Alan Watts, 1915-73, self-styled ‘genuine fake’, English mystic and reluctant guru is more or less forgotten in the country in which he was born. He was never well known there even at his apogee, as a counter- cultural hero on the West Coast of America in the 1960s, where he still retains a small, but passionate following.
An inveterate hedonist, philanderer, sexual masochist, draft dodger, alcoholic and drug taker, married three times with seven children, condemned by his ex-wives and derided or ignored by many of his contemporaries, Watts is a long way from the normal ethical or spiritual role models that most tend to associate with the profession of wisdom.
If you wish to browse any of his books, you are required to enter the benighted ‘Spirituality’, ‘Popular Philosophy’ or even ‘Self Help’ section of a specialist bookshop (you are unlikely to find his books in any popular chain). You will inevitably locate those books – usually packaged in the banal livery of the New Age, doves in flight, setting suns, floating clouds and so on – in the company of charlatans and frauds.
Even in this dubious company, Watts features as a marginal figure. He never achieved the dubious prominence of such figures as the Maharishi Ji, Ram Dass, Deepak Chopra, Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, Eckhart Tolle or any of the other would-be gurus who captured the imagination of the hippy generation and their inheritors.
This obscurity is, so far as I am concerned, easily explicable. Watts’ thinking was deeply watermarked with the imprimaturs of pragmatism, empiricism and common sense. He did not buy into karma as it was popularly understood. He did not believe that there was satori to be achieved by sitting cross-legged, be-robed, meditating for hours. He pointed out repeatedly that Buddhism was avowedly atheistic – not the quasi-mystical cult that had emerged in the West through famous celebrity proponents like the PR maven Lynn Franks, the singer Tina Turner and many others.
Furthermore, ‘Alan Watts’ was a lousy name for someone offering enlightenment. It sounded more like someone involved in selling automobiles (which, in fact, his father was).
Alan Watts addressed himself not to the seeker after Pollyannaish solutions to the problems of the world, but to
“The thoughtful person who feels uncertain of his roots; who has seen the replacement of Faith by Reason and has learnt the barrenness of Reason alone, whose head is satisfied but whose heart thirsts. He has much knowledge, much education, much power of intellect, but he finds that there is a gulf between what he thinks and what he feels and does”
He also suffered from another ‘problem’ – at least from the point of view of Western intellectual elites. He expressed himself with a clarity that was, in itself, almost supernatural. He had a rare ability to put across complex philosophical or psychological concepts into plain, direct language. Academics tend to distrust simplicity, fearing that it is the same as simplification. Also, to express complex ideas in plain language reduces the authority of those who own that language.
Watts’ powerful critique of both secularism and scientific thinking meant he was destined to remain a fringe figure within the establishment. He also poured scorn on mainstream academic Orientalists, who he described as ‘pundits and pedants’ whose idea of Eastern study meant “exhaustive research into the manufacture of Chinese writing ink between the years of 1143 and 1242.”
His ‘Everyman’ approach led him to being condemned by one New York Times critic as ‘The Norman Vincent Peale of Zen’ (Peale being the writer who had achieved a huge success with his book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’.)
He considered himself to be a sort of intellectual changeling.
“ According to circumstances, I will play the part of intellectual professor, literary bohemian, college administrator, sober theologian, Orientalish guru, philosophical entertainer, aging hippie or even man of business”
Watts had a sharp sense of humour and a profound sense of fun, both of which provoke caution in academics. It certainly was true of the inclined-to-be-fusty intellectuals of his generation. Anyone listening to any of his hundreds of recorded lectures will often hear not only gasps of amazement and the sharp indrawings of breath from the audience as he treads on one taboo after another, but gales of laughter, which Watts himself embroiders with his own loud, rich, baritone chuckle. He was fond of describing himself as a ‘spiritual entertainer’, and I think of him as cross between Japanese Zen populariser DT Suzuki, the Hindu populariser Jiddu Krishnamurti, and the ur-alternative comedian Lenny Bruce.
His populism guaranteed him a large following, at least in America. He is no longer at his apogee, but he still retains a hard core of enthusiasts who ‘get’ his message. But the people who in this day ‘follow’ Watts tend not to be intellectuals. They are artists rather than academics. They include the singer, Van Morrison –who wrote a song about him, ‘Alan Watts Blues’.
The Hollywood actors Jeff and Beau Bridges, Johnny Depp and Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe from ‘Friends’), and the animators Matt Stone and Trey Parker of ‘South Park’ fame, who animated a series of his lectures might also be described as ‘followers’ (‘might’ because Watts explicitly did not believe in being followed.)
The musician Jarvis Cocker of Pulp considers him ‘a genius’. John Lloyd, the comic innovator who originated many of the great British comedy shows of the last 20 years considers him to be the only person who ever explained the world to him. Lloyd chose Watts’ ‘The Book (on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are)’ as the book he would take with him onto a desert island when he appeared on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 2013. The techno band Hipnosys recorded ‘Ji Ji Muge’ as a track, featuring recorded speech from Alan Watts.
None of these figures proselytize about him in the way, say, Madonna proselytised Kabbalah or Lyn Franks tried to sell Nishirin Buddhism. Parker and Stone have never talked about the animations they made of his lectures, and Van Morrison has never talked about the songs he wrote about him. He appears simply to be a quiet part of the background of their lives.
It is my goal in these blogs to bring Watts out of the shadows into the spotlight – how he tried to interpret Eastern religions and philosophies, such as Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Vedanta and Hinduism for the intelligent, skeptical Western mind.
His is a view rooted in Eastern philosophy, but no Eastern philosophy in particular (another criticism of Watts was that he was a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ philosopher). His take on the Eastern mind is, it strikes me, a very modern English (i.e. skeptical and empiricist) one.
His understanding of Eastern philosophy requires no suspension of disbelief, no commitment to ‘spooks’ or superstition or mysticism. It makes no promises about happiness or the life to come, and it makes no claims that the world is anything other than the world you see in front of you. It is full of humour and irreverence, and deeply tolerant of human failings and flaws. This is what I call ‘Zenism’ or ‘The New Buddhism’.
It attempts to describe the world as it really is, rather than what we hope it might be, as in religion, or what we might wish to reduce it to, via language and numbers, as in the scientific worldview.
It is a fundamentally optimistic worldview. Unlike everyday humanism, atheism and scientism, Zenism does not assert that life is a ‘tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing’. There is order and meaning in the Zenist worldview, although it is subtle and hard to grasp. In the scientific spirit of inquiry, Zenism asks you to believe nothing on trust – only to rely on the evidence of your own senses and your own experience.
Watts remains valuable today because he addressed the problems of which I am only one tiny symptom – a ‘heady ‘culture, that believes conceptual thought, reason and the narrow sense of ‘I’ – are the most important mental realities.
Although words were his tools, he never tired of pointing out the inadequacy of those tools. Although he deployed arguments, they were all aimed at giving up arguing. Although he was an egotist, he asserted the failings, indeed the unreality, of the ego.
Watts rejoiced in the role of being a communicator of ideas, even as he cast doubt on the value of ideas themselves. This is a paradoxical position, but Watts was also fond of pointing out that the world itself was fundamentally paradoxical.
I enjoy, and employ, the same paradox in writing this blogpost. I could, if I were a hard-core Buddhist, just leave the pages blank. Alan Watts would have found that amusing and apposite. After all ,the Taoist philosopher Lao Tse said, ‘those that speak don’t know and those who know don’t speak’.
But then, as Watts was fond of pointing out, Lao Tse said that.
Being based, as it is, firmly in reality, Zenism has limitations. It can’t re-make the character you were born with. It can’t remove any psychological damage done to you as a child. It can’t prevent pain or suffering. It can’t guarantee you another life. It can’t protect you against loss or misfortune.
All it can do is stop you making things worse than they need be. Yet that is a very significant promise – since it is we, according to Watts and Buddhist philosophy in general, that do the most damage to ourselves, as a result muddled set of collective signals sent out by society from earliest childhood, which define and condition us.
Like cognitive behavioural therapy, to which Zenism owes a great deal – or, rather, vice versa – Zenism asserts that by relieving ourselves of the burden of fighting ourselves and trying to solve impossible conundrums we release energy to live our life and even love our life, despite all its disappointments, sufferings and finitude.
I will be posting, during subsequent weeks on topics such as Time, Death, Freewill, Causality, Uncertainty and much besides. If you follow, it could change your life – as it changed mine. If it does, it won’t be my achievement, but Alan Watts’. And it won’t be his achievement either – but the fascinating philosophies of Taoism, Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism and Zen.