Alan Watts – Biography

The Early Years

Watts was born to middle class parents in the village of Chislehurst, Kent, England in the year 1915. His father was a representative for the London office of the Michelin Tyre Company, his mother a housewife whose father had been a missionary. With modest financial means, they chose to live in bucolic surroundings and Alan, an only child, grew up playing outside, learning the names of wildflowers and butterflies.

Probably because of the influence of his mother’s religious family, the Buchans, an interest in “ultimate things” seeped in. But it mixed with Alan’s own interests in storybook fables and romantic tales of the mysterious Far East. Watts also later wrote of a mystical sort of vision he experienced while ill with a fever as a child. During this time he was influenced by Far Eastern landscape paintings and embroideries that had been given to his mother by missionaries returning from China. The few Chinese paintings Watts was able to see in England riveted him, and he wrote “I was aesthetically fascinated with a certain clarity, transparency, and spaciousness in Chinese and Japanese art. It seemed to float…”. These works of art emphasized the participative relationship of man in nature, a theme that stood fast throughout his life.

By his own assessment, Watts was imaginative, headstrong, and talkative. He was sent to boarding schools (which included both academic and religious training) from early years. During holidays in his teen years, Francis Croshaw, a wealthy epicurean with strong interests in both Buddhism and the exotic little-known aspects of European culture, took Watts on a trip through France. It was not long afterward that Watts felt forced to decide between the Anglican Christianity he had been exposed to and the Buddhism he had read about in various libraries, including Croshaw’s. He chose Buddhism, and sought membership in the London Buddhist Lodge which had been established by Theosophists, and was now run by the barrister Christmas Humphreys. Watts became the organization’s secretary at 16 (1931). The young Watts explored several styles of meditation during these years.

Education

Watts attended King’s School next door to Canterbury Cathedral. Though he was frequently at the top of his classes scholastically, and was given responsibilities at school, he botched an opportunity for a scholarship to Oxford by styling a crucial examination essay in a way that was read as presumptuous and capricious.

Hence, when he graduated from secondary school, Watts was thrust into the world of employment, working in a printing house and later a bank. He spent his spare time involved with the Buddhist Lodge and also under the tutelage of a “rascal guru” named Dimitrije Mitrinović. (Mitrinović was himself influenced by Peter Demianovich Ouspensky, G. I. Gurdjieff, and the varied psychoanalytical schools of Freud, Jung and Adler.) Watts also read widely in philosophy, history, psychology, psychiatry and Eastern wisdom.

Priesthood and After

Watts had left formal Zen training in New York because the method of the teacher didn’t suit him. He was not ordained as a Zen monk, but he felt a need to find a professional outlet for his philosophical inclinations. He entered an Anglican (Episcopalian) school (Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, in Evanston, Illinois), where he studied Christian scriptures, theology, and Church history. He attempted to work out a blend of contemporary Christian worship, mystical Christianity, and Asian philosophy. Watts was awarded a master’s degree in theology in response to his thesis, which he published as a popular edition under the title Behold the Spirit. The pattern was set, in that Watts did not hide his dislike for religious outlooks that he decided were dour, guilt-ridden, or militantly proselytizing — no matter if they were found within Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism.

All seemed to go reasonably well in his next role, as Episcopalian priest (beginning in 1945, aged 30), until an extramarital affair resulted in his young wife having their marriage annulled. It also resulted in Watts leaving the ministry by 1950. He spent the New Year getting to know Joseph Campbell; his wife, Jean Erdman; and John Cage.

In the spring of 1951, Watts moved to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. Here he taught alongside Saburō Hasegawa, Frederick Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, lama Tokwan Tada, and various visiting experts and professors. Hasegawa, in particular, served as a teacher to Watts in the areas of Japanese customs, arts, primitivism, and perceptions of nature.

Watts also studied written Chinese and practiced Chinese brush calligraphy with Hasegawa as well as with some of the Chinese students who enrolled at the Academy. While Watts was noted for an interest in Zen Buddhism, with its origins in China, his reading and discussions delved into Vedanta, “the new physics,” cybernetics, semantics, process philosophy, natural history, and the anthropology of sexuality.

The Middle Years

After heading up the Academy for a few years, Watts left the faculty for a freelance career in the mid 1950s. In 1953, he began what became a long-running weekly radio program at Pacifica Radio station KPFA in Berkeley, which continued until his death in 1973. Like other volunteer programmers at the listener-sponsored station, Watts was not paid for his broadcasts; they did, however, gain him a large following in the San Francisco Bay Area. These programs were later carried by additional Pacifica stations, and were re-broadcast many times over in the decades following his death. The original tapes are currently held by the Pacifica Radio Archives, based at KPFK in Los Angeles.

In 1957 when 42, Watts published one of his best known books, The Way of Zen, which focused on philosophical explication and history. Besides drawing on the lifestyle and philosophical background of Zen, in India and China, Watts introduced ideas drawn from general semantics (directly from the writings of Alfred Korzybski) and also from Norbert Wiener’s early work on cybernetics, which had recently been published). Watts offered analogies from cybernetic principles possibly applicable to the Zen life. The book sold well, eventually becoming a modern classic, and helped widen his lecture circuit.

Around this time, Watts toured parts of Europe with his father, meeting the renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung. In relation to modern psychology, Watts’s instincts were closer to Jung’s or Abraham Maslow’s than to those of Freud.

Experimentation

When he returned to the United States, he began to dabble in psychedelic drug experiences, initially with mescaline given to him by Dr. Oscar Janiger. He tried LSD several times with various research teams led by Drs. Keith Ditman, Sterling Bunnell, and Michael Agron. He also tried Marijuana and concluded that it was a useful and interesting psychoactive drug that gave the impression of time slowing down. Watts’ books of the 60s reveal the influence of these chemical adventures on his outlook. He would later comment about psychedelic drug use, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.”

For a time, Watts came to prefer writing in the language of modern science and psychology (Psychotherapy East and West is a good example), finding a parallel between mystical experiences and the theories of the material universe proposed by 20th-century physicists. He later equated mystical experience with ecological awareness, and typically emphasized whichever approach seemed best suited to the audience he was addressing.

Supporters and critics

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.

Though never affiliated for long with any one academic institution, he did have a fellowship for several years at Harvard University. He also lectured to many college and university students. His lectures and books gave Watts far-reaching influence on the American intelligentsia of the 1950s-1970s, but Watts was often seen as an outsider in academia.

Watts has been criticized by Buddhists such as Roshi Philip Kapleau and John Daido Loori for misinterpreting several key concepts of Zen Buddhism. Kapleau wrote that Watts dismissed zazen on the basis of only half a koan. In Loori’s translation of Dogen’s The True Dharma Eye, the author also mentions this and expands further to suggest that Zen in its essence is zazen, and cannot be grasped without the practice.

Applied aesthetics

Watts often wrote about, or sometimes alluded to, a group of neighbors in Druid Heights (near Mill Valley, California), who had endeavored to combine architecture, gardening, and carpentry skills to make a beautiful and comfortable life for themselves. Druid Heights was founded by the writer Elsa Gidlow.

Regarding his intentions, it can be argued that Watts attempted to lessen the alienation that accompanies the experience of being human that he felt plagued the modern Westerner, and (like his fellow British expatriate and friend, Aldous Huxley) to lessen the ill will that was an unintentional by-product of alienation from the natural world. He felt such teaching could improve the world, at least to a degree. He also articulated the possibilities for greater incorporation of aesthetics (for example: better architecture, more art, more fine cuisine) in American life. In his autobiography he wrote, “… cultural renewal comes about when highly differentiated cultures mix” (Watts, In My Own Way).

The Spiritual Aspect of Sex

In his last novel Island, Aldous Huxley mentions the religious practice of maithuna as being something like what Roman Catholics call “coitus reservatus”. A few years before, Alan Watts had discussed the theme in his own book Nature, Man and Woman. There, he discusses the possibility of the practice being known to early Christians and of it being kept secretly by the Church.

The Later Years

In his writings of the 1950s, he conveyed his admiration for the practicality in the historical achievements of Chán (Zen) in the Far East, for it had fostered farmers, architects, builders, folk physicians, artists, and administrators among the monks who had lived in the monasteries of its lineages.

In his mature work, he presents himself as “Zennist” in spirit as he wrote in his last book, Tao: The Watercourse Way. Child rearing, the arts, cuisine, education, law and freedom, architecture, sexuality, and the uses and abuses of technology were all of great interest to him.

On the personal level, Watts sought to resolve his feelings of alienation from the institutions of marriage and the values of American society, as revealed in his classic comments on love relationships in “Divine Madness” and on perception of the organism-environment in “The Philosophy of Nature”.

In looking at social issues he was quite concerned with the necessity for international peace, for tolerance or even understanding among disparate cultures. He also came to feel acutely conscious of a growing ecological predicament; as one instance, in the early 1960s he wrote: “Can any melting or burning imaginable get rid of these ever-rising mountains of ruin – especially when the things we make and build are beginning to look more and more like rubbish even before they are thrown away?” These concerns were later expressed in a television pilot made for NET filmed at his mountain retreat in 1971 in which he noted that the single track of conscious attention was wholly inadequate for interactions with a multi-tracked world.

Political stance

In his writings; Watts alluded to his own political shift from Republican conservatism to a more libertarian legal and political outlook. Distrusting both the established political left and right, he found inspiration in the Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu. He disliked much in the conventional idea of “progress”. He hoped for change, but personally he preferred amiable, semi-isolated rural social enclaves, and also believed in tolerance for urban tenderloins, social misfits, and eccentric artists. Watts decried the suburbanization of the countryside and the way of life that went with it.

In one campus lecture tour, which Watts titled “The End to the Put-Down of Man”, Watts presented positive images for both nature and humanity, spoke in favor of the various stages of human growth (including the teenage years), reproached excessive cynicism and rivalry, and extolled intelligent creativity, good architecture and food.

On spiritual and social identity

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. At the same time, he favored representative government rather than direct democracy (which he felt could readily degenerate into mob rule).

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 T’ai Chi Ch’uan, with an Asian colleague, Al Chung-liang Huang. Watts lived his later years at times on a houseboat in Sausalito and at times in a secluded cabin on Mount Tamalpais. Laden with social and financial responsibilities, he struggled increasingly with alcohol addiction, which probably shortened his life. In October 1973 he returned from an exhausting European lecture tour. Watts died of heart failure in his sleep at his home on Mt. Tamalpais the following month at the age of 58.

Worldview

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, and modern science; in which he maintains that the whole universe consists of a cosmic self playing hide-and-seek (Maya), hiding from itself by becoming all the living and non-living things in the universe, forgetting what it really is; the upshot being that we are all IT in disguise. In this worldview, Watts asserts that our conception of ourself as an “ego in a bag of skin” is a myth; the entities we call the separate “things” are merely processes of the whole.








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