Alan Watts Blues – the Khakkhara

There are any number of unusual objects that appear in ukiyo prints. Perhaps commonplace in Japan, this post begins a short series of articles exploring the meaning and influence of these apparent oddities.


khakkhara staff with brass rings

When we first had the lovely Kunichika print illustrated below I was fascinated by the oddness of the scene… to western eyes like mine, the pattern of lanterns, the redness of the bold paper light, the strange wooden tower, that curious hat and most of all that peculiar metal pole with the metal rings suspended from it on the right hand sheet. I was unfamiliar with the object and failed for ages to track down its function. In fact it is an object called a khakkhara. A khakkhara is a ‘sounding staff’, it is a part of the regalia of a Buddhist pilgrim or monk, designed to be used as a warning to sentient beings – insects and such like – to move out of the way and avoid being crushed underfoot. As the carrier moves along paths and roads the six rings jingle against each other; this also acts as a signal that someone requiring alms is approaching!

Kunichika. The Story of Oshichi

Kunichika, The Story of Oshichi, 1860’s

In Japan (where it is called a shakujo) the khakkhara was also used as a weapon by Buddhist monks. The staff was formidable as a spear, with its sharp metal point and weighted end.

I was brooding on this whilst reading Myth and Ritual in Christianity by Alan Watts. Watts was an original thinker, a philosopher, theologian and a leading Buddhist practitioner who was instrumental in bringing many eastern, mystical ideas to the west, and to California especially, during the 1950’s and 1960’s. British by birth, he moved to the United States in 1938, first as a member of the Episcopalian Church and after 1950 as a student of Zen philosophy.

Alan Watts and khakkhara

Alan Watts as a Buddhist Pilgrim

The photograph above shows Watts in California… holding just such a staff. The four rings on Watts’ staff identify him as a novice.  Watts was a brilliant thinker but a complicated and troubled person. His writing on Buddhism and Christianity is outstanding in its clarity and vision. During the 1960’s Watts spent a great deal of time at a secluded commune in Druid Heights, Mount Tamalpais near San Francisco. It was here that he put down roots, developing and building a library and workspace the remains of which are still visible today amid the dereliction of the now deserted community.

Photographs of the Druid Heights community have appeared more frequently on the web in recent times, and indeed there is a distinct campaign aimed at saving and restoring the site and scheduling it as important before the forest reclaims the now collapsing buildings.  The photographs show the homemade structures put together by its founder the carpenter and builder Roger Somers and furniture maker Ed Stiles. These structures show the keen influence of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and therefore, the distinctive footprint of traditional Japanese architecture. Below is a photograph showing the interior of a building known as the Ranch House, with very clear Japanese intentions in its design.

Ranch house Druid Heights

Ranch house Druid Heights

I strongly recommend anyone interested in the buildings at Druid Heights to visit Michael Toivonen’s web pages devoted to saving the site, which include this very moving shot of the remains of the interior of Watts’ library there.

Alan Watts Library Druid Heights

Alan Watts Library Druid Heights

The outstanding natural feature of the site is a large round rock formation which Watts christened ‘Cloud Hidden’. In Watts’ 1958 book, Nature, Man and Woman, he quotes the 9th century poet Chia Tao’s poem, Searching for the Hermit in Vain:

I asked the boy beneath pines

he said, “The Master’s gone alone

Herb-picking somewhere on the mount,

Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unkown.

Watts takes inspiration from Chia Tao both in naming the rock and indeed in the title of his final, semi autobiographical work, Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unkown, a collection of essays and observations whose subtitle, A Mountain Journal is self-explanatory. All of which brings me round to another sensation, another art… music, because whilst thinking about the Kunichika, and reading Alan Watts I was also, by chance, listening to the greatest voice of sacred music of the twentieth century; Van Morrison. It was his song Alan Watts Blues that was playing on the stereo and the insistent chorus from the song of the same title: Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown – hence the title at the top of the page. It is a pleasing and thought provoking circularity… the words of Alan Watts, the sensations of Japanese Zen, the beauty of the woodblock prints, the thoughts of Druid Heights, the words of the Chinese poet of the 9th century and the music of Van Morrison… .

Kunisada. Akitsuki played by Onoe Kikujiro II

Kunisada. Akitsuki played by Onoe Kikujiro II


I shall end the piece with another image of the khakkhara (above). This time, the khakkhara is being held by the female pilgrim Akitsuki from a triptych by Kunisada from 1853.

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Kunichika, Kunisada, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Alan Watts Blues – the Khakkhara

  1. Pingback: FYP Blog Post 3 – Character design – David Grant 3D/2D Artist

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