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August 6, 2007

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Mira Tweti recounts the remarkable life of Zen pioneer Alan Watts.

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Alan Watts
Alan Watts in the mid-sixties. Photo courtesy Mark Watts
The Sensualist

Mira Tweti recounts the remarkable life of Zen pioneer Alan Watts.

By Mira Tweti

WHILE THE USUALLY sleepy English village of Chislehurst was being bombarded by German aircraft in the early morning of January 6, 1915, Alan Watts—who was to become one of the foremost interpreters of ancient Eastern wisdom for the modern West—was born to Laurence Wilson Watts and Emily Mary Buchan.

The elder Watts was an executive with the Michelin tire company in London, and his wife taught at a local school for daughters of missionaries to China. It was because of his mother that Alan had early exposure to Asian culture, via art and other gifts brought by parents returning from China. A Sinophile all his life, Alan attributed the start of his interest in the writings of Chinese poets and sages to his mother’s gift of a Chinese translation of the New Testament.

Watts’s spiritual journey began with a bucolic childhood steeped in the cobwebbed mores of Edwardian England. He had a religious upbringing in the Church of England, and by his teens he’d become an expert on ecclesiastical ritual. He took as his early role models local priests who lived large and showed him that one could be worldly and a holy man, too. In later years he described himself as an unabashed sensualist and openly admitted he was ill at ease with people who militantly abstained from smoking, sex, and drinking. “I am committed to the view,” he wrote in his autobiography, “that the whole point and joy of human life is to integrate the spiritual with the material, the mystical with the sensuous, and the altruistic with a kind of proper self-love.”

As much as he respected his native religion, Watts was troubled by its solemn hymns, its rigidity, and the dualism he found in its teachings, although its harshness was tempered by the natural tranquility he found around him in his mother’s garden and surrounding countryside. “I used to lie in bed feeling my spirits raised by the bird symphony, a choir of angels in praise of the sun. And at sunset a solitary thrush would perch at the very top of the rowan tree and go into a solo,” recalled Watts of his youth.

Watts’s mother was overprotective of her only surviving child (she had suffered two miscarriages and an earlier son’s death at just two weeks old); she discouraged Alan from sports and pushed him toward artistic and intellectual pursuits. His father read to him from Rudyard Kipling and spoke of Buddhism, both of which enchanted the boy with “curious exotic and far-off marvels that simply were not to be found in muscular Christianity.” In the evenings Alan joined his parents in the living room, where his mother played an upright piano and his father sang arias from Gilbert and Sullivan. During school holidays he would write heady papers—often on theological subjects—for the fun of exploring his own ideas, and then read them to his parents, launching family discussions that ran long into the night.

In high school Watts considered his Anglican religious education “grim and maudlin though retaining fascination because it had something to do with the basic mysteries of existence.” His view of the universe was forever changed after reading about nirvana in Lafcadio Hearn’s book Gleanings in Buddha-Fields. “Buddhist bells sound deeper than Christian bells,” he later wrote, “. . . and om mane padme hum ran in my brain as something much more interesting than ‘O come let us sing unto the Lord.’” So in 1929, at the age of fourteen, he declared himself a Buddhist and started a correspondence with the most famous English Buddhist, Christmas “Toby” Humphries, a high court judge, Shakespearean scholar, and chairperson of the Buddhist Lodge in London. When Watts, chaperoned by his father, showed up at the Lodge, Humphries and the other members were astonished to learn that their brilliant new associate was a teenager.

Watts became the organization’s secretary at sixteen, the editor of the Lodge’s journal, The Middle Way, at nineteen (a position he held for the next four years), and wrote his first book, The Spirit of Zen, in a month of evenings at the age of twenty. He chose not to attend college, although much later he was made a Harvard research fellow and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Vermont; instead, he designed his own “higher education” curriculum, with Humphries as the preceptor.

IN 1938, NOW ALL OF TWENTY-THREE, Watts moved to New York City with his first wife, Eleanor Fuller, a Chicago socialite and practicing Buddhist. Watts and Eleanor studied with the Zen master Sokei-an Sasaki Roshi (1882–1945), who had a temple in a one-room brownstone apartment in the city. Of Sokei-an, Watts said, “I felt that he was basically on the same team as I; that he bridged the spiritual and the earthy, and that he was as humorously earthy as he was spiritually awakened.” Some years later, Watts’s mother-in-law, Ruth Fuller, married Sasaki and became a Buddhist teacher herself.

In 1940, Watts wrote The Meaning of Happiness and started lecturing and writing in earnest to an American audience. His talks were well received by small groups in local bookstores and private homes, but on the whole he felt dismissed as “a crackpot with green idols, thighbone trumpets and cups made from human skulls” adorning his home. In contrast to the openness to Buddhism he had experienced in England, in his early years in the States Watts found himself marginalized by his vocation. And while he would ultimately help popularize Buddhism to a mainstream American audience, he would always remain an iconoclast carving out a new spiritual path through stubborn terrain.

Although Eleanor came from money, Watts felt pressure to be the breadwinner. Interest in his writing and lectures was limited, and he struggled to earn a living, fearing he was on his way to becoming “a misfit and an oddity in Western society.” So at twenty-six, in order to have a steady job, he decided to leave New York and take ordination as an Episcopalian priest at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. He later wrote of this move, “I did not then consider myself as being converted to Christianity in the sense that I was abandoning Buddhism or Taoism. The Gospels never appealed to me so deeply as the Tao Te Ching or the Chuang-tzu book. It was simply that the Anglican communion seemed to be the most appropriate context for doing what was in me to do in Western society.”

Though Watts later said of this time in his life that he had deliberately gone “square” and that his gift for “ritual magic” made him more shaman than priest (“priests follow traditions,” he said, “but shamans originate them”), his position as priest gave him the power to do away with the elements of Christian ritual he abhorred. This included personal Christian prayer, which he called a “clumsy encumbrance” that got in the way of the fact that “God is what there is and all that there is.” Watts took a position in 1944 as Episcopal chaplain at Northwestern University, where he threw open the church’s doors and developed a dedicated following of students who came for prayer and stayed for tea, cocktails, and regular late-night discussions. He jazzed up church services by performing “magical liturgies,” banning “corny” hymns, limiting sermons to fifteen minutes or less, and celebrating mass as “a joining with the Cherubim and Seraphim, the Archangels and Angels, in the celestial whoopee of their eternal dance about the Center of the Universe.” Watts had creative ideas about those angels, saying, “When I contemplate such ordinary creatures as pigs, chickens, ducks, lazy cats, sparrows, goldfish, and squids I begin to have irrepressibly odd notions about the true shapes of angels.”

A longtime friend and colleague, the scholar and esteemed religions author Huston Smith said of Watts, “He was a consummate liturgist. We were together once on an Easter Sunday at Esalen [Institute, the renowned alternative education and retreat center]. And at 10 a.m., to a full house in the Huxley room, he sang the Anglican liturgy and he had a beautiful voice. I won’t speculate or probe about his belief in that, but he was from first to last a consummate performer.”

Watts was also a bohemian, a term he defined as someone who “loves color and exuberance, keeps irregular hours, would rather be free than rich, dislikes working for a boss, and has his own code of sexual morals.” His lifestyle went directly against the Church’s mores and those of his wife, who felt that his libertarian views on sexuality (particularly his belief in free love) didn’t make for a solid marriage. In 1949 she left him, taking their two young daughters with her, and had their marriage annulled.

Smith notes that the chaplainship at Northwestern was “too small a puddle for Alan Watts,” and that was surely a factor when in 1950 Watts hung up his robes and left Illinois with one of his students—and former babysitter—Dorothy Dewitt, who became his second wife. The couple moved to a farmhouse in upstate New York, where they lived until 1951, when Watts was offered a faculty post at the newly formed American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco (now the California Institute of Integral Studies). Among its students were the future Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gary Snyder; Richard Price, cofounder of Esalen Institute (Watts was invited as the center’s first speaker); and teachers like the Indian thinker Krishnamurti and the religion professor Frederic Spiegelberg.


Mira Tweti recounts the remarkable life of Zen pioneer Alan Watts.

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