Alan Watts

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From The Essential Alan Watts

Alan Wilson Watts (January 6, 1915November 16, 1973) was a philosopher, writer, speaker, and expert in comparative religion. He wrote over twenty-five books and numerous articles on subjects such as personal identity, the true nature of reality, consciousness and the pursuit of happiness, relating his experience to scientific knowledge and to the teachings of Eastern and Western religions or philosophies (Zen Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Hinduism). Beyond this, he was sensitive to certain new leanings in the West, and was in a position to be a proponent for certain shifts in attitudes regarding society, the natural world, lifestyles, and aesthetics. Alan Watts was a well-known autodidact. He was most renowned as an interpreter of Asian philosophies.


Early years

Watts was born to middle class parents in the village of Chislehurst, Kent, England in 1915. His father was a tire salesman, his mother a housewife whose own father had been a missionary. With modest financial means, they chose to live in bucolic surroundings and Alan, an only child, grew up learning the names of wildflowers and butterflies, playing at creekside, and performing funeral ceremonies for birds. Probably due to 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 also influenced by Far Eastern landscape paintings and embroideries that had been given to his mother by missionaries returning from China. With regard to the examples of Chinese paintings he was able to see in England, Watts wrote "I was aesthetically fascinated with a certain clarity, transparency, and spaciousness in Chinese and Japanese art. It seemed to float..." [as presented in his autobiography]. These works of art emphasized the participative relationship of man in nature, a theme that would be important to him throughout his life.

By his own assessment, Watts was imaginative, headstrong, and talkative. He was sent to boarding schools (which, as well as an academic dimension, had a religious one) 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 later 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. The young Watts experimented with several styles of meditation during these years.

Though Watts 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 Mitrinovic. He also read widely in philosophy, history, psychology, psychiatry, and Eastern wisdom.

Through Humphreys he was able to come into contact with eminent spiritual authors (e.g., Nicholas Roerich, Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan) and prominent theosophists like Alice Bailey. London afforded him considerable other opportunities, as well. He attended the World Congress of Faiths at the University of London in 1936, heard D.T. Suzuki read a paper, and afterwards was able to meet this esteemed scholar. Besides these discussions and personal encounters, by studying the available scholarly literature, he absorbed the fundamental concepts and terminology of the main philosophies of India and East Asia. In 1936, at 21 years old, Watts got his first book published, The Spirit of Zen, which he acknowledged later to be mainly digested from the translated writings of Suzuki.

In 1939, at the age of 24, he and his bride left England to live in America. He had married Eleanor Everett, whose mother Ruth Fuller Everett was involved with a traditional Zen Buddhist circle in New York. A few years later, Ruth Fuller married the Zen master (or "roshi"), Sokei-an Sasaki, and this Japanese gentleman served as a sort of model and mentor to Alan, though Watts was too independent to remain within a formal Zen training relationship with Sasaki. During these years, according to his later writings, Watts had another mystical experience while on a walk with his wife.

Due to his need to find a professional role and his desire to sidestep America’s military draft in the early 1940s, Watts entered an Anglican (Episcopalian) school (Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, in Evanston), 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 masters degree in theology in response to the 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 were dour, guilt-ridden, or militantly proselytizing, whether found within Judaism, Christianity, or certain "life-denying" forms of Hinduism and Buddhism.

All seemed to go reasonably well in his next role, as Episcopalian priest (beginning in 1945), 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 New Years getting to know Joseph Campbell, his wife, Jean Eardman, and John Cage. In the spring of 1951 he moved westward to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies, in San Francisco. Here he taught alongside Saburo Hasegawa, Frederick Spiegelberg, Haridas Chuadhuri, lama Tokwan Tada, and various visiting experts and professors. Hasegawa, in particular, served as a teacher to Watts in the areas Japanese customs, arts, primitivism, and perceptions of nature.

Always an avid and self-directed learner, Watts 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.

Middle years

After heading up the Academy for a few years, Watts left the faculty for a freelance career in the mid 1950s. He began a regular radio program at Pacifica radio station KPFA in Berkeley, which was later carried by additional Pacifica stations. In 1957 he 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 semantics and cybernetics (Norbert Wiener's early work on cybernetics had been recently 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' instincts were closer to Jung's or Abraham Maslow's than to those of Freud.

When he returned to the U.S., he began to dabble in psychedelic drug experiences, initially with mescaline given to him by Dr. Oscar Janiger. He soon tried LSD several times with various research teams led by Drs. Keith Ditman, Sterling Bunnell, and Michael Agron. Watts’ books of the sixties reveal the influence of these chemical adventures on his outlook.

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 twentieth-century physicists. He later equated mystical experience with ecological awareness, and emphasized whichever approach seemed best suited to the audience he was addressing.

Watts' 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.

In certain ways, Watts' philosophy was similar to that of Hegel, except that Watts emphasized feelings instead of understandings alone, and as time went on Watts more and more sought practical and everyday applications for his outlook.

Some people who knew him said Watts was one of the best conversationalists they had ever known, while others enjoyed his playfulness.

Though never affiliated for long with any one academic institution, he did have a fellowship for a couple of 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. While some college and university professors found his writing and lectures interesting, others said things like: "He's not really a scholar of Eastern philosophy. He's not that disciplined. Alan Watts doesn't teach Eastern philosophy, he teaches 'Alan Watts'."

Watts often alluded to or wrote about a group of neighbors in Druid Heights (near Mill Valley, California), who had used physical effort along with architecture, gardening, and carpentry skills to make a beautiful and comfortable life for themselves. He was clearly impressed with what human creativity and commitment could achieve.

Regarding his intentions, it can be argued that Watts attempted to lessen a simple embarrassment at being human that he felt plagued the modern Westerner, and (like his fellow British expat and friend, Aldous Huxley) to lessen ill will. 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).

Later years

In his writings of the 1950s, Watts expressed what the zen-type inner experience might lead to on the personal level - more spontaneity, a more relaxed attitude, and generally being more fully human. He also conveyed his admiration for the practicality in the historical achievements of Chan or 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, it becomes clear that Watts was not especially committed to the Zen Buddhism with which he tended to be identified in the popular mind, but saw himself as Taoist in spirit, and was very interested in "civilizing" and making more humane the post-Christian industrial culture of the modern West. 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.

In his writings, Watts alluded to his own political shift from Republican conservatism to a more open-minded legal and political outlook. However, his opinions did not lean to the political left. He was more libertarian, distrusting both the left and right. He disliked much in the conventional idea of "progress". He hoped for change, but he preferred amiable, semi-isolated rural social enclaves, and also believed in tolerance for urban tenderloins, social misfits, and weirdo artists. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, Watts hated 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.

Watts felt that ethics had nothing to do with the fundamental realization of one’s deep spiritual identity. He advocated social rather than personal ethics (an emphasis which, perhaps, led to problems in his own relationships). 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 a mobocracy).

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 the traditional Chinese energy exercise Tai Chi Chuan, a set of dancelike movements, under an Asian master, Al Chung-liang Huang. Watts lived his later years at times on a houseboat in San Francisco Bay and at times in a secluded cabin at Mt. Tamalpais (in Fairfax). He struggled increasingly with alcohol addiction, which probably shortened his life. He died at home, while asleep next to his third wife, in 1973 at the age of 58.

Philosophy summarized

Alan Watts was a popular post-modern philosophical writer. His writing reflects the fact that he sought liberation from the bounds of the culture and psychology he had inherited in Britain. Despite the intellectual opportunities he knew had been afforded by the schools he had attended in childhood, he felt the general cultural influence (particularly the religious ideas) had been restrictive and repressive. He believed Christendom, as a culture, had developed through the centuries in a way that had not fully accepted human nature, and therefore often stifled people and set them at odds with nature, rather than effectively teaching them to discipline themselves.

Although Watts had a lifelong interest in things extraordinaire (parapsychology, mysticism, thaumaturgy, and the lives of saints, spiritual giants, and religious geniuses), he saw himself as an ordinary person: a good thinker and public speaker, an accomplished writer, to be sure, but neither heroic nor powerful in the sense of wealth and fame. He was convinced that a human being is an expression of God (to use a Western word). In accordance, he developed a philosophy for the ordinary person of the industrialized world – a world that was too often rushed and sometimes felt imperiled by its own military possibilities or by the environmental backlash of technological blunders and over-population.

His was a philosophy informed by the lifeways of Asia, intended to be shared with those people whom modern life had afforded some leisure time they might devote to contemplation, self-development, sensuality, enjoyment of nature, and fun. He was aware of his own inordinate proclivities and follies. Yet Watts was a man who felt that there was no reason that life shouldn't be lived with gusto. He loved good food, good literature, fine wines and tobaccos, beautiful scenery and women. Intelligent people seemed to strike him as one of the beauties that life offered; unintelligent people bored him. His mature philosophy abounds in reflections of these facts. Though he personally knew many brilliant individuals, he directed most of his writings to the growing number of reasonably intelligent and moderately educated people maturing in America and elsewhere.

In the decades since the middle 1960s, much of Watts’ personal sensibility has become evident as a notable theme among attitudes and in the lives of North Americans and Western Europeans, even among many people who have only the vaguest acquaintance with Eastern philosophy, or cultural analysis, or schools of thought in law or education.


  • 1936 The Spirit of Zen
  • 1937 The Legacy of Asia and Western Man
  • 1940 The Meaning of Happiness
  • 1944 Theologica Mystica of St. Dionysius, (translation from Greek of pseudo-Dionysius, now available online (
  • 1948 Behold the Spirit:A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion, Vintage ed. 1972, ISBN 0394717619
  • 1950 Easter - Its Story and Meaning
  • 1950 The Supreme Identity, Vintage ed. 1972, ISBN 0394718356
  • 1951 The Wisdom of Insecurity, Vintage ed. 1968, ISBN 0394704681
  • 1953 Myth and Ritual in Christianity, Beacon Press 1971, ISBN 0807013757
  • 1957 The Way of Zen, Vintage Spiritual Classics 1999, ISBN 0375705104
  • 1958 Nature, Man, and Woman, Vintage reissue 1991, ISBN 0679732330
  • 1960 "This Is It" and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience, Vintage reprint 1973, ISBN 0394719042
  • 1961 Psychotherapy East and West, Vintage ed. 1975, ISBN 0394716094
  • 1962 The Joyous Cosmology - Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness
  • 1963 The Two Hands of God - The Myths of Polarity
  • 1964 Beyond Theology - The Art of Godmanship, Vintage 1973, ISBN 0394719239
  • 1966 The Book - On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Vintage reissue 1989, ISBN 0679723005
  • 1967 Nonsense
  • 1970 Does It Matter?: Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality, Vintage ed. 1971, ISBN 0394716655
  • 1971 Erotic Spirituality - The Vision of Konarak
  • 1972 The Art of Contemplation
  • 1972 In My Own Way - An Autobiography 1915-1965, Vintage 1973, ISBN 0394719514
  • 1973 Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal, Vintage 1974, ISBN 0394719999
  • 1975 Tao: The Watercourse Way, Pantheon 1977, ISBN 0394733118
  • 1987 The Early Writings of Alan Watts
  • 1990 The Modern Mystic: A New Collection of Early Writings

In addition, a number of books have been published since his death that contain transcripts of recorded lectures and/or articles not included in the above. They include:

  • 1974 The Essence of Alan Watts, Celestial Arts 1977, ISBN 0-89087-210-4
  • 1976 Essential Alan Watts
  • 1978 Uncarved Block, Unbleached Silk: The Mystery of Life
  • 1979 Om: Creative Meditations
  • 1982 Play to Live
  • 1983 Way of Liberation: Essays and Lectures on the Transformation of the Self
  • 1985 Out of the Trap
  • 1986 Diamond Web
  • 1994 Talking Zen
  • 1995 Become What You Are, Shambhala Expanded ed. 2003, ISBN 1570629404
  • 1995 Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion
  • 1995 The Philosophies of Asia
  • 1995 The Tao of Philosophy, edited transcripts, Tuttle Publishing 1999, ISBN 0804832048
  • 1996 Myth and Religion
  • 1997 Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking
  • 1997 Zen and the Beat Way
  • 1998 Culture of Counterculture
  • 1999 Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion, edited transcripts, Tuttle Publishing, ISBN 080483203X
  • 2000 Still the mind : an introduction to meditation, New World Library, ISBN 1577312147
  • 2000 What is Zen?, New World Library, ISBN 0394719514
  • 2000 What is Tao?, New World Library, ISBN 157731168X




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