I had been here in Thailand for some time when the first shipment of my books arrived. Precious cargo indeed. Many, like nomadic children, had followed me from my home in California to my new home in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Then more than a decade later they had reversed the process and patiently waited in California for eventual shipment to Thailand, on the other side of the planet.
But one book in particular carried its own special secrets.
In 1973 I purchased “In My Own Way”, the autobiography of Alan Watts. During the 60’s and 70’s I lived in Mill Valley’s Blithedale Canyon, on the densely forested slopes of Mount Tamalpais. It was there on one of my evening walks that I first met Alan, and later had the pleasure of having a number of conversations with him. We had a number of things in common, not the least of which was a mutual near obsession with oriental culture and Zen Buddhism in particular. He had written extensively about Zen, and in mid-50’s I had spent a year as a Buddhist monk at the Soto Zen Eiheiji Temple in western Japan.
As with many of my books I had underlined favorite passages and made specific page notations in the back of the book. Some years later I discovered that this particular treasure had disappeared. And when I attempted to replace it, I was informed that it was no longer in print.
More than 20 years later, in 1997, during the summer vacation from the university in Mexico where I was teaching, I visited friends in Sebastopol, California. While poking around in a used bookstore I ecstatically discovered a used, slightly battered copy of ‘In My Own Way’. As I rapidly flipped through the pages it smelled slightly musty, but pleasant.
Later that evening I opened to the familiar last chapter ‘The Sound of Rain’ and discovered on page 422 that someone else had been taken by, and marked a particular passage which I had encountered during my reading many years before. In reference to the chanting of Zen sutras Alan had written:
“For the antiquity and mystery of those gongs and the chant is not so much from a backward direction in time as from a vast depth inside the present, from a level of my own here-and-now being, as ancient as life itself. … Why do Buddhist rituals and symbols evoke in me a sensation of the mysterious and the marvelous far more enthralling than any Christian equivalent, more even than astronomical revelations about the scope of distant galaxies?”
And at the bottom of the page there was the penned note, “Remember this?” It was in my handwriting and was in reference to one of our conversations. It was at that moment, like the flash of a mini-Satori, that I realized that though I now lived in Mexico thousands of miles distant, and countless years had intervened, I had somehow wandered into a previously unknown bookstore some 50 miles from where I had peviously liived and lost this book and encountered the very same book that I had lost an untold number of years before.
Of course when I found it at the bookstore earlier in the day, I could have opened to the inside cover where my name was written as bold as life itself. I can still sense Alan, who loved a humorous story or good joke, slyly and enigmatically, from whatever realm he might now be inhabiting, smiling down at me.
[a reposting of my 2004 article at the insistence of a bibliophile friend]