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Alan Watts (1915-1973)
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- Life o f Alan Watts (PDF) by Monica Furlong
f Alan Watts
by Monica Furlong
February, 1967, Sausalito, Calif.
Featuring Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg
The Houseboat Summit: February, 1967, Sausalito, Calif. Featuring Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg
Part 2: To Drop Out or Not
Part 3: A Magic Geography
Part One: Changes
Watts: ...Look the, we're going to discuss where it's going...the whole problem of whether to drop out or take over.
Leary: Or anything in between?
Watts: Or anything in between, sure.
Leary: Cop out...drop in...
Snyder: I see it as the problem about whether or not to throw all you energies to the subculture or try to maintain some communication network within the main culture.
Watts: Yes. All right. Now look...I would like to make a preliminary announcement so that it has a certain coherence.
This is Alan Watts speaking, and I'm this evening, on my ferry boat, the host to a fascinating party sponsored by the San Francisco Oracle, which is our new underground paper, far-outer than any far-out that has yet been seen. And we have here, members of the staff of the Oracle. We have Allen Ginsberg, poet, and rabbinic saddhu. We have Timothy Leary, about whom nothing needs to be said. (laughs) And Gary Snyder, also poet, Zen monk, and old friend of many years.
Ginsberg: This swami wants you to introduce him in Berkeley. He's going to have a Kirtan to sanctify the peace movement. So what I said is, he ought to invite Jerry Rubin and Mario Savio, and his cohorts. And he said: "Great, great, great!"
So I said, "Why don't you invite the Hell's Angels, too?" He said: "Great, great, great! When are we gonna get hold of them?
So I think that's one next feature...
Watts: You know, what is being said here, isn't it: To sanctify the peace movement is to take the violence out of it. Ginsberg: Well, to point attention to its root nature, which is desire for peace, which is equivalent to the goals of all the wisdom schools and all the Saddhanas.
A PACIFIST ON THE RAMPAGE
Watts: Yes, but it isn't so until sanctified. That is to say, I have found in practice that nothing is more violent than peace movements. You know, when you get a pacifist on the rampage, nobody can be more emotionally bound and intolerant and full of hatred.
And I think this is the thing that many of us understand in common, that we are trying to take moral violence out of all those efforts that are being made to bring human beings into a harmonious relationship. Ginsberg: Now, how much of that did the peace movement people in Berkeley realize? Watts: I don't think they realize it at all. I think they're still working on the basis of moral violence, just as Gandhi was. Ginsberg: Yeah...I went last night and turned on with Mario Savio. Two nights ago...After I finished and I was talking with him, and he doesn't turn on very much...This was maybe the third or fourth time.
But he was describing his efforts in terms of the motive power for large mass movements. He felt on of the things that move large crowds was righteousness, moral outrage, and ANGER...Righteous anger.
Leary: Well, let's stop right here. The implication of that statement is: we want a mass movement. Mass movements make no sense to me, and I want no part of mass movements. I think this is the error that the leftist activists are making. I see them as young men with menopausal minds.
They are repeating the same dreary quarrels and conflicts for power of the thirties and forties, of the trade union movement, of Trotskyism and so forth. I think they should be sanctified, drop out, find their own center, turn on, and above all avoid mass movements, mass leadership, mass followers. I see that there is a great difference--I say completely incompatible difference--between the leftist activist movement and the psychedelic religious movement.
In the first place, the psychedelic movement, I think, is much more numerous. But it doesn't express itself as noisily. I think there are different goals. I think that the activists want power. They talk about student power. This shocks me, and alienates my spiritual sensitivities.
Of course, there is a great deal of difference in method. The psychedelic movement, the spiritual seeker movement, or whatever you want to call it, expresses itself...as the Haight-Ashbury group had done...with flowers and chants and pictures and beads and acts of beauty and harmony...sweeping the streets. That sort of thing.
Watts: And giving away free food.
Leary: Yes...I think this point must be made straight away, but because we are both looked upon with disfavor by the Establishment, this tendency to group the two together...I think that such confusion can only lead to disillusion and hard feelings on someone's part. So, I'd like to lay this down as a premise right at the beginning.
Ginsberg: Well, of course, that's the same premise they lay down, that there is an irreconcilable split. Only, their stereotype of the psychedelic movement is that it's just sort of the opposite...I think you're presenting a stereotype of them.
Snyder: I think that you have to look at this historically, and there's no doubt that the historical roots of the revolutionary movements and the historical roots of this spiritual movement are identical. This is something that has been going on since the Neolithic as a strain in human history, and one which has been consistently, on one level or another, opposed to the collectivism of civilization toward the rigidities of the city states and city temples. Christian utopianism is behind Marxism.
Leary: They're outs and they want in.
UTOPIAN, RELIGIOUS DRIVE
Snyder: ...but historically it arrives from a utopian and essentially religious drive. The early revolutionary political movements in Europe have this utopian strain to them.
Then Marxism finally becomes a separate, non-religious movement, but only very late. That utopian strain runs right through it all along. So that we do share this...
Ginsberg: What are the early utopian texts? What are the early mystical utopian political texts?
Ginsberg: Yeah. Are you running your mind back through Bakunin or something?
Snyder: I'm running it back to earlier people. To Fourier, and stuff...
Watts: Well, it goes back to the seventeenth century and the movements in Flemish and German mysticism, which started up the whole idea of democracy in England in the seventeenth century. You have the Anabaptists, the Levellers, the Brothers of the Free Spirit...
Snyder: The Diggers!
Watts: THE DIGGERS, and all those people, and then eventually the Quakers. This was the source. It was, in a way, the secularization of mysticism.
In other words, the mystical doctrine that all men are equal in the sight of God, for the simple reason that they ARE God. They're all God's incarnations.
When that doctrine is secularized, it becomes a parody...that all men are equally inferior. And therefore may be evil-treated by the bureaucrats and the police, with no manners.
The whole tendency of this equalization of man in the nineteenth century is a result, in a way, of the work of Freud. But the absolute recipe for writing a best seller biography was to take some person who was renowned for his virtue and probity, and to show, after all, that everything was scurrilous and low down.
You see? This became the parody. Because the point that I am making--this may seem to be a little bit of a diversion, but the actual point is this;
Whenever the insights one derives from mystical vision become politically active they always create their own opposite. They create a parody.
Wouldn't you agree with that, Tim? I mean, this is the point I think you're saying: that wen we try to force a vision upon the world, and say that everybody ought to have this, and it's GOOD for you, then a parody of it is set up. As it was historically when this vision was forced upon the West, that all men are equal in the sight of God ans[sic] so on and so forth...it became bureaucratic democracy, which is that all people are equally inferior.
Snyder: Well, my answer to what Tim was saying there is that, it seems to me at least, in left-wing politics there are certain elements, and there are always going to be certain people who are motivated by the same thing that I'm motivated by.
And I don't want to reject the history, or sacrifices of the people in that movement...if they can be brought around to what I would consider a more profound vision of themselves, and amore profound vision of themselves and society...
Leary: I think we should get them to drop out, turn on, and tune in.
Ginsberg: Yeah, but they don't know what that means even.
Leary: I know it. No politician, left or right, young or old, knows what we mean by that.
Ginsberg: Don't be so angry!
Leary: I'm not angry...
Ginsberg: Yes, you are. Now, wait a minute...Everybody in Berkeley, all week long, has been bugging me...and Alpert...about what you mean by drop out, tune in, and turn on. Finally, one young kid said, "Drop out, turn on, and tune in." Meaning: get with an activity--a manifest activity--worldly activity--that's harmonious with whatever vision he has.
Everybody in Berkeley is all bugged because they think, one: drop-out thing really doesn't mean anything, that what you're gonna cultivate is a lot of freak-out hippies goofing around and throwing bottles through windows when they flip out on LSD. That's their stereotype vision. Obviously stereotype.
Leary: Sounds like bullshitting...
THE NEWSPAPER VISION
Ginsberg: No, like it's no different from the newspaper vision, anyway. I mean, they've got the newspaper vision.
Then, secondly, they're afraid that there'll be some sort of fascist putsch. Like, it's rumored lately that everyone' gonna be arrested. So that the lack of communicating community among hippies will lead to some concentration camp situation, or lead...as it has been in Los Angeles recently...to a dispersal of what the beginning of the community began.
Leary: These are the old, menopausal minds. There was a psychiatrist named Adler in San Francisco whose interpretation of the group Be-In was that this is the basis for a new fascism...when a leader comes along. And I sense in the activist movement the cry for a leader...the cry for organization...
Ginsberg: But they're just as intelligent as you are on this fact. They know about what happened in Russia. That's the reason they haven't got a big, active organization.
It's because they, too, are stumped by: How do you have a community, and a community movement, and cooperation within the community to make life more pleasing for everybody--including the end of the Vietnam War? How do you have such a situation organized, or disorganized, just so long as it's effective--without a fascist leadership? Because they don't want to be that either.
See, they are conscious of the fact that they don;t want to be messiahs--political messiahs. At least, Savio in particular. Yesterday, he was weeping. Saying he wanted to go out and live in nature.
Ginsberg: So, I mean he's like basically where we are: stoned.
GENIUS OF NON-LEADERSHIP
Watts: Well, I think that thus far, the genius of this kind of underground that we're talking about is that it has no leadership.
Watts: That everybody recognizes everybody else.
Ginsberg: Right, except that that's not really entirely so.
Watts: Isn't it so? But it is to a great extent now...
Ginsberg: There's an organized leadership, say, at such a thing as a Be-In. There is organization; there is community. There are community groups which cooperate, and those community groups are sparked by active people who don't necessarily parade their names in public, but who are capable people...who are capable of ordering sound trucks and distributing thousands of cubs of LSD and getting signs posted.
Watts: Oh yes, that's perfectly true. There are people who can organize things. But they don't assume the figurehead role.
Leary: I would prefer to call them FOCI of energy. There's no question. You start the poetry, chanting thing...
Leary: And I come along with a celebration. Like Allen and Gary at the Be-In.
NATURE AND BOSSISM
Watts: And there is nobody in charge as a ruler, and this is the absolutely vital thing. That the Western world has labored for many, many centuries under a monarchical conception of the universe where God is the boss, and political systems and all kinds of law have been based on this model of the universe...that nature is run by a boss.
Whereas, if you take the Chinese view of the world, which is organic..They would say, for example, that the human body is an organization in which there is no boss. It is a situation of order resulting from mutual interrelationship of all the parts.
And what we need to realize is that there can be, shall we say, a movement...a stirring among people...which can be ORGANICALLY designed instead of POLITICALLY designed. It has no boss. Yet all parts recognize each other in the same way as the cells of the body all cooperate together.
Snyder: Yes, it's a new social structure. It's a new social structure which follows certain kinds of historically known tribal models.
Leary: Exactly, yeah! My historical reading of the situation is that these great, monolithic empires that developed in history: Rome, Turkey and so forth...always break down when enough people (and it's always the young, the creative, and the minority groups) drop out and go back to a tribal form.
I agree with what I've heard you say in the past, Gary, that the basic unit is tribal. What I envision is thousands of small groups throughout the United States and Western Europe, and eventually the world, as dropping out. What happened when Jerusalem fell? Little groups went off together...
Ginsberg: Precisely what do you mean by drop out, then...again, for the millionth time?
Snyder: Drop out throws me a little bit, Tim. Because it's assumed that we're dropping out. The next step is, now what are we doing where we're in something else? We're in a new society. We're in the seeds of a new society.
Ginsberg: For instance, you haven't dropped out, Tim. You dropped out of your job as a psychology teacher in Harvard. Now, what you've dropped into is, one: a highly complicated series of arrangements for lecturing and for putting on the festival...
Leary: Well, I'm dropped out of that.
Ginsberg: But you're not dropped out of the very highly complicated legal constitutional appeal, which you feel a sentimental regard for, as I do. You haven't dropped out of being the financial provider for Milbrook, and you haven't dropped out of planning and conducting community organization and participating in it.
And that community organization is related to the national community, too. Either through the Supreme Court, or through the very existence of the dollar that is exchanged for you to pay your lawyers, or to take money to pay your lawyers in the theatre. So you can't drop out, like DROP OUT, 'cause you haven't.
Leary: Well, let me explain...
Ginsberg: So they think you mean like, drop out, like go live on Haight-Ashbury Street and do nothing at all. Even if you can do something like build furniture and sell it, or give it away in barter with somebody else.
Leary: You have to drop out in a group. You drop out in a small tribal group.
Snyder: Well, you drop out one by one, but...You know, you can join the sub-culture.
Ginsberg: Maybe it's: "Drop out of what?"
Watts: Gary, I think you have something to say here. Because you, to me, are one of the most fantastically capable drop-out people I have ever met. I think, at this point, you should say a word or two about your own experience of how live on nothing. How to get by in life economically.
This is the nitty-gritty. This is where it really comes down to in many people's minds. Where's the bread going to come from if everybody drops out? Now, you know expertly where it's gonna come from--living a life of integrity and not being involved in a commute-necktie-strangle scene.
Snyder: Well, this isn't news to anybody, but ten or fifteen years ago when we dropped out, there wasn't a community. There wasn't anybody who was going to take care of you at all. You were completely on your own.
What it meant was, cutting down on your desires and cutting down on your needs to an absolute minimum; and it also meant, don't be a bit fussy about how you work or what you do for a living.
That meant doing any kind of work. Strawberry picking, carpenter, laborer, longshore...Well, longshore is hard to get into. It paid very well. Shipping out...that also pays very well.
THE VIRTUE OF PATIENCE
But at least in my time, it meant being willing to do any goddam kind of labor that came your way, and not being fuzzy about it.
And it meant cultivating the virtue of patience--the patience of sticking with a shitty job long enough to win the bread that you needed to have some more leisure, which meant more freedom to do more things that you wanted to do. And mastering all kinds of techniques of living really cheap...
Like getting free rice off the docks, because the loading trucks sometimes fork the rice sacks, and spill little piles of rice on the docks which are usually thrown away.
But I had it worked out with some of the guards down on the docks that they would gather 15 or 25 pounds of rice for me, and also tea...I'd pick it up once a week off the docks, and then I'd take it around and give it to friends. This was rice that was going to be thrown away, otherwise. Techniques like that.
Watts: Second day vegetables from the supermarket...
Snyder: Yeah, we used to go around at one or two in the morning, around the Safeways and Piggly Wigglies in Berkeley, with a shopping bag, and hit the garbage can out in back. We'd get Chinese cabbage, lots of broccoli and artichokes that were thrown out because they didn't look sellable any more.
So, I never bought any vegetables for the three years I was a graduate student at Berkeley. When I ate meat, it was usually horse meat from the pet store, because they don't have a law that permits them to sell horsemeat for human consumption in California like they do in Oregon.
Ginsberg: You make a delicious horse meat sukiyaki. (laughter)
A SWEET, CLEAN PAD
Watts: Well, I want to add to this, Gary, that during the time you were living this way, I visited you on occasion, and you had a little hut way up on the hillside of Homestead Valley in Mill Valley and I want to say, for the record, that this was one of the most beautiful pads I ever saw. It was sweet and clean, and it had a very, very good smell to the whole thing. You were living what I consider to be a very noble life.
Now, then, the question that next arises, if this is the way of being a successful drop-out, which I think is true...Can you have a wife and child under such circumstances?
Snyder: Yeah, I think you can, sure.
Watts: What about when the state forces you to send the child to school?
Snyder: You send it to school.
Leary: Oh no, c'mon, I don't see this as drop-out at all.
Snyder: I want to finish what I was going to say. That's they(sic) way it was ten years ago.
Today, there is a huge community. When any kid drops out today, he's got a subculture to go fall into. He's got a place to go where there'll be friends, and people that will feed him--at least for a while--and keep feeding him indefinitely, if he moves around from pad to pad.
Leary: That's just stage one. The value of the Lower East Side, or of the district in Seattle or the Haight-Ashbury, is that it provides a first launching pad.
Everyone that's caught inside a television set of props, and made of actors...The first thing that you have to do is completely detach yourself from anything inside the plastic, robot Establishment.
A WAY STATION: A LAUNCHING PAD
The next step--for many people--could well be a place like Haight-Ashbury. There they will find spiritual teachers, there they will find friends, lovers, wives...
But that must be seen clearly as a way station. I don't think the Haight-Ashbury district--any city, for that matter--is a place where the new tribal...
Snyder: I agree with you. Not in the city.
Leary: ...is going to live. So, I mean DROP OUT! I don't want to be misinterpreted. I'm dropping out...step by step.
Millbrook, by the way, is a tribal community. We're getting closer and closer to the landing...We're working out our way of import and export with the planet. We consider ourselves a tribe of mutants. Just like all the little tribes of Indians were. We happen to have our little area there, and we have come to terms with the white men around us.
WHAT ARE YOU BUILDING?
Snyder: Now look...Your drop-out line is fine for all those other people out there, you know, that's what you've got to say to them. But, I want to hear what you're building. What are you making?
Leary: What are we building?
Snyder: Yeah, what are you building? I want to hear your views on that. Now, it's agreed we're dropping out, and there are techniques to do it. Now, what next! Where are we going now? What kind of society are we going toe in?
Leary: I'm making the prediction that thousands of groups will look just look around the fake-prop-television-set American society, and just open one of those doors. When you open the doors, they don't lead you in, they lead you OUT into the garden of Eden...which is the planet.
Then you find yourself a little tribe wandering around. As soon as enough people do this--young people do this--it'll bring about an incredible change in the consciousness of this country, and of the Western world.
Ginsberg: Well, that is happening actually...
Leary: Yeah, but...
Snyder: But that garden of Eden is full of old rubber truck tires and tin cans, right now, you know.
Leary: Parts of it are...Each group that drops out has got to use its two billion years of cellular equipment to answer those questions: :Hey, how we gonna eat? Oh, there's no paycheck, there's no more fellowship from the university! How we gonna eat? How we gonna keep warm? How we gonna defend ourselves? How we gonna eat? How we gonna keep warm?
Those are exactly the questions that cellular animals and tribal groups have been asking for thousands of years. Each group is going to have to depend upon its turned on, psychedelic creativity and each group of...
I can envision ten M.I.T. scientists, with their families, they've taken LSD...They've wondered about the insane-robot-television show of M.I.T. They drop out.
They may get a little farm out in Lexington, near Boston. They may use their creativity to make some new kinds of machines that will turn people on instead of bomb them. Every little group has to do what every little group has done throughout history.
NEW STRUCTURES; NEW TECHNIQUES
Snyder: No, they can't do what they've done through history. What is very important here is, besides taking acid, is that people learn the techniques which have been forgotten. That they learn new structures, and new techniques. Like, you just can't go out and grow vegetables, man. You've got to learn HOW to do it. Like we've gotta learn to do a lot of things we've forgotten to do.
Leary: I agree.
Watts: That is very true, Gary. Our educational system, in its entirety, does nothing to give us any kind of material competence. In other words, we don't learn how to cook, how to make clothes, how to build houses, how to make love, or to do any of the absolutely fundamental things of life.
CEREBRAL "FREAK OUTS"
The whole education that we get for our children in school is entirely in terms of abstractions. It trains you to be an insurance salesman or a bureaucrat, or some kind of cerebral character.
Leary: Yes...it's exactly there that, I think, a clear-cut statement is needed. The American educational system is a narcotic, addictive process...
Leary: ...and we must have NOTHING to do with it. Drop out of school, drop out of college, don't be an activist...
Watts: But we've got to do something else.
Leary: Drop OUT of school...
Ginsberg: Where are you gonna learn engineering, or astronomy, or anything like that?
Leary: The way men have always learned the important things in life. Face to face with a teacher, with a guru. Because very little...
Ginsberg: What about astronomy...like calculation of star rations...things like that?
Leary: If any drop-out wants to do that, he can do it...I can tell him how to do it.
Snyder: I would suspect that within the next ten years---within the next five years probably--a modest beginning will be made in sub-culture institutions of higher learning that will informally begin to exist around the country, and will provide this kind of education without being left to the Establishment, to Big Industry, to government.
Watts: Well, it's already happening...
Snyder: I think that there will be a big extension of that, employing a lot of potentially beautiful teachers who are unemployed at the moment...like there are gurus who are just waiting to be put to use; and also drawing people, who are working in the universities with a bad conscience, off to join that...
Snyder: There's a whole new order of technology that is required for this. A whole new science, actually. A whole new physical science is going to emerge from this. Because the boundaries of the old physical science are within the boundaries of the Judaeo-Christian and Western imperialist boss sense of the universe that Alan was talking about.
In other words, our scientific condition is caught within the limits of that father figure, Jehovah, or Roman emperor...which limits our scientific objectivity and actually holds us back from exploring areas of science which can be explored.
Leary: Exactly, Gary. Exactly...
Watts: It's like the guy in Los Angeles who had a bad trip on LSD and turned himself into the police, and wrote: "Please help me. Signed, Jehovah." (laughter)
Leary: Beautiful! (more laughter) It's about time he caught on, huh? (more laughter)
Watts: Yes-ss (laughing) But, here though, is this thing, you see. We are really talking about all this, which is really a rather small movement of people, involved in the midst of a FANTASTIC MULTITUDE of people who can only continue to survive if automated industry feeds them, clothes them, houses them and transports them. By means of the creation of IMMENSE quantities of ersatz material: Fake bread, fake homes, fake clothes and fake autos.
In other words, this thing is going on...you know, HUGE, FANTASTIC numbers of people...INCREASING, INCREASING, INCREASING...people think the population is something that's going to happen five years from NOW. They don't realize it's right on us NOW! People are coming out to the WALLS!
Snyder: And they're gobbling up everything on the planet to feed it.
Snyder: Well, the ecological conscience is something that has to emerge there, and that's part of what we hope for...hopefully in the subculture.
VOICE FROM AUDIENCE: Gary, doesn't Japan clearly indicate that we can go up in an order of magnitude in population and still...
Snyder: Well, who wants to? It can be very well argued by some people who have not been thinking very clearly about it, that we could support a larger number of people on this planet infinitely. But that's irresponsible and sacrilegious. It's sacrilegious for the simple reason it wipes out too many other animal species which we have no right to wipe out.
Snyder: We have no moral right to upset the ecological balance.
Watts: No, that's true. We've got to admit that we belong to the mutual eating society.
Snyder: Furthermore, it simply isn't pleasant to be crowded that way. Human beings lose respect for human beings when they're crowded.
Leary: Out of my LSD experiences I have evolved a vision which makes sense to my cells...that we are already putting to work at Millbrook. And that is, that life on this planet depends upon about twelve inches of topsoil and the incredible balance of species that Gary was just talking about.
On the other hand, man and his technological, Aristotelian zeal has developed these methods of laying down miles of concrete on topsoil, polluting the waters and doing the damage that Gary was just talking about. Now, we cannot say to this society, "Go back to a simple, tribal, pastoral existence." That's romantic.
Snyder: You can say "Go FORWARD to a simple, pastoral existence."
Leary: Yeah. I have come to a very simple solution: All the technology has to go underground. Because metal belongs underground. You take a hatchet out in the forest and let it go. It goes exactly where God and the Divine Process wants it to be: underground.
Now the city of New York--the megalopolis is going to exist from Seattle to San Diego in a few years--could just as well be underground. If it goes underground it's there, where it belongs, with fire and metal and steel.
I foresee that these tribal groups that drop out--and I mean absolutely drop out--will be helping to get back in harmony with the land, and we've got to start immediately putting technology underground.
I can think of different ways we can do this symbolically. The Solstice, last April 21st (March 21st--Oracle) a group of us went out in front of the house in Millbrook and we took a sledgehammer and we spent about an hour breaking through the road. And we had this incredible piece of asphalt and rock--about four inches--and then we said: "Hey! Underneath this planet somewhere there's dirt!" It was really magical. And once you get a little piece taken out--it took about an hour to get one little piece--then you just go underneath it and it begins to crumble.
So I think we should start a movement to--one hour a day or one hour a week--take a little chisel and a little hammer and just see some earth come up, and put a little seed there. And then put a little ring--mandalic ring--of something around it.
I can see the highways and I can see the subways and I can see the patios and so forth...Suddenly the highway department comes along, and: "There's a rose growing in the middle of Highway 101!" And then...then...the robot power group will have to send a group of the highway department to kill the rose and put the asphalt down on the gentle, naked skin of the soil.
Now when they do that, we're getting to them. There'll be pictures in the paper. And consciousness is going to change. Because we've got to get to people's consciousness. We've got to let people realize what they're doing to the earth.
Ginsberg: That's the area of poetry you're dealing with there.
Leary: Here we go. I'm the poet and you're the politician. I've told you that for ten years!
Ginsberg: "There are no ideas but in things," said William Carlos Williams. How does this work out now?
Voice from Audience: I wouldn't want to work underground.
Leary: Of course not. The only people that would want to work underground are people that would want to work with metal and steel. But if they're hung up that way, and they want to play with those kinds of symbols, fine. We'll have the greatest, air-conditioned, smooth, airport, tile gardens for them with all sorts of metal toys to play with.
Voice from Audience: Can I ask you for a clarification on one thing about drop out? You said that in another ten years the young men in the colleges are going to have degrees and the doctors, psychologists and so on, will all be turned-on people. But if they drop out from college now they won't have degrees and these people won't gain control of the apparatus--I mean, I know someone now at State who studies psychology and who doesn't know whether to drop out or not, and who's pulled in two directions. I think there are many people like this.
Part Two: To Drop Out or Not
Leary: Yes, I think he should drop out. And I want to be absolutely clear on that. NOBODY wants to listen to that simple, two-syllable phrase. It gets jargled and jumbled, and I mean it...Now, everyone has to decide how he drops out and when, and he has to time it gracefully, but that's the goal.
S: We understand that...
Leary: Well, Allen didn't. And Allen, I want to tell you the people in Berkeley that ask you what I mean, I mean ABSOLUTELY have nothing to do with the university, and start planning step by step how you can detect...
Ginsberg: OF course, that's where the big argument is, over the NON-STUDENTS. The guys that dropped out are not involved, and their problem is what kind of communities they organize.
Leary: Now, I can foresee that you might work for Sears & Roebuck for six months to get enough money to go to India. But that's part of your drop out. And what I'm doing today, Allen, is part of my drop out. I've got responsibilities, contracts..and I don't think that anyone should violate contracts with people that they love...Contract with the university--ha! Fine--quit tomorrow. Therefore, I have to detach myself slowly. When I was in India tow years ago...
Ginsberg: India...but look...you know the university is personal relationships also. They're in contact with persons. They can't reflect those persons, necessarily...There might be a Bodhisattva among those persons.
Snyder: ...As Tim says, you can gracefully drop out...
Snyder: ...at one time or another, which I take to mean...
Ginsberg: I was teaching at Berkeley last week--what do you mean 'drop out?' (laughs)
Leary: You've got to do your yoga as a college professor...it's part of the thing you're gonna have to go through, and after you do that then (laughs) you shudder, and run to the door.
SAGES IN THE MOUNTAINS
Watts: Surely the fact of the matter is that you can do this on a small scale, as an individual, where just a few people are doing this...as they always have done. There have always been a kind of elite minority who dropped out--who were the sages in the mountains.
But now we are in a position where the conversations that you and I have go to millions, and people are asking this sort of question.
Let's suppose that everybody in San Francisco decided to take the six o'clock train from the Third Street Station to Palo Alto...See? We know there's no chance of their doing so. And therefore this catastrophe doesn't happen.
Leary: That's exactly what I say to people who say, "Well, suppose everybody dropped out?" Ridiculous!
Watts: Yeah, supposing everyone dropped out...Of course they're not going to.
Leary: Suppose everyone took LSD tonight (laughs) --Great!
THE LEISURE SOCIETY: PUZZLES AND PARADOXES
Watts: The thing is this: what we are facing, what's going to happen is this...if we do not encounter the final political catastrophe of atomic war, biological warfare and wipe the whole thing out, we're going to have a huge leisure society--where they're going to reverse taxation and PAY people for the work that the machines do for them. Because there's no other solution to it.
In other words, if the manufacturer is going to be able to sell his products, the people gotta have money to pay for the products. All those people have been put out of work by the machines the manufacturer is using. Therefore, the people have got to be paid by the government--CREDIT of some kind, so they can buy what the machines produces--then the thing will go on.
So this means that thousands and thousands of people are going to be loafing around, with nothing at all to do. A few people who are maniacs for work will go on...
Leary: I think what you're defining, Alan, is...
Watts: But that's the kind of situation we're moving into. IF we survive at all.
Leary: Well, there's another possibility. And, I think you're defining two possible new species. Let's face it, the evolution of mankind is not over.
Leary: Just as there are many kinds of primates: baboons and chimpanzees and so forth. In a few thousand years we'll look back and see that from--what we call man--there may be two or more species developing.
There's no question that one species, which could and probably will develop, is this anthill. ItŐs run like a beehive with queens--or kings--(laughs) and it'll all be television and now, of course, in that, sexuality will become very promiscuous and almost impersonal. Because, in an anthill, it always turns out that way.
BUT you're gonna have another species who will inevitably survive, and that will be the tribal people, who don't have to worry about leisure because when you drop out then the real playwork begins. Because then you have to, as Gary says, learn how to take care of yourself and your loved ones on this...
Snyder: I don't think that you're right about that anthill thing at all though. That's a very negative view of human nature. I don't think it's accurate.
Leary: It's no longer even human nature. We won't call them human anymore. These people
HUMAN BEINGS WANT REALITY
Snyder: C'mon, Tim, they're humans and they're gonna be here. You're talking a drama here. You're talking about--you know--anthropological realities. The anthropological reality is that human beings, in their nature, want to be in touch with what is real in themselves and in the universe.
For example, the longshoremen with their automation contract in San Francisco...a certain number of them have been laid off for the rest of their lives with full pay, and some of them have been laid off already for five years--with full pay--by their contract.
Now, my brother-in-law is a longshoreman, and he's been telling me about what's happening to these guys. Most of them are pretty illiterate, a large portion of them are Negroes. The first thing they all did was get boats and drive around San Francisco Bay...because they have all this leisure.
Then a lot of them got tired driving around boats that were just like cars, and they started sailing. Then a few of them started making their own sailboats. They move into and respond to the possibility of challenge.
Things become simpler and more complex and more challenging for them. The same is true of hunting. Some guy says "I want to go hunting and fishing all the time, when I have my leisure...but God!" So he goes hunting all the time. Then he says, "I want to do this in a more interesting way." So he takes up bow hunting...Then the next step is--and this has happened--he says, "I want to try making my own arrowheads." And he learns how to flake his own arrowheads out.
Now, human beings want reality. That's, I think, part of human nature. And television and drinking beer and watching television. is what the working man laid off does for the first two weeks.
But then in the third week he begins to get bored, and in the fourth week he wants to do something with his body and his mind and his senses.
Leary: But if he's still being paid by the Establishment, then you have someone who's going back to childhood. Like, he's making arrows that he really doesn't need...
Snyder: May I speak my vision about this?
Leary: I object to this very much. I want him out there really fighting--not fighting, but working--for his family, not chipping.
Snyder: Well, this is a transitional thing, too...It's too transitional.
Ginsberg: This leads to violence because it divides everybody up into separate...
Snyder: Oh, he was talking poetry.
Leary: No, I;m not! I want to be clear about this. Nobody wants to listen to this. We are doing this already...
Snyder: No, but the difference is, the children of the ants are all going to be tribal people. That's the way it's going to work. We're going to get the kids, and it's going to take about three generations.
And in the meantime, the family system will change, and when the family system changes the economy will change...and in the meantime, a number of spiritual insights are going to change the minds of the technologists and the scientists themselves, and technology will change.
There will be a diffused and decentralized technology...as I see it...
Watts: Well, go on...Are you saying now what you said was your vision?
Snyder: Now, what I was going to say was very simply this.
I think that automation in the affluent society, plus psychedelics, plus--for the same curious reason--a whole catalytic, spiritual change or bend of mind that seems to be taking place in the west, today especially, is going to result--can result ultimately--in a vast leisure society in which people will voluntarily reduce their number, and because human beings want to do that which is real...simplify their lives.
The whole problem of consumption and marketing is radically altered if a large number of people voluntarily choose to consume less.
And people will voluntarily choose to consume less if their interests are turned in any other direction.
If what is exciting to them is no longer things but states of mind.
Leary: That's true.
STATES OF MIND
Snyder: Now what is something else...
People are not becoming interested in states of mind, and things are not going to substitute for states of mind. So what I visualize is a very complex and sophisticated cybernetic technology surrounded by thick hedges of trees...
Somewhere, say around Chicago. And the rest of the nation a buffalo pasture...
Leary: That's very close to what I think.
Snyder: ...with a large number of people going around making their own arrowheads because it's fun, but they know better ...(laughter) They know they don't have to make them. (more laughter)
Leary: Now, this seems like our utopian visions are coming closer together. I say that the industry should be underground, and you say it should be in Chicago. This interests me.
Watts: Well, it's the same idea.
Snyder: Well, those who want to be technological engineers will be respected...And the other thing is that you can go out and live close to nature, or you can go back and...
Leary: But you won't be allowed to drive a car outside this technological...
Snyder: You won't want to!
That's the difference, baby. It's not that you won't be allowed to, it's that you won't want to. That's where it's got to be at.
Watts: Because, it's the same thing when we get down to, say, the fundamental question of food. More and more one realizes that the mass produced food is not worth eating, and therefore, in order to delight in things to eat, you go back to the most primitive processes of raising and preparing food. Because that has taste.
And I see that it will be a sort of flip, that as all the possibilities of technology and automation make tit possible for everybody to be assured of having the basic necessities of life...they will then say: "Oh, yes, we have all that, but now in the meantime while we don't have to work, let's go back to making arrowheads and to raising the most AMAZING PLANTS."
Snyder: Yeah...It would be so funny; the thing is that they would all get so good at it that the technology center of Chicago would rust away. (laughter)
Watts: Right! Right! (laughter)
Leary: That's exactly what's going to happen. The psychedelic drop-outs are going to be having so much fun. They're going to be so much obviously healthier.
Watts: But Tim, do you see any indication among people who at present are really turned on, that they are cultivating this kind of material competence? Now, I haven't seen too much of it yet...
Snyder: Some of those kids at Big Sur have got it.
Watts: Yeah, maybe you're right.
Snyder: They're learning. A few years ago they used to go down to Big Sur and they didn't know how to camp or dig latrines.
But like what Marine has been telling me lately, is that they're getting very sharp about what to gather that's edible, how to get sea salt, what are the edible plants and the edible seeds, and the revolutionary technological book for this state is A.L. Kroeber's Handbook of the California Indians, which tells you what's good to eat and how to prepare it. And also what to use for tampax: milkweed fluff...(laughter) Diapers made of shredded bark...The whole thing is all there.
Watts: But the thing is this. I've found so many people who are the turned on type, and the circumstances and surroundings under which they live are just plain cruddy. You would think that people who have seen what you can see with the visions of psychedelics would reflect themselves in forms of life and art that would be like Persian miniatures. Because obviously Persian miniatures and Moorish arabesques are all reflecting the state of mind of people who were turned on. And they are rich and glorious beyond belief.
Watts: Majestic! Yeah! Well now, why doesn't it so occur...It is slowly beginning to happen...'Cause I've noticed that, recently, all turned on people are becoming more colorful. They're wearing beads and gorgeous clothes and so and so forth...and it's gradually coming out. Because you remember the old beatnik days when everybody was in blue jeans and ponytails and no lip[stick and DRAB--and CRUMMY!
Snyder: What! (laughter)
Watts: Now, something's beginning to happen!
Snyder: Well, it wasn't quite that bad, but we were mostly concerned with not being consumers then...and so we were showing our non-consumerness.
Watts: Yes, I know! The thing is I am using this as a symbol because the poor cons in San Quentin wear blue jeans.
Snyder: The thing is that there are better things in the Goodwill now than there used to be.
Watts: Yes, exactly. (laughter) But the thing is that now I see it beginning to happen. Timothy here, instead of wearing his old--whatever he used to wear--has now got a white tunic on with gold and colorful gimp on it.
Watts: Yes, and it's very beautiful, and he's wearing a necklace and all that kind of thing, and color is at last coming into the scene.
Snyder: That's going back before the Roundheads, and before Cromwell...
Watts: Yes, it is.
Leary: Let's get practical here, I think we're all concerned about the increasing number of people who are dropping out and wondering where to go from there. No let's come up some practical suggestions which we might hope could unfold in the next few months.
Part THREE: A Magic Geography
BUSH, FARM, CITY
Snyder: There's three categories: wilderness, rural, and urban. Like there's gonna be bush people, farm people and city people. Bush tribes, farm tribes, and city tribes.
Leary: Beautiful. That makes immediate sense to myself. How about beach people?
Voice from Audience: Let me throw in a word...the word is evil and technology. Somehow they come together, and when there is an increase in technology, and technological facility, there is an increase in what we usually call human evil.
Snyder: I wouldn't agree with that...no, there's all kinds of non-evil technologies. Like, neolithic obsidian flaking is technology.
Voice from Audience: But in its advanced state it produces evil...
Watts: Yes, but what you mean, I think, is this: When you go back to the great myths about the origin of evil, actually the Hebrew words which say good and evil as the knowledge of good and evil being the result of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge...
These words mean advantageous and disadvantageous and they're words connected with technical skills. And the whole idea is this, which you find reflected in the Taoist philosophy, that the moment you start interfering in the course of nature with a mind that is centered and one-pointed, and analyzes everything, and breaks it down into bits...The moment you do that you lost contact with your original know-how...by means of which you now color your eyes, breathe, and beat your heart.
For thousands of years mankind has lost touch with his original intelligence, and he has been absolutely fascinated by this kind of political, godlike, controlling intelligence...where you can go ptt-ptt-ptt-ptt...and analyze things all over the place, and he has forgotten to trust his own organism.
Now the whole thing is that everything is coming to be realized today. Not only through people who take psychedelics, but also through many scientists. They're realizing that this linear kind of intelligence cannot keep up with the course of nature. It can only solve trivial problems when the big problems happen too fast to be thought about in that way.
So, those of us who are in some way or other--through psychedelics, through meditation, through what have you--are getting back to being able to trust our original intelligence...are suggesting an entirely new course for the development of civilization.
Snyder: Well, it happens that civilization develops with the emergence of a class structure. A class structure can't survive, or can't put across its principle, and expect people to accept it...if they believe in themselves. If they believe, individually, one by one, that they are in some way godlike, or buddha like, or potentially illuminati.
So it's almost ingrained in civilization, and Freud said this, you know "Civilization as a Neurosis," that part of the nature of civilization is that it must PUT DOWN the potential of every individual development.
This is the difference between that kind of society which we call civilized, and that much more ancient kind of society, which is still viable and still survives, and which we call primitive. In which everybody is potentially a chief and which everybody...like the Comanche or the Sioux...EVERYBODY in the whole culture...was expected to go out and have a vision one time in his life.
In other words, to leave the society to have some transcendental experience, to have a song and a totem come to him which he need tell no one, ever--and then come back and live with this double knowledge in society.
Watts: In other words, through his having had his own isolation, his own loneliness, and his own vision, he knows that the game rules of society are fundamentally an illusion.
Snyder: The society not only permits that, the society is built on it...
Watts: Is built on that, right!
Snyder: And everybody has one side of his nature that has been out of it.
Watts: That society is strong and viable which recognizes its own provisionality.
Snyder: And no one who ever came into contact with the Plains Indians didn't think they were men! Every record of American Indians from the cavalry, the pioneers, the missionaries, the Spaniards...say that everyone one of these people was men.
In fact, I learned something just the other day. Talking about the Uroc Indians, an early explorer up there commented on their fantastic self-confidence. He said, "...Every Indian has this fantastic self-confidence. And they laugh at me," he said, "they laugh at me and they say: Aren't you sorry you're not an Indian? Poor wretched Indians!" (laughs) this fellow said.
ALONE AND AT ONE
Well, that is because every one of them has gone out and had this vision experience...has been completely alone with himself, and face to face with himself...and has contacted powers outside of what anything the society could give him, and society expects him to contact powers outside of society...in those cultures.
Watts: Yes, every healthy culture does. Every healthy culture provides for there being non-joiners. Sanyassi, hermits, drop-outs too...Every healthy society has to tolerate this...
Snyder: A society like the Comanche or the Sioux demands that everybody go out there and have this vision, and incorporates and ritualizes it within the culture. Then a society like India, a step more civilized, permits some individuals to have these visions, but doesn't demand it of everyone. And then later it becomes purely eccentric.
Leary: We often wonder why some people are more ready to drop out than others. It may be explained by the theory of reincarnation. The people that don't want to drop out can't conceive of living on this planet outside the prop television studio, are just unlucky enough to have been born into this sort of thing...maybe the first or second time. They're still entranced by all of the manmade props. But there's no question that we should consider how more and more people, who are ready to drop out, can drop out.
Watts: If there is value in being a drop-out...that is to say, being an outsider...You can only appreciate and realize this value, if there are in contrast with you insiders and squares. The two are mutually supportive.
Leary: Yeah, if someone says to me, "I just can't conceive of dropping out..." I can say, "Well, you're having fun with this go around...fine! We've all done it many times in the past."
Ginsberg: The whole thing is too big because it doesn't say drop out of WHAT precisely. What everybody is dealing with is people, it's not dealing with institutions. It's dealing with them but also dealing with people. Working with and including the police.
Snyder: If you're going to talk this way you have to be able to specifically say to somebody in Wichita, Kansas who says, "I'm going to drop out. How do you advise me to stay living around here in this area which I like?"
Leary: Let's be less historical now for awhile and let's be very practical about ways in which people who want to find the tribal way...How can they do it...what do you tell them?
Snyder: Well, this is what I've been telling kids all over Michigan and Kansas. For example, I tell them first of all: "Do you want to live here, or do you want to go someplace else?"
LAND, WATER AND CLOUDS
Snyder: All right, say I want to stay where I am. I say, okay, get in touch with the Indian culture here. Find out what was here before. Find out what the mythologies were. Find out what the local deities were. You can get all of this out of books.
Go and look at your local archaeological sites. Pay a reverend [sic] visit to the local American Indian tombs, and also the tombs of the early American settlers. Find out what your original ecology was. Is it short grass prairie, or long grass prairie here?
Go out and live on the land for a while. Set up a tent and camp out and watch the land and get a sense of what the climate here is. Because, since you've been living in a house all your life, you probably don't know what the climate is.
Snyder: Then decide how you want to make your living here. Do you want to be a farmer, or do you want to be a hunter and food gatherer?
You know, start from the ground up, and you can do it in any part of this country today...cities and all...For this continent I took it back to the Indians. Find out what the Indians were up to in your own area. Whether it's Utah, or Kansas, or New Jersey.
Leary: That is a stroke of cellular revelation and genius, Gary. That's one of the wisest things I've heard anyone say in years. Exactly how it should be done.
I do see the need for transitions, though, and you say that there will be city people as well as country people and mountain people...I would suggest that for the next year or two or three, which are gonna be nervous, transitional, mutational years--where things are gonna happen very fast, by the way--the transition could be facilitated if every city set up little meditation rooms, little shrine rooms, where the people in transition, dropping out, could meet and meditate together.
It's already happening at the Psychedelic Shop, it's happening in New York. I see no reason though why there shouldn't be ten or fifteen or twenty such places in San Francisco.
Snyder: There already are.
THE ENERGY TO CREATE
Leary: I know, but let's encourage that. I was just in Seattle and I was urging the people there. Hundreds of them crowd into coffee shops, and there is this beautiful energy.
They are liberated people, these kids, but they don't know where to go. They don't need leadership, but they need, I think, a variety of suggestions from people who have thought about this, giving them the options to move in any direction. The different meditation rooms can have different styles. One can be Zen, one can be macrobiotic, one can be bhahte chanting, once can be rock and roll psychedelic, one can be lights.
If we learn anything from our cells, we learn that God delights in variety. The more of these we can encourage, people would meet in these places, and AUTOMATICALLY tribal groups would develop and new matings would occur, and the city would be seen for many as transitional...and they get started. They may save up a little money, and then they head out and find the Indian totem wherever they go.
A MAGIC GEOGRAPHY
Snyder: Well, the Indian totem is right under your ground in the city, is right under your feet. Just like when you become initiated into the Haineph pueblo, which is near Albuquerque, you learn the magic geography of your region; and part of that means going to the center of Albuquerque and being told: There is a spring here at a certain street, and its name is such and such. And that's in a street corner in downtown Albuquerque.
But they have that geography intact, you know. They haven't forgotten it. Long after Albuquerque is gone, somebody'll be coming here, saying there's a spring here and it'll be there, probably.
Leary: Tremont Street in Boston means "three hills."
Ginsberg: There's a stream under Greenwich Village.
Voice from Audience: Gary, what do you think of rejecting the week as a measure of time; as a sort of absurd, civilized measure of time, and replacing it with a month, which is a natural time cycle?
Leary: What is the time cycle?
Snyder: The week, the seven day week. Well, the seven day week is based on the Old Testament theory that the world was created in seven days, you know. So you don't need it, particularly.
Voice from Audience: Right. It seems to me a formal rejection of it and a cycling of social events around the idea of monthly cycle...
Watts: I don't agree with that, because...everywhere that this week thing has spread, people have adopted it, where they didn't have this time rhythm before. But people have not understood the real meaning of the week, which is that every seventh day is a day to goof off. It's to turn out of the whole thing. The rules are abrogated. "The six days thou shalt labor, and do all that thou has to do. The seventh day thou shalt keep holy." HOLY DAY! and this means holiday. It means instead of a day for laying on rationality and preaching and making everybody feel guilty because they didn't operate properly the other six days.
Leary: You turn on.
Watts: The seventh day is the day...Yes, absolutely, to go crazy...Because if you can't afford a little corner of craziness in your life, you're like a steel bridge that has no give. You're so rigid you're going to collapse in the first wind.
Leary: There is also some neuro-pharmacological evidence in support of the weekly cycle. That is, you can only have a full-scale LSD session about once a week. And when they said in Genesis--"On the seventh day He rested," it makes very modern sense.
Ginsberg: You can interpret it psychedelically, but that's like new criticism...(laughter) You can actually LIKE new criticism...
Leary: I want you to be very loving to me for the rest of...and the tape will be witness...whether Allen is loving or not me, for the rest of this evening.
Ginsberg: That's all right, I can always use a Big Brother...
Watts: May I point out, this has directly to do with what we've been talking about.
Ginsberg: But I was just getting paranoid of you interpreting the Old Testament as a prophecy of LSD. That's what I was THINKING.
Leary: My foot has often led to other people's paranoia's at the time.
Watts: One day in seven, one seventh, is the day of the drop out.
Snyder: That's not enough. (laughter)
Watts: Now wait a minute. You're going too fast, Gary.
Voice from Audience: Gary, the first six days of the week you drop out, and the seventh day you work.
Snyder: Baby, we've gotta get away from this distinction between work and play. That's the whole thing, really. Like this one day in seven thing, the reason I don't agree with it is that it implies that making the world was a job.
Watts: Oh, that's perfectly true. I entirely agree with you on that.
A BAD SCENE
Snyder: And any universe that is worth creating isn't any job to create. You dig it. I don't sympathize with his fatigue at all...He must have made a bad scene. (chuckles)
Watts: You are talking on a different level than we're discussing at the moment. You are talking from the point of view where from the very deepest vision everything that happens is okay, and everything is play.
Snyder: Well, I wasn't really talking from that vision.
Watts: Well, that's where you really are. Now, I'm going one level below this, and saying...
Snyder: What I'm saying is if you do enjoy what you're doing, it's not work.
Watts: That's true. That's my philosophy: that I get paid for playing.
Now, the thing is, though, that just as talking on a little bit lower level...now--one day in seven is for golfing off...and that's a certain less percentage. So in a culture, if the culture is to be healthy, there has to be a substantial but, nevertheless, minority percentage of people who are not involved in the rat race.
And this is the thing that it seems to me is coming out of this. We cannot possible (sic) expect that everybody in the United States of America will drop out. But it is entirely important for the welfare of the United States that a certain number of people, a certain percentage, should drop out. Just as one day in seven should be a holiday.
Voice from Audience: That's the baby that's being born. That's the baby that's being born NOW. The problem that we have to deal with is how to get that baby out easily.
Leary: I think we must be more practical than we have been, because there are hundreds of people who are very interested in what we are talking about in the most A-B-C practical sense like: What do I do tomorrow!
The Authenticity of Alan Watts
by David L. Smith
In: American Buddhism as a Way of Life, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2010, pp. 13-38.
David L. Smith is Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion
at Central Michigan University. His principal areas of research
and publication are modern religious thought, American Transcendentalism,
and religion and film.
Alan Watts (1915–1973) was one of the most influential teachers of
Buddhism in mid-twentieth-century America, although he was neither
a Buddhist nor, to his own way of thinking, a teacher. Whatever
he became, he made his way by evading conventional categories.
Early on, as a student at a highly conventional English preparatory
school, he distinguished himself by declaring himself a Buddhist.
Later, in America, he invented his own vocation as a freelance lecturer,
broadcaster, and author of books on comparative philosophy
in general and Zen Buddhism in particular. Throughout his adult
life, however, Watts refused to call himself a Buddhist, arguing in
fact that it would be un-Buddhist of him to do so.1 He participated
regularly in no Buddhist community or practice, and apart from a
brief association with Sokei-an in New York, he studied with no
Buddhist teachers. His “tastes” in religion, as he liked to put it, lay
rather “between Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, with a certain
leaning towards Vedanta and Catholicism.”2 More a connoisseur of
religious ideas than a committed participant, Watts was accordingly
reluctant to represent himself as a teacher of any of the traditions he
loved. He preferred to think of himself as a gadfly or “philosophical
entertainer.”3 He had nothing to offer anyone, he held, that they did
not already know.
Watts nevertheless had a substantive message. Its core, consistently
reiterated throughout his career, was a remarkably fresh and
cogent version of religious nondualism. Generally speaking, nondualism
is a philosophical position, or more precisely a mode of skeptical
argument, that radically undermines the categories of subject and
object, self and environment, and cause and effect according to which
conventional views of our selves and our place in the world are structured.
Nondualism is a spiritual teaching, in turn, because the adoption
of a nondualist viewpoint can have consequences that are felt
to be saving or liberating. To dissolve the distinction between the
experiencing self and the experienced world can have the effect of
untying knots that render ordinary life painful and problematic. Nondual
thought and spirituality, then, fi gure prominently in a number
of religious traditions, most notably Advaita Vedanta, Madhyamaka
Buddhism, and philosophical Taoism.4
Not coincidentally, it was precisely these religious schools that
interested Watts. Moreover, to his credit as an original thinker but
to the detriment of his reputation as a scholar, it was only insofar as
these traditions exemplifi ed the logic of nondualism that he was interested
in them. Commentators over the years have faulted Watts for
this selective, highly individual approach to religious traditions. Often
they simply point to the title of his autobiography, In My Own Way, as
suffi cient cause to dismiss him.5 As I hope to show, however, this line
of criticism refl ects a basic misunderstanding of Watts’s intellectual
project, which had less to do with scholarly reconstruction than with
the creation of something new. It is true that Watts’s typical strategy
throughout his career was to discuss the ideas that excited him in
the context of the religions in which he had discovered them—piggybacking
on found poetry, so to speak. Thus, he drew extensively
on Madhyamaka for its argumentation, Taoism for its poetry, Hinduism
for mind-boggling cosmic dramaturgy, and Zen for practical
wisdom. He even wrote books that are ostensibly about Zen, Taoism,
and Vedanta.6 However, Watts never claimed to be the kind of scholar
who represents a subject whole and on its own terms. As he put it in
The Way of Zen (1957), his goal was to speak from neither the standpoint
of Zen nor that of conventional scholarship, but from a third
perspective that triangulated between them.7 Taoism and Zen were
important to him, that is, because they were vehicles of nondualism,
and therefore pointers to that independent third thing. Nondualism
was important to him, in turn, not because it was Buddhist or Chinese,
but because it seemed to authenticate itself through its power
to illuminate circumstances closer to home—the foibles of Western
society and the wonder of being alive.
Watts’s distinctive version of nondualism seems to have grown
out of his own experience of the paradoxes of the spiritual quest. A
conversation he reports from 1937 is paradigmatic. Inspired by the
writings of Krishnamurti, Watts was straining desperately at the time
to realize perfect concentration on the present moment. His girlfriend,
however, pulled the rug out from under his effort with an offhand
comment: “ ‘Why try to concentrate on it? What else is there to be
aware of . . . ? The present is just a constant fl ow, like the Tao, and
there’s simply no way of getting out of it.’ ”8 This deft piece of spiritual
jujitsu left Watts feeling suddenly freed from all the traps he had
been struggling to escape. It became, in effect, his model for how to
deal with the human spiritual predicament.
The epigraph to a book he published in the same year stated the
point concisely: “To seek after the Tao is like turning round in circles
to see one’s own eyes. Those who understand this walk straight on.”9
Human beings long for wholeness and meaning, that is, and they typically
seek it as if it lay elsewhere. Watts’s discovery, however, was that
the wholeness sought is already implicit in our condition. There is no
essential difference between the life we desire and the life we live. A
larger, more mysterious reality than our conscious selves is already the
seer of our seeing, the agent of our actions, our real nature. We may
not be able to observe It, but we are It. Watts was thus convinced that
the sense of alienation that gives rise to the desire to become whole
should be relatively easy to overcome, if only we could get past the
stubborn illusion that we are anything other than whole in the fi rst
place. A second epigraph to that early book completes the thought:
“it is only when you seek [the Tao] that you lose it.” We will become
ourselves when we stop trying to become ourselves.
Watts was never sure how to characterize this insight, which
he took to be at once the heart of all wisdom literature, the key to
human freedom and sanity, and as common as grass. To call it “mystical”
or “spiritual” seemed too otherworldly, for the awareness and
its object were perfectly natural. “Cosmic consciousness” likewise had
“the unpoetic fl avor of occultist jargon.”10 Satori, moksha, enlightenment,
and grace were all appropriate in their ways, he believed, but
came trailing too much doctrinal baggage from their respective traditions.
The insight was independent of any religious system, and so
it provided a critical perspective on all of them. As he found in his
mature works, it could be discussed as readily in the language of
science as that of theology.11
Accordingly, Watts’s approach to all traditional religious forms
was indeed highly individual and selective, and in refusing the
Buddhist label, he was only being honest. There is another sense,
however, in which the same qualities of individualism, eclecticism,
and universalism that made him impatient with conventional schools
of the dharma relate Watts to an important Buddhist lineage of a different
kind: the international movement characterized by Donald Lopez
as “modern Buddhism.”12 As Lopez and others tell the story, over the
last century and a half, scholars, seekers, and religious reformers in
both the orientalist West and the nationalist East have colluded in the
development of a form of Buddhism that understands itself to transcend
particular historical styles, creeds, and modes of worship.13 It
is a Buddhism shaped by distinctively modern values of rationalism,
egalitarianism, universalism, and individualism, which nevertheless
understands itself to represent the original, uncorrupted insights of
the historical Buddha—a pure and timeless truth unmixed with ritual
and doctrinal accretions. Watts learned Buddhism from the modernizers,
especially from the early writings of D. T. Suzuki. His own
work, in turn, exemplifi ed the basic themes of the movement in its
selective preference for the intellectual, nondualist elements of Buddhism
as distinct from its developed traditions of ritual, belief, and
practice. Watts valued Buddhism, in fact, precisely because it seemed
to him to have an intellectual, practical core that was separable from
its ritual and doctrinal husk; it was preeminently, as he liked to say,
“the religion of no-religion.”14 Thus, Watts could only be the sort of
Buddhist he wanted to be by refusing to be a Buddhist, just as he
could only be the sort of teacher he wanted to be by denying that he
had anything to teach.
Watts is best understood, then, as a spokesman for the supposedly
timeless truth of nondualism rather than as a Buddhist—and yet
as someone closely aligned with a particular kind of Buddhism for
all that. Likewise, he was more an artist of the written and spoken
word than a scholar, and more a trickster than a teacher—and yet an
unusually effective teacher in consequence. His books, lectures, and
radio broadcasts reached hundreds of thousands. Even some of his
harshest detractors acknowledge his role as an awakener or precursor
to a spiritual or scholarly engagement with Buddhism. Edward
Conze, for example, writing in the 1970s, noted that “most of my
American students fi rst became interested in Buddhism through Alan
Watts. It is true that they had to unlearn most of what they had
learnt. It is equally true that he put out the net that caught them in
the fi rst place.”15 Although the current climate of academic opinion
makes most readers reluctant to admit that they ever took him seriously,
his after-image and infl uence have been remarkably persistent.
This chapter aims, then, to bring Watts in out of the cold by drawing
attention back to the heart of his intellectual project. First, it outlines
Watts’s life and career with an eye to his associations with other
modern Buddhist teachers; second, it attempts a summary of the central
themes of his thought to demonstrate their essential coherence;
third, it surveys some of the ways he applied his ideas in cultural
and religious spheres; and fi nally, it assesses his continued relevance
as a religious thinker in his own right.
Life and Career
Watts was born in Chislehurst, a suburb of London, in 1915. As he
remembered it, his otherwise unremarkable middle-class home was
fi lled with oriental art. His mother taught at a school for the children
of Anglican missionaries, and many copies of classic Chinese and
Japanese landscape paintings had come to her as gifts from students.
Watts recalled being fascinated, even as a child, by an elusive quality
in those paintings, especially apparent to him in their treatment
of fl owers and grass. “There was something about the treatment
that struck me as astonishing, even though the subject matter was
extremely ordinary. . . . I had to fi nd out what the strange element
in those bamboos and grasses was.”16 This interest, in turn, fatefully
infl uenced Watts’s choice of a means of adolescent rebellion. As a
scholarship student at King’s School, Canterbury, away from home
and painfully class-conscious, Watts crafted a distinctive identity for
himself out of the literature of turn-of-the-century orientalism. As he
tells it, a friend of the family with a well-stocked library
lent me Edmond Holmes’s masterly book, The Creed of
Buddha, which happened to contain a yellow pamphlet,
written by a certain Christmas Humphreys, about Buddhism,
and the work of the Buddhist Lodge in London.
I was also reading Lafcadio Hearn’s Gleanings in Buddha-
Fields, where I found an essay on nirvana which gave me
such a convincingly different view of the universe from
the one I had inherited that I turned my back on all I had
been taught to believe as authority. That did it. I wrote to
the Buddhist Lodge, became a member . . . , and shortly
sought out Christmas Humphreys.17
After sabotaging his one chance to win a scholarship to Oxford
by freakishly choosing to write his qualifying exams in the style of
Nietzsche,18 Watts had little to fall back on besides this affi liation with
the Buddhist Lodge. With the continued support of his family, Watts
left formal education behind to try his luck in the cultural ferment
of London in the 1930s. He read diligently in the fi elds of religion,
philosophy, and psychology, as he continued to do throughout his
life. He published widely in the small journals of esoteric religion
and visionary politics that fl ourished at the time, and in 1936, he
became the editor of the Lodge’s theosophically fl avored journal,
Buddhism in England.19 Through Christmas Humphreys, Watts also
came into contact with people and books that crucially shaped his
future course. One of these was Fredric Spiegelberg, a comparative
philosopher and enthusiast for the writings of Sri Aurobindo who fi rst
introduced Watts to the concept of a “religion of non-religion,”20 and
who later, in America, helped to place Watts in the only academic
post he ever held. Even more consequentially, Humphreys encouraged
Watts’s interest in the early writings of D. T. Suzuki, whose
ideas Watts found so congenial that he wrote his own fi rst book,
The Spirit of Zen (1935), in an attempt to put Suzuki’s thoughts into
more lucid prose.
In Watts’s reworking of Suzuki, however, one also sees the
distinctive features of his own thought beginning to emerge. Suzuki’s
presentation of Zen emphasized a number of broadly romantic
themes: iconoclasm, irrationalism, experience over belief, and religious
insight as a return to the ordinary—all ideas that were also dear
to Watts. Watts’s characteristic nondualism is apparent, however, in
the way he subtly veers away from Suzuki’s presentation of satori as
the essence of Zen. Suzuki, at least in the early Essays, characterized
satori as a goal or attainment, a “fi ery baptism” to be achieved by
means of a distinctive course of practice and discipline.21 In so doing,
Suzuki relied uncritically on the metaphor of religion as a path or
quest with a transformative experience as its goal. Watts, by contrast,
was drawn to a more paradoxical side of Zen teaching, alluded to
by Suzuki but unstressed, according to which path and goal are one,
and thus according to which enlightenment consists in the realization
that there is really nothing to be achieved. Zen insight, to this way of
thinking, was less the object of a quest than an open secret, hidden
in plain sight.22 According to Watts in The Spirit of Zen:
it is really a paradox to speak of the secret of Zen, and in
spite of all the apparently abstruse or ridiculous answers
of the Zen masters to the urgent questionings of their disciples,
nothing is being hidden from us. The truth is that
Zen is so hard to understand, just because it is so obvious,
and we miss it time and time again because we are looking
for something obscure; with our eyes on the horizon we
do not see what lies at our feet.23
The point was to become Watts’s constant theme: the self and
the world, the self and its potential wholeness, are always already
nondual. The very idea that the lost and lonely self is something that
needs to be saved, cured, or eliminated, he insisted, is based on an
illusion—the illusion that we could ever have been anything other
than whole, anything other than what we are. The Spirit of Zen gropes
toward this point in its conclusion:
to chase after Zen is like chasing one’s own shadow, and
all the time one is running away from the sun. When at last
it is realized that the shadow can never be caught, there is
a sudden “turning about,” . . . and in the light of the sun
the dualism of self and its shadow vanishes; whereat man
perceives that what he was chasing was only the unreal
image of the one true Self—of That which he ever was, is
and shall be.24
The imagery of sun and shadow is still too dualistic for the purpose,
and to my knowledge Watts never used it again.25 Nevertheless,
the underlying idea of the nonduality of the everyday self and
the self to be attained is one that he spent the rest of his life refi ning
In 1937, the intellectually fl ourishing but impecunious Watts
met and fell in love with a young American heiress, Eleanor Everett,
whose mother, Ruth Fuller Everett—later Ruth Fuller Sasaki—had
visited the Buddhist Lodge one evening to report on her studies of
Zen in Japan. Alan and Eleanor married and moved to New York in
1938, where Ruth paid the rent on their Manhattan apartment. Ruth
also provided Watts with access to a wide circle of American friends,
including the Jungian wing of the New York psychoanalytic community
and local Buddhists. One of these Buddhists was the independent
Japanese Zen teacher Sokei-an-Sasaki, with whom Watts briefl y
undertook koan study. Watts soon left formal training, but when Ruth
and Sokei-an took up residence together in a neighboring apartment,
Watts seized the opportunity to “study with Sokei-an without his
knowing it,” observing “a Zen master in his personal everyday life.”26
It was during this period, too, that Watts fi rst tried his hand at earning
money as a lecturer and seminar leader, attracting his fi rst audience
through a mailing to Ruth’s Jungian social network. The book he
published in 1940, The Meaning of Happiness, was a product of this
milieu, attempting to defi ne a territory where depth psychology and
“Oriental wisdom” overlap.
Watts was not content with his modest success as a freelance
intellectual, however. Anxious to stand on his own feet fi nancially as
well as intellectually, he decided to have a go at the one professional
track that seemed open to a well-spoken, mannerly young Englishman
with a strong interest in things religious: namely, the Episcopal
priesthood. Given his earlier revolution in worldviews, the move may
seem hypocritical, but it was not. (Opportunistic, perhaps, but not
hypocritical.) Watts’s religious universalism inclined him to believe
that the “highest” insights of any religion could be found in all, and
his Jungian interests inclined him to affi rm “the tremendous power of
the Church’s symbols to excite the unconscious depths of the soul.”27
It was Watts’s sincere hope, then, that Christian theology and liturgical
symbolism, properly understood, could be a fi t vehicle for the
insights that meant most to him. Convincing himself of that fi t became
his unhappy intellectual task over the next eight years.
Although he lacked a university degree, Watts was admitted
to Seabury-Western seminary outside of Chicago on the evidence of
his published writings. In 1944, he was ordained and given a job as
university chaplain at Northwestern University in Evanston. He took
up the work with sincere if not entirely orthodox intentions. The liturgical
displays he organized were lavishly theatrical; the discussion
groups he ran for students were popular and ultimately notorious.
He diligently argued for the coherence of Christianity and the purest
insights of nondualist religion in books such as Behold the Spirit
(1947) and The Supreme Identity (1950). The strain of the effort to fi t
himself into a Christian mold was apparent, however, in both the
relatively murky prose of these works and the mess he was making
of his personal life. In 1950, both his marriage to Eleanor and his
career as a “paradox priest” came to an end.28 Like Ralph Waldo
Emerson, whose career and message as a purveyor of radical religion
in America parallels Watts’s in many respects, Watts resigned from
the church, abandoned his livelihood, and leapt into the unknown.
Luckily, he soon hit a safety net in the form of a small grant
from the Bollingen Foundation, secured for him with the help of
Joseph Campbell. Campbell also arranged for Watts, together with
his new wife, Dorothy, to live in a farmhouse outside of Poughkeepsie,
New York, for six months. There, facing an unpredictable future
in a country that was still strange to him, Watts wrote the book in
which he fi rst found his own distinctive voice, The Wisdom of Insecurity
(1951). This was also the book in which Watts began to utilize insights
from some of the formative intellectual movements of the postwar
era: especially the newly minted “cybernetics” of Norbert Weiner,29
general systems theory, and gestalt psychology. These, as we shall
see, became the backbone of his mature thought.
During his stay in rural New York, Watts reestablished contact
with Fredric Spiegelberg, then teaching at Stanford, who fortuitously
offered Watts a job with the unaccredited school he was just then
organizing in San Francisco, the American Academy of Asian Studies.
Intended to prepare businessmen and government offi cials for travel
in the East, the academy actually became a catalyst and network hub
for the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950s. Thus, Watts’s
work with the academy over the next six years, fi rst as a teacher and
ultimately as its chief administrator, gave him a perch in the San Francisco
Bay Area at a crucial time in its cultural development. During
this period, Watts made contact with the circle of early Beat writers,
whose Buddhist interests intrigued him and some of whom he
positively admired, particularly Gary Snyder.30 The essay he wrote in
response to the uniquely American Buddhism of the Beats, “Beat Zen,
Square Zen, and Zen” (1958), is a classic statement of the “modern
Buddhist” attempt to distinguish the essence of Buddhism from both
its traditionalist and popular forms. Also at this time, Watts began
ongoing conversations with several Buddhist teachers who were then
beginning their careers in the Bay Area: Lama Govinda in Berkeley
and, the priests at the Soto Zen Temple in San Francisco, soon to
include Shunryu Suzuki. Finally, it was during these years that Watts
began his long association with Pacifi ca Radio. His weekly broadcast
talks were a powerful medium for carrying his voice and thought to
thousands of listeners over the years.
Then, in 1957, Watts decided to cut loose once again, fi rst from
his job at the academy and soon from his second marriage, in order
to dedicate himself to writing, lecturing, and experimental living. The
books he produced in rapid succession over the next eight years, from
Nature, Man, and Woman (1958) through The Book: On the Taboo Against
Knowing Who You Are (1966), constitute his fi nest and most characteristic
achievements. Throughout this period and until his death in
1973, Watts also lectured actively on the college circuit, on radio and
television, and in subscription seminars held on his houseboat in Sausalito.
His reputation and popularity grew with the rise of the counterculture.
He was an instrumental participant in such iconic events
as the San Francisco Be-In in 1967, the fi rst seminars of the Esalen
Institute, and the founding of the Zen Mountain Center at Tassajara
Springs. Increasingly, however, in his fi nal years he coasted on
well-worn thoughts, and his personal life went into a steep decline.
Alcohol had always been Watts’s besetting sin, but toward the end
it took over his life. Although he never lost his talent for coherent,
largely extemporaneous verbal performance, his death, when it came,
was due to the complications of alcoholism.
His end raises interesting questions about the strength of his
spiritual insight in the face of the psychic demons that eventually
dragged him down. Perhaps he failed to take to heart the advice he
gave himself at age twenty-four: “You have to come to terms with
the gods before you can ignore them.”31 Or perhaps—to treat the
matter as lightly as he might have wished—sainthood was simply
another category that Watts successfully evaded. In any case, it is his
thought rather than his life that constitutes his genuine legacy, and
to this we now turn.
The Field, the Double-Bind, and Play
As noted above, Watts is best understood not as a fl awed representative
of Eastern religious traditions but as the exponent of a distinctively
modern nondualist spirituality that deserves to be understood
on its own terms. In what follows, the main themes of Watts’s mature
thought will be summarized by reference to three images or structural
concepts that recur throughout his many books and recorded
lectures: the fi eld, the double-bind, and play. These images were used
by Watts to explicate, respectively, the nature of reality, the fundamental
problem of human consciousness, and the life made possible
by its solution.
The fi rst and most important term in Watts’s exposition of nondualism
is the fi eld. Watts found support for a nondual account of the
human condition in several mid-twentieth-century intellectual movements.
These included gestalt psychology, general systems theory,
cybernetics, and ecology. What is common to these movements is the
idea that there is no subject or unit of analysis that can be understood
apart from its external relations, because in any given system
the subject and its environment are mutually defi ned. Organism and
environment, fi gure and ground, part and whole, and subject and
object thus need to be understood as aspects of the larger fi elds or
systems that constitute them. Gestalt psychology, according to Watts,
gives the fundamental account of this interrelationship: “What we
perceive . . . is never a fi gure alone but a fi gure/ground relationship.
The primary unit of perception is therefore neither the thing (fi gure)
nor the space (ground) in which it appears; it is the fi eld or relationship
of the two.”32 The behavior of agents in an environment is
described, in turn, by general systems theory to a similar effect: “The
structure and behavior of any system is only partially accounted for
by analysis and description of the smaller units that allegedly ‘comprise’
it. For what any of the units is and does depends upon its place
in and its relation to the system as a whole.”33
Watts’s principal use of the concept of the fi eld was to develop
a picture of human identity as inextricably interrelated with the
environment. If the universe is most properly understood as a fi eld
of mutually enabling transactions rather than as a collection of independent
parts, then it is a mistake to see the self as something either
isolated or independent. If the fi eld is the primary reality, that is,
the common idea of the self as what Watts sometimes called a “skin
encapsulated ego” is incoherent.34 Rather, what we call “I” is most
properly seen as a function of the whole. We habitually analyze the
fi eld into components—into something that acts and something acted
upon. But “the world outside your skin is just as much you as the
world inside.”35 In truth, there is only the self-organizing, self-regulating
activity of the whole. The word “I” has about the same status,
then, as the word “it” in the phrase “it is raining.”36 The self is
something the fi eld as a whole is doing. Its reifi cation is a matter of
A view of the self according to which “the line between myself
and what happens to me is dissolved”37 naturally raises the question
of freedom and determinism, which Watts handles rather elegantly.
We are “determined,” he allows, in the sense that what we are is
wholly embedded in the network of circumstances; but we are also
free in the sense that what we are is of a piece with the radical contingency
of the whole. “Certainly the will is free, but it is not the ‘I’
[i.e., the isolated ego] that wills.”38 If the real “I” is a function of the
whole, that is, it also partakes of the strength and intelligence of the
whole; it is at once the windblown leaf and the wind that blows. To
fi nd oneself is thus to fi nd oneself “not in a world, but as a world
which is neither compulsive nor capricious.”39
So what goes wrong? If the idea of the “skin encapsulated ego”
is indeed incoherent, why has it been so persistent? In responding to
this question, Watts makes sophisticated use of information theory
and cybernetic systems models to account for a characteristic glitch in
human consciousness. General systems theory understands the world
not as a static confi guration of fi gure and ground, but as a constant
fl ow of information—a communications network governed by feedback
between subsystems.40 Systems of communication, in turn, have
characteristic diseases. They can generate misinformation along with
information, and their regulatory mechanisms can become unbalanced,
as when a positive feedback system gets into an infi nite loop
and begins to “howl.”41
In human experience, the principal sort of error that arises in
our interaction with the environment is something that Watts, following
Gregory Bateson, called the double-bind. Generally speaking, a
double-bind arises when an agent encounters contradictory instructions
for behavior, and at the same time is prevented from realizing
or dealing with the paradox.42 Watts’s favorite cases involve the
particular sort of paradox that arises when one is commanded to do
something voluntarily. For example, one is told that one must love
one’s parents, or that “thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” For this
love to be genuine, it must be spontaneous and uncoerced. To act on
the commandment, however, is to act unspontaneously. The paradox
is thus clear and inescapable: to acknowledge that one is under a
commandment to love is to be unable to fulfi ll it. A psychic feedback
loop ensues, and the resulting howl is painful.
Double-binds arise in connection with many aspects of human
life (the commands to “be yourself” and “relax” being two of Watts’s
favorite examples), but the underlying cause of them all is our view of
ourselves as independent egos. As already noted, according to Watts,
the ego concept is an error—a reifi ed fragment of the universal fi eld.
Nevertheless, it is an error that arises in a perfectly reasonable way,
and Watts outlines several explanations for why it occurs. One is
social, based on the idea that the regulation of a social network is
facilitated when individual units of society take responsibility for controlling
their own actions. We evolve self-awareness and the idea of
independent agency, that is, in order police ourselves for the overall
benefi t of the group. Another possible explanation begins with the
human capacity for language, and with the kind of focused awareness
of particulars that language makes possible. The same capacity that
allows us to name things—to discriminate patterns from the fi eld—
also allows us to isolate ourselves from the fi eld, becoming objects of
our own observation. Self-awareness thus arises as a side effect or
unintended consequence of language.43
Thus, there are good functional and even sociobiological reasons
why the ego concept arises. The problem, however, is that once the
concept is introduced, it tends to take over the whole fi eld of mental
activity like an invasive weed. The capacity for conscious attention,
for example, gives us impressive abilities to analyze, manipulate, and
control the environment. It has made humanity’s four-thousand-year
experiment with civilization possible, which is fi ne as far as it goes.
However, this power to focus has a tendency to become addictive.
We become so fascinated by it (“like chickens hypnotized with their
beaks to a chalk line,” he quips)44 that we forget that there are other
ways of relating to the world. The “spotlight vision” that enables
discriminating awareness has distracted us from our more inclusive
capacity for “fl oodlight vision”—the immediate, unrefl ective “organic
intelligence” that constitutes our primary preconscious relation with
the world and that “enables us to regulate the incredible complexity
of our bodies without thinking at all.”45
The ego’s function of social control or self-monitoring likewise
tends to get out of hand, resulting in a sort of primordial double-bind.
The very idea that we must control or observe ourselves encodes a
basic contradiction. For if I am to watch myself, where is this “I”
that I should be watching apart from the I that watches? How can a
subject become an object to itself without ceasing to be a subject?46
In the classic metaphors of nondualism, the eye cannot see itself; the
hand cannot grasp itself. That the self is ungraspable and beyond
our control, however, is something we are deeply reluctant to admit.
To acknowledge that the self is not substantial or that it cannot be
observed negates the only self and world we know and gives up the
game society asks us to play. The more clearly we see the self’s contingency,
the more we struggle to deny it. And so the vicious circle of
anxiety on behalf of our illusory ego relentlessly turns, generating ever
more elaborate schemes to control the uncontrollable and establish the
unreal. As we will see in the next section, most of Watts’s extensive
culture criticism—his diagnosis of civilization’s mania for control and
its alienation from the sensuous immediacy of the world—unfolds
from this analysis of the predicament of the ego.
This diagnosis of the problem of consciousness led Watts to his
understanding of the cure. The way to untie the double-bind, he suggests,
is simply to acknowledge the encompassing reality of the fi eld,
and thus to realize the impossibility of what the ego has set itself to
do. This brings us back, in turn, to Watts’s fundamental insight into
the nonduality of path and goal. The problem of consciousness will
not be solved by a quest for some new position, he insists, but only
by waking up to the reality of the place in which we already stand.
The truth is not elsewhere. It consists, rather, in being alive to the
interrelatedness of all things in the fi eld. Nothing is added to our
situation by this realization, he writes, and nothing is really restored.
“[T]he point is not . . . that it would be good to return to our original
integrity with nature. The point is that it is simply impossible to get
away from it.”47 “[A]s long as I am trying to grasp IT, I am implying
that IT is not really myself.”48 The nonduality of self and world, that
is, is simply what has always been the case. Accordingly, coming to
understand that this is so is not really an achievement, for “there is no
way to where we are.”49 Realization comes immediately, as a simple
return to sanity, or not at all.
Watts’s ingenious but endlessly provocative account of the
nature of religious discipline follows from these same principles. The
real purpose of intensive religious practice, he argued in Psychotherapy
East & West (1961), is not to lead one along a path to new knowledge
or a new birth. Rather, it is to trick one into the realization that there
is nothing beyond the given that one needs. To trigger this insight,
according to Watts, religious disciplines typically trap the student in
a kind of therapeutic double-bind: “you must stop thinking”; “you
must overcome all desire”; “you must act unselfi shly.” All these commands
are impossible to fulfi ll intentionally because their deliberate
pursuit involves the very thing one is trying to overcome: I want
to end desire, or I intend to stop thinking. The only way out of the
teacher’s trap, then, is to realize that the whole way of thinking that
got you into it was an illusion. You started down the path because
you believed you were far from the truth. Having walked into the
trap, however, the only way you will fi nd the freedom or wholeness
you originally sought is by giving up the quest. You only reach your
goal, that is, by giving up your increasingly futile effort to reach it.
Religion’s ultimate lesson, then, is that it has nothing to teach. Or as
Wittgenstein put it, “the solution of the problem of life is seen in the
vanishing of the problem.”50
Watts comes very close here to the claim that discipline and
effort in religion are unnecessary and even wrongheaded. He has
been criticized accordingly for failure to do justice to the transformative
dimension of religion and to the feelings of alienation that are
often the mainspring of religious life. There is a crucial difference,
it is said, between the mere knowledge that one is interrelated with
the universe and the experiential realization of wholeness. Effort is
required to bridge the gap between notional knowledge and experience.
Therefore a philosophy that dismisses all yearning as misguided
is not likely to sustain one through the change.51
This criticism has undeniable practical force, but there is also
reason in Watts’s reply. Human alienation is real enough, he allows,
but its structure is such that its cure is more likely to be found through
an instantaneous insight than through years of laborious training. If
the problem of self-knowledge really is like that of an eye trying to
see itself, no amount of effort is going to get us closer to the goal. The
abandonment of false notions of who we are and what we are doing
may not be the whole of the matter, but it is a great deal. Thus, as
Watts wrote in his autobiography,
I was always being accused of being a lazy fellow who had
the absurd idea that transcendence of egocentricity could
be achieved (by whom?) without long years of effort and
discipline. You would immediately feel one with all nature,
and with the universe itself, if you could understand that
there is no “you” as the hard-core thinker of thoughts, feeler
of feelings, and senser of sensations, and that because
your body is something in the physical world, that world
is not “external” to you. . . . This has nothing to do with
making an effort or not making an effort; it is simply a
matter of intelligence.52
Of course, the simplicity of this realization is also infi nitely hard to
achieve—impossible to “achieve,” in fact, for “there is no way to
where we are.” Also, of course, the “intelligence” to which Watts
attributes the power to change is not the abstract conceptual mind,
but the intelligence we share with the cosmos—the self-organizing
genius by which we live, move, and have our being. Intelligence is
what we already have and foolishly think we need to realize. Coming
to it, then, is at once the most obvious and most subtle of arts.
In any case, Watts has a characteristic description of the result:
“to be released from the . . . double-bind is to see that life is at root
playing.”53 Play is an activity whose end is in itself, and this is precisely
Watts’s point. For one who realizes that “there is no ‘you’ as the
hard-core thinker of thoughts, feeler of feelings, and senser of sensation,”
life is an activity whose end is in itself, whose value is intrinsic
rather than instrumental. “It is a dance, and when you are dancing
you are not intent on getting anywhere. You go round and round,
but not under the illusion that you are pursuing something, or fl eeing
from the jaws of hell.”54 Ordinary deluded awareness undertakes the
business of life as a job, a struggle, whereas enlightened awareness
undertakes that same business as play—as a kind of stage business
necessary only to get on with the show.
Enlightened awareness, that is, does not change our fundamental
position in the world at all. In the classic formulas of nondualism,
nirvana is samsara; Zen is your everyday life. The game goes on as
it always has, with the world expressing itself as self and the self as
world. Nevertheless, says Watts, to realize what has always been the
case can bring about a dramatic shift in affect:
Your body is no longer a corpse which the ego has to
animate and lug around. There is a feeling of the ground
holding you up, and of hills lifting you when you climb
them. Air breathes itself in and out of your lungs, and
instead of looking and listening, light and sound come to
you on their own. Eyes see and ears hear as wind blows
and water fl ows. All space becomes your mind. Time carries
you along like a river, but never fl ows out of the present:
the more it goes, the more it stays, and you no longer
have to fi ght or kill it.55
Realization thus brings freedom—not freedom in the impossible sense
of independence from the web of causation but in the ecstatic mode
of play. We realize that our every push is also a pull, that self and
world are ideal dancing partners, caught up in a whirl in which leader
and follower are one.
Play thus represents the abandonment of the purposive quest for
meaning, and the discovery of a deeper sort of meaningfulness—or
more properly, meaninglessness; “the wonder of natural nonsense”56—
in the abandonment of the quest. Things still are as they are, but
one comes to feel their value precisely in their being as they are—in
pure aesthetic attention. The world achieves the condition of music
in the realization that “life isn’t going anywhere, because it is already
there.”57 And so we go on, still in the world but out of the trap.
Watts’s Culture Criticism
These ideas defi ne the point of view from which Watts spoke throughout
the major phase of his career. His purpose in speaking, however,
was never simply to expound a philosophy but to apply his ideas
in a useful way to the tasks of personal and cultural transformation,
culture criticism, and the practical appropriation of religious ideas.
Watts believed, that is, that many of the problems of “modern Western
man” were due to the same fundamental errors of thought that
the nondual analysis addressed. Of course, Watts was hardly original
in proposing “the wisdom of the East” as a cure for Western ills. At
his best, though, Watts realized that the perspective from which he
spoke was neither that of the East or the West, but a “third” point
of view—that of nondualism itself—which the modern convergence
of worlds had brought into focus.58 In any case, Watts applied this
analysis therapeutically to a wide range of topics. We will touch on
only a few of them here.
A typical lecture or chapter by Watts begins with a rehearsal
of his basic nondualist account of our predicament and possibilities,
and proceeds to apply this line of thought to one or more of his pet
concerns. Some of these were weighty problems like death anxiety,
rapacious consumerism, and the ecological crisis. Others were relatively
trivial lifestyle issues: bad food, uncomfortable clothing, and
inattentive sex. Shallow or deep, however, Watts believed that all
these maladies had a common cause: namely, the Western view of
the self as separate from nature, and our consequent alienation from
sensuous immediacy with the world. Because of our exclusive addiction
to conscious attention, that is, we live in a state of abstraction.
Self-refl exive awareness is always one step removed from immediacy.
Thus, insofar as we identify ourselves with the self-refl exive side of
our minds, we do not live in the world or in the moment, but in our
thoughts. Uncomfortably aware of this alienation, we make efforts to
complete ourselves, to bring the world closer. However, because of
our objectifying habits of thought, the things and experiences with
which we try to make up for our lack are themselves objectifi ed, isolated,
and unreal. We cannot cure our condition by means of a symptom
of the disease. And so our pursuit of satisfaction is endless.
This line of thought culminated in Watts’s observation, most
fully explored in Nature, Man, and Woman (1958), that the supposed
“materialism” of the West is not genuine materialism at all, but is
rather a measure of the extent to which we have forgotten our actual
material embeddedness in the world. A person who races from one
act of consumption to another is not a person who loves the material
world, but one who fi nds no satisfaction in it. The cause of this
dissatisfaction, as outlined above, is our self-identifi cation with the
detached ego. But nondual awareness returns us to a sense of our
actual position in the web of interrelationship. It roots us in our material,
bodily conditions and makes us more attentive to them. Enlightened
persons, then, will be not only more compassionate stewards
of the earth, but also better lovers, better cooks, and more tasteful
interior decorators. This juxtaposition of sweeping profundities with
banalities about the proper conduct of domestic life is typical of
Watts’s late culture criticism. The evils that he hoped enlightenment
would cure included not only war and environmental degradation
but tight shoes and Wonder Bread. It is sometimes hard to tell which
of these causes was closest to his heart.59
In any case, Watts saw all the instances of restlessness and
grasping in our culture—from nuclear proliferation to the suburban
rat race—as symptoms of a single madness that could be addressed
through a single spiritual insight. The fundamental error that Watts
pointed to was the illusion of the independent self and the consequent
view that a relationship with the world is something that has to be
acquired. In this, Watts’s views were similar to the classic Buddhist
analysis of the root causes of human suffering in an erroneous view
of self-nature. His ways of applying this insight, in turn, are a clear
precedent for the work of contemporary Buddhist culture critics like
A more diffuse expression of Western restlessness that Watts
frequently addressed was death anxiety or the problem of suffering.
His principal aim in this discussion was to show how the fear of
death was an error, similar to the mistake we make about our own
identity. We cling to life, he said, because we see pain and death as
evil, but the concept of evil itself is no more that a product of dualistic
habits of thought. God and the devil are mutually generating
fi ctions. This he demonstrated to his own satisfaction in such works
as Myth and Ritual in Christianity (1953) and The Two Hands of God
(1963), half-believing that intellectual insight alone would be enough
to make the whole syndrome dissolve like an unquiet dream. On a
deeper level, however, Watts recognized that human suffering could
not be so easily conjured away. Watts, that is, was too humane to
ignore the moral weight suffering has for conventional consciousness,
even while he was too much of an idealist to fully believe in
it. Thus, his explicit statements on the matter tended to leap directly
to the perspective of enlightenment, affi rming that from the ultimate
viewpoint, the network of reality is a harmonious whole. Our feelings
of disharmony, by implication, are products of ignorance. Pain is born
of nothing more than the “cramp of consciousness”—of our stubborn
determination to cling to the illusion of separateness. An open
attitude to experience, he sometimes said, could actually turn pain to
pleasure, or at least into something that has no moral valance.61
If Watts the theorist was awfully quick to wave suffering away,
however, Watts the artist occasionally managed a more nuanced
account. Consider, for example, an image he develops in a late essay,
“The Water,” published in Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown (1974).
At the start of the essay, Watts watches the ocean and contemplates
the joys and sorrows of the food chain, “the tortuous process of life
continuing by the painful transformation of one form or body into
another.”62 Apropos of this time, he notices a gull pecking at a crab
in a tide pool. At fi rst, his imagination takes the part of the crab: “the
crab shrinks from the walls of its shell which is resounding to the tap,
tap, tap of the gull’s beak. Who’s that knocking at my door?” The
gull, in turn, becomes a metaphor for the threat posed by the cosmos
to our separate identity—death itself pounding at the shell of our
carefully defended world, “beating against all the boundaries of space
and consciousness.”63 The horror of life, invoked here in miniature, is
real. At the same time, Watts knows that this is simply the way the
world is. Life, after all, is food. Moreover, he understands that the
fear he attributes to the crab is most likely a projection of a distinctively
human attitude—a result of our own deluded desire to cling to
separateness. Thus, Watts fi nds himself at an impasse between pity
and wonder, unable to reconcile what he feels with what he knows.
Finally, however, in the essay’s last sentence, an ecstatic perspective
dawns that transforms his view of the situation while denying none
of the world’s sorrow: “And, oh yes, I have just discovered that that
knocking on the walls of all space and consciousness is my own heart
beating.”64 This astonishing turn, whereby the cosmic threat of death
is identifi ed with the beating of one’s own heart, perfectly replicates
the opening to life that Watts presents elsewhere as the result of nondual
awareness. The realization that “you are It”—that the seemingly
hostile and external power of the universe is a function of your own
being—somehow enables both freedom and compassion, embracing
both our complicity in the ways of the world and our painful love
of all that passes. The problem of suffering blooms, if it does not
dissolve, into this eternal surprise.
A more specifi c area of Watts’s culture criticism that is worth
a closer look, if only because it has played a role in shaping his
subsequent reputation, is his view of psychedelic drugs. Watts had
participated in controlled medical studies of LSD as early as 1959.
Like Aldous Huxley, his experiences with psychedelics resonated
powerfully with his knowledge of classical mysticism and with his
own previous insights. In fact, Watts’s description of his experiences
with LSD in The Joyous Cosmology (1962) is simply a more fl orid version
of the accounts he gives elsewhere of coming to understand the
world as a nondual fi eld. His attitude toward the drug, accordingly,
was guardedly positive. A psychedelic experience could indeed be
a catalyst for an insight into the basic truth of nondualism. But in
this it was actually nothing special. Like religion, at base, drugs had
nothing to teach us that we do not already know. Also like religion,
however, drugs could easily become a crutch or a distraction if one
relied on them too heavily as a means. Thus, while Watts refused to
condemn drug use, and was therefore sometimes seen as an advocate,
his message on psychedelics was cautionary. As in his earlier attempt
to transcend the alternatives of “beat Zen” and “square Zen,” Watts’s
writings on psychedelics sought a middle path between prohibition,
or what he presciently described as the madness of a war on drugs,
and unbridled advocacy, as it was soon to unfold in the career of
his friend Timothy Leary. Watts’s position, we might say, was in the
counterculture but not of it.
Watts’s most controversial application of nondualism, however,
remains his interpretive use of it as a key to oriental religions. Nondualism,
he believed, represented the core teaching of the religions
that interested him most: Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta, and
even Catholic Christianity. When Watts’s subject was Buddhism, then,
his own account of nondualism—formed as it was through a conversation
with Buddhist texts over the years—gave him a wide range of
analogies to apply to its central teachings. His concept of the fi eld,
for example, was a tool for explicating the fundamental Madhyamaka
doctrine of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada). He used
his ideas about the double-bind, in turn, to understand the distinctive
style and strategy of Zen. As interpretive tools, these notions are
not bad, and they have been applied in more detail by others.65 Like
any attempt to isolate a religion’s “core,” however, Watts’s approach
can be criticized for its reductivism. Judgments of the adequacy and
accuracy of his treatment will vary, depending on one’s purpose. If
that purpose is to describe Buddhism as traditional Buddhists practice
it, then it must be admitted that there is much that Watts leaves out
and much that he distorts.66
Nevertheless, as noted above, there is a form of Buddhism that
Watts effectively illuminates and to which his own work arguably
belongs: namely, the lineage of “modern Buddhism.” Indeed, the
same traits that distance Watts from conventional forms of Buddhism
ally him with the work of the modernizers. For example, Watts exemplifi
es modern Buddhism’s attempt to fi nd common ground between
Oriental tradition and modern Western sensibilities. For Watts, as for
many Buddhist modernizers, this meant interpreting Buddhism in
ways that were scrupulously naturalistic, or at least non-supernaturalistic.
Thus, in Psychotherapy East & West, Watts states that while his
aim was to explicate the “so-called mystical consciousness,” he also
wants to be clear that this involves “nothing either supernatural or
metaphysical in the usual sense. It has nothing to do with a perception
of something else than the physical world. On the contrary, it is the
clear perception of this world as a fi eld.”67 Much like Stephen Batchelor
today, that is, Watts advocated a “Buddhism without beliefs.”
How far such a modernizing reform can go before it stops being
Buddhist is, of course, a matter of dispute.
A related concern of “modern Buddhism” has always been to
demonstrate the coherence of Buddhism with Western science. This
theme was taken up by both Eastern and Western apologists for Buddhism
in the nineteenth century and continues in today’s sophisticated
explorations of the common interests of Buddhist psychology
and contemporary neuroscience.68 In this connection, Watts’s reliance
on cybernetics and general systems theory for some of his central
interpretive concepts is not only pertinent but prescient. It is striking,
in fact, thirty-fi ve years after his death and more than forty years
after he did his best work, how well Watts’s account of the self holds
up in relation to views that have become commonplace among contemporary
cognitive scientists. Watts, for example, anticipated Daniel
Dennett’s critique of the “Cartesian Theatre”—our attachment to the
idea that there must be an “I” ultimately responsible for thinking
our thoughts and feeling our feelings, and our reluctance to think
that there could be action without an actor.69 More profoundly, he
anticipated Dennett’s account of the ego as a function of language, a
“narrative self” constructed through interior monologue to create a
sense of persistence through time,70 as well as Dennett’s recent discussions
of how a signifi cant concept of freedom is compatible with
the insight that “we are something the world is doing.”71 All these
philosophical positions are, of course, arguable, but the very fact that
they remain worth arguing about should indicate Watts’s value as a
contemporary conversation partner. His work, indeed, is an object lesson
in how contemporary cognitive science can provide both a fresh
approach to the comparison of religious systems and a productive
context for religious refl ection in its own right.72
To sum up Watts’s contributions to Buddhism in America, we must
grant that from the point of view of traditional or orthodox Buddhist
lineages, he was a marginal fi gure at best. To paraphrase Conze,
he was more a catalyst than a catechist. With respect to “modern
Buddhism,” he may be judged an important contributor or fellow
traveler, but even here he stands apart from all but the most radical
modernizers in his willingness to let go of over-beliefs and faith
claims in favor of what he took to be the dharma’s practical and scientifi
cally plausible core.
The guardians of the Way—Buddhist and scholarly alike—therefore
have good reason to question Watts’s authenticity. His many
grateful readers and admirers have equal reason to affi rm, however,
that authenticity, as an intrinsic quality, is where you fi nd it. Watts’s
nondualist vision of the spiritual path was vividly expressed, cogently
developed, and adhered to with remarkable persistence throughout
his career. That his life and thought were frequently “wayward” in
many respects may be taken as simply the hazard inherent in his cardinal
strength: his stubborn but good-humored refusal to allow any
tradition to distract him from his own central insight. In his autobiography,
Watts assessed this aspect of his character as “wayward, which
is surely towards the way.”73 This may overstate the case. Surely, a
Buddhism that resists the pun out of hand is a Buddhism that has
lost its essential suppleness, not to say its soul.
Therefore, we end with a brief tribute to the authenticity of Alan
Watts. He was, first of all, an effective teacher of religious nondualism
and an authentic artist in the realm of ideas. He had an incisive,
if sometimes glib, ability to formulate issues simply and memorably;
a style that struck a seemingly effortless balance between conversational
immediacy and intellectual rigor; and a voice in both his writing
and speaking that was a fi ne-tuned instrument for coaxing an
audience into astonishment. His prose, in its simultaneous precision
and playfulness, is a perfect complement to his message, exemplifying
what Wallace Stevens once called the offi ce of the true poet: to represent
“the mind in the act of defending us against itself.”74 Beyond
this, though, there is also the authenticity Watts achieved through
his refusal of models, as a thinker with the courage of his waywardness.
As Gary Snyder put the case in his valedictory poem, “For Alan
Watts,” Watts was an effective guide precisely because his vision so
often led him off the path.
Many guides would have us travel
Single file, like mules in a pack-train;
And never leave the trail.
Alan taught us to move forward like the breeze;
Tasting the berries—greeting the blue jays—
Learning and loving the whole terrain.75
Buddhism’s ability to incorporate wayward insights—to hold its
forms lightly in relation to its deeper understanding—is surely
a source of its strength, just as Watts’s faithfulness to his own lights is
unquestionably one of his. Whatever the limits of his theory and practice,
then, Watts’s claim on us remains strong. As the authentic voice
of an important option in modern Western spirituality, as a seminal
fi gure in the development of a distinctively modern understanding
of Buddhism, and as an authentic master of expository prose, Watts
deserves and richly repays our attention.
1. For example, see Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Pantheon,
1957), xii; and Alan Watts, Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion. The Edited
Transcripts, ed. Mark Watts (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1995), 8 and 40.
2. Alan Watts, In My Own Way: An Autobiography (New York: Vintage
Books, 1973), 73.
3. Watts, In My Own Way, 252.
4. See David Loy, Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy
(Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1998).
5. If Watts has any place at all in the fi eld of religious studies today, it
is in what might be called its negative canon. Scholars still occasionally defi ne
themselves over against him, using him as a cautionary example of just how
wrong modern appropriations of Buddhism can be. For example, see Charles
S. Prebish, Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 13. For attempts to turn the
title of his autobiography against him, see Dale S. Wright, Philosophical Meditations
on Zen Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 127;
and Louis Nordstrom and Richard Pilgrim, “The Wayward Mysticism of Alan
Watts,” Philosophy East and West 33:3 (1980): 382.
6. For example, The Way of Zen presents a kind of overview of the
history and cultural backgrounds of Zen. It is his most “academic” or conventionally
expository book, although it clearly states a more constructive
philosophical agenda in its introduction. Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse
Way (New York: Pantheon, 1975) takes Taoism as its subject. More obliquely,
Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (New York:
Vintage Books, 1989) purports to offer a version of Vedanta, but a more
straightforward discussion of the subject is in Alan Watts, The Supreme Identity
(New York: Pantheon, 1950).
7. Watts, The Way of Zen, xi–xii.
8. Watts, In My Own Way, 152–53.
9. Alan Watts, The Legacy of Asia and Western Man: A Study of the Middle
Way (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938), xviii.
10. Alan Watts, “This Is IT” and Other Essays On Zen and Spiritual Experience
(New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 17.
11. In the end, Watts preferred to designate the insight and its object
by the term “It”—the ultimate placeholder. By minimizing content, he sought
to stay true to the essential quality of the insight as surprise. See Watts, “This
Is IT,” 22.
12. See the editor’s introductory essay to Donald Lopez, ed., A Modern
Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West (Boston: Beacon Press,
2002), vii–xii, esp. xxxix.
13. In addition to Lopez, see especially David L. McMahan, The Making
of Buddhist Modernism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
14. Watts, Buddhism, 37.
15. Edward Conze, quoted in the principal editor’s introduction to Alan
Watts, The Early Writings of Alan Watts: The British Years, 1931–1938, ed. John
Snelling, with Mark Watts and Dennis T. Sibley (Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts,
16. Watts, Buddhism, 37.
17. Watts, In My Own Way, 84.
18. Monica Furlong, Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts (Woodstock, VT:
Skylight Paths Publishing, 2001), 40. This excellent study and Watts, In My
Own Way, are the principal sources for the biographical details that follow.
19. For Watts’s writings during this period, see Watts, The Early Writings,
primarily for his contributions to Buddhism in England; and Alan Watts,
Seeds of Genius: The Early Writings of Alan Watts, ed. Mark Watts, with John
Snelling, (Rockport, MA: Element Books, 1998) for his contributions to The
Modern Mystic and The Eleventh Hour.
20. Watts, In My Own Way, 133.
21. D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series (New York: Grove
Press, 1961), 229–66, esp. 246.
22. See the discussion of secrecy in religion in David L. Smith, “ ‘The
Sphinx Must Solve Her Own Riddle’: Emerson, Secrecy, and the Self-Refl exive
Method,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71:4: 838–44.
23. Alan Watts, The Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far
East, 3rd edition (New York: Grove Press, 1960), 46.
24. Watts, Spirit of Zen, 123.
25. Alan Watts, The Meaning of Happiness: The Quest for Freedom of the
Spirit in Modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East (New York: Perennial
Library, 1970), xix; and Watts, The Way of Zen, 201, are both echoes of this
passage. However, these later versions signifi cantly omit the dualistic reference
to the sun, which implies that the source of identity lies elsewhere.
26. Watts, In My Own Way, 165.
27. See Watts, Legacy of Asia, 41. This idea gets its fullest expression
in Alan Watts, Myth and Ritual in Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968),
written after Watts had left the church.
28. Watts, In My Own Way, 213.
29. See Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of
Anxiety (New York: Pantheon, 1951), 69, n. 1.
30. Watts appears in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums as Arthur Wane, a formal,
loquacious intellectual among the hipsters. Of Gary Snyder, Watts wrote
memorably that “he is just what I have been trying to say. . . . A universe
which has manifested Gary Snyder could never be called a failure” (Watts,
In My Own Way, 309.)
31. Watts, Seeds of Genius, 139. The weight of his unresolved psychic
burdens is also indicated by his comment to a friend that he could not stop
drinking because “I don’t like myself when I am sober” (Quoted by Al
Chung-liang Huang in the afterword to Watts, Tao, 125).
32. Alan Watts, The Two Hands of God: The Myths of Polarity (New York:
Collier Books, 1969), 19.
33. Alan Watts, Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship (New York:
Vintage Books, 1973), 219.
34. Alan Watts, Psychotherapy East and West (New York: Ballantine
Books, 1969), 24. Actually, Watts’s use of the phrase, which has subsequently
become something of a cliché in the “new consciousness” literature, was rare.
He preferred variants of the more colloquial “ego in a bag of skin” (see Watts,
The Book, 8). The stuffi er formulation, however, was promulgated with attribution
to Watts by Timothy Leary (in The Psychedelic Experience) and more
recently by Deepak Chopra (e.g., in Aging Body, Timeless Mind).
35. Watts, The Book, 125.
36. Alan Watts, Nature, Man and Woman (New York: Vintage Books,
37. Watts, The Book, 124.
38. Watts, Legacy of Asia, 18.
39. Watts, The Book, 124.
40. See Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems
Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).
41. Watts, Psychotherapy, 97.
42. Watts, Psychotherapy, 52.
43. Watts, The Book, 53–85.
44. Watts, Nature, 7.
45. See Watts, Nature, 62–63; and Watts, Way of Zen, 8.
46. Watts, Nature, 42.
47. Watts, Nature, 21.
48. Watts, The Book, 151.
49. Watts, Nature, 116.
50. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F.
Pears and B. F. McGuinness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), 149.
51. See Nordstrom and Pilgrim, “The Wayward Mysticism,” 381–401.
52. Watts, In My Own Way, 290.
53. Watts, The Book, 127.
54. Watts, Wisdom of Insecurity, 116.
55. Watts, The Book, 125.
56. Watts, Nature, 124.
57. Watts, Psychotherapy, 210.
58. Watts, Way of Zen, xii.
59. For examples of Watts on domestic reform, see especially the articles
collected in Alan Watts, Does It Matter: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality
(New York: Vintage Books, 1971).
60. See David Loy, A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 2002); and The Great Awakening: A
Buddhist Social Theory (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003).
61. See Watts, Nature, 97–113.
62. Alan Watts, Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal
(New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 5.
63. Watts, Cloud-Hidden, 6.
64. Watts, Cloud-Hidden, 11.
65. See especially Macy, Mutual Causality. A view similar to Watts’s of
the therapeutic function of Zen training is developed by Richard DeMartino
in D. T. Suzuki, Erich Fromm, and Richard DeMartino, Zen Buddhism and
Psychoanalysis (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 142–71.
66. On the tendency toward Romantic distortion in modern Western
versions of Buddhism generally, see Dale S. Wright, Philosophical Meditations
on Zen Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
67. Watts, Psychotherapy, 58.
68. For example, see Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor
Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press, 1993); and B. Alan Wallace, Buddhism and Science: Breaking
New Ground (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
69. Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown
and Company, 1991), 107ff; and Watts, The Book, 54–55.
70. Dennett, Consciousness, 416ff; and Watts, Way of Zen, 47.
71. Daniel C. Dennett, Freedom Evolves (New York: Viking Penguin,
2003); and Watts, Nature, 7.
72. The logic of nondualism can unquestionably be found cross-culturally
in religion—not universally but frequently. The classic error of perennialism
is to claim that it, or something like it, is the essence of religion
generally. It is clearly not that. However, nondualism may nevertheless be
seen as an important item on the roster of “family resemblances” that characterize
religious systems. Moreover, it is an item on that list that comes far
closer to what many today mean by “spirituality” than do most of religion’s
other common features (e.g., ritual, spirit beliefs, the social authority of narratives).
The persistence of nondual modes of thought thus warrants study
in its own right, care being taken not to overextend our claims for it or to
mistake the part for the whole.
73. Watts, In My Own Way, ix.
74. Wallace Stevens, Opus Posthumous (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
75. Gary Snyder, Left Out in the Rain: New Poems 1947–1985 (San Francisco:
North Point Press, 1986), 123.