Alan Watts by South Park creators
Alan Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) was a British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Born in Chislehurst, he moved to the United States in 1938 and began Zen training in New York. Pursuing a career, he attended Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, where he received a master’s degree in theology. Watts became an Episcopal priest then left the ministry in 1950 and moved to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies.
Watts gained a large following in the San Francisco Bay Area while working as a volunteer programmer at KPFA, a Pacifica Radio station in Berkeley. Watts wrote more than 25 books and articles on subjects important to Eastern and Western religion, introducing the then-burgeoning youth culture to The Way of Zen (1957), one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism. In Psychotherapy East and West (1961), Watts proposed that Buddhism could be thought of as a form of psychotherapy and not a religion. He also explored human consciousness, in the essay “The New Alchemy” (1958), and in the book The Joyous Cosmology (1962).
Towards the end of his life, he divided his time between a houseboat in Sausalito and a cabin on Mount Tamalpais. His legacy has been kept alive by his son, Mark Watts, and many of his recorded talks and lectures are available on the Internet. According to the critic Erik Davis, his “writings and recorded talks still shimmer with a profound and galvanizing lucidity.”
In 1936, Watts’s first book was published, The Spirit of Zen. In The Way of Zen he disparaged The Spirit of Zen as a “popularisation of Suzuki‘s earlier works, and besides being very unscholarly it is in many respects out of date and misleading.”
In 1938 he and his bride left England to live in America. He had married Eleanor Everett, whose mother Ruth Fuller Everett was involved with a traditional Zen Buddhist circle in New York. A few years later, Ruth Fuller married the Zen master (or “roshi”), Sokei-an Sasaki, and this Japanese gentleman served as a sort of model and mentor to Watts, though he chose not to enter into a formal Zen training relationship with Sasaki. During these years, according to his later writings, Watts had another mystical experience while on a walk with his wife.
Watts’s fascination with the Zen (or Chan) tradition—beginning during the 1930s—developed because that tradition embodied the spiritual, interwoven with the practical, as exemplified in the subtitle of his Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East. “Work,” “life,” and “art” were not demoted due to a spiritual focus. In his writing, he referred to it as “the great Ch’an (or Zen) synthesis of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism after A.D. 700 in China.”
Watts left formal Zen training in New York because the method of the teacher did not suit him. He was not ordained as a Zen monk, but he felt a need to find a professional outlet for his philosophical inclinations. He entered Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, an Episcopal (Anglican) school in Evanston, Illinois, where he studied Christian scriptures, theology, and church history. He attempted to work out a blend of contemporary Christian worship, mystical Christianity, and Asian philosophy. Watts was awarded a master’s degree in theology in response to his thesis, which he published as a popular edition under the title Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion. The pattern was set, in that Watts did not hide his dislike for religious outlooks that he decided were dour, guilt-ridden, or militantly proselytizing—no matter if they were found within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.
All seemed to go reasonably well in his next role, as Episcopal priest (beginning in 1945, aged 30), until an extramarital affair resulted in his young wife having their marriage annulled. It also resulted in Watts leaving the ministry by 1950. He spent the New Year getting to know Joseph Campbell and Campbell’s wife, Jean Erdman; as well as John Cage the notable composer.
In early 1951, Watts moved to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. Here he taught alongside Saburō Hasegawa, Frederic Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, lama Tokwan Tada, and various visiting experts and professors. Hasegawa, in particular, served as a teacher to Watts in the areas of Japanese customs, arts, primitivism, and perceptions of nature. Besides teaching, Watts served for several years as the Academy’s administrator. One notable student of his was Eugene Rose, who later went on to become a noted hieromonk and theologian in the Eastern Orthodox Church in America.
Watts also studied written Chinese and practiced Chinese brush calligraphy with Hasegawa as well as with some of the Chinese students who enrolled at the academy. While Watts was noted for an interest in Zen Buddhism, his reading and discussions delved into Vedanta, “the new physics“, cybernetics, semantics, process philosophy, natural history, and the anthropology of sexuality.
After heading up the Academy for a few years, Watts left the faculty for a freelance career in the mid-1950s. In 1953, he began what became a long-running weekly radio program at Pacifica Radio station KPFA in Berkeley, which continued until his death in 1973. Like other volunteer programmers at the listener-sponsored station, Watts was not paid for his broadcasts; they did, however, gain him a large following in the San Francisco Bay Area. These programs were later carried by additional Pacifica stations, and were re-broadcast many times over in the decades following his death. The original tapes are currently held by the Pacifica Radio Archives, based at KPFK in Los Angeles, and at the Electronic University archive founded by his son, Mark Watts (alanwatts.org).
In 1957 when 42, Watts published one of his best known books, The Way of Zen, which focused on philosophical explication and history. Besides drawing on the lifestyle and philosophical background of Zen, in India and China, Watts introduced ideas drawn from general semantics (directly from the writings of Alfred Korzybski and also from Norbert Wiener‘s early work on cybernetics, which had recently been published). Watts offered analogies from cybernetic principles possibly applicable to the Zen life. The book sold well, eventually becoming a modern classic, and helped widen his lecture circuit.
Upon returning to the United States, Watts recorded two seasons of a television series (1959–1960) for KQED public television in San Francisco, “Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life.”
In the 1960s, Watts began to experiment with psychedelics, initially with mescaline given to him by Dr. Oscar Janiger. He tried LSD several times with various research teams led by Drs. Keith Ditman, Sterling Bunnell, and Michael Agron. He also tried marijuana and concluded that it was a useful and interesting psychoactive drug that gave the impression of time slowing down. Watts’s books of the ’60s reveal the influence of these chemical adventures on his outlook. He later said about psychedelic drug use, “If you get the message, hang up the phone.”
For a time, Watts came to prefer writing in the language of modern science and psychology (Psychotherapy East and West is a good example), finding a parallel between mystical experiences and the theories of the material universe proposed by 20th-century physicists. He later equated mystical experience with ecological awareness, and typically emphasized whichever approach seemed best suited to the audience he was addressing.
Watts’s explorations and teaching brought him into contact with many noted intellectuals, artists, and American teachers in the human potential movement. His friendship with poet Gary Snyder nurtured his sympathies with the budding environmental movement, to which Watts gave philosophical support. He also encountered Robert Anton Wilson, who credited Watts with being one of his “Light[s] along the Way” in the opening appreciation of Cosmic Trigger.
Though never affiliated for long with any one academic institution, he did have a fellowship for several years at Harvard University. He also lectured to many college and university students. His lectures and books gave him far-reaching influence on the American intelligentsia of the 1950s–1970s, but he was often seen as an outsider in academia. When questioned sharply by students during his talk at University of California Santa Cruz in 1970, Watts responded that he was not an academic philosopher but rather “a philosophical entertainer”.
Watts has been criticized by Buddhists such as Philip Kapleau and D. T. Suzuki for allegedly misinterpreting several key Zen Buddhist concepts. In particular, he drew criticism from those who believe that zazen can only be achieved by a strict and specific means of sitting, as opposed to a cultivated state of mind available at any moment in any situation. Typical of these is Kapleau’s claim that Watts dismissed zazen on the basis of only half a koan. In regard to the aforementioned koan, Robert Baker Aitken reports that Suzuki told him, “I regret to say that Mr. Watts did not understand that story.” In his talks, Watts addressed the issue of defining zazen practice when he said, “A cat sits until it is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away.”
He also had his supporters in the Zen community, including Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. As David Chadwick recounted in his biography of Suzuki, Crooked Cucumber: the Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, when a student of Suzuki’s disparaged Watts by saying “we used to think he was profound until we found the real thing”, Suzuki “fumed with a sudden intensity”, saying, “You completely miss the point about Alan Watts! You should notice what he has done. He is a great bodhisattva.”
Watts sometimes alluded to a group of neighbors in Druid Heights (near Mill Valley, California) who had endeavored to combine architecture, gardening, and carpentry skills to make a beautiful and comfortable life for themselves. These neighbors accomplished this by relying on their own talents and using their own hands, as they lived in what has been called “shared bohemian poverty”. Druid Heights was founded by the writer Elsa Gidlow, and Watts dedicated his book The Joyous Cosmology to the people of this neighborhood.
Regarding his intentions, Watts attempted to lessen the alienation that accompanies the experience of being human that he felt plagued the modern Westerner, and (like his fellow British expatriate and friend, Aldous Huxley) to lessen the ill will that was an unintentional by-product of alienation from the natural world. He felt such teaching could improve the world, at least to a degree. He also articulated the possibilities for greater incorporation of aesthetics (for example: better architecture, more art, more fine cuisine) in American life. In his autobiography he wrote, “… cultural renewal comes about when highly differentiated cultures mix”.
In his last novel Island (1962), Aldous Huxley mentions the religious practice of maithuna as being something like what Roman Catholics call “coitus reservatus“. A few years before, Alan Watts had discussed the theme in his own book Nature, Man and Woman. There, he discusses the possibility of the practice being known to early Christians and of it being kept secretly by the Church.
In his writings of the 1950s, he conveyed his admiration for the practicality in the historical achievements of Chán (Zen) in the Far East, for it had fostered farmers, architects, builders, folk physicians, artists, and administrators among the monks who had lived in the monasteries of its lineages.
In his mature work, he presents himself as “Zennist” in spirit as he wrote in his last book, Tao: The Watercourse Way. Child rearing, the arts, cuisine, education, law and freedom, architecture, sexuality, and the uses and abuses of technology were all of great interest to him.
Though known for his Zen teachings, he was equally if not more influenced by ancient Hindu scriptures, especially Vedanta, and spoke extensively about the nature of the divine Reality Man that Man misses, how the contradiction of opposites is the method of life and the means of cosmic and human evolution, how our fundamental Ignorance is rooted in the exclusive nature of mind and ego, how to come in touch with the Field of Consciousness and Light, and other cosmic principles. These are discussed in great detail in dozens of hours of audio that are in part captured in the ‘Out of Your Mind’ series.
On the personal level, Watts sought to resolve his feelings of alienation from the institutions of marriage and the values of American society, as revealed in his classic comments on love relationships in “Divine Madness” and on perception of the organism-environment in “The Philosophy of Nature”.
In looking at social issues he was quite concerned with the necessity for international peace, for tolerance and understanding among disparate cultures. He also came to feel acutely conscious of a growing ecological predicament; as one instance, in the early 1960s he wrote: “Can any melting or burning imaginable get rid of these ever-rising mountains of ruin—especially when the things we make and build are beginning to look more and more like rubbish even before they are thrown away?” These concerns were later expressed in a television pilot made for NET filmed at his mountain retreat in 1971 in which he noted that the single track of conscious attention was wholly inadequate for interactions with a multi-tracked world.
He disliked much in the conventional idea of “progress”. He hoped for change, but he preferred amiable, semi-isolated rural social enclaves, and also believed in tolerance for social misfits and eccentric artists. Watts decried the suburbanization of the countryside and the way of life that went with it.
In one campus lecture tour, which Watts titled “The End to the Put-Down of Man”, Watts presented positive images for both nature and humanity, spoke in favor of the various stages of human development (including the teenage years), reproached excessive cynicism and rivalry, and extolled intelligent creativity, good architecture and food.
Watts felt that absolute morality had nothing to do with the fundamental realization of one’s deep spiritual identity. He advocated social rather than personal ethics. In his writings, Watts was increasingly concerned with ethics applied to relations between humanity and the natural environment and between governments and citizens. He wrote out of an appreciation of a racially and culturally diverse social landscape.
He often said that he wished to act as a bridge between the ancient and the modern, between East and West, and between culture and nature.
Watts led some tours for Westerners to the Buddhist temples of Japan. He also studied some movements from the traditional Chinese martial art T’ai chi ch’uan, with an Asian colleague, Al Chung-liang Huang.
In several of his later publications, especially Beyond Theology and The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Watts put forward a worldview, drawing on Hinduism, Chinese philosophy, panentheism, and modern science, in which he maintains that the whole universe consists of a cosmic self playing hide-and-seek (Lila), hiding from itself (Maya) by becoming all the living and non-living things in the universe, forgetting what it really is; the upshot being that we are all IT in disguise. In this worldview, Watts asserts that our conception of ourselves as an “ego in a bag of skin” is a myth; the entities we call the separate “things” are merely processes of the whole.
Watts’s books frequently include discussions reflecting his keen interest in patterns that occur in nature and which are repeated in various ways and at a wide range of scales – including the patterns to be discerned in the history of civilizations