I began reading the work of Alan Watts when I was in high school; his books had a profound impact on me, and the late philosopher came up in a number of conversations that I’ve had with Carolyn over the years.
Born on January 6, 1915 (the same day and year that John Lilly was born) in Chislehurst, England, Watts was a British philosopher, writer, and speaker, who helped to bring Eastern philosophical thought to the West. Watts was a master at interpreting Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu philosophy, and also at being able to clearly and simply explain it to a Western audience. His prolific writings and eloquent talks have a signature clarity, insight, and logic to them, which helps to make the sometimes seemingly paradoxical concepts of Eastern philosophy more accessible to the Western mind.
As a child, Watts experienced a “mystical dream” while he was ill with a fever, and his mother introduced him to artwork from the Far East; these influences were to affect the development of his life. He began writing original works at the age of 14, and as a teenager, Watts met D. T. Suzuki, the esteemed scholar of Zen Buddhism, which was also an important influence. When Watts was 15 he declared himself a Buddhist, joined the Buddhist Lodge, and became an active member.
In 1936 Watts attended the World Congress of Faiths at the University of London, where he studied the fundamental concepts of Indian and East Asian philosophy. During the 1930s he became particularly interested in Zen Buddhism, which he saw as a synthesis of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. In 1936 Watts published his first book, The Spirit of Zen, which he wrote when he was 19. Watts was working as a freelance writer by the time the book was published, and he moved to the United States in 1938 for Zen training in New York.
Watts never finished his Zen training— because “the method of his teacher didn’t suit him”— and left before being ordained as a Zen monk. He then entered Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in Evanston, Illinois, where he studied Christian scriptures, theology, and church history, attempting to blend Christian and Asian philosophy. His master’s thesis was published as a book, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion, and he was an Episcopal priest in Chicago for six years.
In 1951 Watts moved to San Francisco, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies, and taught there until 1957. During this period, Watts also began broadcasting a weekly radio program at Pacifica Radio station in Berkeley, where he attracted a following of regular listeners. Throughout his life, the station continued to broadcast many of his recorded lectures, talks, and seminars, and they continue to broadcast them to this day.
In 1957 Watts published The Way of Zen, which became one of his most popular books. The book was unique in that it combined Eastern philosophical thought with Western ideas from general semantics and cybernetics. Watts suggested analogies from cybernetic principles that could be applicable to the Zen tradition. The book sold well and Watts began lecturing more widely.
In 1958 Watts toured parts of Europe with his father and met with the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. During the 1960s Watts became good friends with Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, and he spent time at the legendary Millbrook estate in New York during its heyday, from 1963 to 1968. Watts had profound mystical experiences during this time, which are recorded in his book The Joyous Cosmology.
Watts died in 1973 in Mill Valley, California. Although I never got to meet him, Carolyn and I heard a lot of great stories about Alan from our beloved friends Nina Graboi and Oz Janiger; Oz was Alan’s physician and Nina had a close relationship with him.
Watts’ audio library consists of nearly 400 talks, and he wrote more than 25 popular books, including This is It, Cloud Hidden Whereabouts Unknown, Does it Matter?, and The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. An important theme that runs through his work is that humanity’s feeling of isolation and alienation is an illusion because all of creation is an interconnected whole. In his autobiography, In My Own Way, Watts said that the essential message of his life was to “integrate the spiritual with the material,” and he described himself as a “rascal.”
Some of the quotes that Alan Watts is remembered for include:
Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.
Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.
The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.
The menu is not the meal.
Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.
Life is like music for its own sake. We are living in an eternal now, and when we listen to music we are not listening to the past, we are not listening to the future, we are listening to an expanded present.