Alan Watts — synthesizer of East & West

Subscribe to my mailings

“…a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all.”

 

“When you confer spiritual authority on another person, you must realize that you are allowing them to pick your pocket and sell you your own watch.”

 

— Alan Watts

Alan Watts’ book The Way of Zen introduced me to Asian philosophy. His later book, the explosive Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are rearranged my neural connections as irreversibly as an LSD trip. Just knowing that Watts existed opened my eyes to possibilities that had hitherto seemed far-fetched.

Watts was raised in England in the Empire tradition of Muscular Christianity — rather like today’s Christian Right — which popularized itself with the image of “the Englishman going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other.” However, at the age of 16 he sabotaged his Oxford scholarship exam and instead became the secretary of the London Buddhist Lodge. After moving to the US, he narrowed his focus to Zen Buddhism because it included work, life and art in spiritual practice, rather than excluding them.

Nevertheless, he left his formal Zen training in New York; the teacher didn’t suit him. Then, for reasons that even he had trouble articulating, he entered Seabury Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and became an Episcopalian priest. He hoped to blend contemporary Christian worship with mystical Christianity and Asian philosophy. He lasted until 1950, and left following an extramarital affair.

In San Francisco, he joined the American Academy of Asian Studies, where he continued his interest in Zen Buddhism and its Chinese origins while also delving into Vedanta, ‘the new physics,’ cybernetics, semantics, process philosophy, natural history, and the anthropology of sexuality.

Watts didn’t hide his distaste for overly religious outlooks, describing various forms of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism as 'dour,' 'guilt-ridden' and 'militantly proselytizing.'


Listen to this 2½ minute Alan Watts recording:

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

 

× alert