Alan Wilson Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) was a British philosopher who interpreted and popularized Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.
Born in Chislehurst, England, 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 in 1945, then left the ministry in 1950 and moved to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies.
He 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 considered Nature, Man and Woman (1958) to be, “from a literary point of view—the best book I have ever written.”
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. According to critic Erik Davis, his “writings and recorded talks still shimmer with a profound and galvanizing lucidity.”
What Is Alan Watts’ Philosophy about?
Views on spiritual and social identity
In regards to his ethical outlook, 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 taijiquan, with an Asian colleague, Al Chung-Liang Huang.
What ideas is Alan Watts’ philosophy based on?
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, pantheism or panentheism, and modern science.
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 and forgetting what it really is – the upshot is 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,” or “skin-encapsulated ego” is a myth; the entities we call the separate “things” are merely aspects or features of the whole.
Watts’ 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.
Supporters and Critics of Alan Watts’ Philosophy
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. Werner Erhard attended workshops given by Alan Watts and said of him,
“He pointed me toward what I now call the distinction between Self and Mind. After my encounter with Alan, the context in which I was working shifted.“
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 must entail 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.
Watts’s biographers saw him, after his stint as an Anglican priest, as representative of no religion but as a lone-wolf thinker and social rascal.
In David Stuart’s warts-and-all biography of the man, Watts is seen as an unusually gifted speaker and writer driven by his own interests, enthusiasms, and demons. Elsa Gidlow, whom Alan called “sister”, refused to be interviewed for this work but later painted a kinder picture of Alan’s life in her own autobiography, Elsa, I Come With My Songs.
However, Watts did have 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.”
Image Credits: Alan Watts Foundation – http://www.alanwatts.org/
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