Alan Wilson Watts (1915-1973) was a naturalized American author and lecturer who interpreted Zen to the West. His writings were particularly popular among the so-called "beat generation" of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Alan Wilson Watts was born in Chislehurst, England, on January 6, 1915. Raised in the county of Kent, his introduction to Eastern culture came at about the age of 11 when he read the novels of Sax Rohmer and Edgar Wallace about Fu Manchu, the inscrutable Chinese detective, "and other sophisticated Chinese villains." Watts received his secondary education at King's School, Canterbury, where he did some creative writing and participated in fencing, rowing, and debate.
He worked in his father's office from 1932 to 1939 while serving as a council member and member of the executive committee of the World Congress of Faiths in London. He read Bergson, Nietzche, Havelock Ellis, Jung, Bernard Shaw, and Eastern texts through the understandings of modern interpreters such as Swami Vivekananda, D. T. Suzuki, and Madame Blavatsky. In 1934 a Theosophical Society member introduced him to a Yugoslavian mystic, Dmitrije Mitrinovic, with whom he identified. From 1934 to 1938 he edited the Buddhist Lodge of London's journal, The Middle Way, and his first book, The Spirit of Zen, appeared in 1936.
Watts came to the United States in 1939 and was naturalized in 1943. Upon arrival in New York he studied under a local Zen master, Sokei-an Sasaki. But, believing that Christianity could be understood as a form of a mystical and perennial philosophy, he affiliated with the Episcopal Church. He received his Master of Sacred Theology degree from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, in June 1948 and was given an honorary Doctor of Divinity from the University of Vermont in 1958. Ordained an Episcopal priest, he served from 1944 until 1950 as Episcopal chaplain at Northwestern University. He then left the church. In an interview in LIFE magazine in 1961 Watts said that he left the church "not because it doesn't practice what it preaches, but because it preaches."
Watts returned to his early interest in Eastern thought. He sought to apply its principles to modern psychology in The Meaning of Happiness (1940). Among other writings in which he argued for a common mystical core underlying all religions, reflecting the influence of Aldous Huxley, a major attempt to reconcile Christianity and Eastern thought was Myth and Ritual in Christianity (1953). In 1964 in Beyond Theology he argued that they were in fact incompatible: "My previous discussions did not take proper account of that whole aspect of Christianity which is uncompromising, ornery, militant, rigorous, imperious, and invincibly self-righteous."
From 1951 to 1957 Watts taught comparative philosophy and psychology at the new American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, which became a graduate school of the College of the Pacific, and served as its dean from 1953 to 1956. Feeling as out of place in academy as he did in the church, he retired to a career of writing and lecturing. In 1959-1961 he was director and writer of the National Educational Television series Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life.
He was married three times—to Eleanor Everett (1938; divorced 1950); to Dorothy DeWitt (1950; divorced 1963); and to Mary Jane Yates King (1963)—and had seven children. He described himself as "an unrepented sensualist, an immoderate lover of women and the delights of sexuality, " as well as of fine food, drink, tobacco, clothes, books, and jewelry and of nature. From 1957 until his death on November 16, 1973, he continued to write and lecture at colleges, universities, medical schools, and mental health institutions in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia, including Harvard; Yale; Cambridge; the Universities of Chicago, Michigan, Indiana, and Hawaii; and the C. J. Jung Institute (Zurich).
Although his thought is associated with Rinzai Zen Buddhism, Watts did not wish to identify himself with any religious group, "on the ground that partisanship in religion closes the mind." He once called himself a spiritual "entertainer." His own mystical idealism, however, was more an amalgamation of ideas than traditional Zen, for he also borrowed from the Taoist philosophy of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu and the Advaita Vedanta of Shankara, treating all Eastern thought monolithically and interpreting it in modern terms.
Watts believed that the key to the universe is fundamentally a higher consciousness or mind. The world is an emanation of the one Being or Consciousness. Unity is the nature of the universe while the distinctions between knowing subject and the objects of knowledge are actually expressions of unity. This fact, he said, is gaining support from the discoveries of science, such as those of the British biologist Joseph Needham, in whose work he was especially interested. The human predicament is the mistaken belief in the individual ego and the forms of activity which result. This places the individual in conflict with all of reality and results in the ego feeling ultimately responsible. Christianity in all its forms, Watts said, has reinforced this delusion, while Chinese and Indian thinkers have discovered the unity of the depths of the human being and the One which makes one "at home in the world." Watts even criticized the applications of Zen by the "beat generation" of the 1950s and traditional Japanese Zen schools as egoconscious.
True Zen, he said, was not that of the "solemn and sexless ascetic, " but the liberation of the mind from traditional thought forms to raise human consciousness to identify with the Consciousness which is Reality. It is essentially a mystical experience of Reality "felt directly in a silence of words and meanings." Mystical thinkers of all traditions have discovered this, he said, and modern psychotherapy is coming to agree. In Psychotherapy East and West (1961) Watts referred to Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Rollo May, Norman O. Brown, Abraham Maslow, and others as those who were bringing science closer to Eastern insight.
Further Reading on Alan Wilson Watts
In My Own Way (1972), Watt's autobiography, is the best place to begin. Among his scores of works, his most systematic attempt to present his thought and relate it to Christianity is Beyond Theology (1964). Psychology East and West (1961) exhibits his attempt to harmonize his thought with psychotherapy. A full-length critical study of Watts is David Clark, The Pantheism of Alan Watts (1978).
Additional Biography Sources
Brannigan, Michael C., Everywhere and nowhere: the path of Alan Watts, New York: P. Lang, 1988.
Furlong, Monica, Zen effects: the life of Alan Watts, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Stuart, David, Alan Watts, New York: Stein and Day, 1983, 1976.