Connor speculates, it was “the Lautenwerck, or lute harpsichord… which Bach most likely had in mind while composing many of his ‘lute’ works.” You can see it in action here.

What does this debate add to our appreciation of Mascardi’s playing? Very little, perhaps. British lutenist and Bach scholar Nigel North writes in his Linn Records Bach on the Lute set, “Instead of labouring over perpetuating the idea that the so-called lute pieces of Bach are proper lute pieces I prefer to take the works for unaccompanied Violin or Cello and make them into new works for lute, keeping (as much as possible) to the original text, musical intention, phrasing and articulation, yet transforming them in a way particular to the lute so that they are satisfying to play and to hear.”

A lutenist with the skill of North or Mascardi can transform solo Bach pieces — whether originally written for violin, cello, or lautenwerck — into the idiom of their chosen instrument. In Mascardi’s transformations here, these works sound positively transporting.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Margaret Atwood Releases an Unburnable Edition of The Handmaid’s Tale, to Support Freedom of Expression

When first published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale drew acclaim for how it combined and made new the genre conventions of the dystopian, historical, and fantasy novel. But the book has enjoyed its greatest fame in the past decade, thanks in part to a 2017 adaptation on Hulu and a sequel, The Testaments, published two years thereafter. It’s even become prominent in mass culture, frequently referenced in discussions of real-life politics and society in the manner of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451.

Like George Orwell and Ray Bradbury’s famous works, The Handmaid’s Tale also seems at risk of becoming less often read than publicly referenced — and therefore, no small amount of the time, publicly misinterpreted. The only way to fortify yourself against such abuse of literature is, of course, actually to read the book. Fortunately, The Handmaid’s Tale is now widely available, unlike certain books in certain places that have been subject to bans. It is against such banning that the latest edition of Atwood’s novel stands, printed and bound using only fireproof materials.

“Across the United States and around the world, books are being challenged, banned, and even burned,” says publisher Penguin Random House. “So we created a special edition of a book that’s been challenged and banned for decades.” This uniquely “unburnable” Handmaid’s Tale “will be presented for auction by Sotheby’s New York from May 23 to June 7 with all proceeds going to benefit PEN America’s work in support of free expression.” You can bid on it at Sotheby’s site, where as of this writing the price stands at USD $70,000.

Penguin has experimented with physically metaphorical books before: the paperback edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, whose cover becomes less “censored” with use. More recently, the graphic design studio Super Terrain published Fahrenheit 451, its title long a byword for book-burning, that only becomes readable with the application of heat. But it’s Ballantine’s 1953 special edition of that novel, “bound in Johns-Manville quinterra, an asbestos material with exceptional resistance to pyrolysis,” that truly set the precedent for this one-off Handmaid‘s tale. Those making bids certainly understand the book’s place in today’s cultural debates — but let’s hope they also intend to read it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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