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 Jansenism) because 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."