Alan Watts

You may have heard of him in passing. Perhaps you’ve heard your friends chat about him and his influence on Western spirituality, or maybe you’ve heard audio clips from his famous lectures embedded in your favorite electronic music.
Alan Watts, alive from 1915 to 1973, was a writer and speaker most famous for relating Eastern philosophy and spirituality to Western audiences. He played a massive role in popularizing Eastern thought in the West.
From England, Watts moved to New York at a young age and began Zen training. Strangely enough, he attained a master’s degree in theology and became an Episcopal priest in 1945, leaving the ministry after 5 years to go to California and work with the American Academy of Asian Studies.
Among his early writings, The Way of Zen was one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism. A few years later, in Psychotherapy East and West, he posited that Buddhism could be utilized as a form of psychotherapy, without necessarily being a religion.
Many might say that Watts spearheaded the enchantment of 60’s counter-culture with Eastern ways of thinking.
Watts did not believe in absolute morality. His sense of ethics was driven by social consideration. Many of his writings addressed humanity’s relationship to nature, and the relationship between government and citizens.
Politically, Watts was moderate. He envisioned societal doing well by exercising more tolerance and support of the arts.
Most of all, Watts wrote and lectured about our individual relationship with existence.
Much of his work brings attention to a central point in his worldview: he felt that our notion of ourselves as “egos in bags of skin” was a misconception.
He asserted that instead, all entities we call “things”, including ourselves, are merely aspects of a whole. Much of his work focuses on the oneness of existence as a unifying concept, offering that we ourselves essentially are existence, as is everything and everyone else.

Alan Watts and Buddhism

Buddhism had an early influence in Watts’ life. He was already experimenting with meditation in his teen years, and became the secretary at the London Buddhist Lounge at 16 years old. At 21, Watts met the prominent Zen Buddhist Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, and was later inspired to self-educate on the fundamental concepts philosophy in India and East Asia.
Alan Watts was most interested in Zen Buddhism. He viewed it as “the great Zen synthesis of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism after 700 CE in China.” It was especially appreciation for its influence on communities. He felt that Zen was a practical and utopian application of aesthetics,
Whether Watts accurately portrayed Buddhism and its philosophies to Western audiences is a point of contention. Especially Zen Buddhist circles, there are doubts about Watt’s relaxed, non-strict assertions on meditation: “Even when you’re sitting in meditation, if there’s something you’ve got to do, it’s quite alright to get up and leave.”
Alan Watts garnered a great deal of influence in his life, and duly grew a culture’s acceptance and understanding of outside philosophical and spiritual ideas. His influence blossomed from 1953 to 1962, when he voluntarily held a weekly radio program at KPFA in Berkeley. On his show, Watts broadcast his continued seminars and lectures, and they continue broadcasting on that and other stations to this day. He gathered a large following of regular listeners, and soon after, his best-selling book The Way of Zen became a modern classic.
In the 60’s, Watts was increasingly interested in how patterns in nature tend to repeat themselves at vast scales. Though he had some short affiliations with Universities as a lecturer, he was often seen as an outsider within Academia. Watts referred to himself a number of times as “not an academic philosopher, but a philosophical entertainer.”
There is no doubt that a huge factor in Watts’ prolific success, both during and after his life, comes from his unusual skill as a speaker.
Give some of his lectures below a listen, even if only for a few minutes, and you will understand the appeal of Alan Watts as a personality and speaker. It’s plain to see why he is cemented in history.

Why People Love Alan Watts

-He is an excellent speaker and writer
-He translated often difficult-to-relate concepts of Eastern philosophy into western/English terms
-He produced so much material: 35+ books, hundreds of lectures, dozens of essays, TV shows…
-His work is timeless. Most concepts that he addresses are not specifically dated to his time
-His worldview is open: fairly ethereal and hard to put a finger on, his teachings are easy to appreciate for anyone willing to pick the good from it
-Aesthetics: Watts was deliberate and outspoken about aesthetics. He picked up upon and grew a trend of Eastern fascination, especially with Zen

Why People Don’t Love Alan Watts

-His teaching is hard to pin down. It can be hard to tell if he is saying something profound and life-changing or nothing at all.
-He was a bit notorious. He struggled with alcohol for much of his life, potentially leading to his death. He also had infidelity and marriage problems.
-Most Buddhist and Zen authorities do not take him seriously. They feel that he gives a lackadaisical account of Eastern practices and traditions.
-Eastern spirituality and philosophy, for which he is a champion, is still met with resistance in the West.

Talks / Lectures

Do You Do It, or Does It Do You?

How Your Beliefs Create Reality

Society is a Hoax, Take Control of Your Life

What Do You Really, Really Want?

Close Your Eyes

Get Out of Your Own Way

What is a Feeling?

Buddhism Explained

What Awakening Means

The Dangers of Waking Up

How to Remove Anxiety

Time and the More it Changes

Books

The masterpiece of D.T. Suzuki, who lit a fire of interest in Alan Watts about Zen Buddhism.

Links

Wikipedia
AlanWatts.orgAlanWatts.com – a site organized by the Alan Watts organization, with a collection of his works, some premiere videos, and even writings about him.
Best Way to Start Your Journey with Alan Watts – Exactly as it sounds, this article will point you to his recommended top books, lectures, etc in a curated order.
Alan Watts Reconsidered – An article addressing what to make of Watt’s not being taken seriously within Zen and Buddhist circles.
The Western Buddhist Who Healed my Mind – An article about how the writer found their way out of depression thanks to Watts’ writings.
Zen: The Best of Alan Watts – a 1 hr documentary film collecting Watt’s best material.
Alan Watts Soundcloud – A large collection of mostly under 5 minute soundbites from Watts.

Quotes

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
Your skin does not separate you from the world. It’s a bridge through which the external world flows into you. And you flow into it.
Faith is, above all, open-ness — an act of trust in the unknown.
We’re living in a fluid universe, in which the art of faith is not in taking one’s stand, but in learning to swim.
Everybody is ‘you’. Everybody is ‘I’. That’s our name. We all share that.
Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.
We cannot be more sensitive to pleasure without being more sensitive to pain.
Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun
This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.
If we cling to belief in God, we cannot likewise have faith, since faith is not clinging but letting go
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.
One is a great deal less anxious if one feels perfectly free to be anxious, and the same may be said of guilt.