Celebrating the Life & Teachings of Alan Watts

Alan Watts did as much as anyone to introduce Americans to Buddhism. David Chadwick recalls his friend, the unconventional philosopher.

David Chadwick
16 November 2020
Alan Watts
In New York, Watts couldn’t find the kind of spirited philosophical community he’d enjoyed in London and so joined the Episcopal Church, hoping to lead a revival of mystical Christianity.

What good fortune it was to know Alan Watts. The first time I met him was at a party, shortly after I started practicing at San Francisco Zen Center in 1966. Alan and his wife, Jano, were friendly and funny. No pretention.

I told Alan that I’d read his book The Way of Zen, and that I’d seen it in so many places he must have made a fortune off it. “Yes,” he said dryly, “I get a penny a copy.”

“I read a book called Nature, Man, and Woman,” Jano added, “and I thought, wow, I’d sure like to make love with the man who wrote that!” Alan buried his face in his hands in mock embarrassment.

This January, the English-born Watts would have been 101 old. He’s best known for his important role in the popularization of Zen in the West. His twenty-six books, and his popular radio and television broadcasts, introduced Americans of the 1950s and 1960s to a Zen that was authentic yet contemporary and accessible. In the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted with practitioners from the early Zen Center days, Watts was the most frequently cited inspiration.

Yet he was no sectarian. Watts wrote of the perennial philosophy—the unifying core of religion and profound inquiry in all quarters and eras. His approach to wisdom was curious and inclusive, embracing psychology, the natural sciences, art, music, dance, humor, and the enjoyment of nature, of sex, of life.

Watts was attracted early on to the Asian art his mother collected from missionary friends, and he declared himself a Buddhist about the time he hit puberty. At sixteen he became the secretary of the London Buddhist Association, founded by his early mentor, Christmas Humphreys.

By his seventeenth year, Watts had already put together a pamphlet entitled An Outline of Zen Buddhism, and he published The Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East when he was twenty-one, the year he met D.T. Suzuki. He married Eleanor, the daughter of American Zen pioneer Ruth Fuller, and they moved to New York together when Watts was twenty-three. There he had a close relationship with the First Zen Institute’s original teacher, Sokei-an Sasaki.

“This—the immediate, everyday, and present experience—is IT, the entire and ultimate point for the existence of a universe.”
—Alan Watts

Most of the forties were spent in Evanston, Illinois, where he attended the Seabury Western Theological Seminary and became an Episcopalian priest and chaplain of Northwestern University. There students joined him in spirited discussions about Christian mysticism and the wisdom of the East. During this time, Watts wrote three books on Christian mysticism, which continued to be a subject in future books though he left the priesthood in 1950.

In 1951, Watts moved to San Francisco, where he became director of the American Academy of Asian Studies (AAAS). Gary Snyder was one of the academy’s early students. Kazemitsu Kato, a Soto Zen priest who taught at the academy, was a paid assistant to Watts while he was writing The Way of Zen. When Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, arrived in America, Kato introduced him to Watts. Suzuki met some of his first students at the AAAS, although by that time Watts had left as director, his last attachment to any institution.

Marian Derby, who put together the first draft of Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, once asked Suzuki what he thought of Watts. Suzuki said that he respected Watts but didn’t understand him. She arranged for Suzuki to attend a Watts seminar in Los Altos, after which she reported, “That worked.” Suzuki now saw Watts in a new light.

In 1967, Watts gave a talk at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco, one of his benefits for our baby monastery, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. He turned the talk into a guided meditation, likening our unobstructed mind to the endless sky and taking us flying with him. Suzuki, who almost never attended lectures other than his own, flew along with us like a new student. Later he would call Watts “a great bodhisattva.”

At his last public appearance—the installation of Richard Baker as the new abbot of Zen Center—a weak and dying Suzuki, gathering all his strength, slowly entered and departed the buddha hall, jangling the staff Watts had given him.

Alan Watts stands with a priest.
In New York, Watts couldn’t find the kind of spirited philosophical community he’d enjoyed in London and so joined the Episcopal Church, hoping to lead a revival of mystical Christianity.

Alan Watts focused on freeing us from our greatest addiction—clinging to self. I think he saw that more clearly than his tobacco and alcohol habits. He made flimsy excuses like, “I’m an ecstatic alcoholic,” “I don’t like myself when I’m sober,” or more to the point, “I can’t change.” But the common addiction to judging and condemning others is to me of a lower order.

I do wish Alan had stopped at some point, and stayed stopped. But it sure made him easy to get along with. I used to be a drinker, and several times drank and smoked pot with Alan and Jano. That did make for convivial relating. Later, though, while living at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Jano would express regret about their roles as what she called “codependent alcoholics.”

Watts is often criticized for not meditating. In my opinion, he did have a constant spiritual practice going way back to the womb, and he did do sitting meditation. But he poo-pooed depending on meditation.

He spoke and wrote positively about meditation and often led guided meditations. He just didn’t want his practice to be about jumping through other people’s hoops or being put in their boxes. Watts didn’t like the restrictions of institutions and discipline and didn’t hang around the Zen Center (or any center). But he was an essential element in Zen Center’s formation and, like a pied piper, led so many to be swallowed up by more formal practice.

There’s an old saying in India that one should live two valleys away from their guru. He made it clear that he was no guru, but in considering his legacy, I suggest we stay two valleys away from speculation about his states of mind, and what he did and didn’t do as he breathed in and out.

Alan Watts came to Green Gulch to meet with Richard Baker in 1973, when I was Baker’s attendant. It was early in the day, and he seemed to be in good health. But what he had come to talk about was his funeral.

I had a good time listening to them, though I found it a little strange that he was going on about all these details about his funeral as if it were around the corner. Turns out it was. Late in the year he died in his sleep, of heart failure it was said. I thought, wow, he predicted his own death just like the Zen masters in the stories.

Tai chi master Al Huang worked with Watts on his last book, Tao: The Watercourse Way. In the introduction, Huang wrote, “I spoke with him on the phone on his last evening to find him drained in energy [having just returned from Europe] but euphoric during a gathering of friends in his Mandala house (reconstructed from a circular wine vat). ‘Wish you could join us dancing Tai Ji tonight … we are playing with helium balloons… I feel my spirit is flying up with them,’ were his last words to me.”

Hundreds attended Watts’ funeral ceremony at Green Gulch Farm. This man who brought the good news with goodwill was well-loved. As his Catholic priest confidant, Dom Alraed Graham, wrote, “I never heard him speak harshly of anyone.”

Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen Institute, said this in his eulogy:

“He taught us by who he was. We learned from his infectious, outrageous laughter, from his virtues and his faults, from his sense of play and his eye for the binds we would get ourselves into. He was our gentlest and most joyous teacher.“

The culmination of the ceremony was the eulogy by Richard Baker. Using the dharma names he’d given Watts and holding Watts’ jangling staff, which he’d inherited from Suzuki, he spoke:

“Alan, Daiyuin Yuzan Myoko, Daizen Jomon, here is your lineage from Buddha through the Buddhas and Patriarchs to you. Alan Watts was a philosopher, a poet, a calligrapher, a lover, a friend, a dharma reveler, a revealer, a great founder of the spirit for all of us.”

“He saw the true emptiness of all things. He taught us to be free. To see through the multiplicities and absurdities to the Great Universal Personality and Play. He gave us the Dharma Eye of a new age. Our blessings go with you now.”

“Wide Mind, Joyous Mind, Careful Loving Mind. For the true life is beyond life and death, origination, and extinction. We are with you in the many paths you opened for us. HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Go! Go! Great Hermit! Great Founder!”

Watts at his desk at the American Academy of Asian Studies.
Watts at his desk at the American Academy of Asian Studies, now the California Institute of Integral Studies. He was named dean in 1952.

Watts’ Society for Comparative Philosophy didn’t last long after his death, but his influence spread in myriad ways. Recently he was revived as the disembodied wise voice of artificial intelligence in the movie Her. His own voice is heard in the excellent “Alan Watts Theater” videos created by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and on 2014 hard-rock albums by the bands Yob and Cynic. This May an EP vinyl record, Face the Facts, with Watts’ voice and the music of Jas Walton, was released by Figure & Ground records. A video of the same name is on Vimeo.

The Alan Watts Mountain Center, being built by his son Mark Watts north of San Francisco, promises to be a nexus for Watts’ archives, and for study, meetings, lodging, and creativity. Currently, Mark’s website, alanwatts.org, is a treasure trove of resources for reading, listening, and viewing Watts’ cornucopia of sagacity. A recent film by Mark about his father, Why Not Now?, lets Alan Watts speak for himself.

Of the books that look at Watts’ impact, one seems to be of particular significance: Alan Watts—Here and Now: Contributions to Psychology, Philosophy, and Religion (SUNY Series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology). The lead chapter is entitled “Alan Watts’ Anticipation of Four Major Debates in the Psychology of Religion.” The book nails Watts’ critical influence on the study of the perennial philosophy as rooted in mystical experience, the relationship of the latter with psychedelics and eroticism, and the shift to the study of spirituality rather than religion. The book also explores Watts’ game-changing influence in psychology, the neuroscience of transcendence, and eco-feminism. Watts was one of the first to suggest a connection between the treatment of the environment and the inferior status of women. Included is a warning on technology, which “can lead to extinction if not balanced by other types of intelligence.”

Watts gave us words with passion, in sound and print. That’s where his moxie shines and that’s all we have of him. I urge you to go to the source—to read, listen, and watch him online at home or in a library.

While people who maybe should be spanked speculate on Watts’ practice, personal habits, degree of enlightenment, and depth of understanding, his fresh-air spirit is still present in our thoughts and aspirations. It’s in the strata and the substrata. Much gratitude to this—as he called himself—fake, rascal, philosophical entertainer, ego inside a bag of skin, Alan Watts, our own renaissance man.

David Chadwick

David Chadwick is the author of Crooked Cucumber, a biography of Shunryu Suzuki, and Zen Is Right Here: Teaching Stories and Anecdotes of Shunryu Suzuki. His website, cuke.com, is an archive of the world of Suzuki Roshi and those who knew him.