On Alan Watts

On the life, character, and works of Alan Watts.

The wonder of a child, as it looks out into the world and the universe in amazement, is without a parallel. It is pure magical delight. Perhaps that is why, when I was first introduced to the material of Alan Watts, struck me so strongly. Because, it reminded me of something that I had long since forgotten. The pure wonder towards life, and its strange phenomena.

Alan Wilson Watts, was born in 6 January 1915, in the small village of Chislehurst, Kent (today south-east London). A self-proclaimed “spiritual entertainer”, he was a teacher who lectured extensively on Eastern ideas to the Western audience, especially on Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism.

His father, Laurence Watts, worked as a Michelin tyre company representative for the London office. His mother, Emily Mary Watts, (maiden name Buchan) was a housewife whose father had been a missionary.

It may have been, that Watts’s mother’s religious family, the Buchans, was the reason that Watts developed an interest in the mystical side of things early in life. This also mashed together with his interests in stories and tales of the Far East.

These interests later developed through his attendance at the Buddhist Lodge of London, where he worked as a secretary at the age of 16, meeting numerous important characters, such as the artist and mystic Nicholas Roerich, the politician and philosopher Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, and theosophist Alice Bailey.

It was five years later, in 1936, at 21, when he attended the World Congress of Faiths at the University of London, where he met the prominent scholar, philosopher and writer of Zen Buddhism, Daisetsu. T. Suzuki. No doubt this had a deep effect on Watts, who later went on to present a paper of his own, called The Spirit of Zen, which later was the name of his book.

During his lifetime, Watts wrote 27 books, numerous essays and articles, all centered basically on one central theme. That theme was “identity”. By his own words, he was merely trying to explain the mystical experience. And the content of the experience, is entirely about one’s own relationship with the rest of boundless being.

Even though the context and situations differed in terms of the language he could use, it was always along the same lines. And so one could say that his “singing”, was merely expressing a point of view, which people were free to listen to, or leave it be.

And so I was very much attracted to this singing, because there was something quite unique about it. First of all, Watts talked about a philosophy, that worked on the principle of a physician, rather than a priest. The doctor will want to always send his patients away, because they know there will always be a turnover of more patients.

Secondly, he was talking about a way of living, where instead of clinging to a religion, your own activities, and life becomes that religion. But not in the sense of hoping something will turn out to be true. Rather, it relied on living in the moment, where you spontaneously stop grabbing at things too hard, which is basically the Zen attidude.

Watts emphasized “self-authority” when it came to spirituality. In other words, no scripture, teacher, or a text will be able to control or tell you who you are. You have to find out for youself. Even though, he also said that often times, if the person needs to get a teacher, then it’s not necessarily wrong for them to do so at that time and place.

Just as you don’t fault someone for finding a psychotherapist, you don’t say: “that damned fool, why even bother?” Because as he puts it in one of the lectures from the Extended Seminars collection of his audio material, he regarded different “paths” of spirituality, as being comparable to flowers and plants and insects in a garden. And you don’t blame the flower for growing in the wrong direction.

And this notion, of there being no wrong paths in life, becomes explicit in his way of thinking. Even though he lectured on specific ideas and areas in Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, those very same ways of life, enables one to broaden their view on things. For example, the yin and yang school of philosophy in Taoism, particularly emphasizes the idea that all the variations of life, imply and need each other by necessity. Because they are “mutually arising”, to use a Taoist expression.

Furthermore, he talked about living in such a way, as to “step out of time.” In other words, if time was the issue, which is the cause of our guilt on the one hand (past), and anxiety on the other (future), then all one has to do is become “timeless”. Sure, sounds easy on paper.

But the way to do that, is to first of all, become aware of one’s surroundings in a vivid manner. When you simply watch it all unfoldig before your senses. And that is called meditation, and I mean the genuine thing. Not this project of self-improvement, where we just have to “get enlightened.”

Enlightenment is something, that for Watts, didn’t require the disappearance of the world. That is to say, he noticed that a lot of spiritual practices tend to be overly spiritual. Where they are anti-worldly almost, by denying sex, and pleasures of all kinds. And so he asked:

"If the purpose was the get rid of the physical world,
why a physical universe in the first place then?"

So also, enlightenment was not something external to one’s self or even to their current circumstances. Nothing in terms of one’s mind changes in that regard. What changes is how one sees things in their context afterwards. And by that I don’t necessarily mean the physical eye but one’s spiritual eye.

And so part of his lectures, was trying to unwind people from the idea that they themselves should or even could bring this state of affairs into reality. Because, to use a Zen expression:

"You cannot catch hold of it, nor can you get
rid of it. In not being able to get it, you get it. When you
speak, it is silent, when you are silent, it speaks."

This “not being able to get it, you get it”, means that the only obstacle to the mystical vision, is one’s own sense or image of themselves, which is blocking it. And so Watts did a little delightful introduction: he pointed out, that if you are the hair hanging from your head, you are also the sun shining. And this is your self. You in the sense of the cosmos, not the ego.

One of the most fundamental ideas and attitudes expressed in Watts’s both writing and live lectures was his notion that existence itself and the universe is a game. That is to say, it is a play, of all kinds of different patterns, that are pretending to be that.

This idea comes mostly from Hinduism, where Maya or Lila, is the world as an illusion or a play, in the sense of a stage play. That is why it is likened to a drama, or a story, in which the roles of the actors, as well as the audience, are really the one and the same identity.

But when we first hear the word game, we might take it to mean something trivial or frivolous. When Watts means it more profoundly, as in the sense when a great pianist is performing. We wouldn’t regard Bach playing the piano as triviality, would we?

So there is a distinction, between games as we ordinarily take them to be, and the universe as a profound play of energies. This attitude also carries to the individual’s sense of morals. We might think that the distinction between good and evil, especially evil, is blown to kingdom come, if it becomes apparent that the forces are merely part of a game.

But rather, it is exactly that because existence is a game, that we should treat people with respect and compassion. Because they do not see their own lives, anything other than being serious, usually. This is also the true meaning of non-attachment in Buddhism. You have to live on two levels at the same time, one where you participate in everything life has to offer, and the other where you remind yourself not to take it too seriously, because it is a game.

And through this, Watts often described himself as a pure rascal. Because he knew that his role in life, was just a put-on, or a mask, which he temporarily wore to show off to people in a funny way. This idea comes partly from Judaism, where God planted the “wayward inclination” to Adam. So is responsible for evil in human beings. And this waywardness, or the “element of irreducable rascality”, to quote Watts, is present in all of us. And the failure to recognize that in one’s self, is to put it curedly, very unconscious.

Watts had an entire television series at one point, dedicated on Eastern concepts and spiritual ideas. He also had few short movies, such as The Flow of Zen and Buddhism, Man & Nature. Prior to all this, he was also hosting a personal radio show on the air in the early 60s.

And Watts definitely had an attractive and interesting way of talking, which drew people in from all walks of life to attend his seminars. He attended the University for Asian Studies in San Francisco, California. But on his spare time, at least later in life, spent his days on a little ferry boat in Sausalito, where he had a studio and a room for writing. He also recorded some of his material there.

The unintended consequence of being such a charming and a person with “a way with words”, was that he collected followers, while at the same time he expressed his distaste for the idea of having them. As he says:

"I want to make it absolutely clear, that I am not a guru. I have
nothing to sell. I'm an entertainer."

Alas, things didn’t quite work out as he wanted them. He collected a following contrary to his wishes, and became the “guru” he so wanted to avoid. Although, I must remark that I don’t see it quite that way. I rather would think that a group of knowledge-thirsty students have a right to learn more, even for kicks, as Watts points out. Nevertheless, he expressed this disappointment in more than few accounts.

Watts died of a heart condition in November of 1973. As his son, Mark Watts, remarks that it may have been that his father knew in advance, perhaps for a long time that his passing was to happen. And indeed, Mark uncovered a truth about his death that he had planned his own cremation six months in advance.

But as Watts’s good friend, Al Chung-Liang Huang writes in Watts’s last work, Tao: The Watercourse Way:

Alan turned to me and started to speak, ready to
impress me with his usual eloquence about our successful
week together. I noticed a sudden breakthrough
in his expression; a look of lightness and glow
appeared all around him. Alan had discovered a
different way to tell me of his feelings: “Yah …
Ha … Ho … Ha! Ho … La Cha Om Ha … Deg deg
te te … Ta De De Ta Te Ta … Ha Te Te Ha Hom …
Te Te Te …” We gibbered and danced all the way
up the hill. Everyone around understood what we
were saying. Alan knew too that he had never—
not in all his books—said it any better than that.

For we are eternal beings, who come and go. And it is all nonsense, as Watts points out in many, many of his lectures. For it is that nonsense, which makes us laugh and gives life its zest. And so to conclude, Al Chung-Liang Huang writes:

I can hear Alan laughing now. Every time I find
myself stuck in my thinking, I turn to him. And in
all our spiritual dialogues, Alan’s answers have
been consistently and simply, “Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha
Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho Hahahahahahahahahahah ha
…” Let us laugh together then, wholeheartedly,
all human beings of the Tao, for, in the words of
Lao-tzu, “If there were no laughter, the Tao
would not be what it is.”


P.S. I can scarcely do justice to Watts’s works in this short article. Nevertheless, I have tried honoring his legacy, expressing it in my half-assed way. For his lectures are still listened to by millions of people worldwide, including yours truly. His lectures and other material is available at Alan Watts Organization. If you want a more broad and in-depth post on his life, check out: Off-Beat Zen and enjoy!