The magic of the Zen bookshop


Back in the 60s, with my schooling in classics (alas, long before I might have learned from the wisdom of Mary Beard) and my growing immersion in the violin, the popular culture of the time virtually passed me by. But I found myself on the margins of hippiedom largely through regular visits to the oriental bookshops like Probsthains before the British Museum, and notably Watkins in Cecil court. Watkins was like our version of City Lights in San Francisco—to which I only got to make my first pilgrimage some three decades later.

Apart from the usual suspects like the Bhagavad gita, Eliade, Castaneda, Jung, Krishnamurti, Blofeld, and The cloud of unknowing, this was the genesis of my initiation into Zen, courtesy of Christmas Humphreys, D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, R.H. Blyth, Gary Snyder, Eugen Herrigel, and so on—these were my bibles!

This was perhaps a not uncommon pattern for wannabe hippies, as well as future scholars of Asian culture. My own later ethnographic path, progressing by way of Tang history to documenting the tribulations of local society under Maoism and the mobiles and motor-bikes of household Daoists, may now seem almost a reproach to the lofty mysticism of those years. While I thus came to replace the romantic search for oriental spirituality (that still persists even in some areas of scholarship) with an approach more based on socio-political history and the lives of Chinese people, somehow the background of that quest also formed an enduring foundation.

Perhaps what I’m suggesting here is that a predilection for mysticism needn’t be a hindrance to more dispassionate ethnography…

12 thoughts on “The magic of the Zen bookshop

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  5. Hey Stephen,

    Wow, what a blast from the past, i’m in Suffolk now but Watkins was my first step into the unknown too. High magic was my choice back in the day before I finally found zen. Three Pillars of Zen by Kapleau was where the journey began…and I’m still leaving footprints.

    Keep up the good work, mon frere


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