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Remembering Alan Watts:
January 6, 1915 to November 16, 1973

1,500 words

Alan Watts is one of my favorite writers. Born in Chislehurst, Kent, England, Watts was raised an Anglican, but became a Buddhist at age 15. In 1941, while Watts was living in New York City, his first wife Eleanor had a mystical vision of Jesus. This led him to return to Anglicanism.

Watts skipped undergraduate study, but later earned an MA in theology and a doctorate in divinity and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1945. For several years, he was the Anglican chaplain at Northwestern University, renowned for his accessibility and innovative rituals. In 1950, he left the priesthood, primarily due to the breakup of his first marriage. (Watts had a recognized gift for “ritual magic,” which he continued to perform as a shaman once he was finished being a priest.)

In 1951, he moved to San Francisco, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies. He was based in the Bay Area for the rest of his life.

In the mid 1950s, he left the Academy for the life of an independent scholar and writer. Watts became world-famous as an interpreter of Buddhism, Vedanta, and Taoism. During his lifetime, Watts published 24 books and countless articles. Another 25 volumes, plus numerous lecture recordings and videos have appeared posthumously.

Watts’ writings fall into four periods. First are his early Buddhist works: The Spirit of Zen (1936), written when Watts was only 19; The Legacy of Asia and Western Man: A Study of the Middle Way (1937); and The Meaning of Happiness: The Quest for Freedom of the Spirit in Modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East (1940).

Then there are his Anglican works, where he tries to synthesize Christianity and Eastern thought. The high points are Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion (1948) and The Supreme Identity (1950).

Watts’ third period commences with The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951). He abandoned Christianity as a framework and focused on Buddhism, Vedanta, and Taoism. Works from this period include The Way of Zen (1957), Nature, Man and Woman (1958), Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen (1959), “This Is It” and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (1960), Psychotherapy East and West, (1961) The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (1962), and The Two Hands of God: The Myths of Polarity (1963), culminating in his most brilliant works, Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship (1964), in which Christianity is situated within the Vedantic context as a mode of maya, and The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966), a summa of  Vedantic non-dualism.

With each new work, Watts’ presentation became fresher and more original, less “scholarly.” Pedants of course dismissed him as a “popularizer,” but in truth Watts had evolved beyond mere scholarship. It takes far greater insight and talent to thoroughly internalize a philosophy and then to restate it in completely fresh language. But Watts went beyond popularization as well to insightful comparison, creative synthesis, fruitful application, and genuinely new insights. He was, in short, a philosopher in his own right.

Finally, I discern a fourth period in Watts’ writings, in which systematic thought is replaced by essayistic and poetic play. This period commences with Nonsense (1967) a book of whimsical doggerel, and it includes Does It Matter?: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality (1971) (see my review here), as well as In My Own Way: An Autobiography, 1915–1965 (1972), Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal (1973), and the posthumously published Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975). These writings are sheer delight, characterized by effortless grace, playful humor, and dazzling metaphors.

In 1973, Alan Watts died at the age of 58, at the height of his powers.

The best sources of information on Watts’ life are his autobiography, In My Own Way and Monica Furlong’s biography Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts (also published under the title A Genuine Fake). In My Own Way is pure pleasure to read. Furlong’s biography depends heavily on In My Own Way, especially in the first half, but she also did some original research, particularly about topics Watts found too embarrassing to discuss himself. Most of this research is found from page 91 on.

Watts was the primary interpreter of Asian philosophy to the beatniks of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. His interpretation of Asian thought was uniquely suited to a self-indulgent and hedonistic age, but this is no reason to dismiss it, for it is actually consistent with both Eastern and Western orthodoxy and individually verifiable spiritual experience, not to mention the fact that we actually do live in the Kali Yuga, the age of chaos and disintegration in which dark forces must be harnessed for spiritual attainment (the so-called Left Hand Path).

According to Watts, the aim of religion is a mystical experience of unity with the active, creative, eternal energy of the cosmos (being, Brahman, God). But Watts argued that this experience of identity is not an “attainment” of ego-directed ascetic discipline, but rather a “realization” of a pre-existing identity; one awakens to the fact that one always-already was God, a fact hidden by our identification with our egos and their projects, secular or ascetic.

Indeed, Watts argued that this oblivion of our true nature is actually reinforced by ego-directed ascetic religion, and only way in which asceticism can lead to authentic spiritual realization is by exhausting the ego to the point when one lets go of striving for attainment . . . and realizes that one was already what one aspired to be, that one was already where one wanted to go.

Watts argues that the Christian distinction between salvation by means of human works as opposed to divine grace is found in Asian philosophy as well. Buddhists, Hindus, and Taoists have created formidable systems of asceticism and monasticism. But they also recognize the possibility of spontaneous and effortless spiritual realization, so-called “instant zen.”

Watts was a great advocate of hanging loose, letting go, tuning in, turning on, and dropping out as spiritual pathways. He experimented with psychedelic drugs and argued that LSD and mescaline produce genuine mystical experiences.

In his personal life, Watts was anything but an ascetic. In his autobiography, Watts writes:

I am an unrepentant sensualist. I am an immoderate lover of women and the delights of sexuality, of the greatest French, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine, of wines and spirituous drinks, of smoking cigars and pipes, of gardens, forests, and oceans, of jewels and paintings, of colorful clothes, and of finely bound and printed books. (In My Own Way, p. 47)

Watts was a genuine aesthete and dandy, a man of refined tastes and sensibilities, a mystic who knew how to live in the material world.

But there was a dark side to his sensualism: a dimension of compulsion and addiction. Watts married three times, divorced twice, and fathered seven children. But as a family man, he was a success only in the most minimal Darwinian sense. He was a compulsive womanizer and a neglectful father, which caused his wives and children much pain. Like many products of the British Public School system, with its repulsive traditions of beatings and bullying, Watts had a streak of sexual masochism. He began smoking as a child and never stopped. He was also a serious alcoholic. Watts’ father lived into his 90s, thus it was a very real possibility that Alan Watts could have celebrated his 96th birthday with us today, with 50 more books to his name, had he been just a bit of an ascetic, had he controlled his sensualism rather than letting it control him.

Politically, Watts was a man of the right. In his youth, he was a follower of the mysterious Serbian guru and operator Dimitrije Mitrinovic, an advocate of such quasi-fascistic ideas as Guild Socialism, Social Credit, and European Unity (as long as it was not Hitler who was doing the unifying). Watts also claimed that he returned to Anglicanism largely out of conservative motives, searching for tradition and security in a world in disarray.

Watts’ main problem with Christianity is that it chafed against his emerging sexual libertinism. But there were intellectual reasons as well. In the late 1940s, he began reading the Traditionalist writings of René Guénon and Ananda Coomaraswamy, who assimilated Christianity — along with Taoism, Buddhism, and Vedanta — to the universal Tradition, undermining the Church’s claim to exclusive truth.

Watts also came to view the ultimate truth along Traditionalist lines, e.g., as a non-dualistic interpretation of Vedanta.

Finally, the Traditionalists convinced Watts that we are living in the Kali Yuga, and he explicitly claimed that he left the church to find a spiritual life more in keeping with the age. His first post-Anglican book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, is essentially a treatise on “riding the tiger.” (There is, by the way, no evidence that Watts ever read Julius Evola.)

In his later years, Watts preached the Traditional doctrine of decline and the folly of all projects of progressive world-improvement even when he had become a guru to the leftist counter-culture.

Why remember Alan Watts on a New Right/Traditionalist website? Perhaps because he died before he found his true audience.

 

5 Comments

  1. ed
    Posted February 12, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Alan Watts is like a small stone in your shoe.
    With every step there is a little annoyance that simply will not go away until you stop,
    sit down and take off your shoe. Getting up, you discover how comfortable it is to
    walk without shoes.

    The Path of the Ascetic that avoids the world, intimacy and all but the blandest and
    non intoxicating foods seems an admirable ideal.
    The Path of the Hedonist with the total immersion into all manner of material and personal sensualities is looked down upon.

    Both Paths are in essence an escape.
    The Acetic is afraid of life and avoids it.
    The Hedonist is afraid of life and tries to drown in it.

    The Middle Way is not an average or a mid point but something else.

    To me, Alan Watts touched on the Middle Way in parts of his life and certainly in his writing.

    “What is it?”

    Indeed………………………..

  2. MOB
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    Watts was a genuine aesthete and dandy, a man of refined tastes and sensibilities, a mystic who knew how to live in the material world.

    What a joke. Watts, unhindered by ethics or burdened by responsibilities, was a dropout from the material world.

    I’m reminded of a day decades ago, when, with only two sons, the third plus a daughter as yet unborn, in a state of despair I rushed to the breakfront in the dining room, took all of the pretty bowls and dishes from the shelves and replaced them with books, and felt the anxiety drift away. For a while, I thought I knew who I was.

    Here’s a black woman of refined tastes and sensibilities, a mystic who also knew how to live in the material world:

    Kitchenette Building

    We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
    Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” mate, a giddy sound, not strong
    Like “rent”, “feeding a wife”, “satisfying a man”.

    But could a dream sent up through onion fumes
    Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
    And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
    Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms,

    Even if we were willing to let it in,
    Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
    Anticipate a message, let it begin?

    We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
    Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
    We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

    Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted January 7, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

      Watts was a dropout from monogamous marriage and American suburban fatherhood, but he lived quite comfortably and elegantly in the material world.

  3. Michael O'Meara
    Posted January 6, 2011 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Greg,

    I was surprised to see your review of Alan Watts — which is excellent.

    Having grown up in the Bay Area and attended Berkeley in the ’60s, Alan Watts was a prominent part of the era’s ‘counter-culture’. I read a great many of his books and when 13 or 14 I even had the pleasure of encountering him on TV — when KQED was still the local ‘educational’ channel and not part of the Petroleum Broadcasting System. He was such a welcomed alternative to the prevailing values of Fifties-Sixties America. He may even have prepared me for my later encounter with Evola.

    I would probably read him more critically today, but I think Brett Stevens pretty much sums up how I still feel about him.

    Thanks for reminding me of him..

  4. Posted January 6, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Why remember Alan Watts on a New Right/Traditionalist website? Because politics should never blind us to the good things, and truthful things, in life. Great article.

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