Book Review: The Collected Letters of Alan Watts

     Alan Watts thought he'd be totally forgotten in fifty years.  Until his death at age 59 in 1973 he was the most widely known exponent of Eastern religion and thought in the US.  He was among the few public intellectuals the country had at the time who didn't come from academia, which is saying something since we have so few.

     He was born and raised a Christian in the small town of Chislehurst, Kent in England and for a time was an ordained Episcopalian minister serving as chaplin at Northwestern University.  He was precocious, attracted to Buddhist thought as a teenager, publishing his first book "The Way of Zen" at the age of 21.  He would eventually write twenty books by his reckoning.  His mother was an old-school Christian while his father dabbled in Eastern religion and for a time worked at a Buddhist society.  As an only child, it appeared Alan could do no wrong.  He became a rebel, eschewing the British educational system, devising his own course of study with those he came to know who were well versed in the East.

     The letters are collected by Joan Watts, the eldest of Watts seven children, and Anne, his second child.  I've known Anne for some time, and consider her one of the most loving people I've ever met.  They supply commentary at key points in the book to steer the reader in the right direction.  I have something to confess, while I've been a practicing Zen Buddhist myself for many years, having studied formally with a number of Zen masters, I've never been able to get through a few pages of a book by Watts other than his autobiography and now the letters.

     Watt's Zen is very heady.  He examines its concepts thoroughly and comparatively with rigor, wit and charm. While he nods toward the benefits of meditation, it doesn't come across the same as those who are practitioners first and philosophers second.  He was well aware of this, calling himself an "entertainer" and "genuine fake" who was critical of the discipline of monastic Zen and koan study.  He had his fair share of runs in with authority, and I suspect the submission that is often part of being a formal student was beyond him.

     By breaking with the tradition that Zen is a religion spread by "attraction" rather than "proselytizing" he did not endear himself to many traditionalists in the Zen community, but he was still in much demand as a speaker around the world, where few knew anything different.  Zen is not a religion that replaces prior faiths, it's "added" on, primarily through meditation.  What a Zen Buddhist believes, including whether they're theists or atheists, is up to them.  It's a concept not everyone can understand.  

     Following the publication of "Zen Effects," the biography by Monica Furlong in 1986, revised in 2001, there is plenty of room for a re-examination of Watts and I think the letters provide that.  The biography brought to the forefront Watts proclivities as an advocate of "free love," who left two wives, his children for the most part, and had a severe drinking problem by most accounts, including that of Joan and Anne, and close friends like Gary Snyder.  The letters to his parents, who he addresses as Mummy and Daddy are especially touching, particularly in the early years when his family was young, and his pride was exuberant.  Joan and Anne are mentioned often for their latest exploits and it is clear he was attentive.

     When he was caught having affairs while he was at Northwestern, the letters take a turn in another direction.  Watts on the defensive, hidden in a mist of subterfuge and angst, putting his theoretical ducks in a row, but caught with his pants down.  His most redeeming trait, however, was that he bore little animosity toward those who were his superiors, and was gracious in his retreat, forced to start over with little in the way of self-pity or remorse.  The letters show Alan Watts was a tough cookie.

     His most productive years were in the 50's and 60's, when he moved to California and joined the inner circle of the cultural revolution, advocating LSD as a means to spiritual insight, and befriending the celebrities in the movement, Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, and Henry Miller, who wasn't in the movement but of it.  In letter after letter, he is nothing if not gracious to his friends. 

     While not exactly a poet, his descriptions of the beauty of Northern California are ecstatically lyrical in nature.   His enmity toward organized religion seems to increase with the years as with fundamentalism:  Biblical fundamentalism is, to me, the nastiest religion on earth (whether in its Protestant form or Catholic Jansenismbecause it underlies white racism, and colonialism, prohibition, prudery, and equally, leering pornography. (1972)

     Perhaps, what is least understood about him, which could belie his own prediction that he will be forgotten, is his effect on the culture of the region at this time.  Rarely, when I have gone to visit those last remaining enclaves from that era have I not found someone who says how deeply they were influenced by his radio and television broadcasts, even to the point of being told "everything came to a stop when Alan was on the air."  Indeed, you don't have to look far to see Northern California is a culture unto itself, and Watts self-deprecation in this matter is to his credit.  Buddhism is as much a psychology as it is anything else and it was the proliferation of that which was Watts greatest achievement in my view.

    Upon reading this collection, and having an entire life spread out before us, it's hard not to ask if this is the last of a genre.  In the age of twitter, you tube, ideological rants, and wham bang thank you mam media this could be it: the end of literary civility and reflection.  Will we ever know anyone by the own words like this again?  Is Alan Watts the last freelance philosopher?  Have we entered an age where intimacy is anathema--where nobody can tell the difference between a cartoon and reality?  I sometimes wonder.  

     I think Joan and Anne Watts have done a great service to those who find solace in Zen and think there are even more benefits to be had by discovering the idea, at least, that we are whole and complete "just the way we are," and that "this moment is it."  Take the whip out of the hand of the child and there will be fewer beatings.  And he and his daughters even remind us, its Christian counterpart may still have relevance, "judge not, less thee be judged."     

Views: 364

Comment by koshersalaami on January 6, 2018 at 12:52pm

I’m not really familiar with Watts, so this is interesting history.

Is this the end of literary civility and reflection? Probably not. It’s just morphing to new formats. It’s not written in letters. It’s written in posts, emails, publications, books on-line and on paper. Rants are nothing new. The “yellow press” was worse than Fox News. Yes, general discourse has coarsened, but that’s not necessarily a new media function. Anti intellectualism in the White House started with Reagan. 

Comment by Ben Sen on January 6, 2018 at 7:19pm

Anti-intellectualism is always a problem.  It begins with fundamentalism, as Watts says.  I know you don't think of yourself as a fundie KS, but I do.

Comment by koshersalaami on January 6, 2018 at 9:33pm

Of course you do. When you think in my direction on Judaism you have a blind spot two miles wide. I’m not sure you know what my religious beliefs are, or how that relates to Israel, which is I assume your main concern. 

Comment by Maui Surfer on January 6, 2018 at 9:56pm

Why you maintain your motorcycles ...

Comment by koshersalaami on January 6, 2018 at 11:02pm

Ben Sen, you’ve made me curious. Are you tellling me that I have told someone here how to behave based on a Biblical injunction? or that I’ve referred to someone here as a sinner? or that I have told someone that they’re doomed to Hell? or that I have stated prophesy? or that I have told anyone here to have Faith? 

Such an observation had to come from somewhere. 

Comment by Ben Sen on January 7, 2018 at 7:33pm

KS: Your're not a writer yet.  You're an apologist with a hidden agenda..  That's a good trick after all this time.  Congratulations.

Comment by koshersalaami on January 7, 2018 at 8:13pm

Hardly any of my writing is about Israel. Nor do I bother to hide my agenda - I’m not afraid of the consequences of what I believe. So you’ve managed to insult both my beliefs and my writing in one thread, both unprovoked.

Glad I have a clearer idea of who I’m dealing with and what courtesies are and are not appropriate in this situation. 

Comment by moki ikom on January 7, 2018 at 11:42pm

When a fundie, a fundamentalist, is "a person who adheres strictly to the basic principles of any subject or discipline", simply being an apologist for Zionism in Palestine can make one a fundie.

Comment by moki ikom on January 8, 2018 at 12:39am

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.” 
― Alan W. Watts


“We are living in a culture entirely hypnotized by the illusion of time, in which the so-called present moment is felt as nothing but an infintesimal hairline between an all-powerfully causative past and an absorbingly important future. We have no present. Our consciousness is almost completely preoccupied with memory and expectation. We do not realize that there never was, is, nor will be any other experience than present experience. We are therefore out of touch with reality. We confuse the world as talked about, described, and measured with the world which actually is. We are sick with a fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas.” 
― Alan W. Watts


“Jesus Christ knew he was God. So wake up and find out eventually who you really are. In our culture, of course, they’ll say you’re crazy and you’re blasphemous, and they’ll either put you in jail or in a nut house (which is pretty much the same thing). However if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relations, ‘My goodness, I’ve just discovered that I’m God,’ they’ll laugh and say, ‘Oh, congratulations, at last you found out.” 
― Alan W. WattsThe Essential Alan Watts


“A scholar tries to learn something everyday; a student of Buddhism tries to unlearn something daily.” 
― Alan W. Watts


“Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.” 
― Alan W. WattsThe Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are


“Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” 
― Alan W. Watts


“A priest once quoted to me the Roman saying that a religion is dead when the priests laugh at each other across the altar. I always laugh at the altar, be it Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist, because real religion is the transformation of anxiety into laughter.” 


“But I'll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you'll come to understand that you're connected with everything.” 
― Alan W. Watts


“We could say that meditation doesn't have a reason or doesn't have a purpose. In this respect it's unlike almost all other things we do except perhaps making music and dancing. When we make music we don't do it in order to reach a certain point, such as the end of the composition. If that were the purpose of music then obviously the fastest players would be the best. Also, when we are dancing we are not aiming to arrive at a particular place on the floor as in a journey. When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment.” 
― Alan W. Watts


“We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society. We copy emotional reactions from our parents, learning from them thatexcrement is supposed to have a disgusting smell and that vomiting is supposed to be an unpleasant sensation. The dread of death is also learned from their anxieties about sickness and from their attitudes to funerals and corpses. Our social environment has this power just because we do not exist apart from a society. Society is our extended mind and body. Yet the very society from which the individual is inseparable is using its whole irresistible force to persuade the individual that he is indeed separate! Society as we now know it is therefore playing a game with self-contradictory rules.” 
― Alan W. WattsThe Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are


“It is generally forgotten that our guarantees of religious freedom were designed to protect precisely those who were not members of established denominations, but rather such (then) screwball and subversive individuals as Quakers, Shakers, Levellers, and Anabaptists. There is little question that those who use cannabis or other psychedelics with religious intent are now members of a persecuted religion which appears to the rest of society as a grave menace to “mental health,” as distinct from the old-fashioned “immortal soul.” But it’s the same old story.” 
― Alan W. WattsThe Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness


Above, some inspiring or otherwise thought-provoking quotes of Mr.Watts i wandered onto after reading your book review.  

Comment by koshersalaami on January 8, 2018 at 7:01am


I appreciate both the quotes and your taking a stab at fundamentalism. Not that I have any way of knowing whether Ben Sen agrees with your answer. 

Two issues with the stab, though I appreciate your taking it. One is that the phenomenon is by that definition damned near universal. Most people adhere to something. The common definition is about religious fundamentalism or a dogmatic equivalent such as Marxism. But if we look at the issue of my alleged fundamentalism, at least three people on this site oppose Zionism to a greater and more dogmatic extent than I support it, two of whom are present in this thread. 

Most people don’t notice how carefully I write about Zionism, and I notice a lot of people confuse my protective attitude toward Jews with Zionism. I am very protective of my own minority, no question, not that I’m not protective of other minorities. (I’ve defended Islam more than anyone on this site and I’ve posted about racism over the years more than anyone else here with the probable exception of Ron, whose vested interest is more obvious than mine.)  I have historical reason to be and I’ve had family persecuted. My writing about Zionism takes two forms: analysis of what will or won’t work (and why) and an insistence that Zionism be judged by a single standard. I have judged the Israeli government many times in posts, whereas I haven’t noticed that those who oppose Zionism judge its opponents at all, and an assumption of the innocence of Zionism’s opponents is laughable. I have gone so far as to post the question of what we do with the Jewish population of Israel in the event we eliminate Israel, a question I asked with complete seriousness. (It wasn’t answered that way by most people.) That would suggest that the characterization of who is fundamentalist in that ongoing dispute is backward. 


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