The Masters of Enlightenment: Alan Watts
The series on the Masters of Enlightenment continues today with a profile of the Zen teacher and scholar, Alan Watts.
Alan Watts was born in Chislehurst, England on January 6, 1915 and died at his home in Marin County, California on November 16, 1973.
He was a philosopher, writer, and speaker, and best known as an interpreter and popularizer of Eastern philosophy, especially Buddhism and Zen, for a Western audience.
As a young child in England, Watts had a mystical experience while sick with a fever that left an indelible mark. Also during his childhood, he was exposed to Buddhism and other Eastern influences, along with mystical Christian approaches. He went to college in London, and there met many prominent religious and spiritual teachers.
His biggest influence at that age may have come from going to a lecture from the noted Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki, as afterwards, at the age of 21, Watts published a book entitled The Spirit of Zen.
In 1938, at the age of 23, Watts left England with his wife for New York City, in order to enter into formal Zen training.
Watts left formal Zen training in New York because the method of the teacher didn’t suit him. He was never ordained as a Zen monk, but because he felt a need to find a professional outlet for his philosophical inclinations, he decided to attend a seminary where he graduated as an ordained Anglican (Episcopalian) priest.
While in seminary, he attempted to work out a blend of contemporary Christian worship, mystical Christianity, and Asian philosophy. Because of his far-reaching and eclectic mind, while still in school the pattern was set for Watts, in that he 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.
Beginning in 1945 at aged 30, Watts worked as an Episcopalian priest, until he decided to leave the ministry in 1950.
In early 1951, Watts moved to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. It was at this point that Watts began lecturing on radio and to audiences live, and started building up a following that over the years counted millions of people.
While Watts was noted for an interest in Zen Buddhism, his discussions delved into other subjects that interested him, including Vedanta, the new physics, cybernetics, semantics, process philosophy, natural history, and the anthropology of sexuality.
Over the years he wrote 25 books, and between his books, tape recordings, radio, television, and public lectures, he inspired a generation to re-assess their values.
Overall, his life and work reflects an astonishing adventure: he was an editor, Anglican priest, graduate dean, broadcaster, author, lecturer, and entertainer. He had fascinations for archery, calligraphy, cooking, chanting, and dancing, and still was completely comfortable hiking alone in the wilderness.
He held fellowships from Harvard University and the Bollingen Foundation, and was Episcopal Chaplain at Northwestern University during the Second World War. He became professor and dean of the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, made the television series “Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life” for National Educational Television, and served as a visiting consultant for psychiatric institutions and hospitals, and for the United States Air Force. In the mid-sixties he traveled widely with his students in Japan, and visited Burma, Ceylon, and India.
Though known for his Zen teachings, he was equally if not more influenced by ancient Hindu scriptures, especially Vedanta, and spoke extensively about the nature of the divine Reality Man that Man misses, how the contradiction of opposites is the method of life and the means of cosmic and human evolution, how our fundamental ignorance is rooted in the exclusive nature of mind and ego, how to come in touch with the Field of Consciousness and Light, and other cosmic principles.
On the personal level, Watts sought to resolve his feelings of alienation from the institutions of marriage and the values of American society.
In looking at social issues, he was quite concerned with the necessity for international peace, for tolerance and understanding among disparate cultures.
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, 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.
Watts’ work remains vital to this day, because the topics he covered are timeless in nature. One social critic, Erik Davis, notes the freshness, longevity, and continuing relevance of Watts’ work today, observing that his “writings and recorded talks still shimmer with a profound and galvanizing lucidity.”
Here, in his own words, is Alan Watts on Nothingness:
The idea of nothing has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western world.We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nuhil fit, which means “out of nothing comes nothing.” It has occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions.
It lies at the root of all our common sense, not only in the West, but in many parts of the East as well. It manifests in a kind of terror of nothing, a put-down on nothing, and a put-down on everything associated with nothing, such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principles.
But to me nothing — the negative, the empty — is exceedingly powerful. I would say, on the contrary, you can’t have something without nothing. Image nothing but space, going on and on, with nothing in it forever. But there you are imagining it, and you are something in it. The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else at all is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because we always know what we mean by contrast.