by Phillip Starr
For those may not have heard of him, Alan Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) was a British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter of Zen. A one-time Episcopal priest, the church still utilizes some of his writings to this day. He was a prolific writer, particularly after studying Eastern ways of thought. authoring some 25 books and many articles. His first book, “The Way of Zen” (1957) remains a classic to this day. I was most fortunate in being able to meet him at a summer seminar in 1973 shortly before his untimely demise in an airplane crash later that year. I learned more from him than I ever suspected at the time and a number of things that he told me that day have stayed in my mind ever since. This article is in regards to one of them.
Few people, even most fans of his, know that Watts was an avid practitioner of aikido. I found out because I was young, didn’t know much about him or his fame (thus, I wasn’t awed by him in the least until a few hours later), and I asked him directly, “Mr. Watts, do you practice martial arts?” He glanced sideways at me and I told him that I was a teacher of Chinese martial arts. It was then that he admitted to studying….and loving, aikido. In fact, he was very interested in all of the martial ways and because it was a rarity to find a practitioner of Chinese martial arts in those days, we talked at some length.
As we discussed martial arts he said, “Any physical activity taken to its extreme, becomes s spiritual path and leads to awakening.” I asked what he meant by, “extreme?” I remember that he smiled as he answered me. “If you strive for perfection in it, it eventually becomes a spiritual experience.”
“Even something like…tennis?” I asked.
He chuckled. “Yes, even tennis…or baseball, or crocheting. Any activity.”
I’ve mulled this over for many years now. The operative phrase in his answer is, “strive to perfect.” If we attend classes on a regular basis, that isn’t enough. If we simply engage in the practice of basic techniques, kata, two-person routines…it isn’t enough. We have to CONSCIOUSLY strive to perfect our skills as this leads towards self-perfection. It is the underlying theory of all martial arts. It is why we continue to practice for decade after decade. We don’t do it for the exercise, although that certainly provides many wonderful side benefits. And we don’t do it for self-defense; heck, we’ve acquired more than adequate self-defense skills after a fairly short time in training. We (should) do it because we are aiming at self-perfection.
Is such a thing even possible? I would have to answer, “No, not in this lifetime.” But that shouldn’t discourage you in the least.