Alan Watts at 100

[1] 1,714 words

Spanish translation here [2]

Alan Watts is one of my favorite writers. Today is his 100th birthday.

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 [3] (1936), written when Watts was only 19; The Legacy of Asia and Western Man: A Study of the Middle Way [4] (1937); and The Meaning of Happiness: The Quest for Freedom of the Spirit in Modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East [5] (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 [6] (1948) and The Supreme Identity: An Essay on Oriental Metaphysic and the Christian Religion [7] (1950; now available in a handsome new edition).

Watts’ third period commences with The Wisdom of Insecurity [8] (1951). He abandoned Christianity as a framework and focused on Buddhism, Vedanta, and Taoism. Works from this period include The Way of Zen [9] (1957), Nature, Man and Woman [10] (1958), Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen [11] (1959), “This Is It” and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience [12] (1960), Psychotherapy East and West [13], (1961) The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness [14] (1962), and The Two Hands of God: The Myths of Polarity [15] (1963), culminating in his most brilliant works, Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship [16] (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 [17] (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 [18] (1967) a book of whimsical doggerel, and it includes Does It Matter?: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality [19] (1971) (see my review here [20]), as well as In My Own Way: An Autobiography, 1915–1965 [21] (1972), Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal [22] (1973), and the posthumously published Tao: The Watercourse Way [23] (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 [24] (also published under the title A Genuine Fake [25]). 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 100th 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. In The Supreme Identity, he offers an absolutely withering Traditionalist critique of the basic premises of liberalism.

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. (There is, by the way, no evidence that Watts ever read Julius Evola.)

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.

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.

Watts’ most Traditionalist book is The Supreme Identity [7] (1950), a beautifully written but very dense and rigorously argued synthesis of Traditionalism, with a special reference to Christian theology, which is logical given his background and audience. Watts’ next book, The Wisdom of Insecurity [8] (1951), is a much more “popular” work, but it still uses the Traditionalist language of “realizing” (as opposed to knowing) the ultimate identity of self, world soul, and being.

Although Watts found Traditionalism useful in liberating his mind from Christianity, he ultimately rejected it. In the Preface to Beyond Theology [16], he explains his reason. Traditionalists claim that Christianity is just an exoteric expression of the one primordial tradition which is the inner truth of all religions. But Watts points out that there is no evidence that the founders of Christianity thought that way. Instead, Christianity has always insisted on what Jan Assmann calls the “Mosaic distinction” between true and false religions. Christianity is the one true religion, and all others are simply false. Thus in The Supreme Identity, Watts treats Christianity as an expression of primordial truth, but in Beyond Theology, he treats it as a mode of illusion.

Why remember Alan Watts’ centennial on a New Right/Traditionalist website? A more telling question is why Watts’ centennial seems to have been forgotten virtually everywhere else [26]. Perhaps because he died before he found his true audience.