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South Park is known for its irreverent attitude toward religion, especially Mormonism (and other forms of Christianity), Scientology, and Islam. Episodes 200 and 201 feature the “Super Best Friends,” a group of major religious figures including Muhammad, Buddha, Moses, Joseph Smith, Krishna, Laozi, and Sea Man who band together to fight evil. Though most of the controversy surrounding these episodes centered on depictions of Muhammad, the Buddha’s cocaine use attracted the ire of some Sri Lankan Buddhists.

Given South Park’s treatment of religious themes in these examples, I was a little surprised to learn that around 2007 Matt Stone and Trey Parker had animated the lectures of Alan Watts, one of the foremost proponents of Zen Buddhism in the West during the mid-20th century. Why would Alan Watts receive such different treatment than other religious figures?

One of the answers is in the introduction to one of Alan Watts’s lectures, where he identifies himself as not a Zen Buddhist and claims that he has nothing to sell. Alan Watts did study Zen Buddhism in his youth, and published Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East in 1936. This book was based largely on the writings of D.T. Suzuki, who championed the idea that Zen permeated Japanese culture and everyday life. Watts never took Zen ordination, but he did become an Episcopal priest in the 1940s, only to defrock in 1950. His influential Way of Zen came out in 1957, right around the big Zen boom in the U.S., when major stories about Zen appeared in Time magazine, Mademoiselle, and the Chicago Review.

Alan Watts’s Zen was the product of its time. Like Suzuki, he presents Zen as a universal truth or experience that found full expression in East Asia, but which is fundamentally connected to other religious and philosophical truths. Though he presents his Way of Zen as an historical corrective to his earlier Spirit of Zen, he still proclaims in the preface that “Zen is above all an experience, nonverbal in character, which is simply inaccessible to the purely literary and scholarly approach.” He, like many other modern Zen Buddhists, did not see in Zen the ritual, miracles, and dogma that he saw in other religions, and therefore did not depict it as a “religion.”

The videos of Watts’s lectures that Stone and Parker animated have some Zen trappings in the enso circles in the title frames and “Oriental” music. Watts’s ruminations have little to do with anything specifically and historically identifiable as Zen, aside from a general call to transcend dualism. He talks about the need to balance prickly rationality with gooey mysticism; the need to see intelligence as inhering in the natural environment; and the ultimate breakdown of mind-body dualism.

To return to the question of why the creators of South Park would go to the trouble of creating these videos, we can look at an interview Matt Stone and Trey Parker did with the libertarian blog reason.com. The following exchange centers on the question of their religious upbringing.

Stone: I was raised agnostic. There was no religion in my house.
Parker: I was pretty much the same. My father tried to raise me Buddhist, as in Alan Watts Buddhism, which is Buddhism in a way.

This might partially explain why Stone and Parker honored Watts’s legacy with their animation, while they lampoon other religious figures. The other reason might be that they don’t consider Watts, or his teachings, to be “religious.”

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