The Life of
Alan Watts

Who is Alan Watts?

A prolific author and speaker, Alan Watts was one of the first to interpret Eastern wisdom for a Western audience. Born outside London in 1915, he discovered the nearby Buddhist Lodge at a young age. After moving to the United States in 1938, Alan became an Episcopal priest for a time, and then relocated to Millbrook, New York, where he wrote his pivotal book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. In 1951 he moved to San Francisco where he began teaching Buddhist studies, and in 1956 began his popular radio show, “Way Beyond the West.” By the early sixties, Alan’s radio talks aired nationally and the counterculture movement adopted him as a spiritual spokesperson. He wrote and traveled regularly until his passing in 1973.

 

“Perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, Alan Watts had the rare gift of ‘writing beautifully the un-writable’. Watts begins with scholarship and intellect and proceeds with art and eloquence to the frontiers of the spirit. A fascinating entry into the deepest ways of knowing.”

       — LA Times

Alan Watts – 1970.

The Early Years (1915-1938)

Alan Wilson Watts was born on January 6, 1915 in the countryside near London, England. From a young age Alan was fascinated by Asian art, literature, and philosophy (his mother’s students were children of missionaries to Asia). His parents recognized his bright and inquiring nature, and encouraged Alan to write. His father, a businessman, would bring Alan to the Buddhist Lodge in London, where as a teenager, Alan became editor for the Lodge’s journal, The Middle Way. In 1932, he produced his first booklet, An Outline of Zen Buddhism, a summary based on the Zen writings of D. T. Suzuki. In 1938, Alan moved to the United States to study Zen in New York, where he soon began lecturing in bookstores and cafes.

The Middle Years (1939-1959)

In 1940, Alan published The Meaning of Happiness, a book based on his talks. Ironically, the book was issued on the eve of the second World War. After a brief time in New York, Alan moved to Chicago and enrolled at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, deepening his interest in mystical theology. Alan was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1944, but by the spring of 1950, Alan’s time as a priest had run its course, and he left the Church and Chicago for upstate New York. There he settled into a small farmhouse outside Millbrook and began writing The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety.

In early 1951 Alan relocated to San Francisco, where, at Dr. Frederic Spiegelberg’s invitation, he began teaching Buddhism at the American Academy of Asian Studies (which later became the California Institute of Integral Studies). Drawing quite a crowd, his classes at the Academy soon blossomed into evening lectures open to the public and spilled over to local coffee houses frequented by Beat poets and writers.

Alan’s career took to the airwaves in 1953, when he accepted a Saturday evening slot on Berkeley’s KPFA radio station. That year he began a broadcast series titled “The Great Books of Asia” followed in 1956 by “Way Beyond the West” — which proved to be quite popular with Bay Area audiences. Re-broadcast on Sunday mornings, the show later aired on KPFK in Los Angeles as well, beginning the longest-running public radio series — nearly 60 years at this writing.

Recording the Haiku LP with Sandy Jacobs.

The Later Years (1960 to 1973)

By the mid-fifties a “Zen Boom” was underway as Beat intellectuals in San Francisco and New York began celebrating and assimilating the esoteric qualities of Eastern religion into an emerging worldview that was later dubbed “the counterculture” of the 1960’s. Following the 1966 publication of The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, which sold very well, requests for appearances poured in. Alan lectured at colleges throughout the U.S. and conducted seminars at fledging “growth centers” across the country, such as the world-renowned Esalen Institute of Big Sur, California. Broadcasts of his talks continued at KPFA and KPFK, and spread east to WBAI in New York and WBUR in Boston. The weekly shows attracted a wide audience and Alan became an important figure in the counterculture movement.

As the movement gathered steam, the San Francisco Bay Area became a hotbed for radical politics, and a focal point of interest in Far Eastern ideas of enlightenment and liberation. The growing movement united civil rights activists, antiwar protesters, and members of the Free Speech movement, drawing thousands of young people to the Bay Area in 1967. After his stirring performance at a “Zenefit” for the San Francisco Zen Center, and a celebrated article on “Changes” in the Oracle alternative newspaper, Alan soon became recognized as a spiritual figurehead of the revolutionary movement. (Recorded at the Avalon Ballroom on April 6, 1967, Alan’s Zenefit lecture is titled Zen Bones.)

By the late-sixties Alan was living on a ferryboat in Sausalito in a waterfront community of bohemians, artists, and other cultural renegades. Alan’s ferryboat soon became such a popular destination that to maintain his focus on writing, he moved into a cabin on the nearby slopes of Mount Tamalpais. There he became part of the Druid Heights artist community in the late sixties. Continuing to travel on lecture tours into the early seventies, Alan was increasingly drawn to life on the mountain, where he wrote his mountain journals (later published as Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown), penned his monograph The Art of Contemplation, worked on his autobiography In My Own Way, and wrote his final book, Tao: The Watercourse Way. However, soon after returning from a whirlwind lecture tour that took him through the U.S., Canada, and European, Alan passed away in his sleep on November 16, 1973, on the mountain he loved.

Of life on the mountain, he wrote:

“I was filled with that odd sensation the Japanese call yugen: watching wild geese fly and being hidden in the clouds; watching a ship vanish behind the distant island. I feel in some sense that I have lived on this mountain, that the experiences, the meetings, the goodbyes, the smell of food wafting through the trees, encountering wandering mystics on the many wiggly paths to the summit are all a fundamental and basic part of my makeup, which, in a certain sense of the word ‘me,’ they are. When I close my eyes I see faint images of light through the leaves, of cabins and their interiors full of Aztec hangings, singing bowls, prayer rattles, Eastern art, dresses and instruments and strange furnishings. There are some places that seem to, through a collective upsurging in creative joy, find their way to a spot outside of time and from there send waves rippling up against the shores of our own slices of the here and now.”

  – Alan Watts